Home > All the Birds in the Sky(5)

All the Birds in the Sky(5)
Charlie Jane Anders

One day, Laurence found some schematics on the internet, which he printed out and reread a hundred times before he started figuring out what they meant. And once he combined them with a solar-battery design that he found buried in an old message-board post, he started to have something.

He stole his dad’s old waterproof wristwatch and combined it with some parts he scavenged from a bunch of microwave ovens and cell phones. And a few odds and ends from the electronics store. At the end of all this, he had a working time machine that fit on his wrist.

The device was simple: There was just one small button. Any time you pressed the button, you would jump forward in time two seconds. That was all it could do. There was no way to extend the range or go backwards. Laurence tried filming himself with his webcam and found that when he pressed the button, he did sort of disappear for an eyeblink or two. But you could only use it once in a while, or you got the worst head rush of your life.

A few days later, Brad Chomner said, “Think fast,” and Laurence did think fast. He hit the button on his wrist. The white blob that had been hurtling in his direction landed in front of him with a splat.

Everybody looked at Laurence, and at the soggy toilet paper roll melting into the floor tiles, and then back at Laurence. Laurence put his “watch” into sleep mode, meaning it wouldn’t work for anybody else who tinkered with it. But he needn’t have worried—everybody just thought Laurence had ducked, with superhuman reflexes. Mr. Grandison came huffing out of his classroom and asked who threw this toilet paper, and everybody said it was Laurence.

Being able to skip two seconds could be quite useful—if you picked the right two seconds. Like when you’re at the dinner table with your parents and your mom has just said something sarcastic about your dad being passed over for another promotion, and you just know your father is about to let out a brief but lethal burst of resentment. You need godlike timing to pick the exact instant when the barb is being launched. There are a hundred leading indicators: the scent of overcooked casserole, the sensation of the room’s temperature dropping slightly. The ticking of the stove, powering down.

You can leave reality behind and reappear for the aftermath.

But there were plenty of other occasions. Like when Al Danes flung him off the jungle gym onto the playground sand. He dematerialized just as he landed. Or when some popular girl was about to come up and pretend to be nice to him, just so she could laugh about it to her friends as they walked away. Or just when a teacher started an especially dull rant. Even shaving off two seconds made a difference. Nobody seemed to notice that he flickered out of being, maybe because you had to be looking right at him and nobody ever was. If only Laurence could have used the device more than a few times a day without the headaches.

Besides, jumping forward in time just underscored the basic problem: Laurence had nothing to look forward to.

At least, that’s how Laurence felt, until he saw the picture of the sleek shape, glinting in the sunlight. He stared at the tapering curves, the beautiful nose cone, and the powerful engines, and something awoke inside him. A feeling he hadn’t experienced in ages: excitement. This privately funded, DIY spaceship was going up into orbit, thanks to maverick tech investor Milton Dirth and a few dozen of his maker friends and MIT students. The launch would happen in a few days, near the MIT campus, and Laurence had to be there. He hadn’t ever wanted anything the way he wanted to see this for himself.

“Dad,” Laurence said. He had already gotten off to a bad start: His father was staring at his laptop, cupping his hands as though trying to protect his mustache, the ends of which seeped into the heavy lines around his mouth. Laurence had picked a bad time to do this. Too late. He was committed.

“Dad,” Laurence said again. “There’s a rocket test, sort of, on Tuesday. Here’s the article about it.”

Laurence’s dad started to brush him off, but then some half-forgotten resolution to make time for parenting kicked in. “Oh.” He kept looking back at his laptop, which had a spreadsheet on it, until he slammed it shut and gave Laurence as much attention as he could call undivided. “Yeah. I heard about that. It’s that Dirth guy. Huh. Some kind of lightweight prototype, right? That could be used to land on the dark side of the Moon eventually. I heard about that.” Then Laurence’s dad was joking about an old band called Floyd and marijuana and ultraviolet light.

“Yeah.” Laurence cut into his dad’s flow before the conversation got away from him. “That’s right.

Milton Dirth. And I really want to go see it. This is like a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I thought maybe we could make it a father-son thing.” His dad couldn’t turn down a father-son thing, or it would be like admitting to being a bad father.

“Oh.” His dad had an embarrassed look in his deep-set eyes, behind his square glasses. “You want to go? This coming Tuesday?”

“Yes.”

“But … I mean, I have work. There’s a project, and I have to ace this one, or it’s going to look bad.

And I know your mother would be upset if we just took you out of school like that. Plus, I mean, you can watch it on the computer. There’ll be a webcam feed or something. You know that these things are boring in person. It’s a lot of standing around, and they end up delaying it half the time. You won’t even see anything if you’re there. You’ll get a way better view via the web.” Laurence’s dad sounded as though he was trying to convince himself as much as his son.

Laurence nodded. There was no point in arguing, once his father had started piling on reasons. So Laurence said nothing, until he could safely back away. Then he went up to his room and looked at bus schedules.

A few days later, while his parents were still asleep, Laurence tiptoed downstairs and found his mom’s purse on the little side table near the front door. He opened the clasp as if a live animal could jump out. Every noise in the house sounded too loud: the coffeemaker heating up, and the refrigerator buzzing. Laurence found a leather wallet inside the purse and pulled out fifty bucks. He had never stolen before. He kept expecting police officers to burst in the front door and cuff him.

The second phase of Laurence’s plan involved going face-to-face with his mom right after he’d robbed her. He caught up with her when she’d just woken up, still bleary in her marigold robe, and told her there was a school field trip and he needed her to write a note saying it was okay for him to go. (He had already figured out a great universal truth, that people never asked for documentation of anything, as long as you asked them for documentation first.) Laurence’s mom pulled out a stubby ergonomic pen and scrawled a permission slip. Her manicure was peeling. Laurence said it might be an overnight trip, in which case he would call. She nodded, bright red curls bouncing.

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