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art by Wi Waffles

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Sarah Pinsker is a singer-songwriter with three albums and a fourth in production. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Stupefying Stories, and she has stories forthcoming from Strange Horizons and Fireside. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her website is sarahpinsker.com and you can follow her on twitter @sarahpinsker.
The sounds of half-tuned electric guitars blasted from the doorways of Manny's and Sam Ash, dueling across the grimy patch of 48th St known as Music Row. Magda waited until the group of time tourists she was following had turned the corner, then plunged her arm into the nearest garbage can. Her hand encountered something slimy.
"Ugh," she said, not for the first time that day. She wished she could wear gloves, but they weren't part of her new uniform.
"Are you complaining, Magda?" asked her supervisor, Lwazi, through her jawbone implant. "In your first hour on the job?"
The nice thing about her cover identity was that Magda could respond freely. Manhattan in 1985 didn't have jawbone communication, but it did have plenty of bag ladies who talked to themselves. Magda was temporarily one of them.
"No sir," she responded. "Not complaining."
"Good. There are plenty of people who would jump at this job if you don't want it."
Magda returned to her task. Her search of the garbage can yielded two Fauxcolate wrappers and an empty hydration pod. She wondered why they bothered bringing Fauxcolate to a time when they could buy the real thing; from what she had heard there was no comparison. She stuffed the trash into one of the bags in her shopping cart and shuffled after the tourists. A job is a job, she said to herself.
She turned left on 7th Avenue, as the tourists had. She checked each garbage can they had passed, and kept her eyes open for future-refuse that hadn't quite made it to the cans, just as the training vids had instructed. Halfway down the next block she spotted a discarded box of MaryJane cigarettes. Had those been around in 1985? "When in doubt, take it out," the training had said. She grabbed it just in case, realizing too late that it was lying in a pile of dog feces.
"Eeeeech!" she said, dropping it into one of her bags and examining her hand. She wished she was allowed to carry sanitizer.
She caught up at Times Square. They were standing in the center island, gaping at the chaotic heart of the city, surrounded by peep shows and neon. Most of them blinked the shutters on their eye-cameras; only a couple seemed to remember the prop cameras around their necks. They were given cameras, costumes, and currency in lieu of training. The agency considered it more cost-effective to send guides and guards and cleanup crews than to try to teach their rich clients. New Yorkers ignored tour groups so there wasn't much risk of interaction.
"Follow, Magda." Lwazi's voice moved from her jaw to her ear. She realized she had confused her group with another, and hurried to make up the distance.
"What happens if I don't make it to the pickup with them?" she asked.
"Make it to the pickup," Lwazi said.
"But if I didn't?"
He sighed. "Magda, you did receive a copy of the contract, correct?"
"Yes."
"But let me guess. You didn't read the fine print before signing?"
"Not all of it," she admitted. "It was my first job offer since I had my kid. I wasn't in any position to turn it down, whatever it said."
"You skipped some important stuff. If you fail to make it to your designated pickup, you must reach one of the other pickups. You have one week."
Magda wanted to ask what would happen if she didn't make it back in a week, but she thought she had shown enough ignorance already. She needed the job. Her daughter Sofia would be starting school soon, and there was so much to pay for.
One crosswalk separated Magda from her group. She fought the urge to attach herself to them. Close but not too close, as the training had said. She picked up another Fauxcolate wrapper and followed them back up Broadway.
The tourists had tickets to the Cats matinee, so Magda had a couple of hours to kill. There wasn't much she could do in her cover identity besides sit and wait and try not to get arrested for loitering.
"Lwazi, mind if I take a bathroom break?"
"Where?"
She looked around. "Alley."
"You've got five minutes," he said. She felt the tiny click of the implant going inactive. The agency's only concession to privacy.
Magda took the moment to sidle up to the group's other support worker.
"Excuse me, Officer," she said.
"You're not supposed to talk to me." He kept his eyes on the street, his spine straight. She didn't doubt she was beneath his notice.
"It's my first time. I'm just a little nervous. How many trips have you made?"
"Enough that I get to play cop instead of homeless."
"Are you still monitored every minute?"
He puffed out his chest. "Nah. They trust me."
Good. "So, um, what happens if we miss the pickup?" He gave her a look like a real policeman trying to decide if she was a suspect. She rushed an explanation. "I mean, I have a kid. I'm not trying to run out or anything. I just want to know."
He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, then tapped his head. "The nanobots injected at the same time as the HIV and hepatitis vaccines begin eating your memory to make sure you don't profit off future knowledge. The temporary fertility suppressors become permanent. You're left behind in your cover identity."
"That's barbaric!"
"No, that's common sense. Otherwise they'd have employees disappearing into the past for better job opportunities, or betting on sure things and leaving themselves fortunes. There'd be branching timelines and paradoxes and all kinds of trouble. Speaking of trouble, you should probably get moving along." He raised his voice at the end and pointed, for the benefit of a real policewoman who chose that moment to stroll by.
Magda walked in the direction he pointed, stopping at a bus shelter. Another click suggested Lwazi was back in her ear. A job is a job, she told herself again. Maybe if she was good at it, she'd get to play cop someday instead of bag lady.
"Goddamn time tourists," she heard somebody mutter. Magda turned to see a homeless woman occupying one side of the shelter's bench. "Goddamn time tourists. You can't spit without hitting one." The woman tore open a chocolate bar and tucked the wrapper into a bag beside her. She bit into it and closed her eyes, sighing. When she opened her eyes, she held the candy out toward Magda.
Magda shuddered and shook her head. Better not to know. She settled down on the other side of the bench and pulled her shopping cart close.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, July 18th, 2013


I lived in New York in the late eighties, before Times Square was cleaned up. I thought that was probably the best place to hide a bunch of time tourists. The story came from a Codex contest prompt. I can't remember if it was about dangerous professions or dangerous vacations, but this probably qualifies as both.

- Sarah Pinsker

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