"Alternitech" sends prospectors into alternate but similar timelines where tiny differences yield significant changes: a world where the Beatles never broke up, or where Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't gunned down after the Kennedy assassination, where an accidental medical breakthrough offers the cure to a certain disease, where a struggling author really did write the great American novel, or where a freak accident reveals the existence of a serial killer. Alternitech finds those differences—and profits from them.
Time Travel stories often deal with epic changes to history—preventing the assassination of JFK, stopping a plane crash, changing the outcome of World War II. But what if you could travel to all kinds of possible timelines, universes where the slightest differences in events would change mere details, but otherwise the world looked the same. Alternitech is a company that does just that—and they search for profitable little differences. A universe where the Beatles never broke up and recorded several more albums; where Margaret Mitchell published a sequel to Gone with the Wind; where a rare disease has been cured; where a most-wanted serial killer has been caught, thus revealing the identity in *this* universe. The ideas kept coming, and I explored one after another in ALTERNITECH. And I would suspect there are hundreds more stories to come. – Kevin J. Anderson
He arrived, hoping to find a new Lennon, or a Jimi Hendrix. Or an alternate universe where the Beatles had never broken up.
As the air ceased shimmering around him, Jeremy staggered; with his head pounding, he sucked in a deep breath. His employers at Alternitech always made him empty his lungs before stepping through the portal. The company had strict rules limiting the amount of nonreturnable mass shuttled across timelines, even down to the air molecules. Take nothing tangible; leave behind as little as possible.
The air here smelled good, though; it tasted the same as in his own universe.
He snatched a glance around himself, making sure that no one had seen him appear. It had rained recently, and the ground was still wet. Everything about this new reality appeared the same, but each timeline had its subtle differences.
Jeremy Cardiff simply needed to find the useful ones.
The Pacific Bell logo on the phone booth had the familiar design, but with a forest-green background color instead of bright blue. He had always found a phone booth in the same spot, no matter which alternate reality he visited. Some things must be immutable in the Grand Scheme.
Jeremy reached into the pocket of his jacket and withdrew the ring of keys. One of them usually worked on the phone's coin compartment, but he also had a screwdriver and a small pry bar. His girlfriend Holly had never approved of stealing, but Jeremy had no choice—in order to spend money in this universe, he had to get it from somewhere here, since he could leave none of his own behind.
The third key worked, and the coin compartment popped open, spilling handfuls of quarters, nickels, and dimes—Mercury dimes, he noticed; apparently they had never gotten around to using the Roosevelt version. He scooped the coins out of the phone booth and sealed them in a pouch he took from his pack. Never get anything mixed up, the cardinal rule.
Time to go searching. Jeremy picked up the phone book dangling from a cable in the booth and flipped through the yellow pages, hunting for the nearest record store.
Before he had left his own timeline that morning, everything had happened with maddening familiarity:
"Your briefing, Mr. Cardiff," the woman in her white lab coat had said. The opalescent Alternitech: Entertainment Division logo shone garish on her lapel, but she seemed proud of it. Her eyebrows were shaved; her hair close-cropped and perfectly in place; her face never showed any expression. This time Jeremy saw she was attractive; he had not noticed before. Every other time he had been too preoccupied with Holly to notice.
"You tell me the same thing every trip," Jeremy said to the Alternitech woman, shuffling his feet. He felt the butterflies gnawing at his stomach. He just wanted to get on with it.
"A reminder never hurts," she said, handing him the high-speed tape dubber. It had eight different settings to accomodate the types of music cassettes most often found in near-adjacent timelines.
At least the woman had stopped giving him the "time is like a rope with many possible strands" part of the speech. Jeremy was allowed only into universes where he himself did not exist at that moment; it had something to do with exclusions and quantum principles. He chose never to stray far from his own portion of the timestream, stepping over to adjacent threads, places where reality had changed in subtle ways that might lead to big payoffs in his own reality.
Other divisions of Alternitech sent people hunting for elusive cures to cancer or AIDS, but they had been by and large unsuccessful. A cure for cancer would change history too much, spin a timeline farther and further away from their own, and thus make it harder to reach.
'Ghost music,' on the other hand, was easy to find. Jeremy wanted to find new work by Hendrix or Morrison or Joplin, a timeline where these stars had somehow escaped freak accidents or avoided suicide.
"Do you have everything now?" the woman asked him.
"All set." Jeremy stuffed the tape dubber in his shoulder pack. "I've got my money bag, a snack, some blank tapes, and even a bottle to piss in if I can't hold it." Sometimes the precautions seemed ridiculous, but he wasn't here to question the rules. Alternitech would deduct from his own commission the transport cost for every gram of mass differential.
"You have five hours until you return here," she said. The portal opened, shimmering inside its chrome framework. "I trust that will be enough time for you to search."
"I've never needed more than two hours, even if I have to walk to the mall."
She ignored that. He was disrupting her memorized speech. "You are entitled to your commission on whatever new music you locate, but according to our contract we retain all rights and royalties." She smiled. Her lips looked as if they had leaped off the screen from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
"Of course," he said. He had already learned that once, with his first big payoff, finding three new albums by Buddy Holly—he had actually been looking because of Holly's name, and he had been so surprised he had almost forgotten what to do. Almost. He had coasted on the triumph for a year, but he had found nothing new in a long time. He felt the anticipation building each time, wondering what he might find.
Exhaling the air in his lungs, Jeremy went sailing into the timestream.
Shopping malls had to be the most ubiquitous structures in creation. Jeremy had never encountered a timeline where the mall did not exist.
Inside the record store, Jeremy scouted down the aisles. The new releases displayed the appropriate Big Hits; a familiar Top 40 single played on the store's stereo system. The important changes would be subtler, difficult to find.
He checked under the Beatles first. At other times he had found strange but useless anomalies—a version of Abbey Road that did not include "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a copy of the White Album that actually listed the songs on the back, a release of Yesterday and Today that had retained the disgusting butcher shop cover censored in the U.S. But since he could not take anything physical back with him, cover variations were worthless. In this store, however, everything looked the way it should have.
Disappointed, he next tried Elvis, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, John Lennon—those would net him the most commission if he brought an undiscovered treasure back.
He might as well have stayed home.
With a sigh, he finally searched for Harry Chapin and Jim Croce, Holly's favorites. New songs by these two wouldn't sell well back in his own timeline, but he always checked, for her. He stopped himself—it didn't matter anymore. Who gave a damn for Holly? But he looked anyway.
He thought of Chapin, killed in a car accident … his Volkswagen smashed under a truck, wasn't it? And Jim Croce, dead in a plane crash at age 30, two weeks after his song "Time in a Bottle" had been a theme in a TV movie: She Lives, one of those oh-so-typical "my lover is dying of a terminal disease" films of the early seventies. Jeremy considered the song sappy and sentimental; Holly insisted it wasn't.
"You know, if it were me saving time in a bottle," he had said to her, "I could think of a lot better things to do with it. Like find more time for my own music."
He knew just how to push Holly's buttons. After one fight, he had left a box on her doorstep for her to keep "all those wishes and dreams that would never come true." He had intended it to be ironic; she had called it cruel.
He and Holly had such different needs that they clashed often over the two years they had been together, coming close and drawing apart. He decided it was probably over now for good. Jeremy had his music, his need to write songs and work toward breaking into the business. Holly, though, just wanted to hang out with him, wasting hours in conversation that had no topic and no purpose. She said it brought them together; he resented her for draining away time that he could have used for composing.
In the house he kept his own mixer, a MIDI sequencer, synthesizers, music editing programs, a set of panel speakers mounted on marble blocks and an amp that could lift the house two inches off its foundations if he decided to crank the volume. He had all the gadgetry, he studied the hits, tried to come up with a sure-fire blockbuster. Listening to the crap on the radio, he couldn't see that his own stuff was any worse.
He just needed a break. You had to know a name, get under the right label, and somebody would make your songs hits, crowbar you to the top of the charts. Otherwise, music people tossed unsolicited demo tapes out the window. Reject. Sorry, kid.
But Jeremy planned to get in through the side door, to make a name for himself by bringing 'ghost music' back to his own timeline and taking credit for it. Then the studio execs would be ready to listen to his stuff….
But it wouldn't happen here, not in this timeline, not in this record store. Jeremy sighed. No Beatles, not even any new Chapin. He flicked his gaze down to Croce.
Holly disagreed with Jeremy's approach to songwriting. She worked as a nurse and sometimes treated him like a patient with psychological problems. Therapy. Pop psychology. "You can't just find a formula and imitate it. You need the depth, the emotion. And you can only get that by drawing it from yourself, by being brave enough to look deep. But you're afraid to. You need to have something inside yourself before you can share it with anyone else."
But he knew Holly must be wrong. What did a nurse know about music? He played in bars on weekends, drawing a few crowds. Holly herself came to watch, sitting at a table near the stage and mouthing the words to his own lyrics that no one else recognized. Somebody would notice him. One of his songs would catch on. He needed a foot in the door and some more practice.
Startled, he found five different cassettes with Jim Croce's name on the side. In his own timeline, Croce had made only two albums, and most of those cuts had been compiled into varied "Greatest Hits" collections. After a moment of excitement—Jeremy always felt his skin crawl at finding an obvious change—he picked up the cassettes, glancing at the titles, reading the package copy.
In this reality, Croce's plane had never crashed. In the late 70s he had changed his style dramatically, but the cassettes didn't seem to be big successes. Croce had gone for dance music, funky r&b, with more and more desperate attempts at reaching the top 40 again. Songs like "The Return of Leroy Brown" were sure danger signs of waning creativity. On his last album Croce had not even written his own material, instead doing covers of old hits. When Jeremy found "Time in a Bottle: Disco Remix" he couldn't stop from chuckling.
Personal zingers aside, the alternate Jim Croce would have little commercial value for Alternitech back in his own timeline. And Holly would hate him for bringing this stuff back, for spoiling the memories. That would be too petty. He couldn't do that to her.
Not knowing quite why he didn't want to rub her face in it, he decided against the cassettes. Alternitech wouldn't be impressed anyway, and it would be a poor shadow to those new Buddy Holly tapes he had found. Better to leave old Jim dead in his plane crash. Jeremy shook his head, feeling pleased about completing his good deed for the day.
Then he noticed another tape shelved under "Misc. C." It bore his own name: JEREMY CARDIFF—This One's for Holly.