“If you must know, before I was sent to fetch you, I hadn’t been granted the privilege of traveling past a certain year,” Sophia said irritably. “Answer the question, then—tell me if it’s true—if what the moving picture box said was right about a woman running for president.”
Moving picture box…the television?
This was getting more and more interesting. Sophia was a lot more curious than she’d originally given her credit for. She wasn’t digging into Etta’s past to find something to use against her—no, she’d wasted a question on this because she wanted to know the answer that badly.
“Yes, one’s running, and with voting…maybe 1920?”
“Nineteen twenty,” Sophia repeated. “Ten years.”
Ten years from what—her birth year? Etta couldn’t believe the explanation she’d given; that Sophia hadn’t been given the “privilege” of traveling past a certain year. How could they stop her, when all the travelers had the whole of history at their fingertips?
That thought sparked another one.
“Can a traveler change history?” she asked.
“It’s my turn,” Sophia groused. “But, yes. Travelers have been known to accidentally make small changes with their own oversight and stupidity. It’s quite easy to do if you’re not careful. In most cases, it doesn’t cause a big enough change to merit fixing. But changing something intentionally is against our rules and can result in years of being banned from traveling—or worse.”
“I don’t see how a small change couldn’t turn into a big one,” Etta pointed out.
“Sometimes it does, but sometimes nothing happens at all. It can be difficult to predict.” Sophia crossed her arms over her chest, closing her eyes. “The best way to explain this is to think of the timeline as a kind of…constant, roaring stream. Its path is set, but we create ripples by jumping in and out. Time corrects itself the best it can to keep later events consistent. But if a small change snowballs into a much larger one, or if a traveler’s actions are devastating enough, it can actually shift the flow of the timeline, thereby changing the shape of the future from that point on.”
Etta leaned toward her. “What do you mean, the shape of the future?”
“What is education like in your time?” Sophia countered. “The moving picture box in my hotel made me believe it’s common to attend with men.”
“The television,” Etta corrected, and gave a very impatient rundown of the educational system in America.
“All right, it’s like this,” Sophia said. “Big alterations, most of the time, take throwing an ungodly amount of money around and befriending the right, powerful people. Grandfather has done it a few times, of course, to secure our fortune and bring the other families in line.”
“What?” Etta thundered. Her timeline wasn’t the true timeline—her future was the one the old man had decided on?
“It’s either a coordinated effort by multiple travelers, or the incredible luck of finding a linchpin moment in the timeline. Things like wars are harder, since they have so many moving pieces and it’s like trying to hold back a tidal wave, but it is possible. It’s far easier to change a city’s skyline, create or ruin a company, back and fund laws that suit our business interests. Grandfather might have caused a few stock market crashes to ruin the fortunes of the other families, for instance, and those might have spiraled into something more, ah, historic.”
Historic? What qualified as “historic”—the Great Depression?
“Again, it’s not in practice anymore,” Sophia continued. “We protect our timeline.”
Your fortune and power, you mean, Etta thought. She was right—this family was ruthless, and she’d never been so grateful not to share blood with anyone in her life.
“What happens if the future is changed?” Etta leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees.
Sophia sighed. “Tell me about travel in your era. What is it like on an aeroplane?”
Biting back her impatience, Etta told her, then waited for her answer, shifting uncomfortably on the hard seat.
Sophia folded her hands over her stomach as she stared up at the ceiling. “If someone did alter the past, and the consequences were large enough to shift the timeline, it would not erase you, a traveler outside of your natural era, from existence. You would go on, alive. It would, however, erase the world you know. You could return and find the circumstances of your life altered in such an enormous way, it would look unrecognizable to you. You wouldn’t know the same people, live in the same home, and so on. You would be a refugee from your original, natural time. The moment the timeline shifts to a new one, what we call a wrinkle is created. Time will attempt to correct and realign itself the best it can by dragging you, the traveler, out of whatever era you’re in and shoving you into the last common year between the old timeline and the new.”
It made some sense to her that she wouldn’t be erased from history by making a mistake. Erasing herself would also erase the initial mistake that caused it, making it impossible to have altered anything in the first place. But what Sophia was describing was terrifying. She could be returned to a time in which no one—not Alice, not Pierce, no one—would know her. It would void everything she’d accomplished with the violin, the name she’d worked so hard to establish.