In the few seconds it took for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the unfamiliar room, the cloud of spiced-chai scent around me had already faded. I slowly turned, taking in the lobby where I had landed. A bar filled half of the room, with worn, dark wood chairs stacked on clean tables, and the only movement was the dust spiraling through a bit of sunlight that slanted across the room. Three of the walls were decorated with maps and charts, the kind I would expect to find in a pirate’s cabin, with small sketches of dragons and sea monsters in the blank areas. The fourth wall was covered in pinned up, handwritten notes, most of them clearly torn out of whatever paper was nearby and scratched upon with anything from crayons to calligraphy pens. My curiosity for what insights those notes could hold was stronger than all the nerves I was still trying to shake away and I moved towards that wall.
“Hello and welcome.” The woman sitting at the front desk next to me had been so slumped I hadn’t noticed her in my survey of the room. She pulled her feet down from where they were resting on the rough wood of the desk next to a typewriter and stood up. “Do you have a reservation?”
She took me up an old, sweeping staircase. I was winded by the time we left the stairs for a long, thin, lopsided corridor. Each of the doors we passed in the hall was painted a different color; the one we finally paused outside of was a cheery yellow. “Most folk won’t be in for a few more hours. You’re here early. A few may be asleep, time changes you know, but you’re welcome to settle in. There’s a towel and sheets on your bed, bring them down when you check out. Is there anything else you need?”
There were indeed three people already asleep when I entered the room, despite the sunlight still filtering through the windows. I quickly set my stuff up under the bunk that was to be mine for the night. The receptionist had left me at the door, so I allowed myself a moment to sink onto the edge of the bed and recover from the ordeal it had taken to find this place. I could feel my eyes relaxing, closing in protest to the brightness of the room’s warm walls and windows, tempted to give into the post-adrenaline-rush exhaustion, but I didn’t want to waste the whole afternoon napping. Instead, after I had managed to recover my breath and stop my hands from shaking, I pulled off my shoes and socks, pushed myself up to my protesting feet and walked to the window. I quietly opened the windowpane, and then popped the screen out, doing my best to obscure any noise that might wake the other patrons. I left the screen leaning up against the wall and pulled myself into a sitting position in the window, facing the roof above. A wonderfully convenient gargoyle had frozen his face about a foot away from mine, and I used him to pull myself the rest of the way out of the window and on to the roof. I balanced on the roof’s tiles, gripping with my bare toes, and took in the view.
This was my first time in a hostel like this. I had been to several when I was a typical traveler, but most of them had been cramped and dingy, and I had only used them as places to sleep for a few hours before moving onward. Now, it felt like I had an eternity to explore, and I might as well enjoy the journey. This hostel had taken me three shots to hit, but I’d been told it was the best place to start, and I had expected it to take longer for me to find, which was why I was so early.
The city was spread out around and below me here, reaching to the harbor, and everywhere I could see the small figures of people walking through the streets. The snow was lit up against their bright winter clothes, and I shivered in my flannel, watching couples with their arms wrapped around each other. The sun’s intensity had worked brilliantly to warm the room below me, but while battling the wind this high, it did little beyond illuminating the cold air, and painting the details of the world across my eyelids when I closed them. A few tears clotted on my eyelashes—I’m sure it had more to do with the wind and sunshine than the sudden sweep of emotion that hit me with the realization of how alone I was. The few loved ones I had didn’t know where I was, nor would they have believed me if I’d have left them a note before disappearing. I lay down against the tiles to close my eyes again without the threat of overbalancing. I could give into emotion late at night, when everyone was asleep, but I really couldn’t let myself begin a journey like this falling apart like a lost child. What would my teachers say if they saw me now?
I was broken from my reverie by a sound at the edge of the roof. Opening my eyes, I saw a hand, pale and thin, grasping at the gargoyle I had used to pull myself up. It was followed by a face, then a lanky body, which climbed awkwardly, long limb after long limb, onto the roof beside me.
“Hello.” He had a deeper voice than I would have expected, like a thin violin singing in the voice of a cello. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” He extended one of those grasping hands towards me and I took it. I would have thought it would be cold, and that the fingers would wrap twice around my entire hand, but both the handshake and his smile were pleasant and friendly.
“This is my first time,” I said, trying for all the world not to sound like freshmen looking for their homeroom class.
“Here specifically, or Travelling?”
“Travelling. And here. Well, I mean, I’ve traveled before of course, but not like, not in this way.” I finished lamely. With the advantage of the cold and the breeze, I was pretty sure it was impossible to tell how much I was blushing.
“Oh, what an adventure you have ahead of you!” He politely ignored my stumbling. “Which year are you from?”
It was written on my ID card in my backpack under my bed, which I thought was queer, because how could someone forget something as important as her Origin Year. Looking into the eyes of this fellow Traveller and seeing how much was written there, I began to realize that it might be important to have something that tangible written down somewhere in case you got lost on the way.
“2045” I told him. I wanted to guess his Origin Year, to show off a little with my knowledge of fashion and trends, but he was wearing plain jeans and a black hoodie, with a logo of some band I’d never heard of. This meant either he was from a similar time and place as I was, had jumped from my time to the hostel, or had changed when he got here. His haircut was plain and unassuming, modern by my standards, if simple, but it too gave away nothing. I couldn’t see any tattoos on the bits of skin that were showing, and he had no jewelry or anything else to betray his time.
“Oh, I’ve been near there! Crazy weather that year. Everyone was still talking about it in 2099. I had to deliver a letter in 3104 and needed a few stops along the way. I’m a 3036 myself, but I’ve been through most of what you’ve studied as history and probably about half of what you’ve studied so far as future.”
It was absurd to hear him speak so openly and freely about this life that I hadn’t known anything about a year ago. Sixty years ago? How should Time Travellers refer to their own past? Training said to count it in relative time, so that would make it a year ago, but I still didn’t totally agree that time should be considered as relative as the teachers made it seem. If tomorrow I jumped back a year, I would still end up dozens of years after my training had begun. My head was starting to hurt, so I refocused on my companion.
“I forgot to ask at the front desk. What year did the hostel end up in right now?” he asked. “Looks like a good winter, some snow but not a devastating amount, so maybe sometime in the 3490’s?”
“Good guess. We’re in 3489 right now, December 15th.” There were hostels set up all throughout time, waiting to give refuge to those who were Travelling in less-than-linear patterns. They were outside of time, undistracted and untouched by it, although they remained tenuously tethered to it to maintain their schedule of a twenty-four-hour day and night. This meant that the hostels sometimes fluctuated as to exactly what years they were situated in, although they usually lingered within a decade’s span. There was originally one hotel sitting outside the bubble of time like the Time Traveller’s Institute, but it had become very crowded and increasingly difficult to hit with a single jump, even for the most experienced Travellers. They eventually decided to build dozens of hostels and to scatter them, so there was always one around when you needed it. They provided rest and adjustment when a Traveller had to jump long distances, or a place to stay while waiting for a new assignment.
Several pigeons had gathered on the roof with us now, and they were nestling comfortably in the feathers and the silence. Before I had been approached by the TTI, I hadn’t considered it, but my training had taught me to notice Continuities and Disturbances, so it crossed my mind that I had never been to a city without pigeons. It was oddly comforting that here, sixty years ahead of my time, half outside of time, pigeons were still prevalent. I wondered if there were still rats hiding down in those streets too. They’d been bugging humans since before the First Great Plague, which I used to consider the only plague, and I wondered if they had bothered anyone enough yet in “modern times” for humans to make the mistake of exterminating them. I turned to the other Traveller, and keeping my voice down so as not to scare the bird that had just closed its eyes, asked the most important question I could think of.
“Have you ever been to a city that doesn’t have pigeons?”
People slowly filled the rooms as the light faded from the ordinary sky and there was now a rosy feeling of cheer, like the evening when family comes to stay for the holidays, or the first night in a new dorm.
After crawling back through the window, I returned to the lobby to get a beer at the bar. My companion from the roof had left to take a nap before dinner, but I was too jittery to sleep, and I wanted to watch people arrive. They came in an assortment of age, dress, and disarray. It was like a strange parade through theater productions, only here everyone seemed focused inward, more like businessmen finishing a day of work and commuting home than the hyper-peacocked attitudes that hang over actors as they finish their shows. More remarkable than the clothing differences (I had taken a fashion course at the Time Institute, so I was at least a little familiar with what time periods or cultures these related to), was pop and lightening crackle that accompanied every arrival. Each had its own shade and smell, influenced both by the space and time that the Traveller had left, and by the Traveller themselves. Each also made me jump a little, and there was a slight stickiness on the table where I had spilled a bit of my freshly poured beer because someone missed the landing area and popped in next to me as I was setting it down. Their flash had been too close for me to identify the tinge of color as it blinded me, but the scent of grapefruit that they brought still sat in my mouth and colored the taste of my beer. Actually, it might have improved the beer.
The receptionist escorted some of the patrons to their rooms, others greeted her with a nod and took their key, and the rest greeted her like an old friend, chatting with her for a few minutes before walking themselves to their rooms. As the hostel filled up, the bar around me did too. They served a strange collection of food and drinks that ranged across the history and future of time and place, although there were also a few dishes that were specifically local- contemporary, so you could enjoy the wonderfully simple aspects of ordinary traveling. Hostels like this were one of the only places where Travellers could speak freely about what they did. The Institute was another, but most people spent their time there working, rather than catching up. There were also occasional coffee shops, restaurants, museums, and libraries that sat outside of time, but I’d heard that none of them had quite the same feeling of camaraderie as the hostels. Old friends were reuniting around me, and I heard snippets of their stories through the noise of the crowd. My friend from the roof came in, looking tousle-haired from his nap, and sent a nod in my direction before embracing a young man who had jumped up at his entry. A trio of women behind me, who were clearly good friends, talked about having crossed paths during their last assignment and how funny it had been pretending not to know each other. Then they lost me as they started discussing some of the people that they had met, and a conversation next to them began about the implications of a philosopher who was born in 2364, and whether he was a descendant of Greek or Buddhist philosophy.
My eavesdropping was interrupted when a young girl dropped herself into the empty seat between an older man and me. She couldn’t have been older than sixteen, but she moved with more confidence than I had ever had. Her green eyes glinted at us with humor as she introduced herself.
“Tally,” she announced, crossing her hands in front of her and offering one to each of us. I was surprised when the man accepted it for a shake. His older face made him seem like the kind of person who would frown upon that sort of tomfoolery, but he shook it and then proceeded to push his plate of fries (truffle and parmesan) towards her as an offering of his own.
Full of curiosity as always, I had to ask what such a young person was doing in a place like this. At twenty-three, I had been the youngest in my class, and I knew you had to be at least eighteen to apply.
“What brings you to the hostel?” I asked over the noise in the bar.
“Yeah, I know, I’m young.” She gave a little laugh, like someone who is sick of their name being commented on as “unusual” but is still trying to be polite. “I’m not a Traveller. My parents work at the Institute, so I’ve been raised out of time. They had to get special dispensation for it, but they didn’t want to leave their jobs for eighteen years, and they really wanted a kid. I’m called a Time-child, although personally, I prefer Time-teen. I can’t Travel on my own, but I hop sometimes with my parents. I’m guessing that you’re with Research?”
I nodded. I think it was the two notebooks that I had been taking colorful notes in that gave me away. I knew that for most of my assignments I would have to wait to record my observations until I was alone so as not to draw suspicion, and I should have been practicing that here, but there was so much I wanted to remember that I decided to let myself have a night of writing in the open before I had to hide it.
“What’s your focus?” she asked, peering over to see the pages in front of me. I hated people reading my scratched-out thoughts, but my time at the TTI had made me relax a little about that pet-peeve, so I let her.
“Education, particularly in reference to the continual non-institutionalized education that adults undergo throughout their lives.” We had been allowed to pitch ideas for our first assignments, like a thesis project in college, and I was fascinated by the way that people learn and teach outside of the classroom. One of my notebooks was open to the page where I was recording my thoughts on the stories and shared experiences of the people around me; the other had notes on everything else that I could see, smell, or hear. This one I would have to share raw with other researchers that I met, so they could add my notes to their own and pull anything from my expertise that was related to their research.
The man on her other side, who introduced himself as Todd, told us that he was in C+E, a joke within our community because the three departments were Research, Cause and Effect, and Control and Enforcement. C&E was Cause and Effect, and C+E was Control and Enforcement, but they were indistinguishable when said aloud as part of an introduction. When he clarified that he was Control and Enforcement, a thousand questions popped into my head and I pulled out my thinnest tipped pen to record his answers, but before I could ask, a short, middle-aged man who was standing on his chair in the middle of the bar raised his half-drunk beer and said, “To Briana Yaguri,” before downing the rest of the drink. We all drank to his toast, and he began to tell her story.
“Briana was seventy-three when I met her, and she had a small house on the corner of the street…”
Tally had seen the confused look on my face as the Traveller continued his story, so she leaned in and whispered, “It’s Traveller tradition whenever we gather. We like to honor people we’ve met and loved, whose stories might not be otherwise told.”
I wrote that night until my right hand had cramped, and my left had been so covered in ink that I was smearing the whole page. At that point, dozens of Travellers had told stories, some of which had obviously been told there before, others that were so raw with fresh emotion that most of the patrons were sniffling and reaching for napkins.
As I dragged my tired eyes off to bed and left the last few old-timers to sit in their whiskey and tell their tales, I passed a wall that had magnetic words sticking to it. I had seen someone arranging them meticulously all night, and I paused to read the quote they had chosen:
I tried to cross
The stars to find you, love,
To parse the deep ocean’s colors
That concealed you.
I sought the sound of your voice
In a thousand symphonies.
I finally caught a vision of you
When I passed a window
And saw you
Windswept and travelworn
Staring back at me.
When I woke in the chill of the next morning, most of the room had already emptied out. I packed my belongings and stripped my bed amidst the steady rhythm of breathing from the few beds that were still occupied and returned to the lobby to hand in my key and linens. There were a few drunk coffee cups waiting to be cleared at the bar tables, and my stomach turned at the thought of eating anything before the heart-stopping feeling of Travelling. With careful precision and a smiling wink from the receptionist, I jumped.
The scent of chai began to gather, and I felt the glow of sunshine on my face.