THE ONCE AND FUTURE CAKE
By Michaele Jordan
That’s the thing about time travel: all those leftovers.
It started as soon as I recruited me. And don’t give me that whole paradox spiel. Of course it’s paradoxical—it’s time travel. Just take my word for it. You’ve got to go back and recruit yourself to get into the TransTemporal Corps, and you can’t do that unless you’re already in the Corps. Until you do that, you’re just a wraith.
What’s a wraith? It’s a ghost, a ghost of you, or maybe a ghost of what you might be, a hint of all your possibilities. I heard the wraiths live out on some weird little low-probability world where all the stuff that could never really happen happens. Most of them never make it up to the high probability levels, and when they do they usually only just make it in time to catch you before you die.
Then you—that future you that’s pulling up on the end—and the wraith join hands and dive back into the past. Sometimes they don’t get very far. But every time they connect with a younger you, they get a little stronger, so then they all jump back into the past again together. They just keep jumping back and jumping back until they reach a you that’s young and strong enough to find a crux moment. That’s what recruitment is: when you find a crux moment and decide to go back and turn it.
They say that jumping back is way cool, and gets you really high. They say that some wraiths get so high they forget all about looking for a crux and just keep jumping back and jumping back, all the way back to the beginning, until they fall out of the bottom of their lives.
Of course you’ve got to take all that with a grain of salt. Nobody really remembers the jumping very well once they’ve pulled out. So how would they know? But I do know that getting into the Corps isn’t easy. A whole lot of things can go wrong. And there’s not a thing you can do about any of them. You don’t even know about them until it’s all over, and you’re standing there looking back, and you see how many bullets you’ve dodged, and you’re all alone because nobody you’ve ever known has made it through with you.
Of course you want to join the TTC—even wraiths will go down if we lose the entropy wars. Besides, where else have you got to go? So you have to figure out how to recruit yourself. It’s not like anybody else is going to do it for you. At least you know you can to do it, because you’ve already done it, or you wouldn’t be standing there wondering how to do it. Probably. Well, maybe.
I knew my crux moment was my tenth birthday party. There was supposed to be a cake. Mom had promised me a cake. She left me at the house with my neurotic Aunt Josie twenty minutes before the party to go get the cake. But then Mom got tied up in a fender bender that turned into the world’s worst traffic jam. She never did get back for the party, let alone with cake. (The cake ended up squished on the asphalt.) No, she wasn’t hurt. Nobody was hurt. If somebody had been hurt, that would have been different.
When Mom didn’t come back, Aunt Josie had to supervise the party. Aunt Josie didn’t like kids. But she knew sugar wasn’t good for them so she offered my friends tofu and rice cakes instead. She said loud noises gave her migraines and so instead of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey, she led us in a series of meditation exercises. I mean, come on—meditation for ten-year-olds? My friends all got hungrier and angrier by the minute, until finally Donny jumped up yelling, “Where’s the cake? Where’s the cake?” The others took it up like a kind of chant, and they all ran around the room in circles throwing rice cakes at me. That’s when Aunt Josie called the police.
I know. You were expecting something a little more earth-shattering than a spoiled birthday party. Luke Skywalker finding his family dead, or Scarlett O’Hara swearing," I’ll never go hungry again.” Nope. Crux moments aren’t like that. They’re always small stuff. A dropped ball. A missed bus. Just some stupid little thing that spoiled your day, and left such a bad taste in your mouth that it ended up spoiling your week, too, or even your year.
So recruitment means you’ve got to go back and save that one day, before you get too deep into a habit of disappointment and depression, and end up too cynical and bored to care or try. “Recruitment puts the magic back in your eyes,” old Commander Helmutt instructed me at my interview. And Lt. Sinclair nodded and started to declaim, “’Let not young souls be smothered out before…’” in a fruity voice, like he was quoting something.
So here I was, plotting to put the magic back in my eyes, and the cake back in my birthday party. I started by making the cake. It was chocolate. (Well, duh.) It was huge. It was two tiered, with blue and lavender icing and silver stars sprinkled over it and a little toy rocket ship on top, ready for take-off. The birthday candles were in a ring surrounding the upper tier. They were sparkler candles. I’d never be able to blow them all out, but everybody would laugh so I’d still get my wish. It was a glorious cake.
I flew a few practice loops around the ether (just to be sure I remembered how to navigate), grabbed my beautiful cake and took off for the past. Turns out, navigating wasn’t the hard part. Landing was the hard part. You’ve got to slide into the veil just so, or you’ll just bounce back off instead of emerging into real time. And because it’s a slide, pinpointing the exact second can be complicated. And it has to be the exact second.
I must have circled about a million times, trying to get that slide-into-first move down, and all the time I’m carrying that cake. Did I mention it’s a really big cake? Plus, at this point in my development, the cake was closer to real than I was. So even when I got the hang of sliding into real time, the cake snagged on the veil—what with it being so real and all—skewing my angle of entry and landing me in a completely different moment than the one I wanted.
I was too late. There was already a cop standing in the living room with his radio, trying to explain to his superior officer that the “riot” was just a bunch of spoiled, disorderly kids. “Let them eat cake?” he said, apparently in response to some attempted witticism at the other end of the line. The cop didn’t get the joke. Aunt Josie probably did, but she was halfway to hysterical and in no mood for jokes. Birthday-me was curled up in a corner trying not to cry, and all my little friends were staring at me with that special basilisk glare that means you will never, ever, ever live this down and they’ll still be muttering how the police busted your birthday party at graduation.
I stood there a minute, staring at a situation I could not improve or remake. Then the laws of real time cut in; my presence was redefined as too improbable to exist, and I faded out. Cake and all. Suddenly I was back in the middle of etheric nowhere. Really disappointed. And hungry.
All that sliding-into-first, and rending the veil, and dragging the cake into real time had taken its toll. Wraiths just don’t have the stamina of genuine matter. We couldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for that probability bypass thing, and even so, we are definitely fragile.
I sat down with that gorgeous cake. Too late to give it to ten-year-old me. It would delete automatically if I tried to take it back again, because it didn’t have sufficient probability to preexist its own first appearance. Besides, I was starved.
I pulled open my kit—yes; I already had my TTC pack, although I still couldn’t quite make out the logo. It’s a fifth dimensional logo so you can’t really see it until you’re in the Corps and have five-dimensional eyes. But I could see the knife and fork just fine, and cut myself a nice, big piece of cake.
I guess it’s just as well I didn’t give that cake to a ten-year-old kid. There was definitely something wrong with it. Every time I put a bite in my mouth it melted. Like cotton candy, only more so, and with no taste and no calories. It was like negative nourishment; the more of it I ate, the hungrier I got.
By the time I finished the cake, I was so starved I could hardly crawl, and getting scared. Was it the cake or was it me? Maybe I was sick. (A wraith, sick?) I decided to drag myself to Zed House, the Corps hang-out, and look for help. Nobody’s supposed to help you recruit yourself. But I didn’t want help with recruitment. I wanted a sandwich. Or a doctor. These were good guys. They wouldn’t let me die. Probably.
I pulled myself upright at the door, straightened my Corps jacket (someday I would read that logo) and combed my hair into shape. Appearances do so matter. I strolled in looking great.
Would you believe it—my cake was already there. And it had collected quite a crowd. Which was a good thing, because it meant a lot of people had left their food unattended. I snagged a French fry off somebody’s plate. It tasted just right—hot, salty, good. So I sat down and polished off the rest of the fries, plus the burger that was sitting next to them. And the pie. This took less time than you might think.
I drifted over toward the crowd, grabbing an unguarded beer along the way and trying to look like I’d just come in. Peering past a couple of shoulders, I saw a woman waving her hands over my cake. She looked kind of old, but not so old that her eyes weren’t bright and interested in what she was doing. They say you can pretty much pick your age in the Corps; maybe she just figured that being older made her smarter. Her TTC jacket was worn and patched, like it had seen a million missions.
“Look,” she was saying, still waving her hands. She paused to point at a faint line which might have been a knife mark. “Poor kid tried to eat their own cake.”
She got a big laugh. “Dumb wraith,” somebody said.
“What’s so dumb about it?” somebody else asked, for which I was very grateful.
“Cake’s not real,’ pointed out the first somebody.
“Sure, it’s real.” The crowd shifted enough for me to see the second somebody. Just a kid, really, still gawky and chubby faced. Younger than most people would want to be if they had a choice. Maybe he’d died young. “It’s here and it’s not wraith, so it must be real.” But he didn’t sound too sure of himself.
“It’s potentially real,” explained the old woman. “It won’t be really real until the recruit gets recruited.” She made one last pass over the cake and a sort of bubble appeared around it. “So we’ll save it for the initiation party.”
I decided to slip away before the crowd broke up, and stuffed several unprotected sandwiches into my pockets. I overheard one last comment on my way out. “You think they’ll make it to initiation? They’re already down one strike.”
Depressed, I sat down to dispose of the loot. So my cake wasn’t real after all? Profound bummer. And nothing else I made here would be real either. Unless I pulled off the recruitment. Bright side? There was no need to bother hauling a cake into real time, if it wasn’t real anyway. There was plenty of cake in real time.
I could just jump back empty handed. No need for the split second timing—I just had to arrive the same day as the party but before it started. Then I’d get a cake there, take it to my house and loiter around, waiting for Mom to leave. Kind of a shame I couldn’t spare her the accident, but I didn’t dare screw much with the time line.
As soon as I thought about it I was walking in the door of Carlo’s Baked Goods. There were several cakes on display under the glass counter. I picked the one decorated with balloons and circus animals; I liked the toy tiger and there was a big blank place to add a name. I blinked when the salesgirl handed me the bill. I’d already forgotten about money; there isn’t any in the ether. But a wraith can exert a lot of will—that’s all we really are—so I willed the sales girl into thinking I was a regular, and told her to bill me.
I’d also forgotten how young and pretty Mom was back then. Kind of took me back, watching her get in the car and drive away. Then I knocked. Aunt Josie was not significantly younger or prettier than I remembered.
She eyed me suspiciously over the chain. Yes, she had the door chained, even with birthday guests expected any moment. Some delivery boy might try force his way in and assault her. I smiled brightly and willed her to believe I was harmless. “Cake delivery, Ma’am.”
Her gaze grew only slightly less suspicious. “We’re not expecting any cake.”
I looked very surprised, and pretended to check a delivery slip. I read off the address and the date, and looked back up at Aunt Josie. “It says, ‘Happy Birthday Robin,’ on it,” I told her. “With ten candles. Are you sure you didn’t order it?”
I’d chosen the words carefully. Sure enough, Aunt Josie got snagged in the exact wording. “Well, no, I’m not sure… I mean, yes, we did order a cake like that. But you weren’t supposed to deliver it. Margie just went to get it.”
“Yeah?” I pretended to check my slip again. “There must have been a mix-up. They told me to deliver it.” I paused and let that sink in. “Sorry for the inconvenience.” I continued to stand there. She continued not to let me in. So I shrugged and turned away. “It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t want it,” I said. “It’s already paid for.”
Worked even better than “Open Sesame.” Aunt Josie might be paranoid to the max, but she’d risk fire and earthquake to get her money’s worth. She opened the door and took the cake. I turned and strolled out of sight.
As soon as I got around the corner I stopped. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I was sure that something would happen when my crux turned. So I waited. I waited awhile. Real time didn’t change. I didn’t change. I had to wonder about that.
Wraiths can turn invisible and walk through walls, right? So I checked. Aunt Josie was putting the cake in the refrigerator. She was having a hard time squeezing it in, because the fridge was already packed with goodies. Cookies. Donuts (not traditional birthday food, but Mom knew how I loved them). Cup cakes, in case the big cake wasn’t enough. I peeked in the freezer. Four flavors of ice cream.
My crux moment hadn’t turned because Aunt Josie wasn’t going to serve the cake, anymore than she’d served all the other stuff Mom had got me. She was going to serve tofu and rice cakes. I ground my teeth, and felt myself starting to fade.
“It’s not too late,” I insisted. Did I say it aloud? Aunt Josie’s head whipped around. But I stopped fading. I continued mentally, “The cake is here. Aunt Josie’s got to turn her back on it sometime. I’ll get it out of the fridge and put it on the dining table when she’s not looking.” I could feel my probability bypass shivering. It’s not really designed for lengthy stays in real time, but it usually holds up as long as a genuine meta-probability remains in play. They say. Probably.
So I had to move fast. But I couldn’t move at all until Aunt Josie cleared out. Fortunately there was a loud crash in the living room, followed by squeals. Aunt Josie jumped a foot and clutched her hands to her inadequate bosom, then stormed out wearing her mad face.
I firmed up and pulled the cake out of the fridge, dislodging so many packages I had to set it right down and reload stuff, just as the birthday kid ran into the kitchen. Ten-year-old me never even glanced my way, even though I was still solid—not with that cake sitting there. With a shriek of triumph, little Robin grabbed up the cake and started dancing in circles. The current me barely had time to vanish again before Aunt Josie came charging in pursuit. She was already red-faced and puffing from whatever crisis she’d found in the living room.
She looked at the refrigerator door hanging open and ten-year-old me dancing with the cake. She lost it. “How dare you!” she screamed. “That’s for later.” (She meant never.) “Now get back in that damn party!” She grabbed the cake away from me.
What you have to understand is this: Aunt Josie and I had lived together for years but we had never liked each other. She thought I was a spoiled, whiny brat. I thought she was a mean, carping hag. But we both loved Mom, so from day one, we faced each other over a no-man’s land of borderline civility, in a state of armed truce. It worked—as long as the truce held.
I needed that cake. I was entitled to that cake. She was cheating me out of what was rightfully mine. So I grabbed it right back. The cake slid sideways and landed upside down on the floor with a horrible splatter of flying crumbs and squirted ice cream filling. That’s when I lost it. “You horrible old witch,” I screamed and lit into her.
I was only a ten-year-old, so I shouldn’t have been able to take her. But I caught her off guard and she was already panting, and nearly hysterical. And me turning on her was one of her many secret fears. She gasped like a fish; her face changed from bright red to dark purple and she keeled over backwards.
The wraith in me saw it all coming a nanosecond before it became fully real: Aunt Josie’s stroke, my mother’s tears, the dark guilt hanging over the rest of my life. I dove into the ruined mess of the cake and scooped it up into a puddle. Cupping the cake in my forearms, I grabbed Aunt Josie with one hand and ten-year-old me with the other and flung myself back into the past. My probability bypass shrieked more loudly than Aunt Josie and ten-year-old me combined. My whole body was wracked with tidal waves of conflicting realities. It shouldn’t have worked and I shouldn’t have survived. But…
I regained something like consciousness somewhere in the ether. My etheric substance was so attenuated I could hardly see. When I finally focused my eyes I was looking at the chubby faced kid from Zed House. “We’re not allowed to help you,” he informed me solemnly.
“But Randy said we should anyway.” I couldn’t see the face, but I knew the voice. It was the snotty guy that called me a dumb wraith just because my cake wasn’t real. “Because it was kind of cool, the way you dragged real time back. Ten whole minutes. Nobody’s ever managed ten minutes before.”
“It was heroic,” nodded Randy. “You nearly killed yourself, but you saved your poor old auntie’s life.” I tried to remember. There was a faint ugly shimmer of what might almost have been, but basically the past was just the way it had always been. No cake. No stroke. No funeral. No recruitment. “So Jackie and I are going to help you. So what if we get in trouble?” I managed to look at Jackie, who didn’t look much older than Randy, and got an emphatic nod. There was a very soft heart under that snide manner.
So they saved me. Technically, I was too weak to live. If they hadn’t stabilized me I would have lain there, only nominally conscious, until my etheric substance dissipated completely. When I was stable they hooked me into energy sources that only five-dimensional eyes could perceive while I rested.
When I woke up, they were gone. A new mission, something difficult and dangerous. I had to go, too; I was nearly out of meta-time. Real time sets up; that’s why you only get three chances to recruit yourself. If I let it set up any further I wouldn’t even get my third try.
The key was to distract Aunt Josie instead of confronting her. She’d still get upset (hey, she was always upset about something) but within reason.
I remembered that a lot of kids can see or hear wraiths. Psychic, they call it in real time. So I yelled as loud as I could, “Treasure hunt! Can you find the cupcake?” And I started throwing cupcakes at the party. It didn’t matter if they weren’t real; they would be soon enough. Or not. It didn’t matter about the exact timing, just as long as they landed some-when within the party. It didn’t matter where either; I was aiming at my house, but who cared if they landed in the street.
Okay, it turned out most kids aren’t all that psychic. Only two of them heard me at all. But Aunt Josie heard me just fine. And sure enough, she jumped up from the meditation exercises and started running around trying to pick up the cupcakes that were appearing in every corner of the house. And while she was distracted, I slipped in with the cake. Nothing fancy this time, just a big old sheet cake with chocolate icing. I was waiting when ten-year-old me ran into the kitchen, but I hadn’t counted on our eyes meeting. You know, I never realized what a cute little kid I was; I had wonderful eyes, bright and full of magic.
I shoved the cake into my arms, and whispered, “Happy Birthday, Robin. Now get on out there.” Robin ran back to the party just as Donny was jumping up to yell, “Where’s the cake?” (Maybe he heard me say, “Treasure hunt!” after all.)
Birthday-me grinned like a Cheshire cat, and said, “You want cake, Donny?” Instead of bothering with a knife, Robin scooped up a chunk of cake, bare-fingered, and flung it into Donny’s face. A happy riot ensued. Next thing you knew, all the kids were grabbing cake with their fingers. Sometimes they threw the cake at each other and sometimes they just ate it. They giggled and screamed and made the most unholy mess you can imagine.
For a minute I thought Aunt Josie was going to have that stroke after all. Her face was moving beyond red. But with so many targets she couldn’t decide who to get mad at first. She stormed into the kitchen to do the same thing she’d done when it was rice cakes the kids were throwing: call the police.
I snuck up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder, saying “You don’t want to do that.” She spun around and gaped at me. And then she fainted dead away. It’s a good thing wraith are fast. I got behind her again in time to catch her and lower her into a chair. (A miracle I didn’t drop her.) She looked like she’d fallen asleep. “That’s right,” I told her. “You just snooze until Mo.. ..arge gets home. Forget about that whole mess; it would only upset you.”
Even before I finished speaking, I felt the change sweep over me like a golden… like a great ocean of… like being… I don’t know what it was like, and I give up on trying to describe it. It was wonderful. It was all the happiness I’d gained from an entire better life compressed into one blazing meta-second.
And make no mistake: my life was better. Way better. I didn’t turn into a rock star or anything, but I had a whole lot of good times. Even Aunt Josie mellowed out a little, and I went into my teenage years smiling. Of course I sometimes got depressed, but I’d just think back on my tenth birthday party, the best birthday party in the history of the world, even if I did get grounded for three months. And every time I thought about it, the Great Cake Fight, I would laugh and laugh.
So here I am, a full-fledged member of the TransTemporal Corps, ready for action. Because when things get dark and cold out there in the entropy wars, I’m armed with enough happy memories to brighten the day, enough good times to keep me warm. So I’m ready to serve—“For the Corps, forever!”
But first let’s have a party—somebody’s got to eat this cake!