Sandra McDonald Sci-Fi Time Travel Story

An illustration of a person climbing a fractured staircase through a glowing cloud.

Drawing: Grandfailure (via Dreamstime)

io9 is proud to present the fiction of LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month we feature a story from the current issue of LIGHTSPEED. This month’s selection is “Advice from the Temporal Civil Defense League” by Sandra McDonald. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on the LIGHTSPEED website. Enjoy!

“Temporal Civil Defense League Notice”


Be aware of strangers asking you what day it is.

Beware of strangers asking what year it is.

Be aware of stunned-looking strangers who whisper “Mom?” in The Squeeze-In Diner When you stop after school for a chocolate malt, although it’s clear you never gave birth to them or anyone, thank you very much.

Beware of strangers who wear clothes, shoes or accessories that have not seemed fashionable for a few years or that do not correspond to the season, climate or weather forecast, or that may not be suitable to sex because no woman needs to wear pants anyway, or who aren’t Wearing their mandatory Orange Chrono Radiation badges.

BE ALERT at all times for TIME TRAVELER arrivals, especially in empty parking lots, in poorly lit alleyways, or on lightly traveled roads like the old Highway Seventeen just outside of town. Signs that a TIME TRAVELER might be coming:

  • Unexpected flashes of bright light, sometimes with a dramatic strobe effect;
  • Unexpected gusts of wind stirring up trash along the sidewalk or against a chain-link fence like the kind you can buy at Feed & Seed from Earl Hynes, president of our own Civilian Temporal Defense League;
  • Unexpected noises indicating a sudden burst of energy, a change in time pressure, and/or a door opening between worlds that will inevitably lead to chaos and tragedy, like this time Betty Newell’s grandson has spawned Betty’s grandmother and all hell broke loose.

Be aware of strangers standing in phone booths by the side of Highway 17 with puzzled expressions and/or tearing pages out of phone books and now the next person can’t find Betty Newell’s list, thank you very much.

Be aware of strangers going to town with the milkman and asking where the USB port is because their battery is nearly dead even though they thought they put it on airplane mode.

Be aware of strangers who look at the quaint town square as if they’ve seen it before but somewhat different, who ask for something called a No Whip Frappuccino from your Aunt Doreen at the Squeeze-In Diner, who seem taken aback by the photos of President Adlai Stevenson in The Morning Newspaper, trying to play the Elvis Presley song Funny How Time Slips Away On The Jukebox Without Inserting a Nickel First, and looking even more surprised to learn that Corporal Elvis Presley has died in that tragic accident in Fort Hood, Texas and your Aunt Doreen will never get over it.

Be aware of strangers following you home from the Squeeze-In Diner and wait for your dad to leave for his night shift at the hospital and walk down your driveway to your kitchen door and then call your new puppy by the name you just decided on. A few minutes ago.

Make sure you don’t think her sad smile is so oddly familiar that you pity that lost stranger and invite her out for a lemonade and that you always followed your heart, Mary-Ann Newkirk, even when you should follow your lead.

Be concerned when he squints at common household appliances (transistor radio, stereo console, TV receiver) as if he’s strolling through a museum instead of your dad’s living room and points a respectful finger at the framed picture of you and Tommy Hardy at the prom, You both look so happy in your formal attire and your Silver Chrono helmets.

Be especially wary when he apologizes to you in vague detail but sincere emotion about something he says you’ll one day understand, which gives you a gold medallion that looks just like the one you gave to Tommy before he was shipped off to the military in West Germany back in August, and who abruptly leaves with tears in his eyes and a vow to fix what was broken.

Isn’t it curious that his eyes have the same beautiful blue-green color as Tommy’s?

Isn’t it strange that Tommy hasn’t replied since he went to West Germany?


IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS, accompany you to the League offices for your mandatory debriefing, chronoradiation assessment, and temporal cleansing.


Don’t wait for a TIME EMERGENCY to happen to know what to do and who to call.

Do not try to warn your future or your past. They never listen.

Don’t go to the streets during the emergency, which will probably be announced on all radio frequencies long before it actually happens, because cause and effect doesn’t work during a time emergency, don’t tell you. didn’t they learn in school?

Do not look for a safer shelter. During a TIME EMERGENCY, no place is truly immune to the five categories of weather disruption threats: deviations, oddities, disruptions, paradoxes, and shenanigans. Hiding in a root cellar won’t save your timeline from cracking, breaking, and fracturing as the universe itself realigns.

Instead, find solace in a familiar, comfortable place, like the cedar-lined hallway closet that Henry Newkirk built for his wife Alice when they were young and madly in love, long before chrono-cancer set in. robs her of years and Ovaries and thyroid function, before she went to bed and passed out, passed out, passed out while her husband and daughter watched helplessly.

Feel free to subdue a suspected TIME TRAVELER by any means necessary and make a civilian arrest until Temporal Civil Defense League law enforcement can arrive. Aunt Doreen’s boyfriend Ray will be catching a TIME TRAVELER in his garage next Christmas Eve and after Christmas dinner we will all enjoy the performance in our quaint square. Thanks in advance to Ray for his exemplary civil service and to our very own Earl Hynes for providing the balls.

Don’t go looking for answers in the dusty archives of the city, in the dusty books on the dusty shelves of the library, or in the dusty archives of the cupboards of the Temporal Civil Defense League.

Dust never leads to clarity.

Trust us.

After all, dust is barely noticeable. It’s mostly tiny pieces of debris from everyone and everything that has ever existed or will exist, or possibly existed in some corrupted timeline where Eisenhower was elected or Corporal Elvis Presley was reported to service in a secret US Army time lab in West Germany instead of the Our Correct and Absolutely Perfect Timeline, where Tommy Hardy reported instead And no, don’t ask us for more unless you want a tour of the Enforcers.

Speaking of the Enforcers, Mary-Ann, Mrs. Earl Hynes was driving down the street in her Cadillac and saw what could be a TIME TRAVELER coming up your driveway. Fearing for your safety, she alerted the Temporal Civil Defense League.

Don’t jump on your bike and chase after the alien with Tommy’s eyes.

Don’t catch him in the alley by The Squeeze-In Diner and grab his sleeve and beg him to take you where he’s going in order to save Tommy, your one true love.

Don’t watch your son from the alternate timeline take a time travel device out of his pocket and deftly activate it. Time travel devices can take on a variety of appearances:

  • A metallic orb with a Steampunk vibe that emits a mysterious light;
  • A doorway, glowing or darkened, that obviously wasn’t there a moment ago;
  • A phone booth of dubious origin;
  • A futuristic automobile like you’ve never seen before, but certainly not as affordable as those sold by our very own Earl Hynes at his new dealership near Route Seventeen.

Don’t be selfish, Mary-Ann. Yes, Tommy has a good soul and you love him very much. Yet, what is the importance of a life in relation to the correct and absolutely perfect chronology? You can’t just go and pass the time propelled by grief and your heart’s desire. Where will the madness end? Would you prevent Stevenson from entering the White House to prevent the construction of the secret time laboratory in West Germany? Would you save Elvis to report to West Germany instead of your Tommy?

Would you like to save your mother? Remember, she always wanted you to date Betty Newell’s grandson.

Who’s to say the world will be better off when you’re done with your meddling?

Surely your Tommy accidentally triggered the explosion in the secret time lab that threw the world into the chaos we face today. Preventing this would save a universe of grief.

For some of us.

Yet, as Earl Hynes likes to say in our meetings, “Time is a waste, but it is OUR waste”.

The Temporal Civil Defense League will protect you all. Whether you like it or not.

Plus, we saw Elvis perform. It was shameful.

Long live time travel.

About the Author

Four of Sandra McDonald’s stories have been named to the Tiptree Prize Honor List, and her collection Diana Comet and Other Impossible Stories was a Reading List and ALA Over the Rainbow Editor’s Choice Book. She is the author of the sci-fi adventure series The Outback Stars, Fisher Key mysteries for LGBTQ young adults, and stories that appeared in by Asimov, Strange horizons, Clarkesworld, Beyond Binary and War and space: recent battles as well as other magazines and anthologies. Once upon a time there was a Hollywood assistant who worked at CBS Television and Disney Studios. Visit him at

Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the April 2022 issue, which also features work by Ashok K. Banker (a two-part novella!), Charlie Jane Anders, Maurice Broaddus, Izzy Wasserstein, Leah Cypess, Phoebe Barton, and more. You can wait for this month’s content to be serialized online, or you can purchase the entire issue now in a convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at this link.

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