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The Treasures of Fred

Sandra McDonald is an award-winning writer, speaker, and college instructor with several books and short stories in print. Her first collection of stories, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, won a Lambda Literary Award and was a Booklist Editor's Choice, ALA Over the Rainbow book, and Rainbow Award winner. Her Florida Keys GLBTQ adventure Mystery of the Tempest won a Silver Moonbeam award for children's literature. Four of her short stories have made the James A. Tiptree Award honor list. She served eight years in the United States Navy and currently lives in Florida. Visit her at sandramcdonald.com or on Twitter @sandramcdonald.

Stephen D. Covey (BA, Physics) writes science, science fiction, techno-thrillers, and the pro-space blog, RamblingsOnTheFutureOfHumanity.com. At the International Space Development Conferences of the National Space Society, he frequently presents on topics ranging from asteroids to space settlements (and chaired the Asteroid Track in 2013). As Director of Research and Development for Deep Space Industries (a company devoted to asteroid mining and creating the technologies needed to power humanity's expansion into the solar system), Stephen's day job is "turning science fiction into science fact." He is a member of SFWA, ITW, NSS, and AAAS. Visit him at StephenDCovey.com.

When my father died, he left behind several hundred pounds of quartz (very valuable), a bin of meteorites (valuable for my classroom), two hundred classic science fiction magazines (maybe a collector would buy them), and a 1970 edition of the Handbook of Mathematical Functions edited by Abramowitz and Stegun (worthless).
After the funeral, I returned to his apartment and found a burglar stealing the Abramowitz and Stegun.
"I mean no harm," he said.
Being a crime scene heroine has never been a goal of mine. I stepped back and said, "Get out."
As he left he said, "Thank you!"
The police officer who took my report said, "Funny that he only stole a book."
Nothing was funny. My father was dead and his apartment had been robbed. But that was just the first break-in.
When my father died, he left behind a seventy-five watt CO2 laser (very valuable), a five hundred thousand volt Tesla coil (great gift for a mad scientist), a box full of nerdy T-shirts (including Star Trek quotes and scientific formulas), and a 1970 textbook edited by Abramowitz and Stegun (worthless).
After the funeral, I discovered a burglar in Dad's apartment clutching the Abramowitz and Stegun and an old black T-shirt.
"I'm leaving right now," he said. "I just need these things."
A chill ran along my spine. "Didn't we just do this yesterday?"
He looked surprised. "You remember?"
Of course I did. It's not every day that you bury your dad and then find someone stealing a treasure he held dear. Then again, the Abramowitz and Stegun was no priceless objet d'art. It was a heavy, musty tome that he'd been lugging around since his school days at Ohio State. His name was printed in square block letters along the spine: FREDERICK A. HAYES.
The real question was how I could remember the funeral happening yesterday but also only an hour ago. At the small graveside service, I'd watched his coffin go into the ground with a sense of profound loneliness. My mother left us when I was just a baby. I myself had no children, no husband, no boyfriend, and not even a cat.
"Who are you?" I demanded. "Why bother stealing an old textbook you can buy online?"
"I'm sorry for your loss," he said, and left quickly.
The same police officer came to take my report. She didn't remember the first burglary.
"Funny that he took a T-shirt and some old book," she said.
I didn't think it was funny. I thought something very strange was going on.
When my father died, he left behind two boxes of graphic novels about steampunk and girl geniuses (valuable for some readers), a broken telescope he wouldn't throw away (junk), nerdy T-shirts that he'd worn to chemotherapy (they smelled like antiseptic), and an obsolete textbook edited by Abramowitz and Stegun (worthless).
After the funeral, I found two burglars in his office arguing over the telescope, a T-shirt, and the textbook.
"These things need to go to the police!" said the first burglar.
"We can get a better reward from the syndicate!" said the other one, older and taller.
I folded my arms. "Who are you and why do we keep looping back to this moment?"
They stopped tugging the T-shirt back and forth.
"You remember?" they each asked.
"Don't you?" I asked.
The first burglar looked sheepish. He was my own age and cute if I stopped to think about it. He said, "We're having a little problem in the future."
"Shut up." The second burglar scowled at us both. "How do you know what a time loop is?"
I nodded toward Dad's four hundred hardcovers, three hundred paperbacks, and hundreds of dog-eared science fiction magazines. He'd raised me with his love for science and passion for stories beyond the stars.
"It's not too hard to figure out," I said. "But why my dad, and why these things?"
The first burglar's wristwatch began to beep. A moment later, the second burglar's watch made a similar urgent noise.
"We have to go," the first burglar said, and they left empty-handed. I figured they'd be back soon.
When my father died, he left behind a beautiful framed painting. In it, a futuristic city of blue and green rose from black ground to black sky. The horizon glowed with the promise of a bright future. My mother made it. She worked in the campus coffee shop where Dad went when he needed an escape from his studies. She left the painting behind when she moved away. She also left behind other things she'd made: a knitted sweater, a half-eaten loaf of banana bread, and a three-month-old daughter.
Left behind. Story of my life.
"Why did she leave?" was the question I often asked my father. I was a little girl who needed her mother.
"We are all moving in time," he would say. "Onward to the future."
"We have a small problem," said the cute burglar standing in my father's office. At his feet were my father's telescope, one of his old T-shirts, an eight-inch floppy disk, and an old physics textbook. This was where the loop started each and every time.
"You're looking for an answer, aren't you?" I asked. "Piecing together parts of a puzzle."
"My name is Thomas Rollos. I'm trying to end a time loop that started when I first acquired your father's textbook."
"Stole, not acquired," I said.
He looked sheepish. "I thought it would be easier if I slipped in and out before you returned from your father's funeral. My sympathies on your loss."
I nodded. It didn't help much, but the words were appreciated.
"When I took the book," Thomas Rollos continued, "I accidentally triggered a time trap. The only way to spring it open is to transport all of its parts at once: the equations hidden inside the book, the formula printed on this shirt, the data chip built into this telescope, and the encrypted information on this ancient floppy disk."
"My father set a time trap?"
Thomas's eyes widened. "No, not your father. The fugitive from the time syndicates who hid this information here while being chased down the corridor of centuries. Your mother."
Abruptly I had to sit down. Thomas steered me toward my father's armchair.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but the time portal back to my time is opening very soon. Your mother left one last piece of information I need to end this trap. With it I can deliver the whole package to police and see justice served."
"Are you a cop?" I asked.
"More of a freelancer. My business partners and I find lost things."
I braced myself. "Is my mother still alive?"
"No. I'm sorry."
His wristwatch started to beep. Time was almost up.
"What last bit of information do you need?" I asked.
Thomas squeezed my hand. "The reason that you remember the looping is that you yourself are part of the puzzle. The final equations were coded into your DNA by your mother. A tiny sample of your blood or saliva is all I need. Will you help me, Charlotte?"
I knew a little about DNA coding thanks to a magazine I'd read to my father in hospice. He was nothing more than skin and bones by then, but until the end he'd enjoyed the sounds of science. By far, DNA can store more information than a library full of computer hard drives. More than entire cities full of libraries full of hard drives.
I thought of the blue city in my mother's drawing. Of my father's comforting words, murmured in my ear when I was young and aching to fill a void.
"I won't give you a sample," I told Thomas Rollos. "But I'll go with you."
The alarm on his wrist grew louder. He studied me, a glint in his eye.
"I think you'll like it there," he said.
I said goodbye to my ordinary life. Thomas and I left together, carrying the telescope, the T-shirt, the floppy drive, and the Handbook of Mathematical Functions edited by Abramowitz and Stegun.
Onward we went. To the future.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 8th, 2016

Author Comments

Everything in this story, except for the time travelers, can be found in Steve's marvelous home office. He's held onto his textbooks from college, has collected many classic sf books and magazines over the years, and owns a closet full of rocks, lasers, lab coats, and equipment. Neater than Doc Brown's garage but just as interesting, the office exemplifies Steve's love for science and science fiction. We really wanted to have fun putting the items in a story about fathers, daughters, and love. If we wrote a story about Sandra's office, it would include Star Trek posters, Stargate DVDs, military souvenirs, yoga blocks, and hairballs from all the cats who own her.

- Sandra McDonald and Stephen D. Covey
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