12 January 3980 adjusted her collar as she walked down the sidewalk.
Her eyes were on the wrists of passersby.
The watch she wore on her own wrist looked ordinary enough, if rather fancy; a model very similar to it was available for purchase in the present time period. But only somebody with her training would notice the disparity between the two. That disparity was exactly what would allow her to find others like herself.
In these days, the middle of the 21st century, watches were nearly phased out. Most people preferred cell phones or computerized eyewear. That made January's search somewhat easier.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The sound, faint and vanishing but always clear to January's ears, drew her gaze. A woman passing by in the opposite direction lifted a cup of coffee to her lips, giving January a wonderful view of her wrist.
That was it, that was the watch. And it was ticking fast by exactly four milliseconds per minute.
January turned on her heel and fell into lockstep beside the other woman.
The woman gave her a look, though January couldn't discern its meaning. The woman started walking faster. Ah; was it a case of We musn't be seen together? January's cheeks flushed hot for fifty centiseconds. She had subjective years of experience with this; she should have known better.
She followed the woman down the winding streets of the quaint old city until they came to a towering hotel building. They walked inside, through the lobby, to the elevator.
They were the only ones inside.
January opened her mouth. It should be safe enough in here—
"Who are you?!" the other woman demanded.
January closed her mouth. She fumbled for words. Finally she simply lifted her left hand and gestured to her watch.
The woman stared, incredulous. "You followed me because we have the same watch?" Her eyes gazed up and down January's body, taking in her perfectly-tailored suit. "Sorry, but I'm not some rich snob like you. My girlfriend gave it to me. And I'm only staying here because I found a really cheap Groupon."
January swore. Mistaken identity? But the odds of that were astronomically low. The Temporal Sightseers Guild had chosen such a precise discrepancy with regular watches—reset at midnight local time each day to prevent them from becoming too out of sync, of course—that running into a watch running the exact same speed... Especially now, in the age of GPS-synced watches...
It was nearly impossible.
"I, er... yes," January finally said. "Sorry. I just really love this brand, so— S-sorry. My name's Emily, by the way." Giving her codename for this escapade, she stuck her hand out to shake in the contemporary fashion. "Emily Blunt."
"...Zhou Xun." The 21st century woman eyed January's hand with trepidation, but eventually extended her own and shook.
The elevator reached the thirteenth floor with a ding. The doors slid open and Zhou stepped out.
"It was nice to meet you," January said.
"Right. You too."
The doors slid shut. January flopped back against the mirrored wall.
What an idiot!
Temporal Sightseers Guild
Rules & Guidelines
1. Sightseers are to blend in. Dress in contemporary fashion. Speak in contemporary slang. Take a contemporary codename. When traveling earlier than 3450, do not bring with you technology from later periods of time, aside from your Temporofino.
2. Your Temporofino serves three functions: Transporting you through time, passively telling time, and identifying you to other sightseers. When telling time, your Temporofino runs fast by precisely four milliseconds per minute. (Sightseers from the sixth millennium and beyond, please consult Appendix C for conversion with Vignette Time.) Your Guild-induction training will teach you to discern this minute discrepancy. You will be tested prior to your first excursion.
3. When traveling earlier than 3450, do not reveal your origins to contemporary people.
4. Do not visit the same month and year more than once.
The next morning, Zhou Xun hitched her purse up over her shoulder. She adjusted the strap of her watch and checked the time. She had half an hour to reach the park downtown for the bus tour she'd signed up for.
When she boarded the bus for downtown and took a seat, the man in the suit beside her—older but not old, if that made sense—glanced down at her wrist and raised an eyebrow.
She stared uncertainly at him. Then at his wrist. He had the same brand, too?
After yesterday... could it be a coincidence?
"Um... nice watch," she offered weakly.
"Thank you, thank you." He smiled cordially. "I am Christoph. Might I have the pleasure of knowing your name?"
"Xun. Am I... missing something here?"
Christoph made an inquisitive sound.
"This happened yesterday too. Some lady followed me five blocks because of my watch. Is there some secret club for these things I wasn't aware of? Because I just got it like a month ago."
"Ah... ah. My mistake. Yes, definitely my mistake. I thought I recognized you from somewhere. My apologies."
Xun gave Christoph a wary look. But when she folded her hands on her lap and averted her gaze, he didn't say another word.
32 August 4040 did a double-take when he took his seat on the upper level of the tour bus. A second Temporofino in one morning—no, a first, because Xun's had been just a distraction. He took a seat beside the brunette woman and introduced himself.
"I wasn't expecting to see others in this month."
"No?" 12 January asked. "I've had my eyes wide open. This is the last year for it."
"Which leaves plenty of earlier years to visit," August pointed out.
January smiled thinly. "There's just something poignant about it, isn't there? Knowing that it will never be seen again..."
August laughed. "You do have a point there, my dear. You have a point."
When the tour was over Xun stopped at a small delicatessen for lunch.
A man in a suit took a seat across the table from her.
He was wearing a watch.
"Ewan," he introduced himself. "You're dressed rather plainly, are you not?"
Xun rolled her eyes. "I'm not part of your little watch fanclub."
Ewan's eyes widened in surprise. "No?"
"No. Go tell all your friends to leave me alone."
"Now, that's a little rude, isn't it?"
Xun huffed. She grabbed her lunch and got to her feet.
"Are you serious?" Xun demanded. She stormed up to the counter. "I changed my mind. I want this to go."
She knew Ewan was watching her as she left. She didn't care.
5. Do not form close relationships with contemporary people.
At least, Xun thought, when this was all over she would get to go home and be with Cate.
Her girlfriend had a job with a busy schedule, although Xun didn't know what that job was. It was slightly disappointing to be out on a fun sightseeing vacation by herself—what was the point of a relationship if you didn't go on trips together?—but they had only been dating for three months.
Night fell. Xun stood atop the roof of her hotel, arms folded on the railing, and stared up at the sky wistfully.
A pair of arms wrapped around her from behind, a shiny fancy watch adorning one wrist. "Hey, beautiful."
Xun jumped in surprise. "C-Cate?!"
This was too much. Xun pulled away from her girlfriend's embrace. "What are you doing here? I thought you were—how did you get here?"
"Is that any way to—"
Cate paused halfway to stepping forward. She stared at her partner in surprise.
"I have had... such a weird past two days." Xun let out a sharp breath. She began to unclasp the watch from around her wrist. "You know, I appreciate this gift and all, but I think I want something else."
"Xun, wait!" Cate lurched forward and gently grabbed Xun's wrist. "Tell me what happened."
She told her about her strange encounters over the last two days. The obsession that strangers seemed to have with her wristwatch. And now, to top it all off, her girlfriend who she thought was halfway across the world had appeared here too?
"It's—it's too much," Xun finished. She leaned back against the railing and buried her face in her hands.
"Xun... I'm so sorry." Cate placed her arms on Xun's shoulders. When Xun did not recoil, Cate drew her into an embrace. "I was going to tell you the truth tonight, but I suppose I should have... eased you into it a bit more."
Xun's hands formed into balled fists over her eyes for a second before flowing upward to dig, frustratedly, into her hair. "What?"
"My real name isn't Cate. And I... know the people you met. Emily, Christoph, and Ewan, you said?"
"What?" Xun said again.
"Those aren't their real names, either. I..." Cate swallowed. "For now you can call me 7 October 4110. That's the date I joined the Temporal Sightseers Guild."
"A time-travel sightseeing club?" Xun demanded. "Who has that much free time on their hands? That much money?"
"My time isn't like yours." October smiled. "I know it seems capricious to you."
"That's one word I could use."
October stepped back, but she took Xun's hand in her own. "We aren't supposed to interfere with the past. And we aren't supposed to become close with contemporaries. I swear I didn't mean to fall in love—"
"I was just supposed to be sex."
October blushed in embarrassment. "Well... yes. But as you can see..."
"Then this..." Xun looked down at her watch.
"It's the device that allows members of the Guild to travel through time. And it allows us to identify one another, as well. Xun, I want to bring you with me." October squeezed her hand. "Please say yes. This usually wouldn't be allowed, but a member of the board owes me a big favor, so please—please become 28 July 2061."
Xun tried to speak, but she couldn't find the words.
Overhead, Halley's Comet streaked by for the very last time.
Forty years later, an impact with a rogue meteor would derail Halley's Comet, sending it flying away from the solar system forever. The comet would become a historical footnote—and a popular destination for future time-traveling sightseers.