“I understand your reticence about the military,” Father said. “The original Einstein shared your feelings, as would I if our enemies didn’t threaten us with extinction.
“Right now, we’re watching the Swarm attack a human outpost in the Galileo Sector. The Swarm is a collective of microscopic machines. They’re also called the Planet Eaters; you’ll soon see why. Toward the end of the 30th Century, they invaded and nearly destroyed Earth. Zane Riscon, our first emperor, drove them off, and we’ve been at war ever since.
“The total loss of life in this war is beyond our ability to calculate. Billions? Trillions? We’ve lost count. The human species has made dreadful sacrifices, but what choice do we have when faced with such utter annihilation? Einstein himself—a true man of peace—urged the leaders of the civilized world to construct the first atomic bomb, and that was in an era when humanity faced dangers far less terrible than the Swarm.”
Albert could see the enemy now, like tiny, metal insects. They were a numberless multitude, a seething horde of merciless machines. As a chipper, feminine voice narrated events, the Swarm descended, hungry for fresh elements: iron and tungsten and gold. Iridium, palladium, uranium… they consumed them all. The lanthanides and actinides and above all else, precious carbon. The Swarm fed, and it multiplied, disassembling a whole world one molecule at a time.
The chipper, feminine voice continued, but mixed in with her audio were the sounds of ripping and chewing, punctuated by terrified shrieks. “Of course the human body,” the voice said, “contains a wealth of useful chemical elements as well.”
The video cut to a shot of that blonde reporter with her perky nose. She smiled at the camera, but Albert had the uneasy sensation that she was staring right at him, that she was smiling at him and him alone.
“Reporting for the Tomorrow News Network, I’m Talie Tappler.”
Father pressed a button, freezing the image. Talie seemed to smirk. Her eyes—an unnatural, violet color— stared directly at Albert.
“Will my math homework help stop the Swarm?” Albert asked.
“Your ‘math homework,’” Father said, “could save thousands of lives, but that isn’t the reason we resurrected the greatest scientist in history.”
Father glared at the image of Talie. “This woman is a traitor to Earth. She’s a time traveler, but rather than do anything to change history for the betterment of our species, she uses her time machine to advance her own career as a journalist.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Albert asked.
Father reached into his jacket and pulled out an antique pocket watch. He tossed it to Albert. “I’m hoping you will put that to better use.”
“This is her time machine?” Albert said, glancing at Talie. Though the image remained frozen just as before, Talie’s smirk seemed to have disappeared.
“I hired the best pickpocket in the known universe to acquire it for me,” Father answered.
Albert examined the watch. It felt cold in his palm, and somehow, in violation of thermodynamic law, it seemed to grow colder the longer he held it. He pressed the tiny button on the side, and the watch popped open, revealing a circle of numbers and three rotating, arrow-shaped hands. Albert heard a barely audible ticking sound as the hands turned, counting each discrete second as it passed. And he heard something more, like music.
“How does it work?” he asked, listening closely.
“That,” Father said, “is what you will determine for us.”
The music grew louder, and it seemed a ghostly presence was approaching. Albert smelled perfume and felt warm breath on his neck, as though Talie were standing right behind him, leaning nearer, and whispering the song of the universe in his ear.
Albert snapped the watch shut. He hopped down from his chair, glancing sheepishly over his shoulder. The music and the perfume were gone, though Albert still felt oddly warm.
“One question before you leave,” Father said, switching back to a live news feed. “What did you do with your math homework?”
Albert grimaced. “I reprogrammed the quantum teleporter in Lab 15 and beamed the datapad into space.”
“The quantum teleporter doesn’t work.”
Albert shrugged. “It does now.”
Father pondered this, a restrained smile forming on his lips. “Thank you, Albert.”
Albert turned to go, but he took one last look at the newsfeed, hoping for another glimpse of Talie. Whatever else she might be, her perky nose was kind of cute.
* * *
When Albert returned to his quarters, he found everything had been returned to its proper place. His toys were back in his toy chest, his bed had been reassembled with a fresh mattress, and the state of clutter on his desk had been reproduced precisely.
“Greetings, Master Albert,” TAU said, wheeling into view.
“I attempted to restore your room to its original condition. Is everything as you desire it?”
“It looks great,” Albert said. “Thanks.”
TAU nodded, the gears inside her head whirring softly.
Albert went to his bed and sat down. He placed the watch on the nightstand and stared at it. All of Father’s sensor data indicated it was nothing more than an antique pocket watch perhaps in need of a good polishing, and yet Albert could sense something more, like something prickling the edges of his awareness.
Albert touched the watch with his finger and set it spinning. He didn’t smell anything or feel any supernatural presence, but he could hear music again: a soft lullaby in a strange, mathematical language. As Albert listened, paying careful attention, it seemed the song came from inside his own head and not from this battered, brass artifact.
After several long moments of contemplation, Albert suddenly realized TAU had approached the bed. She waited quietly, once again fidgeting with her hands.
“What?” Albert said.
“Master Albert,” TAU began with a note of hesitation. “I experienced a minor systems error when Guard Corporal Werner pointed his weapon at you. I am your Teaching And Upbringing robot. My primary function is to ensure your wellbeing, but my programmers never anticipated such a direct threat to your life. I did not know how to react.”
Albert smiled. “It’s okay, TAU. The gun wasn’t loaded. The indicator light was off.”
TAU processed this information.
“Regardless,” she said, “I have corrected the systems error. It will not happen again.”
Albert nodded. “Good to know.”
TAU’s head swiveled away, and her scanner eyes refocused on some random point on the wall.
“Master Albert, I do not experience emotions in the same manner as you, but in the time I have spent assigned to your care, my programming has been utilized to its fullest potential. In my own way, I am proud of the results.
“While you do not have programming in the same manner as I, I hope you will have the opportunity to utilize your skills to their fullest potential as well.”
Albert gawked at the robot—could this truly be a robot?—but he found himself unable to speak, as though someone had pressed the mute button on his voice.
When Albert was younger, TAU used to read him a story each night before bed. Some of these stories made Albert cry. Others made him giggle. Still others left him too frightened to go to sleep. These reactions always confused TAU, and Albert often stayed up late trying to explain the meaning of the book she’d just read.
TAU would flip through the pages again, her scanner eyes studying the words and illustrations; then she’d inform Albert that her analysis could not identify the cause of his emotional response. She’d elaborate on the story’s logical errors and factual inaccuracies concerning trolls and mermaids and so forth. In most cases, she acknowledged that the story expressed a moral lesson but questioned the value of presenting that lesson in a fictitious context.
Albert would laugh at TAU’s conclusions, and all his fears would evaporate. He’d tell her emotions were just beyond her programming, and she’d agree. But now… now…
TAU turned to go. Her wheels rumbled across the floor, and her head jerked from side to side. In silence, she activated the door control and left the room.
* * *
Several days passed. Albert sat at his desk eating ice cream. Father had ordered the kitchen to give Albert whatever he wanted: pizza, chicken nuggets, ice cream… Albert licked his spoon clean and set the bowl aside with the others.
Albert was watching the news. He always watched the news now, searching through live broadcasts and recordings in Father’s archives for any video of Talie. If asked, he’d claim to be looking for clues about how the time traveler used her watch. He’d seen several videos where she twisted the watch’s dial, pressed a button, and vanished in a flash of impossible color, but he’d also uncovered a few instances where Talie appeared to vanish without manipulating or even touching her watch.
Albert bookmarked each of these clips for additional study. He also bookmarked clips where Talie walked a certain way or where the light caught her hair just right or where she happened to have a particularly sexy smile. These too he claimed were part of his research, if anyone asked. Meanwhile, the watch lay undisturbed on the nightstand.