Shoving Albert in front of him, Sero ran back the way he’d come, zigzagging from one cramped corridor to another, dodging battle drones and maintenance robots on the way, until he came to an airlock. A shuttle waited outside. With his free hand, Sero entered his access code, and the inner hatch swung open.
Checking one last time to see if any robots were approaching, Sero pulled Albert—still yelling for TAU—toward the airlock.
A woman stood blocking the door, a woman in a blue suit and an ancient, out-of-fashion garment called a skirt. She had a pale face, golden curls, and a perky, upturned nose. She smirked at Dr. Sero, her eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Hello, I’m Talie Tappler from the Tomorrow News Network,” she said, flashing an ID card. “I’m here to do a story about you, Charles Sero. Can I call you Charlie?”
“Ms. Tappler,” Sero said, raising his blaster pistol, “you are the greatest enemy the Earth Empire has ever known.”
“Me?” Talie said, laughing. “What on Earth have I done? No pun intended.”
“How many times have you witnessed our defeats and done nothing to help. How many soldiers of the Empire have died while you played journalist? How many human lives could you have saved with your time machine?”
Talie smiled. “All those defeats—your Empire brought that upon itself. Who am I to interfere?”
“You’re human,” Father said. “You should be on our side, but the only thing you’ve ever given us is bad press.”
Talie shook her head. “You brought that upon yourselves too.”
“This day has brought disaster upon me and my company,” Sero said, almost snarling, “but one good thing will come from it. I will kill you, Ms. Tappler.”
Sero aimed his blaster at Talie’s head. The targeting sensor locked onto a point right between her eyes. Talie crossed her arms and smiled. Her cameraman observed all this with a perfectly blank expression. The little, red light over his cybernetic eye flashed, indicating that he was still recording.
A mechanical hand grabbed Sero’s wrist and squeezed. Bones cracked. Dr. Sero screamed. The blaster pistol clattered to the floor. His face twisting in agony, tears streaming down his cheeks, Sero looked up. Two pitiless scanner eyes glared down at him.
“Primary combatant is disarmed,” the prototype battle drone reported. “Threat neutralized.”
“Master Albert!” TAU said, wheeling toward him. “Are you unharmed?”
“I’m okay,” Albert said, running to his robot.
“Release me!” Sero screamed, fighting against the battle drone’s tight grip. He tugged at his hand, but the robot would not let go.
“We’ll start with the easiest question first,” Talie said, pulling out a small datapad and tapping the screen. “Could you say you name and spell it? I want to make sure we get it right in our scripts.”
Sero screamed again.
* * *
What had started as a puerile fascination with a physically attractive woman had turned into genuine scientific curiosity. Albert watched Talie interview Dr. Sero, noting her mannerisms and listening to her questions. Others might call Talie arrogant or callous, but Albert was beginning to develop his own theory. He was starting to think that maybe, in her own way, Talie served some greater good in the universe.
Also, she had really nice legs.
“Master Albert,” TAU said, “robot IOTA-7117 reports that additional Space Force troops have boarded the station. Admiral Pravic has taken command. We must evacuate you before they reach this location.”
“Just a moment, TAU,” Albert said.
Albert approached Talie, hesitant to interrupt her while she was working. He tugged at her sleeve.
Talie blinked, looking down at him. “You’re Albert Einstein,” she said.
“No. Just Albert.”
Talie glanced at Dr. Sero, still held captive by the battle drone, then turned to Albert again.
“I knew the original Einstein,” Talie said. “We met at a party in Zurich. I don’t remember much from that night. We were both really drunk.”
“I wanted to return this,” he said, offering Talie her pocket watch.
Talie grinned. “Now I understand. They wanted you to figure out how it works.”
“Did you succeed?”
“Not exactly,” Albert said. “It’s obviously not just an ordinary watch, but it isn’t a real time machine either.”
Talie smirked, plucking the watch from Albert’s hand and slipping it inside her jacket pocket. “Then how do I travel through time?” she asked.
“According to Dr. William Lightner,” Albert said, “anything that can track the passage of time can be turned into a time machine. Old fashioned watches work best, but they’re not the only option.
“I think you turned your brain into a time machine. I can see the chronomagnetic energy radiating from your eyes. It probably glows brighter or dimmer depending on how recently you time traveled.”
Talie reached out and tussled Albert’s hair.
“That’s an interesting theory,” she said. “If you’re right, I must be exceptionally good at doing math in my head to keep track of all those billions of years of history. I know someone else who’s good at doing math in his head.”
“Master Albert,” TAU said, “Space Force troops have reached this level.”
“Run along, little Einstein,” Talie said. “I’ll interview you the next time we meet.”
Albert followed TAU into the airlock. With a few quick calculations, they could easily evade any Space Force vessels waiting nearby.
But Albert glanced back one last time at Dr. Sero, cowering beneath the battle drone, ranting about justice and victory for the human species, blaming Albert and Admiral Pravic and even the Emperor for this latest failure. Talie asked her next question, and Sero spat at her, calling her a traitor. Albert shook his head. Compared to Talie, Sero seemed like a petty child complaining about broken toys and the other kids on the playground.
“Yes, TAU,” Albert said. “I’m ready to move on.”