William lay facedown on a rusty, metal surface, his head throbbing. Based on his observations and experiences with time travel thus far, he’d reached one inescapable conclusion: he hated time travel. It felt like all his worst hangovers combined into one gianormous headache. To make matters worse, he still heard the goddamned numbers whispering poetic equations. They just wouldn’t shut up, and they didn’t seem to care how much of a mess they’d caused.
“Illichi ira ka!” someone shouted.
“Begin translation,” the computer said as the shouting continued. “Brethren, hear me! As was foretold a thousand years ago, the Forever Walkers have come. They shall suffer for their sins against the laws of nature and the many crimes of Earth against the Hykonian people. William Lightner, Alice Crinshaw, stand before the Arbiter of Truth! End translation.”
William feebly lifted his head. Alice stirred beside him. The assembled masses laughed at their weakness and clustered nearer. They had bulbous, black eyes, emaciated, green faces, and thin, lipless mouths. They wore tattered, silvery robes and carried an odd mixture of weapons: pikes and scimitars and serrated daggers along with futuristic laser guns and other high-tech armaments.
One of the aliens stepped forward, his face scarred and mutilated, the skin of his cheek peeling back like rotten paper. He leaned on a staff adorned with human skulls and clutched a glass model of Earth. A hologram flickered beside him, no more than the basic image of a man, like a glowing stick figure.
“Begin translation,” the hologram announced as the alien spoke. “I have counted your sins throughout time. I have documented the names of every Hykonian you ever killed, past, present, and future. I know of your evil, Forever Walkers, and through me all Hykonians have learned of it. I am the Arbiter of Truth. You will stand before the Arbiter of Truth! End translation.”
Two Hykonians hefted William to his feet. Two more grabbed Alice. She whimpered something about wanting to stay in bed.
“We discovered time travel like five minutes ago,” William said. “This is only our second trip. I promise we haven’t killed any Hykonians.”
The Arbiter listened to the translation.
“We know,” was his reply. “By executing you before your adventures truly begin, we shall change history. Our defeats will become victories. Our wounds shall heal. The ruin of our planet shall be forgotten, and the ruin of Earth shall take its place.”
The Hykonians chanted something the hologram chose not to translate. They gathered atop piles of rubble. Some climbed gnarled pillars or massive statues overgrown with ugly, red vines. In the distance, ancient towers stood guard over the scorched landscape like dead, nameless gods while acid yellow clouds roiled in the sky. William wondered what he and Alice had done–were going to do–whatever–to reap such destruction on this world.
The Arbiter hurled his model Earth to the ground. It shattered into tiny shards of blue glass.
“Begin translation. Death! Death! Death upon the… upon the…”
A monstrous roar echoed through the empty streets. The chanting stopped.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Alice said.
William looked over his shoulder to see the Tyrannosaurs approaching, looming over the crowd. The dinosaurs sniffed the air in confusion, their eyes darting around the unfamiliar scenery.
If William were back in his dorm watching all this on YouTube, he would have laughed hysterically. Aliens fighting dinosaurs? What could be more epic? The Hykonians hurled javelins and opened fire with their lasers. The dinosaurs shrieked and went into a rampage, stomping on their attackers, toppling rusted, old structures with their tails, and causing general panic and mayhem. Most of the Hykonians fled. The Arbiter of Truth shook his staff, shouting at the sky. “This wasn’t in the prophecy!” the hologram translated.
But William wasn’t safe in his dorm, and Alice wasn’t mocking him for watching such a stupid movie. She was tugging on his sleeve, calling his name. The dinosaurs seemed to recognize William and charged toward him.
“SHIT!!!” William screamed. He and Alice turned to run, but several Hykonians blocked their path.
“Begin translation. You will die. You must die for the sake of the Holy Hykonian Empire. If we must die with you, so be it; but you will die. End translation.”
The Hykonians raised their weapons. The Tyrannosaurs bore closer, the ground shaking beneath them. Alice wrapped her arms around William, squeezing him tight in their final embrace. William closed his eyes. Then he heard applause. When he opened his eyes again, he and Alice were in a church.
* * *
The time travel aura caught the Arbiter of Truth too. After a lot of shouting and a brief knife fight, the Hykonian surrendered to his fate. Now he sat alone at a table, staring at the centerpiece of jasmine and lilies, becoming increasingly glum as his holographic interpreter translated the lyrics to “I Got You Babe.”
William felt pretty glum himself.
“Let me explain,” the man beside William said, the man who looked exactly like William except clean-shaven and wearing a tuxedo. “Your future is our past. I suppose some of your future is our future too. And our present and your present are the same present presently. Chronotheory’s weird like that, but you’ll get used to it.”
Two versions of Alice, one in a rumpled cardigan, the other in a lacy, white dress, stood with the two Williams.
“Chronotheory is the science of time travel,” the Alice in white said. “William invented the term, or rather he will. Or you will.”
“The correct verb tense,” said the William in the tuxedo, “is I already have will did.”
Future William and future Alice laughed. They seemed far too comfortable with this whole time travel thing. An hour and several glasses of Champaign ago, with the ceremony complete and the knot officially tied, the newly married William and Alice walked up to their bewildered younger selves. Future William slipped off future Alice’s engagement ring, got down on one knee, and asked present Alice to marry him. Present William objected, complaining that this must violate the laws of physics somehow, that it would never stand in a Back to the Future movie or an episode of Doctor Who. Future William and future Alice laughed then just as they laughed now, as though the laws of physics were some kind of inside joke.
Future William slapped his younger self on the back. “Don’t worry,” he said. “A version of us from even further into the future told me married sex is way better.”
“Umm…” young William said. He glanced at his new fiancée and future wife separately. They both grinned at him. “Umm…” he repeated.
The idea of marrying Alice, of spending the rest of his life with her… William liked it. He’d secretly fantasized about it while all his friends jumped from one girl’s bed to the next. At the same time, the thought of actually asking her, of the possibility she’d say no, that maybe she had other plans post-graduation… that terrified him. It kept him in silence all these years.
Now thanks to the miracle of time travel, all the uncertainty was stripped away. He’d gotten the answer for free. He’d witnessed the wedding then the engagement. He didn’t even have to go shopping for a ring.
William felt robbed. That glorious moment when Alice said yes, when she hugged and kissed him and did her goofy, little happy dance… William witnessed that, but he wasn’t part of it.
“Will we have any children?” an Alice said.
“Oh yes,” the other answered. “A beautiful girl named Talie.”
William watched the Arbiter of Truth down a sixth bottle of beer. Their eyes met. The Arbiter muttered something, but the music changed and William couldn’t hear the translation.
“William,” the other William said, “I remember how you feel, but trust me: when you’re me, you’ll be a very happy man.”
William nodded to himself.
“You only have a few minutes before you time travel again,” the older William said. “Time enough for one dance.”
Out on the dance floor, dozens of people bounced and hopped to a horrible pop song from the 50th Century called “Love Is a Thing That Can Be Anything.” William hadn’t met most of these people yet, but apparently they’d all become close friends. They included men, women, and androgynous polymorphic creatures from the planet Vlobbia. The best man, a tentacle monster named Slan, danced with Alice’s grandmother while William’s frat brothers lined up for a dance with Cleopatra.
William sighed and, like the Arbiter of Truth, resigned himself to his fate. At least it was a pleasant fate, possibly involving married sex with Alice doppelgangers.
He turned to Alice–his Alice, not the bride one–and reached for her hand. She smiled then vanished in a burst of impossible light.
“Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen yet,” the married William said, checking his watch.
* * *
Experiencing these disjointed flashes of time felt like the nonsense of dreams leading into other dreams. For a moment, Alice thought she was waking up. She opened her eyes and tried to move, but her muscles failed her. She collapsed facedown on a cold, marble floor. Either time travel became more disorienting the more she did it, or she’d had too much Champaign at the wedding reception.
Clip-clopping footsteps approached, and a horse started nuzzling Alice’s hair. Alice grumbled, but the horse didn’t stop. It chomped down and tugged hard.
“Ow!” Alice yelled, pulling against the horse’s grip and managing to yank herself free.