Alice glared at the horse, who calmly chewed a mouthful of her auburn hair. A stubble-faced man stood by the horse’s side, holding the reigns.
“Puella stulta!” he said.
“Huh?” Alice said. She couldn’t identify the language–French or Italian maybe?–but she recognized the chastising tone.
The horse’s groom spit on her and kicked her in the ribs, shouting something else. Alice shrank away from him, unable to defend herself in her muddled, post-time travel state. She cried for help, but heard only subdued giggling in answer.
The groom hauled Alice to her feet. He gripped her chin and peered into her eyes. Alice imagined she looked pitifully drunk.
The man smirked and lifted her off the ground, slinging her over the horse’s back. She hung there a moment, belly down, her head dangling over the side, before trying to climb off. She started to slip, falling headfirst, but a firm hand grabbed her ankle. She strained against it, but couldn’t escape.
Led by the groom, the horse carried Alice through a doorway draped in purple curtains. She heard music and smelled alcohol mixed with the foul odor of sweat, worse than any of the parties at William’s fraternity.
They entered a room adorned with gaudy tapestries and statues painted in flamboyant colors. The light of late evening or early morning beamed through windows set high in the walls, mingling with orange torchlight closer to the floor.
Alice tried to blink the blurriness from her vision. She saw legs coiled around legs, fingers entwined in hair, lips wrestling against lips. She saw a landscape of naked flesh, masses of bodies–women moaning softly, men grunting over them–all shifting and shuddering in indignant lust. Scattered about, she saw discarded clothing: simple garments of white or crimson, often trimmed in gold.
The groom cleared his throat. “Senatorem Incitatum Romae vobis dono,” he proclaimed.
“Wait,” Alice said. She knew the language now, even if she couldn’t understand it. “The horse is a senator of Rome?”
The groom released Alice’s ankle, and she tumbled to the floor.
“Incitatus!” voices sang. “Senator Incitatus!”
The senator whinnied and stamped one foot. A half dozen naked women gathered around him, kissing him, stroking his mane, making neighing sounds at him. Alice looked away. She did not want to know what that was about.
Alice had read about a horse who became a senator. That placed her somewhere in the 1st century A.D., during the reign of Emperor Caligula. Back in the 21st Century, historians questioned Caligula’s legendary madness and sexual depravity. The stories seemed too outlandish, supported by scanty evidence from unreliable sources. Alice herself once wrote a paper entitled “Do We Know the Real Caligula?” Now as she struggled to her feet, using a Corinthian column for support, she faced the real man himself.
Caligula reclined on a couch, a laurel crown sitting askew on his head. Two men attended him, one rubbing oil on his back, the other on his thighs. A woman knelt beside him, holding a tray of fruit. Caligula licked his lips as he stared at Alice, and Alice felt very self conscious about not knowing what had happened to her bra.
“Alice?” someone said.
Alice turned and saw William. He looked twenty years older with a speckling of grey hair and the beginnings of a bald spot. He wore nothing except a pair of argyle socks. He quickly grabbed a pillow to cover himself.
“I can explain,” he said. “This isn’t what it looks like.”
“Oh?” Alice said.
“You wanted me to come here.”
Alice crossed her arms. “Really?”
A pair of girls wrapped themselves around William, one with her arms around his neck, the other running her fingers down his hairy chest. They glanced at Alice as though inviting her to join them. Another girl came to take William’s pillow away, and the three giggled when he put up a fight.
“Something about history changing and Romans and Waterloo…” William said, but he couldn’t go on. One of the girls had started nibbling his ear, doing it just the way he liked it.
Caligula said something about the goddess Venus, and the room burst into laughter. The Emperor rose to his feet, letting the cloth at his waist drop to the floor. He was much shorter than Alice expected (in more ways than one). As he approached her, Alice backed away, ever mindful of the tangled knots of people and their flailing arms and legs and of the praetorian guards at the doors. Soon, Caligula had her trapped in a corner.
“Alice!” William shouted, but a throng of women had gathered around him, dragging him off. Someone tossed his pillow aside.
Caligula’s hand reached for Alice’s shirt, his fingers toying with the zipper. He seemed to find the concept of zippers amusing.
Alice shoved him away, but he grabbed her and pressed her tight against him. She couldn’t remember how to say “No means no” in Latin, so she head-butted the Emperor. He stumbled back, tripping over his servant girl and spilling fruit everywhere.
As the guards marched forward, Alice ran to a bronze statue of Mars, an array of weapons around it. She grabbed a spear.
The guards drew their swords. Alice jabbed at them with her weapon, keeping them at a safe distance. She maneuvered her way back to the door with the purple curtains. The guards followed her out into the hallway while Caligula yelled and screamed behind them.
“Where’s a fucking dinosaur when you need one?” Alice muttered.
* * *
Navigating a temporal discontinuity required mental clarity and purpose, or so William had told William. It required equal parts spiritual fortitude and scientific knowledge. Young William had neither, but he concentrated as he plunged into the whirlpool of time. He focused on Alice.
The numbers protested. William covered his ears, but he still heard them singing like a chorus of angels, from the baritone of algebra to the contralto of calculus to the high soprano of statistics and probability.
Then the music faded into a new rhythm: the ticking of clocks. William landed in a pile of torn papers. His head throbbed, mathematical equations still echoing inside his skull.
“Alice?” he moaned.
Something shuffled among the papers.
William lifted his head. He saw the mangled pages of history books scattered around him with words, sentences, even whole paragraphs crossed out and replaced by Alice’s scribbly handwriting.
“The pendulum swings back and forth,” a voice mumbled. “Back and forth.”
Grandfather clocks lined the walls, blocking the windows and doors so that little illumination seeped in from the world outside. They looked ancient, the wood rotting, the brass discolored, yet they all ticked in unison, measuring each passing second at exactly the same length. Sometimes they seemed to stop–only for an instant–then start again as though nothing had happened.
“One way then the other,” a woman said. She huddled by one of the clocks, clinging to it for safety. “The pendulum swings back and forth.”
“Hello?” William said, stumbling to his feet.
“Napoleon wins at Waterloo. Napoleon loses at Waterloo. The pendulum swings back and forth. It swings one way, and he wins. It swings the other, and he loses. Back and forth. Napoleon wins, Napoleon loses.”
“Alice?” William said, tiptoeing closer. “Is that you?”
The woman turned her head, and William recognized her, but this wasn’t the Alice he knew. She’d grown old, with lank, grey hair and drooping eyelids, her skin a pasty, corpse-like color. She wore only a filthy, yellow dress the same shade as the yellowing papers around her.
“The pendulum keeps swinging,” she said, her blind stare turning away from William.
“Alice, what happened?” William said, wondering where his own future self had gone.
“Napoleon won at Waterloo,” Alice whispered. “Why do they write history in ink? It changes so often it should be in pencil, but we’re safe in here. The clocks keep us safe.”
William reached out and touched Alice’s shoulder. She felt fragile and boney beneath the thin fabric of her dress, ligaments and tendons barely strong enough to hold her together.
Alice glanced at William and shrugged his hand away. “You can’t help,” she said. “You’re too young. You don’t know anything yet. I need a William who understands how time travel works, how temporal strings weave history together, how small things make big changes, how one moment connects to another and then to another. He can fix this. He can make history right.”
William sat on his knees, listening to Alice mutter about pendulums and Waterloo. She picked up a battered, old pencil. She started writing on a scrap of paper then stopped, erased everything, and started again.
Alice, the philosophy major, whose heroes included Socrates and Locke and Jefferson, who’d tried to read St. Augustine in the original Latin and Voltaire in the original French–how could she stand being a time traveler? How could she stand seeing her beloved history books change?