Alice’s mutterings faded to silence. The clocks too. Numbers and symbols and equations took their place, sung in incomprehensible melodies resonating to the farthest corners of the universe. William listened. He tried to understand. Somehow, someday, he’d put history back the way Alice remembered.
Mixed with the music, though, William heard something strange: a squeaky noise.
“What the hell is that?” William said.
* * *
When William next opened his eyes, he’d returned to the lab, and Alice was young again. Young and armed with a spear.
Alice slammed the supply closet door, punching the lock. It beeped and clicked.
“Alice! Thank God!” William said, rushing toward her. “Are you okay?”
In answer, Alice slapped him hard across the face.
William winced, covering his wounded cheek. Alice glared at him, her chest heaving, her eyes bloodshot with rage. William had never seen her so angry before. Well, except that time he forgot their anniversary, or that time she found the stash of porn on his computer, or that time he got so drunk he ran across campus wearing only her underwear. So he had seen her pretty angry before and had some idea what to expect, but this time seemed somehow worse.
The TV crew was watching. On the far side of the lab, the blonde stifled a laugh.
“What did I do?” William said.
Alice took a deep, seething breath, and William braced himself for another attack. Alice removed her engagement ring, violently twisting it from her finger, and threw it at him. William flinched as it hit his forehead, bounced to the floor, and disappeared, having never existed in the first place.
“As you can see,” the blonde reporter said, “this has become an unstable moment in time. Every possible iteration of the present is happening simultaneously, each with its own unique causes and its own unique effects. This is the result of two time travelers who obviously don’t know what they’re doing.”
William looked around and thought he saw what the blonde meant. Phantom Alice’s slapped phantom Williams over and over again while other Alices kissed him. He saw himself having sex with Alice on the countertop. He also saw Alice impale him with her spear. Then he blinked, and it all vanished. Only one Alice remained, the one marching out the door.
The supply closet door rattled. William went to open it and found a man trapped inside, a man with curly, bronze hair wearing nothing but a laurel wreath crown.
“William!” the naked man exclaimed joyfully.
William slammed the door and locked it again.
The blonde reporter started talking about the quantum nature of time, how history remained uncertain until someone observed it, forcing it to choose one and only one possible version of events. She talked about anachronisms like steam engines in ancient Greece, and she talked about how the Big Bang would become a booming tourist attraction.
“What if I stop this?” William said.
The blonde glared at him. “Excuse me, I’m doing a live report. It’s rude to interrupt.”
“What if I go back in time to fifteen minutes ago?” William said, checking the clock. “What if I warn myself about this and prevent myself from inventing time travel?”
The blonde laughed. “What makes you think you’re the one who invented it?” she said.
* * *
Alice wandered through some futuristic city. People screamed about the apocalypse and global warming, and the sky burned an evil shade of red, but Alice didn’t pay attention.
Next thing she knew, she was on a spaceship orbiting an alien planet. A group of marines snapped to attention when she appeared and saluted her. Alice didn’t pause to ask why. She just kept walking, grinding her teeth and thinking how she should have skewered William with her spear when she had the chance.
Alice gripped her spear tighter. As she fell from one moment in time to another, it had become the only solid thing to hold on to.
“I hate time travel!” Alice shouted when she materialized on a vast ice plane, startling a herd of woolly mammoth. Later, she got in a fight with a saber-toothed tiger.
Alice decided that when she got back to her own time, assuming she ever got back to her own time, she’d go see Dr. Strickland. Maybe he could fix this. Maybe he could make these time travel adventures stop.
A moment later, Alice arrived in 16th Century London, full of rats and piles of human waste. She heard a man saying:
Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before…
Alice hurled her spear, still covered in saber toothed tiger blood. It barely missed the young poet. He stood beneath the balcony of a blushing, young maiden, her hair cascading in flaxen curls. The two of them looked at Alice in astonishment.
“Stupid love,” Alice muttered, grabbing a shovel from the nearest pile of filth. “I hate love!”
Alice whacked the poet over the head. He fell, curling into a ball, and she hit him again.
“My lady!” the maiden cried. “You must cease this madness. That is the great William Shakespeare you assail!”
“Oh yeah?” Alice said, whacking Shakespeare again. “Well I hate people named William!”
* * *
William awoke in an auditorium, the kind of auditorium with boring, wood paneling, boring, broadloom carpet, and boring, fixed seating with beige upholstery. The room smelled fastidiously sterile and was packed with men in tweed jackets and women in pants suits. William wasn’t surprised to see Dr. Strickland in this setting. The balding, tweed-clad professor stood at a podium, a series of familiar equations projected on a screen behind him.
“Navigating a temporal discontinuity,” Strickland said, “requires mental clarity and purpose, equal parts spiritual fortitude and scientific understanding. You need an almost Zen sense of self and the universe.
“Now let me take a moment to discuss the quantum nature of time. History remains uncertain until it is observed. This seems obvious when we think about the future, but it is also true of the past, as demonstrated by the sigma oscillation experiment I conducted next year. My time machine uses that quantum uncertainty, reversing it, so to speak…”
“Bullshit!” William shouted.
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Heads turned, and a room full of venerable scientists stared at William. William heard a few comments about his dirty, disheveled appearance.
“You didn’t invent time travel,” William said, marching toward the front of the room. “Those are my equations!”
Strickland coughed uncomfortably. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this is one of my former students. Billy, as I recall. He dropped out of college the same year I invented time travel. Last I heard, he worked at a gas station in Nebraska.”
On an anger-scale measured from zero to ten, with zero being blissfully calm and ten a homicidal rage, William thought he’d reached ten. He couldn’t imagine being any angrier than he was at that moment, but as he approached the podium a woman stepped in his way. A woman with auburn hair dressed in pastel peach.
“Alice?” William said.
“Please don’t do this,” Alice said. “What happened with you and me was an accident. Nothing more. Oscar deserves the credit for figuring out how it happened.”
“Oscar?” William said, glancing at Strickland.
A security guard laid a hand on William’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Mrs. Strickland,” he said. “We’ll take care of this.”
“Mrs. Strickland?” William shouted, ignoring the tall, burly guard and his taller, burlier buddy.
Alice grimaced. “I think life as a time traveler would have driven me insane. Oscar saved me from that. He saved us both. Now you have your life in Nebraska, and I have mine with Oscar.”
“What? No!” William said, shoving the security guard away. “That’s just… you can’t…”
The numbers spoke up at that moment, reminding William that tachyons had an imaginary value for their rest mass.
“Shut up! I don’t care!” William shouted, shaking a fist at the air.
One of the guards tackled William, pushing him to the floor, mashing his face into the sterile-smelling, broadloom carpet. William kept screaming while the security guards cuffed him and read him his rights.
* * *
William guessed that, at least from his own non-chronological perspective, only a few hours had passed, yet it felt longer, as though in traveling across millions of years of history he’d aged millions of years too. After being carted off and deposited in the back of a police car, William had time traveled again. Now a fully functional police car with a broken window sat in the middle of a Jurassic swamp. Then he’d jumped forward in time to see the first colony on Mars, and then he’d had another run in with the Hykonians and a younger version of the Arbiter of Truth.
Now William had returned to the present. He stood on one side of the lab, Alice on the other. They stared at each other like an old, married couple long past the point of wanting to say anything further to each other.
“Back from commercial in five, four, three, two, one.”
The blonde smiled at the camera. “Welcome back to this Tomorrow News Network special report. I’m here with the inventor of time travel.”