Something squeaked. Part of William wondered again what that squeaking sound was, but mostly he didn’t care anymore.
William had seen two versions of the future, or at least of Alice’s future, and he didn’t know how to reconcile them. Physics offered several explanations. William remembered last semester’s lecture on alternate realities, on the mathematical framework behind them, on the thought experiments that supported their existence, but none of that provided him any comfort. In all these alternate realities where William was with Alice, Alice was with Strickland, or maybe where William and Alice had never met and neither of them became time travelers, which one was right? Which one would make William happy? Or Alice? Or Strickland–no, Strickland didn’t deserve to be happy–which one would make him the most miserable?
The blonde laughed. Her news crew adjusted knobs and dials on their assorted cameras and audio gear.
“What is that damn squeaking?” Alice snapped. “I keep hearing it everywhere.”
The blonde glared at Alice. “I’m conducting an interview here. Please be quiet.”
Alice glanced at William. William shrugged. The squeaking persisted.
The blonde sat in one of the laboratory chairs, talking to the seemingly empty chair beside her.
“We all know about the cybernetic tissue grafted into your brain, but tell us how you escaped the biolab down the hall.”
“Squeak… squeak squeak, squeak… SQUEAK! Squeak squeak squeak.”
“Incredible,” the blonde said, leaning forward. “The brightest human scientists have struggled for over a century to understand the true nature of time. How did you achieve what so many others failed to do?”
More squeaking came in answer.
The blonde chuckled. “Of course,” she said. “It’s so simple once you understand that.”
William frowned. He stepped away from his desk, trying to get a better view. A small, white mouse sat in the chair beside the blonde reporter. Glowing electronic diodes protruded from the back of its neck.
“Why did you use William and Alice–Test Subjects Zero and One, as you call them–why did you use them in your experiments?”
The mouse lifted a paw and scratched behind its ear. It squeaked, and the blonde smiled.
“Of course. Anyone in your position would have done the same thing.”
“This is ridiculous,” William said. “What about these equations I wrote? Don’t they have something to do with time travel?”
William grabbed his notes and shoved them into the reporter’s hands. She read them over and laughed.
“If you used this for time travel, you’d cancel out your own existence. It’s chrono-theoretical suicide.”
“But I heard the numbers,” William said. “They spoke to me. They sang mathematical poetry in my head.”
“Have you considered seeing a therapist about that?” the blonde asked.
William took back his notebook. He stared at the equations. They made no sense to him, not without the numbers’ voices to reveal their meaning.
“So Strickland didn’t invent time travel?” William asked.
“Oscar Humphrey Strickland? No. He’s a fraud.”
“And I didn’t invent it either?”
William glanced at the cybernetic rodent. It raised a paw and squeaked hello.
“This is ridiculous,” William said, walking back to his desk and sinking into his chair. Dozens of warning lights flashed red, but he ignored them.
The reporter turned, speaking to the cameras, addressing an audience spread no doubt across time and space.
“The consequences of today’s experiment will reach into the distant future and the distant past. The universe will never be the same. Thanks to this clever, young mouse, we live in a brave, new world of time travel, full of wonder and adventure and the occasional absurdity.
“Reporting for the Tomorrow News Network, I’m Talie Tappler.”
After a moment, someone said, “We’re clear,” and the news crew started packing up their equipment.
William watched Alice, lost in thought, her brow furrowed. He’d never learned to read the emotions on her face, aside from obvious ones like anger or horniness. Her feelings now seemed more mysterious than ever. She’d become a stranger to him.
“You’re Talie?” Alice said to the blonde.
“Yes,” the blonde said.
“Is that a common name in whatever time period you come from?”
“It’s not,” Talie said after an awkward pause.
William hadn’t paid much attention to the blonde–not after the whole mouse thing–but now that he thought about it the name Talie sounded familiar. Didn’t someone mention a Talie at the wedding reception?
“So are you our…” Alice began.
“Don’t say it,” Talie warned. “This is enough of a paradox already. Saying it will only make it worse.
“I can tell you this: my parents taught me everything I know about time travel. They taught me that you can’t trust time. The future, the past, they’re always changing. The only thing you can be sure about is right here, right now. Don’t let your fears for tomorrow ruin what you have today.”
Talie pulled out an antique pocket watch. An eerie glow emanated from inside.
“Your parents must be very proud of you,” Alice said.
Talie smirked. “I hope so.”
Then in a burst of impossible light, the perky blonde and the whole Tomorrow News Network crew disappeared.
William thought he heard the numbers whispering again, urging him to start writing. Temporal strings, chronomagnetic fields… they made sense! But William shut his notebook, got up, and walked away. He didn’t know what to think of the numbers, cybernetic mice, or time traveling reporters. He didn’t know what to think of the past or the future either, but he did know how he felt about Alice. In any equation that mattered, she was his only constant.
William approached her, feeling sheepish, much as he did when they first met. He smiled weakly and offered his hand.
Once–it seemed so long ago–he’d worried Alice might feel differently, might not want to spend her whole life with him, might have other plans post-graduation. Now he worried that neither his plans nor hers mattered, that time had plans of its own for them both, or maybe their destinies were subject to the whims of an escaped lab mouse.
Alice stared at William’s hand.
“Promise me one thing,” she said. “No Roman orgies.”
William raised an eyebrow.
“I’m serious,” Alice said.
“Okay, no orgies,” William agreed.
The mouse hopped down from its seat and scampered across the floor to the fermionic condenser, stopping by some exposed wiring. It looked at William and Alice as if asking, “Are you ready?”
Alice took William’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze, and nodded yes.
The mouse squeaked and climbed inside the machine. Then light enveloped William and Alice, Test Subjects Zero and One, and they fell into their uncertain future.