Kat is a bored physics graduate reduced to working in a local shop to make ends meet. One day, a strange man asks her for a kettle and, before she knows it, she’s involved in something very, very important.
When she was a teenager, this was the worst place Kat could imagine ending up. Okay, no, that wasn’t true. As a teenager, her imagination had been particularly vivid, especially for horrible things that might await her in the future, and even standing behind the counter, staring blankly at the display cabinet full of all the different varieties of wood varnish available in the shop, she could probably come up with seven or eight more contemptible fates. But that didn’t make her feel any better.
It wasn’t supposed to have turned out this way. She was the smart one, the one who went to Cambridge and was going to become a scientist. She was going to make everyone proud. But it didn’t work out that way. You plan these things, you know? Plan them as best you can anyway, given that life is necessarily a crooked path from order to entropy, try to map out all the consequences of your actions, figure your way through the maze of possibility and…blah. In the end, it all comes down to blah. Because you could have a first in physics, you could have been top of the class, teacher’s pet, the best of the best but, in the end, you still have to reach out and grab a future. It doesn’t just happen.
See, up until she was about twenty-one, everything in Kat’s life really had just happened. She went to a good school, got good marks, went to a better college, got even better marks and then she was going to Cambridge – because why wouldn’t you take that opportunity when it was handed to you, huh? – and excelling and just generally being fawned over and never criticised – because why would they criticise her, huh? – and then suddenly it all stops and you run into the roadblock they call Real Life™. And then you have to start making decisions and trying to find your own way to success and it’s just not enough to work hard and do what people tell you because, see, they stop telling you and say “now you tell us, Kat, you’re the one with the fancy degree from Cambridge” and it’s suddenly impossible to be impressive because no one hands you an exam paper with a bunch of questions on it that you just have to sit there and get right. You have to write your own exam, and no one tells you what the subject’s supposed to be, and everyone has their own arbitrary marking criteria and some people don’t even like exams and tear the thing up and throw it in your face. Metaphorically.
“And do you sell stamps, dear?”
Kat’s eyes focused again and she finally paid attention to the stooped old lady at the counter. “Huh?”
“Stamps?” she repeated. She was looking at Kat like she might have mental problems. Her, not the old lady. Although it amounted to the same thing: it just depended on your perspective.
Her mind had wandered again, and she rubbed her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m having a very bad day. Stamps? You want stamps?”
“Yes…you know…for sending letters? In the post?” Yeah, she definitely thought Kat had learning difficulties or something now.
“Sorry, yes, we sell stamps.” She opened the drawer where the stamps were kept. There was a neat little label on it that read, in Mr Campbell’s firm block capitals, ‘STAMP DRAW’. It annoyed her every single moment of every single day. “First class?”
She took out the book of stamps and put it on the counter with the woman’s other purchases. Campbell’s was one of those shops that don’t exist anymore, or so you’d think. His grandfather had opened it, then his father had run it, and now it had come to the final Mr Campbell. Not final because he’d be the last one per se, but he’d almost certainly be the last one to run Campbell’s, since his sons were understandably disinterested in running a small town shop for the rest of their lives, having worked here just like she had and emerged with the same sense that they now understood what death would one day be like.
There were no jobs. That was about the size of it. Not in the sciences, not in academia, not in administration, not even in real retail. Just this, back home, doing something a half-awake fourteen-year-old could do. Not that she had anything against Justine of course, but the girl could barely string a coherent sentence together and she still earned almost as much as Kat. It was demoralising, it was humiliating but, more than anything else, it was crushingly boring. No one came in. No one bought any of this shit. And it was shit. Every possible variety of shit. Tupperware and hardware and homeware and swimwear. The shop went back for miles, into all these pokey little alcoves full of inexplicable things. Who buys a plastic heron? It had a basement and an upstairs and storerooms that, as far as Kat could tell, honeycombed the bedrock beneath her entire hometown.
The woman paid for her purchases – some dusters, a plant pot, a bag of clothes pegs, a plastic heron and the stamps – using mostly change, and left with a slightly frightened look. It had become a game for Kat to try and freak out the customers as much as possible, just by staring blankly straight ahead throughout the transaction. As hobbies went, it wasn’t a great one.
“Um…excuse me? Miss?”
Her eyes focused again and she looked at the man bobbing furtively in front of her. He was balding, with wild hair, funny little glasses and clothes that were…slightly off, somehow. He had a long coat on, but there was something strange about the style. Nothing she could pick out exactly, just tiny things about the cut of the collar and the placement of the buttons that made it look a bit strange. He was probably a pervert. “Yes, how can I help?”
“I…uh…see, the thing is…” he looked around. His facial expression gave the impression of intense bewilderment mixed with a sort of bone-deep fear. His eyes were haunted. Definitely a pervert. “I was wondering, do you have such a thing as a kettle here?”
Kat frowned. “A kettle?”
“Yeeeees….” He didn’t sound sure. There was something weird about his accent too. She couldn’t quite place it.
“Um, yeah, I think we sell kettles. It’s hard to be sure. But they should be around.” She wasn’t really supposed to leave the counter, but Justine had a habit of disappearing into the bowels of the shop, sometimes for hours at a time, and she was currently nowhere to be found. Either she’d found a secret passage that led to somewhere more interesting (the main entrance would fall under his definition too though, except for the secret part) or she’d hidden a boy in the plastic waterfowl section. No other customers seemed to be threatening to enter though – two in a morning was actually quite unusual already – so she lifted up the hinged section of the counter and took the funny little man on an adventure. If he was a pervert, she thought, he could easily kill her and hide her body somewhere in the shop and no one would ever find her, but she decided there probably wasn’t much risk of that. He was too busy wringing his hands and looking around at everything in stark terror.
They wandered around for a bit until they found a shelf that was just filled with different kinds of kettle, somewhere between the brooms and the car accessory alcove. Kat had no recollection of ever seeing it before. “Here you go. Kettles. And garden gnomes for some reason…”
“Uh…yes…yes…” He picked up a box and looked at it strangely. Then he started to tear at the sellotape that sealed it.
“Hey, you need to buy that first, mate,” she protested weakly.
“Hm? What?” He’d managed to open the box and he yanked the kettle out. He dropped the empty box to the floor and then shook the kettle experimentally. Then he opened the lid and peered inside. “No no, that’s the wrong kind.” He threw it aside.
“Hey!” He was already picking up another model of kettle and repeating his odd routine, taking it out, examining the inside, then pronouncing it wrong. Kat was trying to gather up the detritus of his low-level vandalism spree. “Hey, you can’t just go messing around with our stock! You’ll need to pay for all these!”
“What? Hm?” He stared at her. He had an older style kettle in his hands, a metal one that, from the box design and the dust on it, had probably been sitting on the shelf since about 1970. “This is the one,” he announced excitedly.
Kat blew her fringe out of her eyes as she stood there with an armful of kettles, boxes and packing material. “Well I’m glad to hear it. Shall we go to the till and maybe bring this encounter to its conclusion?”
“This is the one!” He said again. “It’s the element I was interested in! It’s just what I need!”
“Great. You’ll need to buy the whole kettle though.”
“Hm? Buy?” He was looking at her blankly again. His expression of confusion mixed with fear appeared to be a permanent feature.
“Yes. That’s…that’s how this works. In this shop, anyway. And all others. Yes. That’s the deal. You give me money, I give you kettles, you enjoy a nice cup of tea when you go home.”
“Money? Oh. Oh.” His face started to look sickly. “I forgot. I forgot all about that. You…you need me to exchange this…money…for this object?”
“Um. Yes. That’s what I need. Or you can just leave. That’s also absolutely fine.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Then you may not have any kettles.” She reached out with her free hand and plucked the kettle from his grasp. He let out a strangled cry. “Sorry.”
“You don’t understand!” he wailed. “I need that element!”
“And Campbell’s needs money. How do you think we replenish our stocks of kettles that haven’t been made for forty years?”
“I’m…I’m not from around here! I don’t understand how things work! It’s all so….confusing…”
“Uh huh.” She felt sorry for the little man. He was quite clearly deranged. She should call the police or something; he probably shouldn’t be out on his own. Somewhere on the streets, a carer was probably calling his name over and over and going up to people asking if they’d seen a weird, scared-looking guy with some funny ideas about the future of capitalism.
“I can get you money though,” he said, “for the kettle.”
“Right. Well, when you do it’ll be waiting for you. I’m absolutely certain of that.”
“How many…how many monies…would I be required to exchange for the kettle?”
“I…” Kat was starting to get a funny feeling about his guy. She looked at the box for the kettle he wanted. The sticker had a price in pre-decimalised currency. “Oh for fuck’s sake…” She plucked a figure out of the air. “Three quid?” It never really mattered how much they charged for things, since no one ever bought them.
“Three…quid?” He turned the word over in his mouth.
“Three pounds.” He continued to stare at her helplessly. “Uh…three of the big gold coins? Or if you give me one of the greenish blue notes with number five on it, I can give you change. Or the brown one with…you know what?” She handed him the kettle. “Just take the bloody thing. It doesn’t even matter.”
“I can just have it?” He looked down at his prize. It was pathetic how happy he looked. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. It’s fine. We’ll never sell it. It probably doesn’t even work.”
“Oh, it’ll work. I’m certain of it.”
“Thank you,” he said, sounding suddenly very sincere, “this is the first encounter I’ve had with anyone in this place that made any sense.” He tottered off, still proudly bearing his free kettle, then called over his shoulder to her. “I’ll be back! I’ve seen some other things here I’ll need!”
“Great…” Kat murmured.
The weirdo was as good as his word. He was back the very next day, this time picking up copper tubing and a bicycle bell. Kat let him take it again, starting to feel a pang of guilt now. It was theft, really and, as much as she despised working here (or ‘working’ here, she mentally corrected), she’d always thought of herself as a decent person. But no one would ever notice, and it made him so happy. It was like a service to the community. Every afternoon he’d return, always with another bizarre request and together they’d troop off into the depths of Campbell’s and find whatever it was he was looking for.
“Compost,” he announced one day.
They found it, not far from the snow globes, and he went off again, bowed under the weight of a huge plastic sack of what was, essentially, shit. Although he seemed to get happier and happier as the days passed, she noticed he was starting to look thinner. After a week, it became obvious he wasn’t eating and so, as they went upstairs to find PVA glue and an electric pump (“I only need the casing! You may keep the motor, kind miss!”), she asked if he was okay.
“Hm? Oh, better, I think. I’m almost finished now.”
“Finished with what?”
“I mustn’t say,” he replied cryptically.
“You just look a bit…thin.”
“Are you eating okay? Can you afford a meal?”
“Afford…oh…” They’d reached the glue cabinet and she handed the tube over to him. “Yes, I have been struggling with that,” he admitted.
“Do you have, like, a job or…?”
She was used to this kind of question now. “An occupation,” she clarified. “A place you go, and you do something for someone else, and they give you money so you can afford to buy things instead of going into weird shops and relying on the kindness of bored assistants.”
“Ahhhh,” he said, as if she’d solved some great mystery for him. “So that’s how it all works. Now I understand. No one else has been able to summarise your system for me so succinctly.”
“Um…where are you from, exactly?”
“Here,” he answered absently as he examined the PVA glue. He took off the lid, sniffed at it, recoiled momentarily, then squeezed a dab onto his finger and rubbed it experimentally. “Yes, this should work.”
“You’re from here? From this town?”
“Hm?” He looked up. The fear in his eyes had subsided slightly, but he still looked as lost as ever. “This town? Oh, well, sort of, I suppose. It’s a bit complicated.”
“Well, I do have a degree in physics. From Cambridge. A first.” You had to add those bits. She didn’t want him to think she’d gone to some bloody jumped-up polytechnic.
He showed no sign that meant anything to him. Except he did latch onto one thing. “Physics? Did you say you’re a physicist?”
“Yeah. I mean, by training. Not by profession, obviously.” She gestured around her.
“That’s another word for job.”
“Ah. How confusing.”
“I suppose.” She’d started to warm to the strange man, although he hadn’t even given her his name. He was like a giant baby, with fractionally more hair.
“But you understand physics?” he asked.
“You may be able to help me.”
“Even more than I have already?”
“Yes…yes…and don’t think I’m not grateful. It is all a pity really…” He gazed off into the distance.
He looked startled. “Oh, nothing. Never mind. Forget I said it.”
“Let’s find you your pump anyway,” she said, leading him off down another aisle. She was intrigued by his questions and things here were just boring enough that she was considering finding out more about this clearly dangerous lunatic. “So why do you need the help of a physicist?”
“Another physicist,” he said absently.
“Oh? Who else did you get? Not Craig, I hope. He talks a big game about quantum theory, but he doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. He went to Bristol.”
“What? No, I meant myself.”
She turned and looked at him. Actually, he did kind of look like a physicist now she thought about it. Many of her lecturers had been significantly more confused than him anyway. “You’re a scientist?”
“Oh yes. Or I was. I’m not really anything now.” He sounded sad.
“No? What happened?”
“It would be too hard to explain.”
“No, I think I’ve taken up enough of your time.” He picked up the pump. “I must go. I’m nearly done now,” he told her, “soon, this will all be over.”
“All of this.”
“All of what?” Kat was beginning to get worried again. “Look, you seem hungry. If you don’t have money, you probably haven’t eaten in days. That can’t be good for whatever your project is, right? I’m on lunch in, like…” She looked at her watch for some stupid reason. “Whenever I want. I’ll buy you something to eat, maybe? And you can tell me more.”
He looked torn. “That would be…yes, that would be good. Food would be most agreeable. What…what do you eat here?”
“Well what do you like?”
“I don’t know.” He sounded very forlorn.
“Okay, well I know a place that does a lot of different kinds of sandwich. That should give us pretty good odds, right?”
“I suppose so.” She didn’t think he was convinced.
“What’s your name anyway?”
“Carlo,” he said.
She blinked. “Hello, Carlo. Right, now we’re friends, let’s go.”
Her hypothesis proved to be incorrect. First, he didn’t know what a sandwich was, and the idea seemed to utterly confound him. He was staring at them like they might jump out and bite him at any moment. Mrs Mabel, who owned the delicatessen, seemed unimpressed. “This a friend of yours, Kat?” she asked flatly.
“Sort of. He’s…from somewhere else.”
“I can see that.”
“I’d never have thought of doing this with bread,” Carlo was saying in a tone of wondrous awe as he pressed his face against the counter’s Plexiglas front. “How did you come up with the idea?” he asked Mrs Mabel.
“It came to me in a vision, love.”
“Okay, so, maybe we can decide on a filling, Carlo?”
“Hm?” he looked at her. “A filling?”
“To go in the sandwich? Between the bread?”
“Oh…oh I see. Well…what could I have?”
Mrs Mabel slowly gestured to the ingredients laid out on display in the counter. “The world,” she said tonelessly, “is your bloody oyster.”
“No, they don’t do oyster, Carlo,” Kat said, pulling him away from the counter by his arm. “They do chicken. Do you like chicken?”
“Chicken? Um. What’s it like?”
“It’s a sort of…what? What kind of a question is that? You’ve never had chicken?”
“I’m sorry,” he said dejectedly. “Where I’m from, chickens are a sort of bird.”
“Yeah, it’s the same here.”
He regarded the counter with fresh horror. “But…I don’t…” he pointed at the slices of white meat, laid out invitingly. “That’s…a chicken?”
“Yes. Well, probably several chicken. Or bits of them.”
He doubled over and it was really a good job he hadn’t eaten in days because the mess would have been horrendous otherwise. Kat sighed. “I’ll have a BLT,” she said, “but I think something vegetarian for my friend. And…uh…here’s something for the cleaning bill.”
Mrs Mabel took the notes from her hand and gave her an arch look. “You don’t half know how to pick ’em, Kat.”
Carlo seemed to like avocado at least, although he didn’t finish his sandwich since he was clearly still quite ill. His face was only just starting to fade to an ordinary colour from the green it’d been for the last fifteen minutes or so. They sat outside since it was quite a nice day, in the park near the duck pound. Mallards waddled around, acting in the way mallards always did, which Kat, if pressed, described as ‘suspiciously’. There was just something about ducks that did her head in. “How are you feeling?” she took a bite from her sandwich, and noted how Carlo carefully avoided looking at her as she did it.
“Better, thank you,” he said in a quiet voice.
“You don’t eat meat where you’re from, huh?”
He blanched slightly and put a hand to his stomach. “No,” he whispered. “We don’t.” He looked down at a nearby duck. “Do you…do you eat ducks too?”
“Sometimes,” she shrugged.
“Well…chicken, pig – like this – cow, sheep. Um. Anything, really. Some things we’re not so keen on for cultural reasons. There was a big scandal about horse meat in burgers recently. But yeah. Probably everything’s been eaten at some time or another.”
“Carlo, where could you possibly be from that you’ve never heard of anyone eating meat?”
“I told you, I’m from here.”
“Right. So have you been locked in someone’s cellar your whole life or what?”
“No. I mean, maybe metaphorically.”
She chewed another mouthful of sandwich thoughtfully. “What are you building?”
“It’s complicated. But you’re a physicist. You might understand.”
“I’ve probably got a better chance than anyone else in this town. Can you show me?”
He looked at her. “Can I trust you?”
“I have no idea. I don’t know what you’re building.”
“I’m repairing something, actually.”
“How intriguing. Come on, what do you have to lose?”
“Everything,” he answered bleakly.
He took her to the allotments on the outskirts of town. She was well beyond the hour she was allowed for lunch now, and Justine would be panicking on her own – or would be if she cared enough to feel any emotion besides blank indifference – and she was fairly sure this scenario was going to end with her sliced up body being found in a bin liner at the bottom of the canal, but she was too intrigued by Carlo’s cryptic comments not to follow him now. On the last allotment, one overgrown with brambles, there was a dilapidated shed. This clearly wasn’t his own plot – he’d just found this place, she guessed – and he ducked around furtively, making sure no one was watching. There were just a few old folks working on their little patches of land, and no one paid them any attention at all. He opened the shed’s rickety door and beckoned her inside.
“Here it is,” he whispered in the cobwebby gloom.
She looked at the object that took up most of the shed’s small interior. “Um…”
“Can you tell what it is?”
She tilted her head slightly. She could recognise parts of it, certainly. Not because of her physics background, but because it was junk from Campbell’s. The kettle element had pride of place, and there was the tubing leading to the compost bag near the bottom. He was already dismantling the electric pump and test fitting the casing to the rear of the seat that was positioned in the centre of the jumble of seemingly random stuff. Some parts she didn’t recognise – machinery and control panels and two huge tanks marked with hazard symbols. It all looked…incredibly dangerous. “Should you…uh…should you have this in a shed like this?”
“I shouldn’t have any of this here at all. That’s precisely the point.” He squeezed some PVA glue onto the casing and then pressed it into place above the chair.
“Right. You’ve…uh…you’ve been busy, Carlo.”
“Yes, very busy.” He stepped back. “Do you see it now?”
She nodded. “Yeah, that pump casing made all the difference. It’s clearly a…a…” She waved a hand. “Help me out here, Carlo. What is all this shit?”
“It’s a time machine, Kat.”
“A time machine. Of course it is. No idea how I didn’t spot that before.”
“Well, I admit it’s a bit of a botch job. I don’t have access to all the materials I need. But that’s where you helped me out.”
“And now you’re going to go into the future, are you?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said as he used a strange looking spanner to tighten something near the back of his ‘time machine’. “You’re a physicist, you know that isn’t possible.”
“You’re the one who thinks he built a time machine…”
He peered at her through a jumble of cables and wires. “I don’t know what the state of education is like here,” he said, “but even you must know that you can’t defy causality by moving matter or energy into the future ahead of the natural flow of entropy. It defies sense.”
“You can only go back, or return to where you came from. Just trying to jump into the future after the machine was built would turn the black hole inside this machine inside out, and invert the entire fabric of space-time. ”
She should have ignored that, but somehow her eyes were drawn to the tanks he was crouched behind, with their hazard symbols and very, very solid-looking construction. “Black…hole…?”
“Yes. A quantum singularity. Do you call them something else here? I mean when a star of greater mass than…”
“I know what a black hole is,” she said, holding up her hands and feeling strangely like their roles had been somehow reversed inside this shed. “I’m having a hard time getting my head around the idea you might have one inside this machine.”
“It’s very small. There’s no danger.”
“I see…and what do you need a black hole for exactly?”
He looked at her like she was crazy. Maybe she was. Maybe that’s what was happening. “How else would I travel back in time?”
“How indeed,” she murmured. “Look, this has been really…uh….really nice…but I think I should be getting back now…”
“No, Kat, please just wait a moment.” He ducked around the machine and she felt herself hold her breath as his coat brushed against the tanks. “I need your help.”
“Someone has to perform the calculations once I activate the machine. I can’t do it while I’m inside because of the counter-entropic field that protects me during my journey. When I set out, I had my lab assistants, and the return journey was already keyed in based on their workings. Time travel is a delicate business.” He handed her a strange looking device, rather like a tablet computer, but sleeker and more futuristic. Somehow, its odd design reminded her of his coat, like they came from the same place. “It’s quite simple. You just need to work through the equations on the screen and type in the solutions. It’s simple quantum theory, just to counter Uncertainty. The results will be fed into the machine automatically.”
She looked at the screen. They were just equations. Not easy ones, but she understood them well enough. Carlo may not know what money or a sandwich was, but the language of mathematics appeared to be universal. “It’s two-way feedback,” she guessed. “The equations come into this from the…uh…time machine…and my solutions go back in?”
“Precisely. It’s all based on very minute, real-time quantum readings.”
“Think you can handle it?”
She thought about it. “Yes, actually. This is like an exam. Exams I can handle.”
“Great!” He bounced into the seat and began strapping himself in and playing with the control panel.
“Wait, wait,” Kat said, “this is stupid!”
“Please, just have some faith in me,” he said. His expression was sad for some reason.
Why was she going along with this? Was this some sort of bizarre foreplay? A con trick? Or was he just, as she’d always assumed, completely insane? Worryingly, the machine was lighting up as he pressed buttons. She took a step back, which wasn’t easy in the close confines of the shed.
She couldn’t believe what she was about to ask. “Carlo, are you from the future?”
“No,” he replied, “I came here from the past.”
“But originally,” he added with a faint smile, “I’m from right here, right now.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I went back first, then I returned. And I ended up here.”
She looked around. “You said you had a lab though. Where’s the lab?”
“Oh, about half a mile from here maybe?”
“There’s no lab half a mile from here.”
“I know. That’s the problem.”
“It’s really quite simple. I went back, and I accidentally altered something. I don’t know what it was. I hardly did anything at all, but it could have been something as small as stepping on a butterfly, or introducing an unknown pathogen into a prehistoric environment. My own fault for going back as far as I did. I should have realised how small changes propagate through time. Anyway, when I set the machine to bring me back, I landed here. In this place.” He shuddered.
Kat stared at him. “Are you saying…you changed history?”
“Yes. Clumsy. First rule of time travel, and I broke it. I mean, I wrote the book on it! Literally!”
“So this…this…everything is…”
“Wrong,” he said, “so so wrong. This is a nightmare. You won’t know, of course. You can’t. But this universe is just awful. You’re barbarians. No offence. I have to put it right.”
Her mouth dropped open. She didn’t know when she’d started to believe what he was telling her, but there was something about his absolute conviction she couldn’t ignore. “Put it right?”
“I need to go back and stop myself changing history, then the proper timeline will be restored. This horrible world will no longer exist and, if you could, you’d thank me for that.”
“Is it so bad?” she asked weakly.
He fiddled with some more controls. Bits of the time machine started to spin alarmingly. The compost bag began to pulse with a disturbing squelching noise. “Oh yes. Compared to where I’m from, this is hell. You eat…you eat meat…and I can barely breathe in this toxic air. I’ve seen those…things…you pilot around. Did you know they were throwing out dangerous gases? You’ll all be dead in a few decades if you carry on like this. Thankfully,” he added with a wisp of a smile, “it’s going to be a moot point.”
“Hold on, hold on,” she said, “you don’t have pollution in your…your version of this time?”
“Of course not. We don’t have a death wish. We don’t use money either.”
“Then how do you buy things?”
He shrugged. “We don’t.”
“So…you just…take whatever you want form each other?”
“No,” he said, and he sounded annoyingly condescending now, “we share our resources. It’s much more efficient. And fair.”
“So you can understand why I’d want to restore reality to its proper course. This place is horrific.”
“But won’t we all cease to exist?”
“Well, yes. But you won’t even know it’s happening.”
She thought of something. “If I cease to exist though, won’t your equations have never been entered? And, if you erased your own reality, how come your time machine didn’t disappear too? Which would mean you never went back in time, and therefore never erased your universe and therefore…argh!”
“Worthy questions for a physicist,” Carlo said, “at least in this primitive universe. But the counter-entropic field protects me from paradoxes. Without that, time travel would be the fevered dream of a madman.”
“Of course.” She held up the advanced tablet. “Why would I help you destroy everything I know?”
“Not destroy. If this goes right, you’ll just have never existed. Frankly, I’d think you’d consider it a mercy. It must be terrible for you all living like this. Even it wasn’t my fault, I’d still want to put you out of your misery. This is a ghastly fate for humans to endure. Better to have never been born, I say!”
She looked down at the screen on the tablet. It really was like doing an exam. Exams were so simple. You just answered the questions, and life was put back on its normal course. Input knowledge, and futures came out. Easy. And this was a chance to really make a difference. “What the hell am I thinking?” she asked aloud. “I don’t believe any of this!”
“Then what do you have to lose?” Carlo pulled a lever and sparks flew from the time machine. “Just solve the equations as they pop up and, before you know it, everything will be all right again.”
“Okay,” she said in a small voice. “I guess I won’t feel a thing.”
“Almost certainly not,” he said confidently.
“Carlo, do you know if there’s another me in your version of reality?”
He thought about it. “It’s possible, but extremely unlikely. And anyway, it wouldn’t be ‘you’ in any meaningful sense. Just someone with the same ancestry who, by chance, looked the same and had the same name. It would be an amazing coincidence, to be honest.”
“I suppose so.”
“Now, if you’d just pay attention to the screen, Kat, that would be wonderful.” He looked up at her as he adjusted the straps on the chair and gave her a warm smile. “Thank you for all your help. Without you, I think I’d have gone insane.”
“Sure.” He pushed a button, and all of a sudden the whole machine was surrounded in a dome of blurred light. She couldn’t see him anymore, just shifting shapes through what she assumed was the counter-entropic field. “Holy shit,” she murmured, “this is actually happening.”
The screen started to flash and, moving mostly on instinct, she started to solve the equations as they appeared. They were complex, involving calculus, matrices, imaginary numbers, non-Cartesian geometry and concepts she didn’t have names for. It tested her knowledge to its limits, but she kept at it, balancing out each expression, providing possible solutions for each waveform or data point. She stopped even thinking about what she was doing, just worked, letting all outside thoughts drift from her mind. She didn’t know what would happen if she got something wrong, or couldn’t come up with a solution, but she thought it would probably be quite bad. She kept going as the problems came faster and faster, becoming more and more complex, and now her hand was as blurred as the dome covering Carlo’s machine as she furrowed her brow, drawing on everything she knew about maths and physics, and then, as she entered the solution to one particularly tricky one…the machine disappeared.
She blinked. It was just…gone. There was a whisp of smoke where it had been sitting on the floor and the faint smell of ozone but, otherwise, nothing. The tablet had disappeared from her hands too. She hadn’t even felt it go. There was just nothing. “Right,” she said to herself. “Okay.”
Kat walked out of the shed, blinking in the light. What was supposed to happen now? What had she done? She looked around the allotments. An old man was leaning on his spade, watching her curiously. She waved at him nervously and then picked her way back through the brambles. Everything seemed exactly as it had been. She should have asked Carlo what it would feel like to disappear. Feeling strange, she walked back through town to Campbell’s. Justine was waiting for her and made some disinterested enquiries about why she was so late. She apologised and then got back to work, such as it was. The old lady came back to buy some more stamps and get another plastic heron. Maybe she was building a replica flock?
As evening fell, Kat locked up the shop and then walked home. She felt really weird. She got in, ate some dinner, watched boring TV all evening and then went to bed.
Shortly after midnight, she and everyone else in the universe ceased to exist. It didn’t even wake her up.