“The age of miracles.” Tom thought with a combination of disgust and fearful awe as the dead woman looked through his embarrassingly bare cabinets for coffee.
“How do you not have coffee?” the woman asked. Tom smiled and remained transfixed on her legs. They were long and toned from trekking around more pre-industrial roads than any one person could see in this day and age. She was standing in front of the kitchen window, causing the late morning sun to outline her figure. The light formed a halo around her that Tom felt drunk just looking at.
“I didn’t know when you’d be back.” Tom said after a delay. He was exhausted. He usually didn’t share his bed with anyone and they had been up half the night alternating between workplace gossip and sex. He felt guilty about it in a way, like he was cheating her out of a trip to the Cayman Islands, the top of Mount Everest, or any of the countless “last day on earth” locations. But the rule was she couldn’t do anything she wouldn’t have done if she was still alive. So the best Tom could do without disrupting the continuum was to make sure she was having a good time and let her wear his t-shirt.
“Yyyyyou…” she said to him in a playful disciplinarian tone. “Should always have a stock of coffee in case you have a lady caller.”
She turned from the cabinets and walked towards him with her finger extended in a point. Her hair was uncombed perfection; it covered one eye like a veil and added shadow to her already dark complexion. She crossed the kitchen to the chair that Tom was sitting in. Her accusing hand extended all its fingers out and she ran them through his hair. Tom had been meaning to get a haircut and was thankful he hadn’t as she took handfuls of it and gripped hard. He let his neck go limp as she rolled his head around. She pulled herself closer until she was straddling him.
“We could go out.” Tom said. His voice was muffled by his own t-shirt that smelled of storage and her. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her forward; forcing her off her feet and onto his lap.
“Hmmmm,” she hummed in fake consideration “That sounds like one of those getting dressed affairs.”
She pulled his face into her and he rested just south of her clavicle. He reached his hands around her back and moved them up under the shirt. He considered taking her back in the bedroom but he could see she didn’t plan on letting him move from the chair.
It didn’t bother him that she was dead. Didn’t bother him while her skin got hotter with the inherited reactions foreplay brings, she was cryogenically frozen in a basement some twenty miles away. He had been worried that he wouldn’t be able to handle the thought. That he might break down and try to hide her somewhere. But he functioned fine, his reactions just as healthy as hers. He didn’t think of Cannae, the other blip, or the briefing.
“What needs to be understood now,” Joe said to the group of eight people who met the requirements for the briefing, “Is that Dr. Talbot is dead.”
Everyone in the room, Tom included, squirmed at the statement. It was an unnerving feeling somewhere between being talked down to as a professional and knowing deep down that someone needed to reiterate the point.
“We have her in the basement now,” Joe continued. “We’ve frozen her in order to minimize any deterioration in case the family will want to have an open casket. That’s where she is, and it’s important to remember that when she comes back tomorrow.”
Tom felt bad for Joe. It was a tough job for anyone to have to announce a death. Joe was one of the few men in history who had to explain how the dead were coming back.
“As you know, Dr. Dayna Talbot arrived D.O.A. a few hours ago from an expedition to 216 B.C. She and her team were there to document The Battle of Cannae.” Protocol called for a complete debriefing, which stalled answering the question on everyone’s mind.
“Dr. Talbot and her partner Dr. Banda were keeping a distance from the battle during Rome’s push into Hannibal’s ranks, when a small group of Carthage soldiers, most likely sent for reconnaissance, came upon their location. They both activated their emergency teleporters, which drew them to their base camp a safe distance away. However, Dr. Talbot’s device appears to have experienced a slight malfunction, a weak single seems to be the most likely cause, and she was stabbed through the lung by one of the soldiers before the teleportation could fully remove her from the scene.”
The equivalent of bad cell phone reception had killed Dayna Talbot. Tom felt sick as Joe went on to explain how the teleporter had kicked in after she was wounded and she was transported to the camp. How the med team on duty tried their best and there was nothing anyone could do. Tom thought he was going to scream if Joe didn’t get to the point. Luckily he had a slightly longer fuse than Alex Messiere, another tech who had to attend the meeting.
“Joe.” Alex interrupted in the middle of Joe’s rundown.
“Joe!” he said louder when he was ignored.
Joe halted his speech and a look of exhaustion melted over his face. He waited for Alex to speak.
“We all know why we’re here.” Alex said. “Just tell us how many blips there are.”
Joe lifted his head in a dutiful motion “There are two blips.”
The room let out several tones of disappointment and dread. Despite decades of advances time travel remained an imperfect science. It was better now than they had been as little as two years ago, now there was only a possible five month discrepancy between target and landing. When the technology had first come out, travelers would overshoot their intended mark by six decades on average. Five months was nothing, and temporal radar had been developed to allow safer organization of trips and enabled messages to be carried from a control center to the traveler. Scheduling software was used to sync a traveler’s current location in the time line with other outings, eliminating the chance the traveler would run into themselves at a different point. The system was a wonder, and it did nothing to temper the anxiety everyone in the room felt.
“Within our margin of error,” Joe continued after the noise had calmed “Dr. Talbot is registering two more outings. We have a signal for her scheduled to arrive at 5:30 tomorrow night.”
It was part of the job that had always been a possibility, but there hadn’t been a casualty in time travel in almost eleven years. Yet here they were; the most advanced time travel company in the world with a possible anomaly on their hands because of an overzealous Carthaginian scout.
“The company has authorized anyone who believes that they would be unable to control themselves during Dr. Talbot’s return to take the days she will be present in the facility off.” Joe continued. “Those who wish to stay on must be sure that they will be able to handle the strain. You all know it is absolutely necessary for Dr. Talbot to keep to her scheduled trips. She is dead, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Joe dismissed the meeting and the attendees began to file out. Tom stood in line at the door where an assistant whose name he had never learned stood with sheets for those who wished to have next day off.
“Mr. Cotes?” the assistant said as Tom walked up. “Do you wish to be absent for Dr. Talbot’s return?”
“I’m going to see her anyway.” Tom thought as he declined.
“No,” Rob said in a defiant disbelief to what Tom had just told him. “No, no, no, noooo, no…” he continued on like the word would take the information away.
“Rob,” Tom said in a hushed commanding voice “Rob, you have to calm down, it’s…”
“I don’t have to calm down Tom! I am well within my right to be completely panicked!”
Tom began to regret telling Rob about his relationship with Dayna. He and Rob had gone out to a refurbished old pub after work in order to honor the dead and talk about the horrors of the modern age. After a few rounds Rob had begun a drawn out, philosophical speech about how many times mankind had been warned about the dangers of time travel before it even existed when Tom let slip “I’m sleeping with Dayna Talbot.” Rob had looked at him like he had spoken German for a moment before launching into his denial.
“Tom this is bad.” Rob said, now more terrified than angry “You have to…”
He broke off, looking at Tom while he tried to figure out what he was going to demand he do.
“Rob, listen.” Tom said as his friend began tapping his finger on the table in annoyed contemplation. “We might not even have a problem. We started this about month and a half ago.”
Rob perked up at this news. “Month and a half?” Tom nodded “So she might not even be from a time when you guy were…” Rob waved his hand to signify that they both knew he was talking about sex.
“The odds are on our side.” A pang of guilt hit Tom’s stomach as he said it. Rob nodded reassured at the news for a moment before his old dread washed back over him and he collapsed his face into his hands.
“Odds, Tom!’ he said into his hands “We don’t need odds, we need reassurances that in a fit of passion you don’t confess to this woman that if she goes to Cannae she’ll be killed! Dr. Talbot has to go through these next two trips like nothing has happened! Its witnessed continuity now, we’d be looking at another Chicago!”
Chicago was an event that had become the ultimate cautionary tale of time travel. The exact details and order of events had been lost in a tangle of retcons and failed fixes so that it was unclear whether or not the true story could ever be put together. What was known was a rogue traveler went back to attempt to change an event located in the Chicago city limits with catastrophic results. They were eventually stopped and the events put as right as they could be, but the damage had been done. What had become known as a “blowback”; a measurable residue of chrono-distortion had occurred. By conservative estimates, at least 500 people in the city were either unborn, died prematurely, or were still caught in a pocket between seconds that could not be opened again.
“It’s not a problem,” Tom said, trying in vain to cure the fear that had come over the table. “We have a system worked out. After she gets out of debriefing, she texts me to let me know if we’re meeting up or not. So I just wait till tomorrow night and if she doesn’t text me she’s from a time before we started and it’s fine.”
Rob looked at Tom in disbelief at his nonchalance. “And if she does text you?” If she is from after you guys started?” Tom shrugged, trying to keep the temper down. Rob flared up. “You break up with her Tom!”
“And that won’t let her know something’s off?” Tom asked in with an edge in his voice he got when he was told what to do. “Isn’t that the golden rule of this situation? We deal with her as if nothing’s happened. Well if nothing happened and she texted me, I’d go see her.”
Rob exhaled in exhaustion at the situation and started down into his drink. Tom waited a moment and then knocked on the table to get his attention.
“Rob, I’m not in love with her. I like her, or liked her, or whatever the tense is in this situation, but it wasn’t a rest of my life thing. We met up accidently one night after work, got drunk, and it just went from there. I honestly think she’s into it because I’m one of the few people who can understand why it has to be a day to day thing.”
Rob looked back up at Tom looking no more confident.
“I know she’s dead Rob.” said Tom “I know she’s dead and I know I have to go on like she’s not. I like her, but I’m not going to end the world over her.”
When Tom woke up his clock said 3:30 P.M. He took in a deep breath and felt a weight on his stomach. He looked down and saw Dayna laying on him with the sheets wrapped around her legs. They had never gotten out of the house to get coffee and had eventually made their way back to the bedroom. Tom debated between waking her to move on with the day or slipping back into unconsciousness when she spoke.
“Did I fall asleep?” She looked up at the clock and move up the bed.
“We both did.” he said putting his arm around her shoulder and adjusting the pillows so he could sit up. “You fell asleep halfway through telling me about Alexandria.”
“Mmmmm… Alexandria.” she purred at the memory. “They’ll never make a better city. We actually got close enough to see where Alexander was buried.” She stretched her back out and some small pops came from her lower spine. “God I wish I could have interviewed someone there, see what the people that lived there thought about him.”
Tom ran his fingers up and down her back as she relaxed against him. “Think that’s going too far?” he asked. “I figure we run enough of a risk just showing up with all that gear and knowledge. Keeping our distance seems like the least we could do.”
Dayna smiled and moved her way up until she had found a spot between his shoulder and ear to rest her chin in.
“Can’t keep your distance,” she said with a flirtatious, knowing voice “We can only get so much by looking at the buildings, papers, and wars.” She gently and playfully bit his neck. “We have to talk to the people. Have to see where they think the world is going and where they think it should go.” Tom inhaled and his blood began rushing. “That’s more than worth the risk.”
It was the one time during the day that Tom couldn’t leave the thought of telling her the truth alone. He thought that right there as she egged him on that he might burst out that she wasn’t really here. That she was cold and stored in the company’s vault after becoming one of the victims of Hannibal’s strategy.
But he didn’t, he let her nibble on his neck until he had enough blood flow and endorphins to press it down again.
Tom was asked by the management to take the next week off after Dr.Talbot left. He had been able to keep it together throughout the sendoff, but was discovered in the bathroom and hour later unable to muffle his sobs of anger and grief in one of the stalls. A tech reported it and he was called into Joe’s office and told there would be no shame in taking some time.
“Dr. Talbot’s final return is scheduled for Tuesday.” Joe said to Tom in his office. “After she returns we’ll sync her schedule with ours, but it appears she will be going on a trip to the following Thursday to document some part of Versailles construction. After that she’s out of our margin of and her body will be released to the family.”
Tom was going to argue that he was fine, but stopped himself when he could see he wasn’t being given an option. He could feel the strain in his muscles from his time with Dayna the day before and he knew they were right. He thanked Joe for understanding and signed the papers allowing him his vacation.
He got the text Wednesday
“Out of debrief. Take me out for a drink and I’ll tell you about what Labour’s Love Won was like.”
He didn’t answer for a while. He played out the scene in his head. He saw them sitting in their usual bar as she told him the details of Shakespeare’s lost play. Telling him how she snuck in with a camera concealed in a contact lens and taped the words of dead men for posterity. He tried to imagine any situation where he didn’t grab her and take her as far away as they could possibly go before she was missed by the people who would send her to die. Tried to imagine not telling her that that humanity deserved whatever disaster it brought onto itself with its assumption that she deserved such a sudden and pointless death.
He couldn’t see himself being able to hold it together. He couldn’t imagine not going to see her.
He knew he was in love, because all he could think as he left for the bar was “What’s five hundred people compared to her?”