Eddie stared out the apartment window. Down in the parking lot, the girl with purple eyes argued with her brother, a tall, scrappy guy with sunken cheeks. Eddie considered going down there to stand up for the girl, but would she thank him for getting involved in family matters?
"You ready for this Ed?"
Eddie turned. Tim sat in his favorite spot, a threadbare easy chair with stuffing visible along the seams. He wore a black leather vest, a Hawaiian shirt and cut-off jeans, leaning back. In his palm sat a pale spotted rat with pink ears. It stood on its haunches, sniffing Tim's face.
Next to Tim, the entire wall featured a series of connected rat cages. Tim had built wire-mesh walkways linking aquariums, bird cages, hamster cages and mesh turrets, allowing his rats to climb from one enclosure to the next—a hive of squirming rodent activity that ran all the way up the wall. The room stank of wood shavings and rat urine, but Eddie had been around enough to get used to it.
"You really think this will work?" Eddie asked, dropping the front curtain back in place.
"It's already worked. You won't believe how weird it is." Tim leaned his face forward so his nose touched the nose of the curious rat.
"You're seriously going to send a rat forward in time."
Tim scoffed. "Back in time. It's very different."
"How? How does this machine work?" Eddie waved a hand at the equipment dominating the center of the room. A narrow metallic channel like a rain gutter ran ten feet along the floor. Midpoint along its length, a metallic frame surrounded the channel with wires and clamps running off it from all sides, tangling around the carpet and leading back to a black box of switches and dials. The contraption linked to an old laptop held together with duct tape.
"What do you know about wormholes," Tim asked.
"They're popular in science fiction."
"They take you from one point in space to another."
Tim raised a finger, startling the rat. "Not only space. They're also capable of connecting different points in time."
Eddie leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "More science fiction."
Tim laughed. "Yeah, it sounds like it, but down at a quantum level... well, okay, it's not so easy to explain. Trust me. It's possible. I wrote my graduate thesis on the alignment and control of tiny wormholes within the quantum foam through electromagnetic manipulation. The details aren't important. What's important is that I can send a rat back in time two seconds."
"In theory," Eddie said.
"No, I've actually done it."
Eddie blinked. "Shut up."
"It's true. I've done it several times. When I get the calibration right and I send a rat along this track through that little portal there, they come out the other side before they go in."
Eddie crouched and inspected the portal. "This thing?"
"This is a time machine."
"So if I stuck my hand through there, It would come out before I put it through?"
"Um." Tim frowned. He placed the rat on his shoulder and leaned forward. "You don't want to do that."
"The portal only works one way. You could put your hand through, but you wouldn't be able to bring it back out again."
"Because it's not the type of time machine that takes you into the future. Only the past. If you tried to pull your arm back, your present arm would block your past hand."
"Trust me. We're bending the rules of spacetime here. If you stuff your arm through, your only way out is to either cut off your arm or push your whole body through, which, as you can see, is impossible. I can't even push the rat track through that way. I've experimented with inanimate objects. I can push a length of rope through the portal, but I can't pull it back out. It's strictly a one-way door."
Eddie peered through both sides. "I can see through it. Am I looking into the past?"
"I haven't started it yet."
Eddie stared through a little longer. He sat back. He glanced up at Tim, who scratched at the head of the rat on his shoulder. "So, tell me, why do you need me here?"
Tim dropped his hand into his lap. "Because, I think this thing is making me crazy."
Eddie frowned. "You mean like it makes you believe you can travel two seconds back in time?"
"No, that's true. I've been doing this for a week now, and the proof is undeniable."
Tim pressed his thumbs together between his knees. "I don't know how to describe it. It feels like things have changed—like... all around me." He pointed at the phone hanging on the wall by the kitchen. "My phone is red. It's always been red. I remember when Lila bought it. She said it would go with the wallpaper. But..."
Eddie studied the phone. He'd been in this apartment dozens of times. It had been months since the last time, before Aunt Lila died and Tim went a little crazy with the rats he rescued from his company lab. Eddie remembered the phone, a red phone, and yet...
"Blue," Eddie said.
Tim pointed at him. "You're thinking it too?"
"I don't... I remember that phone being red, but part of me thinks it should be blue."
"Maybe you won't be able to help after all," Tim said. "You're already sharing my madness, and we haven't even turned the machine on."
"What's mad about thinking the phone should be blue. It's no big deal."
"But it's not just the phone. It's all kinds of things. On TV, news anchors have changed... but they haven't. The gas station down on the corner—its name has changed. Speedy Fill. That's what the sign says, and it's an old sign. But I swear it used to be... I don't know. Fuel Fast, I think. If you stick around, you might go crazy like me."
Eddie frowned. "Why would a time machine make things change? It's not as if you walked back in time and killed Adolf Hitler. You sent a rat back two seconds into the past. What can change in two seconds?"
"I don't get it either."
"The time machine. Maybe I can help."
Tim grinned. "I have a doctorate in quantum physics. You're flunking algebra."
"I'm not stupid. Algebra is boring."
"If you pass your algebra class, I'll let you help."
"Well, show me what you wanted to show me."
Tim nodded and moved to the floor. He sat cross-legged in front of the switch box. He flipped a switch, turned a dial and watched the portal. Nothing happened for a moment. Then a low hum rose from the portal frame. The air within it shimmered.
"Cool," Eddie said.
"Oh, it gets better." Tim kept his hands on two dials. As he adjusted them, he watched the portal. The air within shimmered and went black.
"What happened? Is it broke?"
"No, the black field is necessary. It's also very difficult to maintain. I can push inanimate objects through, but the rats refuse to go through it if they can see the other side."
"It scares them. Terrifies them in fact. I'd put a piece of cheese on the other side of the portal, but if they can see through to the other side, they won't even try."
Eddie considered this. "If they go through the portal... then before they get to the other side, they'll already be..." He shook his head. "Wait."
Tim grinned, his teeth bared. "You're beginning to see the problem, aren't you?"
Eddie rubbed his temples. "If you go through a portal two seconds into the past, and there's nothing blocking your view, you will find yourself already on the other side before you get through."
"But if you see yourself there on the other side and you decide not to go through because you're already there, then you never went through, so you can't have been there on the other side... and you can't have seen yourself there."
"I can't wait to find out what that feels like first hand," Tim said.
"But then you've created a paradox without actually doing anything," Eddie said. His head hurt. "You intend to go through—"
" Intent is key here," Tim interrupted, raising a finger.
"But you don't go through, but you kind of did, even though it never happened."
"Does your brain hurt yet?"
"Yes. Why did you build this thing? Just to mess with reality?"
Tim's grin fell. His eyes dropped to the carpet. "I think my reason for building this should be obvious."
The truth dawned on Eddie. His heart sank. "You want to go back to when Lila was alive."
"I can save her, Eddie. I can make it so she never left home that day."
Eddie leaned back against the couch. "Tim, don't you think it's..."
"Don't tell me move on," Tim shouted. "I have it in my power to bring her back. I will bring her back."
"But if you go back in time and save her, then everything that's happened..."
"Don't lecture me on any kind of paradox bullshit. None of that matters. The only thing that matters is Lila."
Eddie had never seen Tim like this. His teeth bared, his eyes wide and angry.
"I'm not going to tell you anything," Eddie said. "Let's see the..."
The room faded. Eddie's perception shifted from participant to observer. His mind withdrew. He wasn't in Tim's apartment at all. As the scene grew more distant, he realized it had been a dream. He was...
He was asleep in Bryce's car. Flying. Despite this awareness, the dream hung on. He watched a far-away conversation between himself and Tim, and a voice cut into his dream—a woman's voice, sharp and precise...
" I thought you'd appreciate this glimpse into your past. My name is Gretchen Atwater, and it's critical that we meet soon. Take the duck."