For a moment, a second, an eternity, the purple light dimmed and dispersed. Panic rose in Lilly’s throat, but there was nothing to do but press on and hope it returned.
Fowler had not been as close to time travel as either James or Fowler himself had hoped, and James saw many long hours ahead of him.
That night Lilandra called Cassy. “Hi. Do you know where James is?” she asked, though it wasn’t a question.
Cassy slammed the phone on the table. The message came through loud and clear: James was with Lilandra. Cassy wouldn’t be looking for James any time soon.
It took James all that night and deep into the next day before he could even understand the differences between his original work and Fowler’s shoddy copy. But there were spots of genius there, too. The thermal coupler had been transformed into a much simpler and more effective unit; the tachyon canon’s beam was far more focused than anything he’d seen on the market; a more intuitive program interface prevented errors and encouraged experimentation. None of these were commercial, either—all were custom builds and custom coding.
Every time Fowler opened his mouth he proved how little he understood. Lilandra was capable enough, but this wasn’t her field. If she’d built these things herself she could’ve finished the job, and there would be no need for him. James’ time echo must have kept working, kept refining, kept growing. “He was my best self,” James thought.
At about four a.m. Sunday morning, James stepped off the time machine platform and slumped to the floor. Lilandra poked him with her pliers. “You finish?”
James raised himself and spluttered, “It’s done.”
Lilandra woke up Fowler. “It’s done,” she said. “Our Nobel prize is waiting.”
James looked at his atomic smart watch. He used the time recording function to remember the exact moment. Sleepily he looked up and saw himself appear out of thin air, step into the time machine, and hit a few buttons. The wailing from the closet stopped.
The double then ran forward and pushed James away from the computer. He entered a few commands on the keyboard, mumbled “recursive,” and ran to the time machine and yanked cables out and dismantled everything in reach. Fowler and Lilandra were both stupefied by the double for a second, but once they realized what he was doing, Fowler jumped on the double’s back, while Lilandra searched frantically for the weapon Fowler had hidden under his coat.
Fowler had weight and a little height on the double, but the double had come prepared and used a wire he had ripped from the time machine to even the odds.
Lilandra found the coat and pulled from it a small, single-shot pistol. It was silver-plated and covered in gaudy rhinestones. She first aimed at the struggling men, but decided against it and walked over to the still sleepy James. She pointed it at his temple.
“Stop!” she shouted, “Or I kill your original.”
The two men stopped struggling. James’s double looked at the gun and frowned. “Does your grandmother know you stole it from her?”
“Meemaw gave it to me, thank you very much,” Fowler said.
“James, over there,” she said, motioning James’s double toward the closet.
“What? Where?” James asked.
“Not you, the other you.” She turned her attention to Fowler. “Stick him in there with the demented one.”
Fowler opened the closet, but no doppelgänger of James appeared, just cleaning supplies, a mop bucket and a broken broom.
“Where’d he go?” Lilandra demanded.
Fowler spluttered and stared at the empty closet.
“An echo,” said James, beginning to understand, “cannot exist beyond his point of origin.”
“Then why didn’t he disappear when he caught up?” Fowler asked.
“He just did.” James smiled. He looked down at his watch and clicked the time record button again. Again, a copy of James appeared.
“I love my future self,” James said. A third echo appeared, but this time James hadn’t marked the time on his watch. And this double wore gloves and a department store camouflage outfit.
He appeared close to Lilandra and snatched the puny gun from her. With a shaking hand, he pointed the gun at Fowler, and fired.
To Be Continued…