After a long time, Samuel’s world turned brown and then slowly regained individual colors.
“Okay. There you go,” a female voice said as she eased him into a chair.
Samuel turned his head and puked. Unfortunately the owner of the voice had been standing there. Samuel looked up from his retching, spittle and bile still clutching to his mouth. She was the most beautiful woman Samuel had ever seen, and Samuel had just vomited on her shoes.
She took it as well as could be expected, though. “Hello there,” she said. “Happens to everyone on their first shift.”
“Hello,” Samuel said, trying to sound smart.
“You know Melinda?” The old man’s voice was strained. “I should think your meeting hadn’t happened yet.”
“Only in his branch,” she said with a wink.
Samuel finally took in his surroundings and found himself in a dull brown room. A wide desk stood on one side and bookshelves covered the walls. It seemed like any generic professor’s office in any generic college.
Melinda took a device from her pocket and vaporized the puke. Within seconds her shoes were gleaming white again.
“Who was that man with the gun?” Samuel asked once he could get the words out.
The old man coughed. A red stain widened at his side and his skin had turned an ashen grey.
“Professor!” Melinda jumped to his side.
“It’s nothing,” the professor said. “We must prepare him for the Paradox.”
“The what?” Samuel asked.
The professor waved a hand toward Melinda as if to shoo the question toward her. His face grew even paler as if he might disappear altogether.
“Time is like a tree.” Melinda said. “And as possibilities expand the tree alters and grows and branches out in a complex web. Yet sometimes there are…thicker branches where possibilities converge despite different circumstances.
“Suffice it to say, you’ve been shifted forward in time nearly four hundred years to the twenty-third century. We brought you here to prevent a collapse of the entire time tree.”
The professor coughed again. Blood stained his hands.
Melinda fussed over him like a mother over her son. He waved her away and urged her to continue as he kept coughing.
“Have you ever heard of a paradox?” Melinda asked, urgency now filling her voice. “It’s a sort of impossibility, like two things occupying the same space at the same time, or someone killing their ancestor.”
Before Samuel could answer no, the professor spoke. He stumbled, hacking and coughing, into a story. “Long ago a man saw the injustice and cruelty and horrors of this world and decided that he would do something, rather, that he must do something. He started in the courts, law enforcement. The mechanisms were primitive, slow, error prone. He improved on them and collapsed branch after branch of unjust possibilities. But as often as he eliminated an injustice, a new one arose to take its place.”
The professor coughed and hacked for a long minute.
Samuel looked at Melinda. He opened his mouth to speak, but she shook her head.
Eventually the professor pressed on with his story. “He came to believe he was only treating the symptoms, never curing the disease. The universe was broken, a lost cause, something to be done away with. What else could he do, but reset it, start over, collapse the entire tree. He needed something to break all the webs of possibilities and bring us back to one reality, a reality without time travel. He needed a paradox.”
“Our bodies are living things. Cells multiply, divide and die,” Melinda said. “Even if you were to shift backward in time and shake your own hand, it probably wouldn’t be the exact same atoms.”
“So no para-whats-it?” Samuel asked.
“Correct, no paradox.”
“His initial try for a paradox failed, at least in our time branches,” the Professor said as he hobbled to the bookshelf. He seemed thinner than when Samuel had first met him. “He tried to kill you before you invented time travel. But there were branches like ours where he couldn’t do it, where that possibility never happened. Time travel lived on. He needed something where choice wouldn’t create more branches. Or, rather, he needed a particular choice that would collapse all branches including the ones where the choice wasn’t made.”
The Professor pulled out a particular book from the shelf and replaced it between two others. Suddenly the bookshelf turned orange and then red as if it had been cast in colored light. Finally it disappeared altogether. Behind the bookshelf was a short tunnel. It ended about thirty feet away, at a small cul-de-sac around a table.
“So he created a technology that could track an item, even as small as a molecule down a branch of time. Bit by bit that angry, bitter man,” continued the Professor, “gathered the molecules that had been those in his heart. He scoured the future for decades identifying and capturing those atoms. Then he took them and forged this knife.” He pointed to an ornate knife that lay in the center of the table.
Samuel walked down the little tunnel to inspect the knife. The Professor and Melinda followed.
The knife’s handle was made of stone. White and red and brown folded into each other along the exquisite handle. The back of the blade curved down to meet the tip, making it perfect for thrusting deep into the target. Inlaid all along the blade were beautiful swoops and swirls and curves and crescents. Set into these inlays was a substance of a dull reddish grey color.
“Pieces of his heart,” the Professor said, pointing at the inlay.
“It has an odd poetry to it,” Melinda said.
“The moment is coming,” the Professor said, “when the molecules in his heart will be the same as these and he can put the same particles in the same place at the same-“
Samuel looked up. The Professor and Melinda disappeared before his eyes. Where or whence they went Samuel did not know, but coming towards him down the tunnel from the office was a man.
“They cannot help you anymore,” the man said, “if they died before they came to you. Lucky for me they were both from a different branch.”
As he stepped out of the tunnel into the light of that curved room, Samuel saw the last person he expected: the Professor. He was a little younger perhaps, but it was definitely him.