Tara was hurt and angry. Why her?
She opened the door to her little room. It was hardly more than a place for bed, bath, and closet.
Kent Shaw was lounging on her bed, two pillows propped behind his back, reading a novel she’d brought with her to the project and never had time to open.
She was speechless. Her flash of anger faded. This wasn’t the man she left a moment ago.
His hair was grayer, the face more relaxed, showing some smile lines. And he was wearing a plaid shirt and jeans instead of the lab coat he always wore.
A gleam of silver flashed from a ring on his left hand as he held the book.
His smile grew as he watched her put the pieces together.
“When did you come from?” she asked.
“I can’t tell you.”
She nodded. Minimize the information passed back and reduce the paradox potential.
“Why did you come here?”
He set the novel aside and tilted his head a little. “You sent me back. I always pay attention to what my wife tells me.”
Ten hours later, Tara rejoined the researchers. Kent looked up and smiled. “You look rested. Did you get enough sleep?”
She nodded. For her it had been a day and a half. The older Kent had insisted she get a nice long sleep before she strained her brain with too many questions. He had a teapot steaming and her favorite tea of chamomile, valerian and mint already for her when she came out of her shower.
In spite of the preposterous claim that they were married, he tucked her off to bed without the slightest hint that he should join her. She was asleep in an instant.
Eight hours later, she woke with a start.
Kent was holding up a robe. “Time to relocate. We’re on a schedule.”
Not even giving her time to get dressed, he led the way to the chamber room.
“You go first. I’ll meet you there a few seconds later.”
“But it doesn’t work for me!” Tara protested. The walk down the corridor, bare feet padding on the tile had woken her up a little, but she was still very confused.
“It will now.” He was confident. “It was all a mental attitude thing. That’s changed.”
How can you know how my mind works? But when she pressed the button, he appeared to vanish. She cleared the chair for him.
It had worked, this time. He was right.
Kent smiled, “Now, we have time. Let’s get you back to your room.”
It was the same room, but obviously at a time before she’d moved in. Kent had planned ahead. A hot breakfast tray was waiting, as was a change of clothes—not her own, but in all the correct sizes and colors she would have chosen herself.
After she ate and dressed, Kent fluffed the pillow and handed over her novel.
“Today is for relaxing. I can’t tell you much. I’m practically a mute. Just save your breath and enjoy the day. We’ll get you back to the lab at the right time.”
That didn’t stop her from asking. “When did we get married? Did the project get renewed? Did you solve the energy issue?” He smiled patiently and put his finger to his lips. “The answers will come, in time. Now read your book.”
She turned back to the pages, but the mystery in ink was much less perplexing than that ring she spied on his hand. It belonged there, she could tell. The skin was pale and indented under the metal, as if he’d worn it for a long time.
One night’s sleep hadn’t made up for the long days before. She dozed off many times, and made little progress on the novel. Kent had meals ready, and seemed content to watch her from his chair. How many secrets were there in his head? How many careless words would start a paradox that would cancel this idyll? He just smiled back at her. There was something in his eyes, but she couldn’t decipher it.
When she woke the next morning, to the coolness of a kiss on her forehead, he said, “It’s time to get you back to your original timeline. After breakfast, of course.”
Tara listened to Kent as he described their progress. He looked so much younger.
“Bill has done some calculations that has blown a big hole in my paradox theory.”
“Oh, what’s that?” She tried to get her mind back into the technical groove.
“He calculated the quantity of air that went back in time with him in the chamber. As you can see, given the enclosed room and the diffusion rates, several million molecules had to have lingered near the chamber and been swept back in time again.
“It’s a classic time-loop! Some of those molecules were never pre-existent. They were never created. They just looped through the five weeks and now no longer exist.”
Tara frowned at the figures. “Are you sure?”
“We did tests. Just ten minutes the first time. Unless you buy the idea that some ‘paradox prevention force’ was sorting the air molecules in the air of the chamber room, it’s pretty conclusive.”
He pulled up a screen on the computer. “Check this out. We did three tests, at one minute, five minutes, and ten minutes. Look at the energy figures.”
Her eyes traced the rows of numbers.
“They follow the trend.”
“Right! At least on the molecular level, time-loop paradoxes are possible, but we pay for it in energy consumption.”
Kent shook his head, pleased to be proved wrong. “We’ve got far too much new ground to cover before the military review. Are you rested?”
She nodded. “Perfectly.”
The project schedule was impossible, but with the three men on round-the-clock work shifts, and with her eighteen-hour shifts, they were spinning their wheels with great efficiency.
They could force gas molecules into a paradoxical state, but anything more organized blew the capacitor bank.
Tara had her own mystery to solve. The next night, wedding ring Kent escorted her again to the past. The ‘bonus weekend’ was much like the one before, but she spent less time napping. They played chess, and she discovered that his past life was an open book. He would chat for hours about anything that happened before the project.
He was just as eager to listen to her. “I hadn’t heard that one,” he said more than once as she apologized for rambling on about her early years at Caltech.
Back in the lab, she was unable to mention the older Kent Shaw to anyone, especially not to his earlier version. It was too risky. The slightest misspoken sentence would send her rest time into the paradoxical.
Would I just cease to exist? Certainly these memories would.
Perhaps it wasn’t possible to say the wrong thing, but she wasn’t willing to give up her new secret life, not for anything.
Tara’s eyes were glazed, staring off at nothing, her head rested on her hand. Kent sighed. It’s a shame she can’t get the past-time sleep like the rest of us.
“Do you have the projections?” he asked.
She blinked, and turned efficiently back to the computer screen. “Ah, yes. The differential is 3.7 gigajoules.”
She shook her head. “That’s way too much. Sorry.”
“You aren’t responsible for the laws of physics.”
He smiled and she smiled back. Her sharp tongue had vanished over the past few days. Kent didn’t know why, but he was grateful. People change, he mused. Certainly, the reality of time transfer had changed him.
But if the meeting goes badly tomorrow, that will be the end of it. If the military dropped the project, lack of money, and those pesky secrecy documents he had to sign would put him totally out of the time travel business.
A touch on his hand shook him out of his thoughts.
Tara said, “It is time for lunch. My brain is a little fuzzy. How about you?”
“Fine.” He dropped his notepad on the table. His calculations were degenerating into doodles anyway. How to get the paradoxical state to encompass structured matter was elusive. His brain seemed to be caught in a time loop of its own.
She walked beside him, towards the door.
“Kent? Have you give much thought to your future—once the project has been completed?”
He laughed. “Not for a second. I feel like I’ll be trapped down here forever.”