It took four hours and several phone calls before the guards were convinced that seeing duplicates of the scientists was supposed to be a normal part of their duties and something they should not think about.
Kent waited for the arrival of Jerry and Bill.
Dirty and exhausted, Jerry was the first walk in. He looked at Kent standing without a cane. “You’re back from the future. How is Tara?”
Kent waited for Bill to join them.
“I’m back to keep the project on track. We can talk about the job, but I won’t be saying anything else. The both of you should take a past-time couple of days off, starting now. There will be three of us to do the job of four and we have a lot of ground to cover.”
Twenty-four hours a day, for three weeks, they worked hard. Kent noticed the times Jerry and Bill would whisper together, but he tried not to react.
The day of Tara’s death, he returned from his sleep time and was unable to force himself back to the lab.
It’s too late. They now had a solid theoretical basis for what could and what could not be accomplished with past time travel. There was no magic involved, no Maxwell-like demons manipulating the molecules behind the scenes. It was all spelled out in the equations.
“I’m sorry Tara,” he whispered, “there’s no way I can pull you out of this.”
Kent checked out of the base and followed a half-dozen dirt roads in the desert, randomly following the urge to lose himself.
Thirst and the cold desert night finally drove him back. There were a few things he had to take care of.
Tara’s room was empty. Someone had removed everything, even the bedding.
Mrs. Lassiter. That made sense. Efficient military minds. Someone had collected her personal effects and delivered them to Tara’s mother.
I really wanted that diary. He should have taken care of that before.
He straightened up. At least time travel was good for some things. The book was still here yesterday.
He paced nervously in her room. When was she due? He knew the date, but not the exact time. Her diary hadn’t been that precise about this first meeting.
“I’ve got to settle down. It’ll do no good to be on edge.” Tara had been testy that day. He had to avoid irritating her.
He picked up a novel from her dresser, stacked a couple of pillows behind his back and stretched out on the bed to read. He had to get his mind distracted.
Ten minutes later, she opened the door. She gasped.
He nodded, “Hello, Tara.”
His heart raced to see her again, but he put a clamp on his emotions. Play it cool. She’s tired.
She was giving him the cold eye, examining him like a bug under a magnifying glass.
“When did you come from?” she asked.
Kent felt at ease for the first time in ages. He also felt a lot older. How many months had his personal time line stretched as it wove in and out of the calendar? He’d lost track. It felt like years.
He read Tara’s diary again, taking comfort from her few scribbled pages. As each day with her in past-time came and went, he read new meaning into her words.
“I am fascinated by Kent’s ring. Where did it come from?”
“Me too, Tara. I guess today’s the day.”
He hid the book and walked toward the lab.
Tara met him on the way. Kent put his finger to his lips, and gestured toward the chamber room.
“I’ve got a special treat planned.”
She frowned, “I have to get some rest. The general is coming tomorrow and I have to be prepared.”
“You will be. Trust me. We’ll only be gone a short while.”
She thawed, and nodded. He set the controls and shortly the both of them were nearly two months into the past.
“Are you up for a road trip?” he asked.
“I’ll need to pack.”
“No. You’re not even here yet. We’ll buy more clothes on the road.”
With a previously forged entry in the security station’s log to explain her presence, they checked out and headed for Las Vegas.
He noticed her watching him as they drove. Living in the current moment was a skill he’d learned with effort. It made living bearable.
His wife was there, breathing beside him. What the future held was unimportant. She was there. She existed.
And she was happy.
Las Vegas announced itself in the distance with a pillar of light from one of the casinos.
“You’ve visited the Strip before?” He knew she hadn’t, from her diary.
“No. I flew in, when I came here, but I didn’t visit the sights.” They drove the lighted streets.
“They use as much electricity here as we do,” he chuckled.
She put her hand on his arm. “Pull over.”
“Just do it.”
He found a close casino parking lot. “Yes?”
She looked out the back window. Then turned to face him.
“Kent, I know you said we were married, but that’s only half true. You may have married me, but I haven’t married you yet.”
He nodded, “Well, that’s true.”
“So let’s do it here.” She pointed to the Little White Wedding Chapel down the street.
Kent looked it over, and then began laughing.
He composed himself. Or tried to.
“Well, you proposed the first time. I guess it’s not surprising you’d do it the second time.”
She grinned, “Or vise versa.”
“Right.” He looked again at the billboard. “Okay, do you want to take advantage of their Drive-Thru wedding chapel?”
She didn’t. There was some shopping to do. Tara was the one who spotted the rings.
“Those are the ones aren’t they? Kent, let me see your ring. I want to see if that’s the same one.”
He held his hand back. “No.”
She looked puzzled.
“I don’t want to risk it.”
He hesitated, then explained in a low voice. “We solved the gas paradox issue. Gas molecules are so close to the quantum limits that they could tunnel easily. So it really made no difference which gas molecules went back into the past, they were all identical anyway.
“It’s different with structured matter. The probability that a scrap of metal, for example, could tunnel-exchange with an identical piece is so low that it’s impossible.
“If my ring accidentally touched its earlier version, silver atoms could scrape from one to the other, setting up a time loop. It would throw this visit, all my visits with you, into the paradoxical. I’m not going to risk it.”
She read the grave expression on his face, and nodded. “Right. We won’t get them close.” She picked up the little box and snapped it shut.
They married in the Crystal Chapel. Kent arranged to have the photos held until he called for them.
“I know a better place for a honeymoon.” He told her.
They drove to the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley. It was off-season and they had the place almost to themselves. The third night there, relaxing beside the fireplace next to the hot-springs filled olympic-sized pool, Tara stared up at the brilliant stars overhead.
“This place is below sea level.”
He nodded. “About two hundred feet. It gets even lower down by Badwater.”
She wrapped her bathrobe a little tighter against the night chill. “I think it bothers me.”
“What? Being below sea level?”
She nodded. “It feels wrong somehow. All that potential energy in the ocean, just a few hundred miles away, just aching to fill this place up.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
She shrugged. “I guess I feel that way about being here in the past, too.”
“Yes.” She looked at him bashfully, the flames reflecting from her eyes. “I feel like I ought to be back there at the lab, with the clueless Kent, trying to figure out how to get him interested in me.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. I’m easy.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“I am. I was never so shocked as when you proposed to me.”
“Not because you proposed, but because I accepted so quickly. I think I must’ve been waiting for you to make the first move.”
“Should you be telling me this?”
“Why not? It won’t make any difference.” He turned away to stare at the fire. He could tell her. Maybe she would understand.
But if she avoided the accident, he would never have contrived to go back and woo her here in the past. A paradox, that even if possible, would destroy the only moments they had together.
But it wasn’t possible. He knew that now.
Tara let herself be talked into extending their stay for a full week, but after that she was firm.
“I’ve got to go back—before I get too confused. I have two Kents to think about, and you have two Taras. I really think we need to get back in sync.”
He nodded. “This was a special time.”
They returned to the base, and he kept his composure for three seconds past the moment she vanished back to her interrupted life.
A month to the day after his last visit, General Hershey escorted by Jerry was into the conference room.
Kent Shaw sat at the table. There were no presentation documents—no projector for the charts.
Just a single lab notebook rested under his fingertips. Jerry left.
Kent shifted in his chair. “Are you married, General?”
“Yes, I am. Thirty-two years.”
Kent nodded to himself.
“I’d like to tell you a story.”
When it was done. After all the twists and turns, the two men sat silently together. The military man closed the notebook and leaned back in his chair.
“I’ve always suspected it was impossible to go back and fix our mistakes.”
He pushed the notebook across to Kent.
“Still, there’ve been a number of times in my life as well, when I would’ve given anything for just a little more time.
“Just a little more time to make things fit.”