Faisal hurried up the forest paths and out of the park beside the Prince, Jesse and Enioreh tagging along. Hedoniet responded loudly and vaguely to the Prince’s sciencey-questions – Faisal seemed to think he had a much better grasp of how things worked than he actually did. The Prince tried to make it sound like he’d had a part in developing the Chronojuice, but Enioreh was pretty sure he didn’t know much more than she did. She was able to pick up on bits and pieces of what the scientist was talking about, but she just smiled blankly whenever he looked at her with a question. Like anyone else, she knew only the most basic sketch of life on earth before the war. There were still enough antebellum books left that anyone could probably find one if they really wanted to – her mother, during her long sickness, had started a collection of ancient literature, and even used to read passages out loud from time to time. But who in their right mind had the time or patience to sit there and try to learn about the dark ages? She knew the beginning of the war had something to do with psytrons; they were what made modern weapons so deadly and transportation so easy. The empire had officially announced its boundaries some dozens of years after psytrons were discovered. From the way Faisal was talking, Enioreh had an uneasy feeling that this age was a very technologically primitive one indeed. It sounded like people here didn’t even believe in psytrons.
They had come to a place where the green grass ended, and a black pavement road stretched out in each direction around tall, rectangular dwellings. Enioreh took a deep breath, surprised at the 21st century scenery; the Prince, totally unfazed, tried to walk across the street and was yanked sharply backward by Faisal as a number of metal containers-on-wheels shot down the pavement with loud honking sounds.
“Haven’t you ever seen a street before?” Faisal chastised.
“And to think,” said the Prince in amazement, “Those contraptions were likely traveling at a rate under one-hundred miles per hour. But they seem so much more dangerous when they’re beside you.”
Enioreh looked up as they walked, to where the tops of buildings touched the blue sky. She was starting to feel the usual nervousness of a place that was too quiet, even though the antique machines rumbling on the road were loud; there was a regularity and normalcy to the sounds that was nothing like what she was used to.
They finally stopped in front of a huge brick building, by a staircase leading down.
“There are labs down here with some good equipment,” Faisal explained, eagerly. “Hopefully one of them will be open. If I can test some of these predictions…”
“If you’re going to the lab, why don’t I take the picnic things home?” Said Jesse uncomfortably. “I won’t be of much help, I’m sure.”
“Good idea,” said Faisal, turning around to hand off the basket.
“Can I go with you?” Enioreh blurted, before she knew what she was saying.
Jesse looked surprised, and Faisal looked up quickly.
“I thought you were visitors from a war-torn future who needed my help to build your time-machine?” He said in a suspicious tone. “Don’t you want to join me in the laboratory?”
“Umm…” Said Enioreh. She had a strange kind of feeling, and she didn’t know how to say it in a way that would make rational sense. Somehow the four of them were equal parts in one destiny; the idea of any one of them rolling around alone made her nervous.
“Oh, she’s of no use to us at this stage,” Said the Prince assuredly. “She’s only here because her brain is well suited to chronotrek – she’s our test-traveler. She’s not at all versed in the mechanics of it.”
Enioreh rolled her eyes at the Prince’s insinuations that he was.
“It’s ok,” said Jesse quietly. “I don’t mind the company.”
Faisal gave Jesse a quick, fierce look. “Maybe you’d have more fun at Starbucks? The one with the lots of people.”
“Sure,” said Jesse slowly. “Text me when you’re done.”
“The one with the lots of people, don’t forget!” Faisal called after them once more.
“Does he think we’re trying to kill you guys, or something?” Enioreh asked when they were out of earshot.
“Huh?” said Jesse, looking alertly up. “Why would you think that?”
“Now you think we’re trying to kill you.” Said Enioreh. “You guys aren’t really subtle about it. Back home new people always look at each other that way, but, like, less exaggerated. Eyes dart down to your hands, looking for weapons, back up to your face, trying to read you, back and forth all the time you’re talking. Back home it’s cause new people are always trying to kill you. But it doesn’t seem like that here. Here it seems, so…nice. It’s weird.”
Jesse didn’t say anything.
“I mean, it’s cool, and everything,” Enioreh added. “If it’s real. I just can’t help feeling weird about it, you know? It’s different from what I know.”
Jesse gave her a weak smile, not meeting her eyes.
“You think I’d fit in here if the Chronojuice doesn’t pan out? I didn’t want to say anything in front of the Prince, but you should know he’s not a scientist. He’s just a speech-giver, and I’m a journalist; we really don’t know the first thing about getting from one time to another. Faisal would have to be a genius to figure it out from the blueprints. We could be stuck here forever – what would you think about that?”
Jesse shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really don’t know what to make of any of this…”
“You don’t believe we time-traveled? The blueprints seemed to convince Faisal.”
They arrived at a building with wide glass windows and people trickling in and out at lazy intervals.
“Why don’t you find a table and wait for me,” said Jesse, as they entered.
Enioreh found a seat below a boxy device with a shallow moving picture. She blinked hard looking at it, trying to make sense of the clashing shapes, until Jesse returned from a counter with two steaming cylinders.
“I got you some coffee,” he said.
Enioreh sniffed the drink curiously and drank some. It had a hard, dark flavor – she liked it.
“I don’t know how you knew my name,” said Jesse quietly. “Coming from the future wouldn’t explain that. Faisal thinks the technology is legit, and I’ve never seen anything like that holograph stuff in my whole life, so obviously you’re working for someone powerful, but I can’t imagine why anyone with that level of technology would bother showing it off to a couple of grad students. Maybe you guys are scouts of some kind – do scientists use talent scouts, even? Maybe Faisal caught your attention with one of his papers or at some conference, and this is your impressive recruitment technique? It just seems like a huge risk to get one scientist on your side, showing him so much of your technology. I just frankly don’t know what to think, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that you’re a couple of crazies or evil geniuses waiting for an opportunity to kill your competition. So, yeah. I’ve got my hand on my cell phone, and if Faisal doesn’t call me, alive, by the time this place closes, I’m calling the cops.”
Enioreh cocked her head to the side, studying Jesse. He was so strangely familiar. And there was something in his face that wasn’t pure confusion or anxiety. “You’re hiding something.”
Jesse bit his lip, tapping his middle finger on the table. “If you’re from the future, can’t you prove it?” Asked Jesse. “Tell me something important that happens tomorrow. Tell me what’s going to be on the news tonight.”
“Come on, that’s not fair,” said Enioreh. “What year is it, even?”
“2008,” said Jesse.
“See! What the hell! We’re in the dark ages and you expect me to know something that happened today? It’s not even a significant year.”
“Didn’t you bring a super-futuristic laptop, or something?” Asked Jesse coldly. “If your technology’s so advanced, it should be easy for you to find out.”
Enioreh gave a hollow laugh. “Oh, yeah, it’s so easy to research ancient trivia when you’re dodging bombs, I totally forgot. Not like survival is more important, or anything. In the first place, we weren’t even supposed to be here, we were supposed to be going to the Battle of Theminus – and in the second place we left in a massive rush, we even had to leave in secret so they wouldn’t kill us – or me, anyways. I didn’t bring anything important with me and I’ll probably never see my friends and family again, and you’re giving me a hard time for not knowing everything that happened in history. Whatever, I guess, it’s better than being dead.”
Jesse snorted – maybe at himself.
Enioreh folded her arms. “You changed the subject,” she pointed out. “I said you were hiding something, and you started talking like I should be convincing you I’m telling the truth. But you don’t really need proof, do you?”
Jesse kept his blank gaze on the table.
“I have a sense for these things,” Enioreh pressed. “You know something, don’t you? Or…maybe you don’t exactly know anything, but you have a feeling, right? Like a dream, something familiar, something you’ve seen before? It’s fine to admit it. I have that kind of feeling about you, but I’m not letting it make me rude, am I?”
Jesse barked a chuckle, abruptly. He looked surprised at himself for the outburst, then closed his eyes and gave a fuller laugh. “No,” he admitted finally. “You’re not being rude, by any standard. I’m being rude. Even if you are part of some evil conspiracy…there’s no call for giving you the silent treatment.”
“Cool,” said Enioreh. “And don’t worry, we’re not an evil conspiracy. We just want world peace. Just like you, right?”
“Of course,” said Jesse. “Faisal and I are constantly cooking up ways to establish peace on earth. It’s a shame more people aren’t into that.”
Enioreh leaned forward. “I’m curious about something,” she said. “This might be too personal, I don’t know what the rules are here. It would probably be too personal back home, to ask about. The way you talk about Faisal – the way you guys are together, I mean – the way you look at each other and all the rest…” Enioreh’s voice trailed off as she reconsidered exactly what question she really wanted to ask. There were so many little things she wanted to know about.
“Yes?” Jesse paused.
“Well…” Enioreh thought about it again. “I mean,” she said finally, “You guys are in love, aren’t you?”
Jesse arched an eyebrow, still smiling.
“Like,” Enioreh went on, “I mean, you’re really, honestly in love…and I was just kind of wondering…what’s it like?”
Jesse gave another surprised laugh. He might have been blushing. “That is a little personal,” he agreed.
“You guys were like, reading each other’s minds.”
“We get each other. It is a nice feeling.”
“Have you always had it, from the first time you met? Or did it happen a little at a time, that you just started feeling that way?”
“I guess always. We met about two years ago – just bumped into each other in the parking lot. He was coming back from class and I was going into work. I knew right away there was something special between us – we both felt it. It was just like we had always been together. Last year we went and got married. So – yeah. We’re really, honestly in love.”
Enioreh smiled, too. It sounded so nice. She could almost imagine that she had been there, when they met, that she had been a part of them being together.
Jesse met her eyes, and his expression softened. “Ok,” he said quietly. “I can admit that I get feelings, too, sometimes. And I do have a sense about you, as you said. Déjà vu.” He let out his breath in a long, thin sigh. “I’ve never been so open before with someone I suspected might be part of a criminal conspiracy…”
Enioreh smiled encouragingly. “Couldn’t hurt, right?” she said.
“I don’t know!” Jesse laughed helplessly. “I literally have no idea what will happen if I tell you what’s going on in my head right now. My brain’s saying one thing, but my instincts say another.”
“Go with your gut,” Enioreh advised. “It’ll never lead you wrong.”
Jesse hesitated. “What is it like,” He asked, “In your future? Your vocal little partner referred to himself as a Prince – is power legitimately conglomerated in a monarchy, or is it more of a ceremonial thing?”
“Well…” said Enioreh, unsure what the political terms meant. “There’s an Empire,” she offered. “It’s made up of half the world’s people, about. There’s our Emperor, Mr. Biggs – Hedoniet’s like one of a few dozen princes, Mr. Biggs is his uncle. Probably he’s the most popular one, but he’s not super-important – he just likes to sound like a bigshot. And, I guess, he’s started to feel guilty about being part of the Inner Circle – he was going on and on before we left about how bad war is. We left cause of that – he figured he could make the word have peace if he went back in time to win this battle. And for some reason I have a brain that’s well-suited for time-travel, so that’s why I’m here.”
Jesse was squinting at her, up and down. “You look real,” he said, wistfully. “It would be wonderful if I really could believe in you – if I could believe your story. If time –travel really exists…” Jesse began, but interrupted himself to swallow most of his remaining drink in one, painful-looking gulp. His eyes were intense, but still kind. “The topic of time travel,” said Jesse, starting again. “Time travel, has…implications, for me.” He paused. “I’m not the most stable person,” He finally said. He blushed at himself, but kept talking. “I don’t have any memories of my childhood that make sense…I was about ten when authorities found me, wandering around the street, babbling about my life as this king or something, from another world. I kept saying we had to do it right this time, that we would lead the world to peace. I haven’t thought about any of this in years,” said Jesse quietly. From the way he was licking his lips and glancing at Enioreh’s drink, she guessed his mouth was already dried out again. “The thought occurred to me, when you mentioned time-travel, that you could well be a figment of my imagination.” Jesse bit his lip, a glimmer of real fear coming into his eyes.
Enioreh opened her mouth. “So you thought you were from another world?” She asked. “And you don’t have any family or friends who can account for your whereabouts before you were ten?”
“Now you’re sounding like you think I’m crazy,” said Jesse, his voice somewhere between indignant and disappointed. “Which, if you’re a figment of my imagination, is extremely rude and also counter to your objectives of continuing to exist.”
“I wasn’t going to say you were crazy,” said Enioreh. “I was going to say; maybe you did come from the future. I mean, that’s what happened to me and Hedo – we just kind of popped in here, without any way to get back.”
“Well, if you were going to restructure events in a profound way, you had to know you would never be able to go home. Even if you re-appeared in the same day you had originally left, everything would probably be changed beyond recognition.”
“Oh, yeah, huh?” said Enioreh. “I didn’t really get much time to think about it. The Prince just kind of tied me up and stabbed me in the neck with a syringe full of Chronojuice.”
“He sounds like a peach,” said Jesse.
“Well…I mean, he was nice about it, and everything. Anyway, Hedo said something before about there being other people who tried to use the time machine. He said all the test subjects before me died and went insane. But maybe he was wrong, or lying. And he did say that the Chronojuice was only the second try at chronotrek…the first time-machine was destroyed. So who knows how many people might have used it to go into the past?”
“You mean I may have been sent here from your future?”
“It makes sense, right?” Said Enioreh. “I mean, if time-travel stays invented, you’d think there’d be more time-travelers than just me and Hedoniet.”
Jesse leaned suddenly forward over the table. On his right hand was a ring of red glass; he turned it slowly around, and a black stone came into view. He’d been holding it hidden against his palm. “This is the only thing I have from my past. I never let anyone take it – not police, not friends, no one. I used to wear it on my toe, under the shoe.”
“It looks valuable,” Enioreh said. “It really does seem like something a king would wear.”
Jesse’s voice dropped a notch. “I always thought so.”
Enioreh opened her mouth to say more, but before she could get out a word Jesse gave a little jump. The machine in his hands was making noises and lighting up.
“Hello?” He whispered into it. “Faisal? How’s it going?”
Faisal’s voice came through, excited and loud, but Enioreh couldn’t make out many words.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Jesse offered cautiously. “We’ll…talk about it later, then?” Jesse snapped the machine shut. “Faisal says the preliminary experiments yielded the results your friend predicted. So, he’s pretty happy about that. He wants you guys to stay at our place…while he’s working on it. I guess he’s on board with your Chronojuice-world-peace idea.”