Deep in the Traveler's paneled study, clocks ticked.
He had a collection to shame a Duchess: brass carriage clocks, Black Forest cuckoos, clocks under domes of quartz crystal, clocks held by grinning cherubs, clocks with ruby movements. Overlooking them all stood a stately Glaswegian grandfather in a polished mahogany case, its pendulum swinging, inexorable as death. Springs uncoiled and tiny gears meshed, and when distant Big Ben tolled the hours, the room shook with a hundred different chimes.
Luckily, midnight had passed over an hour ago.
"I suppose my account must have sounded rather fantastic," the Traveler said, slipping into a padded armchair across from the Very Young Man. He was the sole guest left after what had turned out to be a disappointing evening.
"On the contrary. I found it convincing."
"Not Filby, though. I caught him rolling his eyes. Obstinate as ever, those Gaels."
The Very Young Man still wore his bowler. He hadn't removed it during dinner, or brandy, or the lecture afterwards. He didn't strike the Traveler as being consciously rude, but the man's ignorance of etiquette amazed him. Even Americans doffed their hats in gentle company.
"Where did you say you were from, again?" The Traveler asked.
"Ah." The man's skin was several shades darker than most Londoners, and his shoulders, beneath a tweed coat at least a decade out of style, bulked wide. A sportsman, the Traveler judged; perhaps a prizefighter, given his build and deftness of movement.
"Listening to your experiences," the young man said, taking a cigar from his coat, "I got the impression you still have unfinished business ... in the future."
The Traveler smiled. "You mean Weena."
"And any surviving Morlocks, yes. Hasn't it ever occurred to you, the dangers associated with time paradox? That you may have altered events by your travels, even caused that catastrophic future you glimpsed after your escape?"
"I've considered the theoretical prospects of paradox, of course," the Traveler said, wondering how the Very Young Man should have an idea of such things. "But to my way of thinking, all of the events of existence have already happened, and are therefore immutable. Thus, there are no so-called 'time paradoxes.'"
The young man snorted. "Helmholtz's First Theorem. That was disproved centuries ago. Relatively speaking, of course."
"I beg your pardon."
"Imagine," the young man said, lighting his cigar with a shiny metal box, "that time travel is perfected at some point in the future. And your notions of paradox are wrong. This introduces a threat to the continuity of things."
"I don't quite follow."
"Say someone never liked Henry the Eighth, so he goes back in time and decides to whack him. The Anglican Church never forms, the course of the British Empire veers into uncharted territory, et cetera, et cetera. Joe Citizen goes to bed in one reality and wakes up in another."
The Traveler caressed his smooth-shaven chin. "Excuse me, but did you say 'whack'? I'm not familiar with that usage."
"I think you get my point. The future has a vested interest in staying the way it is. And that means regulating all travel up and down the time stream, fixing any paradoxes when they occur. Rogue elements like you are particularly dangerous."
"This is an extraordinary conversation."
"Is it?" The young man exhaled a stream of smoke. "For someone who's been through as much as you have, I'd say it's academic. But enough with theory. I'm here to offer you a deal. Come back with me to Temporal Infractions; you can work in R and D. God knows we'll need a new egghead with Dr. Berlin gone. Your little contraption in the other room, though, has got to be destroyed. I'll use just enough thermiteLondon isn't due for another big fire in five years."
"You want me to destroy my life's work?" The Traveler had understood that part clear enough. He rose from his chair, indignant. "But Weena ... the Eloi ..."
"... are fine without your meddling, thank you. Personally, I'd like to know how you were able to suspend a tachyon matrix in rock crystal, using only Victorian tech."
The Traveler glanced at the mantle. Behind one of the clocks he'd hidden his father's old Wogdon dueling pistol, an antique in its own right, but one he kept charged against the prospect of a break-in. If he could only distract this dangerous lunatic for a moment
"Don't try anything stupid, doc." The young man brushed the hem of the tweed coat over his hip, revealing a strange-looking pistol holstered there. "It would give me no pleasure. You'd think the life of an Infractions Officer was all derring-do and toppling evil tyrants, but sometimes it just comes down to wetwork. I remember once, having to burn an invading Cretan fleet with a heat-ray, just to keep the cradle of democracy alive another few years ..."
A distant look settled over the young man's face. The Traveler, emboldened by his experiences in the Morlock tunnels, lunged for the mantel. Once he had the fellow at gunpoint, he could hurry on to rejoin Weena.
But the young man's hands blurred to his holster faster than thought, drawing the pistol and bracing to fire in one motion. Beneath the brim of his bowler, his eyes grew weary.
"Shouldn't have done that."
The concussion gun roared and cut the Traveler in half.
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