“Those shouldn’t be here.” The Alice’s voice wavered. “If they’re here, we should be gone. But I can’t get out! Adam, baby, what do I do? You always escape no matter how hard I try to kill you! That's how I know you're real!”
She babbled in near hysterics. I blinked repeatedly while trying to reason my way through this one. In a normal situation, my attempts at fleeing would end with being overtaken by the gibbering horde of nightmare creatures. Contrariwise, because those damn twins had stuck that word in my head, standing here and doing nothing would also end with a gibbering horde. Eventually some absurd event would intervene then send me upon my merry way. Like, I don’t know, space dog fleets would eat them.
“Do you have a really big knife?” I asked.
I’d expected a no, but once I turned around, there she stood with a huge knife at least seven feet tall. The Alice, with her sweaty black clumped hair and runny mascara eyes, smiled. The awkwardly balanced knife pointed straight up with her thin arms wrapped around the handle.
“What the hell kind of sandwich is that for?” I asked then slapped myself in the face. Now wasn’t the time for attempted wit. The whole knife idea couldn’t solve—whatever those things were. Attacking the darkness was useless.
“I don’t know.” The Alice sounded lost. “A big one? Do you like sandwiches? I’m not very good at making them. Ovens scare me. I can do tea.” The blade’s point wobbled. I couldn’t figure out how the weapon was even wieldable, much less which part of her skirt she pulled it out from.
Keep in mind that Alice, terror of fantastical creatures everywhere, was frightened by ovens. Never mind. That’s not really an important fact. It’s just—she was weirder every time we talked.
Our impending doom kept growing odd body parts. Teeth appeared then submerged. Eyes, noses, and other objects rolled to the surface then were reabsorbed. All of them were made of a freakily clear white and blacks. My eyes crossed every time I focused on the mess.
The knife swooshed by my face, then thudded into the ground. Its blade sank in a foot or two leaving her weapon—which had come out of nowhere—laying like a barricade to hide behind. It wouldn’t do any good. Those weird creatures were on all sides. We had three minutes, maybe, until they got here.
I wanted more information because, and this may sound impossible, even I hadn’t experienced everything. “Alice, I need help understanding this. What in the flaming fornication is going on?”
“Those are cleaners.”
Right. That made sense. They were cleaners. No, it made no sense!
“What do cleaners do?” I asked, struggling not to be annoyed.
“Put up toys. Normally. Normally they’re not here until after I’ve finished. Then, they take care of everything. Or that’s what I was told. I’m sorry, baby, I’m not really sure since I go back in the mirror after everyone’s dead or gone.”
I didn’t know how to parse that correctly. Did that mean the last Wonderland we’d been in, which two mole people queens, had simply vanished? Was my attempt finding a peaceful solution utterly pointless? There were other questions too, like what sort of vague rules caused this place to operate in such a manner? Recent events left me more unstable than usual.
“Told?” I started my quest for answers with a simple question.
The Alice nodded. Our impending mess of nightmare creatures grew closer.
My eyebrows rose. “By who?”
I could almost hear Ted correcting me. ‘By whom’ he’d say. Then I’d kick him in the nuts.
“The old knight. I killed him though. He kept trying to stick me with his lance. He has these weird bottles he calls healing potions. They’re always warm. I throw them at animals and they explode.” The Alice kicked her knife. She then proceeded to pull out a string of weapons from her blouse that any vigilante hero would have drooled upon seeing. None looked effective enough for these ‘cleaner’ things.
For my part, I was stuck on the old knight and lance idea. That statement hit me in every single wrong way imaginable. The old knight from before had given me a weird bottle of white liquid too. It creeped me out. I mean, the double mint twins were nice to admire at but clearly inhuman and mad.
There were no exits. All four directions had those creatures. Well, eight, all—you get the idea. The damn things were everywhere. The castle doorway I’d stumbled through was gone. There were no signs of the knight or two imitation Wonder Twins.
“That knight wasn’t a knight,” I said while taking out the still warm bottle of liquid. They’d told me ideas too, and waiting for them to rescue us didn’t seem smart. A single explosion would also be worthless. I threw it anyway.
The bottle broke somewhere in the distance with a small boom. The monsters showed no signs of slowing or caring about the act of defiance.
“Useless,” I said.
“What’s that?” The Alice whispered in my ear. She’d finished unloading an armory then grown close while I was distracted. Her arms wrapped around me and her head tucked into my shoulder. She was taller than me by a few inches. Her hands immediately rushed under my loose shirt. Fabric didn’t last long. “Oh, abs,” she said dreamily.
Now’s a good time to point out that I was sort of defined but didn’t put much stock into my body compared to heroes. Most of my build had resulted from hunger and long periods of captivity. However, I couldn’t get distracted thinking about how Alice’s fingers were amazingly warm, smooth, and adventurous. There were half-formed teeth with detached eyeballs swarming toward us.
Once again I struggled to rein her in. “Let me get this straight, those things only come out when you’re gone. They…” The best word eluded me. Clean felt too simplistic for a nightmare. “Pack up the fantasy world you’ve been playing in. But by then you’re safe as the other Alice, right?”
“Mmmhm. In the mirrors,” The Alice said. She nipped at my ear, which hurt more than aroused. I squeezed her fingers tighter to stop her from distracting me. “The old knight said they would eat anything left behind. Including me, if I didn’t run away fast enough.”
“Then we really need to leave,” I said.
“Can’t. There’s no doorway. I’ve looked. So you’re stuck here with me, Adam. Forever. All that’s left is to ride out death.”
You try surviving this kind of existence without meeting whackos. This one just wanted my scrawny body. And that was weird, hot, and shitty timing. I couldn’t say no to the sensations running through me, but she’d die if we didn’t figure out an exit. At least, I thought she would die.
To be clear, I’ve met a load of ladies over the years. Some flirt badly. Others make awkward comments or are too terrified to do anything. Most girls go for men who might save them. At this point, I’d carried around the persona of a defeated man for so long that women could smell it. Alice, at least this Alice, did not care in the slightest.
My stomach sank. Letting her have any fun at the last minute would be a sure sign of impending doom. What if we did get it on, right here on the pile of bodies? Then she got devoured by those creatures? I had enough mental scars and I didn’t want to add to them.
“Oh baby, if we’re going out, we’re going out with you on top.” The Alice tugged my pants. They were in tatters already and fell straight down. Cold air pelted me along with warm fingers that I’d somehow lost a grip on. She trailed her fingers along my legs, causing a wave of goose bumps.
“Ummm…” I completely lost my words. The oncoming horde was silent. If I closed my eyes it might be possible to forget we were about to be overrun by something that scared her. “Later?” I begged.
“It’s later now.” She smiled and licked her lips. The woman had a trail of drool running down her to her chin and eyes locked on my groin. I reacted favorably as my heartbeat sped.
“Do you not see impending doom?” I tried to keep on track.
“If I don’t look, it’s not there. Besides, everything dies. Except you. That’s why I need you, right now,” The Alice said calmly. She took deep breaths as her fingers continued trailing softly along my legs, abs, and inched ever closer to the prize.
Then it hit me again, she was crazy. I loved it. Despite being, whatever she was, the motions felt great and made my toes tingle. I also didn’t know what would happen to her if we didn’t solve the problem in front of us first. The blonde version had been trapped. This version was like an alter ego and might not survive. It also felt a bit wrong not to clear it with both of her. Or, all three of her. Four. Maybe there were other versions floating around.
I tried to step back but firm fingers grabbed the front of my boxers. That sent me to the floor. She mounted me like I’d lost in some weird roll of the sexy dice. My mind jumbled.
“They’ll kill you unless we can get you out. To other Alice. Who’s locked up. They can’t kill me. I’ll survive,” the last part came out in a stutter as The Alice rubbed stiff fingers up and down my remaining layer of clothes. Her legs parted slightly. From this angle the front of her old-fashioned dress hid nothing. My thoughts blurred as instinct warred with reason and both lost.
“You're going to leave without me?” Her head pulled away. Her nails jabbed into my skin. Pleasure dissolved to pain and I couldn’t rightly call it worse.
To be clear, she’d switched from scared, to wanting sex, to upset at being left behind because The Alice was crazy. Not one woman in my life had been sane since my powers kicked in. Recent case and point, VVV, her exploding minions, the Purple Prose, and gas that got me high by accident. That other woman, Tina the ice user, had shoved an icicle up General’s ass. Normal people didn’t do that. Girls started insane then got super powers.
“No. I just, don’t get to die. I think,” I said while gasping. Those creatures were closer still. We had maybe a mile of landscape to run away from. My initial estimate of the time crunch proved wrong.
My words had stopped all the sexy time. She threw down both hands and frowned. The motion brought back a hint of psychotic stalker music. I shuddered as the problem in my pants quickly solved itself. Blood rushed from the groin to my heart and I gripped my hands tightly.
“There’s no exit. Without an exit you and I are both doomed.” She frowned then tilted her head at my words. “Remember? I always escape. I’ll make an exit for us both,” I said while working my pants back to their firmly upright position.
“Sort of. I may just go throw myself into traffic.” And a cold shower. Gibbering madness would help solve the last vestiges of an awkward chubby. The flaw became apparent right away. That pile of creatures may simply go around me. We needed an ultimatum to reality.
The problem was, I only had one real way to do that. And the outcome could be bad. Really bad.
A finger poked me in the nose. “What’s wrong?” she asked while I blinked.
“Huh?” I asked.
“You looked distracted. Am I not interesting enough.” The Alice used her hands again and I shuddered as they slid across my body. She was fixated on touching me. The timing of all this sucked. I captured her hands and pulled gently until she stopped staring a hole in my cruddy pants.
“I think in order to get an exit, you’ll need to try to kill me.” The idea bordered on disturbing.
The Alice freed a hand, lifted it, and grinned as a knife appeared. She threw it straight down into the dirt near my foot. I jerked from the near miss. Two other blades joined the first while I mentally stuttered from fear.
Her black horror-show smile softened a little. “Oh baby, you must really trust me not to kill you when you offer it so easily.”
“God, no. I’m pretty sure you’re a loon and the only reason you like me is because you can’t kill me despite trying. I mean, you’re a knife-wielding psycho without impulse control.”
“Oh. I have swords and axes too.” She smiled like a knife-wielding psycho without impulse control. I gulped down saliva, wondered about my own sanity upon finding the look attractive then pressed on.
“Then, the other Alice is a blond girl, whose biggest reason for liking me is because I told her she wasn’t imagining all this. But she”—I paused as my breath hitched. The creatures in the background had half a mile to go. Every time I tried to look at them, my mind stuttered—“she probably doesn’t exist either. None of you are real.”
“Are you telling me I’m not real?”
My eyes closed. The knight’s conversation replayed in my mind. Alice, this one, had killed the old man before because he called her a dream. It was probably true. Everything come out of my head at this point was pure conjecture. However, as my lawyer had said—I was me and coincidences weren’t so simple.
Briefly, it’s time to address some questions I’d been ignoring. Why was it Alice was a car drive away from Ted’s base right as I exited the tan fog? Why did some item called a ‘Ghost Buster’ matter? How did blonde Alice use the other one’s powers? My favorite at the moment was this; what about the knights and double-ds who had implied they were with Alice since she was a girl?
I returned to reality in time to see another knife flashing down. Dozens around my feet. Those monsters were getting closer. The Alice’s hand shifted slightly. I took deep breaths. Did she miss so many times because of my power or because she wasn’t into it?
We didn’t have time for me to dick around. I’d already wasted enough time trying to understand our situation while repeatedly explaining it to The Alice. Charmingly unbalanced, but a deep thinker she was not. It felt like everything had gone in a dozen useless circles when the answer was simple.
I bent over, grabbed a blade, and stabbed my own chest. Alice’s mouth formed an ‘o’ as her dark eyes lit up. Locks of hair flashed blond, red, and black all in a row. Her, I don’t know, face burped then distorted completely on one side.
Pain hit as the point sliced muscles. It faded quickly then resurfaced with even more aggravation. There was a click, which came with no sound. Don’t ask how, I don’t know. The world paused and that moment of self-inflicted wounds lingered. The Alice was stiff. Mostly. Her face moved a small bit at a time. I stared in slow motion as her eyes slid left and lips pulled up around the nose.
The monsters were similarly delayed. The tidal wave of cleaners fell apart then faded away entirely. Only checkerboards and dead bodies remained. Time kept moving but my perception of it burned. Agony built.
The red and black checkerboard blended together. Bodies faded into nothing. Tan dots appeared. They grew to consume all other distinct colorings. A red door opened in front of me. Its framing faded into empty air. The door opened revealing bright white light. I blinked then almost managed to roll my eyes.
“Mister Millard,” an unhindered voice said from the doorway. “Given what we understand of your affliction, self-mutilation seems unwise.”
“It’s all part of my desperate cry for attention,” I said in slow motion. The blade felt deeply lodged in my chest. My eyes watered. The delayed speaking attempt at brilliant sarcasm turned into gibberish.
The hostess from the hotel stood in the door. She held a wine glass and wore a thick dress. Her hair had been badly pinned up or she’d shaken a dozen strands loose. A single gleam of sweat slowly rolled down her face.
Nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, rolled her eyes, and took an overly desperate swig of the glass. Her pinky lifted then waved. The world clicked soundlessly again. My ears popped. I lowered my jaw then got full control of my body.
Alice fell to the ground. Her body jerked repeatedly then stopped all movement. The woman’s eyes were rolled back to show pure white. My chest lifted, resulting in more pain, and I pulled the blade out. My knees buckled and I joined her on the ground, twitching from fresh pain.
I applied pressure to the wound while checking how deep my abuse had gone. Liquid oozed around my fingers. My vision fluttered. The ribs felt unmarked. The blade had barely penetrated despite what I imagined while in pain.
The hotel owner lady popping out of nowhere to save us was a one on the zero to ten shit-scale. We’d gotten lucky. I’d done this trick once or twice before and events often ended worse. There were few sure ways to trigger these stupid powers. Self-mutilation worked. The problems would cascade if I continued trying to off myself.
You may ask, how much worse could the outcome be? Let’s just say, it’s a matter of scope. More people, more heroes, and enough bloodshed to make the earlier events at the hotel look like a schoolyard tantrum.
“Are you here to help? Can, you get us out?” I said and grimaced. Stabbing myself hurt more than being grazed by bullets and other powers.
She stayed in the doorway. The Alice sat on the floor like a ragdoll not being played with.
“No. We’ve come to consult with the Outsiders standing behind you.”
I didn’t turn my head to look. A finger from someone unseen, probably those Outsiders, poked my cheek. Something giggled in an unholy disjointed mess. My eyes closed as every extra brain cell seized. The noise refused to register.
Other dimensional nonsense was full of people who don’t move in any sane manner. It’s not even that they’re outright creepy—once you get past the idea of other dimensional beings wearing human skins like a Halloween costume; which happens more often than you’d care to know.
No, I hate how people and places jump around like a bad nightmare. There had literally been nothing else besides me but Alice, weapons, and fantasyland vacuum cleaners. Now there was a doorway, no weapons, the hostess lady who’s name I still didn’t know, and an unidentified stick poking me.
I focused. “Can you help Alice?”
“Help? That’s all we ever do—is help. Despite our many successes, there are an innumerable amount of failures. But this one is ours, for trusting such pale fragments,” the hostess responded.
“Excuse us,” a chorus said next to me. Something poked my cheek again. I refused to acknowledge it. “Fate lines are difficult to change. We’ve bent enough rules by bringing him here. Again, and again. Repeatedly. Quite frequently.”
“And why is Mister Millard here?” the hostess asked.
“He’s impossible to kill. We’ve tried. We’ve tried a lot. So has she.” It sounded as though multiple people spoke from one location. Almost a chorus talking in unison but it was worse than that. I could almost imagine a slimy otherworld creature with four mouths and sixteen eyes.
I cracked open an eye to see if The Alice was okay. She hadn’t changed colors again, so that might mean something. Her frail form under layers of old dress clothes made it difficult to tell if she was breathing. From this angle, she almost wore the same style of material the hostess did.
A realization hit me, and I groaned to myself. There were possible links here that would be insane to deal with. I promptly ignored the budding suspicion and listened to the mixed-up set of views.
“We needed someone unkillable. Someone to help her focus. It did. He did. But she didn’t. Not in a wholly sane manner. Our fault perhaps. We stole the wrong thoughts from the sleeping minds. They kept twisting. It is your fault. You read her this world.”
“You brought him here, because he was unable to die?” she asked, apparently ignoring the voices’ accusation.
“Poor little lamb alone in her bed. Bereft parents because they’re dead. Told a tale by grandma dearest. Of a lost lady in the Wonderland nearest. Only the land was seeded with nightmares.”
Stacking on the revelation of my immortality—my power really—being responsible for this made life even worse. These repeated Wonderland visits were because creatures out here in the whatever wanted me to interact with Alice. Because she kept killing them. I was a forced playmate. Well. Fine. So what if we had a twisted relationship? I hadn’t met any powered people who were completely normal.
The voices babbled on. “We brought a knight. A penniless, horseless knight in disheveled armor. It seemed like a glorious idea. No possible way it could go wrong. Even if it did. Everything might work out. She needed someone to bond with who couldn’t get twisted by the ether. Well, mortal minds are messy. Who knew she’d mutate murder to love?”
The other party and its myriad of voices were nearer to the ground, and my head. They sounded almost groveling but it was hard to tell with the overlap of people speaking. The hostess swigged the glass, waved her free hand, and the wound on my chest closed. Blood stopped seeping. My fingers dried.
She gazed down then wrinkled her nose. “What we really wish to know, is what happened to the reflection on the other side of the mirrors.”
I’d forgotten how dark her eyes were. Like the creatures behind me were in that moment before meeting The Alice again. It was like looking at compressed time, or age, or a soulless abyss that stared back. With disturbingly human and sometimes awkwardly attractive features.
“We don’t know. How could we?” the mess of voices responded behind me. They were still poking my cheek. I was still refusing to look. “We’re not allowed to go out. You said so yourself. Here we train the young miss. She’s—”
“You’ll keep your mouth shut.”
“Yes ladies. We will. One of them. Many of them. But not all. It’s hard to keep us straight. Mangled as we are.”
During the conversation, I slowly managed to stand. The trick with this sort of place was not to look at anything. Contemplating how endless the horizon was, while still feeling capable of reaching out to touch it, would drive normal people bonkers. Not me though, I’d lost my marbles ages ago.
“Embrace the madness,” I muttered then tucked my head down. Their conversation gave me mental hives.
“Excellent advice. You were paying attention when we advised you of such. Your other friend, the Madder Hatter, he knew. He’d asked us before, once, the best way to handle being angry,” the mix of seven or eight different voices babbled. They said other things, under the reasonable stuff. Other things I didn’t want to hear because they were a step beyond the current problems.
I mean, who would build a plantation for poppy seeds then burn it all down to watch a town get high? Because that’s what one of the undertone voices suggested—I think. They might have said my shoe was untied, which it was. Keep in mind, you would be adventurers, Velcro shoes are the way to go. No one has time to unlace them just to get some rope.
“Right. You want to know what happened to the reflection. Well, a Mad Hatter’s friend, the Door Mouse, I guess, locked up the other Alice. I can go take care of them. I’ll just, dodge off and let her out,” I offered. Phrasing my words to go along with insanity was not easy at all.
“We highly doubt that. Your abilities are limited,” the hostess responded.
“Not with Flux,” I said.
The stupid camera was floating around taking pictures of the dark nothingness hanging a few feet away. I half hoped something would pop out and swallow him; if only to remove the incriminating footage of me being rectally prodded by a tree and slashed by sadistic moaning flowers.
“We will not have you in our hotel again. There are still stains on the foyer carpet which have proven impossible to launder.” She sniffed and lifted a cheek.
The creepy multi-voiced creature behind me chuckled in at least thirty-one flavors of insanity. Then it cursed at itself. I’d seen meth users do the same thing.
“Then leave me here. Get her out. I’m sure another ride will come along.” Or Excalibur would appear for ten seconds, proclaim me the true king by mistake, and I’d have just long enough to slash a hole in reality and get back to New York. It’d happened before.
At this point, I had another much darker thought. If she left me here, then perhaps this would be the end of my bullshit-filled life. I took a breath and shook off the momentary weakness. Life might be worth living if events simply got more controlled. Or, better yet, if I could finish the eulogy for this list of names in my head.
“We’re afraid that’s even less of an option. You simply don’t belong here.”
Despite the terrible condition of my body, everything cognitively worked fine. Pain couldn’t stop me from thinking snide thoughts.
“Then send me back. As close as you can to… Alice’s other Alice.” I had no idea what to call them. “The trapped one. In case there’s more than two. Which there must be.”
“Be wary, immortal. You tread on dangerous topics,” she said.
There was that immortal nonsense again. I still hadn’t quite taken stock on the idea those creatures were actively rerouting my life here to be a friend to Alice because she kept killing them. We’d skipped the friend stage and moved on to nearly carnal relations.
“Your pet gopher told me.” I thumbed to the whatever behind me. Somewhere in that mess was the creature which wore the old knight’s body like a second skin.
The hostess’s eyebrows raised. “Really?”
“Sure. Well technically they inferred. Or implied a lot of things. They’re all mad,” I said.
“It’s delightful. A side effect of our stay. The mind is a frail thing. So many frail things don’t mind. Contrariwise, we don’t mind the frail things. Or is it frailing minds?”
I tried to close my ears when they started talking. Hearing proved less adjustable than my eyesight. They laughed and it felt like spiders were dancing on my brain.
“The point is, I’m here because of them. She’s in danger because of my relationship with her. Ted, or whatever, has the other version boxed up. I guess you guys don’t leave your little realms, or else why would you still be standing in the doorway. Or not solving this yourself with another glass of wine and some finger waving.”
I babbled, “So, one of you keep this place stable if you can’t get this Alice out. Or whatever. Then send me back to the other one. I’ll get her out. This this one can leave, and we’ll be good.”
See? I could think of plans. Though that one came together in a rush and I wasn’t quite sure how it had occurred to me. Madness, I suppose.
Flux floated around capturing us in all our glory. I hoped the playback would get mosaic tiles for censorship but probably not. The hostess stood in her doorway with puckered lips at the edge of her wine glass. It must fuel her powers somehow. The blood of goats sacrificed in her hotel or similar nonsense.
“We’ll do the door. For poor Adam. Because Adam’s poor. That much is our fault,” the mess of voices said.
“But can you target the right locale?” she asked.
“Of course. We’ve done more with less. Contrariwise, we’ve done far less with more.”
She raised an eyebrow. I glanced at the ragdoll Alice. She had no life. I wasn’t even sure her chest moved—but she lay there and no one panicked.
Behind me, out of sight but not mind; a dozen throats made the same frog-like noise from a singular location. “Yes. Without question. We can. Please be kind in your judgments of actions.”
I shuddered. They were afraid of the hotel lady. I didn’t have brainpower to spare. She’d shown up to save me. I wondered, if I attacked her, what would show up to save me next? The idea of yet another power level above this one made my mind go blank. A brief wave of purple static crossed my thoughts and when it finished, the idea faded.
“We shall lay claim to this island until you’ve fulfilled your obligations.” The hostess pointed behind me. I refused to turn around yet. “They shall give you a doorway out. Do be quick. It will only grow more dangerous if they are not reunited.”
I flattened my lips. They, two Alices. Part of me suspected that that duality was kind of like the way the hostess called herself ‘we.’ How many hotel owners were in her head? Did ‘we’ mean two or more? Maybe her kind of being came into power by combining badly fragmented personalities into one body.
And I wanted to go out with someone like that. Only time would tell if my guess was completely off base.
I fumbled behind myself with an arm. A soft hand with at least seven fingers grabbed mine. All two dozen voices giggled like old men pretending to be giddy school girls. They pulled me toward a cold metal object that turned when I wiggled my hand. It felt close enough to a door knob. My eyes stayed closed for self-preservation of my sanity.
With a few quick steps and a turn, I walked into the doorway. My face slammed into a frame and bounced back. I grabbed my freshly wounded nose, pinched it to stop any bleeding, and fumbled through the opening instead.
The mess of voices laughed. Even the hostess chuckled. Their mirth followed me as a foot met empty air and gravity pulled me away. Up the rabbit hole I went.
Notes on Fate
Name: What is Fate?
There are three types of people in the world. Those who believe in fate, those who don’t, and cowards who refuse to take a stand.
Here are the facts established by people who’ve dared swim through timelines. Events, people, and places tend to end up in generally the same fashion no matter what universe. All that changes is who did the action, or where they did it, or how badly it screwed things up.
Here’s an example. President A in timeline 1 died by assassination. Someone goes back in time to change it. President A in timeline 2 dies swallowing a fish bone two days later. Someone goes back to prevent the bad fish. President A drives off a cliff while drunk in timeline 3.
So, was it fate that the president died? No. It turned out to be a second time traveler who was outsmarting our would-be savior. No one figured out the reasons—but timelines are tricky nonsense. Don’t ever trust what comes back from the future. They’re often wrong. The simple (relatively) act of traveling back in time makes nearly all that foreknowledge invalid. Even stocks have proven to switch hands—like someone is changing them on purpose to mess with time travelers. Someone is. He’s in Area Fifty-One. He thinks it’s funny.