The stack of tapes and scraps of paper in Simone's out tray was finally larger than the one in her in tray. Reaching across, she grabbed the next item: an unlabelled tape, the plastic case scratched but intact, the two spools visible within. Slotting it into the jury-rigged player in front of her, she pressed a few buttons and leaned back.
The screen flickered to life, and amid the static there appeared a black and white image of a titanic lizard, in the process of destroying a large city. Simone watched for several minutes to make certain of the authenticity of the footage: it was something she had seen previously, depicted from many angles: the destruction of Japan shortly before the Last War was well-known, thanks to her. She was still required to watch the footage, of course; the job of a Historian was to sort the scraps of the past, discern truth from fiction. It sounded easy, and to some it was: Hans, the historian in the next room, was notorious for taking shortcuts, simply deciding on a whim what was true and what wasn't. Simone often found herself contesting his decisions, setting right his beginner mistakes. Who would believe wars went from lasting thirty years to lasting just four or six, for example? Everyone knew how consistent the world was these days: every now and then, a new cave would be hollowed out and put to good use, but that was the limit of change. Sure, certain forms of technology grew more popular over time-- a long, long time ago, for example, everyone had space travel, before it fell out of popularity for centuries, rising again in the few decades before the Last War.
The video in front of Simone cut out abruptly, fading to static. New footage of the Lizard Incident was always welcome, and this was labelled as such in her out tray. Up next was a cutting from a newspaper. She only had a chance to glance at the headline, something about Martians invading (widely considered to be the reason America was so strong by the time of the Last War), before a bell started ringing behind her to signal the beginning of her lunch break. Rather than going immediately, she looked through the article first: it decried the whole event as a work of fiction by an Orson Welles. Martian propaganda, of course, designed to fool other nations into thinking they were safe, but nonetheless an enjoyable read.
Simone flicked off the screen in front of her and stood up from her desk, heading out into the empty corridor. No sign of Hans, of course; no doubt he had already finished, eager to get back to picking out the past entirely at random. It was a wonder he hadn't been fired yet, she thought. Her route to the lunch rooms took her past an extension to the science wing. She recognised several recent inventions made possible through her research: away in one corner, powering everything, sat a gigaconductor cell, and across from that were the twin cylindrical chambers of a cloning machine. If it hadn't been for her efforts to confirm these were possible, the science teams would never have thought to make either of these. The next room, however, contained something even more important: a time machine.
It had taken her a while to confirm the plausibility of this: explanations she had discovered tended to lack consistency, and methods behind it were even more vague. She had, after a great deal of effort, unified these into a coherent theory and sent her findings off to the scientists. In the end, the basic Wellsian theory, named for H. G. Wells, that fine, accurate chronicler of human history, had proven true. Not that she understood the workings, of course; her role was to document the evidence for and against such devices, and send off her conclusions.
Reaching the lunch rooms at last, she found them to be almost empty. Taking a battered metal tray and filling it with the assorted so-called food (ant again, she couldn't help but notice), she took a seat at an empty table with as few stains as possible. Ant was an acquired taste, and one she had not quite acquired; Simone considered it to be one of the few things they served that didn't taste of chicken (the other one being chicken). Still, the excavation teams had hit another ant's nest, so giant insects were plentiful. Picking out the last of the meat with her fingers and sucking the carapace dry, she got back to her feet and began making her way back to her cubicle.
Simone had made it no more than half way down the glass-walled corridor when an unfortunately familiar face appeared: Hans.
'Orwell was real, you know,' he called. Simone stopped in her tracks.
'Not based on my findings,' she explained.
'You found an article and decided it was false because it didn't line up with numerous highly fictional concepts,' Hans explained, a slightly smug grin affixed to his face. 'If you honestly believe--'
'Then how did the war happen?'
'We don't know. That's why we're here.'
Simone smiled to herself: every now and then, Hans would admit to not knowing the past like this. Seeing her smile, he stormed off, muttering to himself. Simone returned to her desk, taking a look through the next item.
This one was recent: an article on the marked increase in coincidences throughout the era documented by noted historian Charles Dickens. She didn't recognise the author; no doubt one of the up-and-comers from that excavation over in the Midwest. Strange, she thought, that she could go from checking documents of the past to peer reviewing an article just like that. Not to say the system didn't work, of course; she'd gained her job through the system. That said, so had Hans, so it was far from perfect.
Simone read through several more articles on history real and fictional, particularly enjoying a highly fictionalised tale of war between France and England. As enjoyable as it was, however, it was highly implausible; how could one war between the two nations last over a hundred years, and another last a mere seven? The author (well, authors; there was a long list of co-writers,) really had a long way to go. Just as she was about to start another article, this one another peer review article (a thesis on life shortly before the war, with focus on the second decline in space travel) when there once again came the sound of a bell: this one signalled the end of her working day.
The journey back to her room was short: she made her way out of the history and science building, the glass and metal (taken from the surface at great risk) gave way to the rock walls of a former ant's nest. Simone picked her way through the winding tunnels and eventually reaching a door set into the wall. Her chamber was small, but homely: room enough to sleep and to cook, with several shelves carved into the rock for her possessions. She now noticed that these were overflowing; taking a hammer and chisel, she began to chip away and add another one. It struck her how simple life down here was: no need to brave a Swedish labyrinth known as the 'Eye of Kia' in order to gain shelf space, as had been the way before the war. Brushing away the last of the dust, she set to work gluing the stone chips into the wall around her new shelf, as she had done with the previous ones; disposal costs were still high, given the difficulty of surface travel in the winter, so any reduction to her total waste like this helped. Plus, it added a personal flair; none of the few other rooms she'd been in had had anything comparable.
She spent a few minutes adjusting her things, spacing them back out, before turning in for the night, sleeping dreamlessly and waking early. Picking up the morning news, she read through the single sheet in a matter of moments.
'Nothing much is happening,' it read. 'Excavation on all fronts is progressing exactly as expected; no giant ant attacks or strikes. No major historical developments. Enjoy your day.' Simone dressed hurriedly for work, showering with what little water was available, and set out, working her way back through the maze of tunnels. Rather than heading straight to her cubicle, however, she turned off towards the meeting hall.
The meeting hall had once been the royal chamber, although it had been extensively remodelled since the new owners moved in, straightening out the walls and almost managing to get rid of the ant smell. The polished stone floor clicked under Simone's feet as she joined the back of the slightly restless crowd, standing in front of a raised platform. A few minutes after her arrival, a suited figure stepped out onto the stage, holding a loudhailer.
'We of the High Council... have an announcement to make,' he said nervously, the loudhailer adding a distinctive crackle to his voice. 'We'd like to welcome to the stage Hans Dermann. Mr. Dermann?'
Simone watched in mounting horror as Hans, her long-term rival, stepped out, taking the loudhailer. 'Good morning, good morning,' Hans started. 'As I am sure many of you are aware, although there are... some exceptions,' he paused for a moment, looking pointedly at Simone. 'As I'm sure many of you are aware our knowledge of world history is... well, not what it could be. What it could be is accurate; free from the glaring inaccuracies that so plague our knowledge.'
Simone couldn't believe what she was hearing. How had Hans managed to convince them all he was right? His theories were so inconsistent!
'After much deliberation on the part of the council,' Hans concluded, 'we have decided to do the right thing: to drop this charade; to admit everything we know about the past is pure fiction.'
A discontented murmuring rippled across the crowd, slowly giving way to a scattering of angry voices.
'I've spent years working on this!'
'But everything makes so much sense this way!'
'Why change what works?'
The shouting began to blend together, and on the stage Hans called for order.
'Look,' he exclaimed, 'you'll just have to adapt to the new system.'
Slowly, the crowd dispersed, heading to their cubicles. Simone was among the last to leave, staring blankly at the stage long after Hans had left. She wandered blankly through the corridors, eventually coming to her office: her in tray was full, and her out tray was empty. She sat down reluctantly, taking the first item and sliding it into her computer. She recognised it right off: a historical documentary titled 'Them!' about the rise of the giant ants. After the first few minutes, Simone spotted a note taped to the case:
'Remember: fictional. -Hans.'
She went back and forth in her mind for several minutes. Sure, the ants weren't the most convincing, but... what were the odds of giant ants showing up in both fiction and real life? In the end, she watched it twice through before lunch, not even paying attention to the rest of the documents she'd been given. Her route to the dining hall took her past several labs once more, although she barely noticed them. It wasn't until she was on the way back, the taste of ant still fresh in her mouth, that she realised: if their history was lies, time travel that meant time travel was impossible. And yet if time travel was impossible... why was she looking at a time machine? Deciding this was worth looking into, she ducked her head into the room.
'Hey,' she called to one of the scientists. 'Does that thing work?'
Several figures in lab coats turned to her and shrugged. The nearest of them, a fairly short woman, walked across to her. 'We've never actually tried it,' she explained. 'In theory... hey, you're Simone Butler, right? You worked out the theory behind this thing! If anyone should know, it should be you.'
Simone cast her mind back to her time working out the theory, but didn't recall it exactly. It had made sense to her at the time; after all, why shouldn't it work? 'I guess it should work, yeah,' she mused. She made her way slowly back to her desk, a plan already forming in her mind. She looked through the next few articles, chiefly among them a re-evaluation of the life of Huckleberry Finn (with another note from Hans taped to it, much the same as the first), and waited until after everyone had left. She made her way back through the facility, wincing as her footsteps echoed around the building. She followed the route she usually took on her way to lunch, but broke off at the lab she passed by, making a beeline for the time machine. She walked around it several times, examining it closely: the exterior was roughly spherical, and covered in a mesh of gears. The side she assumed to be the front contained a large clock face; on the far side of that was a hatch. Simone started to make her way towards this when a voice called to her.
'Hey!' She turned to see a security guard facing her. 'What do you think you're doing?'
'I was...' she hadn't expected this; there was never anything in the way of a security presence during the day. Her mind raced as she thought of a plan, and yet at the same time she realised she should be saying something. 'Just...' she continued.
'You were trying to steal this, weren't you?' the guard asked.
'Yeah,' Simone admitted. 'You'll go easy on me now, right?'
'Go easy on you?' the guard asked, stern-faced. He took a step towards her.
'Well, I'm going to get punished for this, right?' she asked, nervous.
'Why would I want to do that?' the guard asked, a grin already spreading across his face. 'It's about time someone stole this thing!'
'What are you talking about?'
'Do you have any idea how many nights I've spent guarding this?' the guard asked. Simone tried to answer, but the guard was already on a roll. 'Every night, I come in, I watch the scientists leave, I make sure they don't use this thing, and then I just... sit here! Watching it! You know you're the first person to as much as think of using it?'
'You never thought to use it yourself?'
'I wanted to, but... I just couldn't bring myself to. As much as I want to steal this thing, I could never decide on when to go.'
It hit Simone that she wasn't sure where to start either. There were a lot of things she felt the need to check. Seeing her expression, the security guard spoke up again.
'Not easy, is it?'
'The best thing to do would be to go back just before the Last War, right?'
'Just before the war it is,' the guard said, already making his way towards the hatch set into the side of the time machine. Simone followed him.
The interior was cramped. Between the flickering screens, the boards full of switches and dials, and the trailing wires, there was just barely enough space for two people. Simone and the security guard looked over the multitude of controls, trying to decide what to press.
'Okay,' the guard started. 'Let's just take this, and...' he pulled a lever, and several of the screens in front of them went blank. 'Not pull it,' he finished, sliding it back to its original position.
Simone reached out and pressed several buttons at random. A cluster of lights in front of them came on, but nothing else happened. 'It's a start,' she said, pressing more at random. The screens in front of them abruptly flickered to life, showing what looked like a timeline.
'More than a start,' the guard mused. 'I'm guessing the big mushroom cloud here is the Last War.'
'And then this must be the Martian invasion.' Simone pointed to an icon of a bug-eyed humanoid figure. 'And the rise of the ants,' she continued, pointing to a depiction of an ant head between the mushroom cloud and the alien. She tapped the screen, and without warning the machine began to shake. The hatch slammed shut, and the room outside, visible through a small, dirty window embedded among the screens, began to dissolve, replaced by rock. Slowly, the shaking stopped; Simone stood up and tried the hatch.
It wouldn't open. The guard stood up, then promptly sat back down, rubbing his head and looking resentfully up at the low ceiling. 'Why can't we get out?' Simone asked.
'We've travelled in time,' the guard said.
'So... why can't we get out?'
'What was the science building, back before the war?'
'Nothing,' Simone said, confused.
'Exactly,' the guard smiled. 'Back before the war, this was all solid rock.'
'But... wait,' Simone realised. 'Wouldn't the earth have moved from where it was back then? Why are we underground and not in space?'
'Good question,' the guard nodded. 'Worth asking someone who isn't a security guard.'
'Actually, as long as we're travelling through time and... Hopefully space, at some point, I should probably know your name.'
'James,' he said. 'James Goodman.'
'Well, James,' said Simone, 'we should head back, try and find the space controls.' She tapped the far right side of the screen, and the machine vanished again.
'How does it travel with us in it?' Simone asked. 'Why doesn't it leave us behind?'
'Still a security guard,' James said flatly. The lab materialised around them, as empty as it had been when they had left. Simone opened the hatch and left again, followed by James; this time, he kept his head low. He walked around it, tapping it occasionally with his knuckles.
'Okay,' he said. There's bound to be an instruction manual somewhere.'
The two of them began exploring the lab. Simone wasn't quite sure what half of the equipment was: test tubes and elaborate glassware, scattered about seemingly at random, interlaced with all manner of electrical circuitry and Bunsen burners. After a few moments, she found a stack of bulky documents. She looked through them, finding the one labelled 'time machine' and turned to a random page.
It was blank.
She flicked back to the first page, finding only a handwritten note: 'Your guess is as good as mine.' She dropped the book and turned to James.
'Empty,' she said. He raised an equally thick book.
'This one isn't.' Simone hurried across and looked through it. As James had said, it was full of complex-looking instructions. She turned it back to the first page.
'Now that I know what I'm writing about,' the book started, 'this is how the time machine works.' What followed was a long, rambling explanation of which buttons did what and why. The two of them started searching through it, settling down for a long night.
After several hours of hurried reading, there came a muffled sound. Simone and James looked up to see the morning shift heading towards them. They scurried into the time machine, James catching his head on the hatchway, and hurriedly made their way back to just before the war once again. The rock wall enclosed the time ship, and Simone keyed in the sequence for the surface, at around the same time.
The time machine rematerialised in an overgrown field, and the two of them stepped out. Simone thought back through her extensive knowledge of history, and figured out that America had been invaded by Martians at this point, but had repelled them, and had not yet been taken over by the ants.
'Okay,' she said. 'Around this time, the space travel boom had just about died out, but the world hadn't quite become a series of ultra-fascist states.'
'When did that happen?' James asked, puzzled.
'It would have been... the mid 1980's?'
'So we should be looking for signs of that,' James realised. They started towards the edge of the field, eventually finding themselves standing outside a farmhouse.
'What do we do?' James asked. Simone simply made her way up the steps and knocked on the door. James looked at her, his eyes wide. 'What are you doing?' he hissed. The door opened, and Simone smiled at the middle-aged farmer within.
'Could we borrow today's newspaper?' she asked. The farmer gave her an odd look, although this was to be expected: their outfits weren't exactly the style of the time. Simone was wearing a suit that was just futuristic enough to stand out, and James wore a uniform designed along the same aesthetics. The farmer shrugged, and then handed Simone a stack of crumpled sheets.
'Mind if I keep the funnies?' he asked, already taking them out. Simone took the paper from him, and the farmer slowly closed the door.
The two of them sat there, on the man's doorstep, reading through the paper. There was no sign of the rise of fascism. Seeing the look on Simone's face, James spoke up.
'Not what you were expecting?' he asked.
'No...' murmured Simone, absently. 'This is more in line with...' her face contorted into a snarl as realisation dawned. 'Hans,' she spat. 'He came back first; he changed things back to his misguided idea of what they should have been like.'
'He must have gone back after us,' James realised.
'It can't have been,' said Simone. 'He must have gone back just before us; otherwise, how could it be like this already?'
'He can't have,' James said bluntly. 'You were the first person to steal it.'
'But what if he went back afterwards so he didn't steal it?' Simone asked.
'Then he wouldn't have stolen it.'
'But then he wouldn't have been able to go back and stop himself from stealing it.'
'But then...' James paused, looking puzzled. 'Okay, can we just agree that he didn't steal it until after you? I can do my job well enough.'
'And yet you gave it to the first person to try and steal it.'
'Other than that, I can do my job well enough.'
Simone dropped the newspaper on the doorstep, but James took the front page back. 'This way, we'll be able to see the past as it changes,' he explained. The two of them made their way back to the time machine.
'Where to next?' James asked.
'Let's go with 1954,' Simone said, tapping the ant icon.
The two of them stepped out into a field full of wheat, making their way to the farmhouse. Simone knocked, and after a few moments a young man opened the door, a woman hanging from his arm.
'Paper again?' he asked, breathless, his eyes on their decidedly unusual clothing. Before Simone could answer, he stuffed it into her hands, slamming the door in their faces. Once again, they took a seat on the doorstep and skimmed through, finding nothing about ants. Simone was about to discard it when, on a whim, she turned to the film reviews. Sure enough, there was mention of a science fiction film called 'Them!'.
'Oh,' James said. 'This reviewer is harsh. I mean, I really enjoyed it.'
'Hans beat us here,' Simone realised. 'He went back to before we--'
'Let's not go there again.'
'We need to go further,' Simone decided. 'Back to the Martian invasion.'
The historian and the security guard made their way back to the ship once again, stepping out almost two decades further back. They made their way to the farmhouse, and the door was answered by a young child.
'Can we borrow your daddy's newspaper?' James asked, smiling. The boy came back after a few minutes with a gruff-looking bearded man, who handed them a newspaper, a puzzled look on his face as he looked over their outfits, and shooed them away.
'Okay,' Simone said, the folded paper still in her hands. 'The headline should be about the Martian invasion.'
She flipped the paper open, skimming over the first few pages. Words and phrases such as 'widespread panic,' 'Martians' and 'radio broadcast' leapt out at her. She smiled to herself.
'It really was a false alarm, just like Hans said,' James pointed out.
'Look through the whole article,' James sighed. 'Everyone heard it and thought it was real.'
Simone angrily scrunched up the paper, throwing it at her feet and storming her way back to the time machine. James followed slowly, ducking into the two-person capsule.
'Every time,' Simone started, 'he beats us to it. Whenever we go, he's already meddled.'
'We can always... counter-meddle,' James suggested. 'If we go back and change things back to how they were before he changed them...'
'Then we could fix the past!' Simone realised. 'We could set things right!' She reached across and hugged him, and then set the controls back for their own time.
'This is going to take preparation,' she explained. 'First things first, the Martians.'
'How do we plan on getting them to invade?' James asked.
'Well... there's a secret to that,' said Simone. 'I found in a historical document by a Mr. Vonnegut: an account of the whole thing. They were humans, really; they had been abducted and sent down as an invasion.'
'Really?' James asked. The more he thought about it, the more it started making sense to him.
'I mean, there's more to it than that. Vonnegut's retelling of it was heavily fictionalised, of course; the same can be said of most of his writing. But that part, we believe, is true.'
'Where will we get a spaceship?'
'There should be one in one of the labs, surely? Have any of your security guard buddies ever mentioned it?'
James thought for a few minutes, going back through several years of poker nights. Surely, one of the other guards had mentioned a ship somewhere? 'I think there is one, over in the surface access shaft,' he concluded. 'But we'll need to try and get the time machine to it if we're to stage an invasion.'
'That won't be all that hard,' said Simone. She crossed the room quickly, flinging open a locker and pulling out two lab coats.
Her coat trailed on the floor slightly, and James's was tight across his stomach, but they were labelled as one size fits all.
'It says it fits,' James said, 'but nowhere does it say it fits well.'
'It'll do,' said Simone. The two of them carefully hoisted up the time machine onto a large, flat trolley and rolling it out of the labs. The corridors were empty, although the offices were rich with the sounds of typing. Simone glanced into her old cubicle, seeing the out tray piled higher than ever before; a quick glance into the ones on either side revealed everyone was faced with the same issue. With all of history to re-write, she realised, everyone would have to put in overtime. Simone and James continued towards the surface access shaft on the far side of the office block, the time machine on the trolley between them; they made it there without meeting anyone.
The surface access shaft wasn't quite what Simone had been expecting: instead of a smooth expanse of metal, sloping gently upwards, they found themselves on a flat metal platform, designed to rise and fall: a massive elevator. In the center was a large disc-shaped object, clearly a flying saucer, with several men and women in lab coats standing around looking at it. Simone approached one at random.
'We need to rig this time machine up to your flying saucer,' she said. The scientist turned to her, a puzzled look on her face.
'Why would you possibly need to do that?'
'Because...' Simone started.
Seeing her struggling, James hurried across. 'For science!'
'Science. Exactly,' Simone nodded.
'Well, okay, I guess...' sighed the scientist. 'Good luck rigging it all up, though.'
'Wait,' James realised. 'You don't know how to?'
'That's your department, surely? We're not the ones that want to combine these machines.'
'We were told you knew how to do it,' James glared. 'What? We don't...' the scientist started. 'Although... given time, I'm sure we could rig something up.' She turned around, calling to another figure in a lab coat. 'Carl, we've got work to do.'
The historian and the security guard stood off to one side, watching the team of scientists haphazardly combining the two machines.
'How did you know that would work?' Simone asked, turning to James.
'I've been a security guard long enough to have heard every excuse in the book,' he explained. 'I've gotten the hang of matching them to the kind of person they'd work on. These scientists? You play to their ego; you give them a challenge.'
'What would you use on me?'
'Something plausible,' he explained. 'You're a historian, so you're good at figuring out the truth.'
'Okay,' she nodded. 'That would probably work, actually.'
'Okay,' the scientist they recognised as Carl called. 'We've got it... I think.'
'You think?' Simone asked, worried. 'And if you haven't?'
'Then you'll have a choice between either time or space. Choose wisely.'
'Okay,' James nodded, puzzled. The two of them looked over the efforts of the scientists: the time machine had been bolted to the underside of the ship, and several wires ran between them.
Carl followed them into the machine, quickly explaining the revised controls. 'Most of these buttons weren't actually attached to anything,' he explained. 'This bank on the left is your new space controls.'
'Okay,' Simone nodded. Carl turned to leave, narrowly avoiding catching the doorframe with his bald head. They watched him wave to them as they lifted off, heading for space.
'Best to get the hang of this before going back,' Simone explained, carefully manipulating the controls as the ship wobbled upwards.
'I've never actually seen the surface,' James realised. 'Is it as bad as they say?'
'Between the attack from the Martians, the ant invasion, the world dividing into three states and then blowing itself to bits? If anything, it's worse.'
They sat there in silence, watching as the surface slowly came into view: over the lip of the elevator shaft, there came a low concrete wall, crumbled almost to dust. As they rose higher, they saw this to be one of many: the shaft was situated in the ruins of what appeared to be a military complex. Here and there were figures in radiation suits, picking their way through the rubble. They rose higher, and on the horizon several large structures rose into view: anthills, rising like skyscrapers towards the thick clouds, swarming with insects carrying the assorted debris of human civilisation underground to the royal chambers. They rose above these, too, climbing over the clouds and flying west, gathering speed. After a few minutes of this, they broke orbit, launching towards a tiny red speck.
'Are we really heading all the way there?' James asked.
'Authenticity,' Explained Simone. 'Plus... I've never seen Mars. I'm curious.'
After a few hours of space travel, the red speck had grown to fill the screen. Simone realised she was no longer thinking of it as being forwards; it was now down. They swooped in low, skimming over the barren red surface.
'Where are all the Martians?' James asked.
'I guess... I don't know.'
'Surely there would be some sign of civilisation here?'
'What if they live underground, like we do?'
'Then surely they'd be reclaiming the surface too?'
'Merciful Zeus,' Simone realised. 'Hans! He wiped them out to stop them from invading!' Her hands flew over the controls, and the barren red sand beneath them faded away to be replaced by...
Barren red sand. Mars looked exactly the same; no signs of life.
'Well,' Simone said. 'I suppose he's gone back further, wiped them out ahead of time.'
'So we go further back and stop him, right?' James asked.
'Why? They invaded us, remember? They're scum and I'm glad he destroyed them.'
'Have you even met a Martian?' James asked, taken aback.
'I've read enough about them,' Simone replied. 'I've seen what they did to us.'
'What we're about to do for us?'
'That's different,' Simone snapped. 'We're invading to fix their lack of invasion.'
'Why not just... not invade at all?'
'Because that's not what happened.'
Sighing to himself, James gave up on the argument, watching as Simone guided them back towards Earth, swooping down on the unsuspecting planet. She buzzed around, taking potshots at a few buildings... and left abruptly, jumping them back to the future.
'Wait, what are you doing?' he asked.
'They didn't just have one ship,' Simone explained. 'We head back to mars, jump back again, fly back to earth and attack.'
'How many times do we have to do this?' James sighed.
'Actually, this will probably take me a while,' Simone admitted. 'Want me to just drop you off in the future and pick you up when I'm done?'
'Okay,' he nodded.
James stepped off the ship as they reached the bottom of the access shaft, making his way towards Carl and the other scientists. After a few seconds, however, the ship returned, and Simone called to him.
'Time machine, remember?' She smiled. James made his way back, climbing aboard again.
'Okay,' he said, 'up next is the ants, right?'
'Right. We'll have a hard time going and taking a queen from an active nest, but I remember a study I peer reviewed an article on the excavation of the meeting hall that told me right where the queen used to sit.
'We're going to kidnap an ant queen, aren't we?' James realised.
'It'll be a tight squeeze, but I think I've gotten the hang of this time machine. I can materialise so that the ant queen ends up in the cargo hold of the flying saucer.'
'Okay,' James said. 'Wait, won't that disrupt the timeline or something? What happened to the queen originally?'
Simone looked thoughtful for a moment, and then shrugged. 'I read it a while ago,' she said. 'I guess I skimmed over that part.'
He watched as Simone spent the best part of an hour carefully configuring the controls. 'Care to do the honours?' she offered. James reached out, then realised how many buttons were in front of him.
'Which one do I press?'
Simone went for one of the buttons, but hesitated.
'I left the manual somewhere around here, right?' She pulled out the hefty tome from under the seat, skimming through it and finding the right page.
'That one,' she said, pointing to a large, glowing red button. James pressed it, and they vanished, rematerialising in a large, rocky chamber, falling to the ceiling.
'It wouldn't fit the other way up,' Simone explained, climbing to her feet and helping James up. There was a sudden storm of screaming, scratching and clanking from beneath them; the queen had been captured.
'Can you give me a hand?' Simone asked, attempting a handstand. 'I can't work this thing upside down.'
She placed the heavy manual on the seat, bracing her shoulder against it. James carefully got her stable, and she keyed in the co-ordinates, taking them back to the past. Dropping off the ant queen was a quick task, and before they knew it they were back in the present.
'Setting up the whole "global conflict" thing is going to take a little research,' Simone explained. In the meantime... I need you to keep watch on the time machine, stop Hans from stealing it.'
'Okay,' James nodded. He watched as Simone left, quickly changing out of his lab coat and preparing himself for a long shift.
It was several hours before she returned.
'I can't work it out,' she said, stumbling out of the time machine. 'The transition to the Three States... that much I've set back to how it should be. But it's a perfectly stable system! I don't see how that can lead to a war!'
'Sooner or later it would break down, right?' James asked, puzzled.
'So you'd think,' Simone replied. 'It didn't happen when it should have done.'
'Could you not destabilise it?'
'That's why I'm back here. Look, I'll meet you back here tomorrow, okay?' Without another word, she walked off, no doubt towards her room. James watched her leave and changed back into his guard uniform, taking up a position next to the time machine.
He stood there for several hours in a stance not quite as familiar as the casual observer may think. Just as his feet were beginning to grow tired, he heard footsteps heading towards him. James realised his uniform was for the other labs; his clearance level was far below that of the access shaft. Rushing to the cupboard, he grabbed the lab coat he had earlier been wearing, hastily buttoning it up. He grabbed a clipboard and turned to face the door just as an unfamiliar face entered.
'Working late?' they asked, their accent faintly German.
'You know what it's like,' James nodded.
'Ah, yes,' the stranger agreed. 'Ever since I got my reforms through, we historians have been quite busy.'
'Oh, you must be Hans.'
'You have heard of me?'
'There was some woman in here earlier talking about--' the buttons on James's lab coat finally popped, revealing the security guard uniform beneath. 'Uhh...' he started.
'Working two jobs?' Hans smiled. 'You are a busy man.'
'I try to keep busy,' he replied awkwardly.
'You're off the records, aren't you?'
James sighed to himself. There were still a few like him: men and women who had fled from one bunker to another, living off scraps and blending in. His guard uniform had been stolen from dry cleaning; he had thought it to be the logical choice of job, after spending several years doing all he could to get past them. 'Yes,' he eventually said. 'I'm off the records; just... keep quiet about it.'
'What are you even doing in this department?'
'Long story... I get bored easily. Have you ever seen what they have the security guys do around here? We just... stand there, day after day, not letting anyone past. Someone tried to steal this thing the other day, and I just... let it happen.'
'I... see,' Hans nodded. 'Would you be willing to let it happen again?'
'I'd better not.'
'Then I'd better not keep quiet about all this.'
James stepped aside, gesturing to the hatch.
'I fear the damage has already been done,' Hans started, 'if your thief was who I think it was. If I can prevent the war itself, however...' He stepped into the time machine, still murmuring to himself. James started searching through the lockers for a larger lab coat, paying little attention to the machine as it vanished.
After a few more hours of acting like a scientist, the machine returned. James turned away too late to see him, but he heard Hans leaving at a sprint, and swore he heard the historian crying. He didn't have long to think about this, however; the moment his footsteps died away, James heard another set, getting closer. Simone strode into the lab a few seconds later, grinning at the machine.
'I've got it,' she said. 'I've worked it out!'
'You know how to start the war back up?'
'I just need to repeat the ant queen trick.'
'Is it really a good idea, though? We could always... let the war not happen; give humanity a second chance.'
'This is our second chance,' Simone said solemnly. 'We're safer now. Mother Earth protects us from herself, war is a thing of the past, and there's plenty of room for expansion.'
'We're living underground and ant attacks are happening on a daily basis.'
'They don't have weapons, James.'
'They have mandibles! Huge mandibles!'
'The attacks are getting less and less frequent.'
'If anything, they've been happening more often.'
'Look...' Simone sighed. 'This is my world; this is my life. I think it's better than life before the war, and you may disagree with me on that, but... it's your world too. If we don't go back, if we don't fix this... odds are neither of us would have been born. And if we were never born, we wouldn't be around to go back in time and fix this.'
'We were the ones who broke this in the first place.'
'Hans broke it; we fixed it afterwards.'
'He fixed it, we broke it,' James insisted.
'Look, just... get in the time machine.' She grabbed him by the collar, towing him towards the time machine.
'Okay, okay,' he said. 'I want to see how this all ends.'
They came out in what looked to be a silo: sleek grey walls surrounded them, and beneath them were more missiles than either of them had ever seen. Without warning they fell sideways, landing hard on one wall.
'It wouldn't fit in upright,' Simone explained lamely.
'Can we just get going?' James asked, helping her up and watching as she keyed in their next destination. The silo vanished around them, and they found themselves upright again. James looked out of the small window to see a field, the grass cut short, and a run-down farmhouse. Looking up, they saw a line of skyscrapers that hadn't been there on their previous visits, and lower down a tree, beneath which was a grave. For reasons neither of them could fathom, a neatly folded newspaper was perched atop the headstone. They took in the rest of the field, turning to see...
Another ship, just like theirs, right down to the haphazardly attached flying saucer. The hatch opened, and a man stepped out, hurrying towards them.
'Stop!' he called. Simone and James both recognised his voice: Hans.
'We've almost fixed this whole thing, Hans!' Simone proclaimed, her voice full of pride. 'You can't break the timeline once again.'
'I just fixed everything!' Hans called back.
'You fixed everything from before we went back and re-fixed everything.'
'But... I fixed everything! I went back and set the timeline on the right path!'
'No,' Simone explained. 'You did, but you set things on the right path before I went back and set them on the right right path.'
'Wait,' James said. 'Do either of you know what's going on here?'
'Yeah, I didn't want to say I was lost,' Hans admitted.
'I... of course I understand this!' Simone insisted.
'Go on, then,' said James. 'How did the war start?'
'Bombs fell on several population centres, and--'
'Before that,' said Hans.
Simone halted, and the others could see she was struggling with something.
'I don't know,' she sighed. 'There was nothing in the archives about it; I was planning on starting things off myself.'
'You monster,' Hans snarled.
'I've already been through all this. How did it start in your twisted timeline, Hans?'
The other historian paused, his face going through the same series of emotions as Simone's had moments ago. 'I... I don't know,' he realised. 'I always took it for granted that the war...'
'Hold on,' James realised. 'Neither of your timelines allow for the war to happen, and yet...'
'It happened,' the two historians said together.
'So this must be...' Hans's eyes widened, and began to brim over with tears. 'This is... your timeline is... I can't handle this.' He ran back to his time machine. Simone and James watched as the ship dematerialised.
They stood there for several minutes, staring dumbly at the spot where the time machine once sat.
'So this is it,' James murmured. 'This is how the world ends... not with a bang, but with a historian and a security guard.'
'I... I suppose I'd better get started.' Simone shook her head, stepping back into the remaining time machine. The two of them climbed in, and Simone started to take them up.
'Wait,' James said. 'Take me back first... I don't want to see this.'
Hans couldn't believe what had happened. His whole career, his whole attempt to better explain mankind's history, to be honest about their flaws, was a lie. Yes, maybe history had once been how he believed it to be, but that no longer mattered: history was... broken now. It was how Simone had always insisted it was; how the majority of his fellow historians believed it was. The details weren't quite the same, of course, but that was to be expected; their equipment and records were far from perfect.
But how could he face his co-workers now? He'd just got a reform through; he'd just got them to revert to old history, history that no longer was. It had taken him his whole life to get that through; how could he tell them to take it back? How could he study the 'real' history now?
After the first few cities, Simone thought, the whole process became... mundane, almost. Still, it was the way the world should be; the way that, to her at least, it had always been. And besides, in the long run, mankind would recover... right? She'd seen it happen; seen the earliest post-war documents. They had struggled at first, what with the ants and everything, but they had overcome the insects after a few short decades.
Another city blossomed into fire beneath her, and she wondered how many more it would take to set the ball rolling.
So that was it, James thought. History was back as it... was, even if it wasn't how it should have been. No doubt Hans or someone would get a council together and eventually send someone back to stop the war.
And yet... Simone's kind were all restless about all this. Statistically speaking, there would probably be enough of them on any given council to out-vote the revolutionaries. Sure, it wasn't the best timeline, but... it was their timeline, and they were proud of it.