Nabel didn’t want to respond to that right away, so he said, “As you have discovered, I don’t like to beat around the bush. So, could you please lay out my options, nice and clear.”
“Alright. Either you stop the war so that our side ends up on top, us giving you any assistance we can. Or you and all your friends die in the next couple of days.” Julius was obviously capable of being clear.
“And if I need their assistance to stop the war?”
“You’ll have it.”
“And if I deem it necessary to return to their side for a time, because I think they have resources I’ll need?”
“That can be arranged.”
“But how will you keep an eye on me?” asked Nabel.
“I’ll come with you,” said Julius.
“Oh,” said Nabel and he paused to think. “What if I find a way to stop the war in which neither side ends up on top? I’ve never tried to stop a war before, you know.”
“Then you find another way in which we win or I kill you and all your friends.”
“You’re relentless, I get it.” Nabel sat in silence for a long minute, trying to think. Thinking wasn’t working so he gave up and just pretended to think. It was rather unnerving to be sitting on a tiny stool in this gray room with only a threatening robot for company. That was clearly intentional. After some time, Julius spoke.
“So, your decision? End the war for us? Or end your life?”
“Well, as I’ve only just gotten a life, I’m rather loath to loose it this quickly. Besides, as far as I understand, both sides in war are usually equally bad. I’ll try to stop the war so that you win.”
“Try is not enough.”
“Well it’s all you are going to get from me! Trying to stop this was is all I could ever do in the beginning. In fact, I never even agreed to try that until just now. I don’t even know why everybody thinks that we can stop the silly war! I’ve never been interested in the politics of power or the machinery of warfare. I just wander through a hole and get sucked into all this ridiculousness! Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to get involved in any wars!” Nabel was shouting and out of breath by the time he finished his rant. The walls echoed back his last words until silence returned. Julius just looked at him, unperturbed.
“Why does everyone think I—we can stop the war anyways?” he asked once calmness had returned and his heart had slowed back to normal-ish.
“That’s easy. Two and a half years ago, somebody found a machine on an abandoned desert island on the planet Kittar. They managed to get the ancient mechanism running and it played one simple message: A message from your future: the technician Nabel and the politician Miranda are the only ones who can stop the war. Since then, everybody’s just been waiting around for you two to show up.”
“And everyone believes that ridiculousness?”
“Well no, but here you two are, so we figure now that it must be true.”
“Well, all I can say is thanks a lot to whatever jerk in the past or future or whatever set us up.” Nabel grimaced as he spoke.
“No point in being bitter. But our conversation is over now. What is the first step in your plan of action?”
“Plan of action,” Nabel muttered, but he answered all the same. “First, you reunite me with my friends, Miranda, Linth, and Lord Acton. Then you show us this technology you mentioned earlier. And we all hope it will be somehow helpful.”
Julius nodded and headed out of the room, beckoning for Nabel to follow.
Nabel was led back out to the landing platform, where he was joined by his nervous three companions. Once more they were locked in the empty room on the ship. The only difference was that Julius was standing awkwardly in the corner with his arms crossed. The others ignored him, except to give him nervous glances once in a while.
“What’s going on?” asked Linth.
“No idea,” said Miranda. Lord Acton shook his head.
“Nabel, do you know something you're not telling us?” Miranda asked, staring darkly at Nabel.
“Errr, I’ve had a chat with Mr. Julius and it turns out that his interests and ours are not so very different… so he’s going to try to help us stop the war. We’re going to see some fancy technology of his right now, actually.”
“What’s the catch?” asked Lord Acton and Miranda at exactly the same time.
Nabel shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter, right? It was that or death… so you aught to be thanking me for saving your lives.”
“Nabel, What. Is. The. Catch?” Miranda glared at him and she ended each word with ahard point.
Nabel looked over at Julius, hoping his expression would be read as hopeless. Julius stared back, unblinking. Stupid android. “He wants to end up on top… After the war is over. A very long time from now. And who knows, maybe we won’t be able to stop the war. It might not be possible, you know.”
“You agreed to THAT?” Lord Acton’s small boy voice could be rather frightening.
“Look, I didn’t have a choice. And that’s the only stipulation. It could have been worse.”
“Should have been, actually,” Lord Action turned a thoughtful gaze upon Julius. Julius made no response.
There was a similar short black hole trip, which puzzled Linth to no end, and they were soon landing on another planet. They came down in a bustling metropolitan where silver steel and blue glass were the main features. Just Julius and the four of them got off the ship. No guards and no gunpoint this time. Strange, Nabel thought, there was no where to run to on the last planet. I guess it is because of the deal we made. He really takes that seriously. But then, there was no longer any reason to escape.
Julius led them past some security guards, showing the guards a badge. They entered a long, glass-enclosed hallway. The floor was carpeted, which felt really nice on Nabel’s feet, which he had just realized were rather sore. He also realized, at that moment, that he was really tired. More than tired, sort of worn out like a couch that has seen too much use and has little threads sticking out everywhere and sagging springs.
Six security checks, four locked doors and a lot of monotonous hallways later, they entered a room that was like no room Nabel had seen before. Back on the space station there had been rooms containing most of the interesting insides of the machinery that kept the place running and provided life support and convenience to the thousands of people living there. Nabel had worked in one of those rooms; always making sure that everything was running well and in the best of repair in his little section. But those rooms were nothing, nothing like this. Comparing those rooms to this was like comparing a little yellow rubber ducky to the real, flapping, breathing, water proof thing.
There were people--everywhere. Scurrying about like little fruit flies amid a massive bowl of shiny silver fruit. He took a few steps forward, his mind feeling so small that it might collapse in on itself.
“It’s too big. Too much. I could spend the rest of my lifetime trying to figure out what might be useful in stopping a war,” Nabel said.
“Not a problem,” said Julius. “I know everything there is here and everything there is to know about that. So you can ask me questions, and I can show you what I think might be useful, until we find something.”
Then Julius snapped into tour guide of amazing machines mode. If androids can be happy, Julius certainly was. Near the end of the tour, which, for Nabel, had been the most exhilarating experience of his life, (to date,) Julius stopped in front of a very large podium. It rose like a pyramid from the floor, and another pyramid came down to meet it. And at the point of their meeting was a little glass cube. And inside the cube was a small, shiny machine.
“And this, this is one of our greatest prides. A time machine.”
Nabel stared at it in awe, “How does it work?”
“You really don’t want to know, Nabel.” Lord Acton cut in. He hadn’t said much so far, but he’d shown a lot more interest in the machines that Miranda or Linth had. The two of them wore bored, glazed over eyes and occasionally muttered something to each other and giggled a little. “I’ve warned you about time travel.”
“As a matter of fact, I can’t answer your question, even though I’d like to,” said Julius. “No one knows how it works.”
“May I try it?” asked Nabel.
“I’m warning you,” said Acton, nervously.
“Well,” began Julius, clearly a bit surprised by Nabel’s request.
“I’ll need a quiet room to work,” Nabel continued.
“Alright. That’s what you’re here for. But you do realize that playing with time is very dangerous?”
“Yeah, I know. Acton’s walking proof of that. Don’t worry. I probably won’t even be able to get the thing working. I just want to examine it, really.”
So he got to examine it. And he even got a quiet room to himself, while his friends ate a meal in the adjoining room. They brought him a sandwich.
He spent hours staring at it, turning it over and over in his hands. It was seamless, rectangular and at least partially hollow, if the sound it made when he knocked on it could be trusted. Tiredness from his long day that had begun so long ago and far away on the other side of a black hole finally caught up with him for real and he fell asleep, his forehead lying on the smooth object.
He awoke some time later to find himself in a very different time and place.