They got to it. With a lot of gesturing, muffled arguments, and tapping on the laptop computer, which was wired up to the time machine through a USB port, they got to it.
I went out to the back yard for a smoke to calm my nerves. Visions of the Earth, the Moon, the Sun, all the planets swirling down into the vortex of a black hole like cigarette butts being flushed down a toilet bowl assailed me, along with the idea of a titanic explosion obliterating all matter from Earth to half-way to Alpha Centauri. The cigarette didn’t do much to calm my nerves; both scenarios were only marginally more palatable than explaining eight Normans to an outraged Belinda.
When I went back inside about ten minutes later, the Normans all looked up at me with a series of identical triumphant grins.
“I think we have it now,” one of the Normans said – I’d long since given up trying to keep track of who was who. Why would I? They were all Norman.
“Will it work?”
“…as long as our presumptions are correct…”
“…of course it’s possible…”
“…that the multiple manifestations of one identity…”
“…having their own experiential realities in the time stream…”
“…since the initial incident…”
“…and the various incidents since…”
“…might have irreconcilable…”
“…conflicts of causality…”
“…as the event matrix rewinds…”
“…to reality, whatever that is.”
“All right,” I said. “But will it work?”
All eight Normans shrugged. “Only one way to find out,” one of them said.
One of the Norman-Primes picked up the consolidated device and fiddled with the dial.
Another Norman Prime pointed over his shoulder, said something in a low voice.
The first Norman-Prime nodded, flipped a switch, looked up at me and grinned. “This will do it. Everything’s going to be all right now.” He pushed the red button.
There was a gathering whine. A swirling, polychromic whorl of colors began, slowly, to surround the Normans, moving slowly from the floor upwards to surround them. A sparkling, opalescent field of energy formed over them, following their body surfaces, tracing over shoes, trousers, jackets, faces, until the Normans were encased in the gleaming mother-of-pearl film. The whirling colors vortex slowly contracted, closed in, and tightened, the opalescent field shimmered brighter and brighter.
Then, there was a sudden flash of light, and the dull pop of air imploding into the space where, moments before, eight Normans had stood. The workshop was empty. No Normans stood in front of me. No consolidated time travel device lay on the workbench, or anywhere else. And worst of all…
“Dammit,” I muttered. “Where ever they’ve gone, they took my laptop with them.”
Well, I figured Norman – hopefully only one Norman – would turn up in a few moments, so I took the last cold beer from the fridge, flipped on my radio and sat down to finish winding line on my fishing reel.
After a few minutes, I was surprised to hear Norman’s name mentioned on the top of the hour news:
The lone fatality in a hit-and-run accident at Highway 4 and Oakton Avenue earlier today has been identified as Norman Taggert, 48, of Springfield. Taggert was driving east on Oakton Avenue when…
I didn’t hear anything more after that.
Somehow, Norman – the Normans – had done the impossible. They had reprogrammed their little black box – black boxes – to violate causality. In trying to undo a chain of increasingly unlikely events, they had somehow set an entirely new timeline into motion, an entirely different chain of events.
In this new chain, Norman was killed in an accident on his way to my house. The near-miss he describe to me on his arrival actually happened. Somehow, the device changed the outcome, slowing Norman’s reflexes, speeding up the oncoming car, changing the timing just a little – it didn’t matter how. That was how whatever impossible software in the guts of that damned little black box had undone the chain of endlessly repeating Normans.
Norman was a bit of a crackpot, but he was a brilliant man – and my best friend. Now he was gone, killed by his own genius.
I laid my head on my workbench, and just stayed there for a while.
Eventually I decided to go upstairs. There would be a funeral; I owed his daughter and son a call, I had to be ready to do my part in the memorial service – all those thoughts were going through my head as I slowly, so slowly, dragged up the stairway out of the basement and into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, I heard something I hadn’t heard in years – Belinda’s braying laughter. Before I could give that a moment’s thought, something on the kitchen counter caught my eye. A hammer lay on the counter, and next to it…
No, I thought, it couldn’t be… It’s not possible.
But it was.
Scraps of black plastic and pieces of shattered circuit boards lay scattered on the granite countertop. As I sorted through the wreckage with horror, I found the remnants of two red buttons.
In the back of my mind I heard a Norman’s voice, “We have three devices now instead…”
That was Norman-Three, I thought, fighting down a growing panic. There were four Normans then – Prime, One, Two and Three – they should have had four devices…
Belinda’s laughter floated in again, from the living room. I could hear voices over the television.
Voices? Belinda hated company. She has never liked anyone – except herself. She thought she was the cat’s own pajamas, even if nobody else did. So who would be visiting her? What were they laughing about? I looked back at the shattered remains of two of Norman’s time machines. Could she have? Would she have?
A feeling of horror gripped me like a fist of dry ice. I wanted to turn and run from the house. Instead, I walked into the living room.
Three Belindas looked up at me from the couch. Three Belindas looked at each other, and laughed. Three Belindas stood up, walked towards me, and barked in unison, “George! You haven’t been smoking, have you?”
“No,” I stammered.
“Good. You know I hate you smoking…”
“…it stinks up the house, and my carpet is in…”
“…bad enough shape as it is, and…”
“…you know I’ve been after you for weeks to get them cleaned anyway, and…”
“…you’ve spent most of today messing around with that no-good Norman…”
“…when you promised me that you would get the garage cleaned…”
“…and fix the kitchen drain…”
“…and replace the garbage disposal. Why can’t your worthless…”
“…friend invent something practical, like a TV set that won’t…”
“…cut out every time the neighbor starts up his lawnmower? Speaking of which…”
“…you need to cut the lawn, too.”
“What are you standing there staring at us for? Get busy!”
I looked at the three of them, nodded, and fled back into the kitchen.
They’re in there now, watching television and laughing, as I write this down. I’ve got the wreckage of Norman’s time machine – machines – down on my workbench, but I already know it’s hopeless. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put that thing – those things – back together again. I’d need Norman to do that. Instead, I’ve got three Belindas and no Normans.
God only knows what might happen next.