Originally published online here.
Cherry was mumbling something as we stepped into the room. She always seemed to say something when we did a time slip. I never could make it out. The first part sounded like random letters and numbers. The last part was definitely a phrase. It sounded like the last word was “day”.
I could ask her about it later. The most important thing was the box.
The room was a comfortable study. Brass chair rail ringed the richly stained wood walls, ending at an expansive stone fireplace. On the right of the entryway was a cluster of small plants done up in red bows and Christmas lights. I made for the rolltop desk just beyond that. The object I was after sat innocently atop a mess of papers, as if it were being used as an oversized paperweight. I picked up the box gingerly and sat down on the floor near the fireplace to examine it.
It was about the size of a cigar box, but it was heavy and made of cherry wood and brass. The box was plain, unmarked save for some small brass tacking. I flipped open the lid and let it fall back and hang on the thin chains that secured it.
Cherry had been surveying the room, but now came to crouch beside me and peer over my shoulder.
“Tools and surgical implements,” I pointed out, running my forefinger along the row of silver screwdrivers and scalpels. “But what are they for?”
“Seems weird to have them together like that,” Cherry agreed. After a moment of staring into the velvet-lined case, she straightened and stepped further into Franklin’s office. “Maybe there’s something else here we can learn from.”
As she started rummaging through a bookshelf, I decided to disassemble the carefully-arranged box to see if that would help. I’d started gathering up the tools when I noticed the odd way the velvet gathered at the edges of the box. “Hmm,” I said aloud, cocking my head to one side and frowning. “I wonder…”
I picked up one of the flathead screwdriver tips and wedged it between the velvet and the box. A little leverage, and the fabric started to rise. It was apparently tacked to cardboard. “Look, this is a tray,” I said excitedly. “It lifts out.”
I felt Cherry step back in my direction, but I was intent on the box as I pulled the tray of tools up and out and set it aside.
“Here’s a bag of transistors,” I said. “There’s some wiring. But what’s this?”
I picked something out of the box that was about the size of a coin, with a yellow, rusty looking wedge jutting from a silver root. “A root?” I asked aloud. “This is…”
“A tooth,” Cherry breathed.
We both knew the implications of what we’d found. But there was no time to discuss them. Our window was closing.
I quickly reassembled the box and set it back on the desk. Moments later, we felt time slip away…
I blinked and looked around. We had time-slipped, hadn’t we? But we were back in the study.
Cherry looked at me curiously. “Why are we back here?”
“I don’t know,” I was saying, when suddenly we arrived. Or rather, the us who had been there before. We were standing by the fireplace; Us’ abruptly appeared in the doorway.
“Roman!” Cherry hissed, grabbing my arm.
“Why are we here again?” I whispered frantically.
Me’ came striding in, intent on the box. I gaped at him for a moment as he turned his back to us, giving me a rare view of the back of my own head. I considered idly that my auburn hair was getting a little shaggy, and boy was it ever curly in the back.
“Everything’s the same,” Me’ informed Cherry’, glancing around at her. “…wait. Where’s the wallscreen?”
In my shock at reappearing where we’d just left I hadn’t noticed. I glanced over my shoulder. “He’s right,” I told Cherry. When we’d first arrived there had been a flat panel screen above the fireplace. “It’s gone.”
Turning back towards our dopplegangers, I saw that Cherry’ was looking at the Christmas decorations. I abruptly noticed they were different as well. This time there were no bows, and the plants were much smaller.
“What’s going on?” both Cherrys said at once.
“Oh, wait, I forgot to say my stuff,” Cherry’ cried, and then she was rattling off a long list of nonsensical letters and numbers. I was hearing the code, the thing she was always muttering, clearly for the first time. Not that it made any sense. “And let the other guys be gay,” she finished.
I blinked. “What the heck does that mean?”
“Oh,” Cherry’ said, “that’s just so I don’t fall in love with anyone while I’m traveling and neglect to do my duty.”
I wheeled on Cherry, who had turned bright pink. “They shouldn’t be able to see us, should they?”
“Why wouldn’t we be able to see you?” asked Me’ calmly, lifting the tray of tools from the box and examining the cyborg oddments beneath.
“Because,” I spluttered, “Paradox Theory…”
They weren’t us.
They looked like us. They were even wearing the same clothes. Cherry’ had on that dress Cherry loves, the one that comes to just above the knee, with the marbled red and black pattern. And she was wearing Cherry’s trademark knee-high leather boots, with the platforms and five-inch heels. And Me’ was in the same suit I was wearing, tuxedo-style but dark purple, with copper buttons and a pocket watch chain visible upon one breast.
I had assumed because they looked like us, they sounded like us, and they were here just as we had been, that they were us. But…
“That’s ridiculous,” Me’ responded. “Paradox Theory doesn’t have anything to do with dimensional slips.”