As they described the events of the last few days in Cavaheim to Hera, Kevin emerged from the bedroom, looking sheepish. he kept to the fringe of the group and listened to the conversation using his phone translator and a pair of earbuds.
Basha had provided Hera with a translator earpiece, allowing her to understand Ruby. Each member of the group spoke their own language, their translation devices facilitating the conversation. Only Eddie was able to follow along without electronic intervention.
"Our soldiers rescued us from the prison," Farook explained, "Along with all the captives. Jarrock killed a few prisoners before he himself was killed, and the Ord have killed a few soldiers and civilians, but they took heavy casualties themselves before retreating to the Ord Temple outside the university. They have hostages now, and they demand the right to rule the city and allow Basha to complete his work. None of the surviving Ord know it was Jarrock, not Basha that ruled."
Hera listened with wide eyes. "I should have been there," she said. "I should have been helping."
"If you were there," Ruby said. "The Ord would have imprisoned you. You'd be dead with the other casualties."
"But these are my people." She pressed her lips together, fighting tears. "I should have fought for them."
"You did what you had to do," Farook said. "In fact, before you left, your speeches changed a lot of minds and inspired the resistance. The people see you as a leader now."
Hera stared at him. "But I'm nobody."
"Not true. You are the only one who can save our city."
Farook sighed. "The city is a mess. The people are divided, the captains of the city guard want to declare martial law, but the Ord have commanded the military for years now, and the soldiers have no chief. Many citizens think the soldiers were too complicit with the Ord and can't be trusted. The people divide into factions. There's only one way to unite them. All of them respected your father. They recognize you as their last voice of truth."
"They want me to be their prophet?" Hera asked, shocked. "I'm not like my father."
"They want you to lead them," Farook corrected.
Hera blinked. "What?"
"You're the only obvious choice. They all respect you. You never lied to them."
Hera touched the implant on her left cheek. "I can't do it."
"You won't be alone, we can help you."
Ruby stood up. Her part with Hera was done for now. It was up to Farook and Basha to convince Hera that she was needed. Ruby motioned to Eddie and nodded towards Kevin.
"We need to talk to you," Ruby told Kevin.
"Are you going to yell at me?"
"Why would I yell?"
"Well, because..." he nodded at Hera.
Ruby glanced between Hera and Kevin. Hera was how old? Sixteen? Seventeen? And Kevin was in his early twenties. Ruby frowned. "You thought it was the end of the world."
"Well, she did," Kevin said. "I swear, I didn't touch her until she.. I mean..."
"Let's not talk about it," Ruby said. "There's something more important we need to discuss."
She motioned for Eddie to sit at the kitchen table. Kevin sat opposite him. Bryce joined them, standing beside Ruby.
"We've learned more about what's happened to the world," Ruby said. "I've told Eddie about your videos, about the two seconds of footage of the world melting and the mystery man reaching for the light. We know who that man is."
Kevin's mouth hung open. "Who? What did they do? How did it happen?"
Eddie frowned. He leaned forward and tapped his fingers on the table top. "What do you know about time travel?"
* * *
After Ruby and Eddie described what happened with Tim the night before, Kevin sat stunned. "So, this joker in charge of the electric priests thought he could become God if he recited a conversation you and this Tim guy had about traveling back in time."
"Forget about Jarrock," Eddie said. "The point is, I guess I went back in time two seconds. Exactly two seconds."
"Yeah, I picked up on that," Kevin said.
"There's more," Eddie said. "I remembered something else this morning as we flew up here. It was from before, when Tim first told me about the time portal.
The dream of Tim's front room hadn't faded from Eddie's memory at all. He recited their conversation word for word. Kevin made Eddie repeat everything he said about the portal and the behavior of the rats several times. He sat hunched forward, his elbows on the table, massaging his temples. "They wouldn't go through the portal if they could see through it," he repeated. "A paradox. The mere presence of a time machine causes paradoxes, even before you use it."
Bryce shook his head. "So, the rat didn't walk through the time portal because it saw itself on the other side. But how did the rat see itself there if it never went through?"
Kevin sat back. "That's the point. The rat did walk through the portal. But then didn't. It's own action negated that action. Don't you see the dangers here? Why did your uncle send the rat back only two seconds?"
Eddie shrugged. "I guess Tim thought he'd prevent any cosmic consequences if he kept the time short. He was experimenting—practicing. Eventually, he planned to go much further back in time and save his wife from dying."
"But don't you think going back in time two seconds is much worse?" Kevin asked.
"Why should it be?"
"Because you created a very short time loop. If it was a long time loop, you could only make mistakes once. You might go back and kill Alexander Hamilton or something. That would change history, but you'd only change history once."
"I don't see the difference," Eddie said.
Kevin gnawed on a fingernail, deep in thought. "How do I explain this? It won't make sense unless I... you said he suspected changes taking place around him. His phone wasn't the right color. A gas station's name changed."
Eddie had felt similar changes. And after he saw the rat pass through the portal the first time...
"Wait, I'm remembering something else," he said.
"Something about paradoxes."
Eddie frowned. He watched the rat pass through the portal. The head of the rat emerged before it had even stepped through. For two seconds, the rat appeared in two places at once. It was two rats. After he had watched the rat walk through several times, he got an idea...
"Oh, wow," Eddie said, remembering.
"What is it?" Ruby asked.
"I think we really screwed with reality that day."