Sarah was manning the front desk of the library when the zombie-killer walked in. In truth the person probably wasn’t a zombie-killer; the library windows took up an entire wall, and there was no sign of the chaos and bloodshed expected of a zombie apocalypse outside. There was a small part of Sarah that wished there was a zombie apocalypse though. Then she’d be able to march into the backroom where Dena, her manager, was playing Candy Crush and say “look, zombies. Guess it wasn’t a waste of time me borrowing all those zombie stories last week was it? Me and this survivor are going to barricade the library up, and since you never bothered to learn about such ‘childish fantasy’, you better shut up and listen to me.”
Of course, in a real zombie apocalypse, Sarah knew she’d be one of the first people chased down and turned. Then as a zombie she’d probably get her head smashed in on day one. The person who just walked into the library though? First glance, Sarah felt they would be the one smashing zombie heads in. What else was she meant to think when someone in a dirty blood-stained cowboy outfit barged through the glass doors of her sterile library? The patron placed a massive sack next to the door. It stood over the sea of children’s backpacks, and the long, hastily wrapped object sticking out the top looked too much like a shotgun for Sarah’s liking.
Despite the thrill Sarah got imagining this strangely dressed figure killing zombies, that maybe-shotgun made her hand hover over the phone. She was going to call security, but there was something familiar about the figure that stopped her. The Mad Max wannabe held up their arms as they approached, and Sarah saw they had a thick book in one hand. The other was missing three fingers. Despite the patron looking like they had crawled across a battlefield, the book was spotless.
“There a cosplay event happening around here?” Sarah asked as the stranger reached the desk. The stranger laughed, slow and unsure at first but then in huge fits that resulted in them bending over and coughing. Their voice was muffled by a thick red scarf wrapped around the lower half of their face. Sunglasses and the shadow of their wide-brimmed hat hid the rest of their face. Between the excessive face coverings and a form-hiding jacket, Sarah could make out little of the customer’s appearance. They were about her height and build, with possibly similar hair and skin colour. What skin was visible was tanned or sunburnt, and their black hair was unbrushed and dirty. Sarah would usually tell visitors to remove their hats inside the library, but she felt that this ridiculously oversized hat should stay just for it’s potential in pissing off her Dena.
“Sorry” the patron said. “Sorry, this is just, so strange. I can’t believe you said that.”
“It just gets weirder. Sorry, sorry. This is my fault. I just, I need to stay on script. I think I’m doing alright. I need to return a book.”
“Sure, I can do that” Sarah said. “Do you know there’s a return shoot just over there?”
“Yeah… but um, I want to make sure it gets like, um, processed? Is that the word I used? It’s due today, and well, I want to make sure I don’t have any late fees.”
Sarah felt her eyebrow twitch at the suggestion she couldn’t be trusted to process the return in time, but there was something so awkward about this strange person that she found it hard to work up a proper anger. With her own history of anxiety, Sarah could imagine herself wanting to check the book in personally just to be sure. If she was able to work herself up for the face to face interaction of course.
“I get that” Sarah said. “At least you don’t work here; my manager gets super disappointed when we bring back books late.”
“Ha, I wouldn’t know anything about that” the customer said. “I mean, I guess I could imagine it? Sorry, I thought I’d gotten better at talking. I have trouble talking to people.”
“Yeah, I get that” Sarah said. “You’d think talking with so many customers would make it easier, but I still suck sometimes.”
“You’re much better at it than you think” They said. “You are totally capable of negotiating between waring clans that want to kill you. I mean, that’s the vibe I get from you.”
“I… thanks?” Sarah said. She looked the stranger up and down. If the war-battered rebel look was just a costume, it was a very good one. It looked like there were real blood stains on the hem of the jacket. They were about her height and wore an ancient leather trench coat that obscured their figure. Only the stranger’s hopeless awkwardness prevented Sarah from panicking. She noticed a few kids peeking between the shelves, and one older lady at a computer openly gawking. What if Dena came out and saw that she’d allowed this lunatic to stand around in the library and frighten people away?
“Sorry, what was your name again?” Sarah asked.
“Oh, I can just swipe my card” the stranger said, waving a library card before the scanner. “No need to enter in the details.”
Sarah turned to the screen, but before she could read the customer’s details they slammed the book on the desk, and Sarah was distracted by seeing that three-fingered left hand up close and personal.
“Oh, this?” the stranger said, noticing Sarah’s gaze and holding up the hand. “I got bitten by a velociraptor. It was trying to eat the book. You won’t believe all the crazy stuff I had to go through to return this book today.”
That comment was too weird for Sarah to respond to with anything more than a confused chuckle. To avoid further elaboration, she examined the cover of the book. The artwork was plain bordering on boring, but the title was something special.
The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Time Travel and the Multiverse
By J. T. Kanno
“This sounds like an interesting read” Sarah said.
“You should open it and see the publication date” the stranger said.
Sarah opened the cover, browsed through the publishing history at the front, and saw that this book was a second edition. Originally published 2121.
“Is that a typo?” She asked. The customer just shrugged and chuckled. Sarah turned back to her computer screen, only to find that the computer had crashed.
“Oh damn” Sarah said. “The computer is down again. Sorry, we’ve been having a lot of glitches lately.” She didn’t add that Dena refused to acknowledge that the computers sucked, or that she apparently needed the computers to crash she had an excuse to berate the other library assistants. As weird as this encounter was, Sarah still knew how to stay professional. Staying professional kept her focused, gave her a guide for all the interpersonal encounters she had to go through each day.
“That’s okay” The customer said. “I used to think these computers, I mean, computers like these, had a mind of their own. Then I actually met computers that had a mind of their own. That, was something else.”
They fell into an uncomfortable silence. Sarah looked the stranger up and down once again, trying to work out why they felt so familiar to her. What was it about this dirty, potentially armed and dangerous maniac that had managed to put Sarah almost at ease? She was probably going to feel very stupid in a few minutes when this masked stranger started causing a scene.
“Been reading anything interesting lately?” the stranger asks.
“Not really” Sarah said. “Nothing as interesting as this one. Beginner’s Guide to Time Travel, right?”
“And the multiverse” The stranger said. “I mean, it’s obvious that a time machine also needs to be some sort of spaceship, otherwise when you went back in time the Earth wouldn’t be where you are. But people don’t realise that you can’t time travel without some ability to navigate the multiverse too.”
“Multiverse?” Sarah asked. “Is this like, an ‘every choice leads to a different time-lime’ thing?”
“Yes, exactly” the stranger said. “As a time-traveller, you tend to create branching points no matter how careful you are.”
“Sounds better than worrying about the whole Grandfather Paradox though. Must be cool being able to change your past.”
“Meh, yes and no. It is nice knowing that I’m not going to break the universe or anything if I cause a paradox. If I say, wanted to convince my past self to build a time machine, I could just go up to her and give her the instructions. But being a time traveller caught in a branching timeline can be very unpleasant. See this tattoo?” She rolled up her sleeve to reveal a complicated skull pattern ringed around her wrist. “I didn’t want to join a band of post-apocalypse bounty hunters, but after a few such paradoxes that was what I came home to. It took a year to get back to my own reality. Would have been quicker if I didn’t have to rescue that book from zombie keepers, but still, wasn’t a good time.”
“Zombie keepers?” Sarah said, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah. People actually purposely turned people to zombies and kept them penned up. Had a huge army that I had to fight through to get that book back. And let me make it clear that I was indeed the one smashing zombie heads in. Anyway, if I needed to convince my past self to build that time machine, I would try as hard as I could to make the experience as I remembered it. No reason to fling myself through realities if I don’t need to.”
“What if your past self decided not to build the time machine” Sarah asked, “even if you did everything the same?”
“Well, I guess once I ended that encounter, I’d go back to a reality where I never had time travel. I don’t know if I’d come back from that.”
“That sounds a lot safer than velociraptor attacks and zombie armies.”
“Safer yes. But nowhere near as exciting. Besides, velociraptors are the most amazing creatures. So much personality. Seeing dinosaurs in their natural habitat was the best thing I ever did. Well, that and seeing Freddy Mercury live. Oh, and seeing the Great Pyramid newly completed. There have been some terrible times, but it has been a great adventure. Where would you go if you had a time machine?”
“I… I think you may have just listed some of my picks. I’d also go see the Buddhas of Bamiyan before they get destroyed.”
“Oh, yes, that would be a good one to see. I… that was unexpected though.”
“It sounds like everything about time travel is unexpected. I don’t think I’m cut out for those sorts of adventures.”
They were silent again. Sarah looked at the customer’s hand with it’s missing fingers. She looked at her own and wondered how much it would hurt to have them bitten off. The thought made her sick, so she went back to staring at the computer, reminding herself that just yesterday she had helped a kid check out a very professional and serious looking guide to dragon species.
“Looks like the computer system is back up” Sarah said. “Let’s get this book returned.”
It only took a couple of second for Sarah to scan the book and confirm the return went through. It took longer for her to look back at the battered figure standing at her desk.
“You know,” the stranger said. “I… I didn’t want to go off script, not intentionally, but I want to tell you something. I want you to know that you are capable of a lot more than you think you are. It doesn’t matter that awkward conversations with weirdos isn’t something you’ll ever get the hang of. You kick arse in a million other ways.”
“Um, thanks, I think?” Sarah said. “The book has been returned. No late fees.”
“That’s good” the stranger said. “The only ten dollar notes I have are either ancient paper notes, or those commemorative ones from the 2040s where Banjo Patterson and Mary Gilmore are in space.”
“Does the Banjo Patterson side have space horses on it?” Sarah asked.
“Bunch of horses running across the moon with a drover in a space suit driving a buggy after them” the customer said, turning away and walking back to the door. “If you check out that book, maybe you’ll get to see it. Just remember, ‘temporal crystals’ refer to those rose quartz gems with flakes of blue. The hippy crystal shop near the waterfront has some.”
Her raised voice roused Dena from the back room. The manager watched the back for the stranger’s filthy leather cloak retreat with a scowl.
“Did you really just let a hobo in here?” Dena asked.
“I, um, she’s a cosplayer, not a hobo” Sarah said.
“Did she have a weapon in that sack?”
“Just a prop. For her costume.”
“You could have gotten everyone in here killed Sarah. So bloody useless.”
Dena stormed back into the back room, muttering about traumatised children and complaints about messes. Sarah lowered her head, and her gaze fell on the Complete Beginner’s Guide to Time Travel and the Multiverse. Despite what she told Dena, she was doubting her sanity. Still, being crazy was better than feeling ‘bloody useless’ for something that hadn’t even been a problem. She took out her own library card and borrowed the book. For the rest of her shift, she felt less anxious. It was as if borrowing the time travel gag book validated the cosplayer’s assessment of her.
She started reading it that night, using the receipt as a bookmark. She continued throughout the week, with the strangeness of her encounter fading each night. By the time she got to the end of the book, she noticed the error on the receipt.
That glitchy computer had put the date she’d borrowed the book as the due date. She had an overdue book and she knew if Dena found out she’d raise hell. She wouldn’t be able to get Sarah in any actual trouble, but just listening to Dena’s constant put-downs was nearly as bad as a write-up.
Sarah looked at her hand, imagining the fingers being bitten off by a velociraptor. Would there even be bandages and antiseptics in the Cretaceous? Then she looked at the receipt, imagining paying the late fee with a boring non-space-drover ten dollar note.
Well, at least she knew she’d get the book returned on it’s due date. If she was willing to go on that adventure. If she was ready to be the one smashing zombie heads rather than getting bitten and shambling to a redshirt’s death.
The next day she went to that hippy crystal shop by the waterfront. She carried a bucket, because she suspected she’d need a lot of temporal crystals.