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While Time Is With Us

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"Give my best to the outside world."

The girl flickered and faded, leaving only the irony of Anthony's final comment hanging over where her head had been. He had given a lot of things to the world, but he was afraid his best had never been one of them.

The bitter nature of this truth, however, would be one left for another day, because even in the uncertain time of the blackroom no more than a second could have passed before Sam materialized before him again.

She pointed a finger at him and Anthony stared wildly into the space between them, half-expecting her attention to be focused on some unseen apparition rather than him. "Twenty-first century broads?"

"I—sorry, what?" he managed. 

"Twenty-first century broads and time travel. In the plural. That's what you said?"

"Yes?" His confusion did little to establish any confidence in the statement, and Sam frowned. "Yes, that's what I said. But what are you doing here? You said that you didn't think—and I said I didn't want—"

Sam waved her hand as though her very presence in this place wasn't a miracle. "Do you remember her name? The other woman from my time?"

There's a choking sound from Anthony and Sam was convinced she had overstepped some boundary (could she be the wife he had mentioned?), until she realized he was struggling not to laugh. 

"Yes, I remember her name," the man eventually got out, wiping his eyes. "Thank you for that. I haven't had much cause for laughter lately."

"With those reading materials, I'm not surprised." Sam nodded to the stack of Stephen King novels beside them. "But—what was it, then? The name?"

"Right, sorry. Sally. Dr. Grissom, I should say. She's the one who invented the Timepiece—the machine that lets us do what you already can."

"Oh," Sam said, another frown playing at the corner of her mouth. "I thought it might be...I've never met another time traveler, but I know of one. Not a Dr. Grissom, though. I don't think I've ever heard of her." 

"Trust me, if you had, you would remember. If I had to bet on anyone having some secret ability to bend time to their will, it would be Sally. Not that she needs it. She gets by well enough with her PhD and a talent for poking holes in accepted scientific standards." 

Anthony's voice softened slightly, and he pointed off just over the cover of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. "That's her. Frozen in this moment."

Following his gesture, Sam fixed her eyes on the distant light. She could just make out the form of person. "Were you two...?"

For the second time in as many minutes Anthony gave off a startled bark of laughter. "Sally and I? No. She's not—and Helen is the only person I—no. But we're friends. She was my closest friend. And she still is."

There was a note in his voice when he talked about Dr. Grissom that Sam recognized. It was how she sounded when she spoke to Mark on her car recordings. A feeling of miss you, love you, until I see you again

(It would be a while before she understood the difference between this and the way Anthony talked about Helen. There, the last clause was left off.)

"When was the last time you spoke to her?"

Anthony pressed a hand to his chin, considering with a gesture that would have looked absurdly unreal on most people but seemed to suit him. "Time is difficult to gauge here, as I told you before, but I reckon it's been at least...five, six hours?"

"What? You've only been here for a few hours? You said it was months!"

"Sorry, no, it has. But like I said, Sally's good at poking holes in things. She found a way to communicate with me, even in here. It's not the same as before, of course, but it's pretty good."

Sam considered this for a moment. "Intertemporal chatting. I can see how that would be handy."

"Yeah." The smile on Anthony's face flickered in much the same way Sam had before vanishing. "Listen," he said suddenly. "This has been nice. I mean, really nice. But you should probably get going. I meant what said; I don't want you to get me out. I volunteered for this, and so I'll see it through. Besides, you have that road trip you mentioned before, and I have...mailman-ing."

"Right." Sam ran a hand through her hair self-consciously, wishing she had an option other than the one they both knew was inevitable. "All your best to the outside world, then."

There was a sound from the computer, followed by a "Hold that thought!" from Anthony as he threw himself at the controls. "That means something's coming through from Sally. You said you haven't met another time traveler. Would you like to?"

That was their second meeting.

Sally and Sam had talked for as long as they could before the latter was pulled away, fighting her return to the twenty-first century up until the second she disappeared. Anthony didn't expect to ever see her again.

Time was a relative thing when you existed outside of it, but it can't have been more than an hour before she appeared once more amidst profuse apologies, knocking over a stack of ODAR-stamped boxes. 

Things began to fall into a pattern. Sam wasn't having many panic attacks those days, but when she did her mind always seemed to take her to Anthony Partridge's corner of the non-universe. And sometimes, when things got too lonely, she would go there willingly. They would talk for hours, often recording their entire visit to send to Sally. Sally Grissom—Sam had never spoken with someone who reminded her so much of herself. Granted, it was hard to hold a conversation via voicemail, but time was the one thing they all had in abundance. They made it work. Every time, as Sam felt herself being pulled back, she warned Anthony that this might be the last time he saw her. Every time, he smiled and told her to say hello to the world, to her friends, to Mark when she found him. 

(Every time, he believed her, but then she would return and it would all be fine.)

(Every time, his hopes grew a little higher.)

On their third meeting, Sam told him that she'd started reading more Stephen King and they debated at length about the merits of his various works.

On their fifth meeting, Anthony told her about Esther Roberts and Jack Wyatt and Helen, about the families people build for themselves.

On their eighth meeting, Sam told him about the mental time traveler and how she had come back that first time in the hopes that learning about the woman would lead her to Mark.

On their fourteenth meeting, Sally talked about being asexual and Anthony replayed the message when he noticed how intently Sam was listening; on their seventeenth she would be wearing a purple-and-grayscale pin. 

On their twenty-first meeting, they celebrated Anthony's birthday, because even though time didn't pass in the blackroom Sally had called to say that she and Esther were getting together to commemorate the date.

On their twenty-sixth meeting, Sam tried to talk to Anthony about getting him out and he shot the conversation down within ten seconds.

On their twenty-ninth meeting, they barely spoke at all, just sat beside one another and read. Sam didn't say that she had never had a brother but that Anthony came close. Anthony didn't say that he did have a sister, one not even Sally knew about, who he hadn't seen in five years before coming here. He didn't say that Sam was the sort of person he hoped she had grown up to become. Sally, who had been too busy with ODAR to record any messages for the past week in her time, didn't say anything at all.

"Give my best to the outside world."

"I always do."

That was the last time they spoke, but it wouldn't be their last meeting. Not for Sam.

The blackroom was gone. She was almost sure of it. Sam had visited so many time that it was like walking to the library—she didn't even have to think about the path. But when she tried to slip back to that small pocket-world of 1943, there was nothing there.

He must have gone home. That's what she told herself, anyways, after her sixth failed attempt. He got over his protests and Sally broke him out and ODAR demolished the abandoned time waystation. He must have gone home. She would just check. Just to make sure. 

Anthony had told her enough of his life that she knew where to find him and Dr. Grissom, and she couldn't lie, the prospect of meeting Sally in person was a tempting one. So she drove to a quiet part of the country, parked her car, and—focused on the coordinates scribbled on a sticky-note—stepped back to Sally's home in the mid-twentieth century. 

She had never been so precise before, never been able to aim like that for a place she didn't know. But there was the house, there were the trees and the buildings Sally had described. She half-ran, half-danced through the street in amazement. A newspaper dropped in the driveway in the next house over confirmed the date, and she stepped through the open front door. 

The house was empty. The house had clearly been empty for some time. 

At first she didn't think anything of it—she was basing her directions off of a half-remembered conversations. But after she spent the next three days wandering the area, she was forced to admit to herself that something was wrong. The year was right, and this was Sally's house. It just wasn't Sally's house in this version of things.

So she tried again. All the times and places she had ever heard Sally or Anthony mention. Sometimes she would go to New Mexico in 1944 and Polvo would be there, but another scientist would be working in Anthony's lab. Sometimes there would be no town at all, just dust, and she didn't know if it was the time or the place or the universe that was wrong. She visited Anthony's hometown and the university he had studied at. She researched back in her own time, but it was clear that neither ODAR nor any Dr. Grissom existed in her dimension. Either that, or whatever Sally and Anthony were up to in the past had erased them from their own future. 

Searching for Mark. Searching for Anthony. Searching for Sally. Sam seemed to have a talent for losing people.

Until one day, it worked and she found herself in Point of Exile. The correct Point of Exile. She was standing in a room and there was Anthony, not five feet away. Sam couldn't help it; she flung herself at him—but the hug went straight through. 

This wasn't the blackroom. Anthony didn't know she was there.

He was talking, but not to her. Sam looked at the other man in the room, an older figure, worn and ailing everywhere but his eyes. His eyes were as sharp as any she'd ever seen.

"Progress requires sacrifice, Anthony," he was saying. "That's why you never got anywhere. You never sacrificed anything, never fought for anything."

"I fought for her!"

Sam knew instinctively that she shouldn't be here, that this wasn't for her to see. She backed away, but couldn't bring herself to leave the room, let alone the era. Not after all of the work she'd gone through to find him again. Anthony was almost throbbing with anger, a display of emotion she'd never imagined of him. Even his desperation from their first meeting didn't touch on it. She reflected briefly that it was a good thing Caleb wasn't here, before the yelling pulled her back to the present—or, if not the present, then the moment at hand.

"Sally's work. I'm just the cog, remember? Remember before Philadelphia? Before all of this blew up? We were gonna change the world." And the anger is still there, but there's something else behind it. A sadness she knows too well. A hopeless, essential need to matter. To the world, to history, to a single person.

Bill Donovan—she's run through the names she knows from his past, and this has to be Bill Donovan—gave a careless, cruel shrug. "Plans change. Assets have to be reorganized. No everyone gets to be the hero."

Sam wasn't the hero. She was only the observer. Anthony had told her many things, but he'd never told her why he ended up in the blackroom. So she observed until the defensive instincts of her ability dragged her back to her time, eyes red and breath shaky. 

Something Sally used to say came back to her, unbidden. Hubris is for kings. The rest of us just get cruel irony.

Sam wiped her eyes and leaned against the still frame of her parked car. The stars stared down at her from above, there but not within reach. Observing. 

"Anthony says hello," she whispered, and got back in her car and drove.