From the author: When Mason, a janitor at a university, flirts his way into convincing an attractive stranger to meet him and his best friend Blaine for an after-hours tour of the physics building, Blaine understands his role: he’s strictly there to help Mason score. But when arrogant Mason tries to impress his date by operating a dangerous experimental device he doesn’t understand, Blaine must deal with the fallout and confront a much bigger problem than playing wingman.
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Mason is my best friend. He's about 5'10" and 185 lbs., and with the buzz cut and the scar by his eye from that fight in junior year, he looks like a real asshole. And he is, sometimes. But then he smiles, and his whole face lights up, and you feel like everything in the world is gonna be okay. One look at that smile and you'd follow him anywhere.
And I have, too.
But I'm not gay, or anything.
Mason works at the university. He's a janitor, but he's like the janitor in that movie who secretly solves all those problems on the blackboard in the hallway. Mason says he could make significant contributions to science, if he felt like it, which he doesn't. That's one thing that's so great about him: Mason is his own man, and you can't tell him what to do. The fight he got into junior year? The other guy was a cop.
I work up the street at Wacko Taco. The job is meh, but the people are cool. Lots of college kids. I used to think nerds were all stuck-up little pricks, but actually, most of them are okay. Mason says I'm wrong, and that I've only been around regular nerds and not Ultra University Math Nerds and so I wouldn't know, but even though Mason is real smart, he doesn't know everything.
He does know everything about girls, though.
"See that one?" Mason whispered. He and I were sitting outside at the metal picnic table by a back entrance to the Nerd Department, which is where we always sit before Mason goes to work. His shift starts at two, so he meets me here with his morning coffee, and I meet him here with my lunch. I get to work early to grill the meat, so 1:30 is a late lunch break for me and I'm always starving, but Mason isn't a morning person, so I don't mind.
Mason wiggled a finger at the nearby side road, hemmed in by a different building, the Geek Department, at the back. A blue Saturn was parked at the curb, and standing next to it was a blonde girl in a sundress.
It was only April--wasn't she cold?
"Check those bombs," Mason breathed. "They're huge."
The girl looked lost. She glanced at her phone, then up at the building, then back and forth along the road. She shook her head, then opened the driver's-side door and bent inside to get something. The sundress pulled up her bare legs and showed the backs of her thighs, up up up, and Mason winced and grabbed his chest. "I think I'm dying. That ass. Blaine--watch this and take notes, it'll upgrade your game."
Mason put down his coffee and hopped down from the table. He put his fingers in his pockets, stood on one leg, and pushed out his chest. The sunlight made the crisp edges of his uniform glow, and I thought about how perfect he must look from the front. "Hey," he called. "You need a hand?"
The woman pulled out of the car and smiled at him. "Oh! No. I mean... well, maybe." Her smile turned shy. "Do you work here?"
"Yes indeed," he said. "What can I do for you?"
"Um..." She pointed at the Nerd Department behind us. "Is that the mathematics building?"
"It sure is." Mason crossed the grass toward her. "You need to get inside? I can show you through the VIP entrance." He nodded at the back door and winked.
Her smile got bigger and shyer. "W-e-l-l... I don't need to... but I thought it would be fun..."
"Oh," Mason said. "Are you a visiting professor?"
She laughed, clearly flattered. "No. I am visiting, but I'm a student. I'm in the Applied Physics program at Cal Tech."
"Cool," said Mason, who doesn't like nerds but will make an exception for a nerd with a tight ass and a giant rack. "You doing some kind of exchange program here?"
She stepped closer to him, her eyes flicking up and down. Her lower lip slid between her perfect teeth. "Yeah. And there's just some... stuff... I wanted to see in the Math Department. I mean, I guess I could get official permission to go in and look around, but..." Her eyes flicked to his. "There's something so much more fun about sneaking around... you know?"
Mason grinned. "As it happens, I wholeheartedly agree." He held out a hand. "I'm Mason. What's your name?"
Shyly, she offered her own hand. When Mason shakes hands with a girl, he just sort of holds it, then shakes once or twice real gently. He showed me how to do it a couple times, and man, when he touches you like that, it's electric.
"I'm Phyllis. I know--it's a dorky name, but I'm kind of stuck with it."
"It's not dorky," said Mason. "It's an interesting name for an interesting person."
Phyllis's ears turned red. Only now did Mason let her hand go.
"Listen," said Mason. "I'm about to start my shift. I get off at ten. If you wanna have some real fun sneaking around, you should meet me back here when I'm done with work, and I can show you around everywhere." He grinned. "Private tour. Whaddiya say?"
"Oh!" She looked over at me. "Wow... gosh... you and your friend would be willing to do that for me?"
"Of course," said Mason. "No problem. My boy Blaine's not doing anything tonight, either." Actually, I was supposed to grab a beer with my brother. "Meet you here at about ten-fifteen?"
I don't know whose grin was bigger. "Sure." Phyllis laughed. "It's a date." She went back to her car and looked over one bare shoulder. "See you. Mason."
Mason half-waved, half-saluted.
Her car drove off. Mason banged a triumphant fist down on the table, making the metal slats ring. "And that, my friend," he said, "is how you do it. We meet back here, we pop inside, and I get her alone for some fun. Jesus God, those boobs!"
I stared after her car, confused. Cal Tech was in California. If she was from California, then she should've been shivering for sure, but I hadn't seen a single goosebump on her skin.
I canceled on my brother. "Is it Mason and his crap again?" he asked, but I lied and said no, I had a headache.
I met Mason at our usual table. It's funny how different everything looks at night. No cars, and tons of shadows from all the lights they put on the outsides of the buildings.
"Yo," Mason said. He jammed his hands in his pockets and hunched against the cold. "This is gonna be tits."
The girl's Saturn appeared a minute later, rolling quietly up the road. She pulled over by the curb and got out. Phyllis had a jacket on now, but she still had her sundress and those barely-there shoes that girls wear in the summer, and she still didn't look cold. "Hi." She giggled, hurrying over the wet grass. "I can't believe we're doing this."
"Don't worry," said Mason. He made a big show of taking out his keys. "I know my way around. We'll never get caught." He waggled his eyebrows at her. "Unless you want to?"
Phyllis laughed and put her hand on his arm. "Lead the way, Mon Capitaine."
Mason unlocked the door and we went inside. He's taken me through the Nerd Department after-hours before and I don't see what the big deal is, but then again I'm not a physics student from California. To me it's just a bunch of rooms and whiteboards, and there's only a little equipment, and it isn't even the exciting kind that can blow stuff up.
Mason unlocked another door labeled HORACE CHANDLER "CHAN" DAVIS RESEARCH DIVISION and swept it open dramatically for Phyllis. The lights sensed that we were there and flicked on. "This is the Davis Wing," he said. "There's a door on the other side that goes through a breezeway to the physics building. I think they collaborate on some sh--some stuff." She smiled up at him; he smiled down at her. "You'd already know all about that, though, of course."
"Of course," Phyllis said. "I've studied Chan Davis's life and work. He didn't live in this part of the country, but they're right to name a division after him. History will eventually recognize what a genius he is."
"Uh-huh," said Mason. "Down there is a conference room, and here are the actual labs." He lowered his voice. "And boy, are you gonna love this." He unlocked another door and looked over his shoulder at me.
So I said, "Hey, I gotta go to the bathroom. I'll catch up with you guys later."
Mason grinned. "No problem. Take your time."
Phyllis went on ahead. "Blaine!" she squealed.
Mason's face changed with surprise. I'm sure mine did, too. Why was the girl screaming for me?
I pushed past Mason and ran inside anyway. "What is it?"
Phyllis pointed at something on a table. It looked, no joke, like a bomb: kinda half-finished, with wires and plugs everywhere, and blinking lights and a countdown clock that said 03 10:11 02 05 1968. "Do you know what that is?"
"I know what it is," lied Mason, pushing past me. He picked it up, then grunted in surprise. "This thing's a lot heavier than it looks. What'd they use, a car battery?"
"Don't touch it!" cried Phyllis.
"It's cool, baby," said Mason. "I work here, remember?" He started fiddling with its wires and buttons. "This is one of the key projects in the department. Researchers from across the world come in to collaborate on it. It's so cutting edge that it doesn't have a name."
"Stop it, Mason!" begged Phyllis. Then she paused, like she'd realized something, and tipped her head at him. "Please? I want to look at it." She nestled close to him and slid a hand up his arm. "Puh-leeeease? It's what I came here to see."
Mason stopped fiddling. He grinned. "Well," he said, "since you asked so nicely. ...I thought you had to go to the bathroom, Blaine?"
"I'm going," I said.
Mason pushed one more button. "Okay. Here you go. But as you can see, they're still building it and it doesn't work y--"
The rest of Mason's voice faded out. I turned to look at him, but the rest of the room faded out, too. I felt like I was floating, like when you're swinging on a swing and you launch yourself off of it and into the air, and the whole world around me went silent and white.
"Mason?" I asked, but I couldn't talk. I didn't have lips and I didn't have a face.
But before I could panic or figure it out, I was standing on a big, grassy lawn under a big, sunny sky.
"What the hell?" I said.
About twenty feet to my left stood a tree. Mason was in it. He was jammed awkwardly in the lowest fork, like he'd dropped down into it from the sky, except none of the branches above him was broken. The bomb-thing sat on his chest. "What the hell?" he said.
I walked over to him. "Where are we?"
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm stuck in a goddamn tree!"
I laughed. I couldn't help it.
"It's not funny, asshole!"
"Sorry." I held out my hands. "Pass me the bomb-thing. Then I'll help you down."
Mason wasn't kidding--the bomb-thing was surprisingly heavy. Mason weighs a lot more, of course, but at least he got down most of the way by himself. "Okay, Einstein," he said. "What have you done now?"
I looked around. The lawn was big, but it wasn't empty. It was a nice day--it felt like mid-morning--and lots of other people were sitting around, either on the grass or on blankets, talking or reading books. A couple people played catch, and some other people played Frisbee. Everybody was dressed sort of formal and old-fashioned, like how my sister makes her family dress up for church, and nobody had any tablets or phones or laptops or anything. "I think we're in the middle of an Amish picnic."
"Thank you, Captain Oblivious," said Mason. He picked up the bomb-thing and approached the nearest blanket. "Yo, me and my boy are a little lost. Can you tell us where we are?"
The blanket held two guys and two girls. The guys both had helmet hair, and the girls both had hair that flipped up at the bottom. "Oh," said a guy. "This is the main quad." He eyed Mason's uniform and the thing in his hand. "The engineering building is over there."
"Uh, thanks," said Mason. "Come on, Blaine."
We walked across the lawn. "Hey, wait a minute," said Mason. "That's the main admin building over there, and that's the library. We're at the university. Except it's missing some buildings, and what's up with all those old cars? And the trees are a lot--oh, fuck me." He dropped the bomb-thing. "This is a time machine."
A nearby ring of book-reading girls glanced up at us, then glanced at each other and snickered. "Nerds," one of them whispered to another.
"Ladies," announced Mason, startling them, "now is not the time for insults. We've got a situation on our hands." He scooped up the time machine and shoved it at me. "You carry this thing. It's your fault we're even here."
"What are we going to do?" I looked around. "And where's Phyllis? What if she's stuck here, too?"
"The girl is the least of our problems," said Mason. "Come on."
I followed him, but he didn't really go anywhere. We walked around the lawn for a while, wandering up to people and asking them questions, until we figured out the date (which was Thursday, May 2, 1968) and everybody probably thought we were crazy.
"What if they call the cops on us?" I asked. "For, I dunno, being suspicious?"
"The cops are also the least of our problems," said Mason. "I'm tired and I'm starving and we're in 1968. I bet I can't even use my money here to buy anything. Money looked different back then, didn't it? They'll think we're counterfeiters."
Mason is so smart. I never would've thought of that.
"What if we just go to the dining hall?" I asked. "Everybody here already thinks we're engineering nerds."
Mason said it wasn't the worst idea I'd ever had, and we might as well give it a try. Luckily, it worked. We carried the time machine inside, and nobody even looked at us as we picked up trays and helped ourselves.
"Ugh," said Mason, poking at his Mac 'n' Cheese. "I guess cooking was different back then, too." He pushed his tray away. "Okay. Here's the plan. If this thing brought us here, then it's gotta be able to take us home. So I need some time to figure out how to reprogram it."
"How long you think that'll take?"
Mason shrugged. "I mean, I am a super genius, but I've never fixed a goddamn time machine before. It could take five minutes. Or it could take five weeks."
"I know," said Mason. "But look, I forgive you. I know you only wanted to show this thing to that girl to help me get laid. We're cool."
"If only I'd gotten my hands on those bombs." Mason sighed. "Otherwise, this might've all been worth it. Christ, did you see the size of them?"
"Hi, Mason," said Phyllis flatly.
We both jumped in our chairs and twisted around. Phyllis stood behind us.
She didn't look happy.
"Hey!" said Mason. "We looked everywhere for you! Are you okay? Here, have a seat. I've made a plan to get us back."
Phyllis didn't sit. "So did I. Give me the Hilbert Device."
"What, the time machine?" Mason waved a hand at it. "I've got it under control. No worries."
Phyllis pushed herself between us and glared down at Mason. "Okay, Mason. Let's cut the crap."
Mason looked up, his eyes zeroing in on the underside of her tits.
"As I told you, the Hilbert Device was what I came to the building to see. I am trained and qualified to operate it. You are not."
Mason laughed. "Take it easy. I got us here, didn't I?"
"Unfortunately, yes." She put a hand on the table and leaned toward Mason, her back to me. "Now. We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard w--"
"So are you, like, a government spy?" said Mason, still smiling. "Who knows about time travel?"
"I know you aren't from California," I said.
Phyllis turned to me. Her eyes were like drill bits in steel, and I felt the sparks all the way down in my guts. Usually it's only Mason who makes me feel that. But it was like this girl could see right into me.
"Why do you say that?" she asked.
I blushed. "You weren't cold," I mumbled. "It was April in Wisconsin."
"Brilliant reduction, Sherlock," said Mason. "Now if you don't mind--"
"I'm what you'd call an alien," said Phyllis, her eyes still on mine. "My job is to monitor and neutralize certain potentially dangerous technological developments made by your species until you, as a race, can demonstrate that you are mature enough to handle their applications." She gestured behind her, at Mason, in disgust. "Which you, at this point in time, are obviously not."
I didn't know what to say. I didn't understand most of what she'd said, but I did understand alien. "Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you're... a Na'vi, or something?"
"No," Phyllis said. "I'm like a god and you're like rats, but I can't hold that against you."
"Riiight," said Mason. "You're a godlike alien. A beautiful godlike alien who goes to Cal Tech."
"That's my cover, you dirt-dwelling idiot," said Phyllis. "I picked a physical form that was most likely to help me manipulate one of you people into doing what I wanted, so I could achieve my objective while keeping a low-tech profile and not risking a significant social disruption."
Mason whistled. He leaned around her to look at me. "I gotta hand it to this girl. This is a level of Nerd I've never seen. This is, like, commitment."
By now, a couple people at nearby tables were glancing over. I heard more snickering. "--from Engineering are all so far out," someone whispered.
"Unfortunately for us all," said Phyllis, "it looks like you're believing my cover a little too much, so let me spell it out for you: I am not interested in what's in your pants. I am only interested in what's on the table in front of you. Give. Me. The Hilbert. Device. Otherwise, none of us is going home."
Mason sighed. He pulled the thing off the table and turned it over in his hands. "Okay, look," he said. "Phyllis or whatever your name is. The thing is--"
Faster than you can blink, Mason leapt out of his chair, kicked it over, and bolted to the door.
Phyllis tripped on his chair. "Mason!" I shouted, and in a second I was up and out the door too, everyone else's helmet-haired heads whipping around to watch me go. "Mason, wait!"
Mason didn't wait. I flew after him down the steps, around a corner, along a paved path, through a courtyard, and out onto a street. By the time I caught up with him at a corner somewhere, I was practically dying.
Mason, of course, was only breathing hard. He's really in shape. "What took you so long?"
"What are we doing?" I panted. I bent over and put my hands on my knees. The car parked at the curb next to me looked weird and had a manufacturer logo I didn't recognize. "You can't just leave her here!"
"Don't tell me you believe that alien-spy bullshit."
"I don't, but you can't just leave her!"
Mason hefted the time machine from hand to hand. It was too heavy to toss, so he just sort of rocked it back and forth, thoughtfully. "Oh," he said, raising an eyebrow. "Can't I?"
When he looks at me like that, my insides get all loose and I can't argue. "I mean... you can. But you shouldn't. You really shouldn't."
Mason tucked the time machine under one arm and rested it on one hip. "Come on. We gotta find a place where I can work on this thing without being interrupted."
I thought we'd be safest back on campus, but Mason said we'd be "spotted by that crazy." So we wandered around practically the whole town until it was almost dark, snuck back into the dining hall and stole more food, and went back out into the night. I wake up six hours earlier than Mason does, and he had me carry the time machine all day, so by then I was ready to pass out on the quad, but Mason wouldn't let me. "We'll find a frat party," he said, "and pretend to be drunk and crash in the basement."
That's exactly what we did. Except I could barely sleep for all the noise, and Mason actually got drunk first.
Then we just sort of... stayed there. Maybe you've never gone to college either, but you've been to plenty of parties, so you know how the houses are. There's always somebody coming or going or some drunk dude or kid from out of town visiting his cousin. By the time anybody started to wonder whose guests we were, we'd already been there for three days, and it wasn't like they were gonna throw us out.
Mason was totally happy to lie on this crappy basement mattress and mess around with the time machine for hours and hours, even though all it did was blink and beep. Me, I couldn't live like that. I was washing my socks and boxers in the sink every day with some nasty bar of house soap, and while it was fine for Mason to pretend to be a visiting engineering student from U Michigan, he'd always been a great bullshitter. By Day Two they were sharing their weed with him, offering to hook him up with anything he wanted, while I still had no idea what to say to people. "Yo, what up, I'm a time traveler from 2014 and I work in a taco shop"?
I had to find Phyllis.
So maybe she wasn't some alien spy, but at least she was an actual Cal Tech nerd, and she'd be able to make the machine work and take us home.
I watched for my chance and finally got it. On Day Five, Mason said he had to "go out with the guys and get some things," and that I should stay here and guard the time machine. I said I would.
It was a total lie. I felt like dirt.
I made myself wait for half an hour, then took the time machine and ran to the engineering building. At least, I tried to. Mostly I ran around the campus like an idiot because I don't know where anything is, and it's not like there's an Internet for your iPhone in 1968 and Siri can tell you. I found the Chemistry Department, the old physics building, and even the tree that Mason had landed in, but not where the Ultra University Math Nerds would be.
I dropped the time machine under Mason's tree. "Phyllis," I shouted, "you aren't making this any easier."
"Sorry," she said, coming out from around the tree.
I jumped about four feet and nearly pissed myself.
"Sorry," she said again. "I thought you might be looking for me, but I couldn't be sure."
"You were following me?"
"Oh yeah," said Phyllis. "For days. You guys are in the frat house by the record store."
"Why didn't--how come--this whole time I thought you were gonna get left behind, but you could've just come inside to see us anytime you wanted?"
"Not any time," she said. She was still wearing the jacket and sundress from last week. She must be washing her panties in a sink every day, too. "Not during the day, when a pretty woman in a house like that would get noticed. I'm trying to accomplish my objectives without causing any disruptions, remember?"
"I don't," I said. "Look. Maybe you are an alien and maybe you aren't. Actually, I'm pretty sure you aren't. But I am sure that you have a better chance of fixing this thing than Mason does." I nudged the time machine with my toe. It had rained earlier and the thing had made a deep dent in the soft ground when I'd dropped it. "Can you take a look?"
Phyllis squatted and pried the time machine up from the wet grass. She looked closely at the connections and numbers on the countdown clock. "Boy. He really dicked this up."
I sighed. "He does that."
Phyllis sat cross-legged, like the wet grass didn't bother her at all, and rearranged wires and pushed buttons. "You know, it's funny. I'm a certified behavioral expert in five different sentient species, and a dabbler in the psychologies of eight or nine more--but in every intelligent race I or anyone else has examined, the nature of love is the same."
I stared at her. I had no idea what she was talking about.
She swapped a couple of wires. "I watched you two for days before I first approached you. You're both idiots, but at least you're a good guy with a lot of kindness. Mason, though, is nothing but an entitled brat. Yet because you're in love with him, you refuse to see it, and you'll do anything it takes if it will make him--so you think--love you back."
My face got hot.
"Listen, I'm sorry for being so forward," Phyllis said, wiping a muddy hand on her dress.
"I'm not gay."
"All I'm saying is, I know that the only reason we've been stuck here for so long is because of your feelings for Mason and your desire to obey him. So I forgive you. Making the decision to find me must've been very hard."
"I said I'm not gay."
"And if you hadn't come to find me," said Phyllis, unplugging a wire completely and tossing it onto the grass, "who knows what I would've had to resort to? You can't spend too long in a time stream that isn't your native one, you know. Then you get all kinds of icky stuff. Anti-time clusters and... Well, never mind."
"Are you even listening to me?" I demanded. "I'm not gay. Mason's just--he and I--"
Phyllis shook her head, making her blonde curls bounce. "Forget it. But while we're on the subject--"
"We're not on any subject! There is no subject because I like girls, and I've been with tons and tons of girls, and--"
"You do? You have?" Phyllis looked surprised, then embarrassed. "Oh. Well, good. Because I have a favor to ask of you, once this is all behind us." She stood, turning over the finished time machine in her hands, as if it weighed nothing at all. "I have a lot of curiosity--that comes of being a scientist--and there are certain knowledge gaps I have that can only be filled in by direct experience. And I would much rather fill in those gaps with your help instead of Mason's, since I find him pretty repulsive. I suppose what I'm saying is... being an expert in humans, I've been wondering for a long time now about how it feels to be in a human shape while having--"
We both turned. Back by the tree, halfway behind the trunk, stood Mason. I felt a rush of terror and a rush of relief, both at the same time.
"Mason! Hey! Guess what. Are you on your way to the dining hall? I, uh, I left the house to get some food, too, and I ran into Phyllis, and she--I mean I had the time machine with me, to guard it like you said, and she happened to know--she was taking a look at it and--"
"Drop it, lady." Mason leaned out from around the tree. Next to me, Phyllis went very still. For a minute I didn't understand what was going on.
Then I saw what Mason had in his hand.
"Is that a--" I began.
Mason jerked the revolver at Phyllis. It was a little black thing, so small it almost looked silly, but a gun is a gun. You don't fuck with guns. "One more time. Drop it."
Slowly, Phyllis knelt on the grass, setting the time machine back in the dirt. I glanced around everywhere but the wet grass had kept everyone away. The big lawn was empty. There were people on the sidewalks at the edges, though.
Like anyone could run as fast as Mason could pull a trigger?
"Okay," said Phyllis. "I'm putting it on the ground. See?"
"That's not real," I said. "That can't be a real gun. Mason, what are you even doing?"
"What are you even doing?" asked Mason. "I told you to guard it and this is what you do?" He spat onto the lawn. "Pardon me. I didn't realize you were actually a backstabbing treacherous liar."
You know that hot, helpless feeling you get when you're so humiliated, you can't even move?
"Even that girl has more brains than you," he said. "She can tell my piece is real. The brothers back in the house are my boys--what do you think we were out getting this afternoon?"
"But you can't just--" I could barely talk. My hands twitched and I couldn't move my feet, and my heart thumped in my ears like a bass-line. "You can't just buy--"
"It's 1968, you retard. Gun laws were totally different then." Mason waggled the gun at Phyllis. "Now back off."
"Don't," I sputtered. "Please. She was just--I was just trying to--"
"To what?" Mason snarled. "Give a priceless time machine to a crazy bitch who comes out of nowhere and doesn't even know the value of what you're giving her? This is serious science, Blaine."
Then he waggled the gun at me.
"You'd better back off, too. You don't deserve to be anywhere near it, you faggot."
It's funny how humiliation is almost exactly like rage.
"Don't. Call me. That."
"What?" Mason swept the gun between us. He cocked the hammer on the back. "A faggity-fag-fag-faggot?"
I tackled him.
At least, that's what I thought would happen when my thighs exploded like rockets and everything turned black. But that isn't what happened.
Instead, I threw myself on top of Phyllis.
"Grab it!" my mouth screamed as the revolver fired and a bullet whizzed above us. "Grab the time machine!"
Phyllis grabbed. We rolled. Metal banged into me, cold mud ground into my elbows, and I'm sure by now that people were running toward us off the sidewalks, since gunfire is more interesting than wet grass isn't. But I wouldn't know.
Everything around us went silent and white.
"Oh god," I said. "Oh shit. Oh shit shit shitting shit."
It was dark out. Phyllis and I were lying on the ground, she on top of me, the time machine between us and crushing my ribs.
Above me and to the right was Mason's familiar picnic table.
"Shit," I wheezed. "Are you okay?"
Phyllis rolled off, dragging the time machine with her. Her dress was a mess and she had grass stains on her knees, but no scratches anywhere. "I'm okay. Are you?"
I held my ribs. "Ow. Ow. We have to go back."
"What?" Phyllis staggered to her feet.
"We have to go back." I cringed and rolled over. The pain was so bad I didn't want to stand. "For Mason. We can't leave him."
Phyllis put the time machine on the picnic table.
Then she ripped out all the wires.
Then she pulled the actual machine apart. Like it was made of nothing but tissue paper. In seconds, pieces of the time machine lay scattered all over the table and the ground, falling between the metal slats, bouncing underneath them, rolling down the strip of grass and off the curb into the gutter.
"No!" I shouted. I stood up anyway, but it was too late. "You can't do that to him!"
"Shh!" said Phyllis.
"And what about history?" I shouted. "What if Mason messes it all up? What if he stops Hitler from being assassinated?"
"Are you trying to attract the campus police?" Phyllis looked around, but the dark was empty, and the orange light over the back door illuminated only us. "Relax. This isn't the only Hilbert Device on the planet. It's just the only one in human possession. I've got a much better one in my car." She gestured at her parked Saturn. "I'll go get Mason myself tomorrow morning, after I've given him a few days in his time to calm down. Okay?"
I held my ribs and glared at the pieces of the time machine.
"Okay?" Phyllis asked again. "No real harm's been done. I promise."
"Jesus," I muttered.
Phyllis collected some of the broken pieces and dumped them in her car, to make sure that nobody could put the time machine back together, I guess. "And Blaine... thank you for what you did back there. That was... extraordinary of you."
"Some alien you are," I grumbled. "Since when can aliens get hurt by bullets?"
"We aren't vampires," Phyllis said. She leaned over to put more pieces onto her backseat somewhere. I watched the hem of her dirty dress slide up up up, and I thought about how much Mason liked to see that, and about how he probably wouldn't want to be my friend anymore, when he got back. I felt sad and scared and sick. "I mean it, Blaine. Thank you. Especially because I know that the personal fallout you'll have to deal with because of all this will be considerable."
I held my ribs and said nothing.
Phyllis backed out of her car and faced me. She held a bright gold cube in one hand.
"Great," I said. "What's that now? An anti-time machine or something?"
"No." She rubbed a thumb over it. "Look... I can't give you back your friendship with Mason. But maybe I can give you something that will help you... figure things out, down the line."
Phyllis tapped the cube with a finger, and she changed.
It took less than a second. There was no flash of light or puff of smoke, but somehow, Phyllis wasn't standing in front of me anymore. Instead there was a guy, taller than Mason, more cut than Mason, and even more dangerous-looking.
But then he smiled at me.
And that hot flutter I got inside was somehow exactly the same.
He took a step toward me and set the gold cube onto the roof of the car. I don't know how, but he was naked, and the one orange light over the back door made all his muscles curve and jump when he moved. I stood rooted there like a tree, until he got right up to me, so close I could feel his body heat. He smelled like clean laundry.
He smelled good.
"This is my human male disguise," he said. "I thought you might like it better. If you're still willing to do me that favor."
The bass-line of my heartbeat was back. "But you're... you're really a girl. Right."
"Well, my sex incubates our young. So I suppose you could consider me female, in a way."
"So this isn't... so this is okay."
He just smiled and reached out a hand. So I took it and pulled him down to the grass.
Mason's right. Getting the girl is tits.
This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.