Holli knew she’d screwed up the second she heard the bang. It wasn’t like a flat tire sorta bang, and it wasn’t like a broken this-and-that deep inside the car...it was a heavy bang, like part of something had come apart, and wasn’t going back together any time soon.
She slammed on the brakes and put the car into park, popped the door open and peered out. Nothing seemed amiss on the driver’s side, and since she was already late, she--
“Help,” wheezed a faint voice from somewhere she couldn’t see. “Help me...”
A rush of fear flooded through Holli’s bloodstream, so strong she could hear her heart pounding in her ears. She tried to undo her seatbelt, but her hands were shaking too much. She considered putting the car back in drive and just leaving and going to the class and pretending none of this had happened, but her hands were shaking too much for that, too. And either way, she had to know. Had to see.
She finally got herself loose, setting an unsteady foot on the street--boot grinding in the gravel--and stood, holding onto the side of the car for support.
“Help...” came the voice again, even fainter than before.
Holli took a bracing breath, and followed the sound of a very faint wheezing, coming from the back.
She reached the corner, still not seeing anything, and thought maybe it was somehow her mind playing tricks on her. Maybe the bang had been a flat after all, and maybe--
And then she saw the blood. A pool of it, creeping outward, slowly, toward the drain at the side of the road. Dark and thick and awful and she...
“Help,” wheezed the voice, and she finally saw him, laying sprawled on the concrete, arms and legs bent in such strange ways she couldn’t quite fathom how they were meant to fit together at all anymore.
She rushed to his side, kneeling in the blood, turning his head toward her even though she knew somewhere in the back of her mind she wasn’t meant to do that, but not know what else she could do. His last moments of life couldn’t be filled with pain and loneliness. She needed him to know she was there with him at the end...even if she was the whole reason the end had come at all.
His receding hair, soaked with blood, stuck to her fingers as his unfocusing eyes tried to make sense of what was happening. He squinted, fought to see her...and when he did, he let out a raspy word that would haunt her forever: “Fie!”
Holli’s lawyer was trying to remain calm, but the prosecutor was pushing all her buttons. She slammed her notepad closed as she stood and declared: “Your honour, counsel is leading the witness again.”
The judge, a wizened old man who wore his robes a little too big, scrunched up his nose before glaring at the prosecutor. “She’s right, Ms Landau. You’re not testifying here. She is.”
Landau, ever the professional, gave a small bow to the judge. “Apologies, your honour. The technical aspects of the case are--”
“Yes yes yes, you’ve said so a thousand times,” grumbled the judge. “Why not let someone else have a go?”
Landau’s smile never faltered. “Of course, your honour.” She turned back to the witness, a nervous-looking woman who kept fidgeting with the cuff of her sleeve like it could get her out of here. Landau set a hand on the bar separating them. “Ms Oren,” she said. “What percentage of your clients, would you say, come into mortal danger while on their excursions?”
Oren did some quick math in her head. “I mean...probably zero. Aside from this case, of course. We take great pride in keeping them safe from crazies when they--”
“Objection!” said Holli’s lawyer, on her feet. “My client is not crazy.”
“Not crazy,” said Oren. “A crazy. It’s--”
“Sustained,” said the judge, and then glared at Oren. “Please refrain from calling the defendant crazy. “
“Sorry, your honour,” she said. “But it is--”
Landau caught the thread before it got too far: “Ms Oren,” she said. “How do you determine threat matrices for your clients? Which is to say: before bringing them here, how do you determine what they should and should not do?”
“Oh, well,” said Oren, brightening up. “I mean there are the basic concerns, of course. Language barriers are always hard to reconcile. And disease, too, that’s a big one. Can’t risk triggering a pandemic on either side of the equation.”
“And in regards to--ahem--personality-driven conflicts?”
“Ah,” smiled Oren. “Well, we try to keep clients out of situations where they’ll bump into obvious dangers. So, you know, prejudicial minds, or people with certain preconceived notions about who they were...and, I mean, we stay away from things like shooting ranges or crime hot spots. Active war zones. That sorta thing. Steer clear of the cra--” She smiled at the judge. “Unpredictable people.”
“And yet,” said Landau, pointing toward Holli. “Unpredictable is what you got, isn’t it? The defendant put her car into reverse and backed around a corner into an intersection and struck Mr Shakespeare as he was lawfully crossing the street.”
“Your honour!” said Holli’s lawyer, again on her feet. “Testifying. Again.”
The judge glared at Landau. “One more time, Ms Landau, and you and I will have words.”
“Apologies, your honour,” she said, stepping back from the witness stand before continuing to talk to Oren. “Ms Oren, how many historical figures has your company brought into the modern era on tourist visas?”
Oren did more quick math. “About five hundred or so,” she said. “Some are repeats, but we logged our five hundredth trip last week.”
“And again, how many of those important historical figures have died?”
This one took no thinking whatsoever: “None. Well, one. William Shakespeare.” She sighed, shook her head. “And what a one to screw up on, too, right? The ripple effects are just...wow.”
This did not make Holli feel any better at all.
“A tragedy,” said Landau, to the jury this time. “And not a good one, like Mr Shakespeare would have written, if given the chance.” She scowled at Holli. “A miserable excuse for a tragedy, written by a careless fool.”
By the way the jury was looking at her, Holli was certain she knew how this story would end.
It had been six months. Six months of getting up early, six months of eating the same meal over and over and over again. Six months of trying not to get in trouble for looking or stepping or existing in the wrong person’s space. Holli was slowly adjusting to life behind bars, but somehow the reality of her situation still didn’t quite connect.
“Off in space again, H-Bomb?” asked her cellmate, a woman named Candi, as they say at the stainless steel cafeteria table. “And more to the point: you gonna finish that?”
She pointed to Holli’s tray with her spoon. Holli had no appetite. She hadn’t for some time now. She slid the tray over, and Candi went to it.
“It ain’t hit you yet?” asked Candi.
“What hasn’t?” asked Holli, coming partway out of her daze.
“That this is it? That this is everything left?”
Holli winced at the words. This was it for her. This was everything she would be, from now ‘til the end of her days. Three life sentences, consecutive, with no chance of parole for 90 years. Special statues passed to ensure nobody tried killing time travel tourists like Shakespeare...and applied, for the first time, to someone who’d just made a stupid mistake one time, and...
“I was trying to get to my pottery class,” she said, a little too quietly to be heard.
Holli stared at the streaks on the uncleaned table. “I was trying to get to my pottery class,” she said. “I was so focused on getting there on time, I didn’t really...I mean I knew I shouldn’t, but I...” She wiped tears from her eyes; you never cried in prison. Never. “I made a wrong turn and I backed up and then he was there, and I...”
She dragged a fingernail along a groove in the metal. “I was so afraid of being late, of losing a little time, that I made a stupid mistake that will literally cost me every last scrap of time I had left. An extra minute of driving versus a lifetime in here. And you know what the stupid part is? If I could use the technology he had...if I could go anywhere, any time at all? I would go back and cancel the damn pottery class. Buy myself a little time, and a whole lot more.”
Candi was too busy eating to really notice, but nodded all the same. “I made a flower pot once,” she said. “Smashed it over my mom’s head before I cut her into--”
“Inmate!” barked the guard from the side of the room, glaring right at Holli. “Up. Now.”
Holli did as she was told. She knew, by now, to always do what she was told. The guard motioned her over, and she shuffled her way over.
“Lawyer’s here to see you,” said the guard, and didn’t even wait for Holli’s answer before dragging her out the door.
She was shuffled into a private room with thick concrete walls that were so pitted and cracking they reminded Holli of the street where Shakespeare’s blood had slowly oozed away. She was so distracted by the sight of it, she didn’t even notice who was waiting for her in the room:
“Just hear me out,” said Ms Oren, standing to meet her.
Holli had a strong urge to turn and go, but instead forced herself to stay. She didn’t sit, though. She just watched Oren carefully.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” said Oren. “I am, truly. When we pick input zones, we usually keep far away from streets or other places that might...” She realized Holli didn’t care, and shook it off. “It never should have happened,” she said. “I feel like I’m as much to blame as you.”
“And yet here I am,” said Holli. “And you’re out there.”
“I know, I know,” said Oren. “But Holli--can I call you Holli?--I’m hoping we can find a way to make this work out for everyone.”
“Work out?” Holli snarled. “I’m the most hated woman in history! How the hell do you think this could possibly work out?”
“Well exactly,” said Oren. “You are the most hated woman. In history.” A smile started spreading across her face. “And our switchboard has been absolutely blowing up since your conviction. Like, on a whole other level.”
“Wait, what?” asked Holli, finally taking a seat, mostly out of confusion.
“Everyone wants to meet the woman who killed William Shakespeare,” said Oren. “Whether it’s because they think you’re a monster, or they think you’re a victim, or framed, or they just don’t know...everyone wants to spend a day with you.”
Holli couldn’t quite...
“It’s simple,” said Oren, pulling paperwork from her bag and setting on the table between them. “We’ll spot you--technical term, sorry. We’ll temporally transport you each morning to a new locale, anywhere up to about 1,000 years hence, where you’ll spend a few hours with a client. Food and accommodation included, of course. After that, back home, and we do it all again tomorrow. If you’ll agree, we have about fifteen years’ worth of clients lined up and waiting to say hello.”
Holli tried to shake her brain into understanding. “So wait, I’ll just get let go...?”
“No no no,” laughed Oren. “No, you’ll still be incarcerated. If you don’t spend the rest of your life in prison, it kinda dulls the impact of your story. But you won’t really, in a way, spend much time being locked up. Most of our clients are trillionaires, so...”
Holli looked down at the papers in front of her. “Agreement of Non-Linear Temporal Employment.” Pages and pages of words that boiled down to one concept: she would be free.
“What do you say?” asked Oren, handing her a pen.
Holli took the pen, turned it around in her fingers, back and forth, back and forth, and with a sharp intake of breath--
“One request,” she said, looking up from the papers.
“Anything,” said Oren.
The crowd finished applauding, flowers thrown onstage, as the actors came out for one last bow. The sound of it was deafening, but Holli tuned it all out. She was too busy looking.
She saw him, finally, standing at the back of the stage, looking so happy with the performance it was really quite gutting to know that in non-contiguous time, he would soon be dead. William Shakespeare was downright gleeful, and in his element.
She caught him shortly after, as he was leaving with the rest of the company for a night of drinking. Caught him by the arm, whereupon he stared at her odd clothes, and the odd cut of her hair, and the odd way she laid her hands on him against all sense of decorum.
“Yes?” he asked, frowning deeply.
She slapped him. Hard.
“Look both ways before crossing the street, you moron,” she said, and went back to whatever version of her life those words led to.
Written for Holli: “killing someone with your car and spending the rest of your life in jail.”