Carlos’ phone rang, and he sighed. He had been taking a much-needed break from his scientific endeavors and was sketching out designs for a play structure for his new kitten, who he’d finally decided was named Tesla. This was almost a scientific endeavor in itself, as Tesla was not completely subject to the laws of gravity. Tying a piece of buttered toast to her belly, butter-side down, had canceled out the hovering effect that she’d inherited from Khoshekh, but only until she managed to lick all the butter off of the bread. Of course, she’d soon decided that being able to move about freely was far more fun than hovering in a fixed spot … and then figured out that if she only licked away most of the butter, she could bound about the room at (Carlos had measured) approximately a fifth of normal Earth gravity. She was a very clever girl, Carlos thought, with only a little bit more pride than the situation merited.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket. If this was the Sheriff’s Secret Police again … but no, it was Cecil. Much better (not that the Secret Police wouldn’t be on the line too, of course). “Carlos,” said Cecil. “I’m afraid I’m not calling for personal reasons.” That was surprising. Carlos often brought scientific matters to the radio host’s attention, but it almost never happened the other way around (generally this was because Cecil had a very … unpredictable … idea of what Carlos might find scientifically interesting). “How soon can you build a time machine?”
Carlos blinked. “I can’t build a time machine, Cecil.”
Cecil chuckled. “Don’t be so modest, Carlos! Of course you can, you’re a scientist.”
“Time travel isn’t even scientifically—and if it were, not every scientist does the same thing, you know—” Carlos gave up. Cecil only had a very vague concept of what science even was, and, well, given that he’d grown up in Night Vale, Carlos could see why. He tried a different tactic instead. “Isn’t time travel illegal?”
“This is more important,” said Cecil. “The Secret Police will understand. They have to.”
Okay, that was … ominous. Usually, Cecil was only too happy to comply with the Secret Police’s seemingly-arbitrary regulations. “What’s so important that you urgently need a time machine?”
“This is really bad,” said Cecil. “Amina Vishnevsky—she works nights at the Ralph’s—brought it to my attention. She didn’t know where else to go.”
“… what is it?”
“A bottle of milk with a sell-by date of October 23, 1538.” Silence. “Carlos? Are you still there?”
“I’m sorry, Cecil, are you saying you urgently need a time machine because of a misprinted sell-by date?”
Cecil gave an audible shudder over the phone. “It’s awful, I know,” he said. “You see why we need a time machine as soon as possible.”
“But I mean, sell-by dates … they just mean a store isn’t allowed to sell it after that date. Not that they have to sell it before.”
“Is that what they told you?” Cecil asked.
“It’s just … are you sure this merits breaking the restrictions on time travel?”
“Affirmative,” came a third, staticy voice over the line. The Secret Police officer who’d been listening in on their call. “Noncompliance with a factory-mandated sell-by date could spell disaster for the entire town.”
“There you have it,” said Cecil. “Please, tell me you can do this.”
“I’ll, um … yes. Of course I can!” Why did he say that? He couldn’t build a time machine! “Have someone bring the milk to my lab, and I’ll take care of it.”
“And you’ll do it soon?” Cecil asked anxiously.
A flash of inspiration hit Carlos. “It doesn’t matter how soon I invent time travel,” he said. “All I have to do is remember to come back to this moment in time as soon as I do.”
“Brilliant Carlos, I knew you’d come up with something! Intern Ryan is on his way over with the milk now. I’ll leave you to your work.” Cecil hung up, and Carlos started pacing. Time travel shouldn’t be possible, but this was Night Vale. And there was even a law against it, so maybe that meant that someone had already figured it out? No, given the nature of laws in Night Vale, that wasn’t something he could count on.
There was a knock at the door, and Carlos opened it to find a teenager—Intern Ryan, he assumed—holding a very ordinary-looking bottle of milk. “Here you go, Mr. Scientist,” said the intern, gingerly handing the milk over as if he were handling a bomb. “We’re all counting on you!”
“Uh, thanks,” said Carlos, taking the milk. Sure enough, the printed sell-by date bore the year 1538.
As he closed the front door again, he heard a rustling of papers and a shattering of glass behind him. “Tesla!” Had she gotten into the main lab again? But he turned around to face … himself.
He dropped the bottle of milk.
“This is weird, I know,” said the other Carlos.
“Um,” said Carlos.
“Time travel’s possible?” offered the other Carlos.
“I … gathered as much …” said Carlos. He studied his double. The other Carlos’ hair was slightly grayer, but other than that he didn’t seem much older. “How did you … er, how did I figure it out?”
“I didn’t,” said the other Carlos. “Here.” He handed Carlos a USB drive. “Take good care of that. Instructions for building a time machine.”
“Where did you get that?” Carlos asked.
The older Carlos looked pointedly at the jump drive now resting in the younger Carlos’ hand. “Take good care of it,” he repeated.
Wait. “You’re saying … I’m going to use this to build a time machine, then come back and give it to myself so that in the future I can build a time machine?” But where did it come from?
“Don’t think too hard about it,” the older Carlos advised. “Clearly, it worked, right?” He bent down to pick up the bottle of milk, which fortunately hadn’t spilled, from the floor. “I’ll take care of this,” he said. “Back in a bit.” Then he pushed a few buttons on his phone, and vanished.
He reappeared barely a second later. “Are you—do you have an app for your time machine?” Carlos asked.
The older Carlos nodded. “It just seemed simpler,” he said. “Here.” He handed Carlos a string of shells. “I have no idea about exchange rates, but the woman who bought the milk seemed to think this was a fair price.”
“I don’t think it matters what it sold for, just that it was sold,” said Carlos.
“Exactly,” said the older Carlos. “Make sure those get to the Ralph’s, and everything should be fine.”
“So …” Carlos began. “You’ve—I’ve—lived in Night Vale a lot longer, by your time. Is it—would anything really have happened, if the milk hadn’t been sold?”
The older Carlos shrugged. “Honestly? I have no idea. But I already knew I was going to do this.”
“Night Vale doesn’t stop being strange,” his older self said. “But you’ll learn to work with the strangeness.”
That was actually comforting. And well, given that he was standing here chatting with an older version of himself, whose presence was made possible through a time paradox that was practically out of Star Trek, that process was clearly already underway.
“Oh, by the way,” the older Carlos added. “There’s a lunar eclipse next Thursday. You should take Cecil out to the sand wastes to watch.”
“I … really?”
“Trust me.” He pushed a few more buttons on his phone and vanished again, this time, it seemed, for good.
Well, thought Carlos, not for good. Just for a few more years. He pulled out his own phone—possibly the same exact one—and called Cecil. To tell him that the milk had been taken care of, and also for personal reasons.