Chapter 65 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Accompanied by a faint and curious popping noise, Bill materialized in front of the service counter in "Dollars to Donuts." Pauline was leaning against the counter, and jumped up with astonishment at the noise of Bill's unexpected arrival. Bill immediately apologized for startling her, and then apologized for disappearing the month before without warning and without paying rent. He told her that he wouldn't be coming back, and that his room was available. He also gave her a thick wad of cash, saying it should cover his back rent as well as any other expenses he'd caused. Pauline, still a bit shaken by his sudden appearance, merely nodded seriously at everything he said, and stuffed the wad of bills into the pocket of her apron.

Bill then noticed that three members of the Four, namely Bert and the twins, were sitting at one of the curtained booths. He strode over to them.

"Hello, Norman!" he said.

Peter and Paul acknowledged the greeting cheerfully enough, but Bert cut through the smalltalk, immediately asking a question that had been burning a hole in his brain ever since that night at the Cafe, a few weeks before, when they'd last seen Bill.

"So, Bill," he said, "when are you going to take us on a time trip somewhere?"

For several seconds, Bill didn't say anything. He seemed to be thinking, trying to come up with some excuse. He spluttered, "Well, Bert, um, uh..."

"Come on, Bill!" insisted Bert. "We want to go see the Future!"

"Or maybe the past," put in Paul. "I'd love to see the dinosaurs!"

"Or ancient Rome, or the Wild West, or the Civil War!" suggested Peter enthusiastically.

Bill held up his hand to stop their yammerings. "Look guys," he said, "If it were up to me, I'd gladly take you to all those times and places, and many others, too. But you don't have a license, and if I were-"

"A license?" said Bert, incredulous. "A license for what?"

"A license to travel through time!" said Bill. "Look, it's not as simple as you might think. There are a lot of dangers, and one little slip up can cause big problems down the Timeline. If you don't know what you're doing, you can cause serious harm. Therefore, you can't travel through time unless you have a license to do so."

Bert started to say something, but Bill cut him off. "It's just like driving a car. You have to be taught the rules of the road before you go out on the highway; otherwise, you'll cause a big multi-car smash up. And after the crash, if the police found out that you didn't have a license, you'd get in REALLY big trouble."

"OK," said Bert, "how do we get a license?"

Bill sighed, with a slight tinge of disgust. "You have to take an eight month training course, and then pass difficult written and oral examinations. And unfortunately, this training won't be available to you for about seventeen years."

"OK," said Paul, "Then take us forward in time seventeen years, and sign us up for the course!"

Bill smiled ironically. "But I can't do that. Don't you understand? You don't have a license!"

"But it's just one little trip! Who would know?"

"The Time Police, that's who! They watch everything that punches through the Time/Space Continuum! And I could lose my license by transporting a bunch of unlicensed guys across time, even once."

"But you invented the dang thing!" said Bert "Doesn't that give you some special privileges?"

Bill shook his head. "Unfortunately, no."

"So we can't travel through time without a license, and we can't get a license without traveling through time, right?"

"I'm afraid that's correct. You'll just have to wait out the seventeen years."

"Man, this stinks."

"I'm very sorry, Norman," said Bill. "I wish I could change the system. But Time Travel has really taken off, and in order to keep people from destroying history, they had to impose a lot of rules. And it just isn't under my control."

A wave of depression had swept over Peter, Paul, and Bert; they'd been excited by the idea of traveling through time, and the prospect of having to wait seventeen years in order to do so was quite depressing. Why did they have to wait while Bill was zooming back and forth through history? It didn't seem fair to them, and they didn't like it. They sulked.

Bill could see that he wouldn't be able to do anything to cheer them up, and so he quietly slipped away.

Later that evening, Bill was seen in his old room at the Asylum, collecting various things and putting them into a large wooden crate.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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