Respondebat Illa

***

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: α͗ποθανει̂ν θέλω.

I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, "Sibyl, what do you want?" she replied: "I want to die."

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)

***

The trouble wasn't that she was a fraud. The trouble was that she wasn't.

Cassie massaged her temples, trying to keep the always-incipient headache at bay. Well, she'd made it through another day. Hooray.

She began to take off the silver bangles. They clattered onto the dressing table with a noise that seemed to pierce right through her head, making her wince. She had already thrown aside the spangled shawl – horrible, gaudy thing that it was – and tossed it into a corner with the ridiculous headscarf. Next came the rings, faux exotic stones glinting in the light. They seemed to mock her. Cassie hated them, but it was all part of The Look. No one trusted a psychic in jeans, and one without a single mystical-looking piece of jewellery may as well start browsing the classifieds for other employment.

Tugging the last ring off her finger, she pushed herself away from her dressing table and stood up slowly. Her head was starting to throb. She was sure it was the coffee. She didn't even like the damn stuff, but at least it was better than tea. Quite aside from the obvious problem presented by tea leaves, she couldn't even use teabags without seeing arcane messages straining at the fabric to present themselves to her. People thought being a seer was like being able to look in a catalogue, pick out the right future at will, and present it to the asker, neatly wrapped, for a small delivery fee. Cassie wished that were the case. At every moment, images pressed themselves upon her, in tea leaves or playing cards or swirls of dust, or simply from within her own head. No matter what she did, the future made itself available to her. Her third eye was an insomniac.

The children made fun of her. She wouldn't have minded so much if it weren't for the noise, which exacerbated her headaches and made her crotchety. She was turning into her grandmother, and she wasn't even thirty. Awesome. Before she knew it, she'd be wearing purple, with a red hat which didn't go and didn't suit her, and that really would be too much. She glanced at the clock beside her bed. Six o'clock. She wondered whether she should do something about the eggs that would be hitting her front door within the next half hour, and decided against it. She considered calling the police, but the last time she had called to report a future crime, they had laughed and hung up on her. The fact that she had been right had done nothing to change their opinion towards weirdos like her. However impractical, she would have to report the vandalism after it had happened.

She went downstairs and pulled the windows closed. At least they were not going to be broken again; not that night, at any rate. She stared moodily out into the darkening street, where perfectly ordinary people went about their perfectly ordinary business. Cassie envied them, and a sick sense of jealousy rose up in her so strongly that she had to turn away. She knew them, at a single glance, better than they would ever know themselves. She knew what awaited them, every single one. That young man, walking hand in hand with his girlfriend, would be in a car accident within a year. He would lose the use of his legs. The girlfriend would hang around a while, accepting the sympathy and the flowers, and bearing it all very bravely, until she ran off with a hospital intern whose shoulder she cried on one too many times. The old lady walking her dog would live for years, but she would see her oldest daughter die. And her dog. Cassie screwed up her eyes, trying to stop the images that were crowding in upon her, but there was nothing she could do to stop them playing out in front of her, a macabre dance of the possible and the inevitable.

And to think people came to see her, actually wanting to know all of this. So she told them the usual nonsense, about tall dark strangers and long journeys and being careful around stoves on Tuesdays (although why anyone needed a psychic to tell them not to set their shirt on fire was a mystery even to Cassie), and they went away, never too sure she was for real. She laced in just enough truth to keep the superstitious coming back, but she never told them everything. She couldn't. What was it she had read? We are all subject to the fates, but we must all act as if we are not, or die of despair. It was painfully true. So she let them keep on acting. Not least because it paid her grocery bill each month.

She put the kettle on and pulled down a mug from the shelf, heaping coffee and sugar into it. It would keep her awake, she knew, but there was something so pleasantly ordinary about coffee that she couldn't resist it. She liked to sit in her old armchair, snuggled up with a cup of coffee, and pretend she was Normal. A Normal woman, living a Normal life, drinking coffee, maybe complaining about work to a roommate or a lover while she watched TV. In reality, of course, she couldn't watch TV. It became too hard to distinguish between the images on the screen and those which were crowding in from Beyond. Then there was the simple fact that she knew the outcome of every story before it happened. If she'd been a cruel person, she might have amused herself by posting spoilers from Lost on the internet. Murder mysteries were like watching paint dry.

As for a roommate or lover, that was just another fantasy. Cassie had never really had friends. Never fallen in love. It was impossible. She had only to meet someone to know everything that would ever happen to them. She would never fall in love, because she always knew how it would end. Being alone was painful, but it had nothing on the alternative.

The kettle boiled, and Cassie poured herself her Normal coffee. She knew she would regret it in a few hours, lying awake in her small bed, but for now it was comforting. It was Normal with a nice, big capital-N. It was safe.

She knew the boys would be arriving soon, so she left the kitchen to settle down in the sitting room. Seating herself in her armchair, she tucked her knees up and sipped the coffee. She thought it must be nice to be a fraud, to have only two eyes and a vivid imagination, nothing more than a talent for imaginative predictions. At least then she would always have another choice; she could stop at any time. Stop the job. Stop... everything. She stared into the coffee as her thoughts turned darker. She shook herself. No use dwelling on that. It was so embarrassing to be the sybil-in-a-jar, the tainted seer. It was such a cliché. But destiny had a funny sense of humour. At least, Cassie assumed it was supposed to be funny. She couldn't say she appreciated the joke. Ha bloody ha.

Cassie would have been cynical about destiny, given half a chance. But it kept on impressing itself upon her everywhere she looked. One or two of the people she had once considered friends – there had never been many, and they never stayed long – asked why she didn't use her Gift to change lives, like some kind of absurd cartoon superhero in a cape. They didn't understand about destiny. Of course, there were things that she could change: she could leave the windows open, and let egg yolk splatter over her carpet. She could leave the house so she wouldn't be there when it happened. She could even call the police and try to have them take the boys away. But the boys would always come. She could change the little things, but when it came to the essentials, she was a pig being led to slaughter, and there was nothing she could do about it.

It was just another of the cruel tricks destiny had played on her. She knew when she would die, and how, which meant that any attempt in the present to change that fact would do nothing. And it was not for want of trying. She had once taken an overdose of the strongest sleeping pills she had been able to get from the small local pharmacist, and had simply woken up the next morning with a stronger headache than usual and a dizziness that passed within the day. She had tried knives which had turned out to be strangely blunt and inefficient. She had been taking the lift up to the roof of the tallest building in town when the electricity had suddenly cut. Destiny, she thought bitterly. What a bitch.

The first egg hit the front door to the sound of laughter and jeers. Cassie ignored it. She could clean up in the morning. She pulled a face as she looked down into her coffee, wondering, not for the first time, why she kept on drinking it. It was bitter and unpleasant and made her headaches worse. But at least it didn't try to tell her the future. The eggs were being pelted in full force now. She could hear cat calls from outside, and slid further down in her chair, although the curtains were drawn and there was no way she could be seen. They would stop soon enough, she knew – and that one would become a politician, and that one would get liver cancer and that one would – she tried to block the thoughts out, although her own were hardly more cheerful.

It was morbid, she knew, to dwell on death all the time, but she couldn't help it. Everyone's story ended there, eventually. Even hers, although the narrative was insisting on taking its time to play out. She had considered the "what dreams may come" aspect of shuffling off this mortal coil – that area of knowledge, at least, was hidden from her – but she wasn't particularly curious. Whatever waited for her on the other side, it could only be an improvement. Maybe she could get away from this gods-awful coffee, for one thing.

She pinched the bridge of her nose as yet another egg hit the front door. She knew that the boys had bought a box each, and calculated that they would have to run out of things to throw soon enough.

There was a knock.

Cassie sat up, listening. That couldn't be right; she wasn't expecting anyone, barring the vandals. When the sound didn't come again, she sat back in her chair. She must have imagined it. Maybe it was a clever confluence of two eggs in quick succession? The idea seemed ridiculous, but, finding no other explanation, she assumed that to have been the case, and concentrated her efforts again on trying to tune out the noise from outside.

The knock came again.

This time, she knew she had heard it. Cassie put aside her coffee cup and stood up, looking around as though hoping to see a glowing arrow pointing towards the source of the noise. It sounded as though it were coming from the back of the house – perhaps a window? Cassie moved slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible so that she would not miss the sound if it came again.

It did. Cassie followed it to the window of her bedroom. Through the net curtain, she was sure she could make out a figure in the garden. She frowned, pressing herself against the wall and trying to peer through a crack in the curtain. She wasn't expecting to be burgled, was she? She racked her brain, but she was sure she wouldn't have forgotten something like that. Reaching for her crystal ball – purely decorative, of course, but it did at least have the advantage of being heavy – she hefted it in one hand, in case she needed to bring it down upon the head of the unexpected knocker. She inched towards the window and pulled aside the curtain, raising the crystal ball at once.

"Hello," said the figure, in a distinctly non-murderous way. It was a man of about her own age, with a pleasant face and scruffy hair, and he was standing in her vegetable patch.

"Hello," said Cassie, guardedly. She knew she must look silly, the crystal ball raised above her head, but she wasn't about to let herself be judged by a man standing in the lettuces. "What do you want?"

"Do you know some kids are throwing eggs at your front door?"

"Yes."

"Oh good. Just thought I'd check."

They carried on looking at each other. Cassie was glaring. The young man had an infuriatingly placid look upon his face that Cassie's antagonism did nothing to dispel.

"If that's all you're here to say..." she began, tucking the ball under one arm as she reached to pull the curtain closed.

"No no!" the man said quickly. "I was just explaining why I had to come around this way. I hear that convention dictates the use of the front door. I'm sorry if I startled you."

"You're knocking on my bedroom window. I have no idea who you are. Of course you – " But then Cassie stopped. He had startled her. How in the name of Quintus Valerius had he managed that?

"So can I come in?" the young man asked.

"What? No!" said Cassie. "I don't know who you are. Or what you're doing in my garden."

"I told you! They were throwing – "

"Not why you're at the window," Cassie cut him off. "You know what I mean."

She found the man's presence unnerving. He seemed perfectly likeable, but Cassie imagined most serial killers did. Not, she reflected, that she was in any great danger of being killed, serially or otherwise. It was almost a pity. She lowered the crystal ball.

"Can I come inside?"

"First you tell me what you're doing here, and then I'll think about it."

"I saw that there was a light on..."

"In my house and every other one on the street. Go on."

"...and I wanted to come and ask you some questions."

Oh. It was one of those. Despite herself, her heart sank. Just another client.

"If you want a reading, you'll need to make an appointment," said Cassie. "It's after hours. The spirits reveal themselves to me between 9 and 5, weekdays only. I can offer palm readings, cartomancy – "

"That's not what I meant."

Cassie stared at him, and was struck once again by the strangeness of the man. She looked right at him, and at once knew – nothing. Nothing about where he had come from, and who he was, or what would happen to him in the future. Just... nothing. Cassie shivered. It was eerie. She stared at the man, and he smiled politely back. Well, she supposed, she had nothing to lose. If he wasn't a serial killer, she had nothing to worry about. And if he was, there was always the slimmest of chances that he could thwart destiny and finally let her get some rest. Win-win.

She sighed. "Come around to the front. They'll have gone away by now."

The man nodded, and turned to head for the front door. Just for a moment, as he rounded the corner, Cassie was sure she saw a swish of cloak, but when she opened to door to the smiling man, he was dressed in nothing more epic or remarkable than old jeans and a t-shirt bearing a slogan that had presumably been very witty before it had encountered Google Translate three or four times, and lost. Amidst a slew of punctuation, it proclaimed: "Very cheerfull day!! Likely doofight with understand that is far away from you!!!" It was appropriately surreal.

"Thanks," he said.

Cassie shrugged and waved a hand in the direction of the kitchen. "Coffee?" she offered.

"Tea if you have it."

"I don't."

"Coffee it is, then!"

Cassie put the kettle on and bustled around, finding mugs and rustling the coffee packet. She knew she was making far more noise than was necessary, but, to her own surprise, she felt awkward. She didn't know what to make of the visitor, and the experience was totally foreign to her. She wasn't sure how to react. At last, she pushed a mug of hot coffee towards the man, and poured herself a glass of water, studiously avoiding the messages in the swirls as she set it down on the table.

"Thanks," he said, and sipped the scalding coffee. "Nice night, isn't it?"

Small talk. So this was how it was going to go. Fine.

"Yes," said Cassie. "Wonderful." She decided not to say anything further, and wait to see how long it took for the man to become uncomfortable, and – and what? Crack? She supposed he had to, eventually. You couldn't smugly rock up in someone's vegetable patch, drink their coffee, and then not say anything.

But he seemed prepared to do just that. Cassie kept watching him. The problem of his invisibility on any plane but the most obvious was troubling her more than she would have admitted. She wondered whether he knew. Explanations chased one another through her mind, each more impossible than the last. She discarded the Twilightesque absurdities that he was a particularly private person or standing too close a werewolf, in favour of the far more reasonable notion that he was a zombie. If so, he was a very polite zombie, and all she'd read suggested that zombies asked for brains, not tea. She was at a loss.

The man smiled at her. Cassie glared back at him, her frustration making her impatient.

"Look, who are you, and what are you doing in my house?"

"It's a long story, and because I thought I'd come and visit."

Cassie ground her teeth at this unhelpful answer, which was only compounded by its cheerful delivery. The man stirred his coffee, the spoon clinking annoyingly against the side of the mug. Cassie drew a deep breath.

"If it's a long story, you'd better start talking. You've got five minutes to convince me you've got a good reason to be here before I chuck you out."

The man just smiled, which only infuriated her more.

"Four minutes 45 seconds," she said. "Start."

"Well, I suppose I could say I've known you for a while..."

Cassie glared. "Are you stalking me?"

"Wouldn't you know if I were?"

His use of the subjunctive softened her, but only a little. Besides, she had to admit that he had a point. She would have known. But then, she should also have known that he would be in her garden. But in the place in her mind usually occupied by noisy and competing futures, there was just a pleasant emptiness. Nothing at all. A thought struck her.

"Oh gods, you're not a god, are you? Because I don't believe in any of them."

The man laughed. "Nice guess! But no. And I'm not the devil either."

"Good. Because I've read Faust, and I'm making no deals."

"Lucky I'm not after your immortal soul, then, isn't it?"

"Yes." The man sipped his coffee. "Name?" Cassie asked, figuring that, if she discovered nothing else about the man, at least she wouldn't have to refer to him forever as "the man from the vegetable patch".

"Also an interesting question," he said. Cassie opened her mouth to snap at him, but he actually seemed to be considering his answer.

"Is this some kind of quest? You need me to seek your true name or the world will end, something like that? Because I don't do quests."

"I don't think you could find my name even if you wanted to," he said, and Cassie sat up quickly, almost knocking over her glass. He knew! He knew that she couldn't see him!

"How do you know?" she asked, frowning.

He shrugged. "I have that effect, I'm told. As for my name... I guess you could say I've been called a lot of things."

"None of them rhyming with 'Foocifer'?"

"Nope, none. Not into souls, remember? I think you can call me Bill."

"Bill." Cassie was nonplussed. She supposed it suited him, but it didn't suit... whatever it was about him she couldn't put a name to. If she'd guessed, she would have picked something more epic. Grander, somehow. But now that he'd said it, she couldn't say what.

"Bill," he repeated, nodding. "Yes, it'll do. Nice ring to it."

"Sure," said Cassie. She turned to check the clock on the wall behind her, and once more, out of the corner of her eye, she got a sense of – otherness. There was something there that wasn't there, like trying to pick a fallen eyelash out of your eye, when you knew it was there but your questing fingers missed it each time. Bill had overstayed his five minutes, but she was reluctant to throw him out. Against her will, she was intrigued.

"You're... a vampire?" she hazarded. "Ghoul, gremlin, other Beyondy type creature?"

Bill shook his head, ticking off her suggestions on his fingers. "No... no... no... depends on your definition."

"Depends on your definition. Right. So at least a little bit Beyondy."

"I suppose so."

"Sandman? Bogey man? Santa?"

Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "Santa Claus? Really?"

She shrugged. "Just trying to cover the anthropomorphic personifications."

"You missed a few."

Cassie put her glass down and stared at him. "You're not the Easter Bunny. I refuse to believe it."

"Oh no, you got me!" Bill said, rolling his eyes and clutching his hands to his chest. "What gave it away? The floppy ears or the adorable, twitchy nose?"

"Hey, it was just a guess," Cassie said, squinting at him as if hoping to see through an elaborate disguise. "I don't know, then," she said at last. Normally, this sort of game would have frustrated her endlessly, but she couldn't help but like the man. If she was honest with herself, his company filled a sort of void that she hadn't realised she had. When had she last had a proper conversation with someone? She couldn't even remember.

"You'll get there," Bill said, and gave her an encouraging smile.

"Patronising, too. My favourite," she said, rolling her eyes, but she played along anyway. "You'll have to give me a clue," she said.

Bill sighed. "Oh, all right," he said. He pushed back his chair and stood up. "Ready?"

"That depends on what you're planning to do," said Cassie, a little nervously, wondering whether she should have kept the crystal ball to hand.

"One... two..." and Bill was gone. In his place stood... Cassie didn't even have a name for it. A person – or a thing – or a something, at any rate, with billowing robes and cowl, holding onto what she recognised at once to be a scythe. Then the vision was gone, and there was just Bill, in his strangely Engrish t-shirt, sitting at the table again. Cassie said nothing. To her own surprise, she wasn't afraid. What she had just seen should have terrified her, but instead, all she felt was that she should have known already.

"So you are the Easter Bunny. I knew it."

"Very funny."

"Are you sure you have the right house?" she asked. "You're a bit early. I'm not supposed to meet you for a while." A long, long, while, she added to herself.

"I know," Bill said. "But when you're in my line of work, you get to break the rules a little, sometimes."

"Lucky you." Cassie could hear the bitterness in her voice, and she didn't trouble to conceal it. "So you just thought you'd ditch the scythe and the spectral horse and drop in for coffee?"

"Oh, Binky's outside."

"Binky? I'm pretty sure that's plagiarism."

"I prefer to think of it as a postmodernist approach to intellectual property. What, just because I'm an anthropomorphic personification, I'm not allowed to read?"

Cassie snorted. "Fine. But if he – she – it – eats my carrots, I expect you to replace them."

"You have my word." Bill gave her a smile, and Cassie found herself smiling back. It really had been a long time since she'd had a conversation that didn't involve the words "mists of time" or "the conjunction of Mars and Neptune".

"So if you're not here to claim my soul, or whatever it says on your CV, why are you here?"

"Because I know how it feels to be all alone, doing a job you never had any choice in." His words hit Cassie like a physical blow. She blinked back tears, angry with herself for letting this stranger – no matter what agricultural implement his job required him to carry – reach her like that.

"Yeah, well," was all she managed to say, and she got up under the pretext of taking her glass to the sink and rinsing it, leaving the water running for longer than was necessary so as to have an excuse not to talk.

She heard a scrape against the floor, and turned around to see Bill standing up, hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like an overgrown schoolboy, rather than a reaper of souls. "I have an appointment," Bill said, a note of apology in his voice. "I should go."

"No problem," said Cassie, her voice a little too bright. "But if you want to – " she left the invitation unfinished, unsure of herself.

"I will," said Bill. "And thanks for the coffee."

"Any time," Cassie replied. And she found that she meant it.

As she stood in the doorway, watching Bill untether the spectral horse from the fence, she felt a sensation almost familiar to her, but one which she had almost forgotten. It felt a little like happiness.

***

Bill visited her several more times over the next few months. He always had the same scruffy hair and the same old jeans, but his t-shirts cycled from one Engrish translation to another, for reasons Cassie could not fathom. She assumed it had to do with quantum, or flux, or maybe just the sheer number of such t-shirts that must exist across the multiverse. She looked forward to his visits. The sheer unpredictability in itself would have been enough to cheer her up, but she enjoyed his company, too. His job did not disturb her at all, perhaps because her own required her to see so much of what ended where his began.

They drank coffee – Bill preferred tea, but Cassie wouldn't have it in the house – and discussed books, mainly. She learned that he, too, saw all things at once, and so watching TV bored him as much as it did her. Books, for some reason, were exempt from this curse, and so they spent hours discussing their mutual dislike of James Joyce ("Pretentious," Bill proclaimed, and Cassie heartily agreed) and Wordsworth ("Daffodils, really?"), and their preference for fantasy, which neither of them really understood.

"You'd think it'd all be much of a muchness, for us," Bill said one evening, stretching out on the sofa with his feet up on the arm. "I mean, fantasy, as opposed to 'reality'... It's not like reality is what people think it is, anyway. For some of us, this is reality, you know? Spectral horses and anthropomorphic personifications, and seeing all time at once, and all that."

"Maybe that's why," Cassie said, curled up in the armchair, her back resolutely turned against the fire, where curls of smoke were desperately trying to get her attention. "I mean, after contemplating the vastness of space and time, are you going to get back to – well, wherever you go – and read Marian Keyes, or are you going to read Tolkien?"

"Good point," said Bill, thoughtfully. Outside, the night was freezing, and the windows rattled in their frames as the wind buffeted them. Cassie had agreed to let Binky eat her lettuces, as long as he left the carrots alone. He had, it transpired, eaten half her carrots on Bill's first visit, but Cassie had let Bill off his promise to replace them as soon as it became evident that he lacked – for obvious reasons – any modicum of talent for gardening. "Everything else that passes for 'reality' is a bit silly after that."

Cassie frowned. "I don't know. I mean... Sure, it all seems really silly, all the little things, but wouldn't you love to be able to do them? To, I don't know, go to the movies, or have picnics, or fall in love?" She blushed, and hated herself for it. "Just get out of the jar, anyway," she went on quickly, before Bill had a chance to respond. "I know what I'd choose, if I could."

"The jar?" Bill looked confused. Then comprehension flooded his face. "Eliot. Of course."

"Right in one. People translate it wrong, you know," Cassie went on carefully. She didn't meet Bill's eyes, suddenly fascinated by a loose thread on the arm of the chair, which she worried as she went on, "The epigraph, I mean."

"Something about the sybil at Cumae hanging in the jar?"

"All that part's fine," Cassie said, waving a dismissive hand. "But the next bit. The translation the notes give is always something like, 'and when the boys said to her: "Sibyl, what do you want?" she answered: "I want to die."' But it's not that. Well, I mean," she corrected herself, annoyed with her own pedanticism. "That's the gist. But the tense is wrong. The aspect, rather. It's in the imperfect. It's not some once-off thing she says on a whim. It's forever. It's ongoing. And she can't get out of it."

There was silence, except for the crackling of the fire and the wind outside. A log settled noisily, as if to break the awkwardness. Cassie continued to worry the thread.

"And is that what you want, sybil?" Bill asked her. Cassie looked up. He was watching her closely, and she blushed again. She couldn't remember anyone ever looking at her like that before.

"Does it matter?" she said. "We can't change anything. It's the job."

"What if we could?"

Cassie shook her head. "'What if' is for sci-fi. It doesn't change anything in reality. Not even our reality. I've seen it," she went on. "It's years away. And there's nothing I can do until then except... except wait." Her voice broke, and suddenly she was crying, tears more of rage than of sorrow, against her life, against who-or-whatever had landed her with the Gift, against all the years spent hammering on the sides of the jar, with no way out.

Bill got up and moved to sit on the arm of her chair. He put an arm around her and held her while she cried, messy, noisy tears that soaked into Bill's side as he sat next to her. At last, her sobs faded, and she wiped her eyes on her sleeve. If it had been anyone else, she would have apologised, or felt embarrassed, but somehow, with Bill, she didn't feel the need. She just rested her head against him, and was silent. Bill said nothing either, and they just sat together and listened to the fire. After what felt like a long time, Bill stood up.

"It's late," Cassie said inconsequentially, wanting to give him an excuse to leave, if he wanted to. But Bill said nothing. Cassie didn't meet his eyes, but she could feel him watching her with that blazing, intense look that she had come to know so well. He was silent, and in that silence she knew with a finality she couldn't put a name to that this was the last time he would visit her. She would miss that look. She would miss him. She looked up and met his gaze, almost defiant, ready to prove that she didn't care when he told her he was leaving.

He was looking at her oddly. At last, he spoke.

"Come with me," he said. Cassie stared at him.

"I can't," she said, wishing it were not true. She shook her head. "You know I can't. Not yet."

Bill shrugged. "That's what the rules say. But the rules say a lot of things. They say we're not allowed to meet. I'm pretty sure they say we're not supposed to discuss literature over coffee. But look at us. Maybe the rules don't apply to us."

Cassie's heart was beating faster, but she shook her head. "Don't do that," she said, her voice threatening to break again. She drew a deep breath. "I'm not getting my hopes up. And even if I could... wouldn't it be one of those 'tread on a butterfly, destroy the planet' things?" It was a feeble attempt at a joke, and Bill didn't laugh. He just shook his head, brushing her excuse aside.

He took both her hands. His were predictably cold, but not the cold of death; nothing more remarkable than the cold hands of one who had been out in the snow.

"I'm serious," he said. "Come with me. History will sort itself out."

Cassie hesitated, glancing around the room as if to find some reason to refuse. She saw nothing except the same, familiar room, devoid of photographs, devoid of anything to suggest that someone had done more than exist here. The sight strengthened her. After all, what did she have to lose?

She frowned suddenly. "But wait..." Bill did so, watching her, looking almost nervous as he did so, as though expecting her to throw him out at any second. "What about you? You'll still be – you'll still have to – "

A shadow crossed Bill's face, but he shrugged, and the familiar smile was back in an instant. "Hey, it's the job, right?"

Cassie looked up at him, not deceived by the grin. "There's no way out for you," she said. "I can't – "

Bill cut her off. "But don't you think I'd get out if I could? Don't kid yourself that I wouldn't. I can't. But you can. Don't waste it."

Cassie felt overwhelmed. This was what she wanted, wasn't it? She thought of the future that awaited her, and the weight of dread that she had carried all her life settled on her again. It was enough. "All right," she said at last.

"You sure?" said Bill.

"Hell yes," said Cassie, her heart hammering so fast that she thought it might be trying to pass her messages in Morse code. She gripped Bill's hands, and he pulled her to her feet.

It was like waking up from a bad dream. Cassie looked down to see her own body slumped in the chair, and for a moment, she didn't know how to respond. Bill was looking at her anxiously, waiting for her reaction, but she smiled at him.

"Any idea what's coming next?" he asked.

Cassie thought hard. "None whatsoever," she said, and felt a joy so great that it was all she could do to keep from dancing.

"Let's go," said Bill. And hand-in-hand, free from the shackles of the past and the future, they stepped out through the splintered remains of the sybil's jar, into the night and – for the first time in Cassie's life – the unknown.