Famous Last Words


The year: 2099.

The course: Introduction to Temporal Physics.

The task: Initiate a universe-shattering time paradox, the same first assignment Dr. Nobikov gave every year and a favorite among the student body and staff alike.

And so it began, with Nobikov’s pupils using their time tunnels, time watches, time belts, and time guns, their flying police boxes and their cosmic treadmills—and Jerry Verne, who was old enough to drive, borrowed a DeLorean—to attempt what they’d studied for most of the last year. It was all within the safety of the classroom’s tachyon-shielded laboratory, of course. So all reversible and no sweat (except the assignment was the entirety of their fourth quarter grade).

One student went back and stopped the inventor of time travel. Several others went back and “offed” their grandparents. A third, thinking a bit more creatively, traveled to the start of the year in an attempt to persuade Dr. Nobikov to ditch the assignment. The student tried bribing Dr. Nobikov with freshly baked cookies, but Dr. Nobikov only chuckled and said “try harder.” Though objectively, that individual did better than those who stopped Hitler, Pol Pot, and other infamous historical figures. Though noble, none of those efforts made a paradox.

Freshman Sarah Smith went all the way back to November 30th, 1900. She found Introduction to Temporal Physics impossible; time loops and temporal contradictions gave her headaches. She’d always preferred old-fashioned reading to science, and Romantic-era fiction was Sarah’s passion. So instead of preparing for Dr. Nobikov’s project, Sarah dove into Middlemarch, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and The Woman in White, figuring that a resignation to fail was something that Keats or Wordsworth, if alive, would find admirable.

But then, after finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray for the third time, Sarah got an idea. Which is how, the day before her universe-shattering paradox was due, Sarah found herself walking the boulevards of Paris, passing carriages and men in top hats on a brisk late November day. The air smelled of wood smoke and the Eiffel Tower, only eleven years old, rose in the hazy distance.

Sarah made her way down a cobblestone alley to a modest two-story house. She went inside and up the stairs. Everything so far was exactly as she’d researched, which meant that Oscar Wilde, famous for his plays, poetry, the novel she just completed, and numerous witticisms, would die of bacterial meningitis momentarily, just on the other side of the bedroom door where she now found herself.

Sarah went inside. A lanky figure, sprawled across an old divan, came into view. The curtains of the room—crusty and faded—were drawn. Candles danced shadows across the man’s sallow face and illuminated his baggy clothing. Yet despite the lighting, the destitute surroundings, the infirmity that was oh-so-different than the pictures of health Sarah was so accustomed to seeing on the back of dust-jackets, the person in  the room was unmistakable! Oh, how Sarah wished she could ask Mr. Wilde about the genesis of “An Ideal Husband.” She yearned to discuss the subtext of “Salomé” with him, or to learn what poetic meter the genius behind “Flower of Love” thought was superior.

Beside the author were two friends: a man, who fanned Wilde’s moist forehead, and a woman who gripped Wilde’s withered hands. 

The most famous of Dubliners, who won the Berley Gold Medal at the age of twenty and the Newdigate Prize at twenty-three, who quoted Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare eloquently and from memory during a notorious indecency trial, the man who then suffered through two years of hard labor that devastated his health, inhaled slowly.

Then he exhaled slowly.

He paused.

And then drew in air once more.

It was a modest breath, but one that caused his eyes to bulge and his frame to quake. Wilde’s companions looked at each other, knowing that when the skeletal creature in front of them let his breath out, it would be his last. And Sarah knew; she would not get to talk with her literary idol, to discuss his works, to hear of his various inspirations—and oh what a pity that was! Though his death did mean her timing was perfect.

Wilde’s filmy eyes shot around the room, from the dingy bookcases to the peeling molding to the stained ceiling to the garishly decorated walls. Finally, in what started as a whisper but ended with surprising strength, he uttered the words that would bridge his current life with the next: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes… OR I DO!”

It was a statement that would be remembered forever, as clever and blasé in passing as if uttered while a picture of health. Then, as Wilde’s chest fell and his eyes rolled back, Sarah knew the moment had arrived. So she reached deep into her dress pockets. She clicked the safety off her selective mass decimator, and she pointed it to the side.

Then Sarah pulled the trigger—pufff!

The room’s wallpaper went up in a cloud of smoke, just as Wilde’s spark went out. And an instant later the entire universe, caught in a conundrum, followed suit.

Though needless to say, the sound of it all going was much, much louder.

* * *

How original!” Dr. Nobikov exclaimed after resetting the temporal continuum. It hardly seemed like a picosecond had passed since Sarah left, though in some ways the interval between the universe shattering on November 30th, 1900, and Sarah finding herself back in 2099, was immeasurable. “And so literary,” Dr. Nobikov continued. “Your solution was entirely unique!”

Sarah got a 100% on the assignment, as well as an award for creative thinking. So Introduction to Temporal Physics wasn’t the worst, and after exiting the lab, Sarah went back to Byron, Blake, and the Brontës, skipping the remainder of Dr. Nobikov’s class to read in the girl’s restroom. And Dr. Nobikov was so impressed by Sarah’s paradox that he let her absenteeism slide for the rest of the year.

Though it wasn’t long before Dr. DeTamble, Sarah’s logic teacher, began to worry. Sarah’s project regarding unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects was late, and the school year was ending. And in Dr. DeTamble’s opinion, Sarah had so much potential. The destroyer of Oscar Wilde’s wallpaper, and subsequently the universe, however, didn’t give the work much consideration.

She’d get it done. And anyway, the key to the project must lay in Romantic literature somewhere.


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