"I enjoy doing things like that," the Stranger responded in his odd, halting way. Holly found him a curious contradiction. He never seemed to show a flicker of sentiment, but he obviously had a deep respect for life and a conviction to do what was right.
"Well, like I said, wow, but I think that's enough adventure for a lifetime for me, could you take me back home now?"
"What do you mean?"
Holly didn't think there was a lot of room for misunderstanding. "I mean, let's get in your time machine and go back to a few minutes after you picked me up."
The Stranger lifted his hand and stroked his chin the same way he had when he puzzled over the billions of possible combinations to the lock on the evil minister's secret safe. "So basically take the amount of time that passed from the time the universe began to the time that I met you, add a few 'minutes' to that and go to that time?" He used his fingers to put air-quotes around "minutes" as he did whenever he talked about any unit of time.
"Yeah, that sounds good," Holly said. She followed the Stranger back into his odd vessel. It was neither any shape nor any colour she could identify and didn't seem to have a particular size even though it neither grew nor shrunk.
Just as the trip to the future had, the trip to the past took only seconds from Holly's perspective even though she knew that hundreds of years were passing. The Stranger said they had arrived and headed towards the door.
But when the door opened Holly didn't see the street outside her office building where she had met this Stranger - who at the time had just finished preventing a race of hidden aliens from unleashing a biological weapon to kill all humans. Rather, the time machine had landed on a beach somewhere.
"Oh," Holly asked, "Where are we?"
The Stranger was puzzled again, "I'm not sure I know how to answer that. It isn't a place you've ever been before."
"How do I get back to my office from here, then?"
"Well, you can't do that, there are no offices on this planet," the Stranger answered.
Holly was sure she wasn't understanding the Stranger correctly, "What do you mean, did we land on a different planet?"
"I assumed you wanted to be on a planet that was approximately the same place relative to the point of origin of the universe at the time you specified," the Stranger answered.
Holly closed her eyes and shook her head. Maybe she was dreaming, or very drunk? "Okay, so is this Earth or not?"
"This planet doesn't have a name," the Stranger said, "There are no species on this planet sufficiently advanced to name anything. It is a planet that is in the same location as the planet I met you on, at the same time plus a few 'minutes.'"
If this was at the same time and place as she left then the best Holly could figure was that were in the wrong universe. She didn't even know how to specify which universe she wanted to go to.
"Can this thing even take me home?" Holly asked ferociously, "You know, my office building, my house, my mom and dad?"
"So you want to go to a place and time," the Stranger said, "Where the buildings you identify as your office and your home, and the people you identify as your mother and father and located as they were at the place and time I picked you up?"
These word games were infuriating, "Yes!" Holly sighed, "That's what I want."
This time the trip in the time machine took a longer. Holly waited a few seconds, then a few more, then a few more. She expected they would already be there. "Haven't we arrived yet?" she asked.
"The place and time you requested are very specific, from your perspective it will take longer to arrive there."
"How long?" Holly asked.
The Stranger thought a moment, "It is hard to tell," he said, "But I would expect not more than twenty or thirty 'minutes.'"
During their first ride in the time machine Holly had a million questions for the Stranger, but now she couldn't think of a word to say to him, so she waited patiently in silence in the unsized single-room time machine.
"Okay, this should be it," the Stranger said a short while later.
Holly looked at her watch. The trip had taken a little over twenty minutes. She was very glad it hadn't been longer.
The door opened and Holly was back on the street. Her anxiety quickly melted away. She'd had the experience of a lifetime with the Stranger and their minor hiccup in the return trip was, in the end, only a half-hour inconvenience.
At least that's how she felt for a few seconds. Almost immediately she sensed that something wasn't quite right. She couldn't place her finger on it immediately, but then occurred to her that newspaper boxes on the corner were in a different order. It wasn't something she even knew that she knew, but she walked by those boxes every day and every day it was red, blue, orange, green. Now, in the same place, and supposedly only a few minutes later, it was red, orange, blue, green.
"This isn't the same," she said to the Stranger who had stepped out onto the street behind her, "It's different."
"Well, if you could specify what you'd like changed I can probably get us somewhere that has those features."
"I don't understand," Holly said, now feeling tears welling up her her eyes and nearly pleading, "Why can't you just take me home?"
"The place you called home, that specific place that you have memories of-" the Stranger paused as if thinking hard to find the words to express himself, "There is no such place."
Holly couldn't understand, "But this is a time machine, why don't we just go backwards in time to when we left?"
"There is no backwards," the Stranger told her, "Only forwards."
"So how did we get here, what is this place?"
"I cycled through a large number of universes," the Stranger explained, "Between the formation and cessation of each I looked for one that had a place that was very much like the place that you left including the presence of a person very much like yourself who happened to disappear on a few 'minutes' before we arrived."
"Stop with the fucking air quotes," Holly yelled, "I know that minutes are just some stupid arbitrary unit of time." When she first met the Stranger, the air quotes had been endearingly quirky. Now they made Holly sick.
"I'm sorry," the Stranger said, "I thought this was what you wanted."
"But this isn't my home!" Holly yelled, "The people here aren't the people I know, and I'm not the person they would think I am. The person they knew just vanished - however the hell that happened. Everyone I knew... my mom... they're all dead."
"More correctly they never existed," the Stranger offered.
Holly fell to her knees and sobbed. She was hardly even aware of the people walking by. Even if it hadn't been for the invisibility field around the Stranger's vessel, there was nothing anyone could do to help her.
The Stranger knelt down beside Holly and put his arm around her. She reflexively hugged him as she cried, rocking gently.
A few minutes passed before Holly started to feel calmer. She let go of the Stranger and leaned back on her ankles, looking into his usually dispassionate face that for the first time showed sympathy.
"So wait," Holly said, straining a little to not choke on her words, "We travelled from the beginning to the end of time millions or billions of times?"
"Many more than that," the Stranger said.
"And eventually," Holly continued, "We found a place that is almost exactly like the place we started. I mean, there was even a person like me who had the same job and friends and family as me."
"Yes," the Stranger said, "The variation in the universe is infinite, but all patterns repeat over and over again."
"So me, I mean, my whole life, it's just being played out again and again on this cosmic scale. Everything I ever did was done before by someone just like me and will be done again and again and again."
"Yes," the Stranger confirmed.
"Then what's the point? What do I do now?"
"I don't know," said the Stranger, "I built a time machine."
Holly looked at the machine and then back at the Stranger. "Okay," she said, getting back to her feet, "Let's go, then."