The chemistry between Katie and the Time Traveller was obvious from the moment they first ran into each other, quite literally, rounding a corner in the maze of Underground tunnels where Bank entwines with Monument.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the Time Traveller. Who are you?”
“Katie Smith. Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
“Because — Look, Katie Smith, can you act indignant and run at the same time?”
“Good.” And the Time Traveller took her hand and they ran, with the sound of jackboots bouncing off the curved tiled walls all around them, sometimes closer, sometimes further away.
“I’m really very sorry about the ‘not looking where I was going’ thing,” said the Time Traveller, hardly out of breath and sounding far too laconic to really mean it. “You see, I was a little preoccupied with the whole ‘not being captured by the paramilitary thugs’ thing.”
“Mrs Kingston’s private army?”
“Unless there are two sets of paramilitary thugs down here — which would be terrible bad luck, I think you’ll agree — yes.”
“That’s okay, then.”
They ran on, finally coming to a skidding halt at the junction of three gently sloping passages.
“Can I ask you something?”
That would be me.
“Ah. Hello, Geoff.”
“George,” I corrected him. “And that’s my girlfriend’s hand your holding,” I added, because it just had to be said.
“Really, Greg — ”
“Whatever. Do you really think now is the time to start squabbling over petty little things like what your name is and whose girlfriend’s hand I may or may not be holding? Don’t you think we have slightly more important things to be worrying about right now?”
“Like, for one, that we’ve just been captured.”
We had been. We were marched along more corridors and down some slimy spiral steps to a room full of strange-looking machinery where the air hummed and pulsed like a heartbeat. None other than Mrs Kingston herself was there waiting for us.
“Ah. Miss Smith. The turbulent journalist who decided to make herself a thorn in my side. So nice to finally meet you at last and in the flesh. And believe me, this is, for you, the last.”
The Time Traveller gave a noisy, exaggerated yawn, head back, mouth wide.
“I’m sorry. Am I boring you? And who are you, anyway?”
“I really can’t apologise enough,” said the Time Traveller. “You see, it’s an involuntary reaction I have to Parlaxians. Can’t help it, I’m afraid. I’ve always found them such a boring little race.”
“Palaxians?” asked Katie.
“Who are you?” demanded Mrs Kingston.
“Yes, Parlaxians,” explained the Time Traveller, turning his back on Mrs Kingston and his explaining voice on Katie. I’d get quite sick of the sound of it, by the end, but this was the first time I heard it. Neither smug nor patronising capture exactly how annoying it is. “Parlaxians from Parlax, on the edge of the Leander Zone. Distance cousins of the Garlox, but not even half as interesting. Did I forget to mention that bit? About Mrs Kingston being an alien?”
“Who are — ?”
“Oh, do please be quiet. Yes, Katie, an alien. A rather dull alien — the whole species thinks it’s far smarter than it really is and don’t you just hate people like that? — but an alien nonetheless.” The Time Traveller finally deigned to turn and address Mrs Kingston, who looked about ready to explode. “So what’s the overly-complicated plan this time, eh? Spend years building up a global media empire to brainwash the TV-viewing public? Replace all the world’s leaders’ children with android replicas? Pumping the city’s drinking water full of your larval stage? Oh, you’re not are you? That’s disgusting.
“You know,” and here he turned back to Katie, “they’ve got interstellar travel. Faster than light and everything. There’s a spaceship waiting for them up there right at this moment. A couple of days dropping rocks and you lot would be totally helpless. They could just stroll in and take the place over. But does it occur to them to try that? No. Instead they’re down here, creeping around in tunnels and running for elected office.”
“Who are you?” Mrs Kingston practically screamed.
The Time Traveller winked at Katie, obviously happy that he’d been given the cue he was waiting for, and then turned, slowly and deliberately, and gave Mrs Kingston a wicked smile and an answer. “I’m the Time Traveller,” he said, starting off quietly, calmly. “I travel the streams of causality. Reality bends to my will. The stars dance to my tune. I’m feared on a million planets, loved on a billion more. I’ve ended thousand-year wars with a word, brought eternal empires to their knees with a shrug. My name appears in ten thousand different languages, twenty thousand different tongues. You’ll find it written in the dark nebulas at the end of the universe and in really small letters around the nucleus of every anti-quark. I am sunset. I am starquakes. I am the Time Traveller. And this planet is under my protection.”
By the end of his little speech the Time Traveller was almost shouting. And then he pulled out this magic wand of his and started waving it about. The machinery stopped humming and pulsing and instead started exploding in showers of sparks. Then he did something which he told us later was banishing Mrs Kingston to an alternative dimension where it’s forever mid-morning and where she’ll never hurt anyone again, but which looked to me like he squashed her flat and then folded her up like a paper airplane, folded her up until she vanished.
And then the Time Traveller put his wand away and turned to Katie and said, “So, Katie Smith. Would you like to see my time machine?”
The thing with Katie is, she’s never been one to be impressed by a flash motor. Not that lots of guys haven’t tried it on that way with her. It’s always, “Alright, love. Wanna come for a spin in the BMW?” or “Fancy a lift, babe. I’ve got the Merc outside,” but she’s always told them where to get off. She can’t stand guys like that. I know it for a fact. And she’s always been fine about my little Peugeot. I mean, it get’s us from A to B all right and it’s cheap to run, and she knows that what I’m saving by keeping it on it I’m putting towards more important stuff, like getting us somewhere decent to live. (And, yeah, I’m also saving up to get her a proper ring, not one of those High Street jobs, but don’t let on, okay?)
But the Time Traveller’s time machine, well, that was something different. Not much to look at from the outside — really just a kind of box — but inside… Well, I don’t think I’d ever seen Katie speechless before.
“It’s amazing,” she gasps (all right, maybe she wasn’t completely speechless) and she spins around there on the spot, taking it all in, like I remember her doing once before, when we were both little and our parents took us to see Santa’s Grotto in Woolies.
“Yes, it is rather impressive, even if I do say so myself. Somehow one never really gets used to it. I say, Katie, would you mind closing the door before — Oh, too late, I see he’s already inside. Be a good chap and wipe your feet, Gary.”
“Whatever. Come on, Katie, let’s give you the grand tour. Where shall we begin? Ballroom? Race course? Opera house? No, I know: the orchard. Come on,” and he took hold of Katie’s hand again and they were off for another run, down corridors which were sometimes polished stone and sometime dull metal and sometimes dark wood panels.
I almost lost them once, but then I heard Katie give the little squeal of delight she makes whenever she’s really happy. My heart sank. I trudged along the passageway towards the direction from which it had come.
They were in a clearing among spreading fruit trees (yes, trees), lying on the emerald grass (yes, grass), eating apples. We were still inside. You could tell because the sky was wrong, like it was painted on a high ceiling, the few wisps of cloud unmoving.
“Nice magic trick,” I told the Time Traveller, sinking to the ground next to Katie. “I mean, how you got all of these rooms and passages and all this outdoors inside such a little box.”
For a moment I thought he was going to choke on his apple, but finally he swallowed it all down (shame) and spluttered, “It is not magic. How dare you? It’s science. Magic? Magic!” He looked at Katie, urging her to join him in his incredulity.
Instead she just looked at him, one eyebrow slightly raised, and said, “So how does it work, then?” She took another bite of apple, chewing slowly, holding the Time Traveller’s gaze.
For a moment it looked like the Time Traveller was having problems swallowing again, but then he cleared his throat and put on his explaining voice. He launched into a speech (obviously either pre-rehearsed or frequently repeated) about multi-planar geography and Möbius topographies and how the standard three dimensions were just a delusion suffered by the lower species and how he was well above that kind of thing. I can’t remember it word for word — I started to drift off somewhere in the middle — but that’s the gist of it.
“You see?” he finished, grinning smugly. And then he jumped up and took hold of Katie’s hand (again) and pulled her to her feet. “Enough of this lying around,” he shouted. “It’s time to go somewhere. Or somewhen.” And we were running again, back to the Time Traveller’s front room. (Or control room, or flight deck, or whatever you want to call it.)
“Where to, Katie?” he shouted as he ran round and around, working the controls, pushing this and pulling that and spinning the other. Levers, switches, knobs and valves. I’m not sure I ever believed he really knew what he was doing, flying that thing. “Any where in space. Any when in time. You decide.”
“Really anywhere?” I tried to ask him, but he shushed me. “Her. Not you. Her.”
“How about — “ began Katie.
“ — midsummer’s day on Tantric 12,” finished the Time Traveller. “With the three suns burning bright overhead and the klaboom blossom in full klabloom. Perfect! An excellent choice, Katie. I can see that travelling with you is going to be a lot of fun.”
So we went to see the thing with the suns and the blossoms, and the Time Traveller took Katie out walking while I stayed and guarded the time machine. I only fell for that the one time, and Katie was furious when she found out, making the Time Traveller promise never to try something like that again. And then we went to a load of other places.
Some of them were alien worlds. The sky would be green or red or some other odd colour and there would be more than one sun or more than one moon, and strange things that weren’t birds would fly past overhead. We visited worlds which were made entirely of sand, or snow, or enormous trees a hundred miles tall. We went swimming off the backs of sea creatures the size of islands (I stayed back and looked after the towels). We met people who were blue or purple and had fours arms or three heads. We met plants that could think and talk like people, and robots who could love and write poetry. But wherever we went it seemed like we always stepped into a war zone. Until the Time Traveller straightened them out and made them all friends again, ironing out blood feuds with a wave of his wand and a cliche-ridden speech. He’d be at his smuggest for days after.
We also went to Earth a lot. (A very lot, now I think about it.) Different countries, different times. These trips could easily have been the more interesting ones, but the Time Traveller kept spoiling them by telling us the ending.
“Don’t tell us,” pleaded Katie. We were sat in a theatre, the gaslights already dimming, about to watch a play.
“My lips are sealed,” said the Time Traveller. And then a moment later he added, “All I will say is, keep your eye on the President in the private box up there.”
And then Katie got captured.
“Where’s Katie?” I asked, as soon as the Time Traveller came running back into the time machine and I saw that she wasn’t with him.
“She’s been captured,” said the Time Traveller. “Now shut up and let me think.”
“Captured? By who?”
“By the Caledonians,” says the Time Traveller. “And didn’t I tell you to shut up?”
I knew straight away that this was bad, so bad that a part of my brain just sort of shut down and all I could do was sit, slumping down against a wall. I’ve never been much good in an emergency. I’ve never had to be. There’s always been Katie. She’s great in an emergency. If she was there, she’d know exactly what to do. Only she wasn’t there, because she’d been captured.
“Hey, don’t worry, little man,” called the Time Traveller, sparing me a quick glance and a few words, busy fiddling and twiddling. “I’m going to get her back.”
And all I could think of is how I wouldn’t have let Katie get captured in the first place.
Because I’ve fought for Katie in the past. Not often — Katie doesn’t need much looking after, it’s usually her looking after me — but more than once. Like the time she spent all of lunch break building a castle in the sand pit, and then Stephen Morris went and kicked it in. Well, I kicked him in, back. They called my parents and made me sit outside the Head’s office every playtime for a month after that, but nobody messed with Katie again. She used to creep in and sit with me, holding my hand while I did my time.
Or there was that professor in her last year at uni, the one running her journalism class, the one who told her that she’d be sure to get a good grade if she just went on assignment with him to Brighton one weekend. I could’ve killed him. Would’ve done if Katie hadn’t stopped me, stood with her back to the front door, refusing to move until I’d calmed down. She said to trust her to sort it out in her own way. So I did, and she did. She sorted him out the smart way, turned it into a story for the student rag that got picked up by the local paper. She got the professor kicked out, divorced, the works.
You see, I knew Katie before. I knew her before she had those legs or that smile. I knew her when her hair was bright orange and the freckles on her face made her look like a cartoon character. I knew her when she was too shy to speak up in class, let alone face up to someone like Mrs Kingston. Sometimes I think we were always together. It feels that way. I can’t remember a time without her, not clearly. I knew her before the boys at uni and the guys in their flash motors and long long before the Time Traveller.
I don’t want to say that I saw her first, but I did. First day of primary school. She was stood by the gates, looking out of them like they were prison bars, tears running down her face.
“My mummy’s gone.”
“So’s mine. But she said she’d be back for me later.”
She brightened up a bit at this. “Do you think my mummy’ll be back for me?”
“Yes,” I told her. “And if she doesn’t you can come and live with us.”
That’s how it started, me and Katie. Almost eighteen years now. Proper years. Straight time. Day after day, week after week, none of this jumping around all over the place, in the future one day and the past the next.
I was going to tell the Time Traveller this, to try and make him understand how much Katie meant to me, what I would do to get her back, to try and make him realise that he had to let me help, when it hit me: I couldn’t tell him. Because it’s gone far past not trusting him. Because I knew that if I did, it would be him stepping out of his time machine and stopping Stephen Morris from kicking in the sand castle. It would be him stood there at the school gates, telling Katie everything was going to be alright. And then it would be him and Katie.
I pulled myself together and stood up, and asked the Time Traveller, with a confidence I didn’t really posses, “So how are we going to rescue Katie?”
“I have a plan which is both brilliant in its simplicity yet breathtaking in its intricate complexity. Like a pocket watch. Only cooler.”
“I’m going to help.”
“Of course you are, Gav.”
“Yes. Whatever. You have a pivotal role to play in all this.”
“Hold this lever down.”
“Now, this is the vitally important bit. Are you listening?”
“Yes,” I said. I was listening. I was also thinking about punching him on his nose, although I didn’t because I knew that wouldn’t help rescue Katie.
“Good. What I need you to do is hold that lever like that until I get back with Katie.” And he ran down the little flight of steps and out of the doors before I could say anything.
The Time Traveller rescued Katie. It took about an hour, and for that entire time I stood, holding down that little brass lever and wondering exactly what kind of idiot I was. But I couldn’t risk letting go, because you never knew.
I spent that entire time alone with my thoughts, and my thoughts lingered only on Katie. I stood listening to the sounds of the time machine, humming and sighing around me, and it reminded me of our little flat and the way the pipes would gurgle and sometimes, in the middle of the night, the fridge would suddenly let out this rattling shake. Which is when it dawned on me: the time machine wasn’t just another flash motor, it was a home. The implications scared me.
I thought over the things we had seen, the places we had been during the last few months. (Only months? It felt longer. How do you measure time in a time machine?) I thought of rainbow meteor showers and magenta skies filled with a dozen rose-pink crescent moons. I thought of watching Henry the Eighth joust and hearing Keats recite something with the ink still wet on it. I tried to remember the first date Katie and I had been on, and realised I couldn’t. She and I had just happened. We’d been together, friends, for ever. I knew there must have been a first time we held hands on the walk home from school, a first movie where I’d put my arm around her and she’d rested her head on my shoulder, but I couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t remember. I started to panic. It felt like my memories were blank. I had a crazy notion that I would take the time machine and go back to those days, watch the younger us, study the arc of our love from afar —
And then the Time Traveller returned with Katie. They were laughing together, now that she was safe, laughing over another fabulous shared adventure.
Another day, another planet.
“Right. Here we are,” said the Time Traveller.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” said Katie, disappearing down a corridor.
“Just you and me, then.”
I stepped out of the time machine onto the threadbare grass of the playing field just around the corner from our flat. It was early morning, a thin mist still hanging above the ground. It couldn’t be very long after the day we first met the Time Traveller, either, I guessed, looking at the abandoned cars. That blue Audi had been fresh the night we’d left for the Underground and Mrs Kingston, and it still had most of its windows and all of its seats.
“Why are we here?” I asked. “Taking Katie to visit her mum?”
“Well, you see, the thing is, Gloop — “
“George. And that isn’t even a real name.”
“Of course it is. Been the most popular third-sex’s name in the Dodecagon Cluster for the past eight millennia. There are literally billions of Gloops. But that’s neither here nor there. I thought that while we had this time alone, just the two of us lads, we might have a little chat about a rather tricky subject.”
“She’s my girlfriend,” I told him, knowing from the ache deep down in my stomach, from the chill that had nothing to do with the early morning and the mist, exactly where this was going.
“Ah, well,” said the Time Traveller. “Thing is, there just isn’t room for all three of us in the time machine. It’s getting a bit cramped.”
“There’s hundreds of rooms. And anyway, I though you said it had lots of planes or something.”
“It follows its own rather idiosyncratic and abstract concept of multi-planar geography, yes, that much is true, but... well, there are times when there simply aren’t enough dimensions to hold all of — I say, what have you got there?”
“It’s a laser,” I told him. “I picked it up on that planet with the little blue people.”
“Don’t be stupid. The Misnomions? They’re centuries past crude coherent-light weapons. That’s not a laser, it’s more likely to be some kind of proton/anti-proton — ”
“Whatever,” I said, and pulled the trigger.
But of course the bastard wouldn’t even die properly.