Testing Phase

(Timeline – around 3 years before Time Waits)

Mariam Ashraf liked to think she was a calm and tolerant person. Very few people got her riled up and she considered herself very patient but sometimes, her friend and partner made it very difficult not to grab him by the neck and shake some sense into him.

It didn’t matter that he was a genius and that he had managed to build a gate that let people time travel. He was still very good at keeping his head up his bum when it came to his work.

“No.”

Tom Sanders raised his eyebrows. “No?” he echoed. “I’m not asking permission.”

“I didn’t say you were,” she retorted, shutting down her screen. “I’m saying no, you’re not going through that gate. Not when Ben still needs you here.”

A muscle twitched in Tom’s cheek and she knew she’d spoken harshly, but when it came to his damned gates, Tom had a blind spot. That blind spot had cost him his wife two years earlier and instead of making him cautious, it made him worse.

No. That was unfair. Olivia Sanders was as much to blame for it as Tom.

The gates weren’t stable yet and they’d both known it, but they’d wanted to see that all their years of work weren’t for nothing. She’d decided to go through and he hadn’t stopped her. A single step through, ten seconds in the past, and a single step back. That was their plan. Only they hadn’t taken into account the power differential. The circuits had blown two seconds in and the gate had shut down. The hard drives were corrupted and the coordinates with them. 

Tom blamed himself and was hellbent on finding her.

Whenever his son was absent – at his grandmother’s or nursery – Tom lived and breathed the gate tech. He spent so much time down in his basement laboratory that he seemed to get paler every time Mariam saw him, his sandy hair threaded with grey, and from the looks of it, he hadn’t changed his clothes for days.

Mariam couldn’t blame him.

His only way to find get back to Olivia was to keep on developing the gates until he could pinpoint where she had ended up. He’d tried as far as he could on his own, but he was smart enough to know when he needed help. He’d turned to Mariam as both an old friend and someone who could code as well as Olivia. And, she thought wryly, someone who knew Tom well enough to know that he hadn’t gone stark, raving mad.

Unfortunately, it also meant she was also the only one there when he made stupid decisions about what he should and shouldn’t do.

“I’m not going back in time,” he said shortly. “Not– it isn’t–” He pushed his fingers through his hair. “Look, if we’re going to make sure this thing is fully operational and can marketed for use in a professional capacity, we need to know the cause and effect on an individual.”

Mariam reluctantly nodded. They knew the gate worked. It had taken a lot of time to pin down temporal coordinates, but they’d done it. They’d even managed to push a tiny camera through and get some startlingly clear photographs of London in 1666. Of course, big parts of the city were on fire at the time, but it was strong evidence.

It also definitely worked on living tissue. Tom’s wife had confirmed that before the gate shorted out and she was lost. Since then, Tom had tweaked and adjusted everything about it until it could hit the geographical and temporal coordinates with pinpoint precision, logging every location it connected to.

“What will this be testing?”

Tom’s tense features smoothed out in relief. “The effect of crossing your own timeline. If people are going to travel with these things, we need to know if they can go back during their own lifetime.”

It made sense and she nodded. “So you’ll jump back?” She frowned. “But wouldn’t that mean you’d remember it if you do it?”

He laughed. It was rare to get that reaction out of him anymore. “I’m going to do it in a week’s time, so I know it’s coming and I can record the results from both ends.”

“And you want a witness to monitor any effects that you might not notice?” she guessed.

Once, she would have called his expression guileless. “If you don’t mind.”

“If I say no, you’re going to do it anyway, aren’t you?”

When he smiled, there was a flash of the man she had first met at university all those years ago. “Science,” he said, as if that wasn’t his excuse for everything.

Mariam sighed. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”

Tom nodded. “It’s been said. Usually by you.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know why I still put up with you.”

He made a face as he reopened her screen. “Because you’re as curious as a cat and you want to see where this goes.”

She tried to glare at him reproachfully, but they both knew he was right. No one had ever produced anything like it before and she knew she couldn’t step back, even if logically, it was the sensible decision. “So when will I be stuck with two of you?”

He grinned. “If you’re giving me the go-ahead and I’ve got the temporal calibration right, any second now.”

“If?”

He nodded hopefully, eyes wide.

Mariam sighed, rolling her own eyes. “Fine. On your head be it.”

Tom checked his watch. “So we’ll say twelve forty-three on October sixth…”

There was a strange feeling in the air, like a powerful vacuum pulling on them for a split second, and a crackle of light split the air. Mariam recoiled, startled, staring as the light coalesced into a rectangular shape. A door.

“Yes!” Tom crowed in delight. “It worked.”

Mariam blinked as a second Tom emerged from the doorway. He was dressed in identical clothes to the Tom who was standing a foot away from her, which wasn’t a shock since he seemed to have forgotten what laundry was. Only this Tom looked haggard and whey-faced, his hair plastered to his skin with sweat. “Tom?”

The second Tom – future Tom? – didn’t look at her. His eyes were fixed on current Tom as if he was waiting for something. “Don’t do this,” he warned as the Tom beside her gave a strangled gasp and grabbed at his chest.

“What did you–?” Mariam cried out as she grabbed at the Tom beside her, but the other one threw himself backwards through the gate. The light blinked out so suddenly that it took her a second to realise Tom was falling and she barely managed to stop him knocking his head on the floor.

“Tom?” She swatted his cheek, but he was getting paler by the second, and her heart felt twisted when she searched for his pulse. There was nothing there and he was inert and now she looked, he wasn’t breathing and…

Right, right, right.

First aid.

She dragged him onto his back, tilting his chin, and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, trying to remember how many breaths to pumps of the heart were needed. Or had that changed now? She couldn’t remember. School was a long time back.

She breathed for him again. Heart. Air. Heart.

After a few seconds, he took a gasping breath and she sank back on her heels, pressing her hands to her face. He was breathing. He would live. He was fine. He had to be fine.

Her cheeks were wet against her palms and she took a shaky breath.

“You idiot,” she whispered, lowering one hand to smack him on the chest.

It took a few more minutes before his eyes twitched open. “Shit,” he rasped.

“You think?” She reached out to help him sit up, trying to ignore how much her hands were shaking as she pulled him upright. He was trembling too. “You can’t do the test. It almost killed you.”

He swayed where he sat, his face grey and pale. “Have to.”

Mariam squeezed his arm hard. “No. We know now. You can’t do it. I can’t watch you do this to yourself.”

His pupils were contracted to pinpoints as he stared at her. “No,” he agreed hoarsely. “Can’t ask you to do that.” He rubbed tentatively at his chest. “That– I didn’t expect it.” He swallowed hard, taking a laboured breath. “Thank you. Saved my life.”

Her voice caught in her throat, words out the window. All she could do was throw her arm around his shoulder and squeeze his stupid body as tightly as she could. For a long time, they just sat there, Tom leaning into her. His head fell to rest on her shoulder and she pressed her cheek against his hair. Stupid, stupid, stubborn, brilliant man.

“M?” He sounded as if he’d been gargling razors.

“Hm?” She tilted her head to peer down at him.

“Tea, please?”

She nodded at once. Something to do was good. Focussing on a task at hand. “You’ll be all right on your own?”

He sat up from her and nodded. “Yeah.” With visible effort, he pushed himself to his knees, then to his feet, tottering to sit on the stool by the desk. “Only a heart attack.” There was a hint of a smile on his face. “Had worse.”

She drew air between her clenched teeth. “You make it very tempting to strangle you.” She got up, dusting her trousers with her palms. “I’ll get the tea, but I’m going to call an ambulance as well. You were almost dead. You’re getting checked over.”

“Fair,” he agreed. He was leaning heavily on the desk. “Tea first. Then ambulance.” He motioned in the direction of the stairs that led up into the ground level of the house. “And stairs.”

Mariam pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to calm herself. Getting angry with him wouldn’t help right now. “You can wait down here. They can carry you up.”

“My lab.” He took a deep breath and blew it out. “Private.” He tilted his head in the direction of the gate room. “Can’t know about that. For Olivia’s sake.”

“For God’s sake, Tom!” She threw up her hands. “They won’t care!” He opened his mouth to protest, but she shook her head to stop him wasting what energy he had. “I know. I know. Top secret. Confidential. All that. I know.” She sighed, rubbing her forehead. “I’ll find something to block the door while we wait for them. You just stay put, okay?”

He looked so pathetically grateful it almost broke her heart.

Upstairs, she walked on autopilot towards the open-plan kitchen. The sun was shining through the windows, such a warm and welcoming space compared to the cold, sterile basement. Almost like another world, but this one was for the living.

The living.

Almost not.

Her heart was thundering too fast and her stomach was in knots. Even her legs seemed to be against her and she had to sit down just for a moment, at the table. Too close for comfort, that. He’d been so still and pale. She pressed her hand to her shivering lips. Olivia was gone, but if Tom were gone too…

No more risks. He wasn’t about to slow down, but she at least could put her foot down and make sure he didn’t do anything so reckless again.

She got up stiffly and touched the hub for the folio, putting a call through for an ambulance. It would take time to get to them. Tom liked his privacy, his house in the middle of nowhere, which was both a blessing and a curse.

It took her a few minutes to find where he’d stashed his teabags again – brilliant, but definitely not a man who cared about an organised kitchen – while the kettle boiled. It was just starting to bubble when the power light flickered on and off rapidly.

Mariam frowned as she reached for a pair of mugs. Tom’s house was off-grid. He had solar panels fitted and a generator and generally ran the place purely under its own power. Power surges were rare. They only happened if too much…

One of the mugs slipped from her hand, smashing on the floor.

“Tom!” she roared, whirling around and running for the lab.

Even before she got down the stairs, she could hear the hum and crackle of the gate. Her legs were shaking so much that she almost fell down the stairs, bracing a hand on the wall.

“Stupid, obstinate, pig-headed idiot…” she hissed as she stumbled through the main lab towards the gate room. It was blindingly bright, flooded with white light, and she raised a hand to shield her eyes, squinting against the glow.

In a blink, it went dark.

She could hear Tom’s ragged breathing before she could see him, the afterimage of the gate leaving spots of purple on her vision.

“You,” she growled, “fucking arsehole.”

“Had to.” He was breathing hard, but not as hard as she was. He was visible now, a dark outline framed against the white wall by the metal of the gate. Not in focus, but clear enough for her to take three steps forward and slap him resoundingly across the face.

“You didn’t have to!” It felt like her tongue was in knots, tripping up on every word. “Have to? For God’s sake, you almost die so you decide to do it again?”

“M–”

“Don’t you ‘M’ me, you complete bastard!” Her voice cracked and her vision was blurring again. “I can’t stand by and watch you– I’m not–” She covered her face, trying to gather herself.

“M…” He reached out, touched her arms. “Christ, M…”

She tried to shove him away, but ended up swaying into him, grabbing handfuls of his shirt and the tears just wouldn’t stop. He patted her back and shoulders, humming and rocking her like he’d do with his son, until the sobs trailed into damp hiccups.

“I had to,” he said quietly, before she could pull away, “because I had before.”

She opened her mouth to protest, then closed it, frowning. “But if you went back only because you knew you had already gone back… past you saw present you as future you…”

“A loop.” He took a shuddering breath, reminding her that he’d had a heart attack not even twenty minutes earlier.

“Sit down,” she ordered, helping him through to the lab and to the stool again. She looked him over and while he was still pale, he definitely didn’t look as bad as he had. “Huh.”

Tom made an inquiring sound.

“You didn’t have another heart attack.”

He stared at her, his brow creasing. “I didn’t, did I?” He grinned suddenly. “See? We learned something.”

She felt she was more than a little justified in smacking him across the head.

Tom made a face, wincing. “It’s true! I changed my own future by changing a single interaction in my past. We didn’t know it would work like that before. And making a loop! And we found out that you can’t be in the same timeline as yourself but that it only affects one of you if you are.”

“And that you have the self-preservation instincts of an ice cube in a volcano,” she retorted.

Tom waved a hand. “We knew that.” He took a deeper breath. “Jesus… this is a lot more data to work with.” His eyes widened suddenly. “Olivia!”

“What about her?”

“If something changes in the past, it affects the future, so if she finds some way to leave a message for us–”

“We might be able to find her?” Mariam’s heart thumped. “It’s a long shot.”

“It’s more than we had an hour ago,” he retorted, that horribly familiar manic gleam back in his eyes.

Mariam sighed. Another circuit within the recurring cycle of obsession that was Tom’s life. “Before you let your brain go running off after that train of thought, we need to sit down and have a serious talk.”

He blinked owlishly at her. “About what?”

“About Ben.” She met his eyes. “About what happens to him if you do something as stupid as this again and I’m not around to get you back on your feet. Your mum isn’t as young as she used to be and Olivia’s family are long gone. You’re all he has.”

He sagged under her hand, shoulders slumping. “Ben,” he echoed. “Shit. I’m awful at this being a dad thing.”

“Tom–”

“No.” He held up a hand. “I am. Jesus.” He took a shuddering breath. “You’re right.” He glanced over towards the gate room. “No more jumps or trials. I’ve got new information. That’ll do for now. Plenty to work from.”

As much as she wanted to believe him, past experience suggested it wouldn’t last.

“We can talk about it later,” she said. “Now, do you want to try the stairs?”

He squinted at her. “Didn’t you say they could carry me?”

“Yes, but that was before you managed to do a time jump.” She slipped her shoulder under his arm. “Anyway, I don’t have time to find something to hide the doorway and I’m not big enough to stand in the way and block it.”

He laughed faintly. “Could hold up a bedsheet…”

She snorted, hoisting him to his feet. “Because that’s not at all suspicious.”

“Do I have to?” He cast a doubtful look at the stairs.

“It’s only ten steps, you baby.”

He was leaning more heavily on her as they made their way up the staircase, taking two careful steps for every stair. Once or twice she paused, letting him catch his breath, then continued up with him, grateful that wrangling two hyperactive sons under four had given her upper body strength she’d never had before.

“M?”

“Yes?”

His arm tightened around her shoulder. “Thank you.”