Chapter 1: I live in the future
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Niall is running. He strains his ears to hear something more than the slap of trainers on the pavement and the harsh pants of his breath, but there's nothing, no clue to tell him where they are. He ducks around a skip and into another alley, this one rutted with holes in the concrete and gathering a fine collection of midges hovering just above the oil-slicked surface of the standing water. It smells of excrement and rotting chips, but there are no cameras that he can see, which means he finally has a choice.
Keep running or hide?
He knows he only has perhaps fifteen seconds to make the decision. The men who are chasing him will know he's gone into the alley, so he can't stay here. But if he goes right at the end of the alley that's rapidly approaching, he can slip down to the docks, maybe smuggle himself onto a freighter and get the hell out of here. He can make his way to the continent, become a refugee there, and probably he'll be, if not forgotten, at least ignored.
If he goes left, there's a warren of streets, mostly too narrow and dark for the cameras. He can hide there, wait until nightfall, and then make his way into Soho, blending in with the tourists until he finds someone he can trust. So far there hasn't been panic in the streets, so he figures there won't be a curfew. Not until tomorrow. Not until the coup becomes public. Once that happens, they'll crack down on transportation. He won't be able to escape, and they won't give up hunting him down until they know he's dead or out of the country. But if he's here, maybe he can fight.
Niall turns left. The alley opens into a narrow street lined with townhouses, and he crosses it quickly, finding his way into another alley, this one marginally cleaner, and then another, and another, until he's made so many turnings he doesn't know exactly where he is. He's really short of breath now, used to running some but not nearly this much. Another corner, and then he sees it - a door hanging open on the side of an old warehouse. Before he can really think about it he's inside, picking his way among the rusting machinery. There's a hollow space behind a pile of wooden crates that's perfect, and he wedges himself in, then pulls one of the crates over to hide behind. Once he's hidden, he breathes deeply, and tries to calm the rapid beating of his heart. For a moment, there's no sound except the normal noise of the city several streets away.
Maybe I've lost them already.
But then he hears movement, the rapid thumping of boot soles on concrete, the squawk of a radio. They're coming closer, and he holds his breath as the sounds approach. There's the murmur of a voice close by, and then everything moves off around a corner and the noises fade.
He counts to thirty before he lets himself breathe out.
Christ, that was close. If Dad had seen the way-- He cuts off the thought, but it's too late. He can't ignore it now, can't go on pretending this morning hasn't happened.
His father is dead. His father is dead. Slowly, silently, Niall begins to cry.
Chapter 2: In my prewar apartment
Stig wakes in the dark of his bedroom, face wet. It isn't the first time this has happened, but he hadn't expected to have that particular dream, not now. He hadn't thought the memory would be so vivid, still, after all these years.
Father, he thinks longingly, remembering gruff-voiced comfort, a strong arm slung across his shoulders. Then he puffs out a breath, shakes himself, and rolls over to look at the time. Hell, I'm going to have to see him in just a couple of hours.
There doesn't seem any point in trying to go back to sleep, not when he's fifteen minutes from needing to get up anyway. Instead, Stig throws the sheets back and heads for the shower. He retracts his electronics into their sockets, flips the spray on hot, and steps in, grateful for the way the water easily removes the remnants of tears from his cheeks. After a moment he turns sideways a little, because the showerhead points to the southwest, and reaches for the bottle of shampoo.
He's always liked the routine of mornings – shower (perfunctory), attempt to tame his hair so that it doesn't look like he has an enraged badger on his head (futile), eat a bowl of porridge (plain), and drink a cup of coffee (sugar, no milk). He's often thought that he ought to rebel against it, having spent so many mornings in a world where routine was the only option and deviation resulted in being beaten, but there's something soothing about letting his body take over his movements, something peaceful about not having to choose consciously what to do next.
Today, though, despite the routine, he can't seem to settle. The dream stays in the back of his mind as he moves through the flat, pulling on worn jeans and a t-shirt, booting up his computer to check the weather and the stock market. He's running early this morning so he can afford to do it the old-fashioned way, index finger sliding across the touch pad, then typing, then thumb tapping the button to make his morning trades.
It's little enough work; he'd spent some time, early on, figuring out the maximum amounts he could trade without affecting the market unduly and then planning his investments to take maximum advantage of the stocks he knew were going to rise. After years of working on weapons research this sort of calculation was easy.
Today's prices all match his mental list of what the numbers should be (the stock price data has turned out to be some of the best information he'd ever stolen, though at the time he hadn't known what he would do with it). Not even a fraction of a penny is off, and yet Stig's hands hover for a long moment over the keyboard. Something doesn't seem right.
Don't be ridiculous, he tells himself, and clicks the button. Then his eyes flicker to the clock and he slides out of the chair, grabbing up a jacket and his iPod on his way out the door.
The drive down to Dunsfold is normal, too, the sun coming up slowly – just high enough at first to send dancing slivers of light between the overhanging branches of Buggery Woods, then as Stig reaches the proper countryside creeping higher still to illuminate sleeping villages, broad green fields, and the occasional sheep. Stig likes the countryside, always has. London may mean home, but the country means freedom, idyllic days of childhood spent fishing or climbing trees or trying to ride the donkeys.
Yet with every mile Stig's shoulders get tighter and tighter. He can't shake the feeling that something is wrong, maybe catastrophically wrong.
That stupid dream. Focus, Stiggy, he thinks, trying to concentrate on the road. Be a man. But the words come out in his father's voice, and in a flash he's back there, watching his father spit invective at the man with the gun, watching the barrel of the pistol crack across his father's face. He takes a deep, shuddering breath and forces the memories aside. No time for this today. I have a job to do.
By the time he gets to the track his steady breathing has calmed him enough that he can smile politely as the security guard waves him through into the car park. He parks his Audi next to James' Panda and wanders into the portakabin, where the rest of the team is gathering.
Andy and Richard look up from some glossy leaflet. "'Lo, Stig," says Richard. James turns from the counter and gives Stig a smile of greeting, which makes his whole stomach feel suddenly warm.
"Morning, Rob," James says. Stig smiles awkwardly back, weirdly pleased as always at the way James takes care to call him by his real name (or what James thinks is his real name, anyway). It's not that he minds being called Stig – in fact, it's the way he thinks of himself most of the time, the name having become a sort of talisman that he'd clung to during the worst parts of his past. But he likes the idea that James thinks of him as person, not a faceless archetypical figure, even if some of the pleasure is definitely wishful thinking.
Stop it, he tells himself. He crosses to the sofa and sits next to Andy, angling his hips a little to face northwards, and peers over Andy's shoulder to see what they're looking at.
"Promo sheets for the new Exige S," Andy says.
"Sweet!" says Stig, and Andy laughs, then hands the sheet over. Stig scans it, eyes automatically seeking out the relevant numbers. "Hmm," he says. "Four point one seconds?"
"You think it won't do that?" asks Andy.
"Oh, it will for me," Stig says. "But I'm less confident for when you're going to have Jeremy testing it on camera."
Richard looks at him curiously. "Straight line? What makes you think you can do better than Mister 'Powerrrrrrrrr'?"
Stig smirks. "Some say his feet are made of dubnium," he says, in his most mysterious voice. There's a small snort from across the room.
"Some say he's an utter pillock," says Richard, and Stig salutes him with two fingers. "And anyway, what the hell is dubnium?" Richard continues.
"Did you pay any attention at school, Hammond?" says James. "It's a heavy element."
Stig smiles and hands the promo sheet back to Andy. A moment later James sits in the chair across from him and passes over a mug of tea. Stig sips it, winces at the heat, and begins to blow across the top to cool it. He doesn't really like tea all that much – he prefers coffee – but he can't help taking the excuse to brush his fingers across James' as he takes the cup.
I'm a stupid arse.
The door bangs open, and Jeremy comes in, dumping the contents of his pockets onto the table by the door.
"Morning," he says, and then, "Good lord, Stiggy, don't they have combs on your planet? It looks like a cat coughed something up on you."
Stig purses his lips and doesn't say "I inherited this from you," but he thinks it very hard. Instead he says, "At least I haven't got a fairy ring growing on my head."
James, Richard, and Andy all start to laugh, and Jeremy gives them all a sour look as he crosses the room. "I'll have you for that," he says, and whacks Stig across the back of the head before falling into the chair next to James with a loud "oof" of breath. "What are we looking at?"
"Spec for the new Exige S," says Richard, handing a sheet over. "Stig says he doesn't think you can get it to do the naught to sixty time."
"Oh, ta, Hammond," Stig says. "Now he really is going to have me killed."
Jeremy attempts to look innocent. "I wouldn't really try to kill you." Then he spoils it by saying, "At least, not now that you're expecting it."
"You'd be the worst assassin ever," says James. "You would fail at stealth in every way imaginable." Richard cackles at that. Jeremy looks as if he's about to protest, but then the corners of his mouth turn upwards.
"Yeah, but I'd have a really big gun."
This segues into an argument about whether it's better to be an old-fashioned ninja assassin, or a modern-day, technologically-equipped assassin. Jeremy votes for technology, because he likes exploding things, whereas James votes for ninjas on a purely stylistic basis. Richard wavers, but eventually sides with James, and in the ensuing shouting match, Stig takes the opportunity to escape into the other room and change into his racing suit.
When he comes back, Andy has gone, but the argument is still going on.
"Being a ninja takes, you know, discipline," Richard says. "But any old idiot can blow someone else up."
"I know," Jeremy says. "That's what I like about explosives!"
Stig chokes back a laugh, then tucks his helmet under his arm and leans against the wall to watch them. He never knows what to feel in moments like this. On the one hand, he feels very lucky to get to know Jeremy as something of a friend, as an adult, uncensored. On the other hand, of course, he misses having Jeremy as the superhero of his life, the all-powerful, unquestioningly supportive figure he remembers from childhood.
He can't really remember the rest of his family, can't really remember the fire that killed them when he was only a year old. But he knows by heart his father's solemn speech, given every April on the anniversary of their deaths, and if he closes his eyes he can still see his father's face on those days, laid bare with grief. He knows his father in joy, too, the way Jeremy's eyes crinkle up when he's genuinely amused, the way he sometimes laughs so hard he chokes on his own spit.
But he hadn't, until he came here, known about his father's tendency to tell filthy jokes. He hadn't known about Jeremy's ability to make friends out of the most unlikely people, himself included. He hadn't seen Jeremy in his element, tossing ideas back and forth with Wilman or writing a script with James or setting things on fire with Richard. And he'd never seen his father drive except on the telly, never seen the passion and pure delight that the experience brings him.
Most of the time, Stig tries to pretend they're two separate people who just happen to look very similar. It means he's less likely to slip up and admit to knowing something he shouldn't, and if it means he's a little lonelier than he might be, well, he's used to that.
Today it's harder than usual, though, the nightmare causing memories of desperate sorrow and fear to come flooding back. He's a little ashamed to admit it, but what Stig wants more than anything right now is a hug.
Sure you weren't born a girl, Stiggy? he thinks sarcastically.
Across the room, Jeremy starts flicking paperclips across the coffee table into Richard's lap. James runs a hand through his hair, exasperated, before looking up to meet Stig's gaze and rolling his eyes. Stig gives him a sympathetic grin and a shrug, but inside his heart starts to tick a little faster.
And that's another stupid thing you can't have, he thinks.
Andy comes back in, now with his director's hat firmly on. "All right, children. You three, into the hangar. Stig, Phil's ready to film the lap with the Merc."
"All hail emperor Wilman," Jeremy says, but he gets up. Stig pulls his helmet on and follows Andy outside to the track.
Outside, Andy hands him off to Phil, who jerks his head in the direction of the car without interrupting the flow of his lecture about camera angles.
Stig gets on with Phil, though he knows that not everyone on the crew does. Mainly this is because Phil is decidedly no-nonsense and isn't fond of cocking about. Stig's heard more than one person wondering how he even got the job, given that Jeremy helped do the hiring, and Jeremy's made it abundantly clear that he thinks Phil is a humorless cretin. But Stig knows that Phil is a very good director, harshness aside, and anyway Stig had long ago learned how to buckle down and get a job done. It helps that Phil can't actually electrocute anyone when he's angry, which makes him decidedly less frightening than some of the people Stig has worked for in the past.
While the crew gets set up, Stig takes the Merc on a slow practice lap, and then another, just getting a feel for the handling. Then he strips off his gloves and lets the bioplastic peel from his fingertips, exposing the electronics underneath. He slips the ends of the wiring into the ignition and settles them into the brain of the car, fiddling with settings and whatever he can adjust to make it faster, more responsive. He starts the lap again, this time at full speed, feeling the way the data goes from steering to engine to wheels and back, making more adjustments. He's done this course so many times that he almost doesn't have to think consciously about where he's going, mind more on the intricacies of bits travelling back and forth than on the track itself.
It's on the third time around, blasting across the follow-through, when it happens. Abruptly his skin crawls, like a cold breath has just brushed across the back of his neck. At the same time, behind the wall of tires, there's a shimmer in the air, and then a man appears, a sharp silhouette against the clear blue of the sky. Stig jerks in surprise and the Merc shudders, responding to his sudden surge of adrenalin. A fraction of a second later he's lost control completely, and his fingers are yanked from the ignition as the car twists and then spins out, tires squealing across the surface of the runway. Pain shoots up his right arm, and he bangs the back of his head on the headrest, hard, as the car comes to a stop.
Stig unbuckles his seat belt with shaking fingers, hissing at the sting when the overheated electronics in his fingertips come in contact with cold metal. He probably ought to sit here for a moment and make sure he isn't damaged, but right now it seems more important to figure out what the hell is going on. He climbs out of the car and jogs over to the tire wall, poised, ready for a confrontation. But there's nothing out of the ordinary – no mysterious man, no refractive distortion in the air – nothing to indicate that what he'd seen had been real and not a hallucination.
I know what I saw, Stig thinks stubbornly, but he's already starting to doubt himself. Maybe…
Before he can come up with an explanation he's suddenly surrounded by people, and Stig realizes that this is the first time in years he's ruined a lap. He retracts his electronics on instinct, then reaches up to flip open his visor.
"Fine, I'm fine," he says, holding up a hand to stave off their questions. "Sorry, fucked that up, didn't I? Sorry."
One of the paramedics reaches for his helmet, but Stig takes a giant step back. "I'm fine," he says, this time more forcefully. "Just got distracted." The paramedic frowns but doesn't reach for him again, so Stig turns his attention to Nigel, the mechanic, who's already on his back sliding underneath the car. "Did I break anything?"
"Doesn't look like it," Nigel says, voice muffled. Stig breathes out a sigh of relief. Nigel slides back out, levers himself to his feet, and then climbs in to punch buttons on the dashboard. "All sorts of warning lights, though. Better run a quick diagnostic."
Phil says, "Let's wheel it back over, boys," and gives Stig a look that says, very clearly, 'Get your shit together.' Stig nods, and walks shakily behind the car as it's pushed back around the track to the hangar. When they get there, he sags into one of the cheap plastic chairs, shifting it slightly northwards, and tips his head back wearily to rest against the back of the chair.
What the hell was that? he thinks. I'd swear there was someone… But it hadn't been just someone; in the fraction of a second when he'd got a clean look, he'd recognized the shape. It was Cooper… wasn't it?
Stig ought to know that silhouette – he'd seen it on the telly, hovering behind the Prime Minister in news telecasts, and in the backs of interrogation rooms, and in the doorway of the cell that had been his home for five years. After that – after he'd escaped – he'd seen it in his nightmares, the ones where he's strapped down, where the mask full of nitrous oxide comes slowly towards his face, where he can see the lights of the lasers come on, just before he wakes, shaking, in a cold sweat.
But that knowledge is exactly why he doubts himself. Last night's dream must have freaked me out more than I'd thought. Because why would Cooper come here, even if he was after me? Why wouldn't he just send one of his thugs? I'm just paranoid.
He sits up, shifting in the chair, then winces again at his tender fingertips. Shit. He crosses to the toilet and locks the door, then hefts off the helmet before peeling back the bioplastic and lifting his hand to the fluorescent light. Nothing looks wrong, but he runs a quick mental diagnostic just in case, sending pulses of data down to his sockets and reading the echoes he gets in return. A fraction of a second later his stomach sinks; the bounce from his right middle finger is delayed, and after two pulses the data comes back corrupted, which means something's bent somewhere, two pieces of metal touching where they shouldn't. Shit, Stig thinks again. What am I going to do? Can't just go down to the corner shop and have this fixed, not in this decade, anyway.
Before he can even begin thinking about his options, there's a knock on the door, and then a voice says, "Stig? The Merc's ready and Phil wants you back out here."
"Be right there," Stig calls. Then he tells himself firmly, "I don't have time for this." He splashes some water on his face, then dries it with a raspy scrap of paper towel and pulls the helmet on again before unlocking the door.
When he gets outside, Phil raises an eyebrow at him, and Stig nods, then climbs back into the Merc and takes it out onto the track. He checks to make sure the cameras are off before he eases his index finger into the ignition, leaving the middle finger free for the moment, since he doesn't think he can trust any feedback it would give him. Doing this with just the one data access point will be a little more difficult, especially since he can't help watching for that shimmer in the air again as he goes round, but it won't be impossible.
The lap goes without incident, and then the next, as Stig feeds in the custom settings he'll want for the filmed version. At last he's satisfied, and he puts on his gloves again for the last lap, and flips the in-car camera on. It takes some concentration to match the timing of his programming with the circuit, and by the time Phil is satisfied with what they have on film, it's late in the morning, and Stig realizes that the weird feeling in the back of his mind has gone. He's tired, yes, and anxious, but it feels more natural, not like there's a part of him stuck on subconscious high alert.
Probably because everything that can go wrong already has, he thinks gloomily, slipping into the back of the studio for a drink of cold water before their guest star arrives.
The audience starts trickling in later that afternoon, and Stig begins to feel better. He loves being among the crowd, and when he's in costume none of them can see his face; it's like hiding in plain sight. And he'd be lying if he said he didn't enjoy showing off, at least a little bit, standing impassively while the fans flow around him, squealing and pointing and chattering excitedly.
Filming proper starts, and he hovers in the back of the hangar watching. From this distance and with his helmet on he can't really follow what's being said, but since he'd worked on the script a bit he knows roughly what each of them is saying, and he can work out the moments when one of them starts to improvise, mainly by the expressions on the faces of the others.
He loves this, too, mainly because it's an excuse to watch James, and one that comes without the worry of being caught looking. James' shoulders are broad and his legs are slim and strong. He's a good-looking man, but more than that, there's something about the way he carries himself that always catches Stig's attention – as if James has both feet planted on something more solid than the earth, as if despite the occasional black-dog moment he is, essentially, unshakable.
Stig doesn't think about what it means that he finds this so very attractive.
At the tea break, Stig takes his usual place outside by the corner of the studio, signing autographs (he's perfected the scrawl of "Stig" by now, legible enough to be clearly what it is but drawn in angular text so that it looks a bit alien) and posing for pictures with arms crossed over his chest.
He's just been approached by a woman with impressive cleavage when he feels all the hair on the back of his arms stand unpleasantly on end. He's cold now, too, even though it's a warm day and he's wearing his thick racing suit.
Something's wrong. He turns his head from side to side, scanning the crowd, but everything looks perfectly normal. The woman with the cleavage is looking oddly at him now, and Stig makes himself ignore his freak-out and lean menacingly against her shoulder while a laughing friend takes the picture. When she's gone he makes his way through the mass of people, looking for Cooper, looking for anything that seems out of place.
There isn't anything, and thirty seconds later the feeling is gone as suddenly as it had come, leaving Stig to stifle his shiver and wonder half seriously if he's going mad.
Why now? he thinks. Why this?
Stig makes himself tense his shoulders and then release them, breathing deeply in and out as he does so. I'm not crazy. I'm not. Something weird is happening. Still, he wonders if, when he sees the final edit, he'll find Cooper somewhere in the crowd, that familiar, cruel face, or if he'll only see himself, the mirrored finish of the helmet reflecting back nothing but blankness.
The weird feeling doesn't come back, though Stig spends the rest of the day on edge waiting for it. After filming is over, and Stig is finished signing autographs and having his picture taken with the fans, he ducks back into the portakabin and changes out of his racing suit so that he can head home. He leaves the suit hanging in its cubbyhole, knowing someone will be through later to take it to the dry cleaners. Normally he'd probably stick around, discussing the Lambo and helping dissect McIntyre's lap in the Liana, and sniffing at the very dodgy snacks left out for the crew. But tonight he's tired and nervy, and all too aware of the sweat making his hair stick to the back of his neck, and he doesn't want to have to pretend an enthusiasm he can't make himself feel.
He cuts through the studio on his way to the car park, just to do the bare minimum of circulating and telling everyone 'well done,' but he tries not to let himself get drawn into any conversations. It's not long before he can escape, giving Andy a little wave as he ducks out the door.
On the drive home he concentrates on the hum of the Audi's engine, the rumble of tires on the road. After the babble of audience and crew, the near silence is peaceful, but though Stig tries to just drift for a while, his mind keeps coming back to the day's events and a tight ball of fear slowly begins to grow in his stomach.
By the time he gets back to his flat he's near to twitching, so he opens a bottle of beer and settles into his favorite chair with a sigh.
"I don't want to be mad," he says aloud, then decides that talking to himself is probably not going to help with that aim. Anyone'd think I was mad already, what with the thinking I come from the future. The only reason I know I'm not is that I lived through it. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I really am a nutter.
But then, suddenly, he thinks of another possibility.
He has a dim memory of his year ten class discussing the newly discovered technology of time travel. It isn't much, but cobbled together with the facts he'd been able to learn while imprisoned it had been enough for him to use the machine, and to sabotage it, obscuring where and when he'd gone. One memory floats to the surface.
"Time affects us not just in the obvious ways, taking us from babies and aging us through to adulthood," the lecturer said, "but also in subtler ways. Our bodies know time, they know when we are in the right place or the wrong one. A body recognizes its own timeline, will recognize when that timeline is altered significantly. We know this because researchers have experienced changed time, and then had to put it back on its rightful track. The boundaries of those significances have yet to be fully defined. Some examples, however, are as follows."
Niall's best friend Bran kicked his ankle, and slid him a note under the table. Niall opened it up, and had to fight to hide a smile.
Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey
Naill rolled his eyes and scribbled beneath it before passing the note back.
The terrible bores have the phone box!
In front of him, the lecturer coughed disapprovingly. "Clarkson, have you some insightful comment for the rest of us?"
"No, sir," Niall said promptly, trying to look like he'd been paying attention.
"Hmm," said the lecturer. "In any case. Researchers have reported such symptoms as…"
That was all Stig could remember; he'd firmly tuned out the rest of it, more interested in getting a look Sarah Hadley's legs where her skirt rode up against the wood of the next desk over.
Maybe I was on the edge of changing something, he thinks. He'd known right from the beginning that he'd have to be careful not to change too much, that he'd only be able to weave himself in among the timeline, subtle, careful. He hadn't even planned to be the Stig at first, had thought he'd just get a job as one more faceless mechanic, using his skills just enough to make himself a respectable member of society. He'd planned to remain utterly unremarkable. But as the years had stretched out and the universe hadn't come crashing down, Stig supposed he'd gone a bit complacent, a bit comfortable.
Maybe that feeling, maybe that was my body telling me I was doing something wrong. But what on earth could it have been? That woman this afternoon, even if she was someone critical, all I was doing was standing there. And the lap I was doing this morning can't possibly have been that important in the grand scheme of things.
He sighs and drops the empty beer bottle onto the floor by his feet. Whatever it was, I can't do it again. I can't-- He can't change the timeline, much as he might like to. He'd give almost anything to prevent some of the things he knows are coming (the accident, the fire, the whole martial law and evil takeover of the country thing), but he can't risk fiddling himself out of existence, can't risk the possibility of a paradox that would rip the universe apart. Even if most of the disastrous consequences he thinks might result come from old science fiction films… he still can't take the chance.
Stig rubs his hands over his face. It's only eight now, but he thinks he'll just drum for a bit, or watch some telly, and turn in early. Tomorrow he's got consulting work to do, looking over the specs for Ferrari's latest prototype, and he can't afford to be as zoned out as he was today, not if he's going to actually accomplish what they pay him for.
Before he can decide what he wants to do there's a knock on the door, and Stig's head jerks up sharply. Probably just Mrs. Jenkins wanting me to watch her cat again. And anyway Cooper wouldn't knock, he thinks with a laugh. Still, he checks through the peephole before opening the door, then sucks in a surprised breath at the sight of James, hands stuffed in his pockets and hair curling around his face, waiting in the corridor. Stig tries futilely to flatten his hair for a moment, then opens the door.
"Hey," he says. "What's going on?"
"Erm, hullo," says James. They stare at each other for a moment, and then James says, "D'you mind if I…"
"Oh, right, right," says Stig, and holds the door open wider to let him in.
James steps past him, looking around the flat curiously. Stig thinks James has probably been here before, though he can't remember when so it must have been years ago, and as Stig closes the door he's suddenly, acutely aware of how sterile it looks. He's never been bothered much with decoration, since he has no pictures of his family and anyway he's always been too paranoid about being found to get really attached to anything he couldn't carry with him. He has a lot of books, and a lot of CDs. There are chairs at odd angles because the flat is off-kilter, magnetically, and there's a big window in the main room with his desk angled under it, because he'd been without natural light for too long to take it for granted. That's pretty much it.
There's one photograph, though, sitting proudly on the desk, of the five of them – Jeremy, Richard, James, Andy, and himself – on the Isle of Man, when they'd gone to film the piece on sports coupes, and James smiles when his eyes light on it.
"You didn't even take your helmet off for that one."
Stig shrugs. "I know it's me in there." Inwardly, he winces at how stupid that sounds, but James just laughs.
"Do you, erm, want something to drink?" Stig offers, stepping back into the room. "I've got beer, or coffee, or… actually that's it, really."
James laughs again, amusement crinkling up the corners of his eyes, and Stig has to tear his gaze away lest he get lost in them. His chest aches a little.
"No, thanks, I'm fine," James says. "Actually, I just came to see if you were all right."
Stig looks up again, cocking his head to one side, and leans his hip against the nearest bookcase. "Me?"
"Well." James shrugs. "Phil said you weren't yourself today and then you took off like a bat out of hell after filming. The boys were worried, and I, well…"
"Oh, that." Stig scrubs a hand through his hair, then realizes with disgust that he's probably made it stick up even more than before. "It wasn't anything. I just…" He looks out the window, watching wind race through the trees across the street in the fading light. There's a mix of pleasure and embarrassment churning in his stomach – pleasure that James had cared enough to come round, but embarrassment that his fuck up had been so egregious as to make the others worry about him. He opens his mouth to brush the whole thing off, and finds himself saying, "I didn't sleep well last night."
He flushes, and turns back to James, hurrying to change the subject. "Anyway. I'll be fine, really. Thanks," he says. "You know, for asking. And sorry I ballsed it up today. You can tell the others that."
"Don't be a cock," James says. "It's fine. And they'll say the same on Friday. You are coming out with us on Friday, right?"
Stig hesitates. Maybe it'd be better if he just stayed away; maybe then he wouldn't want so much.
"It's scheduled to be a very important brainstorming meeting," James says, with exaggerated seriousness. "I think it's absolutely critical that you make an appearance."
Stig snorts, because he's been to enough Top Gear 'brainstorming meetings' to know that means 'everyone gets pissed and comes up with ideas the BBC will never go for, not in a million years.' And something about James' joke makes him relax. It's bloody good fun, spending an evening with the guys. Better than watching whatever's on Sky Plus, at any rate.
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I'll be there."
"Good," says James.
They look at each other awkwardly for a moment, and then just as James starts to say something else Stig says, "Erm, do you wanna get a bite to eat or something?" It's a ridiculous suggestion because although they've been casual friends for years, they don't usually do things together without any of the other Top Gear crew. But he doesn't want James to go just yet.
It's a surprise when James says, "Yeah, love to. Is there somewhere good around here?"
They end up having burgers at a place around the corner from Stig's flat, a hole in the wall pub frequented almost entirely by locals. Part of the reason Stig likes it is because it's nicely north-south oriented, but mostly he likes it because it's quiet and the food is decent.
On the walk over James starts a conversation about the upcoming car art show that they're planning to film, and by the time their food arrives Stig has relaxed from his earlier anxiousness into having, actually, a really good time. He thinks he ought not to be surprised by it, because he fancies James already. But there's fancying someone, and there's finding someone you genuinely click with one-on-one, and Stig listens to James talking in that lovely silk voice of his about how hysterical it's going to be when they reveal a cross-stitched version of Hammond's face and thinks, God, I could do this forever.
They segue into a discussion of car styling, and though Stig gets carried away talking about how utterly hideous the Murciélago is, James doesn't seem to take offense at the strength of his opinions.
"What about Ferrari?" James asks around a mouthful of chips. "You're working for them now, aren't you?"
"Mmm hmm," says Stig. "Which means 'no comment.' They're not even really solid with the styling of the 458 yet, in any case – that's what I'm working on. And I didn't tell you that."
James laughs. "Right. Don't think that means I won't harass you about it when it's ready, though."
"Harass all you like," says Stig. "I might even agree with you - it's not my department."
"What exactly is your department, then? I've got to be able to blame you for something."
"I only do the fiddly stuff, so you'll have to take it for a spin before you start telling me I'm a colossal failure."
That gets a snort out of James. "Fiddly stuff? Is that the technical term?"
"Yep," says Stig with a big smirky grin. "It's on my business card and everything."
They end up sitting in the pub until almost midnight talking. Somehow they go from car styling to road music to music in general, and then Stig finds himself thumping out the rhythm of Radar Love on the table, trying to convince James of the merits of that pounding beat. When he realizes what he's doing he stops, face flushing red with embarrassment.
"So, you see," he finishes weakly, "you are just about as wrong as it is possible to be, and still be breathing."
He kind of wants to hide under the table and die, but instead of teasing James just grins back at him. "You clearly have no taste whatsoever. Now Zeppelin, on the other hand…"
The argument goes on, until eventually James catches sight of his watch, and curses.
"I'd better go," he says, swiping a hand through his hair. "I've got to be up at seven tomorrow to meet some people for my Lego build."
They walk back in the direction of Stig's building; James' hair is whisked around his face by the breeze and Stig curls his fingers into the sleeves of his jacket, concentrating on the feel of rough fabric against his skin.
"So do you actually listen to any decent music? Or just tired old rubbish?" His tone is teasing, deliberately provocative, and he gives Stig a sly little grin with the corner of his mouth.
Stig rolls his eyes. "I s'pose you'd prefer to motor along listening to the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor done on Casio keyboard and electric guitar," he says.
James gives an exaggerated shudder. "Sadly, I do believe that exists."
By this time they've arrived at the front of the building, and James stops talking, turning to look at Stig with eyes that seem suddenly darker. Stig's chest is like a clock abruptly wound too tight.
"This was brilliant," James says. "We should do it again sometime." His voice is low and husky.
Stig thinks, Oh, god, yes, and then, Get a grip, Stiggy, he's not asking you on a date. But he can't quite make himself look away, and their eyes meet for a long moment.
Then James claps him on the shoulder and the mood is broken. "See you Friday," James says, turning away.
"Yeah, see you."
Stig takes the stairs up to his flat two at a time and tells himself when he gets there that's why his heart is ticking so rapidly.
Chapter 3: I collect my moments into a correspondence
His hands are cuffed behind his back, the metal biting sharply into his wrists and his shoulders aching with the strain of the unnatural position. The thug – after a moment Niall remembers that his name is Richardson – shoves him forward into the room, and Niall nearly falls over the flimsy wooden chair placed in front of the desk. At the last minute he catches himself, knee bashing painfully into the back of it, but he doesn't let the pain stop him from pulling away from Richardson's hand and standing up, ramrod straight and defiant.
He can be that, because he knows they haven't caught anyone else from his squad, because he knows his friends are safe, for now. Even if he gets killed that won't stop the rest of them.
Cooper is lounging in the big, comfortable leather chair behind the desk, his feet propped up on one open desk drawer. He smiles like a snake, meets Niall's hatred with an equal amount of smug satisfaction.
"Well, well," he says. "Niall Clarkson. Our little bird has come home to roost, has he?"
Niall rolls his eyes. "Typical," he says. "Aren't there any murdering madmen who don't secretly want to star in their own panto?"
Cooper's lips go thin for a brief moment and he sits up, swinging his legs down onto the floor. But then he smiles again, just as cruelly, even if it looks the tiniest bit forced, now. "You'll regret that, Clarkson," he says. "You'll regret every last minute of these past five years when I'm done with you."
"No amount of torture is going to make me regret anything except that I haven't had the opportunity to kill you," Niall spits. Cooper's grin goes even wider.
"Torture?" he says, with mock surprise. "Oh, but Clarkson, I'm not going to torture you. I'm going to enslave you."
What?! Niall thinks, but before he can ask any questions Cooper dismisses him with a wave, leaning back and putting his feet up onto the desk again. Richardson grabs his arms from behind and drags him out into the hallway.
"You can't do this!" Niall says, struggling to pull away. "Cooper, you bastard. Let me go! Let me go!"
Richardson ignores all of this and pulls him down the hall, through a set of doors at the end into what's obviously an operating room, filled with tired-looking men in scrubs who slide into action as soon as they appear. Niall fights as best he can, kicking and screaming and shoving at anyone who comes near, but his hands are still cuffed and there are five of them and only one of him, and before long they have him strapped securely to the table.
The closest of the men holds his head still while another puts a plastic facemask over Niall's nose and mouth. There's a hiss and then gas floods in from somewhere. Niall holds his breath - he knows he can't possibly hold it long enough to escape, but it's the principle of the thing. He's not going to stop fighting now, no matter what they do to him. He shoves his weight sideways against the straps, but all that does is make his shoulders hurt even more, and he struggles not to gasp at the spike of pain.
A voice from the other side of the room says, "Warm up the lasers," and Niall's eyes go wide. What are they going to do to me? Oh, god, no, please. He opens his mouth to say it, to beg despite his earlier pride, and the gas immediately begins to fill his lungs. He can feel the numbness inching over him.
No, please, no. He doesn't know what they have planned, but it can't possibly be good. No, no, no!
Niall's fighting against the restraints but weakly now; his eyelids feel leaden, and he can't manage to keep them open. Just as they close he hears a low, whirring noise. The man with the anesthesia says, "He's almost out," and then, very quietly, he says, "I'm sorry."
This time when Stig wakes he isn't crying. He isn't screaming, either, which makes for a nice change from the last time he'd had that dream. But he lies on his back in the dark, shivering, not daring to move his arms or legs for a long moment lest he find that he's still tied down.
Finally he turns over, jerkily, pressing his face into the pillow with a long, shuddering breath.
His alarm goes off. Stig groans and raises two fingers at it behind his back, then throws back the covers violently and climbs out of bed. In the shower he makes himself think inconsequential thoughts like Am I running low on shampoo? and Wow, I really need to clear out the drain, and it's surprisingly effective for keeping away unpleasant thoughts.
It's not until he's eating breakfast that this coping mechanism starts to fail, but even then he manages to push away the fear with a solid dose of Clarkson stubbornness. You're not mad, he tells himself. You're just tired and stressed. All that happened a long time ago, and you're not going to spoil the nice life you have now by having any more hallucinations, okay?
After porridge and coffee have been duly imbibed, Stig sits down at his desk, second cup of coffee at the ready. He flips the bioplastic off over his right hand fingers and settles them into the USB port, but before he can make his morning trades or read the paper or anything like that, the hard drive makes a grinding noise, and sends him back an error message.
"Bollocking cock!" Stig curses. He'd completely forgotten about the bent connection in his finger, too distracted by the rest of yesterday's frantic complications. He pulls both fingers free, glares at them for a moment, then sticks the functioning one back in and opens up his email while taking another gulp of coffee.
Sorry to bother you, but I need a favor. Do you know someone who's a jeweler, maybe, or someone who does small-scale electronics tinkering? I need someone with tools and (of course) discretion.
There's probably someone at Ferrari he could get to fix him up, but they're just people he works with, whereas Andy is someone he can trust.
Once the email is sent and he's replied to a few other things in his inbox, he makes his morning stock trades, slowly building up his capital in a way that won't arouse suspicion. He logs in to the Ferrari plans, and then a moment later his email pings with Andy's reply.
Better than a jeweler, I know a man in a shed. I've attached his contact info below.
You will let me know if you need anything else. This is not debatable.
Stig grins, and reaches for his phone.
He makes an appointment with Andy's friend for later in the afternoon, then sets an alarm and pushes all his fears into the back of his mind, focusing on keeping the tick of his heart slow and steady, his breaths even as he dives into the Ferrari plans with total concentration. By the time the alarm goes off he's found two major errors and five minor ones, and he's trying to figure out how to write up the email that needs to say "this bit of the suspension isn't going to work, you cretins" without offending anyone too much.
The email gets put on hold as he drives down to Brixton to meet the man with the tools. He finds a place to park and then, because he's early, walks through the street market, enjoying the brightly-colored stalls after a whole morning staring at black and white diagrams. He buys a fruit he doesn't recognize, and after the application of a large knife by the seller, gets it split open so that he can eat the insides. It's pretty good, and as he walks the rest of the way he thinks he might go back and buy a few more, if the market's still going when he's done.
By the time he finishes eating it he's right on time, so he discards the peel into a nearby bin and ducks into the appropriate alleyway. He has to leap awkwardly over a pile of flattened cardboard boxes, and then comes to a door of thick, scratched metal set flush against the dirty brick. There's a call box attached to the wall, and Stig presses the button.
"What?" says a muffled voice.
"My name's Rob," Stig says. "I have an appointment with Will." There's a beat, and then the door buzzes open.
"Top of the stairs," says the voice and then the intercom clicks off.
Stig climbs up, his eyes flickering from side to side at each landing but not letting himself look too long. At the top of the stairs there's another door, and he knocks. A moment later it swings open to reveal a black man, maybe a little older than Stig but short and thin, with sharp eyes.
"Hmm," the man says, and then holds the door open to let him in.
As the door shuts behind them the man holds out a hand. "I'm Will." Stig shakes it firmly, feeling nervous – this is someone Andy trusts, and Stig wants to make a good impression.
"I'm Rob. Pleasure."
"Pleasure's mine," Will says. "Andy says you've got something special for me to fix for you. I like a challenge." He turns and picks his way through a maze of piled boxes, bits of circuit boards and wire spilling from between flaps of cardboard. Stig follows the best he can, trying not to step on anything that looks breakable.
"It'll be a challenge," he says. Finally they emerge on the other side of the maze to an open space with a large, flat work table and a couple of chairs. Will flops down into one.
"So. Lay it on me."
Stig sits down in the other chair, automatically shifting it to face southwards, and then hesitates. "Andy says you can be discreet." It's probably just paranoia that makes him reiterate that, but then again paranoia has been good to him so far. Luckily, Will doesn't seem to take offense and instead just laughs.
"Yeah," he says. "I can be discreet."
Stig bites his lip, then reaches down with his left hand to peel back the bioplastic covering the fingertips of his right. He holds it out, and Will gives a low whistle.
"That's something special, all right. May I?"
Will takes Stig's wrist in his hand and lifts it higher, reaching out with his other hand to adjust the angle of one of the workbench lights.
"Hmm," he says, peering at it. "Haven't seen anything quite like this before. What's the problem, then?"
"The middle one – something's bent. I jammed it yesterday and I'm… when I connect to something, I get corrupted data. If you can give me a closer look I'm sure I can tell you what needs doing, but I don't have the tools or the… or the," Stig waves his free hand in a vague gesture, "the dexterity."
"Hmm," Will says again. "And why not go back to the original equipment manufacturer, so to speak?"
Stig's lips tighten into a thin line. "They're a bit difficult to access, at the moment. And I wouldn't anyway." Will lifts his head, raises an eyebrow but then shakes his head and doesn't ask.
"Well," he says, dropping Stig's wrist. "I think I can do what you need. Let me get my kit set up and then we can see what we're dealing with."
While Will bustles about with equipment and tools, Stig takes the opportunity to look around. It's certainly one of the most non-traditional workshops he's ever encountered, but the plastic bin labeled 'misc winches' marks the place indubitably as 'man in shed' territory. He imagines James would love it here, then stifles the thought with the ease of long practice.
A few minutes later Will has taken a video camera with a substantial zoom and a powerful light, rigged them both to a stand, then fed the digital output from the camera to a large screen that he sets up on the workbench, angled so they both can see it. Next to the stand he's laid out a series of progressively smaller tools, some with sharp points and some more like tweezers.
"All right," Will says. "Hand under here, then. Should I strap you down?"
"No," Stig says forcefully, and then, more evenly, "No, I can keep still."
But Will obviously hasn't missed the implications, because he says, "That's fine. Any time you need me to pause, you just let me know."
Stig nods, feeling a bit embarrassed, and lifts his arm up under the camera lens. His fingers come into view on the screen, and Will goes, "Hmm," again. Then he says, "Any difference in sensitivity? To normal, I mean. Don't want to prod you too hard."
"It's about the same," Stig says. Will hits the button on the camera to zoom in, and slowly the magnification increases, exposing the rectangular shape of Stig's finger sockets. Stig pulls back the other fingers to leave the middle one exposed. "I promise you it's this finger that's jammed," he says. "I'm not being rude."
Will snorts and keeps zooming in, until eventually the only thing visible on the screen is the hollow metal outline of the socket. Stig peers at it intently, looking for the bent section.
"Ah!" he says when he finds it, and uses his free hand to point at the spot on the screen. "See there? That should be a ninety degree angle, I'm fairly sure."
Will makes a noise of agreement and leans in with one set of tweezers. He gives the corner a tweak, which doesn't seem to do anything, and then a harder one, which inches the metal over by a tiny fraction, but which also drags Stig's fingertip with it.
"I'm going to have to do this really slowly," he says, and rolls his shoulders. "Let me know when you're ready."
Stig takes a deep breath and settles his arm firmly against the workbench surface. "Okay, ready." Will squints and leans in.
In the end it takes three sessions with the tweezers, and one with what is basically a very small, pointed stick, to get the metal unbent and back as it should be. They have to pause between sessions for Will's eyes to recover, and for Stig to work the cramps out of his arm which begins to shake from being held so tensely for so long. While he's rubbing his arm during the second break Stig does another diagnostic, and though the data still comes back corrupted it's less so, like maybe there are only three points of contact that shouldn't be there, instead of nine or ten.
When Will is finished, Stig leans back in his chair, closes his eyes, and runs the diagnostics again, and then again, and then a third time, until finally he's satisfied. When he opens his eyes again Will is watching him with unabashed interest. Stig flushes.
"Right. Listen, I can't thank you enough, mate."
Will waves off his thanks. "Oh, don't thank me. This was certainly interesting enough to be worth taking your call."
Stig laughs. "Interesting, that's me, all right. But seriously, what do I owe you?"
"Well," says Will, "I was going to charge you an exorbitant sum, since Wilman says you're good for it. But now I'm thinking I might like to take payment in kind. Can you look at something for me?"
Which is how Stig ends up spending another hour in the workshop, his fingers deep in the wiring of a series of machines, doing quick-fire diagnostic work. They're all different types; a couple are basic grey boxes with industrial purposes, and then there's a slot machine, and another piece that's some sort of robot but which has too many layers for Stig to really get his head around. Sometimes he can fix whatever's wrong, if it's a programming problem or just recognizing that wires aren't where they should be, but other times all he can do is make recommendations.
"Eurgh," he says on one. "The coding on this is bloody awful. Needs total slash and burn, I think."
Will snorts. "I won't tell Simon you said that, but I'll be thinking of it when I make him start this project over."
At last Stig gets through Will's entire backlog of projects, and he pulls his fingers gently free from the last machine, more mindful of them now that he's damaged one.
"Brilliant," Will says, looking delighted. "Seriously, mate, you've put me far ahead of schedule with this."
"Least I could do," says Stig, flipping the bioplastic tips back over the ends of his fingers.
Will leads him back through the maze of boxes to the door. "If you ever want a grown up job," he says, "give me a call. You're wasted on Wilman's poky little motoring show."
Stig laughs. "Will do. But I don't think I'm ready for a grown up job just yet." He holds out his hand and they shake again, and then he turns and goes.
When he gets outside into the cool night air it's gone dark, and the market is long shut. Damn, Stig thinks. I'll have to come back and get more of that fruit some other time.. He walks back to the car, shivering a little as the drying sweat on his skin comes into contact with the air, and turns up the heat as soon as he gets the key in the ignition.
On the drive back to his flat he can't help wondering about Will, and how Andy knows him. It would have been indiscreet to inquire, of course, and he knows the value of secrets. But still he's curious, and his mind keeps coming up with more and more elaborate scenarios – Andy is part of the Russian mafia, Andy is a Bond-type secret agent, Andy is a drug-runner.
He's in the middle of giggling at the idea of Andy Wilman: jewel thief, dressed in black and rappelling down from a helicopter onto the roof of the British Museum, when that weird feeling washes over him again. Suddenly he's cold, uneasy, and sick to his stomach. His hands clench on the wheel.
God, what is it? Stig thinks. I'm not even doing anything. I can't be messing up the timeline now! He peers into the rearview mirror, then along the side of the road, but it's late and all he can see are a few perfectly normal-looking people, plus one seriously under-dressed woman who's obviously on her way to a party. Nothing looks out of place, and yet as he drives past Stig feels more and more uneasy, like the world is deeply wrong, only he can't figure out why.
Then, just as he's pulling into the garage of his building, the feeling is gone again, slipping away from him as swiftly as it had come. Stig lets out a shaky breath, still shivering despite the blasting heat from the Audi's air vents, but now it's as much from fear as it is from cold.
Once he pulls into his parking space he turns the engine off, then sits there for a long minute with his hands over his face. Maybe I really am going mad. Oh, god.
Eventually he makes himself get out and climb the stairs to his flat. Once inside he drops his keys on the hall table, then goes into the bedroom and strips down with mindless efficiency. He slips beneath the sheets and curls around himself, hugging his knees to his chest. He's tired, but also too caught up in his fear to think about how good it feels to be lying down.
After a moment he begins to whisper, the same mantra he's used to put himself to sleep for close on fifteen years now. "I am the Stig. I am the Stig. I can do anything. No one can hurt me."
Chapter 4: And who lacks my organics; and who covets my defects
"I am the Stig. No one can hurt me." His lips shape the words soundlessly in the darkness of his cell. There's little light – just enough for him to find his way to the toilet in the corner if he needs to – but he's turned towards the wall, which means even the infrared cameras won't be able to make out what he's saying. He doesn't want to give them any ammunition that could be used against him, even a comfort is small and silly as this.
He'd grown up watching Top Gear all his life; as a cultural touchstone of the era it had been difficult to escape, and if he's honest he hadn't really wanted to. He'd idolized his father and watched every episode multiple times, memorizing his father's turns of phrase and exaggerated metaphors so that he could imitate them later in the hopes of provoking a laugh. And like any young boy he'd been drawn to the character of The Stig, the mysterious man/alien who could make cars do things no one else had ever seen. The Stig had been his secret superhero, his talisman of strength to hold up against all hurts. When he was thirteen he'd broken his arm and spent the entire ride to the hospital imagining his face as a featureless helmet so that he wouldn't cry.
Years later he'd woken up in a cell, his whole body in pain from the aftereffects of the nerve surgery and his brain half-muddled by drugs, and he'd thought, I have to be The Stig now, or I'll never make it out of here alive.
He's thought of himself as 'Stig' ever since, though he's at pains not to let anyone else know it. During the day he answers to 'Subject 12' with deliberate placidity, pretends the drugs are still working, does everything he's told and doesn't ask questions.
If he's honest, he doesn't much want to ask questions. He's part of Cooper's merry little band of cyborg soldiers, and they're being used, and it's not to make the rest of the world full of sunshine and fucking roses. The work he's done here has probably locked some people up, maybe helped Cooper kill others. But he can't think about that, can't do anything other than keep his mouth shut and wait for his chance.
It comes sooner than he'd imagined. He's not quite asleep when he hears it – a faint noise that's indefinably out of place. He tries not to tense, tries to keep his breathing even and his heart ticking steadily as he listens. The sound comes again, a little louder now, something like the scraping of metal on metal, and then there's another noise that might be shouting, though it's hard to tell.
The sounds go quiet. Stig thinks, I'm imagining things, but just as he forms the thought there's a fizzing noise, and everything turns off. The high-pitched whine of the cameras and the infrared is gone, and so are the fluorescents from the corridor, leaving him in total darkness. Then there's a hum, and the red-tinted emergency lights come on, just enough light coming in under his door for Stig to tell they exist. But the cameras don't come back on, and neither does anything else. He can tell because of the sound, as close to silent as he's heard in almost five years.
Then the shouting becomes audible, and Stig climbs out of bed, pressing his ear to the door. He can hear the pounding of feet down the hallway, and then someone tries the door handle, and he steps back, arms raised in defense. But the door doesn't actually open. A voice says, "Locked," and then the footsteps move past his cell and down to the next, where the process is repeated. "All still locked," says the voice. "No way anyone's getting out... or in, unless they've got more C-4 than God."
"Good," says another voice shortly, and Stig recognizes Richardson, the chief security thug. "C'mon." The footsteps fade rapidly. This is it, says the voice in the back of his head. This is your chance. Go now, before they come back to check again. Stig hesitates for a fraction of a second. If they catch him, he knows, he'll be drugged brainless. Maybe he should wait.
For what? says the voice. For Daddy to come and rescue you? it sneers. Stop dithering, boy.
He knows the voice is right, and a moment later he's in motion, climbing up onto the bed and then jumping up to catch at the air vent in the ceiling. He swings from it one-handed as he works loose first one corner screw and then another, screws he'd loosened almost a year ago in the hopes that one day he might be able to make use of them. The edge of the vent comes free and his arms are jolted painfully in their sockets as he drops down about two feet, then lets go and lands on the bed with a wobble. Stig rolls his shoulders, then changes position and jumps upwards again, catching the vent in his fingers from the other side. Slowly, painfully, he pulls himself up, inch by inch, until he's dangling above the floor with his arms up inside the vent, one hand scrabbling for another handhold. He finds it, something solid and metal, and then another one on the other side, and he pulls himself up and sideways and in, landing on the slick metal of the air duct.
He lies there for a moment, panting, his breath leaving faint vapor marks on the metal, and then he makes himself sit up and examine his surroundings. It's even darker here, the red emergency lights from the hallway not really penetrating. But he can see he's in an air duct that goes for some distance in each direction, with other ducts branching off it. About two feet past him there's a panel that looks like it might be removable, so he scoots down and examines the fastenings by feel. The panel seems to be attached with screws rather than rivets, so Stig peels back the bioplastic from one of his fingers and gingerly uses the metal of the socket as a makeshift screwdriver. He has to find a balance between care and speed, because on the one hand these things are the only weapon he's got, but on the other hand they won't do him much good if he's caught here.
Eventually he gets the panel undone, and as it comes away, light spills into the duct. He's looking into a crawlspace, complete with its own set of red emergency lights – Evil, and yet with thorough health and safety standards, Stig thinks – and there are wires strung along the outside of the duct, attached every foot or so with thick, careless lumps of glue. About six inches below the opening is the floor of the crawlspace, flat plywood obviously nailed over the ceiling joists.
Stig works himself through the hole into the crawlspace and then pulls the panel back into place, screwing it shut. It won't hold up to close scrutiny, since the screws are now on the wrong side, but if someone tries to follow him in a hurry they might not notice the difference. Then he sifts through the bundle of wires as quickly as he can, sorting out which are electrical and which are data. After isolating the data cable he strips the plastic coating off with his teeth – yuck – and folds it to press the bare wire against the inside of one of his fingertip sockets.
He's found the system, but he isn't inside yet. Stig closes his eyes, blocking out everything besides the data until it's almost as if he can feel the information, slippery against his skin. He sends a carefully-disguised request to the server, faking the biometric data of one of the scientists, and then he's in, with full access to most of the records. Not Cooper's personal data, because that's more heavily encrypted, but the research data is there, and more mundane things, like building plans. Stig downloads those quickly, along with the passcodes to the lifts and the doors, and a few bits and pieces of other information that he thinks it might be handy to have.
All of this takes only a few seconds, and he's getting ready to pull out of the system when he notices something unusual. The network's defenses have gone up, and someone's poking at the system from outside, someone who has neither authorization nor, as Stig does, the equipment to evade the need for it. They've got heavy weaponry, though, some sort of program that's systematically trying different things, looking for a crack it can slip through. From what Stig can see, it's definitely handmade and a bit ramshackle, but no less powerful even if it's not slick.
He doesn't suppose it's a coincidence that someone's trying to hack into the system at the same time that things are going down all over the building. Even if they're not the cavalry, it can't hurt to sow a little more confusion, he thinks, and starts turning off security measures, both electronic and physical. It only takes a few more seconds to disable the outside camera feeds and the electrified fences, and a few seconds more to override the system and turn off the biometric requirement for logging in. Whoever's out there will still have to come up with a password, but they've got the equipment to brute force it, and Stig doesn't.
He doesn't have the time, either. While he's doing this last bit of technological fiddling he starts hearing shouts again, closer this time, and the second he's done he yanks the cable free, then gets up on his knees and starts crawling north. If he can get to the northwest corner there's a staircase there up to the roof, and then a fire escape, and then… he doesn't know what, then, but he'll be outside, and that's something.
Stig crawls for what seems like forever, but which in reality must be only a few minutes. He tries not to think about all the other poor bastards locked up along that same hallway, the ones he's leaving behind. He can't save them. He might have tried harder, if it hadn't been for the drugs, but there's no way to know who's managed to start ditching the doses and who's still under the influence. No way to know who'd help him escape and who'd double cross to get another fix.
The only person he can trust is himself.
He's almost to the north side of the building when he hears the whirring sound, and he ducks behind a pillar just in time for something to roll past. A second later he recognizes it as a security robot, something he'd actually helped design during his first few weeks as a prisoner, back when the drugs still worked. Way to go, Stig, he thinks. Why didn't you just handcuff yourself to Richardson while you were at it? Of course, he really hadn't had a choice at the time. It was only later that the effects of the pills lessened enough for him to start consciously ditching doses.
So, what've they got? he asks himself, trying to dredge up the memory of that project. Motion detectors, mostly, and cameras. Not heat sensors, though, or sound detection, because there's too much going on in the building and AI science hasn't advanced quite that far yet.
If he can stay out of sight, he might get past. He risks a slow glance around the pillar and discovers that the robot hasn't quite gone, that it's only paused in its patrol about fifteen feet away. Must be the edge of its territory, he thinks. Sure enough, a moment later the robot rolls back the way it had come, and Stig hides behind the pillar again until it turns a corner and the whirring fades.
Move quickly, he thinks, and then he's out from behind the pillar, scrambling northwards as quietly as he can over plywood and joists and bits of wire. This time he only gets another fifty feet before he hears the whirring again, and freezes just as a different robot appears, this time right in front of him.
Shit. There's no way he'll be able to get past it going straight, so after it turns a corner to the left, he turns right, climbing over another joist and flattening himself against the floor until he's sure that no others are coming.
Evading the robots takes time, time that he doesn't have, and the process is made more difficult by the fact that he can't go in a straight line – he has to stay on the plywood and avoid the sections of plastic ceiling tile that won't hold his weight. The further north he gets, the more frequently the robots appear. He can hear shouts now, echoing up through the plywood from different angles, but he can't make out the words, can't tell if they're still occupied with the invading forces or if they've noticed that he's missing from his cell. He scrambles over another joist, but then the back of his jumpsuit catches on something sharp, the fabric hooked behind him where he can't see or even reach.
For a moment he's trapped there, shoving frantically against the wood, and then the fabric gives with a loud ripping sound. Stig looks up, ready to start crawling again, only to realize that another robot has come into view, and that it's stopped with one of its camera sights pointing right at him.
Fuck! He's definitely been spotted now. The robot rolls towards him and Stig scrambles away, giving up on trying to remain unseen. The thing is slow enough that he can just about keep ahead of it, but fast enough that he can't side-step it or get away entirely. From what he can remember the robots are made for surveillance rather than attack, but he doesn't want to get close enough to it to find out if he's right.
Another robot appears, and Stig changes direction to evade both of them. He's moving east now, away from the northwest stair, and every time he tries to angle west again the robots move in.
They're driving me, he realizes. He pulls up the building schematics in his head, still crawling, and tries to decide what to do. If he lets himself get pushed all the way into the east wing he's in trouble, because it's more open and there are far fewer places to hide. No, he'll have to duck down into a hallway or a lab soon, see if he can find something to fight with, or a way to escape from there.
After another few seconds of skimming the plans he finds it – a lab just to the northeast of his current position, with plenty of data wiring and some interesting notes on the plans about high voltage lines. He doesn't know what it's for, which is hardly ideal, but it's his best option. Stig crawls the last few feet over to the edge of the lab and twists around so he can kick his way through the ceiling tiles, then drops down into the room below.
A quick glance around the room tells him this isn't where the good stuff is kept, so he jogs across the floor and peers through the doors until he finds the one he wants, a medium-sized room with complicated equipment. He pulls one of the big laboratory tables inside, then locks himself in and turns the table over before shoving it against the door.
He turns and surveys his resources. There are a couple of computer stations along the wall, pretty standard good quality stuff, hooked into a wild array of cables that trail across the floor to the main event: a huge, cobbled-together, obviously-experimental machine.
The bit closest to the door is a large cage made of silvery metal, about ten foot tall by five wide and deep. It's set up on a rubber platform six inches above the floor, and the cage door is hanging open. It is, frankly, menacing.
The cables from the computer bank disappear beneath the rubber platform on the right side of the machine. They're color-coded according to some scheme that doesn't immediately present itself, and labeled in neat white printing with things like "Z-1100A" and "C0200-17QS." None of which tells Stig what the hell they actually do in this lab, or what this thing is for, so after a split second of staring at the thing he flips his fingertips open and sticks them into the drive of the nearest terminal, staggering under the load of data that flows immediately in his direction.
It's all quantum this and string theory that, and it takes Stig a moment to figure out what all of that jargon is intending to say. Time travel. Christ. He doesn't know a blind thing about it, not really, except a half-remembered sense of reading about it in school. Still, there's got to be something here he can use.
He digs for the instructions, the words flickering swiftly into his mind. "Under default settings the machine can only be started with the door securely closed and the latch engaged," blah blah blah…
As he's skimming through the document he pulls up the security feeds again, but though Stig still has network access Richardson has apparently got wise to the fact that the system isn't secure anymore, and he's blacked out the internal cameras, stopped using the digital radios to communicate. Stig could spend some time trying to get the cameras back on, but it's probably not worth it – they're going to be here soon, that's all he needs to know.
There are still the outsiders to consider, though, and now that Stig is back in the system he can feel something changing distantly in the file structure. Ah, Stig thinks. They're in, it seems. Looking around. He still doesn't know who they are, though, and he doesn't want to help out too much if they're going to turn out to be evil Somali baddies or something, as awful as Cooper but just competition. Very conspicuously Stig opens a text document and makes it read "The balding tit flies only at midnight." It's the first half of a standard revolutionary passphrase. He saves it as 'Iseeyouthere.txt' and exits the program. See what they make of that.
While he's waiting he goes back to the instructions. "Select the desired temporal distance (to within a millisecond) and press Enter to calculate the nano-rotor spin-up time required. Greater distances will require a longer spin. The rotor will only remain in spin-up position for thirty seconds in order to minimize wear," etcetera, etcetera…
A fraction of a second later the text document registers a change. Stig opens it up again and finds that beneath his text there is a new line: "The hamster crows at nine minutes past dawn." It's the right answer, familiar enough to bring a smile to his face. But it's only an entry level code and five years old at that, so it could easily have been compromised. Beneath it he types another, more secure phrase. "Now is the time for all good men…" He saves the file and exits.
The normal instructions don't seem to be getting him anywhere interesting and though only seconds have passed, Stig is becoming increasingly aware of the fact that someone could burst in on him at any moment. He gives up on the basic stuff and flips directly to the safety warnings. Big electrical thing like this, I can probably blow it up. That's always a good strategy.
"Never operate this machine if the nano-rotor shows any signs of corrosion or mechanical damage; after cleaning, ensure that all parts are dried thoroughly by hand or in a warm-air-cabinet," and so on…
The document changes again. Now it says, "… to jump over the lazy dog." It's the right answer again.
They go back and forth for a while in rapid-fire succession, Stig giving increasingly obscure first lines in between exploring possible escape routes, and getting correct answers in return. He's becoming more and more certain that this is someone high up, someone he knows, someone who has the fire power to take Cooper down. He's also becoming more and more certain that there's no way they'll be able to get to him in time.
By the time two minutes have passed Stig can only think of one way to proceed. It won't be as stylish as an explosion, and it's not an appealing path, not really, so he wastes another ten seconds going over the pros and cons of it, even though he already knows them. Then, finally, he takes a deep breath and makes the file say, "We cannot rely on those who believe themselves extraordinary…" Only a few people know the second half of that phrase, all of them people he would trust with his life. While he's waiting for the reply he starts changing the settings on the machine, calculating the numbers he needs to send himself that far back.
Because he can't go forward, not when he doesn't know how long Cooper is going to be around. And going back by an hour or a day or a month will only get him more trapped than he already is, not to mention the possibilities for paradox. If he goes back, he's going to have to go quite far back. The building dates from 2003, so if he goes just before that, when it's still a construction site...
The trouble is, no one's ever gone that far back. From what he can tell in his quick skim, no one's gone back more than a day, even, and they'd found the whole experience pretty unpleasant (the document starts with, "vomiting, ringing in ears, nosebleeds, loss of vision," and goes on like that for another three paragraphs). It seems likely that going further back will exacerbate those side effects, sure. But on the other hand, it's the only thing Stig can think of that stands any chance at all of getting him out of here alive.
He spends a little time convincing himself of that, time he has because his conversation partner is taking a little longer to respond to that last statement. But then the file flickers closed, and Stig pulls it open.
It says, "…to look out for the interests of those who are ordinary." And then, underneath, "Which, by the way, is bollocks."
Stig's heart turns over with a sudden shudder. She's alive, he thinks, a grin spreading across his incredulous face. And she's on the outside.
He closes the file without changing it and sends a direct connection request; a moment later it's accepted. "Hey, Princess," he sends. In return she hits him with a joyful databurst of information noise, streams of images of bunnies and rainbows: the data equivalent of a high-pitched squeal.
"The fuck are you doing in there?" she sends at him. "This place is locked up tight." There's a millisecond pause. "Niall… we thought you were dead. Like, rung down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. Otherwise you have to know we would've—"
He cuts her off with a burst of dismissive static. "I know you would. Lucky I was just pining for the fjords. Listen, Princess, I don't have much time."
"Right," she sends. "Tell me where you are and I'll send Gaz—"
"No time," Stig sends. "Take this instead." He starts sending her data, incriminating stuff he's collected over time just in case he ever made it out: details of the technology they've been working on, people and places they've been tracking over the past five years because they caught Cooper's interest in some way. People Cooper has had 'neutralized' – names, dates, locations. Proof. It's the best he can do for his friends now – nothing like enough to make up for being stupid enough to get captured in the first place, but it's something. He'll have to be content with that.
While that's going he builds a short self-destruct code for the machine – if sending himself back doesn't kill him instantly, he'd better ensure they can't just follow him.
"No, hey, we'll get you," she says, but he can feel her saving the information despite the protest.
"Forget it," Stig says. Dimly he can hear someone pounding on the outer lab door. "They're almost here. And anyway I've got a cunning plan."
Everything's ready now. He starts the machine's countdown, then winces as the rotor stars to spin up with a high-pitched whine. At least it drowns out the sound of the men with guns coming to get him. Stig twists around so he can keep an eye on the door.
"Your idea of a cunning plan is making sure you cook the bacon before you eat it," she sends. "Niall—"
There's a loud slamming noise, and Stig knows they must be in the outer room now. The table against the door shudders. "Sorry, Princess," he sends. "See you on the flip side." Maybe. He sets a ten second timer on the machine, then jerks his fingers free and hoofs it over to the cage, jumping up and in and pulling the door shut behind him. He can feel the click as the latch engages.
There's a crash, and Stig turns to see Richardson and two other men shoving their way into the room. The rotor's whine becomes almost painful.
"Clarkson, you little shit," says Richardson, lifting his gun.
Stig smiles. "Fuck you," he says, and then the rotor stops, and everything goes black.
Chapter 5: And I'm downloaded daily; I am part of a composite
Stig wakes, hands jerking into abrupt fists in the sheets, as if his body had thought to stop the remembered fall by clinging to the bed. His whole body is taut like a drawn bow, quivering with nervous tension and half-remembered terror. Slowly he forces himself to relax, reciting names of body parts to himself as he releases the tension muscle by muscle from the bottom up; it's a trick he'd come up with while he was Cooper's druggy robot, something to keep himself from losing his shit every time he heard of another death. Toes, he thinks. Balls of the feet. Arches. Ankles. Relax. Calves. Knees. Relax. It's a slow process, and one that keeps his brain locked into ritual instead of panic, so by the time he's up to his neck and head he can breathe almost freely again.
He takes a deep breath, and then sits up. He checks the clock – 6:12 am, late enough to get up and call it morning. He throws the covers back and goes to shower.
While he scrubs his hair he lets himself think about his situation. Something weird is happening. Whether it's happening for real or in his head he doesn't know, but either way it's happening. There's a part of him that thinks he ought to be doing something about it, but the truth is he hasn't the faintest idea what, and he can't exactly go around hitting things with a hammer until he finds one that doesn't ring true.
Tempting as the idea is.
Shower finished, Stig towels off, makes vague, resigned gestures in the direction of his hair, and then throws on some jeans and a shirt. He keeps thinking as he goes through the rest of his morning routine – starting the coffee maker, putting water on to boil for the porridge.
By the time he's finished breakfast he still hasn't come to any conclusions. He checks into his inbox and finds a couple of messages – an automated one to the Ferrari team reminding them of the project deadline, and another from someone he's corresponding with online. Neither requires an immediate reply, and after dithering for a moment he pulls up Google and types, a bit wildly, "changing timelines."
This proves to be a stupid idea, because he's immediately presented with a bunch of conspiracy theory wank, and he spends about an hour coming up with better search terms and trying to weed through it all in search of actual science. What science he does find is both baffling and totally primitive; he doesn't understand most of it, and the bits he does vaguely understand he's pretty sure are wronger than wrong. By the time he finds himself looking at a website that reads EARTH HAS 4 CORNER SIMULTANEOUS 4-DAY TIME CUBE IN ONLY 24 HOUR ROTATION. 4 CORNER DAYS, CUBES 4 QUAD EARTH- No 1 Day God. in 36 point font the only reaction left to him is slightly hysterical laughter.
He doesn't know what else to do. Sure, he could go try and change something himself (meddle with stock prices, spoof a hundred thousand votes to change the outcome of Big Brother) just to see what happens, but it probably isn't worth unraveling the fabric of time just to figure out if he's mad or not.
Stig throws himself into the day's work, as if he can restore normality by focusing the full power of his brain on something as mundane as engineering. He works straight through until six, finishing up his work on the suspension and starting a set of simulations to deal with the aerodynamic issues of the front vents (all that air's got to go somewhere, though Stig's glad it's not his job to make the 458 look beautiful).
While the simulation is running he goes back over the notes of all the mistakes he's found, readying them to send off to the team. Writing it up takes a while – Ferrari's certainly getting their money's worth out of him on this job, though they're probably losing it in paying the idiots whose work he's checking over.
After he sends the email he checks the clock and blinks, then stretches, feeling his shoulders pop with the release of pressure.
It's been a quiet day after all, he thinks, and then, Jesus, Stig, don't count your bloody chickens. He shakes his head and blinks again, trying to clear the film from his eyes and the fog from his brain. Right. Cab, pub. No more thinking.
The day is gloomy, clouds shuddering low across the sky and a fine mist coating the windscreen of the cab. The driver has the radio on, and it's jarring; it takes Stig a while to get accustomed to noise again after so many hours of silence.
The pub is James' local in Hammersmith, beloved by the group for being quiet, having relatively-good nearby parking, and serving decent grub. Plus all the regulars know James from the neighborhood, so there's a distinct dearth of autograph-seeking gadflies.
The cab drops him off at the corner; Stig pays quickly and hops out. The sun has settled behind the skyline and it's cool enough now that he's grateful for both his jacket and the short distance to the pub. Even so, by the time he's pushing the door open his hair is damp from the moisture in the air.
His eyes easily pick out Andy, James, and Dave, one of the script editors, huddled over a table to one side of the room, and after a stop at the bar to get a drink and put in an order for some food he makes his way over.
"Thank god, someone sane," says Dave. "Help me convince these two that building caravans for a challenge really isn't going to go well."
Stig raises an eyebrow, sets down his drink and slips off his jacket before flopping down in the north-facing chair beside James. "I thought challenges not going well was kind of the idea."
James snorts quietly, and when Stig looks over James gives him a sly smile. Stig smiles back, ignoring the curl of heat low in his belly at the sight of James' mouth.
"You do appear to have grasped the essence of Top Gear," Andy says. "Which is more than I can say for some."
Dave rolls his eyes. "Sorry, I didn't realize my insufficient appreciation of your editorial vision."
Before the argument can go any further Jeremy appears, thundering across the floor like Godzilla through the streets of Tokyo. "Greetings, mortals."
"All hail Clarkson," says James dryly.
Jeremy beams and pulls up a chair to the other end of the table, then flops down into it. "Quite right, too. Going to get me a drink, then, like a good little disciple?"
"Piss off," James says cordially. Jeremy slaps him on the back, still grinning.
The argument starts up again. Once the concept of the caravan-building challenge is more fully elaborated Stig is enthusiastically in favor, which pits him, Andy, and Jeremy against Dave and James.
"It's not that it's a terrible challenge," James says, turning his near-empty glass in repetitive circles as he talks, "and I've no objection to cocking about, honestly I haven't." Jeremy starts to interrupt but Andy puts a hand over his mouth in a practiced gesture. "But if we don't do something beyond setting caravans on fire," James continues, "then people are going to say we're getting stale."
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Dave says, nodding fiercely.
"But—ugh," Andy says, taking his hand away from Jeremy's mouth with a grimace. "Stop assaulting me with your tongue, you bloody pervert."
"Stop censoring me and maybe I'll consider it," Jeremy shoots back. Andy wipes the palm of his hand ostentatiously on Jeremy's face and Jeremy bats at him. "Seriously, though," Jeremy says, turning back to James. "You are as wrong as it is possible to be, and still be breathing."
James' brow goes wrinkled as if he's trying to parse the sentence.
"The core audience loves us setting caravans on fire," Jeremy says. "Yeah, of course there are always a few vocal wankers, people who want more reviews of sensible cars, more history. And I'm not saying we can't do anything serious ever. But this isn't Fifth Gear, and I refuse to let you turn into Tiff, all right? One of him's enough."
James tries to look disapproving at that but fails miserably, sitting back in his chair with a heavy sigh and an involuntary grin on his face. "Yes, all right," he concedes. "Point made. You have my vote, then."
Jeremy does a little victory dance in his chair, so enthusiastic that he almost falls out of it and has to catch himself at the last minute. James starts to bray out his donkey laugh and Stig finds himself sniggering too; Andy just rolls his eyes.
Dave shakes his head sadly. "I give up on all of you," he says, though there's the ghost of a smile on his face. "Lost cause. I'd say maybe Hammond will be able to talk some sense into you when he gets here, but…" This prompts another wave of laughter. "Anyway, I can't stay," he says, sliding his chair back from the table.
"Oh, come on," Jeremy says. "Don't be a pussy and leave just because you're losing."
"No, no," says Dave. "I only came out for one drink to begin with."
"It's true," Andy says. "I can vouch for the fact that he's only minimally a pussy." Dave lifts two fingers and waves them half-heartedly in the direction of the rest of them.
"Sod you all," he says, laughing. "See you Monday."
"See you," Stig says along with the others.
Dave's departure redirects the conversation and prompts a round of people going to the bar for more drinks. When Stig sits down again Andy is checking something on his phone, and Jeremy is saying something to James that's making him hide behind his hair.
"Leave it, Clarkson," James says. What little of his face Stig can see is turning red. "I've told you before, I'm not interested."
"Yeah, yeah, you say that. Anyway he's more than enough interested to make up for whatever ridiculous qualms you might have. He's always asking about you when I see him."
Stig tenses a little. Someone's interested in James? Then he rolls his eyes at himself. Plenty of people are, for plenty of reasons. Don't be a cock, Stiggy.
"He's just being polite," James says, "though it doesn't surprise me to discover you're not familiar with how that goes."
"Oh, come on," Jeremy says. "Telling me three times to make sure to send you his warmest wishes is not being polite. Going on and on about how he was gutted not to be able to stick around last week is not being polite."
Ah, Stig thinks sourly. Fry. He's never much liked the man, and if he's honest his antipathy has only grown since that incident at the Chelsea Flower Show. He can feel himself beginning to clench his teeth.
"And he's one of those knowing things blokes," Jeremy continues. "Definitely your type."
Stig shifts a little in his chair, slightly uncomfortable. It's one thing to speculate about James' tastes in the privacy of his own wish-fulfillment fantasies, but to hear the idea verbalized is a bit strange.
James snorts, but his eyes flicker to Stig, and Jeremy gets a look of surprised dismay on his face. He says, "Oh, shit, sorry, James, I just assumed Stiggy knew that you—"
Andy looks up from his phone now, but Stig interrupts before Jeremy can finish the sentence. He says, "I, er, I'd gathered as much, but no one's actually said. I can keep it quiet." James looks relieved, but apparently Stig's mouth doesn't know when to quit, because then he says, "You can do better than sodding Stephen Fry, though."
Even as the words are coming out of his mouth Stig realizes how stupid they are, and he flushes with embarrassment. I am such an arsehole. "Sorry," he says. "Sorry, that was uncalled for. I—" James and Jeremy are both goggling at him, and Andy's mouth has tightened into a thin line. Stig winces. "You know what? I'm just going to—" He clamps his mouth shut and slides his chair back, abandoning his drink in favor of just getting the fuck out of there.
By the time he gets outside his face is flaming. Stupid mouth. Stupid, stupid mouth. This is why you got a job where you don't talk, remember? The minute you try and say anything you inevitably make an arse of yourself.
It's pissing with rain now, so he huddles underneath the roof overhang, watching the water trickle down onto the pavement, scrubbing his hands up and down his arms to warm them. He wishes he'd thought to grab his jacket on the way out, because then he could just leave, just escape, and maybe they'd forget he said anything. Not bloody likely.
Behind him the door opens. Stig turns his head and cringes when he sees it's James. "I am sorry," Stig says. "I've no right to tell you—"
"You could if you liked," James says quietly, and Stig stops talking abruptly, letting his arms fall to his sides. He doesn't know what to make of that sentence; after a second he closes his mouth. James reaches out and touches his wrist, lightly, and Stig lets him.
"I'd quite like—" James says. "Well, that is to say." He stops, shakes his head, and takes a deep breath. "I appear to have got the impression that you're interested. In me. Actually, I thought for a while you had something going for Jez, but then—"
Stig bursts out laughing, can't help himself. James pauses, and his mouth curls up into an expression that could be annoyance, or could be amusement.
"Sorry," Stig says, once he can get himself under control. "It's just. You have no idea how wrong that is. There is literally no chance of me being interested in Jeremy romantically."
James snorts. "Okay," he says, and now that expression is definitely a smile. His thumb rubs over the knob of Stig's wrist, slow and deliberate. "What about me?"
"What— um, oh," Stig says. He really wants to know if I'm interested? Of course I'm bloody interested! But immediately he realizes it's not that simple. How can I get close to anyone when I have this many secrets? What if he found me out? He tries to tell himself that James won't find out about Jeremy being his father – Stig's kept the secret this long, and he's certainly got no plans to tell anyone ever. But he can hardly get into a relationship without revealing his physical peculiarities, and anyway he can't quite shake the feeling that keeping all those secrets just wouldn't be right, it wouldn't be fair. He wants James, but it's more than that, and starting something with a fundamental lie about who he is and where he's from seems wrong.
Plus there's the whole thing where he's half-convinced he's going mad. That doesn't exactly bode well for a relationship either.
"It's… complicated," Stig says, lamely, and he can see the exact moment when James takes it for a brush off. "Wait, no, James, look, I'm… yes, I'm, I'm—"
There's a weird cracking noise. The hairs on Stig's neck stand suddenly on end and his whole body goes colder. It's happening again. He twists around, ignoring James' perplexed look, and catches sight of a flash of movement between two buildings on the other side of the street. Something about it seems out of place, so he pulls his hand free of James' grip and takes off after it, trainers skidding on the wet tarmac as he dodges around a girl on a bicycle and ducks into the alley.
It's so dark that he can't see the person's face or even a good silhouette, just a vague shape moving through the dusk and rain and fog, familiar though he can't put his finger on why. Whoever it is moves quickly, thick-soled shoes slapping confidently against the ground. But Stig is close enough to follow when the figure twists sideways behind a large skip and turns into another alleyway.
There are boxes here, some flattened into precarious, sopping mounds that shift under his feet and others strewn haphazardly across the pitted concrete. In the dark he stumbles over one, just barely catching himself against crumbling brick, and then scrambles onwards, not letting himself feel the sting of scrapes across his palm.
Further down, the alley widens, and the obstacles become more solid – another pair of skips, some wooden crates, cracks in the concrete and a pothole roughly the size of a racing helmet, rapidly filling with water. The figure ahead of him catches his foot once but recovers quickly and keeps his advantage. Stig can see the man's silhouette now against the lighter square of the street at the end of the alley, can hear the sound of a bustling street full of people. He's breathing hard now, the unpleasant, eerie feeling sitting like a thick ball in his stomach, and he has to focus all his energy on keeping up.
Then they come out of the alley directly under a street lamp, and for the first time Stig can really see who he's chasing.
It's light enough here that despite the fog he gets a good solid look, enough to make him sure of what he's seeing, enough to bring back the familiar feeling of murderous rage and hatred.
Cooper doesn't look back, just keeps running, ignoring the angry shouts as he elbows past a line of people standing on the pavement, knocking umbrellas in all directions. Stig tries to follow but Cooper's rudeness has created confusion among the crowd and it slows him down, and whatever weird sensation he's feeling is still sapping warmth from his veins. Finally he breaks free of the throng and follows Cooper down the street to where he's disappeared into another alleyway.
The cracking noise comes again, sharp and close, and when Stig rounds the corner half a second later he finds a dead-end, the alley empty but for a few take-away containers and McDonald's wrappers rustling against the far wall.
Lost him. Damn it!
Stig sags against the wet brick, exhausted, though the uncomfortable, ill feeling is gone. Bollocksed that one up, didn't I? It's been too long since I had to run that hard. I've forgotten what it's like.
But at least now he knows he isn't mad.
All those people saw him, not just me. And there's no way out of this place. Nowhere else he could have gone except back… forward.
The bigger problem is why Cooper had been here in the first place.
Was he looking for me? Stig isn't sure. He'd seen Cooper twice now, but there had also been a couple of those odd episodes where he hadn't seen the man at all. Surely if Cooper had followed him back he'd have turned up right on Stig's heels, not eight or so years later. And surely if Cooper had come back to kill Stig he'd be dead already, murdered in his sleep or something. Cooper wasn't exactly the type to give his enemies a fighting chance.
No, Stig decides, it's more likely Cooper's trying to do something else, and their paths have just happened to intersect a couple of times. He can't explain Dunsfold, not really, but right now he's pretty close to where Cooper's research complex is being built, so it makes sense that Cooper might turn up in the area.
So if he's not trying to kill me, what is he trying to do? Whatever it is, it's unlikely to be anything good. Am I going to have to do something about it?
These prove to be questions Stig can't really answer, and eventually he straightens up and makes his way back to the pub. James isn't standing out front anymore, and Stig gives good odds he's just got disgusted and gone home. I'm oh for two, today, he thinks.
But when he opens the door, he finds both James and Jeremy sitting at the table, though Andy's nowhere in sight. Jeremy, facing the door, catches sight of him first, and then says something in a low voice that has James turning to watch as Stig winds his way through the tables. Stig grimaces and shifts one hand through his hair, knowing he probably looks like a cat that's been dropped in the bath. As he approaches the table he hesitates only for a second before sitting down beside Jeremy with an involuntary sigh.
James opens his mouth, then shuts it again, and gives Jeremy a look. Stig doesn't know whether to be grateful for that – maybe James has already told Jeremy everything that happened outside, maybe they both think he's the world's biggest cock now.
"See someone you know?" Jeremy says after a moment, sliding a fresh pint over in front of Stig, who wraps his hands around the frosty glass gratefully. Apparently he isn't going to get yelled at right away.
"Possibly." He can't exactly give details. He grips the glass tightly, then winces at the sting of his scraped palm. He turns his hand over and sees blood welling through the scrapes, so he reaches for a napkin, shaking his head.
"Anything I need to worry about?" Jeremy keeps his voice light.
He flicks his eyes up, then shakes his head again, more forcefully this time. He wets the napkin with the condensation from the side of the glass and dabs at his hand. "No. If it becomes a problem I'll take care of it." He doesn't want to say much more in front of James, who is eyeing them both with suspicion.
Jeremy gives him a dubious look, then leans over and thumps their shoulders together. "All right. Let me know if you need anything doing." Then he grins, and gives Stig a mischievous look. "So, back to Stephen Fry…"
Across the table James actually growls, and Stig clenches his eyes shut."You know what?" he says hurriedly. "I think I'm just going to fuck off and get an early night." He crumples up the napkin and drops it on the table, then slides out of his chair, this time remembering to grab his jacket. "Have a good evening, gentlemen." He turns away, striding as quickly to the door as he can without actually running.
As he pulls the door open, he can just make out James' voice over the hum of the rain. "Right, Jezza, what the sodding hell was that all about? And don't you dare tell me it's bloody complicated." The door shuts before he can hear Jeremy's reply.
By the time he gets home Stig has called himself every rude name he can think of, and then made up a few more just for good measure. Inside his flat he shrugs off his jacket and hangs it viciously on the coat hook beside the door.
"A delightful cock up, that was," he mutters. "Might as well just throw myself into a duck pond and be done with it."
Chapter 6: Soon to be your postwar apartment
After a bit of wallowing in self-disgust, Stig brews himself a giant pot of coffee and settles down at his desk. As his computer boots up he allows himself a minute of watching rain drip unsteadily down the pane of the window, not thinking about anything but how glad he is to be warm and dry and well-fed. Then he takes a deep breath, sticks his fingers into the USB port, and gets to work.
He spends a couple of hours reading news articles and blogs from the last week, trying to find anything that stands out as unusual, anything that might be worth Cooper's time. Nothing really jumps out at him; sure, the economy is in the toilet and various politicians are newly discovered to be corrupt, but back when Stig had been forced to do this sort of work under Cooper's control, the man had never seemed to be interested in anything this straightforward.
Stig delves deeper, looking at expenditures for the Ministry of Defence, the SIS, MI5, looking for sponsorship of any unusual research that seems to be along the right lines. He finds some, but nothing new, nothing recent. When he runs out of public information he digs into the non-public stuff, both government and private industry, nudging aside various security measures (state of the art now, but Stig cut his teeth on systems that were a lot more complicated). He's into confidential documents now, looking for key words related to Cooper's future projects, bits of jargon, medical terminology he remembers from his second and third surgeries. He has more success here, but the references that come up are all just speculation, hypotheses about things that might one day be possible.
There's nothing to explain why Cooper would be here, now. If he'd wanted to set the projects in motion then he'd have come a year or two ago, when grants were being proposed and projects begun. If instead he'd wanted to steal technology or affect the key moments of certain projects, then surely now is too early – Stig knows that the relevant science for his neurological implants won't even really be invented until 2017 or so.
So perhaps it isn't a project Cooper is interested in, but a person, someone to make disappear. Stig remains confident that he's not the target, but there have been plenty of other people putting obstacles in Cooper's way. After a moment of thought Stig starts pulling names from his memory, people he hasn't thought about in years. He hasn't forgotten them, though, and as he slots each one into the list he feels a surge of mingled nostalgia and loss.
They're all out there somewhere, and when Stig sets his mind to it, it's easy enough to find them – Dave, who's at Cambridge now writing mathematics, and who'd been one of the resistance movement's best hacks; Mark, who manages a comedy club and does children's theatre on the side, and who'd written resistance propaganda; Hillary, working in a bank, who'd gone undercover to gather information; Gaz, sixteen now, who'd once broken Richardson's arm when he came across him hassling a young girl. He doesn't bother looking up Izzy, of course, because he knows exactly where she is – at home in Bollitree Castle, tucked up in bed with her favorite stuffed unicorn or something like. She's only nine years old.
None of them seems like a clear and present threat. So maybe it's none of these things – maybe Cooper's got some elaborate system of tiny changes, each of which could slip under time's radar and affect the future to Cooper's advantage without sending it all crashing down. Stig's familiar with how that works – though he's always been careful to keep to himself, he's still changed things, just by being here. What if Cooper is doing the same, but deliberately?
Stig works until just past three, searching for more data and feverishly turning the whole mess over in his head, until finally exhaustion wins out over the need for answers and he falls into bed, feeling the cool press of the sheets against his cheek for a bare minute before he's asleep.
He doesn't dream, or if he does the dreams aren't memorable enough to stay past the first clouded moments of waking. It's late morning now, the sun shining through the gap beneath the blinds to create a thin band of light across the dark blue duvet, and for a moment the only thoughts in his mind are shaded images of cables, twisting and flexing. Then memory returns, and the warm, sleepy comfort of being in bed dissipates, replaced with thick, heavy dread.
Stig rubs his hands across his face and forces himself up. His head feels muzzy, probably a side effect of sleeping so long, and his half-formulated hope that sleep would provide answers doesn't seem to have borne fruit. He starts a pot of coffee and then stumbles into the shower, washing on autopilot as his brain slowly comes back online.
It dawns on him, as he replays last night's events in his memory, that he'd been rather appallingly rude, and by the time he's dressed and caffeinated his face is almost burning with embarrassment.
Christ, I can't believe I just ran off on James like that. What was I thinking? He'd panicked, basically, and that's hardly surprising, but in the light of day that doesn't seem like a very good excuse. If I apologize now, he might possibly speak to me again.
The problem is that he doesn't have James' number, and he doesn't want to leave things until Wednesday. After a moment he grabs his phone off the desk and dials down to the bottom of his contact list. The phone rings once, and then clicks as it's answered.
"Hello?" Andy sounds wary.
"Hey, it's Stig."
There's a pause. "I heard you fucked off at the speed of sound last night."
Stig rubs a hand over his face. "Yeah, about that. Will you give me May's number?"
Another long pause. "And why am I doing that?"
"So I can apologize for being a tremendous cockface."
Andy laughs, and Stig relaxes a little.
"Fair enough," Andy says. There's a pause, and then he says slowly, "I'll give it to you, if you do something for me in exchange."
Now it's Stig's turn to be wary. "What did you have in mind?"
"Nothing that mad, I assure you. But are you free this afternoon? I've got a special project and it requires your unique talents."
Stig pulls up his mental calendar. "Sure, I've got nothing planned." Other than trying to prevent the future from being destroyed, but since I haven't actually figured out how to do that yet I might as well keep busy instead. "What time?"
"What time's it now? Quarter past eleven, so… one? That do?"
"Fine." Stig resigns himself to a few hours of being Andy's performing monkey; it'll be worth it if he can get back in James' good graces.
"Excellent." For a moment, Andy sounds almost like he must be rubbing his hands together with glee in an evil supervillain sort of way. Stig is reminded once again of his late-night questions about Andy, then firmly quashes the thought.
Stop being paranoid. Andy's not like Cooper.
Then Andy rattles off a string of numbers and Stig hurriedly files them away in his memory.
"Thanks," he says.
Andy huffs out a laugh. "Thank me when he's done chewing you out."
"Come on, it's James May, Christian Motorist," Stig says, but he winces just imagining it and the tone of his voice clearly conveys his misgivings. James might be slow to anger, but the few times his temper has exploded are frankly legendary among the Top Gear crew.
"Right," Andy says. "In any case, I'll expect you this afternoon even if your ears are still bleeding."
Stig snorts. "Glad to know you truly care," he shoots back, grinning a little. "Anyway, thanks. See you in a few hours."
"See you," Andy says, and Stig hangs up. He takes a deep breath, then makes himself dial James' number before he chickens out. The connection clicks after a couple of rings.
"Hello?" says James.
"Hi. It's… Rob." Some instinct tells him to use this name. "I'm ringing to apologize."
"Ah," says James. There's a moment of silence. "Go on, then," James says mildly.
Stig coughs with amusement. Pedant. But he knows he's not going to win James over by laughing now. "I shouldn't've run off like that last night. There were extenuating circumstances, but… I'm sorry."
Another pause. "Mmm," James says. It's not a pleased sound. "Is that all you have to say?"
"Er," says Stig, caught flat-footed. "Yes?" He'd rather thought an apology would do the trick.
James gives a little bitter laugh. "I see. Then I've nothing else to say, either. When you'd like to be a friend instead of a secretive bloody enigma, let me know. I'll see you Wednesday." Before Stig can say anything else, James hangs up. Stig drops his phone onto the desk and scrubs his hands over his face.
Well done. Fucking well done.
Stig drives out to the track, morose, listening to The Smiths and feeling sorry for himself. The weather refuses to cooperate with his mood, and the sun shines bright and resolute across the road, the red-brown roofs of the houses, the lush summer green of the fields.
Any other day he might find it pleasant.
Bloody sunshine, Stig grumbles to himself. Bloody sheep.
He pulls in at the gate for the track a little before one. The guard waves him in, and he parks next to Jeremy's Merc, relatively unsurprised to see it there. I suppose if Wilman's got some brilliant idea, he's hardly going to experiment without Jeremy along.
He crosses the tarmac to the track proper, then walks along the grass until he arrives at the knobbly block of the Spitfire Table, hulking in its usual place outside the production office. Andy's sitting in one of their cheap plastic garden chairs, looking at something on his phone, but Jeremy has his feet propped up, relaxing in the sunshine, and he gives Stig a lazy, insolent wave as he approaches.
"Thought you'd never turn up," he says.
Stig gives him two fingers. "I am early, you know. If you can't tell time that's hardly my problem." He comes to a stop beside the table and doesn't bother to sit, since Jeremy and Andy are taking up both of the north and south-facing chairs.
Andy looks up, slipping his phone into his pocket. "Calm down, children."
Jeremy sputters, and mild amusement begins to take the edge off of Stig's irritation. "What are we doing, then?" he asks.
"Jaguar's delivered that XFR you're going to be taking 'round week after next," Andy says. "I want to see where the limits are. I know you get things faster by fiddling, but I don't know how and I want to make sure we're not wasting your potential."
Stig shrugs. "Yeah, all right. I mean, it's not as glamorous as you're probably imagining. When I'm fiddling, I'm just optimizing what's already there. There's only so much I can do because of the physical constraints." He shifts his weight. "But I don't mind messing about for you."
Andy and Jeremy exchange a look, and Stig begins to suspect something else is going on.
"Great," Jeremy says brusquely, dropping his feet and standing up. "As soon as Hammond and May turn up we can get started."
Stig goes still, feeling cold wash over him, and then he gives Andy a direct look, ignoring Jeremy's faux-cheerfulness. "You agreed to keep my secrets," he says.
"I did," Andy says mildly, getting to his feet. "And I have. I haven't asked about Wednesday, or about last night, and I'm not planning on doing so. But don't you think it's time you told someone other than just the two of us?"
Stig opens his mouth, fully prepared to tell Andy just exactly where he can stick his high-handed attitude. But then he catches sight of Jeremy's expression, concern bleeding through a determinedly neutral façade, and something about it makes him tamp down on his instinctive reaction.
Jeremy says, quietly, "James thinks you don't trust him."
Stig winces. Of course he thinks that. I've given him no reason to think otherwise. It would certainly explain why James had been so abrupt with him. It's not that I didn't want to tell him everything! I just can't! But that's not entirely true; sure, keeping his mouth shut has kept him safe so far – at least until the last few days, and Christ knows what that's about – but on the other hand telling Andy and Jeremy hasn't hurt, and James is far more discreet than Jeremy could ever manage. So why not tell him?
Because he'll be repulsed, Stig thinks. He'll cringe, he won't want to touch me. His mind conjures up an image in agonizing detail: James stumbling away from him, eyes wide with disgust. Stig's stomach roils as he imagines it. He feels cold and hot all over, skin prickling.
"He's not going to freak out, you know," Jeremy says, stepping around the end of the table.
Fuck you for being so perceptive, Stig thinks. "You can't know that," he says, swallowing back the bile that threatens to rise up in his throat.
"Of course I can!" Jeremy snorts, and cuffs the back of Stig's head. "I am the great and powerful Clarkson." Somehow that actually makes Stig feel better – he's still uneasy, skin taut with cold, instinctive fear. But if Jeremy's being a cock, at least he knows something's going right.
"You told Will," Andy points out more sensibly. "The least you can do is let those other two bozos in on it."
Stig takes a slow, deep breath. Maybe he's right, he thinks, pinching the bridge of his nose and trying to rid himself of the urge to panic. It's not like I have to tell James everything. Just enough to justify not telling him the rest. The idea makes his stomach squirm again, but right now he's so confused he can't tell what's reasonable precaution and what's paranoia anymore.
"Fine," he says shortly, shivering a little. "I suppose it's about time they both knew. Too many secrets and all that. Though I don't thank you for forcing the issue."
Jeremy starts to reply to that, but Andy clamps a hand on his shoulder.
"We'll bear that in mind," he says.
Stig rolls his eyes, using the irritation to push back at fear. Right.
"Good. So get in there and," Andy waves his free hand, "do whatever it is you do. Jez and I are going to get some equipment, and we'll be back in a bit."
"Fine," Stig says, taking another deep breath. "Keys?"
"In the portakabin."
Andy drags Jeremy away, and after a moment the two men disappear between buildings. Stig takes the opportunity to kick the leg of the table in the hopes that violence will lessen some of his unease. Then he rolls his eyes at himself and turns away.
He's glad to have a few moments alone now, just to come to grips with the whole thing. The cracked concrete steps up to the portakabin feel like Mount Everest as he climbs them, and before he opens the door he just rests his hand on the rusty stair railing for a long moment, turning to stare out across ragged grass and chipped tarmac until his eyes find the dusty grey shapes of the studio and the hangar beyond. The whole scene is revoltingly normal, at odds with his bone deep conviction that the whole situation is going to go horribly, horribly wrong. There's even someone working out on the concrete in front of the hangar, a vaguely familiar figure in ragged jeans bending furtively over a bright green, hulking monstrosity that Stig identifies, after a moment, as a Ford Focus RS.
The sight of it takes his breath away. He'd grown up knowing the story of that bloody Ford; in his time, everyone had known the story. It will happen tomorrow – Jeremy in the Ford, trying to slow for a corner and finding the brakes no longer work, the car spinning, rolling over into the grass.
The police will discover later that the brake lines had been cut, though they'll never find the person responsible.
Jeremy's back will be broken, his hip shattered. He'll walk again, but it will be touch and go for a while. He'll never drive again, though, and Niall's birth will coincide roughly with the end of Top Gear, since despite James and Richard's protestations the BBC will decide they'd rather not carry on without Jeremy.
Somewhere in the back of his mind Stig had known this was coming. He just hadn't thought it would happen so soon. He grips the railing tightly, torn between the need to prevent the danger to his father, and the knowledge that he can't. Mustn't. The accident had led to Jeremy's involvement in politics, had led to his becoming Prime Minister. It had led, directly, to the future that Stig knows must come. If he changes this, he changes everything.
Across the track, the figure working on the Ford lifts his head to look first one direction, then the other, and then drops down, lying flat to slide underneath the front end of the car.
Stig's skin goes even colder, and abruptly a pain sears through his head. He bites down on his lip to keep from crying out. What the fuck is happening? The pain intensifies, and then something seems to burst behind his eyes, swamping his brain in a wash of first sensation and then memory. New memories. The sweet smell of his mother's perfume as she rocks him to sleep after a nightmare. The slippery warmth of Brussels sprouts as he feeds them to the dog under the table on Sundays, and the wry, amused shape of his father's mouth when his mother catches him. The sharp prick of thorns in the hedges surrounding the garden in Chipping Norton. The repetitive thump of bicycle tires over cobblestones, all the way down to his bones. The plaster walls of Katya's room at Balliol, and the graphite marks on her fingertips from the pencil she'd used to take notes in the library. His father teaching him to drive. Fin teaching him how to cheat at poker. His first kiss, and the way his fingers shook when he touched the boy's hand. The time he came home drunk and dropped his keys in the ditch outside the gate and had to choose between calling to wake his parents or sleeping out by the road all night. Buying the tuxedo for Emily's wedding and the tears in his mother's eyes when he'd tried it on. His father, walking her down the aisle, without a cane. His father driving him to school in the mornings, frost on the windows of the Mercedes. His father professing endless disdain for anyone stupid enough to get involved in politics.
He comes back to himself with a start, clinging to the railing outside the portakabin so hard that his knuckles are white. It feels like years have passed, but when he blinks and looks again, the man is still halfway underneath the Focus, and his internal clock tells him that only 4.37548 seconds have passed. The world still looks exactly the same, except that it's wrong.
This is all wrong, Stig realizes. That other timeline - that's what I should remember. That's how it should have happened. Across the car park, the man slides out from underneath the car furtively, and wedges what looks like wire cutters into his back pocket. As his head lifts in profile Stig recognizes him with a total lack of surprise. Cooper. This is what he's doing. He's changing the timeline. This is when it changed. Stig's heart thumps wildly. Shit, I have to stop him.
Before he even finishes the thought, Stig leaps over the railing and takes off across the track. Cooper has shifted himself down to the rear end of the car and leaned down it again, but he obviously hears the pounding of Stig's feet on the concrete as he nears, because he jerks his head up and turns, face twisting into a snarl.
"You!" he says, getting quickly to his feet. "I should have known it was you. Your family just doesn't know when to give up."
"I don't exactly think of it as a character flaw," says Stig, and then he closes the last few paces and swings at Cooper with close to twenty years' worth of violent hatred.
Cooper twists away, but Stig is faster now than when he was fifteen and he clips the other man across the jaw. Then he has to dodge backwards as Cooper takes advantage of his outstretched arm and ducks underneath to punch Stig in the side. Since he's still holding the wire cutters it's even more painful, the solid metal making something crunch faintly inside him. All the air goes out of Stig's lungs, and he just barely manages to get his arm up to block the next blow.
Come on, he tells himself. You can do better than that! Ignoring the pain he twists around to grab Cooper's arm, and once he has a good grip he shoves, smashing Cooper against the side of the car in a maneuver he'd learned from Gaz before his capture. This sparks a memory from the other timeline, and suddenly Stig can remember learning the same trick from Fin when he was fourteen. Having two memories of the same thing makes his head spin briefly, and a split second later Cooper kicks Stig's legs out from under him.
The two of them tumble to the ground, Stig banging his head painfully on the concrete. But he gets control quickly enough to roll them over so that Cooper is beneath him. Cooper still has the wire cutters, and Stig pounds at the wrist of the hand that's holding them until Cooper groans and drops them with a clatter. Yes! Stig thinks, but then Cooper heaves and rolls them again so that he's on top, and then he punches Stig right in the face.
It hurts like hell, and for a moment Stig just lies there, dazed, as Cooper rears back for a second one. But then someone shouts, "Oi!" from a distance, and Cooper is distracted for just long enough that Stig can buck upwards and scramble out from underneath him, aiming a kick at Cooper's ribs as he goes.
Cooper doesn't stay distracted for long, and they both ignore the increased shouting coming across the tarmac as they dive in again, half-wrestling and half still trying to land punches on each other.
"I'm going to kill you, you little bastard," Cooper pants, "if it's the last thing I do." Stig doesn't dignify this with an answer, just gets a hand into Cooper's hair and smashes his face down against the car with a thump. There's blood everywhere now, splattering onto his face and shirt as he smashes Cooper down again. The sound of footsteps is coming closer, and someone shouts his name. It's Jeremy, and Stig knows Andy must be close behind, maybe the others, too.
"And when I'm done with you I'll kill all of them, too," hisses Cooper, twisting free with that snakebite smile. He lands another punch on Stig's chest, making Stig's ribs throb with pain. "I can kill your father fifteen years early, it's no problem."
A surge of hate gives Stig extra strength. He punches Cooper in the face as hard as he can, and then as Cooper staggers back Stig gets his hands around the other man's neck, pressing him down against the car. He ignores Cooper's attempts to throw him off, ignores the fingers scratching at his neck and face, and just squeezes for all he's worth.
Cooper gasps for breath, his eyes rolling back in his head, but Stig doesn't let up. He bears his weight down and squeezes harder, remembering the way his father's body had fallen to the floor, limp and lifeless. This ends, he thinks viciously. This ends right here, right now.
Finally Cooper stops struggling and goes limp, lips blue, but somehow Stig's fingers don't want to let go. His arms are trembling from the strain and there's blood streaming down his face, but he can't make himself move.
"Stiggy," says Jeremy's voice, low and careful. "Stig. Rob. Let go." He puts a hand tentatively on Stig's shoulder, and suddenly with a gasp Stig's body is his own again. He pulls his hands back, and then as Cooper's body slides to the ground Stig turns away, falls to his knees and vomits up everything in his stomach.
I killed him, he thinks. Oh, god, I've killed someone. The fact that it had been Cooper doesn't seem to make it any easier. He'd vowed a thousand times that he'd wipe Cooper off the face of the planet, but until now he hadn't even come close to having the opportunity.
Jeremy squats next to him, one hand resting between Stig's shoulder blades. "Are you okay? Do we need to get you to A&E?" Dimly he realizes that Andy and – oh, bloody wonderful – James and Richard are all just standing there, no doubt not knowing what to make of their friend who's unexpectedly turned out to be a murderer.
He killed you, Stig thinks. God, he killed you right in front of me and he laughed, and then he went on to torture and kill so many more. As sick as he is right now Stig knows he'd kill Cooper a hundred times if it kept that from happening.
"No," he says, panting a little. He spits, trying to clear his mouth. "I'm okay. I'm okay." Gravel digs into the palm of his hand where it's resting against the concrete, and his ribs are throbbing, but he doesn't think anything is seriously broken.
Beside them, Andy rolls the body over with his foot. "Should we be expecting more company? Anyone going to notice he's missing and come looking?" he asks tightly.
Stig shakes his head. "He wouldn't've shared his plans with anyone. At least—" Before he can finish the sentence the air around them twitches. Cooper's body goes blurry, and Andy jumps back with a startled curse as it begins to dissolve, trickling into nothingness like sand slipping away beneath a wave. There's a small flash as it disappears completely. Stig's body feels lighter now, like a weight has been lifted that he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying.
Everybody starts talking at once.
"What the fuck?"
"Did that just—"
"Did you lads see what—"
"Quiet," says Andy, and the others fall silent. "Rob, would you care to explain to us just what the fuck is going on?"
Andy sounds half angry and half frightened, and when Stig looks up he can see the others all have similar expressions on their faces. Stig sucks in a breath, ignoring the pain in his chest, and – maybe it's because Andy had given Stig a job despite being told that some very dangerous men would likely be coming after him, or because Richard looks fierce and protective, or because Stig is in love with James a little bit and can't stand to see him look afraid, or because he wants his father to be proud, or because these four men are all the family he has left – he just doesn't give a fuck about the timeline anymore.
"What do you know about time travel?" he asks.
Chapter 7: And you live in the future
This causes another burst of babbling, but this time it's Jeremy who cuts them off.
"Shut up!" he says. "Stiggy's not going to answer any more questions until he gets looked over."
"I'm fine," Stig says, touched by this show of concern.
Jeremy turns to him fiercely. "You shut the fuck up," he says. "You're not fine."
Stig blinks, but allows himself to be helped to his feet, swaying a little as the blood rushes back into his legs. Richard steps in to help, and Stig gets one arm over his shoulder so that they can hobble into the portakabin, with James going ahead to boil some water and Jeremy and Andy following behind.
Inside, Richard and Jeremy settle Stig onto the sofa. James holds out a damp cloth, his face blank, and Stig tries not to think about that as he takes it and begins to wipe the blood from his face and neck and hands, wincing as he touches his nose, which still really hurts from being punched. The cloth goes deep red in just a few seconds.
I'll never get it all off, Stig thinks. Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him? Christ, don't think about that. Jeremy takes the cloth from his shaking hands and cleans him up a bit more, checking the back of Stig's head for any other injuries and finding none.
"You'll be all right," Jeremy says finally, his voice gruff. "No permanent damage, I don't think." He tosses the cloth into the sink and comes back to sit down next to Stig on the sofa.
"Good," says Andy, who is now standing with his back against the door of the portakabin, blocking any possible escape. "And now, my explanation, if you don't mind."
Stig looks around at the rest of them, taking in Richard's tapping foot, James' carefully neutral expression. He swallows, already regretting his earlier reckless mouth. "I can't say more. Probably shouldn't even have told you that much."
Andy's lips thin. "What happened to 'Too many secrets,' then?"
"It's not—" Stig begins, but Jeremy cuts him off.
"Wait, wait." He runs a hand through his hair. "A long time ago a man came to see me. He knew things about me that no one else knew, thoughts I'd never spoken aloud." Jeremy pauses to make sure that everyone is listening and Stig nods, though he's not sure where this is going. "He told me that there was going to be a point in my life when I needed to make someone trust me, that it would be really important for the story to be told. And when that moment came I was supposed to say," he pauses, lips pursed, looking off into space as if to make sure he gets it right, "'We cannot rely on those who believe themselves extraordinary to look out for the interests of those who are ordinary.'"
Stig sucks in a surprised breath, the blood draining from his face. There is absolutely no way Jeremy could know that, absolutely no way, unless… Unless someone had gone back into the past and told him.
"That means something to you," Andy says, and Stig nods, slowly.
"Yeah," he says. He has to trust that whoever had talked to Jeremy had known what they were doing. "Yeah. All right." He takes a deep breath, trying to figure out where to start. "In the not-too distant future, there's… Some scientists figure out how to make time travel happen. I don't actually know a lot about how it works, but I know that it does, because that's where I came from."
"Come on," says Richard dismissively. "Really?"
James says nothing, but pointedly.
"I know it's hard to believe," Stig says. "But, what you saw out there. Can you explain that any other way?"
"When you came here," Andy says, "you said there were people looking for you. Was he one of them?"
"Yes. He was it, actually – he was—Well. I don't think 'evil mastermind' would be too strong. But he didn't know I was here. He was— shit, the Ford!" He'd completely forgotten about Cooper's handiwork. "You can't let anyone drive it," he tells Andy urgently. "He was cutting the brakes, and I think he'd got a good head start on it before I realized what was going on."
"But I'm scheduled to film with it tomorrow," Jeremy says.
"Yeah," says Stig heavily. "I know." No one misses the implications of the statement.
"So he was trying to kill me?" Jeremy asks.
"Well," Stig says, and then Andy cuts in again.
"Hang on. Why don't you start from the beginning?"
"Right," says Stig. "Sorry, right." He takes a deep breath, looking down at his hands. The beginning of it is going to be the hardest part. "I was— will be— was born in the summer of 2010. My… my birth name is Niall Robert Clarkson."
Jeremy's face goes white, and there are shocked gasps from both Richard and James. In the back of Stig's mind he notes that Andy is the only one who doesn't actually look surprised, and he wonders how long ago he'd figured it out. But mostly he's watching Jeremy, waiting for whatever comes next – perhaps a denial, perhaps a punch in the face.
"You're—" Jeremy says. "Are you—"
Stig's voice is almost steady. "My parents are Jeremy and Francie Clarkson—" and then he can't say anything else, because Jeremy is hugging him, his arms tight around Stig's back, one hand pressed to the back of Stig's head as he buries his face in Jeremy's shoulder. His ribs ache like the devil and his nose is throbbing with pain, but he doesn't care, just hangs on tight.
"Oh my god, oh my god," Richard is saying, but Stig tunes him out, focusing on the smell of his father's tobacco and aftershave, achingly familiar and comforting, the feeling of his father's arms around him. God, I've missed this. He feels safe, really safe, for the first time in probably years.
Finally they break apart, and Jeremy's hands stroke over his head briefly as he pulls away.
"You've got my hair, boy," he says gruffly. Stig is grinning, can't seem to help himself.
"Yes, and I think about that every time you tell me how ridiculous it looks," he says. Jeremy looks momentarily pained, but he can't seem to stifle his own grin, either.
"Bloody hell," he says. "Stiggy— Niall— Shit, I don't even know what to call you."
"Stig," he says immediately. "Or Rob. I haven't gone by Niall in a long time, and anyway he's going to come along soon enough and it'll be better if you keep us separate."
Jeremy's eyes look like they're about to bug out of his head, but he nods. "Right. Christ, it's going to take a bit to get my head 'round that."
For a moment they're the only two people in the room. Then Andy clears his throat, and says, "So that's why you came here."
"Well," says Stig. "Sort of." He starts with the wrong timeline, telling of Jeremy's accident and then later the fire that had taken the lives of the rest of the family, sparing the two of them only because they'd been out at the time. Jeremy's hand tightens on the edge of the sofa cushion, but Stig keeps talking, not giving him time to interrupt. He talks of how Jeremy had turned to politics, of his overwhelming popularity, of the way he'd proved to be too independent for the taste of those who had helped him to power. Of how they'd killed him, faked it as a terrorist attack, and put the country under martial law. Of how Stig had run, how he'd worked with the resistance movement to spread the truth, until he'd been captured. Of how they'd experimented on him.
Here Stig pauses and peels back the bioplastic from his fingers, letting James and Richard see the metal underneath. James reaches out to touch, then draws back his hand hastily. Stig swallows hard then, tells himself he doesn't have the luxury of being hurt now. Wallow later.
He glosses over his time in captivity, but he can tell that none of them have missed how talking about it makes him tense up. Jeremy slings an arm over his shoulder but mercifully doesn't ask any questions, and Stig goes on to talk briefly about his escape, how he'd managed to send himself back and sabotage the machine at the same time, so that no one could follow him.
"Then I found my way here, sweet-talked my way into a job," and here he gives Andy a sheepish look, "and tried to stay under the radar. With a fair bit of success, I think, until today." Stig pauses, his throat hoarse from talking. James gets up and goes to the sink, filling a mug with water and handing it to him. Stig nods his thanks, not letting their eyes meet.
"So, what happened today?" Richard asks breathlessly.
"Well you know that whole story I just told you? The thing is, that's not how it happened. At least, that's not how it should have happened. You see, in the right timeline, there wasn't any of that. There was no accident. There was no fire. My father never went into politics, and there was never a coup." He takes a long drink of water and sets the mug down on the coffee table. "Cooper – that's the man I… I killed – I'm guessing he made all that happen, sent himself back to change the timeline the way he wanted it. He cut the brakes on the car and caused the accident, and then he probably went and talked to his younger self, got himself into a position to take advantage of what he'd done. Only I didn't know that's what had happened until I was there to watch him doing it. I only knew because I was there."
"So why didn't we know?" Richard asks. "I mean, we were there, too. And why've you still got your metal bits if you stopped all of that from happening?"
"I don't know!" Stig says, throwing up his hands with frustration. "I really don't. Bloody hell, you've no idea how many times this week I've wished I'd paid more attention in school when we were learning this stuff. I can make some guesses, but…"
"Hmmm," says Richard, mouth twisting sideways in thought. James runs a hand over his chin, face still impassive.
"More importantly," Andy says, "what's to stop Cooper from doing it all over again? Because the one who's like us, not having lived it, he's still out there. Isn't he?"
Stig nods, slowly. "Yeah. The Cooper I killed" – and it's easier to say this time, like he's getting used to the idea, and he doesn't know if that horrifies him more or less than anything else that's happened today – "he was definitely from my time or later. He knew me. He sent himself back to do it."
"So we have to find the one who's from this time, and make sure he doesn't get any ambitious ideas," Jeremy concludes, cracking his knuckles.
"You let me worry about that," Andy says firmly. "Stig and I will have a chat later to fill in some details and I'll take care of it." Jeremy gives him a look but eventually subsides, nodding.
"All right." Then he turns back to look at Stig. "Bloody hell, Stiggy. You really lived through… all that?"
"Yeah," Stig says, leaning back against the sofa cushions. He scrubs his hands over his face, wincing as they touch his nose, which still aches. "Lived through it twice, now. I mean, it's weird. Up until half an hour ago the only life I could remember was that one. And now I've got two sets of memories. One life where Cooper was… well, where there was Cooper. And then another one where I never met him, where I've got a family." Jeremy squeezes his shoulder.
"Maybe that's why…" He wiggles his fingers. "If I didn't have these, if I hadn't lived through it, then I couldn't've come back and stopped it... Christ, I don't know. It's too bloody complicated."
At this James starts, and Stig can't help looking at him, drawn by the sudden movement. James meets his gaze almost involuntarily, eyes hooded. Richard starts babbling something at Andy, with Jeremy interjecting every few words, but Stig doesn't really hear any of it, caught up instead in the way James' gaze seems to pierce through his skin and flesh to the bare wire beneath.
James says, very slowly, "Could you chaps bugger off for a few minutes, please?"
Richard stops talking and looks at James instead, tilting his head to one side the way he does when he's trying to suss something out. James doesn't look away from Stig's face.
"Of course," Andy says. Jeremy makes a protesting noise, but Andy jerks his head towards the door and after a moment Jeremy sighs and gets up.
"We'll be back in five minutes," he says.
"Fifteen," Andy clarifies firmly. "It'll take at least that long for us to sort out the Ford."
"Fuck, the Ford," Richard says, and gets up to follow Andy out. Jeremy is the last one to leave, and he gives them each a look before closing the door, as if he's not quite sure which of them to warn against hurting the other.
As soon as the door closes James tears his gaze away and gets up, walking to the window of the office and resting his hands on the windowsill. Stig hauls himself to his feet, weary and sore but wanting to be on even footing if he possibly can. For a moment James doesn't speak, and Stig traces his eyes over the shape of James' shoulders, wishing he could put his hands there, pull James close, make him understand.
Then, suddenly, James starts to laugh, a low, rueful chuckle. "So when you said, 'It's complicated,'" he says, turning, "you weren't actually exaggerating."
Stig feels something inside him ease. "No," he says. "Not really." He starts to rub his hands over his face again in his habitual nervous gesture, but stops before he can aggravate his nose again. "I wasn't planning on telling you all of this, any of this, even. But then the other night... somehow I thought – It just didn't seem fair to start something and not tell you. And I thought it highly likely that if you did find out – about Jeremy, about my weird electronics and things – then you'd want nothing to do with me." He can't quite keep the questioning note out of his voice.
"Don't you already know what my answer is going to be?" James asks, voice low. It takes a second before Stig figures out what he means by that.
"Oh," he says. "Oh, no, no. It doesn't…" He turns and walks away for a moment, trying to get hold of himself, then turns back. "It doesn't work that way," he explains. "This—" he waves a hand between them, "it's not significant. Wait, that's not what I mean. Of course it's significant to you and me, but not to," he waves a hand, "to the universe. Whether we give this a go or not, it doesn't change the big picture of how things turn out, not like what Cooper was trying to do. He was altering the whole course of the British government, and that has long-reaching consequences. But this is just you and me, and it can go whichever way we want it to."
There's silence for a moment as James thinks this over. Stig's heart is ticking wildly. "But don't you remember?" James asks. "You've got your memories of the… of the real timeline now. I noticed you were careful not to say too much about what's actually going to happen. So don't you remember... yourself? Your adult self, I mean."
"Vaguely," Stig admits. "It was a long time ago, for me. I remember that the adult Stig existed, and that you and he were friends. But that doesn't mean… You kept your private life private, that's what I remember. And…" he feels a sudden, mischievous urge overtake him, "if I'm honest, Uncle Richard was always my favorite."
James barks out a laugh, and Stig feels the tick of his heart slow marginally from its frantic pace. We can get through this. Even if he doesn't want— At least we can be friends. Then James crosses the floor in two steps and takes him by the shoulders in a swift, firm grip.
"You're an infuriating little bastard," James says, "and I don't understand you in the least, but I can't help... I can't help..." and then he appears to give up on words entirely, just leans in to press his lips to Stig's in a fierce kiss that utterly takes his breath away.
James' mouth is hot, demanding, and Stig gives himself up to it. Months of pent up wanting make him groan at the first touch of skin on skin. Stig parts his lips, James' moist breath curling against the corner of his mouth, and then James is kissing him more deeply, tongue sweeping over lips and teeth. Fuck, yes, Stig thinks, and reaches for James' waist, pulling him closer as they kiss urgently. James' grip on him tightens; he tastes of tea and butter, and Stig goes a bit dizzy with lust when their tongues slide desperately against each other.
Eventually he has to break the kiss, breathing heavily, and he rests his forehead against James' cheek. James turns, pressing kisses to Stig's face, but the moment his lips touch Stig's nose the pain flares up again, a jagged slash down the center of his face. Stig makes an involuntary noise, and James pulls back, one eyebrow arched in inquiry.
"Sorry," Stig says hoarsely. "Still sore. Doesn't matter—" He leans in for another kiss; one of James' hands curls around the back of his neck and the other slides down his arm, coming to rest on the crook of Stig's elbow. This kiss is, if possible, even more passionate than the first – hotter, wetter – and Stig starts to think very seriously about whether it's practical to fuck over the back of the sofa.
Before they can get too carried away, though, there's the sound of stomping feet outside the portakabin. Richard's voice says, dryly, "I think they'll have heard you, Jezza."
James pulls away from the kiss, grinning, and the brightness of his smile makes Stig's heart turn over.
"The first time you walk in on them I'm going to say 'I told you so,'" says Jeremy's voice.
Something swells up inside Stig's chest and he begins to laugh quietly, ribs aching with the effort of keeping the laughter from getting away from him. James squeezes his arm, then leans in to kiss him again quickly before straightening his shoulders.
"I suppose we'd better put them out of their misery," James says. "Before Jezza's imagination starts to run wild and he scars himself for life." He lets go, and Stig only has a moment to feel the loss of warmth before James sweeps an intense gaze over him and murmurs, "The rest later."
Stig nods, still grinning, and opens the door to let them in.
Chapter 8: And the future is here; it's bright; it's now
Rob is running.
"Come bloody on, you utter sloth," he urges over his shoulder, though he knows James is only a step or two behind, walking swiftly but with dignity. Rob's trainers scuff along the gravel of the drive as they pass row after row of cars, each more exotic and ridiculous than the last. Parked off to one side, half in the hedge, Rob spots a bright yellow Ford GT.
I could never mistake this for a run-of-the-mill garden party, Rob thinks, not with this crowd.
"They'll still be there in two minutes," James remarks mildly. "In fact, that's rather the purpose of the thing, to have everyone there." It's enough to make Rob slow his pace, dropping back to give James an apologetic smile.
"Sorry," he mutters, jogging a little in place with stifled impatience. "It's just—"
"You're an impatient little shit," James says fondly. "At least you come by it honestly."
Before Rob can come up with a snappy reply they reach the door, and James rings the bell. Sighing, Rob leans back against one of the columns beside the door, tilting his head back to stare at the ivy growing down over the neat lines of the gutters. A moment later he shifts again; he hadn't aligned himself correctly and he's edgy enough already without adding magnetic stress to anticipation and nervousness. There's a low, ever-present rumble of noise from the party, back in the garden behind the house.
"You sure this is going to be okay?" James asks him after a moment. "I mean, if the universe explodes because you got too close to yourself, I'm afraid I'm going to be quite miffed."
Rob chokes out a laugh, groping sideways blindly until he finds James' hand and can give it a squeeze. "It's fine," he says. "I'll have you know I've been doing some actual bloody research on this, and I feel confident that I am not going to bring about the apocalypse." Not to mention the fact that he knows from memory that he hadn't avoided touching Niall for the rest of the boy's life.
The door opens, and Emily greets them both with outstretched arms. "James! And Rob! So glad you came." She hugs them both, briefly, and Rob is warmed by it. He and Jeremy and Francie had decided, in the end, not to tell the children the truth; instead they'd 'discovered' Rob as a distant cousin, attached to a member of the Clarkson family who was, conveniently, deceased. It had been a pleasant surprise to find how enthusiastically the younger members of the family had welcomed him.
"Mum's in the living room," Emily says, ushering them in. "Dad's... somewhere. Probably out in the garden setting things on fire."
They both laugh. "You on door duty, then?" Rob asks.
"Yep. I don't mind, though. It's a bit quieter here."
After chatting a bit more they pass into the living room to find Francie sitting on the sofa, surrounded by a flock of women all cooing quietly over the baby she has in her lap. It's a spectacle that makes James go weirdly stiff, and Rob elbows him lightly before stepping across the rug to greet her with a kiss on the top of her head and a half-hug. She looks weary, but radiant.
"Hey," Francie says, and tilts her arms so that baby Niall's sleeping face is visible in the light. "Look who I've got here." From behind, James' hand rests on Rob's shoulder, warm and solid and comforting.
He looks like a baby, Rob thinks. He's not sure what he had been expecting. More hair, perhaps. He reaches out carefully, tracing the soft, warm skin of Niall's arm. "He's lovely," he says, awkwardly, mostly because it's the thing to say. Francie meets his eyes and from the faint glimmer of humor there Rob can tell she's enjoying the irony of the situation.
"Get on with you," she says, a little twist forming at the corner of her mouth. "I'm sure you two would much rather be out in the garden watching the ritual charring of sausages than hanging about in here with us womenfolk."
Rob tilts his head in acceptance of the truth of this statement. 'Later,' he mouths, and then retreats, following James towards the more raucous sounds of music and conversation audible from the door to the garden. As they reach the doorway, though, he stops, one hand on the door frame, to look back at his younger self.
Quietly he murmurs, "Some say he lives happily ever after."