Vila took stock of the place before he ventured in. The long room was ill-lit and instead of being filled with loud and friendly chatter like the pubs he knew back home, it was quiet with just a few morose drinkers hunched at the bar. Didn't look like the sort of place to get a decent feed, and he was hungry as well as thirsty. He approached the bar with caution; this place--and time--was alien.
"Don't suppose you serve meals here, do you?" he asked the barman diffidently.
"You suppose right. What the hell d'you think this is, a restaurant?"
Maybe, thought Vila, restaurants could also do you a pint or two. Sounded a better bet. He looked at his teleport bracelet in the forlorn hope that it might come alive with Jenna or Cally's voice.
"I know a good place," one of the drinkers said, sliding off his stool. "It's just around the corner. I'll be happy to show you."
"Very kind of you. Don't want to interrupt your fun though." Vila looked curiously at the empty glass with the cherry, and a quarter-slice of orange impaled on the edge. "You want another one of those?"
"Oh, that's all right. I only needed the one. I'm meeting my girlfriend at the comic-book store." He put out his hand. "Raj Koothrappali."
"Nice outfit!" Raj said admiringly. "I do like the matching suede top and bottom."
"Oh, really? Thanks!"
"Who are you supposed to be?"
"Um, just me. Why?"
"Oh come on, haven't you just come from the big con in LA or something?"
"Eh? Not really my line of work. I'm not much good at lies."
"I don't think role-playing is lying at all. Relax, you are talking to a fellow nerd here. It was only because of that awesome bracelet you're wearing," he added admiringly. "It looks very sci-fi. I love the hot pink Perspex bit."
Vila tried to catch up. "Very what?"
"Sci-fi. You know, science fiction."
"Oh yeah, I like SF."
"I can see that. Sorry that I'm being slow, but what show are you from?"
"Television series. Or is it a comic?"
Comprehension dawned. "You mean a vid like Alien Emergency?"
Raj wrinkled his brow. "I don't know that one."
What the hell; the Liberator'd be sure to pick him up soon. "Well, you wouldn't. Haven't made it yet."
"Oh, that's good. I do admire how you're staying in character."
Vila mentally rubbed his hands. If this bloke thought he was pretending to be someone from a vid show, like some people did on Freedom City, then it really didn't matter what he said. Much easier than thinking up believable explanations and trying to fit into a culture he didn't know anything about.
"Does the bracelet do anything?" asked Raj, trawling for a clue.
"Teleport," Vila said casually. "Look, I could murder a beer, but I'm on the far side of peckish. You sure they don't have food here?"
Raj screwed up his nose. "Only peanuts people have picked through with their filthy hands."
"So you can't get meals in a bar?"
"Only if it's a hamburger bar or a coffee bar."
"How about you show me this place you were talking about, then."
"Can I keep guessing on the way?"
Vila grinned. "Knock yourself out!"
"Not Star Trek or you'd say 'transporter'. Battlestar Galactica?"
"Nope, whatever that is."
"Never heard of it. Maybe it's one of the banned ones."
"Sheldon would agree with that. Hmm. It has to be something obscure. I know! Farscape!"
"Nah. But a good one! I mean, escaped prisoners and all. Got hold of some black market vids once."
They were halfway down the block when Raj's communicator rang. "Oh, no" He looked at it mournfully.
"What's the matter?"
"My girlfriend's called off our meeting. She got a delivery from FedEx today and she says she's socialised out." Raj pushed his lower lip out in a miserable pout.
Vila hadn't the slightest idea what most of that meant. "Sorry to hear it. Maybe you can buy her one of the funny books."
"Funny books?" Raj stared. "Oh, comics!" He brightened. "Oh well, never mind, I'll take you to see my friends at the Cheesecake Factory. They'll love you."
That'll make a change from life's usual pattern, Vila thought, then stopped as he processed the rest. "Factory? Look, my stomach's stuck to my backbone; I'm not exactly in the mood for a factory tour."
"Oh no, it's not a factory. It's an eating place."
"Cheese cakes? Bit of a contradiction in terms, surely?" Vila gave Raj a speculative look. "Actually I wouldn't mind getting myself outside a good hot curry."
"Indian food?" Raj pulled a face. "I'm not at all fond of Indian food. Anyway, don't worry." He laid a consoling hand on Vila's arm. "They have hamburgers and salads and all sorts of tasty items."
"Could've gone for a good veggie vinders, but lead on, mate!"
It really wasn't a factory, Vila was relieved to see (unless the cheesy cake production lines were out the back). He looked around, taking in the diners, the well-stocked bar, and the very attractive female wait staff. "Not a bad choice!"
Raj headed straight for a table with three men seated at it. "Hello there. Room for two more?"
"I thought you had a date," the one wearing a hoodie under a jacket said.
"Lucy cancelled. Too much socialising." Raj looked briefly mournful. "But this is Vila, and you have to guess what show he's from."
"Oh, really?" The hoodie guy leaned back and gave Vila an interested look. "Cosplayer from the LA con, is he?"
"That's right. Have a seat, Vila." Raj indicated the place at the end of the table, and sat down beside the guy with the bowl haircut.
"So, have you guessed?" asked the tall thin one in a dinosaur t-shirt over long sleeves.
"Not yet. Oh, but I am forgetting my manners. Vila, this is Sheldon, Leonard, and Howard."
"Friends of yours, then?"
"Oh yes, and colleagues too. We all work at Caltech."
Vila looked blank. "So you're technicians?"
"See, he's good." Raj looked around, beaming with proprietary pride.
"Only one of us is," Sheldon said to Vila.
"Engineer. I'm an engineer," Howard muttered.
"The rest of us are physicists," said Raj. "Astro in my case."
"Theoretical in mine and only theoretically in Leonard's," Sheldon said, and did three quick snorts in succession; Leonard just looked long-suffering.
"Oh, really?" That, Vila thought, might turn out useful if Avon didn't manage to get his hands on the stuff he thought he needed.
"I'm also an astronaut," Howard said, elaborately casual.
Avon was obviously wrong about the level of technology in this time. "Really? Which systems have you been to?" Vila asked with interest.
"Apart from the waste recycling ones he designs, you mean?" Sheldon said gleefully.
"Oh, do play along," Raj said plaintively. "Vila's from the future so he doesn't know we've only gotten to the moon."
"Bit of a misnomer, astronaut, then," said Vila. "Shouldn't it be lunanaut?"
"Oh, bazinga!" Sheldon's mouth curved in satisfaction. "And Howard never even got that far. He was a mere orbital terranaut."
"Shut up," Howard said, miserably wriggling in his seat. He looked up, relieved. "Ah, Penny!"
"Okay, boys, what'll it be?" asked a pretty blonde girl in a tight yellow vest. "Apart from Sheldon's standing order of course. Ooh, you have a new playmate!" She gave Vila a friendly smile. "What would you like?"
"Ummmm." Vila ran his eyes over the menu. "Right, I'll go for the four-cheese pasta as long as there's no cake in it. And... what would you recommend to wash it down, Raj?"
"With that? I would say pina colada."
"All right, one of those. D'you take credits?" Vila pulled a handful of coins out of his pocket.
"Oh, nice!" Raj picked a coin up and turned it in the light. "Terran Federation ten credits," he read out. "And made of metal too. You don't do things by halves, do you?"
"We don’t give credit." Penny's warmth had evaporated.
"I was going to give them." Vila searched another pocket. "All right, what about vems then?"
"What sort of currency is that?" Sheldon grabbed one and peered at it.
"We take dollars. US dollars." Penny pushed out her lips in censure.
"Don't worry, Penny, Vila is my guest," Raj said expansively. "I'll pay."
"You've already had a little drink, haven't you, sweetie?" Penny said to Raj, then gave Vila a stern look. "Any jokes about my name from you, coin-boy, and Ill lick your plate." When Vila looked interested rather than concerned, she tossed her ponytail and looked around the table. "Right. What about the rest of you?"
"My usual," said Sheldon.
"Bacon cheeseburger," Howard said with an almost furtive guilty pleasure.
"Beef burger for me." Raj said, giving Howard a challenging look.
Penny noted them down. "Any other dietary restrictions, religious or otherwise, being flouted today?"
"If Leonard flouts his, he can do so at another table," Sheldon said pointedly.
"Yeah, yeah, Burrito Grande, hold-the-cheese-and-sour cream."
Penny smirked. "As I thought."
"Right, back to the game." Sheldon pulled a credit towards him and examined it. "'Terran Federation' and a sideways Star Fleet logo. Oh, this is too obvious."
"It's not Star Trek," Raj said smugly. "He teleports. He doesn't use a transporter beam."
"Ah, but that could be a purely military term. Look at him: he's a civilian. He might call it teleporting."
Vila grinned. "You think I'm from that old vid series? The Federation likes to show it now and then to make people think they're not the utter bastards they actually are. I think they nicked the logo to help that idea along," he added confidentially.
"Interesting. So there are references to Star Trek."
"There are references to it everywhere," Leonard said impatiently. "It's part of popular culture."
"He has a British accent," Raj said. "I'd say a companion from Doctor Who."
Sheldon shook his head. "None of them were called Vila."
"He could be a minor one in a novel or an audio. Or from some really obscure British television series we've hardly heard of." Raj turned to Vila. "Okay, do you have wobbly sets, wibbly-wobbly time, or any other wobbly bits?"
"That's a bit personal isn't it?" Vila said, thoroughly enjoying himself.
"I know!" Sheldon bounced in his seat. "Star Wars! That's a huge canon." He raised his eyebrows at Vila.
"You can't ask him directly," Raj said. "He's in character. He wouldn't know his universe was called Star Wars, would he?"
"Good point. Do you use light sabres?"
"It's a simple question. Sabres made of light."
"You mean like swords? Don't see the point. Far too personal. I prefer being as far as possible from people who're trying to kill me. Why use a sword if you've got technology that can throw things?"
Sheldon blinked, disconcerted and more than a little disillusioned.
"And besides," Raj said, "He already said he was from the future."
"You omitted that piece of relevant information." Sheldon snapped. "How far into the future?"
Vila shrugged. "Thousand years or so, I think. Maybe two."
"So what is your weapon of choice, Vila?" asked Raj.
"Neutron blasters!" Sheldon looked intrigued. "As a hand weapon?"
"Course not. Ship-to-ship."
"So what do you use when you're up close and personal?" Howard asked.
"My natural wit and charm?"
"A man after my own heart. And style."
"In your dreams," said Sheldon.
"If you mean combat," Vila said, "I use my feet--going as fast as possible in the other direction."
Howard nodded approvingly. "And I say again."
"It does seem a most sensible fandom," Raj said.
And this seems a very sensible time, not to mention a fun one. Vila regarded his teleport bracelet thoughtfully, then quietly removed it, setting it on the table in front of him.
"What happens," Raj asked with interest, "when you press the big pink button? Are you teleported?"
Howard leered. "That's one way of putting it!"
"Not unless someone on the Liberator pulls a lever," said Vila with a sly wink at him. "The pink button," he explained to Raj, "is the power crystal."
"Crystals as a power source?" Sheldon said scornfully. "That never made the slightest bit of scientific sense. You might as well say you use magic."
"Probably looks like that to someone in your time," Vila said equably.
"Oh, very facile." Sheldon sulked briefly, but was distracted by the appearance of his barbecue bacon cheeseburger; barbecue, bacon and cheese on the side.
"Here you go." Penny plonked Vila's pasta down in front of him; Vila sniffed appreciatively. Very cheesy and there was a reassuring lack of cake.
There was relative silence for a few minutes as everyone dug in.
"They use crystals in Superman," Sheldon said, putting his fork down briefly. "Are you from a comic universe?"
"Dunno about your sense of humour," said Vila, "but it's a right barrel of laughs, I don't say. 'Specially when you take the mind control, bent legal system, slavery, and the occasional massacre into account."
"That's a terrible pun."
"Oh no, Sheldon, he's just being in character. If they don't have comics in Vila's universe, how can he know what they are?" Raj said defensively. "Especially if it is one."
Vila gave up on that as too obscure to unravel, and tried his pina colada. "Mmmm." He closed his eyes with pleasure.
"I told you it was tasty, didn't I?" said Raj.
"Mate, you're an expert on the good things in life."
"So how many systems have you been to, then?" asked Howard, still smarting from the lunanaut crack.
"Haven't kept count. Thirty, forty, I don't know."
"How many galaxies?"
"Eh? Just the one. There's a lot of space between them, you know."
"How long," Raj asked, "would it take to cross ours?"
"Not sure. Ages! Several months, probably."
Howard's eyes widened. "What sort of drive?"
"Do you use hyperspace?" Raj said.
Vila asked only that a ship worked properly, not how. "Where else would I store my hypers?" he said, hoping to hide his ignorance.
"Vila?" Avon's voice came from the bracelet, making a useful (for the moment, anyway) distraction. "Where are you?"
Vila lifted the bracelet to his mouth. "I think it's called a hamburger bar."
"I want a modified cell like that," Sheldon said covetously.
"Shush." Raj put his finger to his lips. "This must be another character."
Sheldon jiggled in his chair with excitement. "Ooh, I want to play too. Who can I be?"
"Who are you with?" demanded Avon.
"Did you find the fusion power source you wanted?"
"No. We're several decades too early."
"Look, these guys might be able to help. There's three physicists, one of 'em astro, and an engineer like you, Avon."
There was an ominous silence.
"Everyone's a critic," Howard muttered resentfully. "Engineers actually get things done."
"Are you completely out of what little mind you have?" Avon said finally. "What are you trying to do, wipe out our future?"
"Nah, listen, it's completely safe. They think I'm playing a character from a vid series so I can say what I like."
"If you change anything in this time, we'll never have existed."
"Well, it's all right so far. We're still here. Besides, if that happened, I'd never know, would I?"
"Of course you mightn't change the future at all, just create a new timeline branching off from this point," Leonard pointed out. "Like Star Trek reboot."
"Of course I mightn't change the future at all, just create a new timeline branching off from this point," said Vila into the bracelet.
"Vila. I--" there was a pause. "I'll get back to you. Don't do anything. Don't say anything. Don't sink below your usual stunningly abysmal levels of stupidity."
Vila rolled his eyes.
"Ooh, I want to play him!" Sheldon said.
"What at?" Vila asked, both puzzled at the comment and resentful at Avon's attitude. "Chess? If he turns up here, you're welcome to him." He went back to the remains of his pasta.
"No, play his part," Raj explained.
"His what?" Vila almost choked on a mouthful. "Oh, you mean be Avon?" He shrugged. "No accounting for taste. I'd rather be someone with more friends than just me." He thought about that for a moment. "Not that I'm that much better off these days, come to think of it."
"Oh no, you have me!" Raj said.
"Really? Thanks, mate!" Vila lifted his glass to Raj and drank.
Vila sighed. "Here we go again." He picked up the bracelet. "Yeah?"
"Blake has informed me that Orac has the solution: go back through the wormhole at the same velocity."
"I could've thought that one up! In fact I did."
"Yes. As could anyone with half a brain, but it required at least a half to accept the suggestion."
"I take it Blake wouldn't buy it till Orac put his oar in."
"Quite." Avon sounded weary.
"So, do we have enough power?"
"We will if we pass close enough to the sun. Prepare to teleport."
Vila dropped the bracelet.
"Vila! What the hell happened?" Then more quietly, "Just what are you doing, Vila?"
"Thinking about my options. And don't say don't be stupid."
There was another pause. "All right then, I won't. Just put the bracelet back on."
"I like it here."
Raj put his hand on Vila's arm. "You did say you're his friend. You should go with him."
Sheldon snorted. "It's a role-play, Raj."
"I don't think it is."
"Oh, come on, Raj!" Leonard objected. "What else could it be?"
That must have been hard for Avon to say. Quickly, before he could change his mind, Vila slid the bracelet on. "Thanks, Raj, it was fun," he said, then, "Ready to teleport."
For a brief instant he was outlined in light, then he... just wasn't there.
"It could be real," said Raj, answering Leonard's question.
"Oh, man." Howard sat back, stunned.
"You do all realise that we can't ever tell anyone, don't you." Sheldon said flatly, then whimpered and put his head in his arms on the table.
"If we don't want to be considered nuts for the rest of our lives, yeah." Leonard stared into space. "I don't believe it."
"Come on!" Raj leaped to his feet, face alight with enthusiasm. "So what if we can't talk about it. We met a guy from the future and we saw him teleport. We know that, and faster-than-light travel, and humans colonising the galaxy are all possible now, and that is a an incredibly hopeful and wonderful thing!"
He watched as it hit the rest of them.
"See?" said Vila. "Nothing's changed. We're still looking for Star One with Servalan and Travis after us. Same old Blake with his big ideas, same Jenna hoping he'll get some different ones, same Cally checking up on the adrenaline and soma levels. Same old universe."
"Yes. Despite your inadvertent efforts to erase it."
"See?" said the other Vila. "Nothing's changed. We're still blowing up boring old Space Fleet communication centres with Star-Killer Samor after us. Same old Blake with his big ideas, same Jenna backing him up, same good old steady Gan, rock-salt of the earth, well, Liberator. Same Cally trying to teach me how to be a guerrilla, same Nova bouncing around full of annoying enthusiasm. Same old universe."
"Yes. It seems to have survived even your interference."