More days of tests and studying followed. Neil refrained from kissing her again, but little touches and looks here and there said more than a hundred kisses. Every time he brushed his hand against the small of her back Ruth’s knees went weak. She found herself dreading the moment when they were ready. She lay awake at night trying to find a way that it would be okay.
They could wait, have their time together and she could leave years later, but how much harder would it be to say goodbye then? Maybe she could take him with her, but what about the life he was supposed to live? No matter which way she looked at it, they risked changing the future, and they had no idea what the implications would be.
After her mistake in the pyramid field, Neil drilled her on recognising the different symbols so she could operate the machine without him. They documented even more of the device and corrected mistakes in their interpretation. Through trial and error they worked out ways to calibrate the various time measurement systems to scales they understood.
When they ran their first set of faultless tests, they both knew it was time to make a decision.
“I should just go now,” Ruth said, shaking. “We don’t really know how long the power will last.”
Neil stepped towards her and gripped her upper arms. “Don’t. Just one more day.”
Eyes downcast, she squeezed back threatening tears. “What’s the point? It’s not like I can stay.”
“I know. But I also know I’ll regret it forever if I let you go without you knowing.”
“Neil, I know, I do.”
He ran his hands down her arms and took her hands in his. “One more night then, go tomorrow morning.”
A hard lump rose up in her throat and she let it out as a little cry as she turned away. “It’ll just make it harder.”
Neil’s breath warmed her neck and he put his arms around her. “Love is pain, they say,” he whispered. “I would rather know what I’m losing than always wonder. Just one night, please. I promise I won’t make it hard tomorrow.”
Not trusting her voice, she nodded. Neil kissed her shoulder and she pressed back into him.
“Meet me by the pond later, at sunset,” he said.
She nodded again, still choking on the lump in her throat.
They returned to the camp and Neil disappeared. Ruth spent what little remained of the afternoon setting her things in order. She laid out her twenty-first century clothes ready for the morning and spent some time around the camp, helping Itza with chores and playing with the children.
When the sun began to dip towards the horizon, she gathered a towel and torch from Neil’s tent and set out along the path to the pond. As she drew closer, lights flickered through the trees, bobbing like fireflies. She emerged into the clearing and covered her mouth with a shaking hand. Candles burned all around the rim of the pond and floated on the surface in little paper boats.
Neil jumped down from his perch on a rock outcrop and approached her.
“Neil, why are you doing this?”
“Because I want to remember this, because I want you to remember me.”
Tears pricked her eyes. “I couldn’t ever—”
He cut her off with a kiss then pressed his forehead to hers. “Let’s just pretend there’s no past and no future tonight. There’s nothing but the present.”
How could she ignore what was going to happen tomorrow? The old Ruth would have run from this, to save herself the pain she knew it would bring. But over the last ten days she’d done things she would never have tried, found courage she never knew she had, and strength. And most of that was because of the man stood before her.
She stepped into him and pressed her lips to his. She focused on the feel of his body against hers, the taste of his kiss, the thrill of his hands sliding into her hair, and let everything else fade away.
Neil drew back. “Swim with me.”
Ruth bit her lip and nodded.
He stripped off first and then slipped into the water and turned his back while she undressed, ever the gentleman. The warm night air kissed her flushed skin and a furnace of heat welled up inside her. The cool water drew gasps from her lips as she slid into the pond.
They kicked a lazy circuit around the pond, sharing kisses and talking of timeless things, like their favourite places, foods they liked, and people in their lives.
“The names under the waterfall,” Ruth said, staring up at the luminous edge of the moon creeping over the tree line. “What are they?”
“It’s hard to say how they would have been pronounced. They’re not like other names you find in the record. But, roughly translated, the female name means ‘companion’ or ‘faithful in friendship’ and the male name is ‘champion’ or ‘hero’.”
“I hope they found a way to be happy,” Ruth said.
“So do I.”
When they returned to the flat edge where they’d entered the water. Neil swam to the side and snagged a rope dangling into the water. He drew up the bottle attached to the end.
He hauled himself out of the water and stood naked on the edge of the pool, wet skin glistening in the newly rising moonlight. Ruth’s body tingled with heat and anticipation. Her stomach fluttered at the thought of him seeing her, touching her, but the desire in his eyes quelled her fear. She climbed out and joined him. He led her a few paces around the pool to a tiny clearing shielded by a rocky outcrop.
Several layers of blankets padded the firm ground, and more candles and lanterns hung from the trees. Neil dropped to his knees on the blanket and pulled the cork from the wine bottle. He poured two measures into tin mugs.
“No glasses, I’m afraid,” he said.
Ruth joined him and dusted a chaste kiss on his lips before she took the cup from his hand. “It’s perfect.”
She took a sip and then set the cup down and let Neil lower her to her back.
Ruth’s eyes flickered open when the sun soared high in the sky. Despite the jungle heat, a deep chill spread through her and clawed at her heart.
Neil kissed the top of her head and stroked her hair.
“I don’t want to go,” she said quietly, against his chest, afraid to meet his eyes.
He kissed her hair again. “I know, love. It’s evil and unfair, but it’s how things have to be.”
Though she desperately wanted to make love to him one last time, it would only open the wound deeper. Last night there had been no future, but this morning she had to leave. She kissed him though, as they dressed, and there was no way she could check the tears flowing down her cheeks. When they were ready to return to the camp, Neil took her hand.
“Time to be strong. You have a world to save, remember?”
She wiped her cheeks, drew a shaky breath and nodded. Time to lock the pain away.
Going over the preparations helped. She recited the actions she needed to go through when she arrived back at the press conference and how to input them into the device. Though she caught a few looks of pain in his eyes, Neil held it together for which she was grateful; she didn’t think she could have done any of it if he hadn’t.
She held his hand as they walked towards the pyramid.
They set the device down on the lowest step of the pyramid and Neil pulled her into a crushing hug. She breathed in his scent as if maybe she could absorb some part of him into her to take with her.
“I’ll always love you, don’t forget me.”
Ruth’s voice failed her and she sobbed into his chest.
He shushed her and stroked her hair. “It’s okay. Hey, I may still be around when you get there. Look me up, huh? If I’m still alive?”
A strained laugh bubbled up through her sobs and she managed to pull herself away from him.
He wiped the tears from her cheek with his thumb. “Go on. Go save the world.”
She nodded mutely, walked to the device on leaden feet and picked it up in numb hands. Her destination already pre-loaded, all she had to do was press the button.
She kept her eyes on Neil as the device began to hum in her hands. And then, in a blink, she was standing in the press conference room surrounded by screams and gun fire. A spike of adrenalin focused her mind.
No one seemed to notice her suddenly pop into existence at the side of the room. All eyes were on the aliens on the stage or else the locked exits at the back of the room. The first alien already lay dead on the stage and Ruth quickly dropped down beside the row of seats as the air shimmered and the bomb materialised. She risked one glance to the back of the room and saw her past self peeking over the back of a chair. Her stomach lurched. She would have to time it perfectly. She set the device on the floor by her knees and began inputting the information to transport the bomb to a spot of empty space some hundred thousand miles away.
When the alien with the control panel exploded she allowed herself a split second regret that she hadn’t thought to wear a rain coat or something. The past version of the control panel went spinning through the air and landed by her former self’s feet. Ruth wiped purple goo from the screen with her sleeve and finished inputting the commands. The bomb on the stage throbbed and whined. She held her breath. The moment her former self disappeared into the past, she hit the transport button. The bomb vanished in a rush that sucked all the noise from the room.
The sudden silence quickly filled with questions and gabbled instructions. Ruth took advantage of the tail end of the chaos to clamber over the seats to the back of the room. She grabbed her purse and jacket, punched a few controls on the device and teleported herself outside to her car. There was no way she was sticking around and letting the government get their hands on the device.
She didn’t allow herself to slow down until she pulled into her car parking space beside her apartment block. It was done. The world didn’t end and she was home. She hadn’t mucked up the time line and there weren’t going to be any apocalyptic paradoxes to worry about.
But she felt so incomplete.
She set the device on her kitchen counter and ran herself a glass of water. Look me up, he’d said, if he was still alive. Did she want to see him though, if he was an eighty year old man? Wouldn’t it be better, just to keep the memories she had?
Her laptop taunted her from the dining table. It wouldn’t hurt to just find out if he was alive, would it? She booted it up and Googled his name; Neil Bell, archaeologist. The first hit was a Wikipedia article. She clicked, fingers trembling. The picture confirmed it was him, but he looked even younger than when she met him. She got half way down the first paragraph … disappeared without trace on an expedition to southern Mexico in 1959.
She couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t die. He had to live.
But it didn’t say died, it said disappeared. Her gaze snapped to the device still sitting on her kitchen counter and her lips curved in a slow smile.
Neil sat by the pool with his sketch pad and tried to capture the image in his mind of Ruth floating on her back in the pool. In the days since she’d gone he’d filled half the book with images. Her face in the firelight. Her smile when they first transported the rocks in the field below the pyramid. Lying naked on the blankets in the clearing when he made love to her.
He wished he had the skill to bring her images to life, but they remained dull copies of the visions in his head. He closed his eyes and swallowed against the permanent lump in his throat. When his memories faded she would be nothing but a name. There was nothing to prove she’d ever existed here in his time.
Footsteps approached from behind. Pepe, no doubt come to coax him to eat something.
“So, you’re an archaeologist with a time machine. Where do you want to go first?”
His head snapped round. Ruth walked towards him with the most amazing grin on her face.
“You came back,” he said.
She settled onto the rock beside him, close enough that their shoulders and hips touched and he could smell her perfume.
“I looked you up. Apparently you disappear on this trip, vanish without trace. So obviously I had to come back, because I already did. Just as we have to go twelve hundred years into the past and leave ourselves the messages.”
“I figured it out. The prophecy in the story book chamber? The travellers? It’s us. The names, under the waterfall, the faithful companion and the champion. It’s us, Neil, that’s what our names mean, what they would translate as.”
“How is that possible? We haven’t done it yet.”
“I’m not sure. But, maybe time isn’t a line, like we thought. We were so worried about mucking up the future, but things we do in the future have already happened. Maybe it’s more like time, everything even, in some way it happens all at the same time. We just perceive it as linear.”
He pulled her into his lap. “But if what we do is already decided, what does that mean for free will?”
“I don’t know. But if it means I get to kiss you again, I don’t care.”
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