Fanaka stood in the clock shop and thought about time. This wasn't unusual, as he was a scientist and engineer specialising in the study and control of time. And yet he wasn't thinking about time as a scientist would. He was thinking of it more as a poet, wondering at how it came and went and how you always seem to have too much or it at any given minute, but too little in any given week. He was thinking of how time felt, not how it moved. The sound of all the clocks ticking away was a reminder just how many years it had been since he'd last stood in the shop.
It was while he was thinking of how odd time was that Axel Platzoff walked into the shop and reminded him of how easy his own relationship with time had been. Axel's villainous younger self had been catapulted forward in time from the 1990s to the Battle of Wellington Road, where he had died, somehow leaving Axel's present self alive and well.
There, Fanaka thought. It was impossible to understand that malarkey as a scientist. A man's evil past killed, leaving his reformed present alive? That wasn't science, it was magical realism.
"Should you be out and about?" Fanaka said. "Aren't you a wanted man?"
Axel shrugged. "I'm pretty good at not being seen. How are you Fanaka? I… are you older?"
"Yes. Got hurtled across the cosmos and took decades to return."
"Huh. Fair enough."
"Oh, ran into a friend of yours," Fanaka continued. "Pharaoh Scarab-Ra?"
"Frank? How is he? Didn't Doc Eternity banish him to the farthest star?"
"He was only about five hundred light years out, so I can't say 'farthest'. Anyway, he sends his regards."
Axel nodded. "Fanaka, I need your help. I'm… Unstable. Literally. I shouldn't even be alive. I need to be stabilised in time, and I can't do it alone."
Fanaka rubbed his chin. "Science won't help you with your problems," he said. "Not science as we know it. It'll take the power of the Crystal Skull. Or the Pyramid. Or the Watch and Measure. Or something."
"Yes, I thought it might be something like that," he said. "Wait, Watch and…? No, don't tell me. I don't want to know. Do you know where the Crystal Skull is? Everyone's been looking for it, but no one seems to know where it is."
Fanaka bit his lip. He knew perfectly well where the Skull was. His own attempt to use its power had ended badly, and he was loathe to let it fall into the hands of anyone else who might try to use it. Now it was weighting a pile of papers in the office in Emile Fortunado's liquor store, and Fanaka didn't know what to do about that.
He liked Axel. He trusted him, in a way. With most people, it wasn't possible to see what they might do at their worst, but with Axel… well, there wasn't really any way to doubt that about a man who had once tried set a pack of genetically engineered quokkas loose in the UN. He was clearly capable of immense evil, but evil of such a completely pointless variety that it barely mattered.
On the other hand…
"Look, Fanaka, I don't mean to be rude," Axel said. "But you have been staring thoughtfully at the ceiling for the last two minutes, so it's pretty clear that you do know something. Could you please tell me? It's important. I'm literally a walking temporal anomaly. For all you know, I could be more dangerous than the Skull."
Was that even a possibility? Fanaka knew that the immense power of…
"Fanaka! You're staring at the ceiling again."
"Sorry," Fanaka said. "The Skull… I do know... Axel… please don't do anything…"
The door opened with a jingle of the little bell, and in walked an elderly man who looked very much like Fanaka, only dressed in a loose dashiki and a bronze helmet studded with gears. Fanaka gasped with surprise, while Axel shook his head.
"Didn't we do this already?" Axel grumbled. "I mean when Laura met the Laura from the fut…"
"I am not future Fanaka, idiot," the old man said. His voice was not as deep as Fanaka's and it was more heavily accented. "I am a his father. This helmet I wear is a psychic amplifier, allowing me to project this mental image so as to speak from my son's original timeline."
"If you're a mental projection, how did you ring the…"
"Silence! Son, I bring a message from the old country slash dimension."
"Yes, father," Fanaka said. "I am listening."
"Son, you have your doubts about this man," the old man said. "But you must help him stabilise his timeline. Otherwise, his existence further weakens the already weak dimensional barriers in this place."
"And if you do not help him stabilise, you are to kill him," the old man continued. "To protect this depressingly Eurocentric world from cosmic horrors."
Axel ceased his smirking.
"Yes, father," Fanaka said. "I will do as you command."
"No 'but' in there?" Axel sulked. "Maybe a little hesitation would be nice? Just a token?"
"That is good, my son," Fanaka's father said. "Also, your aunties would like to know if you've married yet. If not, why not; if so, why were they not invited to the wedding? And your mother says…"
"Your signal is breaking up, father," Fanaka said; or rather he said some of the words and silently mouthed the others. "You'd better shut down, or you risk damaging the helmet. Crrrrk."
The old man frowned, twiddled with some of the switches on his hat and vanished.
"You heard the man," Fanaka said. "I'll close up here and we'll go and get the Skull. It's at Emile's Fine Vintage Cellar."
They locked the door and crossed the carpark to Emile's, Fanaka striding in broad daylight, while Axel shifted from being behind a planter box to behind a car to behind a row of shopping trolleys without seeming to cover the intervening distance. Finally, they were at Emile's, which was closed, a metal shutter barring the front of the store.
"Why does this not surprise me?" Axel sighed.
Fanaka said nothing, but internally he was comparing the diameter of Axel's neck to the width of his hands.