'We need to replay the level.'
'The whole level? Again?'
Mixt was unenthusiastic. 'We've already replayed it twice. Maybe you can't have sex with her in this level.'
'The wiki says you can. It's never let us down.'
Sitting on the floor, their backs resting against the couch, their Playstation and the plasma TV in front of them, Mixt and Nakishdan had an iPad open at the Wiki for Star Metal Planet. On all matters concerning the game, it had so far proved to be accurate. When they'd been unable to complete a mission or find a vital piece of equipment, they'd consulted its pages, and found the solution. Mixt and Nakishdan were both keen gamers, but neither had the patience to hunt for anything indefinitely. If any of the missions became frustratingly difficult, they'd seek help online.
'The Star Metal Planet Wiki says that my female space captain can sleep with the blue-skinned alien barmaid if she brings her a laser pistol. I just brought her a laser pistol. So why isn't she doing it?'
'Maybe you picked the wrong dialogue option?'
'I'm sure I got it right.'
'Maybe the blue-skinned alien barmaid doesn't like effeminate girly characters like your space pilot? She might prefer tough women.'
'Space Captain StarNak is tough!' protested Nakishdan. 'She's a savage killer. With a preference for colourful clothes and nice shoes.'
'My character never has trouble sleeping with anyone,' said Mixt, rather smugly.
'He's a brute,' said Nakishdan. 'I don't know what anyone sees in him.'
Mixt departed to the kitchen. Nakishdan fidgeted impatiently, waiting for the level to reload. By the time Mixt returned with a pot of tea and two cans of beer, Captain StarNak was once again climbing into her space cruiser.
'You know we've been playing this game for thirty-eight hours apart from a brief nap on the couch?'
Nakishdan nodded. 'It's a relief to be able to do what we want instead of having to go on missions for the Department all the time. I was really fed up with these flying snakes.'
Search Unit Sigma had not been called into action for six months. Since Fourteen Trees appeared, and Rainith the Red disappeared, the flying snakes had vanished. The Kesh Ven Ven Lar had not been in contact. The Department of Historical Disturbance had not been in touch.
'Maybe that small girl Fourteen Trees wasn't as useless as she looked. Maybe she sorted everything out.'
'Maybe.' Mixt poured their tea then picked up her controller. Captain StarMix climbed into the space cruiser beside StarNak. 'I suppose it is a relief not to be fighting snakes any more. Though the money was good.'
'Are we short of money?'
'Not yet, but we're getting there.'
'There must be easier ways of earning money than going into the past to fight flying snakes with big teeth.'
'Probably. But we wouldn't like them either.'
Nakishdan sipped his tea. 'Here we go. Moon Eight, mission two. Defeat Dark Matter Monster and bring back laser pistols. We need to do this exactly right.'
'So your character can sleep with the barmaid?'
'Maybe she got insulted when you shouted 'fuck her!' at the TV.'
'Now you're being ridiculous,' said Nakishdan.
Rainith the Red was not used to the feeling of pleasurable excitement she'd experienced in recent weeks. For the past few months she'd been living upstairs from Geeda Lala in their squat in Ladbroke Grove. It was November 1975 and the Sex Pistols were due to play their first gig in two day's time. Very few people were aware of this. Most of the world was completely unconcerned. Rainith was very excited.
'It's funny that no one else cares,' she said to Geeda. 'Does anyone like them when they play?'
Geeda had been to the gig before. 'Won't it spoil it for you if I tell you too much about it?'
The red-haired fairy considered this. 'I suppose so. But I've read a lot about it anyway. I know they don't get to finish their set.' She had a sudden inspiration. 'How about if we protected them so they could play more songs? I could get up on stage with my sword.'
Geeda Lala laughed. Her hair, bright blue and yellow when Rainith had first met her in 1978, was less colourful in 1975. Punk rock had not yet begun.
'If we change anything Fourteen Trees will go crazy.'
It had taken Fourteen Trees some time to smooth out the historical discrepancies caused by Geeda Lala's abrupt entry this dimension, when she'd crashed into history around 4000 BC and skidded through several thousand years before coming to rest in the 1970s.
'I hadn't realised how much chaos I'd caused,' admitted Geeda. 'I suppose my historical maths aren't as good as I thought. I'm still not going to let them send me to that ice-age study planet.'
'Fourteen Trees must be really smart.'
'She is. Top of every class. Her and her friends from 47 Jeng. They make good hats too. I promised her I'd try not to cause any more problems.'
'Will the snakes come back?' Rainith had killed many of the beasts with her sword.
'She said they wouldn't. She healed the breach I'd made. Or something like that. And she's completely hidden us from everyone. My father will never find me and 102 Woo won't bother us any more.'
They were sitting on a very large cushion in Geeda's room, looking out the window at the people on the street below.
'All the men have long hair and flared trousers. They'll look silly after the Sex Pistols play.'
Geeda Lala laughed. 'It took a little while for the Sex Pistols to change the world's fashion. They did in the end.'
Superior 102 sat motionless in the air, floating in the lotus position. In front of him stood Captain Lir.
Captain Lir made no reply. He and his team had indeed failed. Geeda Lala was still at large.
'47 Jeng have hidden her. We are surprised at the power of their historical mathematics.'
The Captain frowned. 'Can't we suggest prosecuting them for interfering?'
'102 Woo does not involve itself in legal proceedings.'
'Surely the Institute could prosecute them?'
'47 Jeng claim Geeda Lala is a member of their group. That gives them the legal right to protect her. Whether she really is a member of 47 Jeng is debatable. Nonetheless, for now, the Institute has no legal recourse.'
Superior 102 paused. Captain Lir wondered why he hadn't yet been dismissed. He assumed that was what this meeting was for. The ramifications of his dismissal would be very troubling. Captain Lir was married to another agent of 102 Woo. If he was banished from the organisation, he would have to leave the floating city. It might mean the end of their relationship.
'Though the Institute can't take legal action, neither can they do nothing,' continued Superior 102. 'The simulation is still in danger. Geeda Lala is still interfering. Historical disturbances have ceased for the moment, but that won't last. The situation remains the same. Geeda Lala must be apprehended. Captured or killed, one or the other. So we are sending you there again, Captain Lir.'
Captain Lir made the faintest of bows, inclining his head a fraction in the direction of his superior. 'Very well, Superior. How are we to find her? Are we capable of overcoming the historical mathematics of Fourteen Trees?'
'Unfortunately not. We have applied for outside help. Mathematician Girsin will be assisting your group.'
'Girsin? Isn't he in prison?'
'We used our influence to free him.'
Captain Lir was not sure this was a good idea and it showed on his face.
'I understand your doubts, Captain. Mathematician Girsin has spent more time trying to rob simulations than he has assisting the authorities. Nonetheless, his power over historical mathematics is greater than anyone else's, even the Institute. He will unpick the defences set up by Fourteen Trees and lead you to Geeda Lala.'
'Very well, Superior 102.'
Captain Lir was thoughtful as he made his way through the floating city. Mathematician Girsin was undoubtedly a genius, but his reputation was very unsavoury. The Captain didn't look forward to working with him.
Rainith the Red was sitting on a cushion, glowering. She was glowering so fiercely that Geeda Lala paused, scissors in midair.
'Are you sure you want me to do this?'
'It's not absolutely vital to have short spiky hair the first time you see the Sex Pistols. Most people didn't, not in 1975 anyway.'
'I'm not going there looking like a stupid hippy,' said Rainith. 'Cut it off.'
'I'm not that good with scissors. At home I had a drone to do this for me.'
'Just do it!' snapped Rainith.
Geeda shrugged, and got to work. Rainith's red hair was very thick, but it didn't take that long. Geeda cut it to a length of three inches, then ran her fingers through it to make it spiky. Rainith looked in the mirror propped against the wall and smiled. She was pleased with the result.
'I wish the Fairy King could see me now. He'd hate it. Stupid Fairy King.'
Rainith had found a waistcoat, abandoned in an old wardrobe in their squat. It was covered in pockets, the sort of garment used by a fisherman, or a workman, to keep his tools in. She was wearing it now. With her workman's clothes and short red spiky hair, she didn't resemble anyone on the street outside.
'Almost time to go.'
They shared a can of tuna fish for dinner, eating it straight from the tin.
'I'm really going to see the Sex Pistols first gig!' Rainith was smiling as they walked down the stairs. She'd been unhappy for a long time but she had the feeling that her life was about to improve. They headed for Ladbroke Grove Tube Station. The journey into town to St Martin's School of Art wouldn't take long.
The gig hadn't been advertised outside of the college. There was no queue of people waiting to get in. A few long-haired students looked at Geeda and Rainith curiously as they passed. They were unusually dressed, but it was an art school, so unusual dress wasn't unheard of.
Rainith walked downstairs towards the bar where the bands would play. She turned to Geeda Lala. 'We're really going to see - '
Her words were cut off in mid-sentence by a flash of light. Other people on the stairs froze, as if paralysed.
'What's going on?'
Abruptly, Fourteen Trees materialised. The small girl was wearing one of her favourite yellow hats but there was alarm in her face.
'Terrible news!' she cried.
'102 Woo hired Mathematician Girsin! He's broken through!'
At that moment Captain Lir and three agents burst into view. Fourteen Trees looked desperately at Geeda Lala, and frantically pounded on the tiny, transparent screen she carried.
'Keep going to gigs!' she shouted. 'I'll find you!'
Rainith and Geed found themselves temporally outside of space as Fourteen Trees hurriedly sent them to safety. They emerged back into the world to find themselves in a very crowded hall. Rainith was startled to see that the walls and ceiling were completely covered by a light show; shapes and patterns she couldn't make out. Smoke and incense drifted through the air. A woman in a long skirt was sleeping on the floor in front of her. Others milled around, talking loudly. There was a confusing mixture of noises, coming from all directions.
She turned to Geeda. 'What happened? Where are we?' She took a step backwards as two young men with very long hair blundered past. One of them wore small bells round his neck, which chimed. Rainith winced.
Geeda turned to look at a stall, set up in an apparently random position in the large, dark, hall. She read the hand-written sign.
'Macrobiotic stuffed vine leaves.'
'This doesn't look like the Sex Pistols.'
'I think Fourteen Trees has sent us back in time.' Geeda checked her own screen, a device so discreet it could sit in the palm of her hand, unobserved.
'It's not telling me anything. Something's wrong.'
Geeda spoke to the man sitting behind the stall selling macrobiotic stuffed vine leaves. 'What year is this and where are we?'
Curiously, the man didn't seem to think this was an odd question. 'It's 1967. This is the UFO Club.'
Rainith the Red looked around at the colourful projections on the walls, with some annoyance. She winced as a young woman in an afghan coat waved an incense stick under her nose.
A voice came over the PA. 'Now appearing on stage, UFO Club favourites - Pink Floyd!'
Rainith the Red looked at Geeda Lala with despair.
'This is a nightmare,' she moaned.