Mr Knox, “I want at least three pages on "Frankenstein"
by tomorrow morning.”
Kevin sharpened his pencil and started to write.
“Not now, you stupid boy. It’s lunch hour.”
The break bell was muffled by the sound of trainers
stampeding to the canteen for curry and chips and the click of the English
teacher’s shoes as he followed them.
Kevin carried on writing. 'Zalda Zax guided her spaceship
through the opening shutter. On the other side of the bulkhead was the
machine that controlled the moon’s orbit. After working perfectly
for years, it had now gone wrong. But it had its own defence system
against terrorists and might not recognise that the engineer had come
to mend it...'
Unfortunately, at that point, Mr Knox returned to
the classroom, possibly because he had forgotten something, but more
likely to catch Kevin out. This was a man who needed someone smaller
to humiliate, and Kevin seldom failed to give him a reason. The teacher
snatched up the page and read it before Kevin could conceal his story.
“You stupid boy,” he sighed pityingly. “When
will you learn to grow up? If you want to survive in this world you’ll
need both feet on the ground.”
Kevin said nothing. He suspected that Mr Knox’s
parents had nailed his shoes to the floor before he was tall enough
to reach for the biscuit tin.
The English teacher snatched up a folder from his
desk and swept out like a majestic tug battling the oncoming waves of
Kevin looked despondently at his story, roughly folded
the page, and pushed it into his pocket.
All through cookery, while making pancakes, thoughts
of the defective moon machine bounced back into Kevin’s bored
mind. Why couldn’t he be gluten intolerant like Tyrone, and allowed
to sit the period out in the library? To make matters worse, the class
now had to make fudge for mother’s day.
Kevin surreptitiously took the crumpled page from
his pocket, laid it on a pastry board and began to scribble under the
cover of a large saucepan of bubbling sugar. "The machine had been
put at the centre of the moon to stabilise its orbit round the Earth
after being struck by a comet. Without the moon the Earth’s orbit
could become so irregular no one would survive the change in climate.
Zalda Zax was the only one who could get through its defences to find
out why the moon was being pulled towards the Earth. The gyroscope must
have been sabotaged..."
There was a sharp, sweet smell of burning sugar.
Kevin’s fudge was now caramelised. He took the saucepan to the
sink and filled it with water. When the teacher was able to see through
the steam, she scowled and went back to her star pupil who had graduated
to making a mushroom soufflé.
Kevin shook the flour from his story and wondered
if he ought to forget about Zalda Zax and the moon machine and take
an interest in reality, but the idea of the space woman was very persistent.
With a box of pancakes brittle enough to use as frisbees
and bag of burnt fudge tucked under his arm, Kevin meandered home. He
had to cross the park before it was dark or his mother would worry.
Kevin was passing the fence of the infants’
playground when he felt as though he had just walked through a patch
of rather stiff air. Then everything became unnervingly still. Even
the traffic on the nearby main road seemed miles away. The playground
was still there, yet on the other side of it he could see spinning lights,
and they certainly didn’t belong to the traffic roundabout.
Kevin watched in frightened fascination as he realised
that the lights came from an odd craft. Its shape kept changing, as
though spheres were rotating inside larger spheres. Then it materialised.
Common sense told Kevin to run for his life; fascination insisted he
would never forgive himself if he did.
A short figure was a silhouetted against a circle
of intense light. Kevin’s optic nerves were numbed. It was unlikely
fairies were able to plug into the National Grid, so the creature had
to be an alien.
For Kevin, reality and fantasy could sometimes merge.
His parents despaired of him ever telling them apart. And now the problem
seemed to be rearing its ugly head yet again.
Kevin found himself looking at someone no taller
than himself. She was wearing a helmet more like an Olympic skier’s
than an Earth astronaut’s and a gold suit. Over it was a short
waistcoat with pockets full of tools he didn’t recognize.
There was an embarrassed silence as Kevin gawped and the astronaut gleamed.
“Hi,” said Kevin, raising a limp hand. “How’s
It was an idiotic thing to come out with under the
circumstances, but it encouraged the strange visitor to remove her helmet.
She was a sixteen-year-old human.
Zalda Zax raised a golden glove. “Hi. You called
Kevin gulped. “That’s me.” There
were a million Kevins so she must have got the wrong one. “What’re
you doing here?”
“I need that story you were writing.”
Perhaps she had found the right Kevin after all.
They couldn’t all be as nerdy as him.
“Your story about the moon machine.”
Kevin pulled the crumpled page from his pocket. “You
mean this? But how did you know about it?”
“My name is Zalda Zax.”
Kevin looked at the golden suited visitor in amazement.
“But you can’t be Zalda Zax. I thought you
“You gave that story to an ancestor of mine. I was
named after the character you created,” explained the teenager.
“I don’t understand? Why is this story so important?”
Kevin tried to flatten the crumpled page on the Tupperware box containing
“You gave my ancestor the idea which will eventually
destroy the Earth.”
Kevin gasped. “Then ... You must be a time
traveller? But I don’t know anyone who could be your ancestor?
“He held up his story. “And I haven’t given this to
anyone. I never give anyone my stories. They always laugh at them. And
it’s not really finished.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s the idea that
persuades my ancestor to create the moon machine.”
“You mean this ancestor really does go on to make
machinery that can alter the moon’s orbit?”
“Right, and that’s why you’re coming
with me to make sure you don’t put the idea into her head.”
"Wouldn’t that mean interfering with time? I
mean... Doctor Who wouldn’t allow me to do that."
"What has your doctor got to do with this?"
Kevin became agitated. “But you can’t
alter history! It’s wrong!”
“After you’ve seen what happened, you’ll
change your mind.”
Kevin didn’t remember boarding the timeship.
It just somehow surrounded him. "I’ll be late for tea,"
he protested weakly. He was more in awe of his mother than extraterrestrial
Zalda Zax was too busy with the controls of the ship
to pay much attention. “No you won’t. You can be back at
exactly the same time. Why not eat your pancakes if you’re afraid
of missing your tea?"
Kevin wasn’t that hungry. “Anyway, what
do you know about altering history?”
“Nothing. It’s strictly forbidden, but we’re
going to do it all the same.”
Zalda Zax had obviously escaped from some secure institution as well
as his imagination.
Without warning they entered a vortex in space where
time and gravity ceased to exist. Kevin’s tongue was paralysed,
so he was compelled to listen to the time traveller.
“No one knows why but, in your lifetime, the orbit
of the moon became irregular. It affected the Earth’s orbit and
rotation. We now know it would have corrected itself though, at the
time, people were alarmed by the change in the weather and earthquakes
caused by its erratic pull. My ancestor had invented a machine that
could stabilise the orbit of the moon by increasing its atomic mass.
The original idea had been to give Mars and Venus moons which would
steady their orbits about the Sun, like the Earth’s, so they could
be made habitable for the world’s huge population. That would
have taken centuries, and it was more important to stabilise our moon’s
“So what happened?”
"Activists who wanted to cleanse the Earth of humans
sabotaged the machine so the moon came too close to the Earth. This
caused tides which washed away a large proportion of the human race
- mostly those who didn’t have credit cards."
At last they came out of the time tunnel and Kevin
was able to think again. He pulled a clean sheet of paper from his duffle
bag and started to write.
“What are you doing?” asked Zalda.
“I have to do this homework for Fort Knox by tomorrow
The time traveller gave him an unsure glance, and
then guided the ship down to land on a devastated Earth. Large areas
were still flooded and others dingy brown where the sea water had killed
vegetation and deposited silt. Most signs of activity were further inland
where huge machines were rebuilding cities.
Kevin had no inclination to leave the safety of the
ship and continued to write.
“What are you doing?” Zalda demanded.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure. Just hang onto your space socks
in case.” After writing two more sentences Kevin looked up. “How
about this: - ‘Zalda Zax switched the controls of her ship to
light drive. The cyberpod, the monster machine invented by her distant
ancestor, must have thought she had escaped.’"
“No!” shouted Zalda. “That’s even
“Wait,” shushed Kevin. “Not finished;
‘It had originally been invented as a welding machine. Instead
of heat, it used sound waves so powerful it could join together girders
heavy enough to support ten Eiffel Towers. But now it was out of control.’”
“What are you trying to do, you stupid boy?!”
Before Kevin could explain, time blinked and they
were suddenly light years away from the Earth. Zalda’s timeship
was much larger and her pressure suit was blue instead of gold.
Not far below them, illuminated by a red giant sun,
was a round machine with hundreds of hinged appendages like legs. It
was peering up at the timeship like a spider waiting to pounce. A couple
of silver legs rotated as though lining up a weapons system.
“What the ...?” Zalda began unsurely as though
she had forgotten her own name. Changing her identity so dramatically
hadn’t helped her presence of mind.
“Alright?” Kevin asked innocently.
She shook her head as her mind adapted to its new
persona. “Yes ... Of course. Must have been the time hop.”
Now totally accepting the situation, Zalda looked down at the Cyberpod.
“The thing’s arming itself.”
“It’s all right,” Kevin felt smug at
been able to explain something to the over confident space woman. “It
uses sound waves so can’t do any harm until it’s in an atmosphere.”
He should have known that his self-satisfaction would
immediately be punctured. “Stupid boy, why did I bring you with
“Long story. You may not believe it.” Kevin
hesitated. “What’s so stupid about saying sound waves can’t
travel through space?”
“They can’t, but its laser beam can.”
A beam of light sliced through the ship.
Alarms wailed and automatic extinguishers filled
the cockpit with fine powder.
Kevin didn’t ask Zalda why the cockpit hadn’t
been depressurised by the cyberpod’s laser strike. He quickly
climbed back into his seat and fastened the safety belt.
Where were they going to hide from the rogue machine?
As it was even more lethal with sound waves, any place with an atmosphere
"Why wasn’t this craft depressurised?"
"It’s a time ship."
Kevin was an avid fan of Doctor Who, yet didn’t
for one second believe that the Tardis time hops had anything to do
with reality. "What’s the difference?"
"You don’t know much, do you."
Now totally deflated, Kevin listened as Zalda explained
the ramifications of the universe created in his surge of inspired helpfulness.
In this dimension the Cyberpod had already laid waste
to several mining planets in its search for minerals to weld, cutting
through bulkheads and compelling the miners to escape up emergency shafts
to the surface. From there they watched as their hard won ore was smelted
and welded into mountainous works of art so monstrous the sight of them
would have sent any life-form with a sense of proportion into shock.
“Oh well,” Kevin muttered. “Better than
the Earth drowning I suppose.”
Zalda looked up from programming repairs. “What
“Nothing. Just wondering how long this cyberpod’s
been on the rampage?”
“Long enough to give metal sculptors a bad name.”
“I mean, it hasn’t killed anyone, has it?”
Kevin asked anxiously.
“The only casualties so far have been a few art lovers
who had seizures.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Send it to art classes.”
“Switch the thing off - with a missile. What else?”
Zalda opened Kevin’s box of brittle pancakes and broke a piece
Kevin was about as happy as Zelda would be when it
gave her indigestion. “Can’t you reprogram the thing?”
She stopped crunching. “How?”
“Doesn’t it have a remote control unit somewhere..?
“ Kevin foundered; he hadn’t had time to write one into
the story before the plot gained a dangerous momentum of its own.
“Yes,” said Zalda, “and the Cyberpod
has hidden the thing where we can’t find it.” She helped
herself to another pancake. “These are good.”
Different dimension, different taste buds, thought
Kevin, thankful he wasn’t going to be blamed for upsetting her
“Its inventor must have had a spare system?”
Zalda looked amazed at his naivety. “This Cyberpod
is the 52nd model in the series and the original remote control unit
is in some satellite museum of space research.”
“Has anyone tried it?”
“You have got to be joking.”
“Well, didn’t you bring me along because I
knew the inventor?”
Zalda bit thoughtfully into yet another pancake.
“I know she wouldn’t have designed a machine
like that without a safety backup. I come from centuries before you
and we could think of the obvious.”
Having finished the pancakes, Zalda put aside the
box and Kevin quickly hid the small bag of burnt fudge before she took
a fancy to that as well. It was unnerving to watch anyone eat his cooking,
let alone enjoy it.
Zalda tapped into the ship’s memory. "All
right. The museum’s only four light years away.”
Kevin didn’t enjoy the sensation of his molecules
parting company when they time hopped through space and, when the sixteen-year-old
Zalda Zax told him she had actually been alive for two hundred years,
he wasn’t surprised. He just hoped he’d still be eleven
if he ever got back home.
Despite the time hop, the Cyberpod was still on their
tail as they orbited the space Museum satellite. It opened up with its
laser in an attempt to remodel the ship into another tasteless sculpture.
Zalda put the time ship slightly out of dimensional
phase so the cyberpod’s scanners were baffled. This would only
last for a short time, so she took the light lift down to the museum
to see the curator.
Kevin watched as the Cyberpod stalked round and round
the ship like a huge boy-eating humbug trying to focus on its target.
Any movement would give the timeship’s position away, so Kevin
remained more motionless than he would have done for a battleship of
teachers like Mr Knox. It felt he had been sitting there hours by the
time Zalda returned with a plain grey box.
“That it then?”
“Well I didn’t go down for the Traghartax’s
crown jewels.” She carefully opened the museum piece and tried
tuning into several frequencies. “This had better work.”
There was a laser strike. The ship was now in phase
and the Cyberpod had sliced a piece out of the its hull. Safety shutters
whirred into place.
“Hurry up” panicked Kevin. “Me Mum’ll
go mad if I don’t get back home tonight.”
“Oh shut-up,” snapped Zalda, trying to concentrate.
After what felt like eternity being buffeted by laser
fire, the Cyberpod stopped rotating. The glowing shield that protected
it from meteors and missiles was lowered.
“You’ve done it! You’ve done it!” whooped Kevin.
“Now you can reprogram it.”
Zalda sighed in relief. “You bet."
“You could get it to relandscape all the damage it’s
“Before anything else, I’m going to program
in some artistic sense.”
Kevin didn’t remember arriving back by the
infants’ playground. Zalda had probably sent him to sleep because
he wouldn’t shut-up. He must have imagined it all of course but,
just in case, Kevin took the original story about the moon machine from
his pocket and ripped it into small pieces, which he tossed into the
nearest waste bin. It was then he realised that there were no pancakes
rattling about in his Tupperware box. And the bag of caramelised fudge
For his homework on Frankenstein, Kevin gave Mr Knox
the Cyberpod story. He got two out of ten.