Professor Jeanne Smith stepped into her old new office and stared. It was full of plush toys. And flowers. And baloons. And strategically placed plates with biscuits and jelly babies. The walls had changed their colour from the elegant dark grey to pale lilac with golden floral patterns, for God’s sake.
“They’ve redecorated. I don’t like it!”
“That’s a pity,” said a voice behind her. Jeanne didn’t hear the woman approach. “Because that’s Chinese silk, and it cost the department a fortune, so you’ll have to stick with it.”
Jeanne turned around. The black-haired woman in her mid-forties, about Jeanne’s age, was wearing a prim old-fashioned suit in a shade of dark purple that looked suspiciously coordinated next to the new tapestries.
“Whose idea was it?” Jeanne asked. The woman shrugged.
“Not a clue.” She put out a delicate manicured hand. Heavy metal bracelets looked weirdly out of place on her thin wrists enveloped in Victorian lace. “Call me ‘Mistress’.”
“Mistress?” Jeanne repeated unsurely as she accepted the handshake. “That’s a strange name.”
“Friends call me Missy. Short for Mistress.” The woman didn’t specify whether that was an invitation of friendship or a piece of trivia. Still holding Jeanne’s hand, she looked over her shoulder into the office. “Oh, and please clean up this mess instantly. Especially the food – don’t leave out the food. We have mice, you know. And rats. Sometimes as large as my forearm. Would you like to have a look? I killed some just this morning. Didn’t get around to burying them yet.”
Jeanne’s palm began to sweat, but the Mistress’ grip was firm.
“Er. Brilliant. Maybe next time. I need to settle down first. Unpack. Clean up.”
The Mistress smiled. “I’ll help you with the food.”
“Oh, that would be brilliant!”
The Mistress finally let go of Jeanne’s hand, walked straight into her office, opened one of the cabinets and produced a tea tray, two sets of porcelain cups and saucers and a tin of Chinese tea.
“Where’s that slug?” she muttered and, without any warning, barked, “Dr. Chang!”
A young Asian man appeared in the doorway as if out of nowhere. “Yes, Mistress?”
“Tea, please, Dr. Chang,” she nodded at the tray. The young man scooped up the tools and disappeared again. “It’s down his alley: he is an expert in Ancient China,” she explained. Jeanne was too dumbfounded to argue.
“Was that the Dr. Chang? The one who found the lost dynasty?”
The Mistress leaned back in a leather armchair – luckily, still the old one Jeanne remembered – and crossed her legs. “Oh, who cares, Chang is such a popular name. But he makes great tea. I am a people’s person, you know: I judge everyone according to their abilities, not their titles.”
Jeanne lowered herself into the opposite chair. “And what are your abilities?”
The Mistress gave her a coy smile. “I’m just a humble housekeeper.” She stretched out a hand and, without even looking, grabbed a plate of biscuits that sat on a shelf behind her. “Please have one, they’re delicious.”
“So it was your idea, this – party?” Jeanne hesitated at the last word. It still felt surreal to be eating biscuits sitting in the creaky leather armchair that smelt like home, while only a few days ago she hadn’t hoped to ever see it again.
“Of course, not!” the Mistress giggled. “I would never waste precious resources on something so silly. It must have been the students, those who remember you from before. For some reason, the young and immature have an inclination towards you.”
She spoke as if she had a very good insight into the department.
“I don’t remember you from before, though.” Jeanne frowned slightly. “Are you new here?”
“New?” the Mistress gave a short sharp laugh. “Yes, you could say that. I’m new, yes, absolutely.” And without any pause, she yelled: “Dr. Chang!”
The young man hurried into the office. “I’m sorry, Mistress, the cooler was out of water, I had to go as far as–”
“Not interested.” She gestured for him to put down the tray and leave. Jeanne rose to her feet.
“Dr. Chang? I read your thesis on the lost dynasty, it was brilliant! Have you made any new discoveries recently? I didn’t have the opportunity to follow the latest developments, I’ve had a rough couple of years.”
The young man blushed. “You read it? It’s all still a theory, of course, but I hope to make real progress soon, if I can get the funding for the expedition–“ he cut himself short. “I’m sorry, I forgot the milk!” he rushed out of the room like there was a fire.
The Mistress shrugged as she tasted her tea. “Scientists! As eccentric as ever. But the tea is good, even without the milk. Now to the more important matters. What do you need for your lectures, Professor?”
Jeanne picked up her cup. “Nothing, really. Just a classroom and my students.”
“Don’t be shy, Professor! The technology has moved forward since the Middle Ages. We have all kinds of fancy toys: overhead projectors, interactive whiteboards, virtual reality goggles. Imagine how impressed the kids would be if you presented your findings with all the bells and whistles.”
Jeanne thought about it for a moment. “A blackboard and some chalk would suffice, thanks.”
The Mistress cocked her head. “If you haven’t noticed, Professor, things are changing. The kids have their heads stuck in their gadgets all day long. They cannot process any new information otherwise. I doubt that your lonesome self, however pretty, can keep them interested for two hours.”
“We’ll see,” Jeanne answered dryly. The Mistress smiled and leaned forward to touch her hand.
“Don’t be offended. It is my duty to give you a piece of friendly advice, but the rest is up to you.”
Jeanne freed her hand and picked up another biscuit to make the movement less conspicuous. Dr. Chang returned with a milk jug and bowed as he put it down. Jeanne was glad of the interruption.
“Oh, Dr. Chang! Please sit down with us and tell me about your research.”
“Next time, Dr. Chang,” the Mistress said firmly. “Professor Smith needs some rest.”
“Of course. Sorry.” Dr. Chang hurried out of the room backwards and still in a kind of a half-bow.
“What’s wrong–?” Jeanne started, but the Mistress talked over her at the same time:
“How did you find your quarters?”
“I haven’t been there yet.”
The Mistress raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Where is your luggage then?”
Jeanne nodded to the backpack she dropped next to the door.
“That’s it? I thought you’d be bringing more – objects with you.”
“No, that’s it.”
The Mistress tapped her fingers on the leather armrest. “Well, Professor, if you need anything, I will be glad to be of service.”
“How can I find you?”
The Mistess got up and bent over to whisper into Jeanne’s ear: “Don’t worry, darling, you’ll see me around.”
The lecture hall was empty. You couldn’t even call it a ‘hall’; it was rather a small room at the end of a long corridor on the top floor, with bookcases along the walls and mismatched chairs placed in an uneven circle.
“Hello?” Jeanne looked underneath the rackety desk at the front of the room, as if her students could be hiding there.
Jeanne hadn’t expected that. Obviously, she had been away for a long time, and a new generation of students had arrived at the university, but surely they must have heard about her, read some of her work, or at least would be curious enough to attend after they read her carefully hand-painted announcement next to the main entrance:
Ancient Space Travel:
How the Inuit Travelled to the Stars Two Thousand Years Before NASA
Not a single person appeared to hear what she had to say. This had happened before – in her early days as a lecturer when the students preferred to skip the class rather than sit and yawn in a stuffy hot room on a beautiful Indian summer day. Just like today. Jeanne walked to the door and yanked it open to leave only to collide with a girl who was about to enter.
The girl dropped her notepad, the pens scattered around. Jeanne didn’t carry anything – never needed anything to teach – so she came out of the collision unharmed, but the girl apologised nevertheless while collecting her things.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry. Sorry I’m late. Can I still get in? I can sit on the floor, if there are no seats,” she broke off when she finally noticed the room was empty. “Sorry,” she apologised again, “is this the right class? I’m looking for Professor Smith.”
“That’s me! And you are?”
“Bill. Bill Potts. Sorry, has the class been cancelled?”
“No, I’ve only been waiting for you to begin.”
The girl stared at her out of her round brown eyes. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Who knows. Outside, probably, enjoying the last sunny days. The question is, why are you here?”
Even through her dark skin you could see the girl blush. “I – well, I saw your announcement and I thought I’d check it out. I mean, Inuit space travel – who’d miss it?”
“Apparently, everyone else,” Jeanne noted. “So, why?”
“I guess because you don’t get any credits for your course.”
“Any what?” Jeanne frowned.
“Credit points. Or was it a glitch in the system? I checked, your course was not online. That’s why I came: they made the rules very strict this year, you can’t get into any classes if you are not registered for them. But your class wasn’t online, so I thought I’d try to slip in.”
“I didn’t understand a word you said,” Jeanne admitted. “Try again.”
The girl looked around, stepped closer and lowered her voice. “Please don’t tell anyone, or I’ll get in trouble. I’m not a student here, I just work at the canteen, but I used to go listen to some of the lectures. But since they appointed that new – well, a while back they started tightening the rules: austerity, they said, something about the resources. Now the professors must check whether you are registered in the system. But your class wasn’t online, so I figured I could get in, at least until they fixed the problem.”
“I see.” Jeanne ran her hand through her fair hair that she hadn’t cut in a couple of years. “I have good news for you, Bill: my class is open to everyone, and the first one is going to take place right now.”
“But no one’s here!”
“You are here, that’s enough for me. I spent so much time talking to myself lately that one eager listener seems a luxury. You work in the canteen, you said? I could use a breakfast.”
Bill smiled a big-toothed smile. “I can arrange that!”
“Arrange what, Miss Potts?” asked a smooth voice. The Mistress caught her off guard again.
Bill shrank. “Nothing.”
“Good morning, dear.” The Mistress approached Jeanne who offered a hand, but the Mistress hugged her lightly and kissed on both cheeks, French style. She smelled like lavender soap; it always made Jeanne think of her younger years, when her public school handed out the same brand of soap to the pupils year after year.
“Good morning, Mis–” She couldn’t call the woman ‘Mistress’, not out loud. She coughed. “Er, good morning.”
The Mistress turned to Bill. “Don’t you have work to do, Miss Potts?”
“I have the morning off,” Bill mumbled, but she was already backing away towards the door.
“Wait!” Jeanne exclaimed. “Bill and I have some science to discuss.”
The Mistress put a hand on Jeanne’s arm and explained forebearingly. “Miss Potts is not a student. The only thing you can discuss with her is the sauce you want to go with your French fries. Miss Potts, I won’t repeat it again: begone!”
“Sorry, Professor,” Bill muttered.
“Come to see me in my office!” was the only thing Jeanne had time to shout after her.
“Now,” the Mistress petted Jeanne’s sleeve. “To more urgent matters. There has been a terrible mistake.”
“Yes, I, too, think it’s wrong that Miss Potts cannot attend the lectures as a guest student.”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.” The Mistress hooked her arm through Jeanne’s and drew her towards the exit. “We cannot let any random kitchen maid in, the University simply does not have the capacity.”
“And resources,” Jeanne played along.
“Exactly, my dear. That’s why the University had to introduce the new rules – reluctantly. I am a simple servant, Professor,” the Mistress explained as she led Jeanne down the corridor. “I have nothing against Miss Potts personally, but I have to carry out the management’s decisions. Anyway, I must apologise to you. You must have felt terrible – and that on your first day!”
“Why would I feel terrible?”
“No one came to your class! I wouldn’t wish it on any teacher.”
“Miss Potts did come.”
The Mistress waved it away. “No students came. I only found out ten minutes ago: they failed to include your course into our online registration sheet. But don’t worry, those responsible have been properly chastised, and your course will be in the system in no time.”
“No!” Jeanne exclaimed. “I want it out – now! That’s a stupid idea anyway.”
The Mistress stopped, took both Jeanne’s hands into hers and looked her in the eye. “But darling, then we might as well fire you right now. If the classes don’t go through the system, it means you didn’t teach them, as far as the management is concerned, which means you are not doing your job. You will lose your position, and we don’t want it to happen, do we?”
“I’ll talk to the Dean!”
“Please do!” The Mistress squeezed her hands with emotion. “She will tell you the same thing: it had to be done, no matter how unpleasant it might be for some individuals. Now, how about a breakfast? I will have it brought to your office.”
“This is ridiculous!” Jeanne was pacing up and down the Dean’s office. “I want my classes to be open for everyone – is this so hard to do?”
Dr. Lethbridge-Stuart sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Jeanne, you are not listening to me! This is how the system works: the students must earn credits to get their degree. If we fill up the classrooms with people from the street, the proper students will have to miss the courses they are entitled to.” She hacked the air with her hand at the end of each phrase to make a point. “We just don’t have the resources.”
“Well, I do have the resources. I want to teach Miss Potts in my spare time – and anyone else who’d be interested.”
The Dean leaned back in her massive armchair and stared at Jeanne pointedly. “Do you have any time to spare, Professor? Because we are still waiting for you to provide any results of your expedition. Don’t take it the wrong way, Jeanne, I do believe you found something, but it took you three times longer, and the whole project turned out to be ten times more expensive than planned. We are not in the position to waste so many–”
“–resources,” Jeanne put in.
“Yes, resources, if you have nothing to show for it. And please do not forget that we are under immense pressure from our American colleagues because of what happened to Professor Song. They want to see the results, too. I’m sorry, Jeanne, but I cannot authorise any extracurricular activities until you present your findings.”
“If you want to hear them, you should come to my lectures, Kate.”
“No, Jeanne, I know you can talk – very entertaining, but I want to see material proof, and I want to see it yesterday.” Kate rose from her chair to demonstrate that the audience was over.
Jeanne didn’t have anything else planned for the day except the lecture that didn’t happen, so she returned to her office. As she unlocked the door, she smelt fresh coffee and scones, her favourite ones. Breakfast was laid out on a small table – with two sets of cutlery and two cups.
Jeanne didn’t have much time to wonder about that. As soon as she sat down and picked up a knife to butter her scone, the office door creaked open and the Mistress stuck her head inside.
“Ah, you are back, Professor! I see Dr. Chang showed his best.” She slipped in, took the chair opposite Jeanne and spread out her skirts elegantly. A bit of white lace peered out playfully from underneath the dark purple wool. “I hope you don’t mind if I join you. I am a bit peckish.” She poured herself a coffee. “So, how did your meeting with the Dean go?”
Jeanne huffed and rolled her eyes. The Mistress pouted with sympathy.
“Oh, poor darling!” she patted Jeanne’s knee. “I warned you: Dr. Lethbridge-Stuart won’t budge. The system has been approved by the Ministry of Education, there is not much our Dean can do. However, I might–,” she paused and shook her head.
“What?” Jeanne urged her.
“No, that would be against the rules. I cannot show preference to anyone, you see.”
Jeanne leaned forward and offered her a buttered scone. “Like what? Speaking hypothetically, of course,” she said in a hushed voice.
“Speaking hypothetically,” the Mistress hesitated, glanced around and winked. “I could look the other way once in a while. It’s a big university, I cannot watch over all the professors and all of the kitchen staff all the time. But that concerns only you and Miss Potts.”
Jeanne couldn’t help a big smile. “Thank you, Mis–,” she coughed. “Thank you.”
The Mistress took her hand. “You can call me Missy. We are friends, after all?” Their faces were very close, and Jeanne could see every tiny line around her bright blue eyes as she smiled back. “Don’t give me away, alright?” Missy pressed a finger to her lips and giggled like a little girl.
“Thank you, Missy,” Jeanne whispered.
After a careful knock on the door, Bill looked in.
“Professor? I was told you wanted to see me.”
Jeanne woke up, but didn’t open her eyes yet: she was too comfortable in her leather armchair, especially with her feet up on the oak desk.
“Yes, come in. Tea?”
“Er, yes, thanks.”
“I like it black with four sugars. There’s a kettle in the corner.” Jeanne stretched her back and finally opened her eyes. It was dark outside.
Bill entered, put down her backpack on the floor next to one of the chairs and moved towards the small spirit stove – another courtesy of Missy, after Jeanne complained that she couldn’t drink hot water produced by modern plastic kettles.
“I’d have come earlier, but I just finished my shift,” Bill explained. “Sorry I woke you up. I heard you only came back yesterday, you must be jetlagged.”
“I wasn’t sleeping. I was thinking. A lot of work to do.”
Bill glanced over her shoulder as she put the kettle on. She tried to react politely, but her face had too much life of its own. “Mm-hm. Maybe I should come another time.”
“Absolutely not. I told you, we have a lot of work to do. Or do you want to stay in the kitchen washing up for the rest of your life?”
The kettle began to whistle thinly.
“Good. Can you type?”
“Brilliant! I hate typing on those modern machines, they always seem to know better what you wanted to say. How is the tea coming up?”
The tea fixed, Bill positioned herself at the keyboard of a new desktop computer (also courtesy of Missy). She hesitated.
“I thought it’d be like an extra class. That I’d be learning something.”
Jeanne took a sip of her tea. “You will. About my research. You will be the first person in the whole world to read it – well, write it down – except for Professor Song, but she is no longer–,” Jeanne stared out of the window, the tea still in her hand, until the felt the burn from the hot cup. She put it down hastily. “–no longer working on this project.”
There was a pause while Bill waited for Jeanne to continue. Then she stretched her fingers, cracked her knuckles and asked: “What should I type?”
Jeanne pulled at her lips for a few moments, thinking.
“They want the details of my expedition? They will get the details. Type: ‘March 1st, 20xx.’ No, wait!” Jeanne dived under the table and unplugged the internet cable. “That’s better. Now: ‘March 1st, 20xx. The research group consisting of myself and Professor River Song of the Boston University, Department of Archaeology, took a flight to Toronto, Canada. The University refused to pay for our flight in business class, and I must note that the food in the economy class of Canada Airways is abhorrent.’”
“Ab-hor-rent,” Bill mouthed. “Are you sure that’s relevant for a research diary?”
“Absolutely. Do you want to learn everything about real science? Well, it includes eating cold mashed potatoes crammed in an economy seat on an 8-hour flight. Go on: ‘Professor Song remarked,’” Jeanned breathed in and out deeply and continued: “‘Professor Song remarked, we’d remember this as a royal feast six months on. She was right. She was often right even if I didn’t listen.’” Jeanne noticed Bill was still typing. “Delete those last two sentences.”
Bill did and looked up, her eyes wide. “Wow! What happened?”
Professor Smith’s second lecture was much better attended. The lecture hall (a real one this time, thanks to Missy, not a stuffy cupboard) buzzed while the students were taking their places, laughing and chatting. Kate was sitting in the front row, together with Dr. Chang, even though she promised not to listen to Jeanne’s ‘tales’ unless she provided proof.
When Jeanne stepped behind the lectern, the noise gradually subsided to an excited low murmur. In the almost complete silence the door at the back of the hall creaked open causing a gush of wind to rustle the pages of the students’ notepads. Missy walked in and sat down at the very back, alone.
Jeanne cleared her throat. It had been a long time since she last talked to a large audience.
“When did space travel first take place?” she asked looking around at the young faces. Someone raised a hand.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“No, 1957, the first Sputnik!” a different voice called.
“1969, the Moon landing!” someone called with an American accent.
“No, there were dogs sent into space!”
“But it’s not space travel, dogs are not people!” someone else retorted. After that, there was only a confused chatter: archaeology students were not very good at space history.
“Did I ask you about the first human space travel?” Jeanne said. “The fact is, we don’t know.” She paused. “But what our expedition found changes our whole understanding of history, of what the ancients could and couldn’t do, and it will take us years to figure out what it means.”
After she finished one and a half hour later, the students began to leave the room in a murmur of conversations. Dr. Lethbridge-Stuart took Jeanne aside.
“Really, Jeanne? A two thousand year old spacesuit buried in the ice? A suit that you’ve apparently lost forever, so that there can be no proof? That’s what our university paid for? Do you realise what this flop means – I won’t be able to get another grant for this department in the next five years! And Professor Song – God, we’re knee-deep in trouble!” Kate was prone to shouting – especially at Jeanne, but this time she contained herself because of the students present. She straightened out her jacket. “I don’t have time today – I have a Council meeting, but I expect you in my office tomorrow at 9 a.m. We need to talk about your future here – and the future of our department.”
When Kate turned her back to leave, Jeanne stuck out the tongue after her – what’s the point of becoming renowned as an eccentric professor, if you cannot act childish from time to time?
She heard a giggle behind her and felt a hand squeeze her elbow.
“I, too, thought your ideas were a bit outlandish, Professor,” Missy said. “That’s what I liked about them.”
“So you agree with my conclusions?”
“I don’t know – after all, I’m a humble housekeeper, I have no idea about science. But you were so passionate there must be something to it. Now I understand why the students love you – who wouldn’t?”
“Well, thank you.” Despite herself, Jeanne was flattered.
“Care for lunch?”
“Are you going to feed me every day?” Jeanne chuckled.
“Absolutely,” Missy responded with mock seriousness. “Three healthy meals a day. You are too thin.”
As they walked outside and towards the canteen, Jeanne smiled sadly. “You know, when we were out there, I sometimes dreamt of a bowl of hot chicken soup. Or a cup of tea. Anything hot. Even hot milk would do, although I do hate hot milk. The skin on it, eww.” Jeanne shuddered.
Missy took her hand and rubbed her fingers gently, as if warming them. “I know, darling.”
Bill was serving French fries today. “Hey, Professor!” she waved her scoop from afar, but then noticed Missy beside Jeanne and quickly pretended she didn’t do it. “French fries?” she asked when they reached her with their trays.
“Professor would like some chicken soup,” Missy said.
“And some French fries, please,” Jeanne added. “Oh, and what’s this?” she pointed at something soaked in brown gravy. “I’d like this as well.”
Bill shook her head slightly. “Better get a salad at the bar. The chicken soup is good, though. Made out of real chicken today, not the usual stock cubes.” She caught Missy’s eye and closed her mouth. “Here you go, Professor,” she handed a soup bowl and a plate of French fries over to Jeanne.
“Same for me,” Missy ordered dryly.
They took a table in a corner.
“Mmm, yummy,” Jeanne closed her eyes with delight. “You know, I wasn’t very fond of my school, but they did cook great chicken soup, just like this one, I’ll give them that. That’s exactly what I’ve been dreaming about.”
Missy smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.” She watched Jeanne eat in silence for a while. “I believe our dear Dean was too harsh on you. If she didn’t think your research was worth it, she shouldn’t have funded it in the first place. Now she is angry with herself, because she believes she made a wrong decision. She will get over it, given time.”
Jeanne huffed. “Only I will be out of my job by tomorrow evening.”
“No, you won’t, not if I can help it. Besides,” Missy leaned closer and lowered her voice, “I am sure there is more to your research than you let on in front of all those dilettantes. From what I’ve learned about you, you are too good a scientist not to bring back any samples. Why not make them public?”
Jeanne looked away. The huge glass walls of the canteen let in the early October sunshine. Students at the tables next to them burst out laughing and giggling.
“We lost everything when – it wasn’t easy, Missy. I was sure I’d stay there forever, in the ice. Never see the sun again. I had to leave everything behind. No, I don’t have anything to show.”
A frown ran across Missy’s brow, then she smiled again and touched Jeanne’s cheek.
“Don’t worry, no one will fire you. Trust me.”
It was exactly as Missy promised: Kate grumbled at Jeanne for a while for wasting the resources and threatened to put her forward and leave to deal with the angry Americans from the Boston University on her own, but there was no talk of a dismissal.
Jeanne hardly had time to return to her office and take a seat at her desk when somebody knocked at her door.
“Ah, Dr. Chang, come in!” she rose to her feet to greet him. He brought in a tray and managed to shut the door elegantly with his foot.
“Could I join you for breakfast?” his voice quavered.
“A courtesy of your Mistress?” Jeanne asked with a grin – and bit her tongue: she still didn’t know Missy’s real name, but surely, the ‘Mistress’ was a joke she played on Jeanne on her first day, not what everyone around here called her.
“No, it’s actually mine,” Dr. Chang said shyly as he put down the tray with the usual goods. “I heard about your quarrel with the Dean. How did it go?”
Jeanne sat down at the coffee table and rubbed her hands: she chose not to have breakfast in her quarters, because she expected Missy to be waiting for her at the office, and now she was starving.
“Brilliant! Not fired, only shouted at, but that’s Kate’s and my usual game. Mmm, were do you get these scones? I love them. No, don’t tell me: I love the mystery even more!”
Dr. Chang folded his hands in his lap. “So you will continue lecturing? I found your yesterday's talk about your research fascinating.”
“Ah,” Jeanne said with her mouth full. “I’m afraid no more talks about that. Kate ordered me not to spread any crazy ideas and teach the curriculum, which is fine by me, because honestly, I said everything I wanted to say – at least for now.”
“Really?” Dr. Chang looked slightly disappointed. “I hoped there would be more to follow – some documents, photos, lab results, anything.”
“Nope,” Jeanne shook her head carelessly, leaned back in her armchair and stretched out her legs. “Maybe I imagined the whole thing. That’d be a brilliant thought experiment: what if we found an artifact that didn’t belong in the supposed era, as we imagined it? Where do we start? Do we re-evaluate our carbon dating first, or our geological knowledge, or history, or even what we considered to be our basic common sense? You know more about it than anyone, it was you who found the lost dynasty. Tell me more about it.”
Dr. Chang relaxed a bit and lifted his cup. “I just analysed lots and lots of ancient texts, Professor. Nothing as exciting as your field expedition.”
“Still, tell me.”
Dr. Chang’s lips curled up in a smile for a second.
“I noticed discrepancies in some historic accounts, as if a period of about fifty years had been erased from every possible official document. But you cannot destroy everything that has been written: there were private letters, receipts, business contracts that survived. In many of them, the same term came up that can be roughly translated as the ‘red men’ or ‘red rulers’. Apparently, the last heir of the previous dynasty was killed in a strange accident, and these ‘red men’ moved in. I collected about a hundred receipts and contracts from that era, and they all point toward some kind of large infrastructural project of the magnitude of the Great Pyramids or the Great Wall: orders for metalwork mostly. But I still cannot find any indication of what this project could be. That’s why I need funding for an expedition, to look for the building site, I have an idea where it might be. But now that’s–,” he trailed off.
Jeanne was busy chewing on her fifth scone. Then it hit her.
“Oh, I see! Now your funding depends on how much bollocking our Dean gets for me messing up my expedition.”
Dr. Chang sighed with relief that he didn’t have to voice it himself. “Could you do something about it, Professor? If only you showed some proof – it would change everything!”
Jeanne scratched her brow, thinking. “Do you know where I can find – her? You know who.”
“She will find you,” Dr. Chang said almost religiously.
It wasn’t until the next evening that Jeanne saw Missy again. Bill visited to type down some more of the expedition diaries: they came as far as the list of items packed for the journey up north. Jeanne held another lecture, a boring one this time: introduction to archaeology for the first-years. She usually loved to see their young eyes light up as she pictured the wonders ahead of them (or rather behind them, hidden in the depth of history), but this time her heart wasn’t in it. She had to have her breakfast alone: it waited for her inside the locked office, but there was no one around to share it with. For lunch, she went to the canteen, but as Bill warned her, the chicken soup tasted dubious when Missy wasn’t around.
It was almost eleven p.m. when Bill left. Jeanne sat in front of her computer screen correcting the small typing errors in the text.
“A local guide was hired, Lucas Nardole, at the triple of the usual rate, because the other guides refused to take us to the place. It is considered taboo by the locals – as for the reason, the explanation was denied to us.”
Jeanne re-read the sentence and moved the cursor to select Nardole’s name. She was about to press ‘delete’ – no need for that much precision – when the door opened without a warning. Jeanne collapsed the window instantly and looked up. Missy stuck her head in with a mischievous smile and knocked.
“Still working?” she clicked her tongue reproachfully. “Stop wasting our electricity, Professor, closing time.”
Jeanne breathed out and relaxed. “I haven’t seen you for two days!” she complained. “I have an urgent business–”
“Me too,” Missy whispered. “Come on.”
Jeanne clicked the button to close the text document.
“Come on!” Missy urged tapping her foot. Jeanne shut down the computer in a hurry and got up.
“Is there a fire?”
Missy took her hand. “Let’s go, or we’ll be late.”
She led her through the campus lit by the street lamps and the light falling from the dormitory windows. The air was still warm, as if it were the middle of the summer, and here and there they encountered couples or groups of students chatting and laughing on the lawns. Jeanne soon recognised where they were heading: a small stage where the students’ drama club and orchestra normally practiced. It was a modest building with about a hundred seats. The chairs could be removed to make room for a dancefloor.
“When I was a student here,” Jeanne said, “we used to have several bands competing with each other for the honour to play the dance night. Then electronic music creeped in, and the bands died out.”
“Yes, I remember,” Missy responded.
“Were you a student here, too?” Jeanne was surprised. “Which department?”
“I was young once, too. It was the same everywhere.”
“Oh. Nowadays they have competing DJs, I guess,” Jeanne tried to change the topic, because Missy began to walk faster, and she couldn’t figure out whether it was something she said or whether Missy simply was in a hurry.
“No, they still have an orchestra, and they are well past their allowed practice time.” Missy overtook Jeanne and opened the back door in front of her. “Psst. Don’t scare them off.”
The building was small, so that the door led directly backstage, into a corridor full with props and costume racks. Jeanne immediately hit her knee on a plaster pedestal placed in the middle of the gangway, but Missy seemed to navigate the chaos perfectly, as if she visited here often.
“Come here,” she whispered. In the darkness Jeanne felt for a plush sofa with bent arms – like the ones they use on stage for period plays from Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw.
“What’s going on?” Jeanne whispered back rubbing her knee.
“Shh!” Missy leaned over Jeanne – a whiff of lavender – and pulled aside a heavy curtain Jeanne hadn’t noticed. They were sitting right behind the stage. In the small gap Jeanne could distinguish a dozen people. “Still here,” Missy whispered into Jeanne’s ear. “Perfect.”
The people on stage returned to their seats. The conductor raised his hand. The music began with the violins – a cheater’s instrument, Jeanne always thought, its tone precisely designed to trigger your protective instincts and make your heart ache and burn with the unresolved urge to run and save and comfort the crying creature. Then the flutes joined in, making the sound softer, like a gleam of hope, a silver lining in the clouds. The brass entered, then the bass and the cello, and the violins were not crying alone in the darkness anymore. They were carried by their companions, their fragile sound protected by a plump cushion of lush and powerful tones. *
When Jeanne first stepped into the sun out of the ice labyrinth, Nardole found her in the snow, half-frozen, and made a fire, swearing at her and ‘them’, he was always swearing at everything, – that was the story music was telling. The violins worked their way to her heart and scraped at it, not enough to make it bleed again, but enough to make her remember how it felt when it bled.
Jeanne cried. Missy put her arms around her and pressed her face to Jeanne’s cheek. “Oh, my dear girl. No one will ever hurt you anymore, not while I’m here. Never ever will I leave you again.”
It was a wonder that Jeanne made it back, and that the first person she encountered was Missy who felt weird in a very familiar way, who said all the right words and did all the right things and caught her like a safety net. And she smelled like childhood, too, when everything was bright and pretty and ‘monsters in the dark’ were just a thrilling fairytale. Little Jeanne used to lead her gang down the cellar stairs or up into the attic, the girls would scream and giggle at the cobwebs and one of the youngest girls who used to always hang around would clutch her hand until it hurt. That’s what Missy’s hug smelt like.
Jeanne didn’t even realise at first that the wetness and warmth touching her were Missy’s lips. Tick, tick, tick, her mind went blank while Missy held her close. Tick, tick, tick, it always caught Jeanne by surprise, every time someone she liked made the first move. It was never her, always them, as if other people knew exactly what they wanted from her and Jeanne never did. What should she do? Tick, tick, tick.
Missy released her lips and kissed Jeanne’s nose. She laughed in the dark quietly. “Was that too sudden?”
“I, er… I don't know.”
“I know what we are going to do, Professor. We are going for a walk, and you can think it over on the way, so that the next time I kiss you, you are prepared.”
They left the building quietly, just in time so that Jeanne didn’t have to listen to the crying violins again: the orchestra was about to begin their music piece anew. The campus had calmed down, most of the students retired to their rooms. Missy kept holding Jeanne’s hand, and it did not help to calm down Jeanne’s racing heart. You can think it over, Missy said, but thinking never helped in these situations, really. That’s what Jeanne did all her life: she observed and analysed, but when these… things happened, her mind refused to step in. Probably because it was not its area of expertise. Even in her marriage, when these confusing things had been clarified in advance and sealed with an official certificate, intimacy felt complicated, as if her previous experience didn't count and she had to create a new roadmap every time, over and over again.
The path Missy took led to Jeanne’s quarters. She lifted Jeanne’s hand and caressed her palm, as if reading the lines. “You are shaking,” she observed.
“The thinking doesn’t work,” Jeanne admitted. “Never does.”
“Then I’ll tell you what is going to happen, Professor. I shall bring you to your doorstep and I shall kiss you. And if you like it, you will invite me in. You will offer me some tea and show me around, and I shall kiss you again, because I like doing that. And then I shall take you to your bedroom and undress you and kiss you some more, and we shall make love.”
Missy’s hands held Jeanne’s firmly. The night smelt of warm grass and chips sold from a truck outside the campus and lavender, down-to-earth and familiar. Jeanne’s heart slowed down, still beating fast in anticipation, but not painfully.
They reached her doorstep, but didn’t stop to kiss. Jeanne unlocked the door and let Missy in.
It didn’t happen as Missy had promised. She pushed Jeanne against the wall and dived at her lips. Jeanne’s heart made a leap, as if she were on a rollercoaster, but this time she was ready. She opened her lips for Missy to kiss her as she pleased. Missy’s tongue touched hers smoothly, confidently.
“I always knew…” Missy whispered when they broke off.
“What?” Jeanne was curious. Missy didn’t say, but kept kissing her. The hot breath escaping her mouth brushed against Jeanne’s lips; it smelt sweetly of nothing in particular, the perfect smell of a person you want to feel forever, taste forever.
Missy slipped her hand between Jeanne’s legs. The wool of her trousers felt too thick and the seams rough between her tender flesh and Missy’s hand. The pressure was nice, but Jeanne hated the spreading sticky wetness when she was clothed. Was that the moment she was supposed to invite Missy to the bedroom?
“Come with me,” Missy whispered just in time. Jeanne never made her bed: why, if you have to undo your work every evening? Missy pulled at her jacket to take it off, then pushed Jeanne backwards onto the messy covers. “You are a naughty girl,” Missy hissed with a smile. “I will have to teach you a lesson.”
“Er,” Jeanne said. “Okay.”
“Take off your shirt.”
Jeanne removed her cufflinks, but Missy didn’t wait for her to finish. She pulled up Jeanne’s shirt and kissed her stomach above the waistband. Jeanne giggled. Preparations for sex made her jittery. You were together with someone, and this situation called for some interaction. But were you supposed to make small talk while undressing, or would that be out of place?
“I saw Dr. Chang yesterday,” she remembered. “He told me about his research.”
Missy who was unbuttoning Jeanne’s shirt lifted her head. “That’s very important to me right now, darling.”
“It’s really fascinating!” Jeanne raised herself on her elbows. “If he could only get the funding for an expedition, it could be a breakthrough!”
“Oh.” Missy stretched out next to Jeanne and drew a line across her bare stomach with her red nail. “You are something, Professor. I underestimated you.”
“But you don’t need to earn privileges with me, my dear. You already have them all, and you can ask me for whatever you like.”
“Er,” Jeanne didn’t quite get that. “Brilliant.”
Missy sat up straight and began to undress. She unpinned her cameo brooch and placed it on the night table.
“Do you always talk about work in bed?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. Jeanne remembered River.
“Tell me about your research then.” Missy removed her bracelets and put them next to the brooch, then took off her jacket and got up for a moment to hang it up on the back of a chair.
“Professor Song came across some letters of the 19th century gold-diggers who wrote about a ‘secret temple with treasures in the far north’. She suggested an expedition, so we went.”
Missy whistled. “A secret temple? I did have a bit of a crush on Lara Croft when I was younger.” She winked. “What did you find?” She slipped her laced blouse off her white and chiseled shoulders. Jeanne was enthralled.
“So?” Missy urged. She looked over her shoulder playfully. “You are suddenly very quiet, Professor. Is something wrong?”
Jeanne shook her head and stretched out her arm to touch Missy’s shoulder. She pulled at the fabric to reveal more of her smooth back. Under the blouse, there was a silk corset in pale lilac.
“I tried this thing on once, and I thought no historically accurate reenactment is worth the pain.”
“A lil’ bit o’ pain ne’er hurt no one, darlin’,” Missy said in an exaggerated lilt. “But you are welcome to help me get out of it.” Jeanne pulled at the bands on the back of her corset carefully. She knew how all the parts connected, in theory, but the lacing seemed more complicated in practice.
“How do you lace it up yourself?” she asked, puzzled.
“Dr. Chang,” Missy shrugged. After a couple of silent and even more puzzled moments, she laughed. “Only joking, dear!”
As her chest was released, Missy breathed in deeply. She turned around, took Jeanne’s hand and placed it around her left breast. It was heavy and firm, with a pointy brown nipple that was sharp as if she were cold. It just called for Jeanne to warm it, so she did, by putting her mouth over it.
“Now you are talking, darling,” Missy sighed. “Or rather not talking which is even nicer.”
She lay down letting Jeanne kiss and suck at it.
“Take off your shirt already!” Missy exclaimed a minute later. Jeanne wriggled out of her shirt and her plain sports bra, and Missy pulled her on top of herself for another kiss. Her naked skin was burning where their bellies and breasts and arms touched. “That’s how I imagined it,” she breathed out.
She flipped Jeanne over on her back and kissed her stomach violently, sucking at the skin. She unbuttoned her trousers and bit on her hipbones. It was almost scary, but that made it more exciting. Jeanne was lying still – except when she lifted her hips to let Missy pull down her trousers – waiting and feeling and enjoying every thing that Missy was doing to her. Jeanne always had to keep running, doing things for other people, helping them with this and that, endless students, Kate’s management issues which somehow became Jeanne’s problems, Dr. Chang and his money, and her own research which ended in a heap of trouble time and again when she only wanted to study how people lived in the past. And in the confusing world behind her bedroom doors, she was expected to keep making decisions for everyone and lead the way when she had no idea where it was. Except with Missy, she didn’t have to. Missy knew what she was here for, and her goal seemed to be doing everything Jeanne didn’t even realise she could enjoy.
Her tongue travelled between and around Jeanne’s labia and her fingers played with her vagina; they slipped inside as if emphasising a particularly powerful touch outside, but left quickly, never satisfying. Jeanne moaned and pushed down on Missy’s hand; Missy didn’t let her, but instead licked on her clitoris with a soft tongue. The wet and harsh touch of its papillae was the opposite of what Jeanne wanted, but somehow exactly what she needed. Her muscles tightened, her knees jerked up and her toes curled without her realising. Her hand caught Missy’s cheek: more! Missy’s tongue flicked back and forth; her fingers pushed deep inside and moved swiftly. Jeanne’s body tensed up taking in every touch – and then as if all her nerves overloaded and switched off, she was floating in zero gravity, not quite feeling her body, light and empty of thought and sensation.
Missy did not stop, and the sensation quickly returned, bursting through the numbness of Jeanne’s tired muscles. Now Jeanne had to cry out every time Missy’s fingers pushed inside her. It was a different kind of pleasure, not nirvana-like, but intense and animalistic.
Missy pulled down her skirts and stretched out next to Jeanne. She pushed her leg in a thin black stocking – no underpants – between her knees and forced Jeanne’s hand down between her thighs. They were wet by now, and she sighed with a moan when Jeanne slipped her fingers inside.
Jeanne had to gasp for air between sharp short harsh kisses. Missy was rubbing against her thigh and hand in a hot frenzy, biting at her earlobe, her neck and collarbone. She rolled over on top of Jeanne, and her weight created just the right kind of friction; the lingering pleasure was sparked up into a new spasm. Missy slowed down and moved her fingers around Jeanne’s sensitive areas gently to let her feel every second of it. When the spasms subsided, she removed her hand and slid down to kiss and suck on Jeanne’s nipples while she was catching her breath.
Jeanne knew this was the time for reciprocity, but as she lifted herself up on her elbows, Missy pushed her back down. “No.” Her fingers were playing with Jeanne again, and her mouth was exploring her vulva and her inner thighs, very softly, because they were oversensitive right now. “You are very pretty. I could eat you.”
“Mmm, thanks,” was the only thing Jeanne could think of muttering. Missy’s touch became firmer; Jeanne gasped every time Missy’s tongue ran over clitoris. It was not painful as such, but it felt as if pleasant sensations were forced out of her. Jeanne wasn’t sure though whether she wanted Missy to stop. It would be impolite to ask. And – a lil’ bit o’ pain ne’er hurt no one.
Missy gave her a short break as she pulled away to kiss a line towards Jeanne’s bellybutton. When she moved down again, Jeanne gasped sharply. Her recovered nerves found new resources to transmit even stronger signals. Jeanne wanted to scramble away and ask for more at the same time, so that in the end she just wriggled underneath Missy and breathed in and out unevenly.
Missy pushed her down into the bed with the weight of her body and rode her thigh while fucking Jeanne hard with her fingers. Jeanne’s hands were running blindly all over Missy’s body, her buttcheeks, her back, her shoulders, her hair, and back down again. She was beyond “pleasant” or “brilliant” or “orgasm”, her body overloaded into a white hot pulsating desert.
Then it slowed down. Missy’s fingers slipped out of her, but her weight remained. Wet lips kissed her dry mouth. “That’s for all the years of waiting.”
“For what?” Jeanne could hardly make a sound.
* Missy and Jeanne were listening to the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OvsVSWB4TI
Jeanne woke up snug in a blanket. She had not slept that deeply since before the expedition. Her tongue was dry and hot, and she could feel the tension on her skin where the bodily fluids had dried up, but it didn’t make waking up any less cosy. Jeanne could hear Missy whistling and moving about in the living room. How long was she asleep? Students, lectures, there was a schedule somewhere; she wasn’t very good at keeping fixed appointments, but Missy should be.
Missy stopped and was silent for a moment, then appeared in the doorway with a smile on her face.
“Ah, good morning, my dear!”
“I have to – “
“Not until noon. You have a class on Experimental Archaeology, if I am not mistaken.”
“I’m sure you aren’t.”
“Well, I appreciate your trust in me,” Missy curtsied. “We have another two hours – more than enough for a nice brunch.”
Jeanne turned over onto her stomach to face the door. Missy read her movement correctly: she bent down to give Jeanne a long warm kiss. “Get up, Professor, your breakfast is waiting.”
After a shower, Jeanne sat down with Missy in the living room at the dinner table which Jeanne used as a desk and a workbench.
“How can you live in such a mess?” Missy scolded her.
“It’s not a mess, it’s my workplace!”
Missy sneezed to make a point about dust.
"I didn't have time to clean it, I just came back!"
“We need to fix that, darling. And you have not unpacked yet!” she nodded at the backpack Jeanne dropped in a corner when she arrived and had not touched since.
“Oh, it’s only my winter gear. I’m not even sure why I brought it back. I suppose, I feared I’d look too conspicuous on a Transatlantic flight without any luggage.”
“Were you doing anything illegal?” Missy asked playfully while buttering her croissant.
“You never know,” Jeanne answered in a matching tone. “Once, they arrested me at the airport, because I forgot a Bronze Age hairpin in my pocket. No sharp objects allowed! They wanted to throw it away, no respect for history.”
“Did you fight them?” Missy sounded fascinated.
Jeanne blushed. “If you want to call it fighting. But I was very vocal.”
“Oh yes, I know what you mean. You were very vocal last night,” Missy nodded. Jeanne turned red to the roots of her hair and began chewing on her scone zealously. To add to her embarrassment, Missy said bluntly: “And I will gladly repeat the experience tonight. Would you?”
Jeanne opened her mouth, closed it, swallowed, tried to say something about how much she enjoyed it, then gave up and nodded. Missy squeezed her hand.
“You are so sweet, darling, I want to eat you. And I will, later. Now get out and teach the kids to be useful while I take care of this mess.”
Jeanne decided to skip her evening appointment with Bill. The girl arrived on time as usual and looked clearly disappointed.
“I thought we’d finally get to the secret of the temple!”
“There was no secret. It is a legend,” Jeanne responded a bit harshly, because she was in a hurry to lock her office door and get home where Missy was waiting.
“But you said legends were always based on something! Take Dr. Chang’s research.” Bill followed Jeanne down the corridor and out of the building.
“Alright, we found a net of caves in the ice – that was their ‘secret temple’.”
“And then?” As Jeanne was walking fast, Bill was hopping sideways to keep up with the conversation.
“We went in. Searched for months. Found nothing. The ice collapsed. I got out, Professor Song and our guide didn’t.”
“Oh my God!” Bill stopped in her tracks. “I’m so sorry.”
“The Canadian military is still digging. Maybe they’ll find the bodies.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“Now you’ve learnt something: science demands sacrifice.”
“Do you need anything, Professor?” Bill asked with her eyes full of pity.
“Come back tomorrow, we need to finish that report.”
When Jeanne stepped into her quarters, she hardly recognised them. The dinner table was empty except for the, well, dinner – no tools or books. The chairs were empty, too, as well as the other surfaces.
“Where are all my books?” Jeanne exclaimed indignantly.
“Where they are supposed to be, darling: on the shelves.” Missy welcomed her with a hug and kiss. “And while we are at it: don’t come looking for your tools in the kitchen, they are all in your desk drawers. Also, all your clothes are in the bedroom now, including your winter gear: I had it dry-cleaned.”
Jeanne’s backpack was gone indeed. Her apartment felt a bit foreign.
“I’ll remember that,” she muttered.
Being cared for felt foreign, too. Missy smiled and put food on her plate and asked about her day and whether Jeanne had any further trouble with the Dean.
River was like a fiery tornado. She never warned Jeanne about her flight from the US or wherever her latest research led her. She appeared suddenly, pushed Jeanne against the wall and did whatever she wanted. They argued about their work, and it always ended with Jeanne playing along, no matter what she thought of it originally. It was the same with the ‘secret temple’ affair: River discovered the sources, but it was Jeanne who had to find a way to make the expedition happen, convince the university that it wasn’t a scam and the locals that their temple would remain intact (kudos on the last two, Professor Smith, that turned out well). River had her own ways to get things done; Jeanne did not always agree with them, that is why she preferred not to know. But working with her was fun; and the ocean that lay between them made the relationship perfect, because none of them would have been able to survive the tension day after day. They almost never had a chance to simply sit and have tea together and talk.
Missy poured Jeanne a cup and stirred the sugar for her.
“Why are you so thoughtful today, dear?”
“No reason,” Jeanne responded quickly.
“Oh, I thought–” Missy bit her lip.
“Oh, nothing,” Missy shrugged lightly. “Have you seen the Dean today?”
“No, why?” A nauseating trembling rose up from Jeanne’s stomach.
“Don’t worry, darling, you will have plenty of opportunity to talk to her tomorrow.”
The tea was stuck in Jeanne's throat. Missy looked unnaturally cheerful.
“Am I fired?”
“Oh no!” Missy exclaimed. “I promised you, they wouldn’t. Trust me on this.”
“Then what?” Jeanne hated not knowing the truth. Anything was better than guessing and imagining the worst; and Jeanne had a very vivid imagination. Missy sighed.
“I overheard it by accident. The Dean received news from Canada.”
Jeanne sat bolt upright.
“They terminated the rescue mission. No chance, they said, the ice is too thick, and the winter is coming. They didn’t want to risk their people for two bodies.”
Jeanne rose from her chair and walked up to the open window. The sky was dark, but in the streetlight the trees shone yellowish-green, and the grass on the wide lawns was still green, too. But somewhere in the far north, in the other hemisphere, under many feet of ice, there was River, buried forever. Rationally, Jeanne knew that ever since the ice crashed down behind her, but she had hoped for another chance to look River in the eye and ask – why? Why do that? Nevermind River's drawbacks, Jeanne never wanted her to die – never expected her to die. Until Jeanne heard news, it felt as if River simply went away on one of her secret expeditions. Now she was officially dead and gone.
“Were you very close?” Missy asked.
“We have known each other for ages, in and out. We have worked on several projects together,” Jeanne tried to stop her voice from trembling. Missy didn’t need to know any more than that – for her own heart’s ease. The quick, spontaneous wedding in the Inuit village, in the few days they were staying there between two attempts to conquer the ice caves, probably wasn’t even valid for the rest of the world, so the world didn’t have to know.
Missy hugged her from behind.
“You were good friends then?”
“Yes.” Jeanne pressed her lips together and shut her eyes tightly to stop the sobs rising up from her throat. It must have been a huge misunderstanding; River was better than that, she was a scientist, she would have never put profit above research. But in the end, she did. “Maybe it’s better that they didn’t find them,” Jeanne said quietly.
“Why?” Missy caressed her cheek and kissed her shoulder fondly.
“Because…” Because otherwise people would ask questions about the bodies buried under the ice, who those people were and where they came from and why they carried guns. Jeanne preferred Professor Song’s memory and academic standing intact. “She died doing what she loved best. She would have enjoyed the idea of being buried with her archaeological treasures. Maybe one day, centuries from now, another archaeologist will go digging and find her there, quite intact, and write a paper about a mysterious traveler in the ice…” Jeanne trailed off. Despite her efforts, she was crying.
“That’s a beautiful idea.” Missy turned her around and hugged her and kissed her wet eyes. “We all have to die one day, but not everyone is lucky to die in an impressive way. Don’t be sad.”
It was weirdly comforting. Protected by Missy’s embrace, Jeanne closed her eyes and imagined River frozen in the ice, forever and ever, unchanging and preserved from the storms outside; a traveler from the past, just like the one they found in the caves.
Bill Potts jumped in surprise when she bumped into Professor Smith outside the canteen and almost dropped her bag again.
“I want to see your workplace!” Jeanne announced cheerfully.
“But it’s just a kitchen.”
“So? I’ve never visited a huge kitchen before. Show me around.”
The evening shift had ended; Bill was the last one to leave and lock the place, so that there was no one around to disturb them.
“Wow! How many liters does this pot hold?”
“200. We use it to cook rice. It’s pretty good, we recently got all the old equipment replaced. At least something good has come out of – erm, the new management.”
“Brilliant. And what’s this cupboard?”
“It’s a convection oven. It can do up to 12 palettes simultaneously – cool, right?”
“Or, rather, hot,” Jeanne joked.
“Yep, up to 300 degrees. Careful, it hasn’t cooled down yet.”
“Where is your freezer then?”
Bill’s eyes lit up in excitement. “Come, I’ll show you.” She opened a heavy metal door and led Jeanne into a room with shelves full of frozen goods. Jeanne hugged her shoulders. “It’s cold, right? Minus 18,” Bill told her proudly.
“Brilliant. Perfect. I like it.” Jeanne looked around shuddering. The memory of the excruciating cold was still alive in her bones. “Now I’ve seen enough.” She hurried out.
Once back in the kitchen, she put her back against the warm oven body and sighed with relief.
“Professor?” Bill asked cautiously. “Is it true about you and – you know who?”
Bill giggled nervously. “I saw you at lunch today. She was holding your hand. Not that it’s any of my business–” she trailed off.
“Now you’ve made it your business, Miss Potts, so say it.”
“I have nothing against it, I mean, if I were into older women – sorry, I didn’t mean she was too old – I meant to say, she is probably quite alright – just be careful, Professor. How well do you know her?”
“The fact is, Bill, it doesn’t matter,” Jeanne answered after a short silence. “Sometimes you think you know someone in and out, and it turns out, you didn’t know them at all, after all those years. So you either have to mistrust everyone or hope for the best.”
“And you choose to hope for the best?”
Jeanne smiled weakly.
“Now, Miss Potts, are we going to have any work done today or not? The report will not write itself!”
After they had finished a few pages, Bill left. Jeanne was looking forward to returning home where Missy must have been waiting for her. But as she was about to lock her office, Dr. Chang called for her from the depth of the long corridor.
“Professor! Please, wait.” He caught up with her, panting. “You mentioned you wanted to see my work. I know it’s late, but–”
Jeanne could never refuse such an offer. “Of course!”
In his office, Dr. Chang spread out copies of the translated ancient texts in front of her, as well as a map.
“I thought I might have missed something, and I did! Oh, I am such a scatterbrain! I looked through the texts again, and I found this – it is a supply order. I believe that’s where we should look for whatever they were building. Look, it gives you the directions!”
Jeanne read through the page and frowned.
“Are you sure that’s a correct translation? ‘Metal hair’.
“I thought it might be an element of décor.”
“Metal hair, ceramics and glass vessels,” Jeanne read on and scratched her head. “Does it sound like a transistor to you?”
“But they were only invented about – what? – a hundred years ago.”
“Exactly!” Jeanne picked up another page. “More metal hair – a different size – that must be wires. And metal sheets. Here, resin and mica – that’s insulation.”
“Isn’t it a bit of wishful thinking, Professor?”
“Think big, Dr. Chang! What could they have been building?”
"A – a ship?" Dr. Chang suggested.
"Up in the mountains?"
"Of course not, that was stupid of me," Dr. Chang muttered.
"No, it wasn't stupid." Jeanne rubbed her forehead. "Wires and transistors and metal sheets. High up in the mountains. High up. It must have been very inconvenient to transport all these heavy goods up there on the narrow mountain paths. So what are the benefits?"
Dr. Chang shrugged. "I thought it might have had a sacral meaning. A secluded retreat. A temple."
"Secluded..." Jeanne repeated. "A secret and hard-to-reach location where the mysterious "red rulers" intended to build something out of wires and transistors. On top of a mountain." She closed her eyes and tried to picture the location. "That would give you a pretty wide coverage if you needed a radio station."
Dr. Chang gave a short nervous laugh. "But that was two thousand years ago! There was no radio back then."
"Yeah, not yet," Jeanne pulled on her lip. "How come people 12 thousand kilometres apart – in Tibet and in North America – were suddenly so much ahead of their time? Except – they probably weren't!"
"Weren't ahead of their time? You mean, that was normal back then?"
"Weren't people!" Jeanne exclaimed. "I need to go. See you tomorrow in my office first thing in the morning!" She stormed out, but returned instantly to stuck her head into the door and shush Dr. Chang: “Don’t tell anyone about your discovery yet!” Then she disappeared again.
"Where were you, darling? The dinner is cold," Missy reproached.
Jeanne leaned on the wall, panting. "You must get funding for Chang's expedition right now!"
Missy folded her arms. "Must I?"
“It is very important,” Jeanne implored.
“So? I am not a magician, darling, and I do not print money in my basement. He would have to go through the standard process: submit an application to the Dean...”
“Oh, we all know that you make the decision!” Jeanne interrupted her. “So pull some strings, make it happen! Now!”
Missy looked at her, bewildered and a little hurt. “Are you pulling in favours already? I hoped your affection was more genuine than that.”
“You don’t understand, it’s not only about his paper, it’s about the greatest discovery of the last century – of all times – my discovery!”
“Oh,” Missy cocked her head. “And what would that be?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Right. You just want me to conjure up a couple million pounds for you, but you wouldn’t even tell me what for?”
“I really can’t tell you. It’s – it’s not safe for you,” Jeanne whispered.
“I’m a big girl,” Missy assured her. Despite her powerful stance, her voice quavered ever so slightly. Jeanne winced: oh no, it was the worst when people she cared about suddenly began to cry or stopped talking to her, and she never quite knew where she went wrong. She rather preferred when they started shouting, like Donna, the best temporary secretary in the world who stayed with Jeanne for too short a time. She had a ready tongue and a shrill voice, and with her Jeanne was always sure to know about all her personal deficits.
Missy’s eyes dampened. Oh God, no, no, no!
“Okay, okay!” Jeanne exclaimed hastily. “But please don’t tell anyone! It’s for your own good.”
“I can take care of myself, love,” Missy smiled, her eyes drying up quickly.
“So, they were aliens!" Jeanne finished her explanation. She forgot the need for secrecy and was pacing up and down the living room, gesticulating wildly. Missy was following her with wide eyes. "These are parts of the same puzzle. They were building a ship – a spaceship! Or maybe repairing it. Yes, a crash landing, that must be it. The astronaut we found in the ice must have been one of them. They must have lost him, hence the radio, to search for their companion!”
Missy’s attentive clear blue eyes were fixed on her.
“Wait, an astronaut?”
“Of course! Why would there be an empty suit lying around? Of course, there was a person inside it, an alien, and perfectly intact – well, except for the fact that he has been dead for thousands of years.”
“I didn’t know that,” Missy said thoughtfully. “I can see how this changes everything.”
“Will you pull the strings for Dr. Chang’s expedition?”
Missy rose, came up to Jeanne and took both her hands. “Do you believe there might be an actual alien spaceship on top of that mountain?”
“Yes!” Jeanne nodded excitedly. “Can you imagine: the first contact took place two thousand years ago, and we didn't know! They might be here, on Earth, this very moment! Will you help us?”
“Wow,” Missy exhaled. “If only you hadn’t lost the astronaut under the ice!”
Jeanne bit her lip, trying to hide a smile, and shook her head.
Missy's eyes widened. "Where is it then?"
“I can't tell you that yet. But I will need your help.”
Missy squeezed Jeanne’s hands. “Anything, my love. Anything in the world.”
Jeanne was walking home down the dark campus alleyways. She and Bill had been staying in the office until late almost every night: now that Dr. Chang’s project was moving forward, Jeanne needed to come up with a plausible expedition report as soon as possible to make the Dean more agreable.
“Psst!” A homeless guy crunching on a street corner hissed at her. Jeanne stopped and felt her pockets.
“Sorry, I don't have any money. I never carry any, I have no need for it, really. But if you come with me, I can get you a sandwich. Missy makes great blood sausage sandwiches, it’s a Spanish recipe, because she has Spanish blood in her – not the one she uses for the sausage.”
“Psst!” the homeless man gestured for her to come closer.
“Do you need help?”
“Yes!” he croaked in a weird accent that was neither northern, no southern. “I ‘ave got sum-thing in me eye. Can you look at it?”
Jeanne hunkered down in front of him. “Sure, let me see.”
“You know it's very unsafe for you to walk around alone at night?” the homeless man asked. Jeanne shrugged.
“I'm not scared.”
“For God's sake, Professor, you promised you'd take care of yourself! That includes not talking to strange men in the middle of the night!” the strange man hissed vigorously and snatched off his hood.
“Nardole!” Now Jeanne recognised his red-and-blue bobble hat he never took off. She squeezed his round, absolutely hairless face with both hands and kissed him on the cheeks. “You’ve made it!”
“Shhh!” He hissed again and dried his face with his coat sleeve. “Eww, Professor, stop it! Of course, I’ve made it. Wasn’t too easy, especially avoiding the border patrol on the sea, but what choice did I have? By the way, it cost twice as much as we’d expected. Those smugglers are a rip-off! Remind me to never deal with them again.”
“Is it here?” Jeanne shook him to distract him from moaning.
“Of course, it's here, otherwise I wouldn't be here. Follow me.”
Jeanne followed him at a distance towards a small dead end behind the campus' canteen. There, a white refrigerated van with a happy fish painted on its side was well hidden from the eyes of the passers-by.
“Ta-da!” Nardole announced as he unlocked the back door. Inside Jeanne saw a large box more than three meters long. She caressed the rough wood tenderly.
“Never hoped to see you again, my friend.”
Nardole slammed the door shut again. “No need to let the warm air in. That's the problem, Professor: those vans are not designed to keep deep-freeze temperatures for too long. We must move this thing to a proper storage as soon as possible. You said you'd have everything ready for it.”
Jeanne smiled and pulled out a key she was wearing around her neck. “I do.”
She unlocked the back door of the canteen. Nardole stepped in and rubbed his belly.
“Food! I'm starving. Right, what do we have here?” He looked around.
“First, we need to take care of our friend.”
“Can I have that cake?” Nardole pointed to a display counter.
“Later. Keep your hands off it!”
In the storage area, Jeanne found a trolley and returned to the van with it.
“Now we just need to unload the box and put it in the freezer.”
It was easier said than done. After fifteen minutes of pushing, pulling and panting, they hardly moved the box a few inches.
“We need a forklift, like the one they used in the port.” Nardole wiped the sweat off his forehead. “He was a big fellow. This thing weighs more than fifty stone, they said.”
Jeanne jumped off the van, so did Nardole, and she shut the doors to keep the temperature stable.
“Wait here, I know someone who can help.”
“Wait, what? Don’t tell anyone! This is supposed to be a secret!”
“I trust her.”
“Yeah, like you trusted Professor Song,” Nardole screwed his face. Jeanne cut him off.
“It’s different, and we have no choice anyway.”
Nardole muttered something behind her back as Jeanne turned a corner – and bumped straight into Missy.
“I was looking for you!” They both exclaimed at the same time.
“Where were you? I was expecting you for dinner, my dear!”
“I need your help!” Jeanne grabbed Missy's hand.
“Ooh, I like it when you’re rough,” Missy whistled.
“Do you have a forklift?”
“Just a moment, let me check my pockets.” Missy even pretended to take a look.
“Can you get me one? Now?”
“There is a delivery scheduled for 6 a.m. at the canteen, ask the driver.”
“No, I can't wait for another five hours, the whole thing will go to waste. I need it right now.” Jeanne took Missy shoulders. “Please. You can get anything. You promised.”
Missy smiled broadly and pulled Jeanne close. “Of course, darling, I'd throw the whole world at your feet.” Missy kissed Jeanne on the lips, but she was too jittery to feel anything.
“Will you? Please?”
Missy patted her cheek. “Let me make a call.”
“Where did Dr. Chang get a forklift in the middle of the night?” Jeanne whispered into Missy's ear.
“His family owns a store.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
“He is Chinese, don’t they all own a store?” Missy shrugged.
"Easy, easy!" Nardole kept shouting while Dr. Chang unloaded the box in the middle of the refrigerator room among packages of frozen chicken nuggets and peas.
"Where did you get this funny guy from?" Missy asked. Jeanne shrugged.
"Just picked him up along the way."
"He sounds Canadian," Missy observed.
"You sound Scottish," Jeanne remarked in turn.
"I am. So?"
"So?" Jeanne repeated innocently.
"What about him?" Missy asked.
"No, I don't think he's Scottish," Jeanne said and wandered off to help Nardole adjust the box.
Dr. Chang lowered it on the floor with great care and backed the forklift out of the room through a roll-up door which led directly onto the street. Everyone gathered around the huge box that now took almost all the free space in the refrigerator room.
"Open it!" Missy ordered Dr. Chang.
"Wait, we are not opening it!" Jeanne grabbed her arm. Dr. Chang looked from her to Missy, unsure whose orders to follow.
"But I thought you wanted to share your discovery with Dr. Chang, darling!" Missy exclaimed. "The aliens, remember?"
Nardole frowned and pointed at Missy. "Does she know?"
"I know everything I need to know, Mr. Snowman," she smiled. "Let's open it, love, I've never seen an alien before!" She rubbed her hands in excitement.
"What do you mean, an alien?" Dr. Chang asked, still shifting his gaze between Jeanne and Missy.
"Get a crowbar, I'll show you," Missy purred.
"A crowbar is never a good idea," Nardole muttered.
"That’s my specimen, and we are not opening it right now!" Jeanne barked.
"That's the right decision, my love."
Jeanne's heart made a leap. She spun around.
“Help us God,” Nardole sighed.
A woman was standing under the roll-up door which Dr. Chang forgot to close. She was alive and well, with all her limbs in place. Her wild wavy hair was falling onto her shoulders hugged by a black leather jacket, just as when she used to take Jeanne along on crazy bike rides through the American desert.
“River!” Jeanne breathed out.
“That’s me, sweetie,” River smiled. Jeanne wanted to run up to her, hug her, nevermind what she had done. Missy clutched at Jeanne’s sleeve.
River suddenly lost her smile. “Jeanne, be careful. Step away from her.”
“Don’t trust her, my dear. She betrayed you once, she will do it again,” Missy implored.
“You don’t know the whole story,” Jeanne shook her head.
“Oh yes, she does.” River’s eyes narrowed as she fixed her gaze on Missy. “What happened in the ice caves was all her doing.”
“How?” Jeanne longed to believe it wasn’t River’s fault, but she remembered the men with guns behind her too vividly – and River barking orders at them to follow Jeanne, to find her in the caves. “You turned up there with your own private army, not Missy.”
“It wasn’t my army! That squad attacked our camp while you were in the caves studying the specimen. And you, Nardole, had just left to visit the village and bring back some supplies. They must have been watching us and waited till I was alone. They captured me and promised no one would get hurt if I led them to our findings. They wanted all our notes, our artefacts. My plan was to lead them into the ice labyrinth; I was pretty sure I could escape inside the tunnels, because I was the only one who had taken care to map them. You know how good I am with maps. But unluckily you chose exactly that moment to come out. I tried to convince you to be rational: no research is worth dying for. But you didn’t listen, you saw the guns and freaked out. You never cared about maps; you have always been too cocky about how brilliant your memory is, and we both know how it usually turns out. I was afraid you would get lost in the ice, and it would be much worse than facing the marauders. So in order to distract them I told them to follow you, and then I ran. They started shooting, the caves collapsed, they brought their own death upon themselves. End of story. It wasn’t my fault, Jeanne.”
It sounded pretty convincing, and Jeanne yearned to be convinced. Nardole spoke.
“I didn’t see you neither at the caves, nor at the village. You simply disappeared.”
“Sorry, Nardole, I was not sure I could trust you – if I could trust anybody. That’s why I went into hiding until I’ve figured out who was behind this affair.”
“You couldn’t even trust me?” Jeanne felt a tang in her heart.
“You are too easy to read, Jeanne. No one would have believed I was dead if you knew. Especially not her,” she nodded at Missy with disgust. “She is the mastermind behind this affair.”
“Well, thank you, you flatter me,” Missy curtsied. “Except this is complete nonsense. Jeanne, dear, what would you have done with this sleeping beauty should not Professor Song have disturbed you?”
“I would have brought it back with me to the University.”
“So,” Missy addressed River, “why would I go to so much trouble if I could just sit in England and wait?”
“Because you did not want the University to have our findings. You have other clients – who are paying very good money for an extra-terrestrial addition to their collection.”
“Oh, is that so? And you know about this because...?” Missy made a theatrical pause. “Have you ever wondered, Jeanne, how Professor Song was able to afford her extremely comfortable lifestyle? Or where she went on all her secret expeditions for which no findings have ever been published? Or why she was so interested in your non-conventional work?”
“Our government is very generous with the scientists, thank you very much,” River snapped.
“So generous that you were able to fund your last Canadian expedition out of your pocket? Luckily for you, Professor Smith is very careless with the paperwork, she never noticed any discrepancies. But I – I, on the other hand, am very thorough. Jeanne, I am sorry to tell you, Professor Song here was planning to sell your specimen to a private investor. And she was prepared to sacrifice you for profit.”
“You offered it!” River pointed her gun at Missy. “I never agreed! Jeanne, don’t listen to her!”
Jeanne wanted to cry, but her eyes and her throat were dry as sand. “You were in the caves. You were giving the orders,” she managed.
“Okay, yes, I do sell artefacts, a little business on the side, but I never planned to hurt you, Jeanne! This woman was the client, she sent the soldiers to kill us both and steal the artefact!”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear,” Missy smiled under the gun pointed at her. “Colonel Saxon, Chief Scientific Officer at MI6 at your service. Professor Song, you are arrested for illicit antiquities trade, conspiring, attempted murder or Professor Smith and murder of four special forces officers sent to arrest you.”
“Try that,” River said. Something changed in her face ever so slightly, but this subtle grimace sent Jeanne flying forward to stand between her and Missy.
“Stop!” she put up her hands, as if to keep them apart.
At the same time Dr. Chang who until now had been keeping quiet and still rushed towards River. His move was not fast enough. As he grabbed her shoulder, there was a crushing “Bang!” It threw Jeanne backwards like an explosion. There was no pain, but her right hand and arm suddenly went numb and cold. She lost her balance.
That’s when Dr. Chang finally caught up with River; they rolled up on the floor.
Jeanne’s knees gave in. She wanted to stop her fall, or at least soften it. The thought was very clear in her mind, but there was nothing her body could do about it. She tumbled down.