Verity. Oxford, 2058. Tuesday the 19th December. Raining. Also, the end of the world (or something like it).
If I consulted my recent memory, I could recall perhaps three days in the last year when the lab hadn’t looked like it was the middle of the apocalypse. I suppose the best was Easter Day last year, when I’d called in for a few minutes to pick up some paperwork I’d intended to complete over the holidays, and there it had been. Blessed silence. Desks empty. Warder’s computer festooned with glittery chickens, twinkling merrily, but otherwise calm. Then there’d been the visit by the president of our main funding body. All non essential drops had been cancelled, everyone had enough time to do everything they were supposed to. Every ‘i’ dotted, every ’t’ crossed. When the men and women in suits had closed the door for the last time, I’d heard a large breath of relief and then the next day Ned had accidentally been sent to 1931 instead of 1941 and I’d had to convince an entire weekend shooting party that he was my mad cousin who’d gotten obsessed with HG Wells. There was frequently chaos, of course, but now the government were threatening to shut down the net - (there’d been a parliamentary hearing, or a media circus or something), since we started bringing objects through, and all retrievals from 2059 onwards were going to be subject to approval from a committee. A committee.
I was thinking about transferring to MIT. They didn’t have a working net (yet) but it was only a matter of time (ha!) and they would probably have enough funding to prevent-
“-remember the entire building was on the nineteenth Miss Kindle. The nineteenth. You must retrieve the-“
“Dipstick, minnows, cash, and a set of lockpicks. That’s a life at sea.”
Warder handed me a silk purse that matched my slightly-too-tight/slightly-too-short cocktail dress perfectly. Of course the purse would match perfectly when nothing else had gone right. That was just the way the world was, now, doomed to tie itself in knots correcting all the incongruities we caused. The purse was probably a vital component to some world saving plan, far over and above my own insignificant contribution to the world-
“Go to the party, retrieve the diamonds, and then remember you’re on administrative leave for two weeks. I think you might be time lagged. Not that anyone listens to me…”
“I am nothing of the sort!” I countered, stepping up to the net, but Warder was just muttering something to herself about wealth and pastry regulations which was no help to anyone. In any case, I wasn’t time lagged. Perhaps in three more drops I mightbe, but one more wasn’t going to kill me. I knew perfectly well what I needed to do.
The net opened. I stepped out into a frozen field. A distant sunset. Ten miles at least of nothing. And with my dress gone.
Something had gone horribly, impossibly wrong.
Kivrin, Oxford, a flat in a state of some disarray, 2058, Tuesday 19th December. Thesis writing.
I was defeated, in the end, by punctuation. The concept of putting an end to the sentence with a full stop seemed wrong, but continuing the words to their inevitable conclusion was too much to bear. I left the words hanging on the screen and went to make a cup of tea. There were no clean mugs in the flat, of course, and I contemplated just throwing a few tea bags and some milk into the kettle, boiling it and hoping for the best, but in the end that seemed like too much effort, so I went back to my computer to stare some more at words that wouldn’t come together.
Historian’s theses were usually based on a group of drops. A great deal of literature review to start, and then observations, and a discussion of how those observations agreed or disagreed with the prevailing view of the time period studied. But I hadn’t been studying 1348, precisely, so I’d had to start the literature review portion fresh. And I’d had to write down everything that had happened in that distant tone academics required. I’d start a day with bullet points and end it with wracking sobs. They did offer a new project…but no. This was my thesis. I wanted to finish it in memory of those who had died. Even if it seemed impossible.
My third cup of tea (the desire not to write eventually overcoming the desire not to empty the sink) was half an hour cold, and I’d written two hundred words when the phone rang. I ignored it, as per usual, but it persisted. I half considered waiting until I got used to it. Background ringing wasn’t so bad. Last week there’d been a car alarm for six hours outside my living room window and I’d gotten used to that, eventually. But no. Perhaps it was important. Perhaps someone was calling to tell me what to write.
“Kivrin! We need you to come in. Now, uhm, please. We’ll send a car.”
“In? In where?” I asked, knowing the answer and not liking it, but now the voice on the other end of the telephone was talking to someone else “-bsolutely not Mr. Dunworthy, not in your condition I-“ The shouting faded out into white noise, then the voice returned with a quiet cough.
“Sorry about that, I mean, Into the lab, Kivrin, we have a problem.”
Verity, somewhere, somewhen. Olden times? Carts, horses. Witch burning, probably. Shit.
It was a damn good job I was alone, and that’s all I could think. Of course, the net would never have opened if a contemp had been within five miles when I came through, not looking the way I did. Perhaps my dress and shoes had gone to 1931 like they were supposed to. Unless I was in some kind of replica medieval farm. In 1930, say. Recently abandoned. Unless that, then my options were limited. Raving nude madwoman? Timeless. Wonderful.
On the plus side, abject terror seemed to be an effective cure for time lag, so that was a turn up for the books. Step one, appropriate clothing. Step two, figure out the date. Step three, pray the net opens again before the inevitable witch burning that happens the hot second I open my mouth in front of a contemp. Step four, post rescue, transfer to MIT. Bring cat, possibly also Ned. Step five, from safe distance, ensure Oxford funding is increased until enough staff can be posted to allow all drops to proceed smoothly.
My Preoccupation With Irrelevant Thoughts was shattered by the sound of voices, which brought me abruptly to step zero. Hide. Hide right now.
Kivrin, Oxford, 2058, a lab in a state of some disarray. Tuesday 19th December. In some distress.
The car dropped me off outside the main building, but there was no one there to meet me. It all seemed eerily calm. I walked the route to the labs slowly, pausing just once to hide my cold cup of tea behind a convenient plant pot, braced myself, and opened the doors.
A china mug greeted me, sailing in a perfect arc from the workstation near the net, and smashing violently on the door frame directly above me, splattering tea and fragments of mug all over the floor. I stood for a few moments, startled, all my words having fled with the opening of the door, never mind the projectile beverages.
The culprit was a man in full World War Two combat gear, holding a gas mask and a box in one hand and making angry gestures with the other.
“You sent her where??”
Mr Dunworthy was standing between the man and Warder, on crutches, and trying to be authoratative. “Ned, please, we will get her back.”
“From thirteen bloody nineteen?? That’s not a mistake that’s cold murder!”
“I am sorry, Ned.” Warder says, and looked it. She also looked like she hasn’t slept in days, hair rumpled, jumper stained. I wondered where everyone was.
“Kivrin!” Mr. Dunworthy hops over to her. He looked like he’d been sleeping as well as I had, which is to say, not well at all. I became very aware that the last time I’d seen him had been weeks, rather than days ago. “We…have a problem, as you see.”
“Not precisely. We have a fix, we know where she is, but-“
“-But instead of sending her to 1931 to a lovely house party, this pile of imbeciles punched in the wrong number!” Ned had closed the gap between them alarmingly quickly. “Someone give me a sword.”
“They can’t have just-“ I began to protest. Yes, that had happened on my drop, but it had been a complicated one, and the tech had been ill. It wasn’t like you just wrote in ‘1931’ and someone had made a typo.
“It’s a little more complicated than that.” Warder said wearily. “But not by enough.”
Mr Dunworthy held up a hand to prevent whatever onslaught Ned had in reserve.
“Kivrin, we need you to retrieve her. The net has opened twice and there’s no sign of her. We’re concerned she might not be able to return to the site-“
“Because there’s every chance you’ve killed her!”
“-because there may be contemps. She’s not…appropriately dressed. You’re the only one with middle age experience and you’ve had all the appropriate vaccines. You know the language. She’s in 1319.”
I wanted, so desperately, to say no. I wanted never to have picked up the phone in the first place. I wanted to still be at home with my cold tea and my nightmares. But I’d known what they wanted all along, and I’d still gotten into the car. Mr Dunworthy sighed.
“I know you haven’t wanted to go in again. I wouldn’t ask you to yet. But Verity is 21st century. 1930s, mainly. She’s bright and talented-“
“She’s perfect in every possibly way and if you people have killed her-“
“Ned we will find her.” Dunworthy said it like it was an edict from God. I wondered if he’d had so much faith in me.
“I cannot force you, Kivrin. But-“
But you came for me.
“How close can you get me?”
“Us. I said get me a sword.”
“Ned, you won’t help.” Mr. Dunworthy said wearily.
I considered for a moment.
“Actually…if he doesn’t speak. And does exactly as I say.”
Verity, the middle ages, probably. In fear for her life, and for all of history. Dressed in a bedsheet.
The first thing I learned was that talking wasn’t an option. The voices I heard belonged to a group of men, no armour and swords, which was good, driving cattle, probably also good? Cowherds weren’t known for their violence, but what did I know about where we were? I probably couldn’t even place the century, and I couldn’t understand a word. I desperately hoped they wouldn’t stop, the abandoned building clearly wasn’t news to them, but it provided me with cover and, blessed mercy, a singed woollen blanket with which I was covering my underskirt. If they left, I could go back to the drop site and wait. They were bound to re-open the net soon, but in the meantime madwoman dressed in a blanket was still timeless, and warmer than near naked madwoman.
They stopped, though. Of course they did. After two hours crouched inside the dark hut under my blanket, listening to the mooing, I dared to get up and peer around the entrance. If the net shimmered, could I run to it without them seeing? Would it open while they were there? Surely they’d chalk it up to a ghost or magic or some other superstitious nonsense.
And then the house would get a reputation for being haunted by a red haired spirit that it didn’t previously have and so on and so on, unless this was correcting some other incongruity and this house now needed to be haunted-
Perhaps- Perhaps this was not a line of inquiry I needed to pursue. They would leave and the net would open. End of.
Or someone else would turn up and I’d be trapped in the middle ages forever. And I’d die, and Ned would find a footnote in a history book about some madwoman they burned. Some sad, pathetic woman sitting in a bedsheet and a weird underdress, haunting an abandoned house. I couldn’t tell if the meloncholic thoughts were time lag or a good response to a terrible situation. I wasn’t sure it mattered.
Kivrin, 1319, Oxfordshire, cautiously optimistic. To the rescue. With Mr. Ned Henry, doing as he’s told, reluctantly.
They’d tried to send us through at the exact same time as Verity, and to the exact same place, but the net wouldn’t open, which lent weight to the theory that she wasn’t dead, but was being prevented from going through by a local presence. In the end, with the assistance of three other techs, they’d sent us what ought to be two miles away, and they’d sent us with everything we might possibly need to look the part of noble maiden fair, plus brotherly knight escort, including a horse. The less said about that procedure the better. We’d decided, given the location, we were more likely to meet commoners than anyone of rank, and so we might fare better if we looked impressive. Looking about at the countryside I suspected we had made the correct decision.
I’d been hoping we might find Verity away from the drop and avoid thus interacting with anyone (Mr. Henry might have been dressed like Verity’s knight in shining armour, but I didn’t think he knew how to act like a real one), but when we arrived at what ought to have been the site, we could see the problem - four drovers and a herd of cattle had stopped for water at the stream running through the woods.
“That’s why the net won’t open?” Ned queried.
“I imagine so.”
“What do we do? I have a sword.”
“Which you will not be using I hope. I think we can try talking, first.”
Verity. Help help help help help help. I’m going to die here.
There’s a horse. I can hear it. A horse, and a woman. Talking, crying. Commotion. I retreat to the cold fire in the centre of the room, but there’s nowhere to hide. Clearly wherever I am I pre-dates the concept of rooms. I’m going to die in a place with no rooms. I’m never going to pet a cat again. I’m never going to see- I can’t finish that thought. The best I can do is die without unravelling history. I can do that. I can. One of the men walks in the door and shouts outside. Whatever he says summons a woman, tiny (weren’t they all tiny back then?) with fair hair and a long dress and I swear I know her face. She runs to me like she knows me too and wraps her woollen cloak around my shoulders.
While she does so she pulls my ear to her face and whispers fiercely.
“We’ve come to get you. We’re taking you home-“
I open my mouth to ask a thousand questions, but she shakes her head. “Shh.”
I blink into the light as she leads me out. The cowherds seem happy enough - perhaps she explained time travel to them and everything makes perfect sense. I don’t care. I’m going home. Then I see Ned, dressed up like a fairytale knight. I don’t know anything about medieval history, but I know a good time for a lady to faint when I see one.
Kivrin, Oxford, 2058, going home, in great relief. Still 40,000 words to write of the thesis. Less daunting now, somehow.
Ned and Verity were taken straight to the infirmary when we got back. We hadn’t really been in contact with much, but better safe than sorry. I’d been immunised against everything going already, so after a quick once over I was declared fine and packed on my way.
Mr Dunworthy said he was going to come by this weekend and fill me in on what had been happening. I’d been far too absent lately. They’d been bringing things through the net and I’d been sitting in my pyjamas for days at a time. After everything that happened, everyone had been all too willing to give me space, and time, and funding, and more time. Maybe I’d been using my thesis as a shield to keep me from the net. Like my penance, before I was allowed to want to go again. To admit that in spite of all the death, I did want to. I shook my head and got up to put the kettle on. I was overthinking it. Even if it was only because seven years as a doctoral student was quite enough. I needed to finish it.