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Kitten Among the Dodoes

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Almost before we knew it, the holidays were upon us.

"Is it possible to experience slippage without actually having time travelled?" I asked Ned wearily, kicking off my shoes. "It feels as though the consecration was only yesterday."

Ned grinned back, though he looked no better rested than he had the first time I'd seen him, in Mr Dunworthy's office, suffering from advanced time-lag. At least now he was covered in considerably less soot, and the glazed look in his eyes was from too much eggnog at the history department's end of term party rather than too many drops. He was at least slightly less predisposed to waxing poetic about my eyes, Oxford's spires, or the weather (foggy, with a chance of rain). We'd spent the previous weekend grading undergraduate term papers, which would dim the romantic spirit in even the most time-lagged of souls, even if the previous semester had been anything approaching normal.

The Oxford history department had been thrown into utter chaos by Lady Schrapnell's hijacking of its faculty and historians in the lead-up to the Cathedral's reconstruction and dedication. Things were only little better after the consecration, though I had only myself to blame for that, I supposed. If I hadn't accidentally brought Princess Arjumand forward through the net, then Mr. Dunworthy and T.J. would never have experimented with bringing the kittens that Finch rescued from drowning forward in time. And if Finch hadn't been caught red-handed on camera with a boxful of "extinct" animals by the documentarians that Oxford's PR department had hired to film the consecration, then... well, at least we might've had even a few weeks to recover and to consider What It All Meant before the news went global.

The press had swarmed upon Oxford like one of the Egyptian plagues.

Ned and I had spent the weeks after the consecration trying to dodge interviews from the BBC, the Guardian, the Daily Mail (who seemed more interested in asking after Mr. Dunworthy's relationship with the married Lizzie Bittner in 2018 than with the temporal implications of rescuing an extinct species), to say nothing of one particularly persistent reporter who claimed to be from the scientific journal Nature, but who was more likely a representative of GCHQ. The Royal Society had commissioned a report on the implications of our newly discovered ability to bring non-significant objects forward through the net, and there were some vague mutterings in Parliament and at the United Nations as to whether time travel should be banned by law until the potential ramifications were better understood. The Israeli Prime Minister was on record as saying that he wanted to send a team to bring Hitler forward to stand trial as a war criminal, or at least to kill him again -- "just to make sure" -- despite that historians had been trying to get near that bunker for decades, and the net always refused to open.

But then, it had failed to open on the Coventry raid too, until it did.

There were meetings -- endless meetings -- with the faculty of History, Time Travel, and Biology. Bio was clearly torn. Their representatives seemed dismayed that it had been History that had rescued Felix domesticus from extinction after decades of Bio's cloning efforts had failed, but at the same time delighted that it was Oxford rather than Cambridge that had done it. Meanwhile, Time Travel was a bit rudderless after Chiswick's abrupt departure, but HR had been inundated with applications for the Chair's position from nearly anyone who had ever studied temporal physics; the faculty search committee was taking even more time than usual to hire a replacement. Chiswick himself had reapplied for the job, claiming that his five page resignation letter hadn't really been meant to be taken seriously, despite the prodigious use of exclamation points and the capitalization and underlining of "I QUIT."

The multinationals were suddenly interested in time travel again, and were reportedly offering a king's ransom to any experienced historian who wanted to defect from academia. As far as I knew, they'd had few takers -- they were decades behind in time travel research. Oxford was, for now, the place (and time) to be, despite a temporary moratorium on drops imposed by the Vice Chancellor.

In the meantime, both Ned and I spent hours upon hours recording every detail of our experiences in the 1940 Coventry air raid, to say nothing of our weeks in 1888. First hand accounts were always incredibly valuable to historians, and our experiences could easily form the basis of a dozen or more articles and several monographs. I'd even started a diary, in longhand, about the events of the present day, in case some future historian was interested in what I was rapidly coming to realize would one day be called "the early days of time travel."

Mr. Dunworthy had received in the post a detailed account of Mrs. Bittner's experiences of the raid, written by her in 2018 and hidden (as she later told us) between the leaves of a leatherbound copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes ever since. Even though she'd left academia after committing her "crimes against the continuum," Mrs. Bittner had been a proper historian after all. Oxford University Press was presently engaged in a bidding war with several major London publishing houses over the rights to her life story.

All this, and I'd been teaching the undergraduate seminar on "Practical Principles of Temporal Physics," or "How Not To Break the Space-Time Continuum," despite that we now knew how little we actually knew. Enrollment in the course had doubled over last year. I was something of a celebrity in Oxford now.

Penwiper chose that moment to rub against my ankles, distracting me from my maudlin thoughts. I picked her up.

"You know, the head of Bio wanted me to make a drop to 16th century Mauritius to bring back a breeding pair of dodoes," I said.

"Did you explain to him that your area was 1930s England? And that no one ever in history was drowning a surfeit of dodoes?"

"Yes, I told him it wouldn't work, or at least that I wasn't the right person for the job. He seemed to think I could just go in at night -- there were never more than a few dozen people living on Mauritius anyway, not even after the Dutch came and claimed it -- and just pick up a few eggs. 'They're extinct anyway,' he said, 'so what difference would one or two eggs make?'"

"Didn't someone already try that?"

"Yes, back in 2016, after Darby and Gentilla failed to raid Tut's Tomb, the Louvre, and Fort Knox." I'd nearly said in the early days of time travel again, which says something about old habits of thought. "It didn't work either, of course."

"Dodoes were significant."

"At least to each other," I said, flippantly. "I'm lucky he didn't ask me to bring forth a baby T. rex. unto Oxford."

But a grim thought had been churning in the back of my mind, ever since the head of Bio had handed me his wishlist of extinct animals and plants. The stack of printouts had been a quarter inch thick.

"You know, there are going to be a lot of silly people trying to do a lot of silly things with the space-time continuum now that the rules have been turned on their head. It's like... it's like I opened Pandora's box, but we don't know yet if I let out only the bad things or only the good, or both."

Penwiper purred gently in my lap.

"Do you agree with the ban on drops, then?" Ned asked softly, putting an arm over my shoulders and pulling me in to his chest.

"Not exactly..." I thought a moment, trying to think how to phrase it.

"It's like in A Murder is Announced." I'd been reading Christie's postwar works, now that I was on a break from the 1930s and fully in the present. "The killer's twin sister passed away, so she took over her more successful twin's life, thinking 'what's the harm? I'm not hurting anyone.' And she lived like that, for a while. And then everything spiraled out of control."

"She also lied for years and years to gain someone else's inheritance, and killed several people to cover up that lie," Ned pointed out. He'd been watching late twentieth century made-for-vid adaptations, so that he'd understand my allusions. "I don't see the connection."

"Actions always have consequences," I said. "Even well-meaning actions, like bringing back cats from extinction."

"'All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.'"

Voltaire. A satirical statement referring to, among other historical horrors, the destruction of Lisbon in 1755. Which was on Mr. Dunworthy's wish list. I frowned. Could we ever be really sure the incongruity was repaired? That we hadn't made things worse, by meddling with the past?

Penwiper squirmed in my lap, rolling over to expose her belly for a rub. I obliged, and sighed. "I wouldn't trade you for anything in the world. Not even if you caused another incongruity. No, I wouldn't. No, I wouldn't."

"She does rather inspire that sort of baby talk, doesn't she?" Ned said, fondly. "I suppose we should apologize to Tossie for judging her."

"Drops are suspended. At least until Mr. Dunworthy reminds Parliament and the Vice-Chancellor that the Americans have time travel too," I said glumly.

"It's just as well," Ned said, sitting beside me on the loveseat. "Half the faculty are still time lagged."

"Pish tosh," I said. "It's only the usual end of term exhaustion from listening to undergrads ask for extensions."

"No, you cannot use the net to go back two weeks to have more time to finish your term paper," Ned said.

"No, you cannot use the net to mail yourself the answers to the final exam in advance."

We laughed.

"But seriously," Ned continued. "What's done is done. The continuum went to a lot of effort to repair the incongruity, and if we get cats -- or dodoes -- out of it, well, who are we to argue with a Grand Design?"

"I guess I thought I'd be studying history at Oxford, not making it. I'm not used to the scrutiny, the press. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the Depression, and my novels."

"History is all about people... not just the Wellingtons of the world, but Tossie, Terrance, Mrs. Mering, Professor Peddock... and it's about us too, and Mr. Dunworthy, and Mrs. Bittner. It's just that while you're in it, you don't call it history... you just call it life."

Penwiper grew bored with my ministrations and hopped off of my lap, sauntering away to investigate my flat's kitchen. Maybe she would find a mouse there, and stop the next Black Death before it could happen. Who could say?

"You know..." I said. "Now that term's ended, I was thinking we could go up the road. To Iffley. There's the most cunning 12th century church there, St. Mary the Virgin...

"...speaking of life..." Ned said, planting a gentle kiss on the top of my head.

"...and I think, perhaps, a small, quiet wedding might be more our thing than that drafty old Cathedral?"

"With absolutely no bird stumps, you mean?"