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The Deep Time Research Unit

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Kate slouched into a seat and poked at the unidentifiable cafeteria mush. Ah, the joys of government work. Shiny new equipment for those who mattered, the leftovers for everyone else. Including, apparently, cafeteria food.

Before Kate had contemplated whether it was actually worth eating mystery mush, another tray slammed into her field of vision. As she raised her head, her new tablemate plopped into his seat. "Please tell me you have gossip," he said.

"Why would I have gossip? I haven't heard anything from the app department in like six months," she said.

He groaned loudly, which was interrupted by a new voice. "Caleb's been waiting a couple of months on his too so..."

Kate looked over. "Hey Lewis. Want to eat with us today?"

Lewis looked them both over before shrugging a shoulder and carefully setting their tray down. "I guess someone needs to give Caleb his weekly injection of gossip," they said.

"I'm sitting right here, you know," Caleb complained.

The other two kept pretending to ignore him. "So what's your source?" Kate asked, propping her head on a hand.

"Just got back from apps. I peeked at the in and out baskets. Well, out was empty, so that wasn't even really a peek."

"Geez, how long did they ignore you?"

Lewis gave their half shrug again. "A while. Alex was in there making another application."

The other two both groaned. "Has Alex considered that other people work here?" grumbled Caleb.

"Don't tell me," Kate guessed, "he wants to go back to Athens."

"Nope."

"Sparta."

"Nope."

"Don't tell me he actually read a book and learned another city exists--oh no. He wants to go to Rome, doesn't he."

Lewis nodded.

Caleb promptly faceplanted. "What, does he want to look at the stupid broken amphora hill?" he said, voice muffled by the metal table.

Lewis gave the top of Caleb's head a bare hint of a smile. "Actually, I think he was trying to suggest filming stock footage for some blockbuster movie."

"Are you kidding?" Kate said, trying to resist the urge to faceplant as well. "Grace said that if she applied to film ancient Srinagar for Bollywood, she wouldn't just get rejected, she'd get fired."

"That's Alex for you," muttered Caleb before sitting back up.

"Any good news?" Kate asked.

"Gossip is no one's gotten a rejected app in months," Lewis said. "I think they've started actually reading them this time."

"Ugh, that'll take years to wade through," Kate grumbled. "If I'd known they'd start reading them, I wouldn't have submitted three places."

"Ooh, where're you going?" Caleb said brightly.

"Nowhere, none have been accepted."

Caleb shoved her tray. "You know what I meant."

Kate shoved it back. She still didn't know if she wanted to eat anything. "Xoconochco, Xochitecatl, and Copan."

The other two looked baffled, probably since neither was interested in anything on the same hemisphere.

"Some of those are... obscure," Lewis said cautiously.

"Look, I submitted Xoconochco and Xochitecatl back when they were still rejecting everything that didn't have Alex's name on it. Xoconochco was me knowing they wouldn't have a clue that it was Aztec not Mayan. At best, they'd look at a map and go 'well it's the right area' or something. I can do stuff with it but," Kate copied Lewis' half shrug. "I wasn't expecting it to go anywhere."

"What about... uhhh" Caleb gave up on trying to copy her pronunciation halfway through his sentence.

"Xochitecatl? I can't wait to hear their guesses at how to pronounce it. They're lucky I didn't pick Xpuhil."

"Shpoowhat."

"Exactly."

"So what's the joke behind Copan then?" Lewis finally asked.

"No joke, I want to photograph the order of the hieroglyphic stairway in case we got it wrong. And it's got a decent ballcourt."

"You Mesoamerican focuses and your sports," Caleb joked, before dodging a forkful of mush.

"What apps do you have in then?" said Kate dryly.

"Eh, I gave Çatalhöyük another try. Can't hurt and it gives me more time to compile a better Ur app. Even if research is getting boring."

"Maybe you shouldn't have taken a job with the Deep Time Research unit then," Lewis said, even more dry than Kate.

"Your university would probably take you back," Kate added.

"Okay, but, who would ever give up these opportunities."

"The opportunity to apply to a board of nonacademics constantly and never do anything with it?" The sarcasm was constant today.

Caleb shoved Kate's tray again. "No, the potential for going back in time and actually seeing dead civilizations first hand. To... finally be able to see what the Library of Alexandria was like or what Stonehenge was used for."

"Not Stonehenge," Lewis interjected. "Rachel says her apps are all in limbo but they keep telling her that all she'd have to do is submit one to Stonehenge and it'd be approved in no time flat. She says that every time she hears that, she finds another excuse for why Stonehenge is probably an irrelevant pile of rocks and includes it in her next application."

Caleb laughed.

Lewis continued on the general topic. "Right now she's got an app in for some Scottish broch to document how the upper floors actually worked and also Skara Brae just because it's Skara Brae. I think I saw one from Dec for the Cold War."

"Isn't the Cold War well documented?" Caleb said with a frown.

"I think I saw something about 'if it was as bad as fiction portrays it.' I think I also saw apps for Chengdu and Kaesong."

"What about you?"

"None."

Caleb and Kate stared.

Lewis politely waited for them to get over their shock, clearly trying to keep from smirking.

"How do you have no apps?" Kate finally managed.

Lewis half shrugged again and started buttering a piece of bread they'd conjured from somewhere. "Well, you know how I got hauled off on some super secret thing for a few months there?"

Kate nodded. Rumours flowed, especially in a workplace like theirs. And rumour had it that whatever had happened to get the Symbiotry to reverse their ruling on time research was going to blow their minds. And Lewis had gotten roped into it.

"I got to write up the research reports on the Blackwood shenanigans," which Lewis had done before and Kate was still vaguely pissed about since the jerk had gotten in on her area and he didn't even care, ugh, "and they're being published next month."

"Published? Isn't that ultra classified?" Caleb said, clearly desperate to hear more.

"Yeah, well, some of it still is, but the rest of it is going to flip parts of academia on their heads."

"Like what?"

"How about Atlantis was Minoan?"

Caleb dropped his fork. "You're kidding."

Lewis carefully put his knife down and took a bite.

"You're not kidding. Somehow a temporal agent chasing some time anomaly made the find of the century and discovered Atlantis."

"Worse than that. El Dorado had hot air balloons and was in like Peru, and Genghis Khan actually visited Shangri La."

Kate suddenly rediscovered the urge to face plant in the uneaten mystery mush. "Are you kidding? El Dorado is a misinterpreted ritual, not a place."

Lewis grinned at her. "Yeah, but someone in Public Relations thought it was a good idea to name this unknown village that. It was pretty cute actually. Shangri La was your typical Buddhist monastery, besides the extremely random geothermal heating and some questionable classified stuff I'm not allowed to talk about. But..."

Caleb nodded, fork forgotten. "If people heard we were covering up the existence of, well, two mythical places, we'd be in for it."

"They're also the reason the research unit's gotten an extension of life, but that's probably going to stay classified for as long as they can manage," Lewis said. "It's going to come out eventually, but for now, lockdown."

Kate thought for a moment, decided she really didn't want to know, and moved on. "So you were in apps but still not dropping off an app? What was that about?"

"Oh, I was checking something else. You know how the clothing department got their funding cut?"

Kate scowled. "Yeah, I was assuming that was a passive way to get rid of us even with the whole reinstatment thing."

Lewis grinned rather evilly. "Oh no, it's way cooler. You hear about that suit in testing?"

"....no," Caleb said.

"Yes," Lewis said.

"The chameleon jumpsuit is real," Kate breathed. "You're kidding. I think I owe Dec ten bucks."

"Yeah, it was the only suit available for Blackwood's myth finding shenanigans. Got the most ridiculous stress testing possible and did a great job. So guess who gets to inherit it?"

"I love my job," Kate whispered. "So I'll get to talk to the people of Copan?"

"I hope there's a translator chip, I'm pretty sure no one has any idea what was spoken in Çatalhöyük."

"There's a translator chip," Lewis confirmed, "Although who knows how well it'll work since Blackwood had some sort of rogue AI taking it over for his trip."

"Aw," said Kate. "I wanted to see how my Ancient Mayan stood up."

"Kate, not everyone is fluent in multiple dead languages," Caleb said

"I bet Alex is," she bantered.

"Alex doesn't count, Ancient Greek and Latin are practically alive anyway."

"And that's why they're actually reading apps now," Lewis finished dramatically. "There's about 80% less chance of destroying history by accidentally wearing the wrong clothing and creating a major paradox."

"Lewis, you are the best," Caleb said gleefully.

Lewis smirked back. "Only the choicest gossip for you."

Kate stood up, and took her tray to the trash. Writing a new app with the chameleon suit in mind was infinitely more interesting than eating.