Work Header


Work Text:

Everything went wrong at four in the morning on December 1st. Ned was asleep with the baby held in the crook of his arm, the sofa cushions falling into a nest around them. I covered them with a blanket, I wrote a note, I took the phone off the hook, I went out into the still frosted world and sobbed every step of the way to Balliol.

"I won't tell you not to cry," Mr. Dunworthy said, mildly, letting me in after one knock. "There's usually a good reason for it, in my not-considerable experience of women crying on my doorstep at four in the morning."

"Did anyone come?" I asked, and hiccupped.

"No. Have some tea, it's just boiled."

I sat down, he poured it out for me and set it into my hand, and then I was clear-eyed enough to look around at the mess of his study, the books open on the floor, the papers scattered below the window. A luscious moon flooded the carpet with soft light and Balliol's garden quad was silvered below. It seemed bright enough; Mr. Dunworthy had only the one electric light set near the glass, and I could see which book he had been reading, a collection of essays on historiography presumably set aside when I knocked.

"Thank you, that's better," I said, after a while, and it was true. "I would have come in the morning, but I knew you'd be sleeping then."

"Perhaps not," he said. "When you're an old, ancient and decrepit individual – not, of course, that you will be, people of your age live forever – you can often get by on less sleep than you used to. I have a few telephone calls to make when the day begins."

"Lawyers' offices?" I asked.

"They grow tired of me, alas," Mr. Dunworthy said, but he didn't sound contrite. "In truth, they find me positively infuriating by this point. And yet. And yet."

"And yet," I said, and smiled, properly; the tea and the silence were working old-fashioned magic on me, settling peace in my bones.

"You're allowed, you know." Mr. Dunworthy gave me a wry smile in response. "The respect due to age taken quite apart, you are entitled to call this the foolish whim of an elderly historian."

"No," I said, and I meant it; the idea is relevant, profound, and if you must be honest at four in the morning, a little eerie in how it makes you think of ghosts. Mr. Dunworthy sits in his study on the first day of every calendar month, from sunset to dawn, and the room is quiet, and the college is quiet, and the world waits. I am to tell my children this, and they, their children's children; every undergraduate in the college takes it as a sacred trust (and, admittedly, a wonderful opportunity to raise the topic of their children's children with the pretty first-year next door).

The point, as Mr. Dunworthy explains sagely to every incoming group of history freshers, is that some day, a lost time-traveller will remember the story, and they will know that they will not change what came before. If they come up the stairs and knock on the door, Mr. Dunworthy will be expecting them. No one has come, yet.

"It's nonsensical," Mr. Dunworthy said, sighing. "There's no reason to believe that a potential historian coming from the future wouldn't cause anomalies in history by coming up to see me, even if it is the middle of the night. But we don't know."

"No," I said, because it was true. "No, we don't know. And we don't know that some time-traveller stranded in the past hasn't left us a message, either."

"That, I admit, I have more faith in," Mr. Dunworthy agreed. "Certainly it suggests itself as logical: a sealed note addressed to me, or to any member of this college, will cross centuries secreted safely in a lawyer's desk. Such things can last."

"Yes," I said, and blew my nose more noisily than I'd meant to.

The sound seemed to bring Mr. Dunworthy back to the here and now; peering at me a little short-sightedly, he asked, "May I be of any concrete assistance, Verity? You are very welcome to sit here and drink tea if that in itself is helpful, but I can't help but think you came to see me in tears at this unsociable hour for some more immediately pressing reason."

"Oh," I said, feeling obscurely in parts guilty and pleased; I'd forgotten all about it, for a few minutes.

"How's the baby?" Mr. Dunworthy said, shrewdly.

"Colicky," I said, and sighed. "She just cries and cries. And I sit at home all day and I cry, and then Ned comes back in the evenings like some pre-Pandemic patriarch and I cry some more, and then we yell at each other, and then it's four in the morning and she's still screaming and I think I might go mad, actually."

"Ah," Mr. Dunworthy said.

"Please give me my job back," I said. "I'm begging you. Please. Ned can do some of the days, and I can do some of them, and every weekend we can get a babysitter and, I don't know, go on a date or something, but please, please get me out of the house."

He spread his hands. "Verity, as far as I am concerned, you are and will always be a Balliol historian. I merely thought that medical advice…"

"Screw medical advice," I said, fervently. "Medical advice said I shouldn't time travel in my first trimester, and then medical advice said I shouldn't in my second trimester, and then I didn't want to go into labour in the Victorian era, which was fair enough but then medical advice said time-travel and breastfeeding might not be an optimal combination and then I said I'd put her on bottles and Ned's mother wasn't going to talk to me ever again so I just sat at home and cried. Screw medical advice."

He gave me a quiet smile, one with an infinite calm beneath it, and I had a sudden memory of being an undergraduate, sitting in the same chair clutching an essay in entirely mute awe. "There is a project," he said, with care. "It isn't terribly scintillating, I'm afraid. But it's suitable for part-time work. Come down to the lodge in the morning and I'll see Badri meets you. Or perhaps it can be the day after tomorrow, if you have sleep to catch up on?"

"Tomorrow," I said.

"Tomorrow, then," he said firmly. "Would you like some more tea?"

Somehow the conversation lapsed into comfortable silence as I drank it, and when the cup was empty I didn't feel like crying any more. "Thank you," I said, as I placed it back onto the table; he gave me another of those quiet smiles before I closed the door quietly behind me.

On my way through the quad, I listened for other people's footsteps – but there was nobody there.


"Are you sure you want to do this?" Badri asked for what felt like the thousandth time. "It's not compulsory or even very important, I'm managing to fit it in around all my usual tech work, for heaven's sake.

"Not very well," I pointed out, and stifled the yawn that wanted to escape. "You haven't had much of a social life lately."

"Neither have you," he said, unfairly, and marched on through the garden and past the buttery; I had to struggle to keep up. "It's basically grunt work. I'll explain it while we set up."

The doors opened with a sequence of clatters and I reached for the light switches - we were still soon enough after sunrise to need them – while the net hummed comfortingly to life under Badri's careful prodding. Within a minute or two, the lab looked its usual self, spartan and warm with light. "Sorry it's so early," Badri said, wedging the door open with a chair. "We get a lot of time for this work at this hour of the morning, most of the undergraduates aren't awake yet. Right, where was I?"

"Grunt work," I said, and slipped down to the buttery while he started to work on the console. I could just about follow what he was doing, now – when I'd been grounded for nine months, I'd spent some of the time learning the stay-at-home details of the net, the things about alignment and flux and energy flow that I never seemed to have time to consider before. I forget, sometimes, that the net is science as well as history; to me it always seems a little like magic, a conduit across unimaginable distance.

When I handed him the mug of coffee, he was ready to explain. "You remember the incongruity mess from a couple of years ago?"

"Vividly," I said, a tad sardonically; he grinned.

"Yeah, so, Mr. Dunworthy and I got to be interested in tracking things that are similar – increased slippages, like we've always looked at, but decreased ones, too. Basically anything that means the net is acting in a way unlike how we might expect, which might mean that it's self-correcting towards or away from an incongruity. You know what I mean."

I nodded. "Wasn't Mr. Dunworthy publishing something about it a while ago? I meant to read the paper, but" – I waved my hands around – "life intervened."

Badri nodded. "We did quite well, to begin with. We had a few hours' of computing time and a few undergraduates to work on it, and we've got a vague and sketchy map of potential incongruities based on the data from drops we've already done."

"But why don't you do some more pinpointed drops?" I asked. "If you can process enough data for a vague map, surely you know which drops you have to do in addition to make it more precise? I mean, most of the time you'd be going through to places of real import and the net won't let you through without a lot of slippage, but that's useful as well. I suppose you'd only need the data, too, you wouldn't even have to have someone go through. Just someone to sit there with a tally chart."

Badri beamed at me and drained his coffee.

"Right," I said. "That's what I'm doing."

"Right!" He was still beaming. "You can even bring your little one."

"Little one is staying at home with Ned," I said, firmly, and sat down in my swivel chair to peer very intently at the console. "Where do I start?"

He produced a ringbinder with a flourish from beneath his desk and somehow the smile got even broader. "We're up to 1963."

I took it from him. "Have you already tried..."

"Yes." He stuck his tongue out. "Four doctorates on that already. Can I leave you to deal with the rest?"

By midday, I had covered the Great Train Robbery, Martin Luther King, Jr's speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the Beatles' first LP, with pauses in between to sympathise with the harassed undergraduates who had filled the ringbinder with detailed, scribbled notes on just about every major historical event from 1066 onwards. There had been fourteen days' slippage for the first of my three drops, sixteen for the second, and none at all for the third – apparently a historian could purchase a copy of Please Please Me in Liverpool on the date of release – and I wrote "maybe Larkin fixed it in history" in the margin, before painstakingly erasing it again in the sudden fear that one of the undergraduates would take me seriously.

At lunchtime, I was home again, and the living-room had been tidied, the bathroom had been cleaned, the kitchen was full of the smell of warm milk and vegetable soup. I leaned against the counter and watched Ned stir, with Lizzie asleep in the Moses basket on the worksurface. He had a bundle of papers in his other hand, which he waved at me as greeting. "Idiot child!" he said, cheerfully. "Writes with all the certainty and grace of a first-year that history is immutable, that nothing ever changes, that, if you can believe it, St. Paul's was doomed to burn! With Dunworthy as a tutor! How could he even begin to think that history was anything but a continuing – anyway. I'm glad you're back." He put down the essay and gave me a quick kiss. "Why did you rush off to Balliol at the crack of dawn? Your note wasn't exactly clear."

"Mr. Dunworthy gave me my job back," I said, somewhat incoherently. "I'm going to be a historian again."

He kissed me twice. "Does that mean I can stop marking essays? This one also thinks that we could go back in time and stop bad things from happening."

"No," I said, smiling at him, "It's part-time. I thought maybe I could work part-time and so could you, and we could have the weekends together."

He blinked and stirred the soup a little more. "We could go on a date, or something."

"Or something," I agreed, and wrapped my arms around his neck from behind and yawned hugely in his ear. The smell of the soup rose and filled my nostrils with burnt tomato, and things were better.


It took a week, and the wintry quiet in the college, to reach the turn of the century. I spent a morning trying and failing to get a lock on the millennium itself, and then on the 2000 American presidential election, and then on September 11th, 2001. All as expected, and I ticked them off and filed them away, and then asked Badri if he wanted any tea; he gave me a happy look and said "Bless you, my child", so I went next door and got us a whole pot.

"What next?" he asked, as we sat down with steaming mugs. He was calculating next week's regular twentieth-century drops for Brasenose and I was drowning in pieces of paper, but on the whole, I was pleased with our progress.

"2007," I said. "St. Paul's."

Badri whistled through his teeth. "I think we can categorically say that one's a no. Historical turning point if there ever was one."

"Not exactly," I said, sat back in my chair and thought about it. "Has anyone actually tried, properly? I mean... it's the other problem, too, the net won't let you go to certain death. That's one of the reasons we had so much trouble with Coventry Cathedral – it won't open on a fire."

He raised his eyebrows. "Make a note to that effect in the file. What comes after that?"

"A car park in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2008. Not all the pinpoints are of conventional historical import," I added, off his look.

He sighed, deeply, and took my mug from me as I drank the last of it. It burned, but it was welcome; it was freezing outside today. "I'll wash these up, shall I," he said, and I smiled after him as he went.

Turning to the console, I entered the coordinates for the next drop, let it start processing them and got up, stretching out my arms behind my head and shaking out my feet. When the pleasant whole-body blur had faded, I noticed, as though it had appeared in the room like a ghost, the net. It was open. I turned around, with a vague thought of catching Badri in a practical joke, but the right coordinates shone on the screen. I started towards my chair, my clipboard, stopped myself, turned around in a circle, looked at the coordinates again, looked at the door, back at the unearthly shimmer in the centre of the room.

The lab was silent. I walked forwards into the net.

On the other side it was dark. I walked out of the tunnel into the sunshine, and it was just as easy as it's never supposed to be, with the newspaper stall sheltered by the lee of the station, handily selling the Evening Standard with the date emblazoned on the top and the people all around me lying dead.

It was still silent, still eerie – the smoke had just begun to rise, this was the first of the devastation smearing against the blue sky that there had been. I stood still for a second while it sank in, while I remembered bit by bit and all at once my history, and then I was running in the wrong direction, into the focus of the blast.

St Paul's station would survive, I knew, for another few hours at least – before the shockwaves that had passed through the ground brought it down from within, crushing everything and everyone down in the tunnels – but above my head, against the blue sky with the cloud rising into it, the dome was already cracking, buckling into itself, and the great stones of the square had broken to show the earth beneath. Behind me I could hear the approaching sirens, the rush of normal traffic from a long, long way away, and remembered, as though I had dreamed it, the anatomy of the pinpoint blast, the diagrams I had seen of how the cathedral was lifted out of existence like a candle from a cake.

And then I stopped again, stock-still, and looked, and thought clearly, spinning around and around like a point for a radial pattern of bodies: they're dead, and they were still dead as I sat heavily on the ground starting to heat from the fire, and they would be dead when these stones were twisted by flame into their crypt. I sat there a minute, maybe half a minute, maybe the lifetime of the world, and the smoke rose from the great, abyssal hole left at the centre of everything.

I think I would have sat there until the arches fell, until the end, if no one had reached out to grasp my hand. "Are you," I said stupidly, "are you" – and there was movement again, a twitch in a body, a flash of blue eyes in a pale face, and I came to myself and picked him up.

Suddenly there was smoke all around me; suddenly the blue sky was the history in my head. The ash and the soot got in my lungs, they made me cough and choke and start to burn from inside, and I staggered and stumbled, the boy's head lolling on my shoulder, and he was heavier than I'd thought, older, and I tried to pull his boots off to make him lighter, and we fell. I laid his head on my shoulder, saw the flames reflected back in his eyes, and tried to get up, and got up. We set off again across the hard ground.

The fire was spreading. We made it over inch by inch, through broken stones and shards of bone and the rising smell of ash and the dead. We made it a hundred yards, a safer distance, to where people were picking themselves up slowly and the outside world was creeping in. The boy slipped entirely from my grasp and for a moment I lay there on the ground beside him, watching as the people around me managed to get painfully to their feet. For a horrible moment I heard silence again, absolute silence, no movement to break it beside me, no whispers of air.

I slapped him – and he breathed, gasping for air and grasping at empty space with outstretched hands, fingers like claws and burned but there was life, life in the helpless striving for something no longer there. "It's gone," I told him, and started to shiver, "it's gone, the dome's gone, see, it's going to burn..."

He didn't open his eyes. From behind me, a woman came up to us; she looked at me in blank concern, looked at the soot on my clothes, my eyebrows nearly singed off, and said, softly, "Lovey, you should sit down."

Her kindness made me want to cry, and suddenly I recognised the uniform, the crisp yellow and green, and then I did start to cry, messily, inelegantly, while she found some water for me, and a second paramedic went to the boy and begin to meticulously loosen his clothes and listen to his heart. The man had come through the people, just like I'd done, he had seen them laid in circles around his feet. "If you'd have left him, he'd have burned," he was saying, but I was thinking about the silence I came into: the silence in which no one said that we can stop bad things from happening and the layers of blood were soaking into the earth.

And when I could stand up I helped. I picked people off the ground and brushed their hair out of their eyes and tried not to let their skin crackle away in my hands, I carried buckets of water and great packs of plasma and morphine, I drove ambulances down to the water where the boats were waiting, I wiped my brow and left red marks on my cheeks, and when the net opened I wasn't expecting it, I'd forgotten about it, and Badri came through and grabbed me and shouted, and he was still shouting, you idiot, you idiot, you fucking idiot, as we hit the lab floor and the ash on my clothes started to stain.


Not long after that, Mr. Dunworthy invited Ned and I to formal hall. Everyone was being very kind; Ned brought me crumpets in bed, and I sat on top of the covers and played peek-a-boo with my baby, and I started to feel better, slowly. Badri said nothing to start with, when I went back into college, but he made me three cups of tea in a row and wouldn't leave me in the lab by myself. Ned's mother tried to complain about working women and their unfortunate offspring, but I was conveniently out every time she phoned, and on a quiet Tuesday morning I got a note in the pigeon post from Mr. Dunworthy.

"Formal hall," I said to Ned, who was feeding Lizzie mashed potatoes with a teaspoon. "Mr. Dunworthy suggests we attend this week. "

"Suggests?" asked Ned, and started to pick the white fluff out of his hair. "Is that what it says?"

"James Dunworthy, MA (Oxon), DPhil, etc., etc., requests the pleasure of our company," I said, squinting at the invitation. "Appropriate dress is required."

"That's a summons," Ned said, sounding satisfied. "Badri will babysit."

I wasn't sure it was a summons – it seemed to me to be Mr. Dunworthy's typical kindness, austere but meaningful – but accordingly, Ned and I ventured forth on a blustery Friday evening after term was firmly over. Badri had been invited too, so I left Finch with a long list of instructions and a baby behaving far better than she ever did for me.

Balliol's hall was quiet and candlelit when we arrived, and I saw the high table had been set for about ten people, mostly dons, post-docs and net techs. Mr. Dunworthy waved us over, and I sat down gratefully, rubbing my hands. There was small talk, and the usual mediocre offerings as starters, and I smiled at my immediate neighbours, Badri and an elderly English don, Professor Hunt; she gave me a quiet nod before returning to her melon.

It was after the first courses had been cleared away, after the pleasantries had been exchanged and the wine had been poured, when Mr. Dunworthy asked, "What did you think of St. Paul's?"

I let a long moment pass before answering.

"I think you want me to say that it was beautiful," I said, sharply. "I think you want me to say it was never more beautiful than in that last sunlight, it was never more beautiful than when it was burning. It wasn't. It was ugly, it was grotesque, it was the end of the world." A chair clattered next to me; Professor Hunt was getting up in a hurry. Under the table, Ned grabbed my hand and clasped it tight. "It wasn't – it wasn't poetic, or meaningful. It was just destruction. And I know I'm not supposed to shout at high table, I'm supposed to be polite and academic and talk about academic things…"

Professor Hunt stopped opposite me, her fragile frame silhouetted against the hall's sconce-lights – she is seventy-five years old and cannot be persuaded to retire – but in her eyes, twinkling with reflected light behind her glasses, I couldn't find exasperation but only a distant, endless sympathy, and then she was gone and suddenly I couldn't talk any more.

"I'm sorry," I said after a while.

Mr. Dunworthy was looking at the ceiling. "I saw it, too," he said, after a moment. "I saw it burn. It was ugly. It was grotesque. But I am a historian."

"It was better to see it than not," I agreed, and gave Ned's hand one final squeeze before letting go.

"How?" Badri asked, suddenly. "I mean, I'm figuring it out, I think – these instances of the net opening are self-correction towards incongruities that we don't know about yet. History seems to want to fix itself. But it was a one in a million chance, maybe more, that it opened for Verity at that particular moment. How could you have seen it?"

Mr. Dunworthy sighed. "Oh, my, the young. The old-fashioned method of time-travel, Badri. The one where we travel through twenty-four hours every day and three hundred and sixty-five days every year."

Badri had the grace to look embarrassed.

"Balliol itself, for example," Mr. Dunworthy continued, "has been time-travelling at that unassuming rate for a millennium. Some things last."

Looking across the hall, I was aware that something had changed; there was something slowing down in the time around us, something turning it into great pools of subjective syrup. I was thinking about struggling across the softening ground, I was thinking about changing history so bad things didn't happen.

"Ned, when was Mr. Dunworthy born?" I asked in his ear, trying hard to think of nothing and let it all settle into my head.

"Before the turn of the century," Ned said. "Before the Pandemic."

"In London," I said. "Before the firewatch stone was laid. Before..."

"Before," Ned said, and for another moment I was still aware of it, the forward momentum of now becoming then, before softly, softly, time slipped back into joint.

"To time-travel," I said, suddenly, louder, and Badri looked at me sharply, as though I were bringing him back from far away. I meant the toast as a gesture towards the present, something to keep the conversation ticking over while something inside my head clicked slowly into place, but I met pairs of eyes – Ned's, Badri's, Professor Hunt's, as she returned to the dais carrying a glass of water, and they were waiting, eyes like tiny expectant flames.

Mr. Dunworthy raised his eyebrows, and then his glass. "To time travel."

"And to us," I heard Ned say beneath the chorus, and it was warm, but I shivered.


On the first day of the year, before dawn, I let myself in through Balliol's back gate, forgetting that it was alarmed during the Christmas vacation. But the door echoed shut into silence, and though I stood still and waited for them, there were no siren squalls.

Mr. Dunworthy let me in at the slightest of knocks. "Verity," he said, with a softness that entirely concealed disappointment. "May I do anything for you?"

"I thought you would like company," I said, after a pause. "Has anyone come?"

"No," he said, resignedly, and stepped back to let me in. The room was as I had seen it last, quiet and messy with books open on the floor. He regarded me with a quiet concern as I took off my coat and hat and settled into his other wing-chair. "I appreciate your company," he said, at length. "This is a quiet vigil, especially tonight."

"All is calm, all is bright," I said, with a little wryness, and looked through the window out at the deserted quad. Nothing stirred; there was no wind. When I turned Mr. Dunworthy had moved. He paced the length of the room in front of the fire, looking more restless than I had ever seen him, and more drawn.

"What is it?" I asked, when it seemed obvious that he wouldn't volunteer anything; again, I had that flash of myself as an undergraduate in this study, having historical argument coaxed out of me inch by painful inch.

"I'm getting old," he said, slowly. "And I'm frightened I may be getting religion in my old age."

I got up and set the kettle to boiling, laid out the two strainers. "Religion?"

"Belief." He paused and sighed. "Time travel has been my life's work. But perhaps I believe it isn't complete, unless someone comes to us. Someone comes through one night while I'm waiting here." He looked at me tiredly, with the fire in the grate reflecting in his eyes. "Someone comes to save us." Another pause. "Is that ridiculous?

"No," I said. "No, it's not ridiculous."

I started making the tea and thought about St. Paul's. The tea leaves smelled wonderful as I poured out the water.

"It wasn't a very good Christmas for you," he said, suddenly. "Verity, I am so sorry. I blithely suggested you get involved with my pet project, and you were lucky you weren't killed."

"I wanted to do it," I said. "I came here and begged you to do it. And..."

"And?" he asked, gently.

I didn't say anything. When it had finished infusing, I poured out into twin cups and handed him one of them; he looked at it, and me, and the quizzical look stayed on his face.

"I suppose it's the time of year," he said, smiling ruefully. "Too much time for reflection. I'll be better once term starts."

"Me too," I said, after a moment. The silence in the room became thick suddenly, almost oppressive, broken only by the tiny snaps and crackles of the logs in the grate. Mr. Dunworthy was standing there, still, fingers curling gently like claws, and behind him I could see the flames. I turned away quickly and looked out at the quad.

"Verity, what is it?" he asked, from behind me.

"I picked you up," I said, and didn't look back to see him reaching towards the smoke-smeared sky. "The net opened for me."

"For me," he said.

Below me, there were no footprints in the frost.