Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.
But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control.
I knew I didn’t like Eddritch, Colin thought.
“He did, however, mention your repeated absences. And the failing mark you got on your last essay.”
“That’s because Beeson made me write it on this book, The Impending Threat of Time Travel, and it was total rubbish. It said time travel theory’s rot, and historians do affect events, that they’ve been affecting them all along, but we haven’t been able to see it yet because the space-time continuum’s been able to cancel out the changes. But it won’t be able to forever, so we need to stop sending historians to the past immediately and-”
“I am fully acquainted with Dr. Ishiwaka’s theories.”
“Then you know it’s bollocks. All I did was say so in my essay, and Beeson gave me a failing mark! It’s totally unfair. I mean, Ishiwaka says these ridiculous things, like slippage isn’t to stop historians from going to times and places where they’ll affect events at all. He says it’s a symptom that something’s wrong, like a fever in a patient with an infection, and that the amount of slippage will grow larger as the infection gets worse, but we won’t be able to see that either, because it’s exponential or something, so there’s no proof of any of this, but we should still stop sending historians because by the time we do have proof, it’ll be too late and there won’t be any time travel. It’s total rubbish!” Mr. Dunworthy was frowning. “Well, don’t you think it is?”
Dunworthy didn’t answer.
“Well, don’t you?” Colin asked, and when he still stood there, “You can’t mean you believe his theory? Mr. Dunworthy?”
“What? No. As you say, Dr. Ishiwaka hasn’t been able to produce convincing proof of his ideas. On the other hand, he raises some troubling questions that require investigation, not a dismissal as ‘total rubbish.’ But you obviously didn’t come up here to debate time travel theories with me. Or to, as you put it, see what I was up to.” He looked shrewdly at Colin. “Why did you come?”
Here was where it got tricky. “Because I’m wasting my time studying maths and Latin. I want to be studying history, and not dry-as-dust books-the real thing. I want to go on assignment. And don’t say I’m too young. I was twelve when we went to the Black Death. And Jack Cargreaves was seventeen when he went to Mars.”
“And Lady Jane Grey was seventeen when she was beheaded,” Mr. Dunworthy said, “and being an historian is even more dangerous than being a pretender to the throne. There are all sorts of risks involved, which is why historians-”
“-have to be third-year students and at least twenty years old before they can go to the past,” Colin recited. “I know all that. But I’ve already been to the past. To a ten. It can’t get more dangerous than that. And there are all sorts of assignments where someone my age-”
Mr. Dunworthy wasn’t listening. He was staring at the tech, who’d come in carrying a black leather jacket covered with metallic slide fasteners. “What exactly is that?” he demanded.
“A motorcycle jacket. You said something in your size,” she added defensively. “It’s from the correct historical era.”
“Miss Moss,” Mr. Dunworthy said in the tone that always made Colin wince, “the entire point of an historian’s costume is that of camouflage-to keep from drawing attention to himself. To blend in. How do you expect me to do that,” he gestured at the leather jacket, “dressed in that?”
“But we have photographs of a jacket like this from 1950…” the tech began and then thought better of it. “I’ll see what else I’ve got.” She retreated, wincing, into the workroom.
“In tweed,” Mr. Dunworthy called after her.
“Blending in is exactly what I’m talking about,” Colin said. “There are all sorts of historical events where a seventeen-year-old would blend in perfectly.”
“Like the Warsaw ghetto?” Mr. Dunworthy said dryly. “Or the Crusades?”
“I haven’t wanted to go to the Crusades since I was twelve. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Both you and-” He caught himself. “You and everyone at school still think of me as a child,” he said instead, “but I’m not. I’m nearly eighteen. And there are all sorts of assignments I could be doing. Like al-Qaeda’s second attack on New York.”
“Yes, there was a high school near the World Trade Center. I could pose as a student and see the entire thing.”
“I am not sending you to the World Trade Center.”
“Not to it. The school was four blocks away, and none of the students got killed. No one was even injured, except for the toxins and asbestos they inhaled, and I could-”
“I am not sending you anywhere near the World Trade Center. It’s far too dangerous. You could be killed-”
“Well, then send me somewhere that isn’t dangerous. Send me to 1939, to the Phoney War. Or to the north of England to observe the evacuated children.”
“I am not sending you to World War II either.”
“You went to the Blitz, and you let Polly-”
“Polly?” Mr. Dunworthy said alertly. “Polly Churchill? What does she have to do with this?”
Bollocks. “Nothing. Just that you let your historians go all sorts of dangerous places, and you go all sorts of dangerous places, and you won’t even let me go to the north of England, which wouldn’t be dangerous at all. The government evacuated the children there to be out of danger. I could pretend to be taking my younger brothers and sisters-”
“I already have an historian in 1940 observing the evacuated children.”
“But not in 1942 through 1945. I looked it up, and some of the children stayed in the country for the entire war. I could observe the effect that being separated from their parents that long had on them. And my missing school needn’t be a problem. I could do it flash-time and-”
“Why are you so set on going to World War II? Is it because Polly Churchill’s there?”
“I’m not set on going to World War II. I only suggested it because you didn’t want me to go anywhere dangerous. And you’re a fine one to talk about danger when you’re going to St. Paul’s the night before the pinpoint bomb-”
Mr. Dunworthy looked astonished. “The night before the pinpoint bomb? What are you talking about?”
“Your rescuing the treasures.”
“Who told you I was rescuing St. Paul’s treasures?”
“No one, but it’s obvious that’s why you’re going to St. Paul’s.”
“I am not-”
“Well, then, you’re going to go see what’s there so you can rescue them later. I think you should take me with you. You need me. You’d have died if I hadn’t gone with you to 1349. I can pose as a university student studying Nelson’s tomb or something and make a list of all the treasures for you.”
“I don’t know where you got this ridiculous idea, Colin. No one is going to St. Paul’s to rescue anything.”
“Then why are you going to St. Paul’s?”
“That doesn’t concern you-what is that?” he said as the tech came in carrying a knee-length yellow satin coat embroidered with pink flowers.
“This?” she said. “Oh, it’s not for you. It’s for Kevin Boyle. He’s doing King Charles II’s court. There’s a telephone call from Research for you. Shall I tell them you’re busy?”
“No, I’ll take it.” He followed her into the workroom.
“Nothing on Paternoster Row? What about Ave Maria Lane? Or Amen Corner?” Colin heard him say, followed by a long pause, and then, “What about the casualties lists? Were you able to find one for the seventeenth? No, that’s what I was afraid of. Yes, well, let me know as soon as you do.” He came back out.
“Was that phone call about why you’re going to St. Paul’s?” Colin said. “Because if you need to find out something, I could go back to St. Paul’s and-”
“You are not going to St. Paul’s or World War II or the World Trade Center. You are going back to school. After you’ve passed your A-levels and been admitted to Oxford and the history program, then we’ll discuss your going to-”
“By then, it’ll be too late,” Colin muttered.
“Too late?” Mr. Dunworthy said sharply. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I’m ready to go on assignment now, that’s all.”
“Then why did you say ‘By then, it will be too late’?”
“Just that three years is ages, and by the time you let me go on assignment, all the best events will have been taken, and there won’t be anything exciting left.”
“Like the evacuated children,” Mr. Dunworthy said. “Or the Phoney War. And that’s why you cut class and came all the way up here to convince me to let you go on assignment now, because you were afraid someone else might take the Phoney-”
“What about this?” the tech said, coming in with a belted tweed shooting jacket and knee-length knickerbockers.
“What is that supposed to be?” Mr. Dunworthy roared.
“A tweed jacket,” she said innocently. “You said-”
“I said I wanted to blend in-”
“I must get back to school,” Colin said, and made his escape.
He shouldn’t have said that about it being too late. Once Mr. Dunworthy got hold of something, he was like a dog with a bone. He shouldn’t have mentioned Polly either. If he finds out why I want to go on assignment, he won’t even consider it, Colin thought, heading toward the Broad.
Not that he was considering it now. Colin would have to think of some other argument to convince him. Or, failing that, some other way to get to the past. Perhaps if he could find out why Mr. Dunworthy was going to St. Paul’s, he could convince him he needed to take him along. The tech had said something about the jacket’s being from 1950. Why would Mr. Dunworthy go to St. Paul’s in 1950?
Linna would know. He turned down Catte Street and ran down to the lab but it was locked.
They can’t have closed, he thought. They said they had two drops and three retrievals to do. He knocked.
Linna opened the door a crack, looking distressed. “I’m sorry. You can’t come in,” she said.
“Why? Has something gone wrong? Nothing’s happened to Polly, has it?”
“Polly?” she said, looking surprised. “No, of course not.”
“Has something gone wrong with one of your retrievals?”
“No… Colin, I’m not supposed to be talking to you.”
“I know you’re busy, but I only need to ask you a few questions. Let me in and-”
“I can’t,” she said and looked even more distressed. “You’re not allowed in the lab.”
“Not allowed? Did Badri-?”
“No. Mr. Dunworthy rang us. He said we aren’t to allow you anywhere near the net.”
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
– KING GEORGE VI, CHRISTMAS SPEECH, 1939
WHEN EILEEN REACHED THE STATION IN BACKBURY, THE train wasn’t there. Oh, don’t let it have gone already, Eileen thought, leaning over the edge of the platform to look down the tracks, but there was no sign of it in either direction.