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.
And it was more important to find out the date and the station. The name would be posted out on the platform. He started in the direction of the To the Trains arrow, and then stopped and elbowed his way back to a bench, where an elderly man sat snoring, the newspaper he’d been reading open on his chest. “London Damaged by Bombs,” the headline read. He leaned closer to see the date. September seventeenth. Not the sixteenth. He must have made an error in the settings.
And the seventeenth was the day Marble Arch had been hit. He needed to find out what station this was immediately. He hurried on toward the platform.
Halfway down the tunnel was an Underground map. Perhaps it had a You Are Here arrow marked on its crisscrossing multicolored lines.
It didn’t. He was going to have to go on out to the platform. Two children had come up next to him to look at the map-a small boy with a dirty face and an older girl with a half-untied sash and hair ribbon. Children usually took questions, no matter how odd, in stride. He said to the boy, “Can you tell me-?”
“I didn’t do nuthin’,” the boy said defensively and backed away. “I was only standin’ ’ere, lookin’ at the map.”
“We was seein’ which train to take,” the girl said.
So much for not attracting attention. “I only wanted to know what station this is.”
“Coo, ’e don’t know where ’e is,” the girl crowed, and the boy regarded him through narrowed eyes.
“’Ow much’ll you pay us if we tell you?”
“Pay?” How much did one pay an urchin in 1940 for information? Tuppence? No, that was Dickens. Sixpence?
“We’ll tell you for a shilling,” the girl said.
“All right,” he said and fumbled in his pocket for coins, hoping he could recognize a shilling, but he didn’t need to, the boy instantly plucked it out of the coins in his open hand.
“This ’ere’s St. Paul’s,” he said.
Good. This wasn’t Marble Arch. But if it was St. Paul’s Station, that meant he was just along the street from the cathedral itself. From St. Paul’s! I must go see it, he thought. Just for a moment.
If he could. During raids, they’d shut the gates to keep people from going outside. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked.
“’Ow much’ll you pay if-?” the boy began to say, but the girl poked him on the arm, pointing up the tunnel, and both of them took off at a dead run.
He turned to see what had spooked them and saw a uniformed guard coming. “Was them two giving you trouble, lad?”
“No,” he said. “I was only asking them for directions.”
The guard nodded grimly. “I’d check my money if I was you, lad. And your ration book.”
The last thing he needed was an official scrutinizing his papers, but the guard was standing there waiting. He pulled out his ration book, rifled quickly through the pages, and stuck it back into his pocket before the guard could get a good look. “All there…” he said, and oh, blast, how did one address a station guard? Sir? Officer? He decided he’d better not risk either. “No harm done,” he said, and walked quickly away as if he knew where he was going.
It turned out to be the right direction. He rode up the long, wooden-slatted escalator to the station entrance. Good, the gates were open. But as he started through the turnstile, a siren began winding into its up-and-down wail. It was a horrible sound. No wonder they call it the devil’s tri-tone, he thought. But at least now he knew what time it was. On September seventeenth, the sirens had gone at 7:28 P.M. He’d spent several minutes in the staircase and the station. And at least ten dealing with the children and the guard. That meant he’d come through at exactly the right time, so he had definitely made an error on the date.
Another guard was pulling the accordion-like metal gate across the exit. Blast. If those children hadn’t demanded payment, he thought. Now I’ve missed-
But there was still a narrow open space. He darted through it, through the throng of people hurrying into the station, up the steps, and outside onto a twilit narrow street with tall brick buildings on either side.
But no St. Paul’s. He turned to look behind him, but he still couldn’t see it. He craned his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the dome above the buildings.
“You’d best get under cover, lad,” a workman paused to say before hurrying past him into the station. “Jerry’ll be here any minute,” and the man was right. He had no business being out in the middle of an air raid, but the chance to actually see St. Paul’s was too good to pass up, and there’d been a twenty-minute gap between the sirens and the actual raids.
And all he wanted was a look. He loped to the opposite end of the station and looked down a side street. Not there, and how difficult was it to find an enormous cathedral with a towering dome? Had those urchins lied to him? He sprinted up to the next corner.
And there she was, at the end of the street, looking just as she did in photographs-the dome, the towers, the broad pillared porch-but far more beautiful. He wondered if he had time to go inside, just for a moment.
The siren was winding down. He thought he heard the faint hum of a plane and looked up at the darkening sky. Another siren started up and then another, farther off, each slightly out of sync with the others and drowning out any other sound with their discordant whine. He couldn’t see any planes and he still had at least a quarter of an hour, but the people on the street were hurrying now, their heads ducked as if they expected a blow any second. He’d better get back to the Underground station. He couldn’t afford to get killed. He had to do what he’d come to do. He took one long, last look at St. Paul’s and turned to run back.
And collided full-force with a young woman in a Wren’s uniform. The bundles she’d been carrying flew in all directions.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you,” he said, stooping to pick up a brown-paper-and-string-wrapped parcel.
“It’s all right,” she said, reaching for the shoulder bag she’d dropped. As she picked it up, it opened, spilling its entire contents-compact, handkerchief, ration book, coins, lipstick. The lipstick rolled across the pavement and into the gutter, and he leaped after it, retrieved it, and handed it to her, apologizing again.
She jammed the lipstick into her purse, looking anxiously up at the sky. He could definitely hear planes now, a heavy hum, and a distant whump that had to be a bomb. The Wren began gathering up her things more hurriedly. He scrambled to pick up another parcel and her handkerchief. An elderly man in a black suit stopped to help, and so did a naval officer, both of them stooping to pick up the scattered coins.
There was a deafening boom, much louder than the whump. After several seconds there was another and then another in a steady rhythm. The anti-aircraft guns, he thought, hoping he was out of range of the shrapnel from their shells, and then handed the Wren her comb and her ration book. The black-suited man handed her several coppers and hurried off up the street.
“Will you be all right then?” the naval officer asked her, handing her the last of her coins, and she nodded.
“I’m just down there,” she said, pointing vaguely off to her left, and the naval officer tipped his hat and walked away up the street toward St. Paul’s.
There was another whump, much nearer, and the sky lit briefly. He handed her the last of her parcels, and she hurried off. “I am sorry,” he called after her.
“No harm done,” she called back.
He turned and began to lope back to the station. There was another whump, and then a loud thud and a huge crash, and the entire sky lit up. He broke into a run.
For the riveting conclusion to Blackout,
be sure not to miss Connie Willis’s All Clear.
Coming from Spectra in Fall 2010.