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chapter two


Antiquities Rescue Trust

SysGov, 2980 CE

Doctor Teodorà Beckett put on her bravest face as she stepped out of her office in the Ministry of Education. It didn’t feel all that convincing to her, but she affixed a practiced smile and strode down the corridor toward the executive level’s main counter-grav tube. Colleagues nodded as she passed, or exchanged brief, banal pleasantries while hiding their true feelings behind the same emotional masks she herself wore.

And why wouldn’t they?

All of them worked for ART—the Antiquities Rescue Trust—and all of them had labored long and hard to climb to the pinnacle of their organization. They’d put in the hours, struggled through the research, performed the tedious and often dangerous fieldwork, led Preservation expeditions into the past, and most importantly, succeeded time and again.

They’d recovered wonders and priceless cultural treasures thought lost forever in the sands of time, interviewed great leaders and monstrous villains, brought clarity to the unknown, and furthered humanity’s understanding of itself by peering long and hard at where it had come from.

They’d done so much good.

But the price . . . 

Teodorà selected her destination from the menu hovering in her virtual vision, then stepped into the open tube. Gravity took gentle hold of her, cushioning her descent through the Ministry of Education tower, and she sighed with unrestrained relief now that no one could see her. She also lowered her head, eyes burning with unshed tears as her mind once again wandered back to what she’d done.

Yes, they’d achieved so much. But the evil they’d wrought—wrought in the blind arrogance of their own ignorance . . . 

Teodorà hugged her shoulders as a cold, damnably familiar emptiness filled her chest.

“I didn’t know,” she whispered. “How could I have?”

A shiver ran down her spine, and she shuddered. She bit her lip and wondered—not for the first time—if she should edit the parameters of her synthoid body. Sometimes its autonomous responses were a little too lifelike, but she’d always shied away from making large-scale changes, fearful, perhaps, of giving up too much of her original humanity. She’d only transitioned to the durable synthetic body because of work. That, and because she had never again wanted to experience the feel of a Persian sword through her gut.

In an odd way, thinking about her transition from organic to synthetic helped clear her mind, and her face was once again a picture of professional composure when she reached Guest Retention. Her feet touched the floor, and she smiled at the receptionist, who sat with his own feet propped up on his desk and an old 2D movie playing in his shared virtual periphery.

“Doctor Beckett,” he greeted her without rising.

“Doctor Kohlman.”

She offered him a curt nod, and he paused the movie with an absent wave.

“Here to clear Pepys for transfer to the Retirement Home?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Okay then.” Kohlman took his boots off the desk and sat up. Additional screens appeared around him. “Looks like he’s enjoying his morning beer. Kind of funny, if you ask me. I always assumed he’d be a tea drinker. You know, being British and all.”

“He was born about a century too early for that. Tea was still an expensive novelty during his time. The ‘China drink,’ I believe he called it.”

“Well, whatever makes him happy.”

“Any topic restrictions I should be aware of?”

“None.” Kohlman transferred the case file to her. “He knows where he is. In fact, he’s one of the few who’s always known where he is. Curious as hell, too. Been here, what?” He consulted the file he’d just sent her. “Damn near four months, and he asks a lot of questions. Been studying Modern English, too, even though we’ve given him access to the translation earbuds. Says he doesn’t like sticking them in his ears, so he doesn’t use them much.”

Kohlman shrugged and she nodded.

“And how stable is he?”

“Very. To be honest, he’s been one of our best guests, and like I say, he knows exactly when he is. Risk to you is nonexistent. And even if he did attack you”—Kohlman shrugged again—“what’s a fifty-seven-year-old indigene from the seventeenth century going to do against a synthoid?”

“Not much, I suppose.”

“You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Is your synthoid police-grade?”

“No, but I do have a few enhancements. It seemed prudent after the Thermopylae mission went south and . . . you know.” She rested her hand on her stomach.

“Yeah, I do.” His eyes flickered to her abdomen for a moment, and he gave her a sympathetic smile. “Well, he’s all yours.” He pointed a thumb down the hall. “Just let me know when we can cart him off.”

“Certainly, Doctor.”

Kohlman gave her a quick wave, then planted his feet back on his desk and un-paused his movie. One of the characters shouted obscenities, and explosions rippled across the screen.

Teodorà opened the case file and followed the virtual arrows down the hall. She waited until she was well out of sight before shaking her head.

Doctor Jebediah Kohlman, she thought. How did you go from leading ART Preservation missions and headlining major exhibits to being a desk jockey? She smiled without humor. Probably for the same reasons I’m doing a goddammed exit interview.

“Let’s just get this over with,” she muttered as she stepped up to the correct door.

She looked through it—a camera on the other side created an illusion of transparency as it fed imagery to her virtual vision—into Interview Chamber 62. The chamber had been prepared as a quaint seventeenth-century English cottage set in a grassy field with a few trees breaking up the otherwise flat landscape. A high brick wall marked both the edges of the field and the chamber’s outer walls, and a visual simulation of a bright, cloudless day stretched out beyond that.

The subject sat in one of two chairs at an anachronistic white metal table beneath the broad, shady boughs of one of those trees. A beech, she thought. He took a slow sip from his tankard, then set it back down next to a plate of salted pork and cheese slices and leaned back in obvious contentment, knitting his fingers over the bulge of his stomach.

Samuel Pepys—Chief Secretary to the Admiralty under both King Charles II and King James II—possessed a round face framed by a dark, curling wig that descended past the shoulders of his long brown coat. He smoothed the white lace of the cravat puffing out below his neck, then reached for his mug once more.

Teodorà knocked.

“Mister Pepys, may I come in?” she asked in the seventeenth-century variant of Old English.

SysGov’s scholars lumped together any version of English that predated its merger with Old Chinese as “Old English,” but that covered a vast array of dialects, most of them so different from one another as to be effectively different languages entirely. Her synthoid’s onboard software allowed her to understand and speak any of them perfectly, however, and the facility’s computers would do the same for Pepys’s translating earbuds, if that was needed.

And if he had them in his ears, of course, she thought, remembering Kohlman’s comment.

“Ah, another visitor!” Pepys set down the mug and rose, turning to face his side of the closed door. “Please enter.”

“Thank you.”

She sent the door her authorization code, stepped through, and let it lock once more behind her. His eyes brightened as he caught sight of her. Her synthoid matched her original body in every external detail, from her tall, slender build to her olive skin and cascade of long, dark hair. Today she wore a white suit with a scarf that displayed a shifting pattern of glistening ice.

Zhu hao yun,” he said, enunciating each syllable with care, as he extended one leg, leaned forward, and bowed deeply. “Making a leg,” they used to call that, Teodorà thought, as she responded with a slight bow of her own. Seventeenth-century Great Britain wasn’t her period—she’d specialized in the ancient Mediterranean—but she’d done her homework and recognized the practiced grace with which he performed the greeting. No doubt he would have flourished his hat, if he’d had one. Since he didn’t, he settled for placing one hand on his chest as he bent his head.

Yet what impressed Teodorà wasn’t the courtesy—she’d more than half expected that from a man of his time and position—but rather that the Modern English words had passed through her audio filters without translation.

Kohlman wasn’t kidding when he said Pepys has been studying our language, she thought. That wasn’t too bad, even though he picked a tricky phrase to use without tonal subtext.

The phrase came from the Old Chinese “zhù hǎo yùn,” meaning “good luck.” It could still be used in that sense, but its Modern English uses were exceptionally varied, ranging across phrases like “hello,” “goodbye,” “excuse me,” various forms of well wishing, and even sayings that had no direct translation into either Old English or Old Chinese. In some ways, its versatility reminded her of the German word “bitte” and how it could mean “please,” “you’re welcome,” “sorry,” or a few other phrases, depending on context.

Because of zhu hao yun’s myriad uses, the vowel tones became far more important than for most of Modern English, but Pepys had delivered his greeting without any tonal shifts, lending the phrase a dead, flat feeling to her ear.

Zhù hao yùn,” she said in reply, adding tones to emphasize her polite intentions. She wondered how far the man’s language studies had taken him as she continued in her native tongue.

“Good morning, Mister Pepys. My name is Doctor Teodorà Beckett. I’m here for your exit interview. Is now a good time?”

“Oh, of course, my dear lady!” Pepys waved expansively at one of the table’s chairs. “I would be most deeply pleased to have the company. Would you deign to join me for some refreshment?”

He’d spoken in his own language this time, she noticed, but it was obvious he’d understood her perfectly. It was equally obvious that he also understood that the building’s software would translate for her just as it translated for him. That was interesting. And it showed an impressive grasp of Modern English, at least in terms of comprehension, for someone who lacked both the software and the neural implants to be quickly educated in a new language.

“I would love to,” she said, switching back to his version of Old English. “Thank you.”

He stepped around the table to pull out the chair for her. She sat with a faint smile for the archaic courtesy and let him slide her into place.

“Doctor Beckett, you said, I believe?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Excellent! And would the Doctor like something to drink?”

“Well . . . I know it’s a bit early for your personal timeline, but I’m actually in the mood for a good cup of British tea.”

“The machine inside can manage that, I believe. I shall discover the truth of that. Your pardon, madame.”

He bowed again, then stepped into the cottage. He returned a minute later with a teapot and an empty cup, which he set down in front of her.

“That marvelous device asked me how I would prefer my tea,” he said as he poured. “That confused me, as I was unaware of the wide variety of selections which appear to have become available since my own day. So I told it to select something popular. I trust it will please you.”

“Thank you, Mister Pepys. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“My pleasure.”

She raised the cup and breathed in the robust aroma as he seated himself in the other chair. Then she sipped. The tea’s warmth filled her, and she set the cup back down with a smile.


“Ah! So it was to your liking, then?”

“Very much so.”

“Excellent!” He beamed at her. “I fear the wonders of your time are so great that a man of my own is hard put to grasp them, yet the joy of offering hospitality—even when it comes from the purse of another, since I have neither coin nor means to procure it—seems part and parcel of all times. And it is equally true, I find, that food and drink always taste better in company. And that is doubly true in the presence of a young and beautiful woman.”

He lifted his beer tankard in a salute, and Teodorà chuckled. She’d never considered herself beautiful, not by modern standards, anyway. But she could understand how the medical science of the thirtieth century—or an eternally youthful synthoid—could make a person look positively angelic to someone from an earlier time.

“Looks can be deceptive,” she told him. “I’m actually older than you are.”

“What amazing . . . technology.” Pepys used the Modern English word, pronouncing it with an edge of caution, and not the Old English. The noun “technology” had possessed quite a different meaning during his own lifetime. “I should no longer be astonished by all that you can accomplish,” he continued. “Your chirurgeons have provided ample proof of that in my own humble case, when all’s said.” He shook his head in mild bemusement. “I have lived most of my life in constant pain, and yet behold me!” He spread his arms. “Freed from agony at last!”

“Your bladder stones, I assume?” Teodorà glanced to the side and performed a quick search through his case file. “Ah. I see the original interviewer had you treated.”

“Read that in one of your invisible documents, Doctor?” he asked, dark eyes dancing with alert amusement.

“I suppose you could call them that.” She took another sip of tea. “But I’m sure you understand that curing you was trivial for us.”

“That which was trivial for you is no less a marvel beyond price for me,” he pointed out, holding up a finger. “Master Hollister’s surgery relieved me of the stones, yet it remained for your physicians to relieve me of the surgery’s pain. Believe me, dear lady, when I say that is one boon I shall not soon forget.”

“I’m glad you feel that way. So you feel you’ve been treated well?”

Well, dear lady? That is far too pale a word. ART’s hospitality has been all and more than the most exacting soul might demand. Although, if pressed, I should be forced to acknowledge that the constant inquiries about my diary do grow tiresome, in time.”

“Well,” she observed with a smile, “we are historians. I have it on authority that we’re a nosy breed.”

“As if I should ever be so crass as to describe so lovely a lady in such terms!” Pepys replied with a smile of his own. “And, if I be fully truthful, the ability to speak with so many of you, and the graciousness with which you have answered so many of my own questions, has been a delight. Especially so for your invisible companions! I find them fascinating, as if Puck and Oberon had come to call and brought their familiar spirits with them.”

“We call them ‘integrated companions,’” Teodorà corrected.

“I see. And did yours come from a machine, Doctor? Or was it once a real person?”

“I . . . ” She grimaced. “I’m between companions, at the moment.”

“I trust I have not stumbled upon a painful topic,” Pepys said, clearly reacting to her expression and tone. “I have no desire to pry, Doctor Beckett. Pray accept my apologies if I have intruded.”

“No, that’s all right.” She sighed. “Fran and I . . . we had a bit of a falling out. That’s all.”

In truth, her last conversation with Fran still burned in her mind. They’d fought over ART, of course. The final skirmish in a months-long war. The Gordian Protocol hadn’t destroyed ART, but its restrictions had gutted ART’s mission so severely that it bled a constant stream of talent. The “Gordian Knot” hadn’t revealed just another scandal that could be swept under the rug, like Lucius’s idiotic adventures. No, it had been proof of the minor, inconvenient fact that ART had committed atrocities on an enormous scale in the name of science, and who wanted to bear a stigma like that?

ART was a shambling, rotting corpse that still shuffled forward because it didn’t know any better. The organization they’d worked for was already dead, whether they liked it or not, and Fran had refused to stick around for the bitter end. She’d asked Teodorà to leave, then pled with her to abandon ART—

—and finally threatened her.

It’s me or ART,” she’d said.

And Teodorà had chosen ART.

Even now, she wasn’t sure why.

I can’t walk away from all this, she thought. Even in the state it’s in, I know there’s something worth saving amidst the wreckage of all our careers. I still believe in this place.

Even if no one else does.

Pepys refreshed her tea.

“Would you care to speak of it?” he asked gently. “Ofttimes, I have found, sharing pain may be the first step toward healing it.”

“You know that technically I’m the one who’s supposed to be interviewing you, Mister Pepys,” she pointed out with a slight chuckle, but she felt her own eyes warm and he smiled back at her.

“Alas, yes.” It was his turn to sigh—rather theatrically in his case. “I fear that I am all too aware that naught but dreary business could bring so lovely a visitor to call upon me! Yet, having acknowledged as much, should that prevent me from engaging her in pleasant converse? And”—he cocked his head, those bright eyes compassionate—“if you would forgive the liberty, I judge that you have much upon your mind, Doctor Beckett.”

“Is it that obvious?” Teodorà tilted her own head to one side.

“Dear lady, I have spent my life reading men’s thoughts through the windows of their eyes. It requires neither priest nor savant to see the shadows behind your own. You conceal those shadows with greater skill than many, but not so well that I cannot see them.”

Teodorà sat very still for a moment, looking at him, struck by his insight.

I shouldn’t be surprised, she told herself. Not by the fact that an indigene can see so clearly, at any rate. I’ve spent far too much time in the past to think our ancestors were any less wise or insightful than we are, and this man was one of the smartest and most influential of his own time. But it’s still . . . odd the way he’s guiding the conversation. That degree of self-confidence in someone wrenched out of his own time, buried in the wonders of another, is—well, it’s remarkable, that’s what it is.

“I appreciate your concern for me, Mister Pepys,” she said, letting him hear the sincerity in her tone. “But, be that as it may, I still have a job to do here.”

“Of course.” Pepys leaned back in his chair. “Please, do not allow my questions to impede you.”

She raised the cup once more, then paused and set it back down without drinking.

“As you may already know, this is your last interview with ART,” she said.

“So I had apprehended.” He frowned. “I understand, of course, that I do not truly belong here, and that this is neither my time nor my world. And it is also true that obligations and responsibilities in plenty await my return to them. Yet true though all of that may be, it will be most difficult to return to my own time after I have beheld so many wonders and encountered so many fascinating people. Would that it were not necessary for me to depart, yet I understand that I must.”

“I’m sorry?” Teodorà’s eyebrows arched.

“I trust that my departure need not be too abrupt,” Pepys said, and smiled. “I am engaged upon a game of chess with Doctor Clifton, and I should like to finish it before I must bid him adieu.”

“Mister Pepys, we’re not taking you back.”

“I beg your pardon?” He blinked. “I had assumed—”

“No one told you that already?”

“No.” He sat for a moment, clearly thinking hard, then leaned toward her. “Am I to apprehend that I need not return, after all?”

“You don’t want to?”

“God’s heart, Doctor Beckett! What man with the wit to get him in out of the rain would choose to return to the time from whence I came when all of this”—he flung his arms wide—“awaits him here? In that cottage”—he pointed directly at the building—“resides a familiar spirit, one of your marvelous machines, that provides greater variety of food and drink in a single afternoon than a man of my London might experience in a lifetime! Indeed, I might well spend a lifetime simply sampling them all, and that is but the first, and the smallest, of the wonders that spring to mind. No, madame. Of all the things my heart might crave, returning to what and whence I once was is not among them.”

“Some people find the transition to the thirtieth century difficult to handle,” Teodorà said, and he laughed.

“I doubt you not, Doctor. But in riposte, ‘some people’ are not Samuel Pepys!”

“Yes, yes I can see that,” she acknowledged with a chuckle.

“Believe me, dear lady, upon my most solemn oath, I do not wish to return.”

“Well, I guess that’s fortunate, since you’ll be staying anyway.”

“Indeed?” He cocked his head again. “What, then, becomes of those you’ve taken from their own times?”

“Typically, we keep historical figures here in isolation while we conduct interviews. Then we transfer them to the Retirement Home—it’s another facility, very similar to this one but with more privacy, without all of those questions about your diaries, for example, and much greater access to our infosystems—to live out the rest of their lives in comfort.”

“I see you are in earnest. I can, indeed, remain if I wish?”

“It’s not simply a matter of what you wish, Mister Pepys.” She shook her head, her expression more sober. “The truth is that you can’t go back.”

“Can’t?” he repeated, and his brow creased. “You speak as if it were a thing physically impossible, and not merely the letter of your law. You have your vessels to sail through time, do you not? Am I to apprehend that, even possessing such craft, it is not possible for you to return me to the time and the place where first you found me?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that’s true.”

“Hmmm.” Pepys sat back, rubbing his chin. “Fascinating. I had assumed otherwise.”

“Well, technically we could return you. We used to think we couldn’t, but even though we can now, we’re not allowed to. And for very good reason.”

“And now, I fear, my perplexity is complete,” he said ruefully.

“Sorry,” she said again. “I didn’t mean to confuse you.”

“So I am to understand that while it would be possible for you to return me—mind you, I have no desire to be returned—you would refuse. Would it be impertinent to inquire why?”

“It’s . . . ” She smiled apologetically. “It’s complicated, shall we say.”

That I do not doubt for an instant!” he assured her with a crooked smile. “Yet I would like to understand, if that be possible.”

“Chronometric physics isn’t the easiest topic to comprehend.”

“If such be true, Doctor Beckett, it is most fortunate that I should have so lovely a woman to serve as tutor.”

“Mister Pepys.” She shook her head, grinning. “You do realize I’ve read your diary.”

“Indeed?” He gave her a sly look. “In its entirety?”

“Well, excerpts. The most salacious bits, certainly.”

“Ah, I see.” He shook his head. “I was advised by Master Dryden that a quill brother—one whom you would call a writer, Doctor—should never commit to the written word what one would prefer the world not learn. Once written, he warned me, words too often escape the paddock in which their author thought them safely pent. ’Twould seem he had the right of it, and so I find myself most gravely disadvantaged, dear lady. Yet that does not sway me from the point. If you would, of your grace, essay the task and seek to enlighten my darkness, I should find myself yet more deeply in your debt.”

“Hmmm.” Teodorà pursed her lips and tapped them with a finger, then quirked a sly grin. “All right, then. We’re done with your interviews, really, so there’s no harm in it. And I don’t have anything else to do today. Let’s see how long you last before your head explodes.”

“In sooth?” Pepys swallowed, his eyes wide, and she chuckled.

“No, not ‘in sooth,’ Mister Pepys. It was a joke. I’ll be back in a moment.”

She stepped into the cottage, ordered a knife and a half-meter-long piece of rope from the printer, and returned to the table under the tree.

“Rope?” he asked, raising one eyebrow.

“It’s a visual aid.” She held out the cord, gripping it between both hands, and stretched it taut. “This represents the timeline.”

She gazed at him, her own eyebrow arched, until he nodded in comprehension.

“This is where we are, here—at the end of the rope.” She waved one hand and the end of the rope it held. “We call this point the ‘Edge of Existence’ or the ‘True Present.’ It doesn’t matter which term you use; they’re interchangeable. It’s called that because this is as far as a time machine can go.”

“Indeed? And that limit exists because—?”

“Because there’s no future beyond that point. It hasn’t happened yet, so we can’t go there.”

“Ah!” Understanding brightened those intense, dark eyes, and he nodded. “Yet I perceive your length of cord has two ends, not one,” he observed in a suggestive tone, and it was her turn to nod.

“Indeed it does. And the other end of the rope—here”—she moved her other hand in a circle—“is the Big Bang.”

“I cry pardon. ‘Big Bang’?”

“It’s what we call an enormous explosion that spawned the multiverse. Don’t worry about it for now. Just think of it as the beginning of time. So these are the two endpoints of time as we know it, although this example is horribly out of scale. Now place your finger on the True Present.”

He nodded and laid an index finger next to her hand at one end of the rope.

“Your finger now represents a time machine,” she told him. “You just boarded it. Take it back in time.”

He traced his finger along the rope until he reached the middle.

“Stop,” she commanded, and he did. “You’re now in the past. Let’s do something there. Strum the rope.”

He flicked the cord with his finger. It vibrated for a few moments, then settled back into motionlessness.

“That’s what time travel is like,” she said. “You can go back and interact with the past, but anything you do—any changes you make—don’t affect the timeline. The past is immutable. We had empirical proof of that, because we could go back and retrieve an object or a person from the past, but if we returned to that point in time, the object or the person was still there. She or it had never disappeared, never been affected in any way. So, clearly, any ‘change’ we wrought was purely transitory. Or so we thought.”

“Hmm.” Pepys nodded slowly. “So, assuming I have followed you aright, whilst I may be here in the ‘True Present’ . . . I also remain in the past, because that past flowed on unchanging even though I was drawn forth from it?”

“Precisely!” She beamed at him, surprised—and pleased—to see him catch on so quickly.

“Most interesting.” He scrunched up his face and stared at the rope. “So if I apprehend correctly, one of your time vessels might return to that same time in my past, or one later still, and fetch a second Pepys hither?”

“Right again. And we’ve done that a few times, when artifacts were damaged during recovery.”

Or when the shock of transplantation cracked an abductee’s mind, she added silently.

“And is there any limit to this phenomenon?” Pepys asked.

“Not that we’re aware of.”

“Then there would be no reason why you might not make that same voyage again and yet again. Travel back into the past however so often it pleased you, and . . . acquire one Samuel Pepys after another?”

“I think one of you is quite enough,” she assured him with a laugh.

“Yet ’twould be possible, would it not?”

“Yes. But.”

“Ah!” He sat back. “So I perceive that even magic such as yours has limits.”

“Indeed it does,” she said, her tone much more somber. “We thought nothing was changing when we traveled to the past. But it turned out our understanding of time travel was . . . incomplete. We thought we could jump into our time machines, go back to something like the Great Library of Alexandria, and steal every book and scroll before they burned, all without any consequences.”

“What a magnificent mission!” His eyes glowed. “Did you, in very fact, accomplish that? Rescue the Great Library?”

“Oh, yes. That and so many more antiquities. And not just objects, either. We thought we could tranquilize famous figures, drag their limp bodies onto our ships, and set them up here in Guest Retention, all without changing the past at all.”

“And you did that, as well?” The glow in his eyes darkened. “Abduct those ‘famous figures’ without will or let?”

“Yes,” she replied unflinchingly, and he swallowed.

“I had not realized,” he said after a moment, slowly. “The travelers from your time who brought me hither were far gentler than that. Indeed, their invitation was most polite.”

“When it was possible—or seemed practical, at least—ART preferred to ask,” Teodorà said. Because, she added silently, subjects who came voluntarily and willingly were less likely to suffer psychotic episodes when they realized what had happened to them. “But, you see, we thought every wrong we committed didn’t count. That nothing we did in the past had any lasting impact. It was only real while we were there in the past, and then it wasn’t as soon as we left. As I say, we’d proven that was the case by returning and observing that no change had occurred, despite our meddling. So none of the antiquities we ‘rescued’ or historic figures we collected were really affected in any way.”

“Your tone suggests to me that you have but lately discovered the fashion and degree to which your understanding was less than perfect.”

“Oh, yes.” Teodorà nodded. “It turns out there’s a limit. A threshold where what we do in the past can cause the timeline to branch. Many, many of the things we’ve done don’t rise to that level, and in those instances the results of our actions truly do disappear—dissipate, the way the vibrations did after you plucked the cord—and leave no trace behind. And it’s absolutely true that we can’t change our own past, which is why we found no lasting change when we revisited it. But our actions can spawn a new timeline.”

“I fear I have lost the scent, Doctor.” He looked at her apologetically. “I believe I understand every word you said. It is the sum of their meaning that eludes me.”

“Well, you’re in good company. A lot of people seem to struggle with this one. Here, you hold the rope.”

He nodded and took the rope from her, holding it extended between them as she had.

“This is what happens when we go back to study the past but make as few changes as possible,” Teodorà said and strummed the rope gently.

“And when less care is taken?”

“This”—she held up the knife—“is a more accurate analogy of what happens then.”

She placed the edge of the blade against the rope and stroked downward, and strands spiraled off the main cord.

“I am no savant,” Pepys said, watching the strands unravel, “no fellow of Lord Brouncker’s Society. Yet to mine own untutored eye, that would seem to be no good thing.”

“No, it isn’t,” she agreed. “And the more you do of it, and the more closely together you do it, the worse it gets. Our blundering through the past almost destroyed all of reality. And we didn’t care how many people we killed—slaughtered—in our raids, because it wasn’t ‘real.’ None of them stayed dead. We thought what we were doing was safe and right and harmless. We thought—”

Her lips quivered, and the words choked in her throat as she remembered the bodies, the blood, the stink of riven organs sprawled across the mosaic floors of the Great Library. The thunder of the chronoports’ Gatling guns, slaughtering the city guard. The terror that had spread across the city as the “demons” descended upon them with death and destruction and horror.

The clouds of buzzing flies drawn to drying blood as she walked back and forth through the puddles to plunder the endless racks of scrolls. Somehow that was the most haunting memory of all. The flies . . . 

“You discovered you were . . . in error,” he said softly.

“Yeah.” She inhaled deeply, then nodded and laid the knife on the table. “Yeah, we were ‘in error,’ all right. We were wrong. So very, very wrong.”

“In what way?” Pepys asked almost gently, and she looked at him.

“There’s a reason I mentioned the Great Library,” she said, her voice soft enough he had to strain to hear it. “That’s because I was the one who headed that expedition. It was a huge feather in my cap, professionally. But now we know what really happened, because one of our time machines went back to that moment to search for any child universe it might have spawned . . . and found it. Found the universe I created—the universe in which flying ‘demons’ ransacked the Library, destroyed the heart of the city with their ‘fireballs’ and ‘lightning,’ and then just vanished again. The one that remembers me as the most horrible monster in their entire history.”

She broke off, closing her eyes and shaking her head.

“I suppose you could call that having been ‘in error,’” she said after a moment, her voice bitter with self-loathing.

“And now ’tis I who have wronged you, Doctor Beckett,” he said. “My curiosity has brought you sorrow twice now. Pray accept my most humble apologies.”

“It’s all right.” She raised one hand and coughed a laugh into it. “We’re the ones who bulldozed our way through history. You were just unlucky enough to be caught up in our mess.”

Pepys placed gentle fingers atop her other hand, where it rested on the table. She glanced at him and saw genuine sympathy in his eyes. Her first reaction was to pull her hand away, but that concerned expression made her pause. And then, before she was even conscious of her decision, she turned her hand over and grasped his.

“So you truly can alter the past,” he said in a wondering tone.

“In a sense.” Teodorà shrugged. “We can’t change our past, only other people’s pasts, and we’re still not sure of the parameters. There seems to be a threshold where changes are great enough to branch a child universe from our own, but we’re not sure where that threshold lies, how big the change has to be.”

“Yet from what you have thus far related, a truly large change in the past might well be made permanent? As—I trust you will forgive me—in the case of the mission you led to Alexandria?”

“Only in the child universe that we created. Ours would be unaffected. Again, we can’t change our own past. We can create new timelines, like the one I created in Alexandria, but we’d never be so foolish now that we know the dangers.”

“I can—and do—accept your assurance that dangers exist, Doctor Beckett. Yet as I have listened to your words, it occurs to me that the creation of this ‘child universe’ of which you speak need not be so terrible a thing.”

“What?” She stiffened, and he shook his head quickly.

“Not all change need be evil,” he said. “Clearly, the evil consequences of your past actions—of your ignorance—grieve you sorely, and especially in the wake of your experience in Alexandria. Such grief is natural, inevitable, for one of good will who believed her actions would wreak no harm on any only to find that they had wreaked harm on countless numbers. Yet suppose that one could voyage into the past, do something of vast significance—something wonderful, that caused harm to none, only great good—that created one of these ‘child universes’ you have described. A universe in which the change you had wrought knowingly was preserved, became a part not simply of its past, but of its future, as well.”

She tilted her head, unsure where he was going with this.

“Doctor, I have seen at least a tithe of the wonders of which your world, this ‘True Present,’ is capable.” He thumped his chest. “I’ve felt its effects on my own health! Why hoard those wonders here, in the present, when they are so sorely needed in the past?”

“You don’t mean—”

“Aye, I do!” he declared as realization dawned in her eyes. “Within your grasp lies the power to create worlds, entire universes, in which history’s greatest tragedies never happened. Universes which grow and mature, standing strong and straight, without the scars chance has inflicted upon our own. If guilt burdens your soul and spirit, then act! Voyage into the seas of the past. Seek out its shipwrecks and bear those lost voyagers to safety. Return to the past not to plunder its treasures but to right its greatest wrongs!”

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