Time for Tea: Chapter Four

“Livvy! I finally caught you.” The face in the net-call image assumed the expression that meant maternal concern. “We hadn’t heard from you in so long. Your father said not to bother, you’d get in touch when you were ready, but you hadn’t answered any of our messages, and I needed to know you were all right. Are you?”

“Fine.”

Her mother snorted. “An insufficient response even for you. You wouldn’t allow me a touch more detail?”

“Still husbandless, but perfectly healthy. How’s that?”

“An improvement.” Her voice softened. “You look tired, though.”

Olivia sighed. They would find out in the end anyway, and better it should not be through a third party, as they had discovered Bernard’s absence when the police arrived to question them. She’d never heard “I told you so” expressed in so many different ways.

“I just got home from work,” she said.

“You mean from school?”

“No. I’m taking a leave from the university. I got a new job. The bank account was running a bit low.”

There was a hint of triumph in her mother’s gaze—no doubt she interpreted the admission as one of abject poverty—but she said nothing out loud condemning Bernard. “You could have asked—”

No.

“What about your career, though? I thought you were settled on academics.”

“I am, but… This job pays really well. And it’s interesting.”

“So what is it?”

“Um.” Now that she’d come to the point, Olivia was hesitant to blurt it out. “You won’t like it.”

“I’ll respect your decision, Livvy.”

“You didn’t respect it when Bernard made it.”

There was a brief silence. “Oh, no.”

“I’m afraid so. I’ve been with Constantine and Associates for a bit over a week now.”

“The same company? The one that won’t grant you Bernard’s disability payments? By the way, Sandro said you hadn’t responded to his last message. He’s doing me a favor by taking the case, and—”

“Could I have the mother instead of the lawyer, please?” The expression shifted again, but no farther than “patience with idiot child,” a countenance likely given exercise with recalcitrant clients as well. “I suppose that’s a better description than ‘the imbeciles responsible for his disappearance,’ though; thanks for toning it down. You met Charles at our wedding. You liked him, I recall.”

“He had the right attitude about the teaching of history. Too bad he didn’t stick to doing that. If you were his student I wouldn’t object. Unless you decided to marry him, that is.”

“Obviously an enormous risk.” George had asked forgiveness for his comments about professors, the morning after their tea tutorial when he’d made his reappearance in the office. Her mother had never considered it necessary to apologize for similar remarks. “Leave it alone, okay? He’s a good boss. We… trust each other.” Mostly.

“You trust too easily.” Olivia rewarded this with silence, and her mother went on: “So what are you doing for the company?”

“Right now, lots and lots of research.”

“That’s using your skills, at any rate. What sort of research?”

“It’s… hard to describe. On eighteenth-century London, mostly.” In fact, her ears still murmured with the echoes of Georgian culture streaming into them all day long, and her eyes were weary from endless projections of women dressing, walking, sitting, eating and conversing, or alternately ships and buildings and streets. Every morning, she took a carefully measured dose of Anamnex, the drug that stimulated the neurotransmitter receptors that helped her process the information into long-term memory. It seemed to make her irritable, although that could also be due to George’s insistence on talking to her while she tried to study. He assured her that the learning programs worked better if you let them fade into the background, and that she needed a distraction, which he was happy to provide. Easy enough for him to say; he’d already been to eighteenth-century England.

“Oh, and I’m learning an accent.” She and George were to be cousins from Kent, traveling together, and they had been speaking to each other increasingly in the vernacular, which was subtly unlike any British speech Olivia had heard before. He corrected her pronunciation occasionally, with jokes about Eliza Doolittle.

“I hate to ask…”

“Yes, I’m doing a jump. In a couple of weeks.”

“Does that mean you’re time-traveling?” her mother said in a voice of purposeful misunderstanding.

“It’s not slang, Mom. Slang is when you say something like ‘I paid a call on Tim today’ and someone asks how the ride was. Even the official documents talk about time jumping. Oh, and by the way, I bet we’ve got you beat on arcane timesheet procedures. It took me a half day’s work with the project manager just to get the basics down. I think Marc finds me promising, though.”

“So where are you jumping to, exactly? London, you said… so I mean ‘when,’ I suppose.”

“Seventeen seventy-three. And ‘where’ is what they say, actually. ‘Where did we bag that cobra, was it nineteenth or twentieth century?’ ‘It was eighteen-fifty, in Kerala, and it was hotter than hell.’ I heard that in the lunchroom yesterday.” Her semantics-hungry ears had been delighted by the realization.

Cobras? Olivia…”

“There aren’t any cobras in London, Mom. The company has a lot of extinct species DNA retrieval contracts, though. Remember when I took you to the National Zoo and we saw the dodo? That was us. The jumper who did the sampling is still around. She says dodos kick like mules.”

“You don’t have much science background. Your father always said you needed more.”

“There’s plenty to do that’s not science. Some of it’s pretty frivolous, like getting historical celebrities to sign things. Though some of them kick like mules too, apparently.” That had been George’s comment. “But a lot of the most important contracts are scientific. Research into ancient cultures, or paleontology: digs in places we can’t get to today, or where the site’s been destroyed. Or prep work for modern-day digs.” After her first introduction to Andy Bishop as dishelleved eighteenth-century servant it had been a surprise to discover his real identity as a respected archaeologist with a specialty in planning this sort of investigation. He didn’t seem eager to discuss his work, but she intended to push him toward doing so when she had developed enough immunity to his attractions for an actual conversation.

“Can’t they just go back and look at the civilizations or the dinosaurs or whatever it is?”

“Not if it’s over a thousand years. More or less. The farther back you go the more expensive it gets, and there’s a point where the physics stops working. But as you say I have no background in science.”

“I don’t think you should be using the thing if you don’t understand it.”

Olivia laughed. “That would eliminate ninety percent of jumpers. Biologists and archaeologists, yes, but not a lot of physicists. And most of them are just in it for the adventure. George—” She broke off, but too late.

“Who’s George?”

“My… partner. Jumping partner,” she hastened to add, before her mother started leaping to conclusions.

“You’re jumping with a man?”

“Mom, you always worry about the wrong things. How about being concerned that I’m jumping back four hundred years into a rough city full of dirt and diseases?”

“That goes without saying.”

“In that case I’ll need a man to protect me,” Olivia said dryly, but as usual her mother missed the sarcasm.

“You never have, Livvy. I hope you’re not starting now. What has Bernard been teaching you?”

“Besides art history?”

“You know what I mean. All this communing with the past; I expect he picked up a lot of ideas.”

“Well, I hope so. He’d hardly come back thinking exactly the same way he did when he left. That’s what Charles means about learning from history. That’s why he got into this business.”

“Who? Charles or Bernard?”

“Sorry, careless pronoun. Either of them, I suppose.”

“It seemed like the present wasn’t enough for Bernard. Even with a good job and a wife. He had to have the past as well. And look what happened. Now you want the same thing. Are the police going to show up at my door some morning about you?”

“I’m just in it for the money, Mom,” Olivia answered dully.

“I don’t know how you’re going to forget him if you’re doing the same job he did. Though I suppose being at the university wouldn’t help either. What you need to do is come home for a while.”

“No, I don’t think so. I’ll let you know if I change my mind, though.”

Her mother looked as though she were going to protest, but all she said was, “And you will call when you get back from London.”

“Absolutely. Now, I’ve got a bit more studying to do this evening before the drug wears off—”

“Drugs!”

“Goodbye, Mom,” Olivia said, and disconnected.

* * * * *

Beatrice took her out to lunch the next day: the first time Olivia had left the office to go anywhere but home, and that at an increasingly late hour as her exhaustion lessened. Preparation for the jump consumed all her working time, but she fully intended to get around to searching her files and the rest of the cubicle for any clues as to Bernard’s whereabouts. Others worked long hours as well, particularly when writing proposals for new business, so she usually screened herself away for privacy, rehearsing the subterfuge for which she hadn’t yet had time. The screens were blank now; she’d looked at the tulips long enough, and none of the other paintings appealed. She justified this move by supposing that Bernard could hardly have accomplished any real work with the kaleidoscope effect going on his walls, and must have reverted to a less diverting color scheme on occasion, so she was still not changing anything he’d left behind.

She had managed to skim some of Bernard’s reports again, and was struck by the oddness of that trip to nineteenth-century Arizona: not only was it a time and place in which Bernard had never expressed any interest, but the jump was one of the few for which he’d had a partner, one whose name was faintly familiar, although she could not recall Bernard mentioning it. The lunch gave her the opportunity to inquire about Sam Brant.

“He was with us last year,” Beatrice answered her after a momentary pause, “just for a few months. I don’t remember that contract specifically, but I expect Bernard was doing his part for the training program. Mentoring, you know.”

“He must not have done a lot of it,” said Olivia. “Most of his other jumps were made alone.”

“Oh, he did plenty in the office. He just preferred to jump solo, and Charles let him pick and choose a bit more than he did the other jumpers. Don’t tell anyone I said that, of course.” Beatrice, evidently, knew all about the extra-office friendship. “Charles told me,” she went on, “that he’d asked you out to lunch and you turned him down. I hope they’re not working you too hard. Thanks for taking the time to come out with me; I wanted to get to know you better.”

Olivia flushed. “That wasn’t why,” she said.

“Why you wouldn’t have lunch with him, you mean? Why ever not, then?” Beatrice frowned. “You haven’t had some sort of disagreement, have you?”

Fighting with the boss already, dear? “No, not at all,” Olivia answered. “I just…” She wasn’t sure how to explain. “It shouldn’t seem like he’s granting me any special favors.”

“Ah. It is a… complex situation, isn’t it? Has someone been giving you a hard time?”

“No one in particular, no. But everyone seems to know, and some people have given me the impression that they disapprove.”

“Well,” Beatrice said briskly, “I wouldn’t worry about a lunch invitation. He takes all the new employees out. And once the cat’s out of the bag there’s nothing you can do to put it back in; it’ll just look strange if you avoid him.” She smiled. “It’s all right to be friends outside the office, really. Now Bernard…”

“Bernard what?” Olivia prompted her.

“Did a good job keeping it quiet, I was going to say. You’d never have known. They were friends for many years, am I right?” Olivia nodded. “But I only knew Bernard slightly before he started here, even though I… well, I worked with Charles at the university. Both of them were good at… putting things in compartments.”

Olivia imagined Bernard standing before a row of pigeonholes, sorting out his life by size and color and shape. Let others vainly strive to immure the Circle in the Quadrature. She wondered what compartment she had fit into, and how easily she had slid in.

Shaking her head, she pursued her original goal again. “Do you know what happened to Sam Brant, then?” she asked.

Beatrice poked at her salad with a fork. “He left. Suddenly.” She didn’t look inclined to say more, but Olivia persisted.

“Where did he go? Is he working for another time travel company?”

“It seems unlikely. Remember all those papers you signed?”

Olivia did. Tucked in among the mass of legal verbiage towards the end of her contract of employment had been a declaration that she could be liable for the value of her training if she left to work for a rival company within twelve months after its completion. Brant would presumably have been operating under the same restrictions.

Beatrice seemed unwilling to stay on the topic. “You had a meeting with Janet this morning, didn’t you? Did it go well?” she asked.

“It went fine,” said Olivia, spooning up soup. “She seems to find me satisfactory.”

“I’m glad you spotted that. Janet’s disapproval is always quite obvious,” said Beatrice, then, not changing the subject, “And how are things with George?”

“He’s certainly… entertaining,” Olivia answered. He had, in fact, been going out of his way to make himself charming; she was beginning to get the impression that he was carving a notch in some imaginary sword-hilt every time he made her laugh.

Beatrice nodded. “He is at that. Quite a lot to be said for someone who can put a smile on your face every day.”

“I’m sure,” Olivia said neutrally, and wrenched the conversation back to her area of interest. “I wonder why Brant left so quickly?” she said. “Did he have a problem with someone here?”

“Not that I know of. Perhaps he simply didn’t enjoy the work.” Beatrice sighed. “Why are you so curious about him?”

“I’d just hoped to talk to him. To see what he could tell me about working with Bernard.”

“Well, if all you’re after is what Bernard was like to work with, I can tell you that, Olivia, although I admit it’s not the same thing as what he was like to jump with.” Olivia could not help but note Beatrice’s use of the past tense. “I don’t think, somehow,” the older woman went on, “that’s all you’re interested in.” She took a firm bite of hothouse tomato and looked at Olivia keenly.

Olivia was silent for a moment. “I’m just trying to understand,” she said at last.

A guilty look swept Beatrice’s face. “Oh, dear,” she said, “what a dreadful position you’re in. I do see that, of course. He’s gone, and you have no idea where, or when, or how, or why. It’s a wonder the police could even start investigating.”

“They didn’t seem to have any problem with speculation,” Olivia said bitterly.

“Well, that’s the thing,” replied Beatrice. “You can speculate for days. I think you’re doing remarkably well, by the way, coping with it. Not that you have much of a choice.” She squeezed a bit more dressing onto her salad. “I suppose they asked whether you thought he was having an affair?”

“They did,” Olivia said, trying not to show surprise. “I said no, I didn’t think so, but I’m not sure they believed me.” She picked up a cracker and tried to eat it, but her mouth was too dry.

“They have to explore all the possibilities, you know. And they prefer the easy ones. I’d think one look at you would tell them otherwise, though.”

Olivia sipped meditatively at her drink and didn’t answer. “That was a compliment, dear,” Beatrice went on. “You learn to be alert to them when you get to my age.” She assessed Olivia for a moment. “That’s really bothering you, isn’t it? If you want my personal judgment, it’s ridiculous. He just wasn’t the type. Not to do it lightly, anyway. He’d get all… torn up.”

Her lips tightened for a second and then relaxed, and she went on with cheerful irony, “At any rate, he wasn’t having an affair with me. He’d have been too young for me, of course.”

Olivia could hardly tell Beatrice just how much she had been worried by the possibility of Bernard’s infidelity. His behavior in the months before his disappearance had read like a classic list of “how to tell when he’s cheating on you” symptoms: “meetings” he would never quite describe, lasting late into the evening (he’d belonged to a historical research and reenactment club for years, but his participation had lapsed when he’d left the university, only to resume inexplicably in the last year or so); an unwillingness to confide in her even in the simplest things; a desperate passion in his sexual approaches followed by an equally uncharacteristic passivity, until finally he had become only a cold and quiet presence in her bed.

Of course, that evidence could lead to many alternative conclusions, she was certain. None of them, however, leapt to mind.

“The police did seem to think,” she said slowly, “that he was hiding somewhere in the present day. I suppose it’s a logical surmise, given no clues to show he jumped. He’d have to have some help, though, wouldn’t he? If his identity chip registered anywhere he’d be traced. He’d need food, a place to stay.” Or he could have died, in the present day. He’d have needed some help with that too, if only to hide the body.

“They would have checked all the contacts they could discover, but even the police do recognize their own fallibility,” Beatrice said, taking another bite of lettuce. “Even the DSI, in fact.” Olivia started, remembering how the detectives at her door had given way to dark-suited Security and Intelligence agents, and wondered how Beatrice knew. The answer was ridiculously easy; of course, they’d been swarming over Constantine and Associates too.

“Eat your soup, Olivia,” Beatrice added. “I don’t like to see food wasted.” Olivia obediently made an attempt to finish off the bowl, and both of them kept silent for a time.

Then, spearing her last olive, Beatrice continued where they had left off. “I can see the point they were making, though. There was no record of a jump, you know. He’d have had to take advantage of some hole in the security system, and no one’s been able to tell how.”

“Are there holes?” Olivia asked.

“Of course. There are always holes, dear. And your Bernard was smart enough to figure them out.”

But not smart enough that you’ll assume he’s still alive. She had not really expected this lunch to bring her much closer to finding out Bernard’s whereabouts. But she was beginning to fear that she might never discover where—the time jumper’s unspecific “where”—he really was. Had we but world enough, and time

“It just hurts,” she found herself saying aloud, “that it might have been an accident. That he might be out there somewhere, waiting for me to find him. That he’ll certainly die if I don’t. Has already died, really. Unless he never left the present, that is.” She tried to calm herself. “I just don’t know. That’s the worst part.”

A sudden intake of breath from across the table, and she looked up to catch Beatrice in an odd, abstracted expression. She came back to herself quickly, and reached out to pat Olivia’s hand.

“Horrid. I understand. Worse than… than waiting for someone to come back from war. Any way that I can help…” Another pat, then, “But please, dear, let the DSI and Charles deal with it. Don’t try to do anything on your own.”

“What is Charles doing?” Olivia asked, sounding fierce to her own ears.

Beatrice sighed. “He doesn’t tell me everything, you know. Though we are very old friends.” It sounded like pulling rank. “I’m sure he has it under control, though.  You might want to consider,” she went on calmly, folding a paper napkin into a series of triangles, “that Bernard had a whole life outside of your marriage. He lived a whole life before he met you, in fact. Twenty years difference in age is quite a lot.”

“Nineteen,” Olivia corrected mechanically, and felt very young. “What are you suggesting?”

“Just that… it might not be you he’s waiting for.”

* * * * *

At a quarter past eight on the following Monday evening, Olivia was sitting in her cubicle, net recording humming sotto voce, and—for a distraction, she told herself—Bernard’s copy of Through the Looking-Glass on her lap. The book had fallen open to the first meeting of the Red Queen and Alice, and Olivia read along with a sense of recognition.

She felt, like Alice, that she hadn’t stopped running since she’d entered the door of Constantine and Associates, and here she was, as the Red Queen said, still in the same place. Admittedly, she did know quite a bit more about the eighteenth century, and about tea, than she had a couple of weeks ago, but nothing significant in her life seemed to have changed. Bernard was still missing, and she had no idea where he was; despite the brave front to her mother of identification with the company, she didn’t feel like a real time jumper yet; she was still more comfortable shut away doing research than anything else. Some of her new colleagues had become friendly acquaintances, but there was no one on whom she could count to help her. What she felt like more than anything else was alone.

“Grim-visaged comfortless despair, and sorrow’s piercing dart,” murmured a gentle English voice in her inner ear. “Oh shut up,” she snarled, and the recording cut off.

“You know, I think you might be over-preparing for this assignment just a trifle,” George remarked, in perfect Kentish eighteenth-century upper-middle-class tones, and she whipped around to see him lounging by the doorway. She’d forgotten to put the screens up. “Talking back to original sources is the first sign of overwork. Yelling at them is the second, so I think you’re ahead of the class. As usual, I expect.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked sharply.

“I work here. Remember?”

“Oh, very funny. You left at five.” As usual.

“Keeping track of my movements? You do me too much honor.” He put out a foot and bowed: practiced, precise, graceful, and completely irreverent. “I forgot something.”

“Then please,” she said, remembering her accent this time, “take it and be gone.” Her eyes went back to the book.

A minute later, she realized he was still watching her. She closed the book and turned toward him, crossing her arms and setting her face in the most unwelcoming expression she could manage. It seemed to make no impression.

“I require your attention for a moment,” he said. He stepped into the cubicle, grabbed the extra chair and put it down in front of her, then sat in it, leaning forward.

“What are you doing here, is more like it,” he said, dropping the accent. “You’re working too hard. It’s a short assignment, and you could be in… fifteenth-century Poland in another few weeks—well, no, not unless there’s a contract I don’t know about, but as an example. Save your brainpower. You’re not going to need”—he peered at the still-hovering program image, his eyebrows rising—“the poetry of Thomas Gray, on this jump. No one’s going to ask you to quote him. There won’t be a quiz.”

He sighed. “Go home. Relax. You’ve got a fitting tomorrow, right?” She nodded. “You’ll look a lot better in the costume if you get some sleep. Home. Now.” He made little shoving motions with his hands. “Go on.”

She swallowed. “Home is not the most…”

“Shit. I did it again. I’m sorry. Idiot.” His lip curled up angrily, and one finger sliced across his throat in what seemed, unfortunately, to be a habitual gesture. “All right, then, let’s keep you away from home until it becomes necessary. Could I take you out to dinner?”

George, just leave me alone, she wanted to say, but she couldn’t get the words to come out. She indicated the empty soup container on the corner of the desk.

“You couldn’t eat any more?” he asked hopefully. “No, I suppose not, not with the fitting tomorrow. If we were going to stay longer in the eighteenth century, by the way, we’d need to be adjusting our appetites. They had a different idea of meals than we do—the upper classes, at least. Well, the lower classes, too, but that’s another matter. Lots of meat, anyway. All at once. Not a lot of vegetables. And, believe me, you want to spend as little time as possible dealing with the toilet facilities there, so it’s worth some”—he touched his midsection—“retraining.”

He laughed. “The vulgar realities of the profession. Things They Never Told You. Marc would make some snide comment here about paying us to… excrete. I’ve always wanted to bring him a really detailed timesheet.”

Olivia couldn’t help smiling. George brightened. She could practically see the knife poised over the sword hilt.

“Then there was the alcohol intake. A glass of wine with you, sir, and you, and you, and…” He slumped in the chair, head lolling. “That might be worth a spot of retraining, though,” he went on, straightening up. “Come out for a drink with me? Um, for study purposes only, of course. We could even charge it to the contract.”

“No. Thank you anyway.”

“Just as well. Marc would kill me.”

She was suddenly brave enough to ask, “Do you really cheat on the timesheets?”

“Did he tell you that?”

“Not in so many words, no.”

“Clever of you to deduce his train of thought, then. I’m sure he was very subtle. He’s been on my case about it ever since I once tried to charge for a meal on the way back from visiting Tim—I hadn’t eaten in two days, through a complicated set of circumstances involving a bear and a damaged shotgun, which I’m sure you don’t want to hear about—but I can’t imagine why he thinks…” He waved a hand dismissively. “I do have some respect for the profit margin of the company. Actually.”

“Marc is only doing his job,” she said. “I expect he wants me to become a positive role model for my colleagues.”

“I look forward to it with the liveliest anticipation,” responded George, with an eighteenth-century air. “And who knows, it might work. I’d rather have you for a role model than Marc or Janet. Frumious Bandersnatch, that’s Ms. Lapinski,” he said, taking Through the Looking-Glass out of her hands. “Wouldn’t you say?”

“Not really, no,” she replied honestly. “I haven’t had any difficulties with either of them.”

“Mm. Lucky you.”

“Luck has little to do with it, I expect.”

He caught her eye and grinned. “Zing! Feel better now? Punch away, I can take it.” She shook her head. “So I’m supposed to be keeping you distracted and entertained,” he went on, “and since you won’t let me buy you dinner or a drink, and this isn’t a particularly good venue for dancing, it’ll have to be conversation. I know I can hold up my end.” He looked doubtful about hers. “Should I tell you more about eighteenth-century nutrition? Or we could talk about the book, even though it’s out of period, since I’ve actually read it.” He began flipping through it. “Were you marking pages?” he asked, indicating a turned-down corner at the point where Alice finds the Red King snoring.

“No. Not me.” She frowned. It was most unlike Bernard to dog-ear pages, and she couldn’t imagine who else would have done it.

George was reading over the page. “Well,” he said, “I might have an inkling why. It rings a professional kind of bell.” He shifted his chair sideways so he could lay the book between them, and pointed at the text. “That.”

Olivia read. “I’m not sure I understand,” she said.

“The part about only being sort of a thing in the Red King’s dream, and going out—bang!—like a candle, which they don’t do, of course, but never mind. It’s what—how lovely I’m telling you this, when you’re already depressed—it’s what time jumpers have nightmares about.”

“You mean dying in the past? Never coming back?”

“Mm, not exactly. I mean, that could happen; lots of us have come close to it at one time or another. But that’s just a risk like you might take in dozens of professions. We all have our reasons for being crazy enough to do this work.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “I could make a guess as to yours, but I assume you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Thank you,” she returned quietly.

After a few seconds of silence, he resumed. “Anyway, that would be a people error, not a machine error. The technology is reliable. We did have a series of odd jumps last fall after an upgrade, people not ending up quite where they’d been sent, data disappearing—it was all over before—” He broke off; before Bernard went, presumably. “But they fixed that. And no matter what, it’s very unlikely the machine would not be there waiting when you get back to it. Unless…” He paused. “Have you had the time travel theory lecture yet?”

“I know the basics.” Sort of. Her father was right about the limitations of her scientific knowledge. She’d read up on the topic, as best she could, as soon as Bernard had announced his change of career, but what hadn’t gone over her head had coldly wormed its way into her gut, and she’d put it away from her, trying hard to forget.

“Time breaches? Alternate paths of history?” She shrugged. “No? Okay, so Fred is right about the training program. They do things in the right order, at least.” He pushed the book at her and leaned back, steepling his fingers together in an obvious parody of Charles.

“Basic time travel paradox,” he began. “You go back in time and kill your grandmother when she’s a child. Nasty thing to do, but you are cold and unrepentant, mostly because you’ve ceased to exist. You were never born. However, if you were never born, how do you manage to kill your grandmother?” He threw his hands in the air. “But Nature, being a sensible female, abhors a paradox. For a while the theory was that you couldn’t kill your grandmother, because time would turn somersaults to make sure you were never on the spot at the right moment. But now we know…”

She half-expected him to pull up data on the net, but he sat still in his chair, folding his hands in front of him in an attitude of prayer. “This is what happens.” His fingers flew apart, while his wrists stayed locked together. “You cause a breach. Two paths; two different universes. In this one”—he wiggled his left hand—“you cease to exist, because your grandmother is dead and can’t ever give birth. Never mind stored genetic material: simplicity of pure theory here. In this path, though”—the right hand waved—“you are born in the same way you always were, and are therefore available to go back in time and kill your grandmother. And potentially, every decision we make—even ones not nearly as radical as committing murder—can split the universe into multiple strands.”

His hands turned, palms facing away from her, and he spread all his fingers to represent the myriad paths of time. She stared, mesmerized. Her brain shut away the implications of what he had just said; reality blurred, and the only things solid enough to focus on were his hands. They were expressive, but hardly elegant: long, sturdy fingers with blunt nails; a scar running across the knuckles of his left hand—she wondered flickeringly how he had got it—and the blood draining down from the prominent veins as he raised his hands in the air, holding up the universe. They were so ordinary, earth-bound, human; they ought to have held and offered comfort, not twisted the firmament and wrenched at sense and hit her where she was already tender.

“Luckily for us,” he said, dropping his hands into his lap, “it happens much less often than you’d think. Time may not turn somersaults, but it does seem to be self-repairing after the fact. Rather as though it were a living organism: you can tear it, slash it open”—he ran a finger over the uneven white line on his knuckles—“and, if it’s not irreparably damaged, frequently it heals itself.” He pinched his fingers together, as though closing a wound.

Does it leave a scar, though? she wanted to ask. He silently raised his hands again, fitting the palms together, then let them lean apart, separate completely as they ascended. Then, after several agonizing seconds, they came together once more, closing a bubble in space and time. His hands ended flat against each other as they had begun, as though in supplication to a deity. She thought that in his place—or, rather, in the place of time itself—her hands would have been clasping one another frantically, never bearing to let go again once the miracle had occurred and their paths had been reunited.

“At least,” George said, dropping his hands again, “that’s what they tell us. But you can see the analogy, I think. There’s the Red King, snoring away, old Father Time; and we don’t know whether we’re in his dream, or in ours, nor who’s going to wake up first. And ‘Do I really exist?’ is not the sort of thing I want to ask myself before I’ve had my coffee in the morning.”

Olivia wanted to say I refute it, thus, and kick something, but neither her tongue nor her body would move. George was continuing.

“You can’t let it paralyze you, or you fail in your job; but in your worst moods you’re bound to think that anything you do might be the trigger. Maybe you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or walk down the wrong street on the wrong day, and when you go back to where you left the time machine, it’s not there. And suddenly you know you might never see the world you were born in, ever again.”

She had shut the book some time back, one bent finger still between its pages to mark the place that Bernard had, she thought, brooded over in his darkest moments, and now she found she was clutching it tightly, knuckles white with the strain. Forcing herself to let go, she looked down at her hands, slim and strong and unmarked, and at the gold ring she wore on one finger. Which path is this one, she asked herself, and how do I find it? The thought that Bernard might be in an entirely different universe from hers was terrifying. Her breath was coming faster; she felt as though she were teetering on the edge of a very deep chasm, and it was, in fact, only George’s presence that was preventing her from falling. She couldn’t let go, couldn’t indulge herself in hyperventilation and hysterics and panic, while he was there.

An involuntary gasp escaped her, however, and George reached out as though to take hold of her hands, then seemed to reconsider. She almost wished he hadn’t.

“Damn,” he said. “You should have told me to leave while you had the chance.”

“I had to know,” she said, trying to remain calm. “I did know, really; it all follows logically. But I wouldn’t let myself see. It should have been so simple to… I couldn’t admit that he might be…” She was close to losing control. Two deep breaths and she went on semi-brightly, “It’s all very… complex.”

“Mm. It is indeed.” Something in his voice made her look up, finding a surprising gentleness in his eyes. “What you do now is, you forget about it. Everything I said, wipe it out. Probably a good rule in general, actually, but especially in this case. You can’t function if you’re thinking about time breaches and disasters about to happen; you’re more likely to make mistakes. I don’t mean just you, of course—all of us.”

She smiled slowly at him; it took all her strength. “And here I was about to say how brave you were.”

“Really? Well, shit. Look what I missed out on. You’re dead wrong, of course—I’m only still here because I’m a coward. It’s much safer.”

And Bernard? she wondered. Too brave? Too good at remembering? Carefully, deliberately, she opened the book again and folded the page corner back into place. Then she closed it firmly, rose, and went to place it back in the shelf. She turned and nodded to George.

“Any other little side effects of time jumping I should know about?” she asked, as casually as she could.

“Well… while I’m being the bearer of good news… it does shorten the lifespan. Not subjectively, of course; it’s just that some of your life gets used up in the past. Depending on how many long jumps you do. I’m really only seventeen.” She snorted. “Now, you can do better than that,” he added. “I don’t usually hand people straight lines that good. Take advantage of your opportunities.”

“I’d rather catch you by surprise, I think.”

“Oh, you’ve managed that already. A very pleasant surprise. The kind that makes dying young worthwhile.” Rising from his chair, he came over to stand beside her, and ran his fingers down the spines of the books for a moment, while she waited, tensely, for what was coming next. “You don’t like me much, do you?” he said finally. “Be honest. I’d just as soon know now if you despise me. We jump next week, and after that you can tell the boss you’d rather not work with me again. If that’s what you want.”

She had been thinking along the same lines herself—George was amusing, but she was pretty sure the two of them were not a good match professionally—yet found herself disinclined to say it now. “I don’t despise you,” she told him, feeling it inadequate.

“A ray of hope in the darkness. Thank you.” He met her eyes for a second, and she became very aware that they were alone in the office. Then he gestured toward the door. “Olivia, you can’t stay here all night. How are you getting home?”

“Transit tube.”

“You don’t drive to work?”

“I don’t have a car. Bernard and I used to belong to a share program, but… paying the fees just for me didn’t seem…”

George let her voice trail off, and then said, in less confident tones than she was used to hearing from him, “If you’d let me… if I could…” He took a breath and tried again. “Obviously I’ve spoiled what was going to be a perfectly pleasant evening listening to depressing poetry, and the least I can do is drive you home.”

“George, really, I—”

“I insist. It’s good practice, you know. Acting the gentleman.” He stepped back and swept her a deep eighteenth-century bow. “Do me the honor, madam, of accepting my services. Your carriage awaits.”

Chapter Five

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