“He’s only a doctoral student,” Doctor Reemark said. “Can’t we just, you know, leave him there?”
The air in the History Department attic glowed as Reemark ran a knife over the back of his hand, blood dribbling onto the chalk sigils, bringing their power to life.
“Of course not,” Professor Avery snapped, staring at the timer on her smartphone. “If we start leaving postgraduates scattered across the time stream then people will notice their absence. Then the physics department will find out about time travel. You’ve seen them. Can you imagine the trouble they would cause?”
Reemark nodded, counting physicists in his head.
“Fifty-seven physicists poking and prodding at causality,” he said. “That’s fifty-seven reasons not to let people travel in time.”
At last the air rippled. Reality tore open in front of Reemark and the smell of the sixteenth century drifted through – less polluted than the present, but far heavier with pig shit.
Together they stepped through the portal into an alley overhung by timber frame buildings. Reemark tried not to consider what he was standing in, instead focusing on the silver needle hanging from spider silk that was their temporal compass.
The needle twitched and they followed it. Reemark pulled the felt hat down over his brow. It was all very well dressing in period appropriate clothes, but good skin could make them stand out as strangers.
After a few minutes, the compass led them into an inn. It stank of tallow candles, cheap ale, and sweat. Two young men sat nursing clay cups at a table in the corner. Reemark was relieved to see that one of them was Sam Jones. Rushes crackled beneath his feet as they hurried over.
“Master Jones,” he said. “Might I have a word?”
“It’s alright,” Jones said, gesturing to the man next to him. “Terry here is one of us.”
“Terry Neville.” The other man held out his hand. “Northumbria University.”
“Northumbria?” Avery sat down. “Isn’t that a poly?”
“They’re all universities now, you know,” Neville said through gritted teeth.
“Well, yes, but still…” Avery’s look of disdain said it all. In her view – and Reemark’s too for that matter – only proper universities should have time travel.
“Never mind that,” Reemark said. “Come on, Jones, we’re here to fetch you back.”
“No thanks,” Jones said, setting down his cup. “I thought I’d stick around for a while. It’s quite fun exploring with a fellow traveller.”
“This isn’t a debate, Mister Jones,” Avery snapped. “You will come with us.”
The innkeeper looked around at the raised voice. Avery, embarrassed, huddled down in her cloak.
“You lot with tenure treat doctoral students like crap.” Jones sat back, arms folded. “Here you have no authority over me. I can do my research in peace. So leave me alone.”
“Very well.” Reemark pulled a straw figure from his pocket, a pre-made paralysis charm. “I didn’t want to have to do this, but-”
He pressed the figure into the wound on the back of his hand and both doctoral candidates froze, eyes wide as they stared at him.
“Good work,” Avery said. “We’ll take them both back. Words will have to be had with Northumbria.”
The air crackled behind them. The innkeeper yelped and leapt back as a woman stepped through a rent in reality. Underneath her sixteenth century cloak she wore a scarf in the colours of Northumbria University.
“What are you doing to my student?” she snapped.
“What is your student doing here?” Avery replied. “We put in our research request for this period months ago.”
“So did we, and I see no reason why-”
The inn’s inhabitants were running, screaming, into the street. Reemark heard yells of “witchcraft” and “Papists”. There was no way he could carry a frozen student through a gathering mob, so he snapped the straw doll, releasing his spell.
The students leapt to their feet. As Avery stood bickering with the Northumbrian professor, Reemark followed the younger men out the door, past a sea of confused faces. They headed toward the alley where he had first arrived, the same place where he and Avery always opened their portals.
“That’s them!” The innkeeper pointed.
“Get the witches!” someone else cried.
A mob chased them through the streets, mud flying, pitchforks waving, the light of burning brands flickering off wooden walls. Reemark had never been fit, even when he was a student. Jones and Nevill raced ahead of him, while the crowd quickly gained ground.
As he turned into the alley, he saw the two students leap through the portal and into the modern attic beyond. Jones glanced back at the mob on Reemark’s heels, then bent and started scrubbing out the chalk sigils.
“Sorry, Doctor Reemark,” he called out as the portal closed and he faded from view. “Can’t risk them getting through.”
All hope left Reemark. He had no survival skills. He barely had people skills. He was out of breath and his sides hurt.
Stumbling to a halt, he let the mob grab hold of him. He was smart, he knew the period, perhaps he could talk his way out of this.
As he was dragged toward the town square, he thought of the physics department. They would have made a terrible mess, trying to work out how the magic of time travel worked. Fifty-seven reasons not to travel in time.
As someone piled up kindling by a post in the centre of the square, dread clenched at his guts.
Now he had fifty-eight reasons.
* * *
As part of the panel I was on at Fantasy Con last weekend, the idea of academics scattered across the timestream came up. Never one to waste a moment of inspiration, I thought I’d see where that led me, and hte answer was this story.
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