Chapter One

None of the five Americans spoke much as the university van took them from Flughafen Wien-Schwechat—Vienna International Airport, just southeast of the city—to the Institute of Science and Technology campus on the western outskirts of Klosterneuburg. Which was upstream of Vienna on the same south-running stretch of the Danube as the Austrian capital.

“All motorway now go out, go out only of Vienna, too much auto. Must to go through city,” the driver warned them.

Even the chaotic traffic, the lurches and tight swearing—in Ukrainian—from the driver and once the bang-crash-tinkle of a collision right next to them didn’t spark any interest, despite being normally an unthinkable anomaly in this order-conscious country.

When the world was going to Hell…

All Hell breaks loose. In the eleven hours it takes to fly from Boston to Vienna, Arthur Vandenburg thought grimly. And maybe not just metaphorically, if things keep getting worse. Worse faster and faster.

He was the only one of them who saw much of the city’s Baroque splendors as they passed through, and then climbed over low forested hills, the famous Vienna Woods, and descended via back-roads through glades and fields.

Arthur Vandenberg, graduate of West Point, formerly and very briefly Captain in the US Army (1st Battalion, 75th Rangers) and newly-minted Doctor of Philosophy in Ancient History from Harvard, had put his phone away with a monumental effort of will after his wife’s last message—we’re praying for you—and his reply.

He was doing his best to be in the moment.

There’s nothing I can do about the world right now. Or even Mary and the kids. Exclude the irrelevant, get on with what’s on your plate.

It was a practiced mental trick he’d acquired in situations where ability to focus totally was literally a life-or-death matter.

The team of four graduate students he’d put together for this—of oddly varied specialties, as requested—were still glued to their phones or tablets, earbuds in tight and eyes locked to the screens as their fingers flipped between apps, as if a new one would yield better news. They were all years younger than his early thirties, and though he didn’t know them very well yet, he thought they’d all had rather sheltered lives as far as physical danger was concerned.

It was a mild bright day with a few lacy clouds in a pale blue sky… June in southern central Europe… but he could smell the all-too-familiar acidic rankness of fear in their sweat as they took in the babble that was the news-feeds right now. It wasn’t just mutual hysteria building on itself, either, though there was plenty of that. The airport, and international air travel in general by report, had locked down tight right after their wheels touched down on the runway. Every flight in Europe, and apparently the world, was being diverted to the nearest strip… and wouldn’t that cause some lovely chaos.

The scariest thing was that they hadn’t interned the passengers. Or done anything else with them, except tell them to get lost—or manage their own affairs.

A flight of F-35’s had gone by fairly low right after that, and they’d watched from the parking lot as they screamed past. Probably headed for a base in Slovakia and to hell with violating technically neutral Austria’s airspace. Things had gone downhill from there. Official silence echoed loudly about the renewed naval clashes in the western Pacific, and ugly, ugly rumors abounded.

And I am so glad Mary took the kids to visit her folks before I left, he thought grimly. Boston isn’t where I’d want to leave them right now. I just wish her family lived in the Falklands or Fiji, instead of Amarillo!

That was a remote medium-sized city in the Texas panhandle, the closest real town to their nearby birthplaces. But it also had a nuclear-weapons assembly plant and another that made tiltrotors for the military.

When they arrived the campus of the Institute proved to be mostly a modernist anomaly embedded just west of Klosterneuburg’s panoply of the ages on the Danube’s bank. It had opened in 2009, after all, though the trees and gardens were pretty. A nervous-looking academic with a white goatee and a lab coat over a suit was there to meet them, and the van drove off immediately to take their luggage to the Guest House.

If the driver doesn’t just take off for the Alps the way every third person in Vienna apparently has, Vandenberg thought sardonically.

Doctor rerum naturalium Hans Fuchs didn’t look in the least foxy. More like a terrified rabbit, in late middle age and skinny, with his tie loose and runnels of sweat running down his face and his eyes darting around or freezing on nothingness. His clothes looked as if he’d slept in them last night, and there was the slightest whiff of stale underwear.

“Dr. Vandenberg? Would you and your associates please come this way to Lab Eight? I am afraid there is no time to waste,” he said—in accented but fluent English, which everyone at a place like this spoke these days. “All will—”

He pronounced it vill, and Vandenberg’s lips quirked as he involuntarily remembered watching Colonel Klink in ancient Hogan’s Heroes episodes… ancient even then, on VHS… with his grandparents on their ranch in the Caprock country of the Texas Panhandle as a child, back in the early years of the century.

“—be explained. Follow me.”

Arthur Vandenberg’s eyebrows climbed as the man turned and hurried away; the Americans glanced at each other and followed at a brisk walk. This was all about as far from normal Austrian-German academic etiquette as it was possible to get and not suspect the man was on drugs or had just had a psychotic break.

They went into a large, anonymous building with white stone cladding on the outside and institutional-bland decor on the interior, almost painfully new. People pushed past them, apparently headed out; many of the offices were empty and littered with the paper detritus of rapid departure. One half-open door showed a man slumped unconscious over his desk with his face in a puddle of vomit and a bulbous flask-shaped bottle labelled Marillenschnaps lying nearby, empty.

By contrast the big open lab they came to had people in plenty, with purposeful movement under the harsh light of overhead floods. Many focused on readout screens, and equipment ranged from standard laptops on tables to hulking and mysterious somethings amid snaking cables roughly taped to the concrete floor with metal protective runners over them. Other lines vanished into the steel vaulting above, crossing in front of the big row of windows just below the roof.

Whatever the machines were, they were eating a lot of power and not just by plugging into the wall socket—the slight ozone smell was fully familiar from deployments where field generators were the only electricity you got. The improvised look of parts of the ensemble was familiar too, however alien and high-tech the details; the unmistakable look of things put together on the whatever works, get it done in zip time, to hell with the paperwork principle.

It was an air you expected in a field encampment in an active zone, but distinctly odd in an Austrian research lab.

In the middle of the great room was a clear circle of space yards across, with stacked boxes and bales and bundles inside the taped perimeter, all resting on a big circle of gridwork. The Austrian led them over to it, and Vandenberg’s eyebrows did another rise as they got closer. It was the sort of gear you’d expect at an unusually period-conscious historical reenactment LARP meeting—

Don’t say period Nazi around here. Deeply untactful. You’re a prof now; gotta learn tact.

—which was an occasional guilty pleasure of his he had to hide to keep respect among the notably snooty Harvard faculty. It was bad enough in their eyes that he and his family attended a Baptist church.

The irony there being I haven’t been sincere about it for years. But ten thousand times better the faculty look down their noses in the common room than my causing Mary hurt.

The crates were wood fastened with crude nails, the parcels wrapped in tanned leather or coarse canvas with hemp or leather binding-ropes…

And an honest-to-God gladius on top of one of the wooden boxes, with sheath and red-dyed leather balteus, the Roman military belt. In a second-century style with over-the-shoulder baldric to hold the sword and openwork silvered-bronze plaques on the part around the waist. He walked over to check, trailing grad students like ducklings.

Drawn a few inches, it revealed that it was even a specifically Pompeiian type of shortsword with the sides of the twenty-inch blade parallel before the point. That was the final form that had come in with the Principate, and continued through to the third-century collapse.

Before he could organize a question, Fuchs handed him something he recognized just as easily: a dolabra, the Roman soldier’s classic entrenching tool. One side was an axehead, the other a narrow mattock, and this one was mounted on a three-foot shaft of wood he recognized as from an ash-tree.

It was a fine reconstruction; the surface of the metal part even had a pebbled finish, and the marks and filed-out nicks of hard use. Then he looked more closely; the material was wrought iron, not steel.

And his eye recognized the slightly porous texture that came from iron made in a bloomery. A Catalan forge or the like, producing a glowing ball that was hand-hammered over and over to get the slag out, the small-batch, labor-intensive method the Classical world had used to make iron. That was authenticity taken to absurd lengths. Who went to that much trouble with a reconstruction? And the shaft had a worn look he knew from a rural childhood. It was a hard-used tool kept strictly for function, where you didn’t waste time on pretty.

The quick surface coating of rust was also far too authentic, and when he raised it to his nose and sniffed he smelled rancid vegetable oil of some sort, layers rubbed in over years and left.

“No, Herr Doktor, it is not a duplicate,” Fuchs said as he saw Vandenberg’s face change. “It is real. This you see around us is not apparatus for dating historical artifacts dug up by you historians and archaeologists—I implied that because you would not have believed what it really is, not without seeing it for yourself.”

He’d said they’d developed a method for giving an immediate, non-intrusive and really reliable absolute calendar date for any artifact, which would have been an archaeological Holy Grail and very, very important for historians too.

“My apologies for the necessary deception.”

Vandenberg felt a surge of anger replacing bafflement; he’d been lied away from his family, and it had been done now of all times!

The Austrian waved around them. “This… it is an apparatus for temporal displacement. A radical breakthrough. The first small-scale experimental confirmation a year ago… you are holding it… very rapid progress since.”

Time travel? Vandenberg thought, his fury growing as he dropped the dolabra on a bundle. Where’s the big lever and the upright circle of fake CGI mercury rippling?

He very nearly turned around and walked out then. What stopped him before the weight came off his foot was a quick glance around the chamber; there were several score million euros or more on display, possibly much more. And the Institute in general and Fuchs in particular had excellent reputations: he’d checked when Fuchs contacted him months ago, talking with people he knew in the science departments back at Harvard.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t a total crank playing make-believe in his mother’s basement. Serious R&D money was involved; so was the Institute’s reputation.

And I can’t get home anyway, not right now. Air travel’s locked down.

Just then his opinion of the Austrian physicist became moot, because his graduate student Filipa Chang screamed.

It was an ear-piercing shriek, and she was clutching her phone in both hands and sobbing and looking as if she was about to puke, too:

“Seoul! Seoul was bombed, nuclear!”

Her parents had been born there, and he knew she had family ties that she kept up.

The other graduate students—Mark Findlemann, Paula Atkins, Jeremey McCladden—brought up the phones or tablets they’d let fall to their sides while the senior academics spoke. They began babbling in chorus, and he had to focus totally to pick out the separate threads:

“—there’s a flash from over Seattle—city communications cut out all of a sudden—”

“Tokyo’s gone—”

“Russian troops crossing the Lithuanian border from Kaliningrad—

“Tactical nuke at—”

“London! London’s been bombed, multiple hits!”

“New York—shit, my family’s there! Shit, shit—”

“Hundreds of launches incoming to North America. From China, and what’s left of Russia too!”

“We’re launching back—subs—”

Somewhere in the background a siren began to wail.

Professor Fuchs reacted instantly, as if he’d been thinking of just this; he turned and ran for one of the computer stations and started hammering two-fingered on the keyboard. One brief set of entries, and he was up and running back towards the Americans.

There was a bright flash through the high windows. Then a sudden high-pitched whine from the electronics all around them, earsplittingly loud, and after a split second beneath it came a bass rumble.

Arthur Vandenberg had never heard those sounds before, not in person. There hadn’t been any above-ground nuclear tests in his lifetime, though his father’s grandfather had been in a slit trench a mile and a half from one in 1957 in Nevada. He’d heard the recordings in classes at West Point, though, and recognized it instantly. The hairs tried to stand up along his spine.

This wasn’t a scratchy analogue-to-digital recording. He could feel the shudder beneath his feet. A high-yield fusion bomb had detonated within—at most—ten miles from where he stood. Several hundred kilotons at least, a city-smasher.


Everything seemed to freeze for an instant, and the light dimmed.

Then it was back to normal and Fuchs was dashing for them, face twisted in panic as pieces of equipment began to short out spectacularly in the background amid showers of sparks and:


And Fuchs was launching himself through the air in a dive like someone going for first base, head-first with arms outstretched. Other people all through the big lab were starting to run towards them, or just sat there screaming. And the screams went up and down the scale, from normal-shrill to dull sonorous tones that stretched out like molasses in January.


Fuchs stopped in mid-air; then lurched forward; then he hung again impossibly suspended.

Light swelled through the broad high windows. Everything turned a washed-out faded color.


Faster and faster, strobing, and now Fuchs’ leap was in jerky slow-motion and there was a vast bass rumbling like the sound of a world breaking. The big windows began to bulge inward, fractures in the tough glass spreading as Vandenberg watched.

He knew with some remote part of him that he was about to die, and the faces of his son and daughter and Mary were there. He hadn’t really believed in Heaven for some time, but now he wished he still did.

FlickerFlickerFlickerFlickerFlickerFlicker. FlickerFlicker.

His own mind telling his body to hit the dirt, close his eyes, put his arms across his face, but the response of body to thought was absurdly slow, as if he was encased in amber honey. Heat beat against his face. A taste grew in his mouth, acrid and metallic and burnt all at once.




Copyright © 2023-2024 by S.M. Stirling