Chapter One

By early morning they had passed beyond the siege lines and lay hidden in a copse of woods four miles from the Magdeburg gates.

“We will travel only at night for the first few days,” Henri said, “and hide during the day. Best not to tempt fate.”

That afternoon, after sleeping most of the morning, they watched the huge pillar of smoke boil up into the sky from the direction of Magdeburg. Henri, her father's friend, and an almost uncle, turned grim. “It is much worse than even I suspected it would be. They should not have set fire to the town. Magdeburg alive could sustain them. Magdeburg destroyed will force them to forage into the countryside. We will have to move as soon as we can tonight.”

As Colette Dubois watched the black smoke rise into the sky she imagined she could hear the screams of the women and children on the breeze. She shuddered. Raped and murdered. Thousands of them. And now Tilly's wolves would be scouring the outlying districts for more plunder and victims.

They rode for days, constantly on guard and careful to avoid concentrations of other travelers who might attract the attention of soldiers. Finally they stopped at an abandoned house on the outskirts of a village so that Henri could get more supplies. Colette and Colas, her brother, hid in the woods near the house and waited, tying their horses far enough back so they would not whinny in greeting to any horses passing along the road.

In the late afternoon they heard hoof beats on the road. Colette quickly grabbed Colas before he could jump up and expose himself. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “Wait and see if it is Henri first.”

Crouching back down, Colette and Colas watched as half a dozen soldiers kicked in the door of the house and began to ransack it.

So stupid, thought Colette. There was nothing of value left in the house. But the soldiers seemed to delight in smashing what little furniture there was. Two of the men began a more systematic search of the outside yard and were beginning to work their way steadily in Colette's direction. If they came too close . . . Colette shivered. She knew what her fate would be. Death, if she was lucky. And Colas wasn't strong enough to survive even a week in a soldier's camp, given his recent sickness.

It was the light that saved them.

The soldiers were twenty yards away when the sun spawned on the earth. A titanic wave of sound rolled across the house. Terrified, the soldiers quickly mounted their horses and galloped off.

Colette watched them go. She breathed a sigh of relief. Then felt Colas' tug at her sleeve.

He pointed. “Where did the hill go?”

Colette shivered again. A sign from God. But what did it mean?

It was an hour later when they once again heard hoof beats on the road. This time it was Henri. He had no supplies and he seemed to be favoring his left shoulder.

Colette saw the blood on his jacket. “You've been shot!”

Henri dabbed at the wound. “It's nothing. No bones broken, not much blood. A band of cutthroats. We'll have to ride on for supplies.” Henri gestured toward the house. “What happened here?”

Colette shook her head. “I don't know. There were soldiers, half a dozen of them. They would have found us but for the light. It was like the sun was rising from the earth. The sound nearly deafened us.”

They spent the night several hundred yards deeper in the woods.

****

“Josh! Your move, boy.”

Josh sighed. Normally it took his grandfather at least 15 minutes to make a move in the middle game. He'd thought there would be plenty of time to use the phone in the kitchen for a quick call to his sister-in-law.

“What was that?” Michelle asked.

“Gramps. We're playing chess. It's Sunday after all,” Josh said.

Josh's grandfather always hosted the weekly parish chess club. Josh had been involuntarily inducted when they heard about his U.S. Chess Federation master rank. This Sunday, of course, the group was limited to the real chess fanatics who were willing to incur Vince Masaniello's wrath by skipping out early on his fortieth wedding anniversary party.

Josh could feel his sister-in-law smile. “You going to let him win this time?”

“Not likely.” Josh chuckled. “He knows I'm still a master. If I let him win I'd never hear the end of it. But at least I can make it seem like a struggle.”

“Tell that French witch you're busy, boy. I just made the move of the century! No way you're getting out of this one!”

“Oh great,” Josh said. “Now you're the French witch.”

Michelle laughed. “Tell Joe he's a surly old curmudgeon.”

“Michelle says you're a surly old curmudgeon, Gramps.”

Joe snorted. “She's got that right.”

“Hey, Lou,” Josh said, “is Gramp's move that great? Maybe I should stay in the kitchen.”

He heard the pause in the speed chess game and knew that Lou Giamarino was looking over the board.

“Yeah. You're in trouble all right,” Lou said dryly. “Looks like he bought your sacrifice. Probably mate in five for you.”

Josh laughed and listened for a minute as the three old friends began arguing over Joe's last move.

That should keep them busy, he thought. “Did you get all of the books sent, Michelle?” The company Josh worked for had received the contract from the West Virginia Department of Transportation to investigate the old Baltimore & Ohio railroad route for the “rails to trails” program. Josh had pushed hard to get the job, knowing that he could save a lot of his per diem by staying with his grandfather in Grantville.

But, as a quid pro quo, Josh's boss had demanded that he prepare a paper for a symposium, any symposium, involved with industrial archaeology. Josh had discovered that the twenty-sixth International symposium of the International Committee for the History of Technology was looking for an American to present a report. Since he worked mainly in Pittsburgh, Josh decided that the early history of steel would be just about perfect.

Initially, Josh had made good progress on the paper for the symposium, gaining access to a variety of records from Pittsburgh steel companies. He had also done extensive spelunking on the internet, vacuuming all kinds of files onto his laptop's hard drive. Early on, he discovered "The Sheffield Connection" in the Pittsburgh crucible steel industry, but the only decent sources available for deep background were dusty nineteenth-century books not found in the United States. Taking advantage of his sister-in-law's upcoming trip to London and Paris, he asked her to air express some of the books he had selected.

"Yes, they've all been sent," Michelle said. "Didn't you get them yet?"

“No, just one package with the two history books. The rest are probably lost in some DHL warehouse in New York. If they aren't here by Wednesday I'll run their tracking numbers down. The B & O survey should be wrapped up soon and then I can really get working on the paper for the symposium.” Josh heard some noise from the other end of the line. Daniel's voice.

“Oops.” Michelle laughed. “Someone wants to say hi.”

“Josh!”

“Daniel! How's my favorite nephew doing?”

Josh smiled when he heard Michelle say, “Speak French, Daniel.”

“Josh, grandpere m'a amené voir Notre Dame."

“C'était amusant?”

“Josh, c'est une cathédrale,” scolded Daniel. “Plutôt ennuyeux. Mais les gargouilles, ça, ça me plait.”

Josh grinned. “Alors, peut-être la Tour Eiffel te plairait plus. Laisse-moi parler à ta maman maintenant.”

“Okay, Josh. See you.”

“Later, Daniel.”

Michelle came back on the line.

“Got to go, Michelle,” Josh said. “I'll call again when I get back to Pittsburgh. Je t'aime.”

“Je t'aime au . . . "

The phone went dead at the same time a brilliant white light lit the sky and a distant sound of thunder seemed to echo across the hills. For a second Josh stood there, stunned. What the hell?

“What the hell was that?” his grandfather yelled from the living room.

“I don't know, Gramps. But both the power and the phone are dead.”

Lou and Bart came into the kitchen, both with vaguely worried expressions on their faces. “The phones went out at the same time as the power?"

Josh nodded.

Bart shook his head. "Odd. The phone system is supposed to have its own power supply. Think I'll go take a look around town to see who's in the same boat. Want to come along, Lou?”

“I'm with ya.” Lou turned towards the living room. “We're taking off, Joe. We'll call when the phones start up again.”

“Party poopers,” Joe grumbled.

Lou grinned. “Take care of the old man, Josh. He's getting a mite touchy in his dotage.”

“You ain't no spring chicken yourself, Louis Giamarino!”

Lou laughed and waved to Josh as he and Bart went out the back door. “Later, Josh.”

Joe yelled from the living room. “Damn. Josh, come finish the game and we'll wait it out, whatever it is. But open the curtains so we have some more light.”

"Come on, Gramps. Let's go find out what's going on. Maybe it's something serious."

Joe snorted. "Forget it, boy. Can't be anything that bad. Besides, I still think I've got you cornered here, no matter what Lou says."

Josh sighed and glanced out the kitchen window. Odd, the sun seemed to be in a different direction than he remembered it being. Josh shrugged and walked back into the living room.

****

For Colette, Henri and Colas, the strangeness started again when they came across the road. Colette had been lost in thought and did not realize they were on a road until she noticed the change in the sound of the horse's hooves.

“Stop!”

Colas and Henri reined in their horses and watched as Colette slid off her horse and squatted to stare at the black-topped road.

“What is it, Colette? What's wrong?”

“Think, Colas. Where did this road come from? Look at it!”

Colas nodded. “It is very nice. Nice and wide. And very smooth.”

Colette got to her feet and looked to the south. The road disappeared around a curve half a mile away. Colette took out her dagger and dug a bit of the black stuff out of the road. She rolled some of it on her fingers. Sticky. She sniffed her sample, then tasted it with her tongue. Tar. It was tar of some kind.

Colette stared at the road. "Henri? Don't you see it?" She paced the width and looked at the edge. She rolled some of the gravel and tar in her hand again.

"It's about twenty feet wide, and perhaps a little more than a half foot thick." Her eyes closed for a moment, her mind occupied with calculations. When Colette got her answer she shook her head.

No, that's impossible. She looked at the road again, stamped on it with her foot.

Definitely real, she thought wryly. Not impossible.

By now Henri and Colas were staring at her.

Henri cocked his head in puzzlement. "See what? It is just a road. A very good road, true, but still . . . "

"Henri, this road uses more tar for every mile than the annual production from Finland! How rich are these people?"

Henri opened his mouth, then shut it. He understood now what Simon Dubois had meant when he said he was sometimes afraid of his daughter. She thought . . . differently.

Colette looked again to the south and noticed that the road did not follow the exact curve of the hill but cut through a portion of it. It was like a chess problem. Colette was fully focused, gnawing at it like a hungry dog gnaws at a soup bone.

Colette studied the road more carefully. How was it made? Too smooth for slaves or other human labor. Too perfect.

“Machines of some kind," she muttered to herself, "definitely machines. Wherever this road goes we will find machines.”

Henri stared at Colette again and then shook his head. “Should we stay on the road?”

Colette nodded. “Yes. But on the side, I think. This road is used for more than just carts and wagons.”

They followed the road for another mile, passing several houses before Colette's words came true. They could see a river and another road that intersected the one they were on. They were several dozen yards from the intersection when a square metal box on wheels came from the right and moved rapidly through the intersection. The horses spooked slightly at the noise of its passing.

Colas' eyes were as round as saucers. “Was that a machine?”

Colette nodded. True, she had expected something, but the reality of it was certainly different than she had imagined. Especially the speed.

“Did you notice the man inside, Henri? I think he was guiding it, like a farmer guides his wagon with reins.”

Henri nodded. “What do we do now? Follow it? It's at least heading in the direction of Saalfeld.”

“Yes,” Colette said. “But carefully. You saw how fast that machine moved.”

After another mile they found themselves looking at a large rectangular building. They watched from the edge of the woods for almost an hour. Many of the people moving in and out seemed to be young, under the age of twenty. But all appeared to be well-fed and in excellent health. Some left or arrived on two-wheeled vehicles that they steered with their hands. Others got into the metal machines which moved off with loud noises. The machines came in a variety of styles and colors but Colette noted certain commonalities. Every one had four black wheels with a metal looking center. And when they started and moved every one seemed to emit smoke to a greater or lesser degree.

Occasionally words were shouted loud enough for them to hear clearly. Colette realized that all of the people she saw seemed to be speaking English.

“English?” Henri said, when Colette told him. “What is a colony of Englishmen doing in the middle of Thuringia?”

Henri winced when he moved his shoulder. The bullet was still in there. Colette knew they would have to get to a surgeon soon. It needed to be removed. With all of these machines the Englishmen seemed to be master mechanics. Perhaps they had good surgeons as well.

Colette smiled. “Let's go find out. But pretend to know no English. We may find out more if they think we don't understand their language.”

“That will not be difficult,” grumbled Henri. “I don't know any English. And how is it that you do?”

“Papa hired an English Jesuit, Father Line, to teach me mathematics. I asked him to teach me English as well so I could talk to the merchants who sometimes come to Liege. After learning Latin, Dutch, and German, it wasn't too difficult.”

Colas hesitated a moment. “Are you sure, Colette? Maybe these Englishmen are Tilly's soldiers.”

“Colas, have you seen any weapons? Any weapons at all?”

Colas shook his head.

“Soldiers would have weapons. These people act as if they are safe,” Colette said. “If Tilly's or Hoffman's soldiers were anywhere about, these people would be armed and barricaded or acting with fear. And if they do not know of Tilly's soldiers, then we can obtain their gratitude by warning them.”

Colette got to her feet and motioned to Colas and Henri. “Let's go. Henri, keep your sword sheathed. When we get close, start waving.”

As they approached the building several of the young people stopped to watch them. When Colette waved at them, they waved back. She heard bits and pieces of their conversation as she got closer.

“ . . . Jeez he's big . . . Be great power forward with those shoulders . . . She's pretty . . . looks like one heck of a sword . . . ” What was “power forward," Colette wondered.

They seemed friendly enough. Colette considered a moment. "Excusez-moi, savez-vous s'il y a un chirurgien par ici?"

An older boy turned and motioned for a younger blonde-haired boy with glasses to step forward. “Sounds like French to me. Mark, you better handle it.”

“My name is Mark.” The boy's French was hesitant. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “But I do not speak French well. Would you like to speak with my teacher, Madame Hawkins?”

“Yes, please,” replied Colette.

Mark led them inside the building and motioned for them to wait. In less than five minutes Nicole Hawkins arrived. Colette quickly explained their story to Nicole and asked for a surgeon, pointing to the dried blood on Henri's shoulder.

“We have a makeshift hospital right here. Other refugees have been injured, some seriously. Please come with me. Dr. Nichols will take a look at that for you.”

The surgeon was an older man, a Moor, who acted in a very competent manner. Once Henri had his jacket and shirt off, Nichols probed and pushed at the wound, watching Henri's face as he did so. He had Nicole translate for him and Colette tried to follow his English.

“The bullet is in there and it has to come out. You already have signs of infection and we will have to clean out the wound channel.” Nichols cocked his head at Henri. “How old are you?”

“Forty-nine.” Nicole Hawkins translated.

Nichols nodded. “We'll want to keep you under observation for a couple of days to make sure no infection is starting after we operate.”

“His immune system isn't as good as a younger person's,” Colette heard Nichols mutter. “Better safe than sorry.” What was an "immune system"?

Nichols looked at Nicole. “Where are they staying?”

Nicole shrugged. “No idea. Let me ask them what they want to do.”

When Nicole addressed the question to Colette, Colette thought for a moment. “Is there a Catholic Church here? Perhaps the priest has room for us.”

Nicole nodded. “Excellent idea. Yes, the churches are opening their doors to refugees. And if you're Catholic, you'll be more comfortable there. I'll drive you myself.”

The next few days went by like a dream. Colette went on numerous walks around Grantville. She and Colas visited Henri after his surgery. He was grumpy about staying at the hospital. Dr. Nichols told her, through Nicole Hawkins, that it was necessary to be sure the wound did not become infected, especially seeing as their supply of antibiotics was limited. What were “antibiotics”? Anti-living? It does not make sense. But Nichols had assured her that Henri would be released by Thursday evening.

****

It was only after the town meeting on Wednesday that the emotional impact of the event everyone was beginning to call the "Ring of Fire" began to hit home for Joshua Modi. Josh was driving Joe back to the house. Both were lost in their own thoughts.

I'll never see my family again, Josh thought. The tears started to come but he forced them back. Got to be calm, for Gramps' sake.

The discussion he'd had with Doc Adams had made it clear that there was little that could be done for Joe's diabetes. His only living relative in this universe, his only family inside the Ring of Fire, was going to die. And there was nothing—absolutely nothing—he could do about it.

As they pulled into the driveway of Joe's house on Turnbull Street, Josh cleared his throat. “Gramps? How much insulin do you have?”

“About a four month supply,” Joe said calmly. “But I'm giving half of it to David Miklos, the butcher.”

“What? Gramps, you can't do that, damn it!”

“I can and I will, Josh. David and I use the same type of insulin but he was just getting ready to order some more when this damn Ring of Fire hit. He has less than a three week supply. And he has a family, Josh.”

Joe patted Josh's hand. “I've lived a long, happy life Josh, and I'm seventy-five years old. David is under thirty. He deserves a few extra months with his family. Now come inside. I've got some things to show you.”

Josh wanted to argue with his grandfather but he knew it would be useless. And Josh understood how precious the extra time might be for David's family.

****

Joe led Josh through the house and down into the basement. The basement was crammed with all kinds of things: a set of barbells, a workout bench, canning jars, three or four toolboxes. Josh spotted two boxes labeled "Josh."

“Are those my old college books?”

Joe grinned. “Yup. Maybe you can find something useful in them for this predicament we find ourselves in.”

Josh snorted. Predicament. Typical for Gramps to understate the situation. Grantville was in the middle of one of the worst wars in human history, surrounded by potential enemies, and for his grandfather it was a "predicament."

Joe stopped to heave an old trunk out of his way. Then he inserted a key into a lock on a brown metal container about eight feet long and three feet wide. When Joe threw back the lid Josh could do nothing but goggle.

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- The Grantville Gazette Staff