1635 – The Papal Stakes — Snippet 01


1635: The Papal Stakes

Eric Flint and Charles E. Gannon


May, 1635

The line of the horizon, thin and fine


Odo, the young German operating the radio, shook his head. “I’m sorry, Ambassador Nichols, but the signal has been lost.”

Sharon Nichols, displaced ambassador to Rome for the United States of Europe, edged so far forward that her ample figure began pushing into Odo’s incongruously wiry back. “Did Colonel North confirm that he was moving to the extraction point as quickly as possible?”

Odo shook his head again. “No, Ambassador. The frequency started becoming garbled before I could send those instructions. I shall try to raise Colonel North again.”

As the young miller’s son from Rudolstadt set about this task, Sharon’s husband and de facto chief of intelligence and security, Ruy Sanchez de Casador y Ortiz, placed a hand on her arm. “My love, there is no cause for alarm.”

Sharon turned toward him, eyes bright, the smooth curves of her very dark face creased by lines of worry. “We’ve lost contact with Colonel North, who’s supposed to meet our team when it comes out of Chiavenna. A team that just happens to include my father, who told us — promised us — that he’d signal us by 1 PM today with a mission update. That update is already two hours late. So until I know that my father and my friends are with Colonel North’s forces and heading back to Grantville, every second of uncertainty is cause for alarm.” She turned back to watch Odo ply the various tricks of his arcane trade.

Ruy raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. In the last few weeks — weeks during which he and Sharon had married, fled Rome, and secreted themselves in this obscure inn near Padua — Ruy had learned that although his new wife had a fiery temperament (both in debate and in bed) she was not given to being testy. She was a large person in every regard: physiognomy, sympathy, forgiveness, and passion. There was nothing narrow about her.

So whereas her rebuff of Ruy’s reassurance might have seemed snappish to others, he knew better. He not only had intimate knowledge of Sharon, but insight accrued through three prior marriages and almost six decades of living. No, Sharon Nichols was not being testy; she was wracked by anxiety, exacerbated by the fact that she herself had agreed to send her father and friends into harm’s way.

Odo was shaking his head again. “Still no response, Dr. Nichols. And the noise around that frequency is not promising.”

“Did Colonel North say where he and his Hibernians were located?”

“They weren’t able to report their position, Ambassador. We spent most of our clear air-time trying to establish a mutually secure code.”

“What? Why?” Odo seemed to shrivel before Sharon’s growing tone and looming torso.

Ruy intervened. “Dearest, the code-checking protocols require absolute precision. If there are any missed symbols, the authentication must be deemed suspect. So with a bad signal it can take many minutes to confirm a secure transmission.”

Sharon collected herself. “Odo, when was the last time we had a precise location for Colonel North’s unit?”

“Two days ago, Ambassador Nichols. He and his men had just arrived in Silvaplana, having come down out of the Alps by way of the Julier Pass.”

“Then, if they’ve been making steady westward progress, they should be near the extraction zone now. Correct?”

Ruy saved the young radioman from his wife’s desperate glare one more time. “Near to the extraction point, perhaps. But we cannot know. They could not head toward it at best speed, my love. What if the extraction was not called for until next week? Why would two squads of mercenaries — who are known to work exclusively for you Americans — spend a week loitering about the western end of the Val Bregaglia? I doubt even so ingenuous a Spaniard as myself would believe them to simply be on an extended alpine fishing holiday.”

At which Sharon had to smile. But only a little. “Odo. Try again and see if you can raise my Da — raise Captain Simpson’s group in Chiavenna.”

Ruy prayed that someone — anyone — in Chiavenna would respond this time. If they did, it would probably indicate that they had completed their mission in that factious open city and were ready to call for extraction.

But Odo was still struggling with the designated frequencies, all of which sounded like monsoons of static: the legendary vagaries of radio communication to and from Alpine valleys were dominating the day. “No response on any of the primary frequencies, Ambassador. Shifting to check the emergency backup frequencies”

Ruy, seeing his wife’s breathing increase, murmured words only she could hear: “My love, you must be calm: your staff all looks to you. If you panic, they shall surely do so, also.”

She closed her eyes. “I know, Ruy. But it’s my Dad out there, and Rita, and Tom: all the up-time family and friends I have left in this — in your — world. I should never have had them stop in Chiavenna. Never.”

Ruy ran what he hoped was a soothing palm down her firm arm until he could hold her hand — low, where no one might see. Feeling his fingers, she clutched hard, almost as a frightened child might have. And in that hungry grasp — so incongruous in his strong wife — Ruy found the answer to an aspect of up-time behavior that had perplexed him for many months.

Despite the advantages in technology and knowledge enjoyed by the up-timers — the twentieth-century Americans who had become time-stranded refugees in seventeenth-century Germany — they often seemed paralyzed into inaction by fear of loss. It was not cowardice, for even the most stalwart up-timers evinced this tendency. So Ruy had been unable to conjecture a common cause for this up-time trait until, just three days ago, during a radio communiqué with his wife, Prime Minister Mike Stearns of the USE had used the phrase “risk aversive.” Ruy had understood the term’s meaning, but only now — triggered by the clutch of his wife’s hand — did its underlying emotional contexts become clear.

In the up-timers’ world — that of the rather improbable year 2000 AD which had been home to the even more improbable democratic republic of the United States of America — almost all risk had been reduced dramatically. War, shipping, mining — even flying huge rockets to the Moon — had to satisfy safety requirements that were almost comical by Ruy’s standards. For people born in his time, great undertakings inevitably involved great risk. The seas routinely swallowed sailors, the mountains buried miners, and pestilences and famine took their toll upon all the children of the earth, no matter their location or station in life. Life was a gamble, at best.

But not in the twentieth century, evidently. When a child or a mother died during birth, it was deemed an uncommon tragedy. In Ruy’s world, the same event was simply a reminder that the attempt to create life often ended in death.

The up-time elimination of risk had even extended to war itself. The Americans’ medical knowledge and practices made many mortal wounds survivable: Ruy himself was alive only because of these up-time skills. A lethal belly wound from a sword — he had been horribly outnumbered by those assassins, after all! — had turned out to be simply a morning’s challenging surgery for the second, or maybe only third, ranking physician among the three-thousand-plus up-timers .

Ruy looked over at the third-rate surgeon who had performed the medical miracle to which he owed his continued existence and smiled: Sharon Nichols was a medical prodigy in this world. The surgery which had saved Ruy had been performed before the cream of Venice’s medical community, ensuring her immediate stardom as a Dottoressa of international renown. But in the world she had come from, she had held a relatively lowly post, furnished with a suitably humble label: she had been an Emergency Medical Technician. But, being the daughter of the greatest doctor now alive — her ex-street thug, ex-Marine Corps father, James — had no doubt given her advantages and experience beyond those normally possessed by other EMTs. Or so Ruy presumed.

However, regardless of their skills, the up-time physicians routinely cursed themselves upon losing a patient, as if they expected the power of the Creator Himself to be manifest every time they treated a patient. And this, Ruy realized as his wife continued to squeeze his hand tightly, was the key to the up-timers’ “risk-aversion”: they had become utterly unaccustomed to taking the chances that were unavoidable in this “down-time” world. Most of the threats they faced now had been eliminated by the sciences of their future world, so they had to continually remind themselves that they were dwelling in a much more dangerous time — and that adjustment did not come easily to most of them.

As an attitude, it shared common psychological roots with the frustration he had observed among many of the more accomplished up-timers. Although they did not intend to demean down-timers or the technical limitations of the world of 1635, one could often hear Americans mutter deprecations upon its crude tools, interspersed with bitter longing for the devices of the future. Except, of course, that the future they remembered would never come to pass, now. In their world, no American town had ever arrived in the midst of the Thirty Years War, radically changing its outcome, and the history and technology of Europe along with it. So whatever the coming days held, they would not lead to the future the Americans had come from: their own arrival had undone the possibility that the world they called home would ever exist.

From out of the radio’s washes of static emerged a single, clear click. Ruy felt his wife’s hand flex quickly — and then grow still, tense, as two more, longer clicks sounded, followed by a rapid patter of them as the interference diminished to a sound more akin to bacon frying in a distant room.

“Is that them — the group in Chiavenna?”

Odo smiled. “Yes, it’s my friend Matthias.”

Ruy smiled too, half out of his own gladness, half simply to see his wife’s radiant joy and relief. “What is Matthias sending, Odo?” he asked.

“That they are still in Chiavenna. The rest of the group is on their way to the rendezvous point with the cardinal.”

Ruy raised an eyebrow. “Well, our courier apparently caught up with the cardinal while he was still traveling along the Spanish Road in the Valtelline. Meaning that the Holy Father’s information was accurate.”

“Accurate enough to save the cardinal’s life,” appended Sharon. “And he might be the only cardinal loyal to the pope who’ll be saved, at this rate. Unless, maybe, some of the other cardinals which Borja has ‘disappeared’ might still be alive somewhere, waiting for –”

Ruy shook his head. “Kings, like criminals, cover their misdeeds with great finality, my beauteous wife. And Borja is both a king of the church and a criminal of the basest kind. He will not leave any evidence if he can help it.”

The room was still. The threat to the lives of the incognito refugees who were with them here outside Padua — Pope Urban VIII, his nephew Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and Father Vitelleschi, the Father-General of the Jesuit Order — seemed suddenly very close. Glancing at the countryside outside the room’s small window, Ruy found it distressingly easy to imagine it filled with shadowy assassins and informers. The sooner they could get His Holiness on one of the up-timers’ wondrous airplanes, the better.

Odo leaned forward as the snarling static returned. “Matthias indicates they have not been detected by the Spanish or Milanese on their journey north, and that they will depart as soon as –” He stopped, moving his head quickly from side to side.

“As soon as what?” Sharon tried to sound calm; Ruy was sad to admit that his beloved was failing miserably.

“I could not make it out; I’m only receiving fragments now. And given the trapdoor codes built into this cipher, I cannot be sure if the letters I think I’m hearing are still accurate. I might have missed a trapdoor character.”

“Which changes the code, right?”

“Yes, Ambassador Nichols. But, from the rest of the message, I would say that Captain Simpson’s group plans to leave Chiavenna immediately after meeting the cardinal.”

Ruy’s and Sharon’s eyes drifted to the window; the sunlight was no longer yellow, but late-day amber. “That had better be one quick meeting,” observed Sharon.

“Do not worry, my love. I’m sure all will go well.”

She half turned, looking at him over her thickly graceful shoulder. “Oh? Really? And why would you say that, Ruy?”

Ruy shrugged. “To ease your mind, love.”

She touched his arm lightly, then turned back to encourage Odo to check other frequencies.

As Ruy studied his wife’s wide, watchful eyes in their fixation upon the radio, he silently conceded that Sharon was, of course, entirely correct: his assurance that “all will go well” was merely hopeful nonsense. The simple truth of the matter was that he hoped all would go well.

But of course, it rarely did.