I'm going to start snippeting from the short novl I wrote for RING OF FIRE II, the next 1632 series anthology that's coming out at the beginning of January.









Eric Flint



Chapter 1: The Track



Vienna, Austria

October, 1634


            Fortunately, that part of Janos Drugeth’s mind that always remained calm and controlled, even in the fury of a battlefield, was still there to restrain his panic. Indeed, it found the panic itself unseemly.

            You are a Hungarian cavalry officer in the service of the Austrian emperor, that part of his mind informed Janos sternly. A breed noted for its valor.

            It was all Janos could do not to snarl “so what?” aloud. He was not facing the familiar terrors of war.

            You are not even unaccustomed to this, the stern inner voice continued. You have ridden in automobiles before. In Grantville. Several times. Just a few months ago.

            Janos’ grip on the handrest of his door to the vehicle grew tighter still. He was sitting on what Americans called the “passenger side” of the automobile. They also sometimes referred to it as “riding shotgun,” he’d been told, a phrase that didn’t seem to make any more sense than many of the up-timers’ expressions.

            True. He had. Four times, in fact, with three different operators.

            But, first, those vehicles had been driven by Americans very familiar with their operation. All three of them filled with the sobriety of age, to boot. Not a young Austrian emperor whose personal acquaintance with automobiles was this one, and no other. The cursed thing had just arrived in Vienna the month before, not long before Janos himself returned from his inspection of the frontier forts facing the Turks.

            Secondly, two of the vehicles had been large and stately things, moving not much faster than a horse and stopping frequently. What the up-timers called “busses.” The third had been a “pickup” filled with people in the open area in the back, which moved not much faster than the buses. And the fourth had been a large and roomy thing, almost the size of a proper coach if much lower-built, whose operator had been an elderly woman.

            None of them had been a so-called “sports car” driven by a maniacal down-time monarch. Nor had any of them been driven on a ridiculous oval-shaped course freshly prepared for the purpose at the command of the crazed king in question. Ferdinand called it a “race track.” The term was English, and unfamiliar to Janos. But his command of the language was almost fluent now, and he could easily determine its inner logic. Its frightening inner logic.

            The automobile skidded around another curve in the race track. The rear wheels lost their grip on the surface, just as Janos had known carts to do on slippery cobblestones during a rain or in mud. But the carts had been moving slowly, not at—his eyes locked on the “speedometer” and froze at the sight—sixty miles an hour. The phrase didn’t have a precise meaning to Janos, but he knew that was far faster than he’d ever seen an American drive such a contraption. And even at slow speeds, such a mishap could easily cause a sturdy down-time cart to break a wheel or axle.

            The slide continued, the vehicle now clearly out of control. Janos clenched his teeth, his grip on the armrest as tight as he’d ever gripped a sword hilt or a lance on a battlefield. Under his breath, he began muttering the same prayer that he always muttered when a cavalry charge he was leading neared the enemy and his own death might be upon him, commending his soul to the Virgin’s care. “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum…”

            Fortunately, the muttered words were covered up by Ferdinand’s squeal of glee. Fortunately also, while Ferdinand might be portly, he was young and had good reflexes. He turned the round steering mechanism abruptly—in the direction of the slide, oddly—and within seconds the vehicle had resumed its steady and straightforward course. They were still going at an insane speed, but at least the king now had the automobile back under control. And apparently they’d broken neither a wheel nor an axle.

            Ferdinand squealed his glee again. “Ha!” He glanced at Janos, grinning. “I learned that trick from Sanderlin. It’s not like a horse-drawn carriage, you know. The worst thing you can do in a skid is apply the brakes. That means restraining the mechanical horses under the hood.” His right hand released the control mechanism and his forefinger pointed to the smooth dark-blue metal expanse in front of the window. “That’s the hood, by the way. It’s hard to believe, but there are more than two hundred mechanical horses in there.”

            To Drugeth’s relief, the king had slowed the vehicle considerably. Ferdinand glanced at him again, still grinning. “Congratulations, Janos. You’re the first person who’s ridden with me on the track who hasn’t said a word. Screamed a word, usually—and in the case of my wife and sister, cursed me directly.”

            Drugeth tried to return the grin. The result, he suspected, was simply a rictus. “Perhaps they were not cavalry officers.” He managed to relinquish his grip on the armrest and slap his chest. “And Hungarian, too! We are a bold breed.”

            Ferdinand chuckled—and, praise the saints, continued to let the automobile’s speed decline. “The first, no. You are the only cavalry officer to ride with me. The second explanation, I’m afraid, doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Your uncle Pal Nadasdy has ridden with me, and I can assure you the hisses and screeches of terror he produced were no less profound than any German’s.”

            They were nearing the stable-like building that the king had ordered constructed at the center point of one of the two long stretches on the oval track. What Ferdinand called by the English term “the straightaways,” another expression that was unfamiliar to Janos but whose inner logic was clear enough. Three men were emerging from the very large and open double doors, holding some sort of tools and wearing peculiar one-piece garments.

            The distinctive clothing went by the English name of “jumpsuits” and would have been enough in themselves to identify the men. But Janos had excellent eyesight, and recognized them even at a distance. The one in the center was Ronald Sanderlin, Jr., the up-timer who’d sold the automobile to the Austrian king and had agreed to move to Vienna to maintain it for him. He’d brought his wife and two children with him, although Janos didn’t know their names. Drugeth estimated his age at being somewhere in the mid-thirties, although such estimates were always tricky with Americans. You simply couldn’t use the easy gauge of the condition of their teeth.

            The older man standing to his left was his uncle Robert, who went by the nickname of “Bob.” He was unmarried, and seemed to be extremely taciturn. At least, on admittedly short acquaintance, Janos had never heard the man say a word in either German or English.

            The third man was the most interesting of the three, from Drugeth’s viewpoint. His name was Andrew Jackson “Sonny” Fortney, Jr. He was also married and had also brought his wife and two children. He was supposed to be a close friend of Ron Sanderlin’s—plausible enough, at first glance, since they were approximately the same age—and Sanderlin had insisted that he come along to Vienna as part of the “deal,” as he called it. There was even, from the Austrian standpoint, he’d argued, the additional benefit that Fortney had experience working with train steam engines, which was not true of either Sanderlin himself or his uncle.

            Sanderlin had been quite stubborn on the matter. Istvan Janoszi, Drugeth’s agent, had finally agreed to include the third man in the bargain. But he’d sent a private message to Janos warning him that Fortney might well be a spy for the United States of Europe. The man was known to have been visited on occasion by the USE’s fiendishly capable spymaster, Francisco Nasi, for one thing. And, for another, despite Sanderlin’s fervent insistence that Sonny Fortney was his “good buddy,” Istvan had not been able to uncover any evidence that the two men had spent any time together prior to the summer of this year—which was to say, right about the time the Austrian proposal to the Sanderlins would have come to the attention of the USE’s political authorities.

            The issue was of sufficient concern that Janos had even raised it with the emperor himself, the day after he arrived back in Vienna. But Ferdinand had dismissed the problem.

            “Let’s be realistic, Janos. There was no possible way to keep secret the fact that three Americans with mechanical experience were moving to Vienna—not to mention the two complete automobiles they brought with them. Ha! You should have seen the huge wagons and their teams when they lumbered into the city. They could barely fit in the streets, even after I ordered all obstructions removed.”

            The emperor drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair for a moment, and then shrugged. “The enemy was bound to fit a spy into the mix, unless they were deaf, dumb and blind—and if there’s any evidence that either Michael Stearns or his Jewish spymaster are incompetent, it’s been impossible to find. So be it. Vienna is full of spies—but now, in exchange for allowing another, we’ve gotten our first significant access to American technology. I can live with that, easily enough. At least, this time, we probably know who the spy is to begin with. That’ll make it easier to keep an eye on him.”

            Janos had his doubts, but… Technically speaking, although the USE and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were political enemies, the two nations were not actually at war. Furthermore, from what he could tell, he thought the USE’s prime minister Stearns was trying to keep an open conflict from breaking out, at least for the moment. That would be almost impossible, of course, if—as everyone suspected would happen next year—the USE’s emperor Gustav Adolf launched a war of conquest on Saxony and Brandenburg. In that event, Austria would most likely join the conflict.

            For the time being, however, Stearns seemed content to let the death of Ferdinand II and the accession of his son to the Austrian throne serve as a reason to keep the peace. The new monarch’s surprising decision to publicly renounce any claim to being the new Holy Roman Emperor and replace that with his new title of “Emperor of Austria-Hungary” had no doubt gone a long way toward that end. Contained within the formalities of the titles was the underlying reality, that Austria realized the days it could directly control—or try to control—all of the Germanies was at an end. Ferdinand III’s public renunciation of the title of Holy Roman Emperor meant, for all practical purposes, that the Holy Roman Empire itself was now a thing of the past. Henceforth, presumably, Austria’s interests and ambitions would be directed toward the east and the south, not the north and the west.

            The Turks hadn’t been pleased by that announcement, to say the least. But the enmity of the Ottoman Empire was more or less a given, no matter what Austria did. The Turks had plenty of spies in Vienna too, which was the reason Ferdinand had sent Janos Drugeth on an inspection tour of the Balkan fortifications, the day after he made the announcement—even though that had required Janos to be absent from the scene during the later stages of the technology transfer from Grantville that he had largely developed. The emperor’s decision to send off one of his closest confidants on such a tour of the fortifications was a none-too-subtle way of letting the Turks know that Ferdinand realized they would be furious at his decision. And they could swallow it or not, as they chose.

            The automobile was finally gliding to a stop, just in front of the three American mechanics who stood waiting. From the placid looks on their faces, it seemed they hadn’t been much impressed by the ability of Austria’s new emperor to move faster on land than any monarch in this history of this universe.

            That was as good way as any to distinguish up-time mechanics from down-time statesmen and soldiers—or down-time fishwives and farmers, for that matter. Anyone else who’d seen Ferdinand III racing around a track like that would know that a very different man sat on the Austrian throne from the former emperor, these days.

            Assuming they hadn’t figured it out already, which most of them would have, by now. In the first two months of his reign, Ferdinand III had forcefully carried through a major realignment of his empire in ways which his stolid father would never have imagined. The old man was probably “spinning in his grave,” to use a American expression.

            First, he’d pressured his father—on his deathbed, no less—to rescind the Edict of Restitution. At one stroke, at least in the legal realm, ending the major source of conflict with the Protestants of central Europe.

            Secondly, within a week of his father’s death, he’d renounced the title of Holy Roman Emperor—that was something of a hollow formality, since he hadn’t had the title anyway—and replaced it with the new imperial title.

            Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, he’d jettisoned his father’s reluctance to even acknowledge the up-timers’ technological superiority in favor of an aggressive policy of modernizing his realm. Ferdinand could move just as quickly on that front because, as the prince and heir, he’d set underway Drugeth’s secret mission to Grantville. “Secret,” not simply from the enemy, but from his own father. Had Ferdinand II learned of it, while he was still alive, he would have been even more furious than he was by his daughter Maria Anna’s escapades.

            Displaying better manners than Janos had seen displayed by most Americans in Grantville, two of the up-time mechanics opened the doors for the vehicle’s occupants. Ron Sanderlin, on the emperor’s side, and his uncle on Drugeth’s.

            “Nice recovery on that last turn, Your Majesty,” said Ron,  as he helped Ferdinand out of the seat.

            “It worked splendidly! Just as you said!”

            The older Sanderlin said nothing, as usual, and other than opening the door he made no effort to assist Janos out of the vehicle. Which was a bit unfortunate, since the contraption’s bizarrely low construction made getting out of the seat a lot more difficult than clambering down from a carriage or dismounting from a horse. It didn’t help any that Janos felt shaky and stiff at the same time.

            Hungarian cavalry officer, he reminded himself. He decided that a straightforward lunge was probably the best way to do the business.

            Somewhat to his surprise, that worked rather well. And now that he was on his feet, the properly stiff-legged stance of an officer in the presence of his monarch served nicely to keep his knees from wobbling.

            Ferdinand III, Grand Duke of Austria, King of Hungary, and now Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, planted his hands on his hips and gave the newly constructed race track a gaze of approval.

            “You were right, Ron,” he announced. “We need to built up the banks of the track on the curves.”

            “Yup. Even at only sixty miles an hour, which is nothing for a 240Z, you almost spun out. Of course, it’ll help a lot once we can replace that packed dirt with a solid surface. Macadam, at least, although concrete would be better.”

            Ferdinand nodded. “We can manage that, I think, given a bit of time. We’ll need to build spectator stands also.”

            He turned to Janos, smiling widely. “We’ll call it the Vienna 500, I’m thinking. You watch! One of these days, it’ll draw enough tourists to flood the city’s coffers.”

            Janos Drugeth, Hungarian cavalry officer in the service of the Austrian emperor—a bold and daring breed, no one denied it—wondered what the “five hundred” part of that title meant.

            But he kept silent. He was afraid to ask.