A stunning sci-fi thriller, in which energy company Novus Particles has developed the technology to pull people forward through time…
Historian Nick Houghton has arrived in New Pompeii, a replica of the Roman town now populated with real Romans, saved just before the eruption of Vesuvius.
The room was dominated by row upon row of video screens. Their glare was sufficient to plunge the rest of the room into relative gloom, and it took a few moments for Nick’s eyes to adjust but, once they did, he realised that the screens were showing security-camera feeds. This was his first glimpse of New Pompeii. Nick felt his breath grow shallow. Each screen showed a different view of town life. And there they were. The people of Pompeii, moving around the streets of their new home. Eating. Drinking. Buying bread. Rolling dice. Just going about their daily lives. “You like my town?” Maggie, Noah and Whelan were standing next to a tall, thin man. He was completely bald, with a satisfied smile on his face. And from the look of the video feeds, his smugness was entirely deserved.
“Yes,” said Nick, his throat dry. “I can’t wait to visit.”
“Well, it’s a few hours by horse. Have you ridden before, Mr…?”
“This is Nick Houghton,” cut in Whelan, stepping forward. “Nick, meet Robert Astridge, our project architect.”
Nick nodded in acknowledgement, and offered his hand.
The architect shot a glance at Whelan, his grin turning sardonic. “I take it you’re here to replace Professor Samson?”
Replace. That word again. Nick glanced at Maggie. She’d been given a longer, female version of his own tunic. A heavy shawl covered her shoulders. “Yes,” he said. “Well, I don’t see your role as being that relevant, to be honest. Samson’s work was almost complete – you can’t keep on advising about the historical details of a town when the buildings are occupied, can you?” Astridge let out a short bellow of laughter.
Maggie gave an impatient sigh. “At least you look a bit more human today, Dr Houghton.”
“Thank you. But you can drop the doctor part… it’s still something of a work in progress.”
“I see. It seems odd to have replaced an eminent professor with a student, doesn’t it?”
Nick swallowed, not knowing what to say. Certainly Whelan the operations chief didn’t appear to want to cut in and justify his appointment. He needed to change the subject. Quickly. “Someone mentioned something about a briefing?”
“So, Nick,” said Whelan, “what do you think the most important thing is, in making all of this work?”
Nick’s mind cycled quickly, trying to find an answer that wouldn’t make him look stupid. The buildings? The logistics? The technology? No. The people. It always boiled down to people. He looked back at the screens. Thought about what this all meant from their perspective. “You brought them here just before they were about to die,” he said, letting his thoughts click into place. “They would have seen the eruption. Felt the earthquakes in the days leading up to it. Maybe seen the ash fall. So when they woke up here, they would all want to know what had happened.”
“Spot on,” replied Whelan, smiling. “It’s all about the story. Anybody going into and out of New Pompeii has to remember it, and stick to it. We’ve tried to keep it simple. The people here think they’re still in Pompeii. A good three-quarters of the town is physically similar; the eruption and tremors account for the changed landscape beyond the walls.” “So no volcano?” “And no sea either – we’re inland.” Nick felt his eyebrows rise. The strangeness of the town map suddenly made sense. Pompeii had been a trading port. But there was plenty of evidence that Pompeii and the neighbouring town of Herculaneum had experienced their fair share of sea-level changes. So it wasn’t entirely implausible…
“The Italian peninsula is in chaos,” Whelan continued. “Travel between towns is prohibited. They have to stay in the town and make the best of it.” Whelan’s voice rose, as if
we’re not going to their Pompeii. We haven’t travelled in time. They have.
taken in by the story himself. “By order of the Emperor.”
Nick nodded. He already had about a dozen questions, but they would probably be best answered when he got to the town.
“The good news is that the populace were so shell-shocked they believed the story straight away,” said Astridge. “We’ve got them all settled into their new homes. And most people are in similar standards of accommodation to that to which they were accustomed.” “How’s the economy working?” Whelan turned to Astridge. “You see, Robert? I knew our new historical advisor would get to the nub of the issue.” He turned back to Nick. “We’re getting there,” he said. “Pompeii seems to have made its money mainly from wine.” “And garum. Fish sauce.” “Yes. Quite. But once the vineyards and olive groves are up and running, we can take their wine and oil, and in return give them anything they want. But we’re supporting the economy externally for the time being.” “What about us?” “We have a house at the centre of town.”
“The House of McMahon? I saw it on the map.”
“Yes. It looks Roman on the ground floor, but is in fact a central control station similar to this villa.”
“Great,” said Nick. “But, again, with due respect… you said all the population is from Pompeii. But we’re not. What’s our story?”
Whelan smiled. “We’re their saviours, Nick.” “What?” Astridge chuckled. “Sent by the god-emperor himself, Augustus Caesar.”
The wagon meandered through the bottom of a shallow valley towards the town. On either side, more villas had started to appear. Many looked occupied, and each had a small patch of farmland surrounding them given over to vines. Others were still being constructed.
Two men on horseback drew level, and Nick recognised one as a security guard from the villa, though both had adopted the uniform of Roman cavalrymen, with short-swords and daggers at their sides. “Have you had any problem with violence?” Whelan cast him a sideways glance. “Not really.”
“But doesn’t it look odd to the locals that we’ve got our own guards?”
“No,” replied Whelan. “It fits the story. You’ve got to keep in mind, Nick, we’re not going to their Pompeii. We haven’t travelled in time. They have. They’re living by rules we create, in our town.”
“You’ve had no problems convincing the people we’re gods?”
“Technically we haven’t claimed to be deities.” “Just the agents of one?” “Precisely. And we’ve specifically chosen a god these people already believed in, the deified Emperor Augustus. Sent to protect them in their darkest hour.” Nick remained silent. “You’re not convinced?” “Roman religion is relatively opaque.” “Go on.” “Well, most modern religions are centred on just one god. But in another two thousand years, our descendants may look back at our culture and think we worshipped any number of deities: Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, even Batman. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the Romans believed in all the gods they wrote about. Especially not a real man – emperor or not – who was deified after his death.” Whelan considered this. “Well, fortunately, we tested our story on a small group before we transported the rest of the population.” Nick nodded. A sensible move. “I presume your reconstruction includes the Temple of Fortuna Augusta?” “Yes.” “And you’ve reinforced the message how?” “With smoke and mirrors. It didn’t take too much, to be honest. After all, when you’ve been sucked out of the jaws of hell and then prodded and poked by our medical teams… Well, let’s just say we didn’t really have to invoke Clarke’s Third Law.” “Clarke?” Nick knew he must have looked confused, but he didn’t try to hide it. “I’m not familiar…” “As in ‘Arthur C.’. The sciencefiction writer. ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ You’ll understand soon enough.” Astridge waved lazily in his direction from the front of the wagon and Nick craned to see. A dark stain rose above the horizon. Smoke. Nick let out a soft whistle. Smoke – from small domestic fires he presumed – all mingling together as it rose into the air. Soon the road widened. And suddenly there it was. A sight no one could have seen in over two thousand years.
Daniel Godfrey lives and works in Derbyshire. He studied geography at Cambridge University, before gaining an MSc at Leeds, and now works in transport planning. He has had several short stories published in My Weekly and Writers’ Forum. Unsurprisingly, he has visited the real Pompeii quite a lot. New Pompeii is his first novel.