New Pompeii

A stun­ning sci-fi thriller, in which en­ergy com­pany Novus Par­ti­cles has de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy to pull peo­ple for­ward through time…

SFX - - First Read - by Daniel God­frey

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.

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