There are a million different Earths across an infinite number of timelines—and every one of them is in peril.
John Barnes’s ingenious science fiction saga the Timeline Wars reaches a breathtaking climax in Caesar’s Bicycle as former Pittsburgh private investigator–turned–Crux Op agent Mark Strang pursues the alien Closer enemy to a new battleground: an alternate ancient Rome of Caesar and Pompey.
Strang’s investigation into the disappearance of a fellow ATN operative has carried him along a new timeline to a Roman Empire at once strikingly similar and remarkably different from the one recalled in history books on his own Earth. What he discovers is a world in the process of radical transformation through the introduction of new technologies, centuries before their time, by both sides in the war for the multiverse—enemy Closers and ATN alike. And this time, Strang’s mission carries a new urgency, for the timelines are becoming dangerously unstable and mysteriously starting to close. To prevent the total enslavement of every one of the million Earths, Strang himself will now have to make history. But by ensuring that an infamous assassination actually does take place, Mark Strang could be condemning himself to the most horrible death the Romans ever devised.
About the Author
Barnes has authored more than thirty novels and numerous short stories including the national bestseller Encounter with Tiber (cowritten with Buzz Aldrin), Mother of Storms (finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards), and Tales of the Madman Underground (a Michael L. Printz Honor Book), among others. He received his doctorate of philosophy in theater arts at the University of Pittsburgh, and has taught college courses in a wide variety of disciplines. His personal blog is at thatjohnbarnes.blogspot.com.
John Barnes (b. 1957) is the author of more than thirty novels and numerous short stories. His most popular novels include the national bestseller Encounter with Tiber (co-written with Buzz Aldrin), Mother of Storms (finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards), Tales of the Madman Underground (winner of the Michael L. Printz Award), and One for the Morning Glory, among others. His most recent novel is The Last President (2013).
Read an Excerpt
The Timeline Wars
By John Barnes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 John Barnes
All rights reserved.
Chrysamen was looking sad, and since she has huge dark eyes, she's good at looking sad. Though we were running just a little late if we wanted to get to the Met without rushing, I knew, after some years of marriage, that it was better to talk about whatever it was than to try to brush it off until there was time to talk about it, so I sat down next to her, and said, "Is something the matter?"
"Not a lot, just a minor case of frustration." She tossed her dark curls with her hands and shook her head, as if working out a kink in her neck.
"Anything you want to talk about?"
"Oh, just realizing I'm probably never going to lose back the three pounds I put on after we had Perry, and that even if I'm physically a lot younger, I'm almost fifty."
I shook my head. "On the same scale, I'm fifty-three. That's what a lot of time travel will do for you. And in this timeline we're both still under forty, legally; heck, in this timeline you're minus seven hundred something. Figure that if the life-extension drugs work as well on us as they do on Ariadne Lao—"
Mistake to mention our boss. Ariadne is a charming, pleasant, usually polite person, but there was once a slight spark of interest between us—long before I met Chrys, mind you—and Ariadne is pretty stunning, thanks to the long-life drugs, even though she must be past eighty. Consequently "Ariadne Lao" is an extremely bad thing to mention when Chrys is feeling unattractive.
A few years of marriage gives you enough experience to recognize that you've said something stupid, when it's only a little bit too late. I put an arm around Chrys, and said, "Look, we're actually only about a fifth of the way through our life spans. I mean, through what our life spans would be if we were in a normal line of work. We both might be shot dead next week, of course."
"You certainly know how to cheer a girl up."
"Well, damn it, it's hard to work up sympathy for you when half the women on the planet would kill to look like you."
"That's more like it," she said, smiling, and stood up and stretched. That was a view I enjoyed a lot; she had on all the lingerie but hadn't yet put on her dress (one of those little black things that seem to be part of the dress code for women at the opera). She has a mass of dark curly hair, high cheekbones and a full mouth, very light brown skin, and an athlete's body that I know, in several different ways, is all hard muscle, no matter how well shaped it is.
"And as far as self-confidence is concerned, Mark, that leer from you is all I needed."
"I am not leering."
"You're right. It's more like the way a lion looks at a gazelle."
"Not now, dear, but hold the thought. You look pretty terrific in the tux, yourself." She slipped into the dress and turned to be zipped up, and I figured we'd gotten past this little attack of the blues with no harm done, but then she said, "I was just thinking ... well, it may be silly."
"If it bothers you, it's not silly," I said, pulling up her zipper.
"Well, it's just ... you and I are doing our part, certainly, in the war against the Closers. And ATN seems to be doing pretty well in the fight, though with millions of fronts it's hard to tell. But even if we're really clobbering them, as far as I can see, we'll still be fighting them a thousand years from now. You and I will grow old and die—or get shot or blown up—and so will Porter and Perry ... and the war will go on, and more people will be born and grow old and die, and the war will go on, and maybe we'll be as far in the past as the time of Christ before the war is won."
"You can't let yourself think like that," I said. "We have a lot to do, and we're just two Crux Ops; ATN has thousands like us, and we just do our parts and hope for the best. I'm sure somewhere there are generals or field marshals or something who are paid to worry about that, but it's not our lookout."
She sighed. "Oh, I don't mean I think it's being badly run, and I know as well as you do that it's the fight in front of us, and the next one, not the last one, we have to worry about. All I mean is ... well, why haven't they sent back word about who wins? Does the war just go on forever?"
"Maybe they're afraid of changing the result by letting us know," I said. "We need to get moving if we're going to get to the opera in time for me to show you off to the other guys."
We had imposed a firm rule ages ago. Since this timeline is not aware of the war that rages across a million timelines, we don't discuss ATN business anywhere where we might be overheard. If you think waiters and cabbies are nosy about your marriage or your job, imagine what they'd be like about the fate of whole universes. So we went to the opera, chatted mostly about my ward Porter Brunreich's career (at eighteen she was having a very successful European tour, and nowadays she was mostly performing her own compositions for organ and piano), our three-year-old son Perry (we both agree he's a genius, and handsome, too), and that sort of thing. We were pleased to note that the cab driver agreed with us.
Placido Domingo was wonderful as always, Rigoletto was terrific (the director and designers stuck to the story), and for that matter the coffee and cheesecake afterward were great. (Sure, Lindy's is a cliché, but they got to be a cliché by being worth going back to.)
Chrys came from a timeline where opera had never developed—it was good that the special language chip behind the ear allowed her to speak English without an accent, because if anyone had asked her nationality, "Arabo-Polynesian" would undoubtedly have raised a lot of questions. Three days after she came here to marry me, she was idly playing with the radio when she hit WQED in Pittsburgh, the local classical station—and that was it. Hopeless addiction. There aren't a lot of Pittsburghers with season tickets at the Met—that's a lot of airplane tickets in addition—but we're two of them.
As Dad said to me, if you find you're married to a junkie, your choices are to try for a cure, which rarely works, or to take up the needle yourself. At least it was only opera she'd gotten hooked on. It could have been heavy metal.
I thought she'd forgotten all about her early case of the blues. But that evening, as I closed the door on our hotel room again, she said, "It's such a beautiful world, Mark. Yours, and the one I came from, and all the millions of others. And if there weren't Closers, we could open the gates between them and let more people see them all. I'm sure we'll win. I just wish we could win during my lifetime, or our children's. I'd like to be around to enjoy it."
"Me too," I said, surprising myself a little. I'd always been the much more eager killer of the two of us—Chrys came from a timeline that had been conquered by the Closers, and then liberated a couple of generations later by ATN forces, and you'd think she'd have more hate for them. But Chrys's people were largely pacifists when they were conquered, and the bitter war of liberation afterward had sickened them so much that there were only a few aberrant ones, like Chrys, who could bear fighting at all.
Me? I'd lost half my family, including my first wife, to them, and a lot of friends along the way, and there had been a time in my life when nothing gave me a rush of pleasure like pulling the trigger on a Closer bastard. When ATN agents—including Ariadne, the first Crux Op I'd ever met—had turned up and recruited me, shown me who was behind the terrorist group I was after, and armed me to hit back at them, I'd become a kind of killing machine for a while.
But that had been before Chrys, before the birth of our son ... before a certain bitter fight on a blazing airship, when I had faced a version of myself from another timeline, a version that had gone to work for the Closers—and seen that hatred was their weapon, not ours, and that when you got down to the last moment of choice and the last ounce of will, it wasn't a match for plain, ordinary courage. I had seen the kind of broken, poisoned thing I could become, and turned away.
Mostly. The old feelings came back now and then, and if I occasionally found myself enjoying a battle with the Closers a bit more than was good for me, well, so it goes. Nobody changes overnight.
So I was more than a little surprised to realize that Chrys's ideas had gotten into me to that extent. I, too, could imagine a future where you could visit the thousands of beautiful things and places that exist across the many parallel timelines. There were timelines out there where Beethoven didn't go deaf, where Marlowe didn't die young and lived to be Shakespeare's great rival, where the great library at Alexandria was never burned.
There were dozens of different Parises, Athenses, New Yorks, Saigons—all beautiful in their different ways. There were timelines where there had never been human beings, where you could still find herds of buffalo that stretched farther than the eye could see, great herds of elephant and rhino in Africa, flocks of moas and dodoes. Worlds where elegant white cities shone in the wilderness, where you could walk from the equivalent of the Met right out into the equivalent of Yellowstone.
All of that was out there, just a quick flip of the time machines away—but every time a traveler crosses, the pulse can be registered in many other universes. Cross often enough, and the Closers get a fix on that timeline—and then suddenly they're there, vast armies pouring in out of nowhere, and another world falls beneath their iron heel, only to be won back at a cost of millions of lives and vast destruction. So travel between timelines is restricted, as much as we can, to timelines that they already know the location of, and those timelines are defended as heavily as can be managed.
Of all those wonderful doors, only a few can be opened ... and only for emergency military purposes.
I knew how she felt; so much wonder, hardly any time for it. We could go anywhere and any when, but we had to spend all our time jumping into places where rude strangers shot at us.
"Well," I said, though the joke was feeble, "we'll just have to hurry up and win the war."
"Yeah, right." One great advantage of the ear gadgets is that you only have to move toward speaking the language gradually, but you don't make any mistakes on the way. Chrys's English was now as good as her Arabic and Attikan—and mine were equally good—and she said, "Yeah, right," with the true Pittsburgh spirit, the way that lets the world know that no one is going to fool you.
I stepped into the bathroom for a second, and when I came out she was removing the little black dress very slowly, which pretty much killed discussion for that night. Ever had a fantasy about sleeping with a beautiful female agent? I do every night—though there was a period of sharing responsibility for two o'clock feedings in there as well. The job's risky, but there are fringe benefits.
On a New York weekend, you're always running out of cash, which is probably why New York is so fond of tourists. So after breakfast in the Wellington's coffee shop, we went around the corner to a bank to get more. It was a pretty typical Saturday morning—everyone looking bored and a lot of huge-haired tellers with bright blue eye shadow desperately trying to pretend that they had a date for Saturday night, in order to keep away the guys who might figure the girl at the bank was the last possible chance. The security guards were a couple of bush-league rent-a-cops rather than off-duty NYPD, so the bank could save a few bucks on a time when there weren't likely to be many robbers.
I wondered about that idly. In our line of work, jumping into all sorts of violence all the time, you get such a habit of casing the joint that it's easier to do it than not to.
Maybe they figured all the robbers would be at home watching cartoons or something, because this place was really pretty wide-open. There was one amiable guard, a very young-looking man with a big nose, pasty white skin, and black hair, who was trying to talk to the rightmost teller, a girl whose hair was dyed platinum blond and piled into a huge meringue. The other guard was middle-aged, a black man with gray hair and mustache, and a distinct gut; the way he stood and shifted his weight suggested he also had a bad back, but at least his eyes were on the door and the customers. As I scanned him, he yawned. I noted also that I'd been looking at him for a while and he hadn't looked back or noticed he was being scanned.
This was one of those modern, friendly banks that have a lot of low tables and just a counter for the tellers, not one of the old 1920s ones that looked like a tough prison or maybe a fort, or one of the more recent ones that looked like a biolab where they expected every customer to be infected with something deadly.
"You're really checking the place out," Chrys muttered to me as we stood in line.
"It's something to do."
"Have you checked the four that just came in?" she muttered. "I know you see everything in New York, but it looks like a new flavor of everything."
What was coming in was one woman with thick butt-length red hair and the kind of body that men turn and stare at, wearing a tiny little sprayed-on white dress and heels halfway up to the sky, and with her were three dignified older guys in three-piece suits.
"Ha. They threw a party with the little lady last night and came up short on cash; now they're going to get some additional so they can pay her, probably so nobody comes around to threaten them. No big thing—"
As I said it, the girl turned from the men and clattered over toward the younger security guard and the teller he was trying to pick up. The teller had a clearly displayed CLOSED sign in front of her window and had been counting bills very slowly.
That was the first warning bell that went off in my head. If this was a high-priced good-time girl collecting from a bunch of Johns, the last thing she was going to do was move away from them, until they paid her. Nobody heads for an obviously closed teller, not when the line is already long. And besides, she took two big clacking steps and deliberately shook her shoulders before she started out.
Which, aside from letting everyone in the room know she wasn't wearing a bra, also got almost everyone to stare at her, the women because most women stare at someone who is really overdoing it, the men because ... well, you can imagine.
Anyway, she made enough noise for a cavalry troop on a tap-dance floor as she crossed over to the guard and the teller. The teller looked up in obvious relief, clearly glad to have anything get the guy away from her, and the guy was busy staring holes in the woman's little white dress.
"Hand on your NIF?" I muttered to Chrys.
"Always. Ready when you are."
It so happens Chrys and I were both the kind of nasty kids for whom magicians hate to work birthday parties. You know how stage magic always works by getting people to look in one place while you do something somewhere else? Well, we were always the kids who were saying, "He's really putting it in his sleeve," "He moved it while he was waving the flowers," or "That's not the one you started with." And this woman's little routine was screaming, "Hey, look over here!" so naturally we were looking everywhere else, as unobviously as we could.
What I saw was one of the guys in the three-pieces stopping to tie his shoe by a potted plant—and getting into a perfect position to draw a pistol from an ankle holster and blow the younger guard away.
On the other side, she told me later, Chrys was seeing one of them heading over toward the manager's desk, and number three approaching the other guard as if to ask him a question, but also reaching into his jacket.
"Excuse me," their woman accomplice said, with that loud, cutting New York accent that goes right through crowd noise, "but I really need sex right now." The corner of my eye showed me that she had whipped the dress off and was now naked except for the heels. "Would anyone like to—" It was quite a list, but I was too busy to listen.
Excerpted from Caesar's Bicycle by John Barnes. Copyright © 1997 John Barnes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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