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Author: Michael Flynn
Publisher: Tor, 2006

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: First Contact
Alternate History (SF)
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(85 reads / 46 ratings)


In 1349, one small town in Germany disappeared and has never been resettled. Tom, a contemporary historian, and his theoretical physicist girlfriend Sharon, become interested. Tom indeed becomes obsessed. By all logic, the town should have survived, but it didn't and that violates everything Tom knows about history. What's was special about Eifelheim that it utterly disappeared more than 600 years ago?

Father Deitrich is the village priest of Oberhochwald, the village that will soon gain the name of Teufelheim, in later years corrupted to Eifelheim, in the year 1348, when the Black Death is gathering strength across Europe but is still not nearby. Deitrich is an educated man, knows science and philosophy, and to his astonishment becomes the first contact between humanity and an alien race from a distant star when their interstellar ship crashes in the nearby forest. It is a time of wonders, in the shadow of the plague.

Tom and Sharon, and Father Deitrich, have a strange and intertwined destiny of tragedy and triumph in this brilliant SF novel by the winner of the Robert A. Heinlein Award.


Chapter One



During summer sessions, Sharon and Tom both did their research from home. That is easy enough today, when the world lies literally at our very fingertips; but it can be a trap, too, for what we need may lie just beyond the tips of our fingers. There is Tom hunched over the computer by the window, tracking down obscure references over the Net. He has his back to the room, which means to Sharon.

Sharon lounges on the pillow sofa on the other side of the room, notebook open, surrounded by wadded-up balls of paper and half-finished cups of herbal tea, thinking about whatever it is that theoretical physicists think about. She gazes in Tom's direction, but she is looking on some inner vision, so in a way she too has her back turned. Sharon uses a computer, too, but it's an organic one that she keeps between her ears. It may not be networked to the wider world, but Sharon Nagy creates her own worlds, strange and inaccessible, among which lies one at the very edges of cosmology.

It is not a beautiful thing, this world of hers. The geodesics are warped and twisted things. Space and time spiral off in curious, fractal vortices, in directions that have no name. Dimensions are quicksilver slippylooked at sideways, they would vanish.

And yet...

And yet, she sensed a pattern lurking beneath the chaos and she stalked it as a cat mightin stealthy half-steps and never quite straightforward. Perhaps it lacked only the right beholding to fall into beauty. Consider Quasimodo, or Beauty's Beast.


An alien voice intruded into her world. She heard Tom smack his PC terminal and she screwed her eyes shut, trying not to listen. Almost, she could see it clearly. The equations hinted at multiple rotation groups connected by a meta-algebra. But...

"Durk! Bnz! Jki!"

...But the world shattered into a kaleidoscope, and for a moment she sat overwhelmed by a sense of infinite loss. She threw her pen at the coffee table, where it clattered against white bone-china teacups. Evidently God did not intend for her to solve the geometry of Janatpour space quite yet. She glared at Tom, who muttered over his keyboard.

There is something true about Sharon Nagy in that one half-missed detail: that she uses a pen and not a pencil. It betokens a sort of hubris.

"All right," she demanded. "What is it? You've been cursing in tongues all day. Something is bugging you. I can't work; and that's bugging me."

Tom spun in his swivel chair and faced her. "Clio won't give me the right answer!"

She made a pout with her lips. "Well, I hope you were able to beat it out of her."

He opened his mouth and closed it again and had the grace to look embarrassed, because there was something true about him also. If there are two sorts of people in the world, Tom Schwoerin is of the other sort. Few thoughts of his failed to reach his lips. He was an audible sort of man, which means that he was fundamentally sound.

He scowled now and crossed his arms. "I'm frustrated, is all."

Small doubt of that. Sharon regarded his verbal popcorn much as a miser does a spendthrift. She was the sort of person for whom the expression, That goes without saying, really does induce silence. In any event, Tom's frustration was only a symptom. "Why are you frustrated?"

"Eifelheim won't go away!"

"And why should it go away?"

He threw his arms out wildly. "Because it's not there!"

Sharon, who had had another why ready in wait, massaged the bridge of her nose. Be patient, and eventually he would make sense.

"Okay, okay," he admitted. "It sounds silly; but... Look, Eifelheim was a village in the Black Forest that was abandoned and never resettled."

"So... ?"

"So, it should have been. I've run two-score simulations of the Schwarzwald settlement grid and the site gets resettled every time."

She had no patience for his problems. An historian, Tom did not create worlds, he only discovered them; so he really was that other sort of person. Sharon yearned for her geodesics. They had almost made sense. Tom wasn't even close. "A simulation?" she snapped. "Then change the freaking model. You've got multicollinearity in the terms, or something."

Emotion, especially deep emotion, always caught Tom short. His own were brief squalls. Sharon could erupt like a volcano. Half the time, he could not figure out why she was angry with him; and the other half of the time he was wrong. He goggled at her for a moment before rolling his eyes. "Sure. Throw out Rosen-Zipf-Christaller theory. One of the cornerstones of cliology!"

"Why not?" she said, "In the real sciences, theory has to fit the facts; not vice versa."

Tom's face went red, for she had touched (as she had known she would) upon one of his hot buttons. "Does it, a cuisla? Does it really? Wasn't it Dirac who said that it was more important that the equations be beautiful than that they fit the experiment? I read somewhere that measurements of light speed have been getting lower over the years. Why not throw out the theory that light speed is constant?"

She frowned. "Don't be silly." She had her own hot buttons. Tom did not know what they were, but he managed to hit them all the same.

"Silly, hell!" He slammed his hand down sharply on the terminal and she jumped a little. Then he turned his back and faced the screen once more. Silence fell, continuing the quarrel.

Now, Sharon had that peculiar ability to stand outside herself, which is a valuable skill, so long as one comes back inside now and then. They were both being silly. She was angry at having her train of thought derailed, and Tom was angry because some simulation of his wouldn't work out. She glanced at her own work and thought, I'm not helping me by not helping him, which might be a poor reason for charity, but it beats having none at all.

"I'm sorry."

They spoke in counterpoint. She looked up, and he turned 'round, and they stared at each other for a moment and ratified a tacit armistice. The geodesic to peace and quiet was to hear him out; so Sharon crossed the room and perched on the corner of his desk.

"All right," she said. "Explain. What's this Zip-whatever theory?"

In answer, he turned to his keyboard, entered commands with the flourish of a pianist, and rolled his chair aside for her. "Tell me what you see."

Sharon sighed a little and stood behind him with her arms folded and her head cocked. The screen displayed a grid of hexagons, each containing a single dot. Some dots were brighter than others. "A honeycomb," she told him. "A honeycomb with fireflies."

Tom grunted. "And they say physicists make lousy poets. Notice anything?"

She read the names beside the dots. Omaha. Des Moines. Ottumwa... "The brighter the dot, the bigger the city. Right?"

"Vice versa, actually; but, right. What else?"

Why couldn't he just tell her? He had to make it a guessing game. His students, waiting beak-open for his lectures, often felt the same disquiet. Sharon concentrated on the screen, seeking the obvious. She did not regard cliology as an especially deep science, or much of a science at all. "Okay. The big cities form a partial ring. Around Chicago."

Tom grinned. "Ganz bestimmt, Schatz. There should be six of them, but Lake Michigan gets in the way, so the ring's incomplete. Now, what surrounds each of the big cities?"

"A ring of not-so-big cities. How fractal! But the pattern isn't perfect..."

"Life's not perfect," he answered. "Microgeography and boundary conditions distort the pattern, but I correct for that by transforming the coordinates to an equivalent, infinite plain."

"A manifold. Cute," she said. "What's your transformation?"

"Effective distance is a function of the time and energy needed to travel between two points. Non-Abelian, which complicates matters."

"Non-Abelian? But then."

"B can be farther from A than A is from B. Sure, why not? The Portuguese found it easier to sail down the coast of Africa than to sail back up. Or, take our own dry cleaners? The streets are one-way, so it takes three times longer to drive there than it does to drive back."

But Sharon wasn't listening any longer. Non-Abelian! Of course, of course! How could I have been so stupid? Oh, the happy, unquestioning life of an Abelian, Euclidean, Hausdorff peasant! Could Janatpour space be nonisotropic? Could distance in one direction differ from distance in another? It's always faster coming home. But how? How?

His voice shattered her reverie once more. "...Oxcarts or automobiles. So, the map is always in transition from one equilibrium to another. Now watch."

If she didn't hold his hand while he complained, she would never get her own work done. "Watch what?" she asked, perhaps in a harsher voice than she had intended, because he cast her a wounded glance before bending again over the keyboard. While he did, she slipped across the room and retrieved her notebook so she could capture her butterfly thought.

"Christaller's original survey," said Tom, who had not noticed her sortie. "Land Wrttemberg, nineteenth century."

Sharon spared the screen a cursory glance. "All right" Then, almost against her will, she leaned toward the computer. "Another honeycomb," she said. "Is that a common pattern?"

He didn't answer. Instead he showed her a series of maps. Johnson's study of Late Uruk settlements around Warka. Alden's reconstruction of Toltec polities in the Valley of Mexico. Skinner's analysis of Szechuan villages. Smith's anomalous study of western Guatemala that found two grids, Indio and Ladino, superimposed on each other like parallel universes.

"Now check out this map. Verified sites of ancient Sumerian and Elamite pueblos."

To her own annoyance, she found herself intrigued. One such map might be an oddity; two or three, a coincidence; but not this many. "Why is that dot red?" she asked.

Tom regarded the screen with indulgence. "My claim to fame. There was no known pueblo at that site. But ancient writings are full of references to places we've never pinned down. So, I sent old Hotchkiss an e-mail, telling him to move his dig. That made him madhe's an old-school microhistorian. But what really ticked him off was when he finally found the ruins, two years later, right where I'd told him they would be."

So his patterns had predictive value, too. Patterns were interesting. They could lead, like astrology, to real science. "There has to be a cause," she said.

He gave her a satisfied nod. "Ochen khorosh."

"Okay, I'll bite. What is it?"

He tapped a fingernail against the display. "Each locus provides some degree of biopsychological reinforcement to its inhabitants. Rich bottomlands, a vein of silver, a plentiful supply of guano, anything. Andere La;nder, andere Sitten. The intensity of that reinforcement defines a potential function over the landscape, and the gradient of that potential is a force we call affinity."

Sharon withheld comment. She had never considered Tom's "forces of history" as anything more than a metaphor. She was a physicist, and physicists dealt in real forces.

"If affinity were the only force," Tom continued, "the entire population would be sucked into the local maximum. But population density itself creates a second potential because, cteris paribus, people prefer wide open spaces to getting someone's elbow in their ear. So there's a countertendency for the population to spread out evenly across the landscape in a kind of cultural heat death. The interaction between these two forces generates the differential equations for a reaction-diffusion process. Population accumulates at the equilibrium sites, with settlement sizes distributed according to Zipf's rank-size law. Each settlement generates a cultural potential field whose strength is proportional to its wealth and population and which diminishes with the square of the distance. Geographically, these settlements and their hinterlands form hexagonal patterns called Christaller grids. Ert, Nagy kisasszony?"

"Ertek jol, Schwoerin ur," she answered. Sharon wasn't entirely convinced, but if she argued the point, they'd be up all night, settle nothing, and she'd never get back to Janatpour space. Besides, the model did account for that remarkable consistency of settlement patterns. She pursed her lips. If she wasn't careful, she'd get sucked into solving his problem instead of her own. "So, where does this Eifelheim of yours fit in?"

Tom flipped his hands up. "It doesn't." He called another map onto the screen. "Here's the Black Forest. Notice anything odd?"

After all those maps, the empty cell fairly jumped out at her. Sharon touched the screen, her finger dancing from village to village. Ba;rental, Oberreid, Hinterzarten, St. Wilhelm... The roads all twisted around the blank spot, some doubling back on themselves to avoid it. She frowned. Tom was right. There should be a village there.

"That," he announced sourly, "is Eifelheim."

"The little town that wasn't there," she murmured. "But how can a town that isn't there have a name?"

"The same way that the Elamite pueblo had a name. Enough references in various sources to triangulate its location. Attendez." Another command entered. "The same region in the Early Middle Ages, reconstructed from landsat photos." He cocked his head. "C'est drle, ma che;rie. Up close, you wouldn't see a damned thing; yet from miles above, the ghosts of vanished villages stand out clearly." He looked at the screen and pointed. "There's Eifelheim."

The little dot stared back at her from the previously empty hex. "Then I don't get it. You've discovered another 'lost city,' like in Sumeria."

But Tom shook his head. "No," he said sadly, gazing at the screen. "Settlements are abandoned because their affinity drops, or technology changes the effective distances. The silver mines play out, or an interstate runs through. That's not the case here. Affinity should have caused a successor-village to coalesce within a generation somewhere inside that hex. Look at the way Baghdad followed Seleucia, Babylon, and Akkad in the same hex in Mesopotamia."

"Do your satellite photos tell when this Eifelheim disappeared?"

"Based on the pattern of strippingthe 'furlongs'I'd guess the Late Middle Ages, probably during the Black Death. Land usage patterns changed after that."

"Weren't a lot of places depopulated then? I read somewhere that a third of Europe died." She actually thought she had explained something. She actually thought she had seen something that Tom had overlooked. No field of knowledge is so transparently simple as another's.

Tom was deaf to her triumph. "Yeah," he said off-handedly, "and the Middle East, too. Ibn Khaldn wrote... Well, it took two hundred years for the population to rebound to medieval levels, but every other abandoned village was eventually either reoccupied or replaced by a new settlement nearby. Voc accredita agora? People lived there for over four hundred years, and thenno one ever lived there again."

She shivered. The way he said it, it did sound unnatural.

"The place became tabu," he continued. "In 1702, Marshal Villars refused to march his army past the place to join his Bavarian allies." Tom opened a slim manila folder on his desk and read from a sheet of paper. "This is what he wrote to the Elector: 'Cette valle;e de Neustadt que vous me proposez. C'est le chemin qu'on appelle le Val d'Enfer. Que votre Altesse me pardonne l'expression; je ne suis pas diable pour y passer.' This was the route he rejected, up the HllenthalHell Valley." His finger traced a path on the map screen, running northeast from Falkenstein past Eifelheim, below the Feldberg. "There wasn't even a road through that tanglewood until the Austrians built one in 1770so Marie Antoinette could travel to France in comfort, which also turned out to be a bad idea. Even after the road was put in, it was a bad place to travel through. Moreau's Retreat down the valley was such a feat that, when he finally reached the lower end, he was nearly hailed a victor. Then here..." He rummaged again in his folder. "....I have a copy of a letter by an English traveler named Hughes, who writes in 1900: 'I pressed on to Himmelreich, lest darkness catch me on the malign ground of Eifelheim.' He's being a little tongue-in-cheeka snooty Edwardian Englishman winking at 'quaint' German folktalesbut you notice he didn't stay the night. And Anton Zaengleyou remember Antonhe sent me a newspaper clipping that... Here, read it yourself." He handed her the manila folder. "Go ahead. It's right on top."

If a cosmologist learned anything, it was that the shortest route was not always a straight line. Opening the folder, Sharon found a clipping from the Freiburger Wochenbericht with an English translation stapled to it.

Dracula Cult Finds New Grave

(Freiburg i/ Br.) Although officials discount it as superstition, some US soldiers on maneuvers here believe they have found the tomb of Count Dracula, hundreds of miles from Transylvania. A spokesperson for the US Third Infantry Division acknowledged that something between a cult and a fad had emerged among the soldiers over an obscure medieval headstone decorated with the carving of a demonic face.

The grave lies in a region of the Black Forest called Eifelheim.

The region is heavily forested and the soldiers refuse to divulge the precise location, claiming that curious tourists would offend the grave's inhabitant. This suits nearby farmers, who have a superstitious dread of the place.

Monsignor Heinrich Lurm, a spokesman for the Diocese of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, is concerned about possible desecration of the cemetery by curiosity-seekers, even though it is centuries old. "I suppose you can't stop these young fellows from believing what they want," he said. "Facts are much less exciting than fables."

The monsignor also downplayed the possible connection between the carving the soldiers have described and local folktales of flying monsters, called the Krenkl. "After a few hundred years of wind and rain," he said, "my own face would not look so good, either. If modern American soldiers can make up stories about a carving, so can medieval German peasants."

Sharon returned the clipping. "There's your answer. Krenkl. They've got their own version of the Jersey Devil flying around."

He gave her a look of pity. "Sharon, this is the Black Forest. There are more demons, ghosts, and witches per square mile than anywhere on the face of the earth. These 'Flying Krenkl of Eifelheim' sit on the shelf next to the 'Feldberg Demon' and the 'Devil's Pulpit' and the witches' covens on the Kandel and Tannha;usser's secret cave and all the rest. No, Schatzi. History happens because of material forces, not mystic beliefs. The abandonment caused the stories, not the other way around. People don't wake up one morning and suddenly decide that the place they've lived in for four centuries is suddenly verboten. Das ist Unsinn."

"Well... The Black Death..."

Tom shrugged. "But the Death was a 'common cause.' It affected all the villages. Whatever the answer is, it has to explain not only why Eifelheim was abandoned forever, but why only Eifelheim was abandoned forever." He rubbed his eyes. "Trouble is, there's no data. Nada. Nichts. Nichto. Nincs. A few secondary sources, nothing at all contemporary to the events. The earliest reference I found was a theological treatise on meditation, written three generations later. That's it there." He jabbed a finger at the folder.

Sharon saw a scanned image of a Latin manuscript. Most of the page was occupied by an ornate capital D supported by a trellis of vines twisted into a complex pattern that broke out here and there into leaves and berries, odd triangles and other geometric figures. A vague feeling of de;j vu stole over her as she studied it. "Not very pretty," she said.

"Positively ugly," said Tom. "And the contents are worse. It's called 'The Attainment of the Other World by Searching Within.' Gottes Himmel, I'm not kidding. Mystical drivel about a 'trinity of trinities' and how God can be in all places at all times 'including times and places we cannot know save by looking inside ourselves.' But... !" Tom held his index finger up. "The author credits the ideas toand I quote'old mason Seybke, whose father knew personally the last pastor at the place we call Eifelheim.' Unquote." He crossed his arms. "How's that for firsthand data?"

"What a curious way to phrase it: 'the place we call Eifelheim'." Sharon thought Tom was bragging as much as complaining, as if he had come to love the brick wall against which he was butting his head. Fair enough. Both were made of similar material. She was reminded of her mother's endless litanies of medical complaints. Not that her mother had enjoyed being sick, but she had taken not a little pride in the insurmountable nature of her illnesses.

Sharon flipped idly through the printouts, wondering if there were some way to get Tom out of the apartment. He was spinning his wheels and making her life miserable. She handed him back the folder. "You need more data."

"Bozhe moi. Sharon. Ya nye durk! Tell me something I don't know! I've looked and I've looked. Clio's chased down every reference to Eifelheim in the entire Net."

"Well, not everything's in the Net," she snapped back. "Aren't there musty old papers in archives and the back rooms of libraries that no one's ever read, let alone scanned? I thought that's what you historians used to do before you got computersroot around in dusty shelves, blowing off cobwebs."

"Well... ," he said doubtfully. "Anything off-line can be scanned in by request..."

"That's if you know the document exists. What about uncatalogued stuff?"

Tom pursed his lips and looked at her. He nodded slowly. "There were a few marginal items," he admitted. "They didn't sound too promising at the time; but now... Well, like they say: Cantabit vaceus coram latrone viator." He grinned at her. "A penniless man sings before the robber," he explained. "Like me, what can he lose?" He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, pulling absently on his lower lip. Sharon smiled to herself. She knew that habit. Tom was okay, but he was like an old motorcycle. You had to kick hard to get him started.

Later, after Tom had gone to the library, Sharon noticed Clio's screen still lit and sighed in exasperation. Why did Tom always go off and leave things running? Computers, electric lights, stereos, televisions. He left a trail of perking appliances behind him wherever he went.

She crossed the room to turn his PC off, but paused with her finger over the track pad while she stared at the empty cell. Eifelheim... A sinister black hole surrounded by a constellation of living villages. Something horrible must have happened there once. Something so wicked that seven centuries later people shunned it and had forgotten why.

Abruptly, she cleared the machine. Don't be silly, she told herself. But that made her think of something Tom had said. And that made her wonder, What if... ? And nothing was ever the same again.

Copyright © 2006 by Michael Flynn


Eifelheim - a great read

- kabelfritz


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