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Prologue

The mystery would never be solved. It would simply join others, like the Tunguska event or the Square Crater on Callisto, in the catalogue of unexplained occurrences. The initial worldwide excitement waned within a few months, as it became clear that no quick answers would be found. For a few years grieving relatives would, with some success, press officialdom to maintain the studies and inquiries. But there were no lawyers to keep the fires stoked. The courts ruled soon enough that the Grantville Disaster was an Act of God, for which insurance companies were not liable. Within ten years, the Disaster had devolved into another domain of fanatics and enthusiasts, like the Kennedy Assassination. Thereafter, of course, it enjoyed a near-eternal half-life. But few if any reputable scientists in the world held out any hope for a final explanation.


Theories, of course, abounded. But the vague traces on instruments were impossible to decipher clearly. A small black hole, passing through the Earth. That was one theory. Another—popular for a time until the underlying mathematics were rejected in the light of later discoveries—was that a fragmented superstring had struck the planet a glancing blow.


The only man who ever came close to understanding that a new universe had been created was a biologist. A junior biologist by the name of Hank Tapper, attached almost as an afterthought to one of the geological teams sent to study the disaster. The team devoted several months to a study of the terrain which had replaced what had once been part of West Virginia. They came to no conclusions other than the obvious fact that the terrain was not indigenous to the area, but that—this eliminated the once-avid interest of the SETI crowd—it was clearly terrestrial.


The size of the foreign terrain was mapped, quite precisely. It formed a perfectly circular hemisphere about six miles in diameter, approximately half that deep at its center. Once the team left, Tapper remained behind for a few more months. Eventually, he identified the fauna and flora as being almost identical to those of parts of Central Europe. He became excited. That matched the archaeological report, which—very, very diffidently—suggested that the ruined farmhouses on the new terrain had a vaguely late-medieval/early modern Germanic feel to them. So did the seven human corpses found in one of the farmhouses. Two men, two women, and three children. The remains were badly charred by the fire, but marks on the bones indicated that at least two of the people had been murdered by some kind of large cutting implements.


The dental evidence suggested that the dead people were not modern. Or, at least, had somehow never been given any kind of dental treatment. But medical examination determined that the murders were very recent. And the farmhouses were still smoldering when they were found.


Tapper teetered on the edge of the truth. Then, after several more months of work failed to turn up any matching piece of disturbed terrain anywhere in central Europe, he abandoned the study altogether. He had suspicions, but—


The only possible explanation was a transposition in time as well as space. Tapper was a junior biologist. His budding career would be ruined if he advanced his suspicions without evidence. And there could be no evidence, if he was right. Whatever remained of the area of West Virginia which had vanished was lost somewhere back in time.


So, Tapper accepted the loss of a year's work, and went in search of greener pastures. He published his findings, to be sure; but only as dry factual accounts in obscure publications. He made no attempt to draw conclusions, or posit theories, or draw any kind of public attention.


It was just as well. His career would have been ruined—and for no good purpose. No one would have believed him. Even if someone had, the most extensive archaeological search of central Europe would never have discovered the matching hemisphere. It was there, of course, in that region of Germany called Thuringia. But it was there almost four centuries earlier, and only for an instant. The moment those hemispheres had been transposed, a new universe split off from the old.


And, besides, the truth was far stranger than even Tapper ever imagined. Even he assumed that the cause was some kind of natural cosmic disaster.


 


In reality, the Grantville Disaster was the result of what humans of the day would have called criminal negligence. Caused by a shard of cosmic garbage, a discarded fragment of what, for lack of a better term, could be called a work of art. A shaving, you might say, from a sculpture. The Assiti fancied their solipsist amusements with the fabric of spacetime. They were quite oblivious to the impact of their "art" on the rest of the universe.


The Assiti would be exterminated, eighty-five million years later, by the Fta Tei. Ironically, the Fta Tei were a collateral branch of one of the human race's multitude of descendant species. Their motive, however, was not revenge. The Fta Tei knew nothing of their origins on a distant planet once called Earth, much less a minor disaster which had occurred there. The Fta Tei exterminated the Assiti simply because, after many stern warnings, they persisted in practicing their dangerous and irresponsible art.


 


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Framed