Early autumn sunlight brightened the kitchen in the modest domus on the Via Palmae. Aelius reached across the table to take Dulcis' hand. "Thank you for last night, Dulcis. I guess I was preoccupied at first. But you were very sweet. You..."
Before he could finish the sentence he was interrupted by the shock of Livia's cold nose against his thigh. He looked at the marsupial bitch. One of her pups had stuck its head out of her pouch and Aelius said, "Well, will you look at that. It's about time."
Dulcis rounded the table and knelt on the malachite floor. Its polished greenness retained the night's cool. This was going to be a scorcher. Sometimes the third month of the year was cool in Novum Ostia, when autumn set in early, but this year summer had been fierce and it refused to loosen its grip. The whole continent of Terra Australis seemed like a baked portion of the Jews' unleavened bread.
Livia whined and Dulcis reached up and scooped a dollop of wheat cereal and honey from Aelius' plate. She put the food into Livia's dish and the bitch trotted across the kitchen and snuffled curiously at the treat. She was still nursing two pups and her appetite, always good, was outstanding.
Aelius growled. "You're the one who's always saying not to feed her off our plates, Dulcis. We shouldn't do that, it only encourages her to beg. How many times have you told me so?" He lifted his glass and took a deep draught of freshly squeezed orange juice.
She stood behind his chair and leaned forward, her breasts pressed against his head, her face at an odd angle to his own. "You're right, my darling. As ever. But she has babies. Just look at that one. Pointed ears, and those big shiny eyes. The world is brand new to him. Let Livia have her treat."
Aelius grinned. He looked at his watch. "I'd better get a move on. Today of all days."
Dulcis kissed him on the ear, then moved away. Livia had cleaned up her treat and Dulcis scooped the remaining cereal from the pot into the bitch's dish. Livia sat on her haunches, watching Dulcis. The tiny dog disappeared back into his mother's pouch. Almost at once another miniature marsupial pup poked its head from Livia's pouch.
"There he is again," Aelius laughed.
Dulcis frowned. "No he's not. That's the girl."
"Oh, come on. You can't tell."
"Sure I can. The other one looks like a boy. This is the girl." Dulcis stroked Livia's sleek head, tugged gently at her pointed ears. She didn't try to touch the tiny head peering from Livia's pouch. Dulcis said, "What a good girl you are, Livia. What a good mommy. What beautiful babies you have."
Livia's tail thumped the malachite floor. She waited for Dulcis to step away before tucking into the second bowl of cereal and honey.
Dulcis said, "The babies don't even look alike. The boy has darker fur and he's much more aggressive. This one has to be a girl. Look -- she has a beauty mark on her cheek. See, Aelius, the disk of golden fur against the black?"
Aelius shook his head. "Celadus will have my head if I'm late today of all days. Caesar Viventius himself is flying in from Terra Nipponsis to welcome the crew back from their expedition to Martes. This should be the biggest news day of the century."
"Then you're working with Celadus today?"
"I wouldn't exactly say working with him. You know, every once in a while Celadus gets on his high horse and decides to be an executive. You'd think he was a senator, not just a news broadcast editor."
Dulcis shook her head sympathetically. "Who'll you be with?"
"Celadus wants me at the caelumportis when Caesar's caelumvola touches down. I'll be reporting. And then just hours later Isis reaches ground. The first craft to visit another planet..."
"We've been going to Luna for 200 years."
"Indeed. If you consider a mere moon a planet..."
"By reason, Aelius, if you consider its size and..."
"Please, Dulcis, let's not quarrel."
"You're right, Aelius. I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
Again Aelius lifted his glass and poured the last of his orange juice down his gullet. "I'm just saying that this expedition has been titanic news. The journey itself, the landing on Martes of Amaterasu, the loss of the spatiumnavis, the rescue by Isis..."
"And the brave nautae who gave their lives..."
"All for the greater glory of Rome, my darling."
"Yes, all for the greater glory of Rome."
"Well, Caesar Callistus Viventius himself wants to be on hand to welcome the heroes back to Tellus. And who am I, an humble journalist, to speak other than words of praise, eh?"
"I just don't understand why it took 200 years after first visiting Luna, then setting up bases there, to build a spatiumnavis and travel to Martes. I mean, the navii are pretty much alike, aren't they, Aelius? You report on these things all the time. You ought to know."
Aelius smiled. "We Romans have always been timid about innovation."
"Some would say, thorough, or at most cautious, rather than timid."
"And who's to quarrel with success, eh?" Aelius took up his portfolio and headed for the door. The portfolio was marked with the double jubilee logotype in gilt and green enamel. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing the intertwined D and M that would surely provide collectible jewelry and plaques and junk dinnerware to make merchants rich for decades to come. He stopped and patted Livia on the head and was rewarded with a snuffle of her cold nose against his palm. He peered at the sunlight through the kitchen window and turned back for a light, broad-brimmed hat. His black, balding pate seemed a magnet for strong sunlight, and too much of it gave him fierce headaches.
As he stepped from the house he heard Dulcis ask once more who he was going to work with. He muttered, "Avita, you know." Indeed, Dulcis knew Avita, and Aelius knew that Dulcis did not care at all for Avita. Well, there was nothing that Aelius could do about it. Celadus was the boss, Celadus gave out the assignments, and Celadus said that Aelius and Avita were to work today's events together.
Aelius heard a dish break against the green malachite floor as he turned into the Via Palmae. He suspected that it was his favorite dish, but he did not turn back to investigate. He climbed into his little sun-powered car and headed for work.
As he guided the car along the Via Palmae he reviewed the day's plans in his mind. And he thought about Avita. She was a fine broadcaster. She had wonderful presence -- the camera loved her, as the expression had it. Aelius did most of the research and writing for their reports, but Avita took an interest in the material. She didn't just mouth Aelius's words, as had some he had worked with.
His route carried him across the Via Fuligo and past a boarded-up shop front.
In a stuffy room behind the boarded-up shop, two men and a woman leaned over a table of native eucalyptus wood. All three were dressed in drab garb, without ornament. Each wore a dagger at the waist. There was little to distinguish their genders save the woman's long, stringy hair and the meager, pointed breasts that poked sharply through her coarse shirt.
Sheets of paper littered the tabletop. A pot of Aegptian-style ink had been allowed to stand open, and had dried into a black, powdery substance. A small amphora of local wine stood open near the table's edge. Despite the day's heat, a small fire burned on a clay-brick hearth and added its smoke to the room's stuffiness.
A muscular, scowling man spoke. "This is the day. This is the last time we'll go over this plan. And it's a one-time chance. If we fail today, it's all over. We're probably dead. By Mithras, they'll crucify us. Caesar Viventius will personally hammer in the nails."
"You're dramatizing, Trux. We all know this is important. Don't go acting as if you were on a stage." The speaker was the group's lone woman. She was not much taller than average, but her skeletal thinness was her dominant feature. Rather than making her appear tiny and fragile, it somehow gave her the appearance of a rickety giant, a stick figure who might reach down and clutch at her victim, throttling her prey like a vengeful phantasm.
Trux pounded a fist on the tabletop. "Dramatizing, am I, Tenua?" He pushed himself to his feet and leaned forward, looming over the others.
The second man, fleshy and dark-visaged, was sweating in the hot, airless room. Dark circles showed where perspiration had soaked his garment at armpits and chest. His belly was pressed against the eucalyptus-wood table. He reached for a heavy mug, lifted the amphora and poured himself a quantity of wine. He flashed bloodshot eyes from the looming Trux to the skeletal Tenua.
"We're in this for the money," the fat man said.
"We're in it for the people of Terra Australis and for the freedom of peoples in every land." Trux raised a hand as if he intended to strike the drinking mug from the fat man's grasp, but he held himself back. "Don't ascribe your own crass motives to others, Pinguis. There are still some idealists in this world."
Pinguis raised his drinking mug. He held it to his chin, then dipped his tongue into the dark wine like a great, fleshy cat sampling a puddle. "When the money arrives from our masters in Uwajima -- "
Now Trux did strike the mug from Pinguis' hand. The mug smashed on the rough brick floor. The largest piece bounced into the fireplace. A trail of wine, like thin blood, led to the flames. "Our colleagues," Trux barked. "Our only masters are the tyrants of Italia, lording it over all the globe, pretending that all men are citizens of Rome, or can earn citizenship by serving the eagles. And we believe them. Fools believe them."
Pinguis gazed mournfully at the fragments of his smashed drinking mug. He reached across the table and wrapped fat fingers around Trux's empty mug. He filled it from the amphora and again dipped his oddly pointed tongue, catlike, into the wine. "Colleagues, masters, whatever. So long as their aurii are made of real gold. And so long as they pay up."
"They have so far, haven't they?"
"But once the deed is done, and they need us no longer, Trux? What then?"
Trux shook his head. "They will pay."
Throughout the exchange Tenua had watched in silence, a cynic's smile playing across her lips. Now she shook her head as if bemused by a pair of squabbling children. "Shall we go over the plan once more? Or shall we just sit here stifling while Caesar's caelumvola arrives from Terra Nipponsis and the spatiumnavis returns from Martes?"
The two men grumbled. Fat Pinguis, apparently satisfied that the wine was not poisoned, tilted his head back and drank deeply from his mug. A generous trickle of dark wine spilled over his chin and dripped onto his belly, adding a darker stain to the sweat-marked garment.
Trux said, "You're right, Tenua. Here, let's review this once more."
Pinguis sighed. "All right. I could do this in my sleep. But if we must, we must."
The largest sheet was a map of Nova Ostia and the surrounding countryside. The caelumportis where both Caesar Viventius' caelumvola and the spatiumnavis Isis would touch Roman soil this day was circled in red. The journey from Nova Ostia itself was not long. A ground vehicle could cover the distance in half an hour, easily.
"The explosives are loaded," Trux said. "If either of you have any doubts -- Pinguis, Tenua -- state them now. Once we cross the Pons Meretrix and head out the Via Brassica to the Pratum Grandis road and thence to the caelumportis..."
"The die is cast," Pinguis completed Trux's sentence.
"We have crossed the Rubicon," Tenua added.
"How apt, darling." Trux grunted an unformed word. "The first Caesar crossed the Rubicon and entered Rome. And we shall cross the Pons Meretrix, cross the River Diamantina, and it shall be our own Rubicon."
"The plan, Trux, the plan." Tenua's tone was impatient. She watched Pinguis fill his drinking mug still again and tilt it and his head simultaneously.
"The plan." Trux lifted a pen and moved it across the map. Its point scratched dryly. He cursed, dipped the pen in the inkpot and cursed more violently when he saw that the ink had dried. He looked around but saw no water to add to the dried ink. Instead he tipped the amphora and dribbled a fine stream of wine into the dried ink. He stirred the concoction with his pen, then tested it on the edge of the map and grunted with satisfaction.
Pinguis muttered, "A waste."
Trux traced the route that they would take from the shop on Via Fuligo, across the Pons Meretrix to the Pratus Grandis road and to the caelumportis. "Our friends from Uwajima will be represented at the ceremonies. Caesar wants this to be a celebration for all the world, but he wants all the world to remember that it's a Roman world and a Roman triumph."
"All right," Tenua put in. "We know that Caesar's caelumvola reaches the caelumportis an hour before noon."
"And the tyrant will have a fancy feast, as usual, before anything else." Pinguis managed a smirk.
"Of course you would think first of that," Tenua hissed.
"Squab," Pinguis said, as if he could taste the succulent bird. "Honeyed redfish. Quails' eggs. Breads and cakes. And I'll bet he's got a miniature wine cellar right there on his caelumvola."
Tenua shook her head. "Don't be a fool. He'll be served from the local stores, or from the private stock of a Nova Ostian senator."
Trux growled, "Shut up and listen to me. The spatiumnavis Isis is expected at the middle of the afternoon, and Caesar wants to witness its landing personally."
"Who wouldn't? It will be a great sight. There will be crowds there. I still worry about our being stalled in a jam on the road, or caught in a multitude at the caelumnavis." Tenua's voice had the odd tang of those born and raised in westernmost Terra Australis. Here in Novum Ostia she sometimes had trouble making herself understood, and had been taken more than once for some sort of outlandish barbarian.
Trux shook his head. "Not to worry." He spoke with the harsh simplicity of a native of the metropolis. He even pronounced the city's name Novoscha, as if it were some village in northernmost Dacia.
A knot in the burning eucalyptus wood on the hearth exploded with a violent report. Trux leaped as if prodded with a hot poker, reaching for the dagger at his waist. Scrawny Tenua lunged sideways, scrambling into a crouched position, her hands curled into claws like those of the rare marsupial tiger of Terra Australis's eastern forests. Fat Pinguis shoved against the table. His chair tilted on its legs and toppled backwards. Pinguis's weight landed atop the flimsy chair and smashed it to smithereens.
Each of the three looked at the others, then Tenua permitted herself a nervous laugh.
Trux completed his review of their plan. When Caesar's guests from Terra Nipponsis created a distraction, Pinguis and Tenua would rush toward Caesar and the nautae, freshly emerged from Isis. Caesar's guards were no fools. They would have remained undistracted by the Nipponsii, but would rush to halt Pinguis and Tenua. It was then that Trux himself would strike, hurling a concentrated bundle of Cathayan exploding powder at Caesar.
If Trux failed, if the others remained captive, they were armed as well with explosive bundles. They could detonate them, taking their captives with them to Hades, but Trux would not fail. He could not fail. He must not.
The assassination of the supreme tyrant would be the signal for uprisings throughout the world. The age of Rome would be at an end. No longer would arrogant Italia dominate the globe and all its lands and seas. People of every continent and country would determine their own destinies.
By Mithras, a long overdue age of gold would dawn at last.
The three plotters left their den by a rear exit, and made their way to a battered, grime-coated car. They climbed into it. Trux seated himself comfortably while Tenua took the steering yoke.
Once Rome was dismembered, Trux thought, they might very well go back to the old system of slaves, a system abandoned by Rome hundreds of years ago. It would be very pleasant, Trux thought, to own men and women. To be able to command their every action, their very lives or deaths. With the machinery that existed today, slaves were not needed. For those tasks that could not be taken over by machinery, free workers were more efficient and productive. If anything, the problem was one of finding enough jobs for the available workers, not the other way around.
All of that would change.
Tenua pulled the vehicle around the building containing the boarded-up shop and guided it through a littered alley. The morning sun blazed on the Via Fuligo. The vehicle accelerated from the mouth of the alley and turned toward the Pons Meretrix, toward the Pratus Grandis road, toward Caesar's caelumvola and the spatiumnavis Isis and toward the events that would change the destiny of the world.
The Via Fuligo intersected with the Via Brassica. Standing in an upstairs room, gazing into the bright morning on the Via Fuligo, Aelius watched the filthy, battered vehicle lurch by. It was headed toward the Pons Meretrix.
Aelius nodded to himself. He jammed his light straw hat onto his head and spun on his heel. "All right," he said, "let's go, Avita. Celadus is already at the 'portis, and if we don't hustle out there we'll miss the big show and he'll roast our hides for his dinner."
"You're so eloquent, Aelius." Avita was short and busty, and favored costumes that permitted taller men to see the shadowed valley between her breasts. She wore a locket there, suspended by a chain of fine electrum. The contents of the locket she refused to divulge. No man was known to have seen those contents, though many had tried.
They loaded their gear into an agency van. Heavier equipment, they knew, was already at the landing site, but they wanted to have their hand-held sight-and-sound recorders with them.
"Isis is returning directly from Martes, isn't she?" Avita asked.
Aelius watched her out of the corner of his eye. This was information that Avita already had. Perhaps she was going over it just to refresh her mind. "That's right."
Avita shook her head. She wore her hair longer than Dulcis. The perfect blue-black waves caught the morning sunlight like a flame. "I don't see why. I'd thought they would dock at Luna and then shuttle down. Wouldn't that be easier? And safer?"
"Politics, everything's politics. Caesar Viventius wants to be the first to welcome them. And he didn't want to go to Luna to do it. He wanted it here in Terra Australis. The double jubilee, all of that."
"Right, just remind me, why don't you?"
Aelius shook his head. He steered the van around an immense industrial freighter powered by solar panels the size of a small playing field. Beneath its belly, Aelius knew, were the heavy batteries that were charged during the day and permitted the freighter to run all night if need be. The freighter carried the double jubilee logotype on its side. The intertwined D and M worked with laurel leaves and gilt were covered with dust and grime. Even before the jubilee celebration had reached its climax, the tawdry decorations were chipping and fading away. Aelius muttered a curse.
"What was that?"
Aelius grinned. "I was just wishing that they'd ban those things from city streets. Make 'em unload in the suburbs, or at least get in and out of town at night. No matter."
"Did you ever wonder what the world would be like if the plot had succeeded?"
Startled, Aelius gaped at Avita, then looked back just in time to avoid crashing into the back of a grimy, battered conveyance containing a woman and two men. They had reached the Pons Meretrix and the battered vehicle had stalled in the middle of the arching span.
Aelius jumped out of the van and ran to the stalled passenger conveyance. The driver was a tall woman, almost skeletally gaunt. Beside her sat a powerfully built, square-jawed individual. A fat blob sprawled behind them.
"What's the matter?" Aelius demanded. "There ought to be a legionary here to keep traffic moving. Doesn't anybody do anything right in this town any more?"
The gaunt woman said, "The car's been sluggish all morning. Now it's stopped altogether." Aelius could hear the vehicle's motor humming feebly. Actually it sounded more like a moan.
"Look at this, look at your panel! For Jupiter's sake, when did you last clean the thing off?"
The man seated beside the driver muttered something Aelius couldn't make out. The man clambered from the car and peered at the panel. "Hades' name, you're right. Just a moment." He opened a compartment and produced an old shirt. He rubbed it across the solar panel. Again, again.
Aelius could hear the car's motor hum more steadily.
"Thank you, stranger." The square-jawed man climbed back into the car and the gaunt woman pulled it away.
Aelius muttered and climbed back into the van. Avita laughed. The van surged forward. Behind them, a row of vehicles had halted and their drivers had set up a clamor of complaint. The line now moved across the Pons Meretrix. Ahead, Aelius could see the ramp that carried vehicles from the Via Brassica onto the caelumportis road.
Avita said, "You never answered my question."
"What question was that?"
"If the plot had succeeded. If Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius and the rest had not been such incompetents. Or if Caesar Julius hadn't been smart enough to plant a spy among them and have the plot smashed before it could get into play."
Aelius shook his head. "Historians and fantasizers have wondered about that for a thousand years, haven't they?"
"But what do you think, Aelius? What do you think?" she repeated. She laid her hand on his thigh, emphasizing her question. Maybe it was just the bright sun warming them both through the van's glass, but Avita's hand felt red hot on Aelius' leg. Red hot, and yet not unpleasant.
He said, "I don't think history would have been much different and I don't think the world would be much different today. History is moved by great forces. Individual men and women are merely the instruments of destiny. If one tool is broken or lost, the fates merely pick up another to do their work."
Avita shook her head. Her tresses swung with the motion. "I'm not so sure, Aelius. I think if the first Caesar had died, Rome would have followed a different course."
Aelius frowned. "How so?"
"I don't know for sure. I think the Republic would have failed. I think some strongman would have seized the reins of state, made himself the master of Rome."
"Maybe so." The van was on the caelumportis road now. Legionaries lined the road, their metal accoutrements polished so they reflected the sunlight like beacons, the variously colored crests on their glittering ceremonial helmets marking their units and rank.
"Maybe so," Aelius continued. "But even so, what if that had come about? Rome was already the greatest power in the world. Really the only power that towered above all others. Carthage was long gone. Egypt, Syria, Judaea were all vassals of Rome. The Cathayans might have proved rivals of Rome, but when our nations had their encounter the Cathayans proved accommodating. And of course the people of the western continents were more than willing to make peace with our ancestors."
Avita snorted. "What do you mean, our ancestors? Does this look like the skin of an Italian?" She held her hand before Aelius' face. He saw the dark, sleek skin of one descended from the original inhabitants of Terra Australis.
"You don't have to be Italian to be Roman," Aelius said. "That's much of Rome's greatness."
Avita said, "Right. And when was the last time we had a Caesar who wasn't Italian?"
"It will come. It will come."
"Terra Australis has been a Roman province for 500 years. Most of us have been citizens for centuries. For what that may be worth."
"History will have its own way," Aelius asserted. The traffic ahead was growing denser. In the distance he could see the buildings of Pratum Grandis where the caelumportis had been built more than a century earlier. Even they were decorated with the giant double jubilee logotype.
Maybe Avita was tired of the subject, for she changed it. "What do you think the nautae found on Martes? The government's been tight-lipped about it. Even the likes of us who always know everything first..." She left her sentence hanging between them.
Aelius shook his head. "I'll tell you one thing they didn't find, and that was Etruscans." He laughed scornfully at the notion that some of the wilder journalists of Novum Ostia had kicked around.
"Don't laugh, Aelius."
"You don't take that guff seriously, do you?"
"Well, I just don't know. The Etruscans went somewhere. Unless you think they went to Atlantis."
"Oh, please." Aelius snorted. "One silly legend on top of another."
"Well, what do you think, then?"
"I'm sure we'll find out."
But Avita wasn't quite ready to let go of the subject. "Something got Amaterasu. Whatever you think of Rome and Italia, Roman engineering is reliable."
"Sure. That's why that car stalled in front of us on the Pons Meretrix."
"You saw how they got started again, Aelius."
"And you think Etruscans destroyed Amaterasu but let Isis land and rescue the survivors and return safely to Tellus. That makes a lot of sense."
There was a glint high against the dazzling blue of morning. Aelius and Avita both saw it. Avita asked, "Do you think that's Caesar Viventius' caelumvola, coming in from Terra Nipponsis?"
Aelius shook his head. "Might be. Might even be Isis herself. She has to circle Tellus several times, slowing all the while, before she can land."
From the cabin of Isis, Terra Australis looked like a great sandy map, with reddish-gray outcroppings of mountain ranges, green forests in the east and glittering blue lakes and rivers. Beyond the greatest of Roman provinces the great western ocean spread in silvery splendor.
Lucius, Navicularis, stood with one hand against the metallic bulkhead, the other to his chin in characteristic pose. He had started the voyage four years before, launching with his crew from Luna. Isis had been constructed there, as had her sister spatiumnavis, Amaterasu. Lucius had been clean-shaven then. Now he sported a reddish beard like those his ancestors had worn in Terra Occidens.
And now Amaterasu lay on the sandy, rock-strewn surface of another world, while Isis struggled to return, not to her place of birth on Luna but to the home planet Tellus. The engineers had calculated that a landing on Tellus was possible, but only at the hands of the greatest of naviculari.
Lucius turned to address his three chief officers. Sabbina, Gubernatrix; Septimus, Machinator; Drusilla, Nunciatrix. "Dear friends, you have come through Hades with me." He reached to clasp the hands of each in turn. "Now we face our final test." He turned his back to them and gazed through Isis' glass once again.
A junior gubernator sat at the controls. Junior at the beginning of our great adventure, Lucius thought. After four years and the greatest voyage in the history of humankind, Antoninus was far from junior, save in comparison to Sabbina.
"Sabbina," Lucius asked, "have you full confidence in the course you have plotted for us?"
The gubernatrix smiled wryly. "The mechanical computator has spoken, O Navicularis. The holy oracle says that the odds are in our favor."
"And the state of the navis itself, Septimus?"
"She'll not fly to pieces before we touch solum. After that, I imagine that Isis will wind up in a museum. I wouldn't want to try to fly her again, but she'll get us to Pratum Grandis all right." He paused. "If we're lucky."
Lucius made a low, inarticulate sound. Septimus' assurance was actually greater than he'd hoped for. "And you, Drusilla. You've been speaking with Novum Ostia?"
Drusilla said, "Caesar Viventius himself will welcome us back to Tellus."
Lucius smiled. "Of course."
"Of course, Navicularis. I suppose they're planning a hero's welcome for us all. A triumph in the grand old fashion."
Drusilla, her skin the burnished copper hue and her neatly braided hair the black of her own ancestors, nodded.
"All right." Lucius inhaled deeply, pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and motioned Antoninus from the spatiumnavis's controls. Isis had crossed Tellus' terminator into darkness. Beneath her electrum and diorite coated hull province after province flashed by in blackness. The great cities of Tellus had illuminated their buildings and roadways and open air stadia, knowing that Isis was to pass overhead.
This was the welcome home of a planet whose dreams and prayers had ridden into the ocean of space with the navia Isis and Amaterasu, whose tears had been shed at the loss of Amaterasu, whose masses had thrilled at word of the rescue of Amaterasu's survivors, who waited now with bated breath to receive the men and women who had blazed their trail through the universe and returned to tell the tale.
Lucius' sure hands needed no testing to get the feel of Isis' controls. He was no remote commander. He had handled the spatiumnavis through her most difficult maneuvers, including the landing on Martes' mossy plain after the crash of Amaterasu and her takeoff and escape after the attack of the barbarians who had already slaughtered most of Amaterasu's brave nautae.
Maybe it was Rome's success that had led to those nautae's deaths. None on Tellus challenged a roman citizen. Oh, there was the occasional robbery late at night when some unwary celebrant left a tavern reeling and defenseless. And of course there were the gladiatorial contests where outlandishly costumed and vaingloriously titled performers mocked the once serious combat of swordsmen and netmen.
But the majesty of Rome was respected everywhere. The notion that a Roman navis -- spatiumnavis, he reminded himself -- could be attacked by a gang of howling thugs... It was as much shocking as offensive.
"Machinator Septimus, the engines seem a trifle sluggish. Are you sure we have full power and function?"
Septimus studied his own console. "We are running on very lean fuel, Navicularis. There's none to spare. If I enrich the mixture we may not have enough to land safely."
Lucius nodded. Through Isis' glass he could see the spatiumnavis's engine nacelles, left and right, mounted on pylons beyond the ship's main edificium. Glittering with polish and enameled proudly with the eagles of Rome four years ago, the nacelles were now pitted with meteorites, scarred by Isis' passage through even the thin atmosphere of Martes, and, most shameful of all, gouged by the rocks and spears of the savages of an alien planet.
"We'll do what we must, then." Lucius shot a glance at Drusilla. "Nunciatrix, what is the state of our passengers?"
"As well as can be expected. Aside from the two we lost in passage, all still survive."
"Still in shock?"
Lucius smiled. The Greeks had contributed much to Roman culture, even to the language of the world state. One of Lucius' favorite words came from the Greek. Euphemism. He nodded, gazed downward. Isis screamed low over the western ocean. Terra Australis appeared on the horizon. It was afternoon in Novum Ostia. He made a conscious effort to relax, closing his eyes for a brief moment and rolling his shoulders to loosen muscles. He inhaled the ship's stale atmosphere, anticipating with pleasure the fresh, clean air of Tellus.
He caught a glint of the glassed towers of the Pratum Grandis and smiled in anticipation.
Avita finished her description of Caesar Viventius's arrival at Pratum Grandis and wiped her brow with a light cloth. Aelius never ceased to be amazed at her ability to look cool and elegant in the hot sunlight, blustery wind, or moments of plain or fancy stress.
Maybe that was the difference between talent and the rest of us, he though. We can write, we can direct, we can make the pictures and capture the sounds and deliver them to millions of Roman citizens and subjects all over the world. But we're not talent. That was a term reserved for people like Avita.
Caesar Viventius had made his expected speech to the assembled purveyors of information to the people of Tellus. Celadus had supervised his minions, Aelius and Avita among them, jostling for position and angles with the gatherers and disseminators of rival organizations, and he seemed pleased with Aelius' and Avita's performance.
Now Caesar Viventius and his party mounted the ceremonial stand from which they would observe the landing of Isis and to which the nautae would be escorted to be greeted by Caesar Viventius himself. Senators, magistrates and quaestors in their distinctively marked togas, lictors carrying their ceremonial bundles of rods, the procurator of Terra Australis and the praefectus of Novum Ostia jostled for position near Viventius.
Caesar's caelumvola stood nearby, guarded by legionaries in sparkling ceremonial armor. No sooner had Caesar and his party descended to the pratum than the aircraft was rolled to a covered shelter and rubbed and polished to a dazzling brightness. Then it was rolled back to stand near Caesar's pavilion, as much a symbol of his authority and the majesty of the state as had been the ancient Caesars' chariots with their curried and pampered teams of geldings.
Avita stood beside Aelius and laid her hand lightly on his arm. He looked down at the gesture but did not move his arm away. Avita followed his gaze toward the east. She knew that tracking instruments and recording devices had homed on Isis before this, but now she was able to make out the spatiumnavis' approach to the Pratum Grandis.
Isis' shape bespoke the strengths and traditions of Roman engineering. Avita could almost feel the solid strength of the craft as it dropped toward the field. She had looked at pictures of its departure for Martes and admired its lines and the fine sheen of its skin. The newly launched Isis had looked and moved like an Aegyptian goddess. Now the spatiumnavis looked and moved like an old woman, tired by a lifetime of labor and burdened with a lifetime of suffering.
The spatiumnavis circled the Pratum Grandis, dropping steadily toward the ground. The movement of the ship was deceptive. It seemed at any moment that Isis would touch the ground, but her skids, blackened and pitted, remained separated from the surface.
A glow like waves of heat rising from the sun-baked desert into the tired air emanated from Isis' engines. The navicularis must have touched the ship's controls, for the glow assumed a darkish color, then faded.
Isis touched the solum of Terra Australis, trembled like a creature in despair, then settled onto her skids. Squads of legionaries marched toward the ship. They surrounded Isis on all sides. A double column formed between the ship and Caesar Viventius's reviewing stand.
An ostium slowly swung open in Isis' hull, and legionaries hastened to station themselves in position to help nautae to the ground. The first to debark from Isis was the navicularis Lucius. He stood blinking in the bright sunlight of Terra Australis. For a moment his knees buckled and it seemed that he might fall, but he took the arm of a legionary and steadied himself. He turned and looked over his shoulder, into the darkness of Isis' interior, then swung back, smiled determinedly, and advanced between the rows of legionaries. Ahead of him stood Caesar's pavilion, and in it, Caesar himself.
Viventius watched the opening of the ostium in silence. The functionaries who surrounded him watched him like hawks, eager to pick up the first clue to Caesar's reaction and to show on their faces the emotions that Caesar felt.
Caesar turned his attention from his endlessly squabbling entourage to the men and women emerging from the spatiumnavis. No longer was he so certain that today's ceremony had been wisely planned. Indeed, it was the Ides, the five hundredth anniversary of the proclamation of the Roman province of Terra Australis and the millennial anniversary of the failed attempt upon the life of Caesar Julius.
It would be a close shave, but Viventius could greet these brave sailors of the sea of space and still return to Italia, to Rome herself, and preside over the grand jubilee celebration in the Eternal City. But it might have been better to send a delegation to welcome the brave nautae, to invite them to Rome for a triumph of their own.
Viventius rubbed his clean-shaven chin. Too late to change plans now. He strained his eyes against the bright southern sun and peered into the face of the leader of the Martes expedition, Lucius Navicularis. The man looked haggard, exhausted, on the verge of collapse. The reports that Isis had sent back, and Amaterasu before her destruction, did not bode well for Roman colonization of Martes.
The planet of the god of war had lived up to its sanguinary tint and its bloodthirsty name. Amaterasu had landed safely while Isis remained in orbit around the planet. Amaterasu's officers and her nautae had behaved according to instructions, according to plan. They had maintained precautions, surveyed the area surrounding their landing site, determined whether Martes in general, and this region in particular, was inhabited.
And Martes was inhabited. Amaterasu had messaged to Isis and hence to both Luna and Tellus that Martes was inhabited. But by whom? By what? Had men of Tellus visited the red planet in the distant past, established colonies there, then been cut off from the mother planet as history's wheel slowly turned?
Such an event would not be unprecedented. There were records of lost and rediscovered colonies on Tellus. Why not on other worlds? Caesar's head reeled with the thought. What ancient states had arisen upon Tellus, what marvels had their machinators devised, and all lost to the modern world state?
The people of Terra Nipponsis, of Uwajima -- suppose they were not truly native to those lands, but were the descendants of ancient visitors from Rome? What if Atlantis was a reality, and not merely a figment of the Greek imagination? What if the Hebrews' myth of a Garden of Eden was not wholly a myth, but an attenuated and distorted memory of -- of what? What if the denizens of Martes were not descended from ancient visitors from Tellus, but in fact the very opposite was the case?
A senator -- what was his name? -- took Caesar's elbow? "Are you all right, sir?'
Viventius shook his head.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes. Yes. It was the glare, that was all. Thank you."
The senator, looking concerned, retreated.
Lucius Navicularis stood before Caesar's reviewing stand. He looked into the face of the chief of the world state, the leader of the Universal Republic. Caesar's cheeks were smooth and his hair, an alloy of silver and iron, was carefully curled and oiled. Lucius felt his own staleness and filth. Once he would have quivered at the thought of being received by Caesar Viventius himself. Now he would give his laurels and his triumph all for a long, hot soak.
To one side of Caesar's stand he could see a group of men and women in eccentric garb. He recognized them by their facial features and their clothing as Uwajimae. A violent, restless people who had never fully settled into the comfortable discipline of Roman citizenry.
A band was playing, horns blaring and drums pounding. Lucius felt heavy. He knew that returning to Tellus' gravity would have this effect, but still it was an effort to remain upright. He looked behind him and saw Sabbina, Septimus, Drusilla, his three chief officers, struggling to maintain a proper bearing in the presence of Caesar himself.
The band ceased its blaring and its pounding. Caesar was speaking. The words were meaningless to Lucius. He knew they would be the platitudes of Roman patriotism, steadfastness, courage, but while he could see Caesar's lips forming the words, all he could hear was a grating bleating sound like a goat making a speech.
The sun glinted off the musicians' instruments and off the armor and the weapons of the legionaries. Caesar's caelumvola shone like a sculpture of obsidian and electrum.
A trio of persons had broken from the crowd beyond Caesar's reviewing stand and were running toward the twin lines of legionaries that marked the path from Isis to the stand and that surrounded the stand itself.
The tallest of the Uwajimae pointed a object at the three who were running. A blocky, muscular man. A tall woman, little more than dark skin stretched over long, thin bones. A fat man, staggering and sprawling behind them.
A bright light flashed from the object that the Uwajiman had pointed. Lucius had never seen anything like it. The blocky man exploded like a knot in a fireplace. Bits of flesh and spatters of blood flew. The light flashed twice more and the tall woman and the fat man exploded as well.
Legionaries were already running to stop the three, but they arrived in time only to be splattered with blood and gore. A centurion had taken the Uwajiman in custody, had seized the object that had sent the bright flash toward the three who were now dead.
Pandemonium reigned on the Pratum Grandis.
Aelius and Avita had trained their gear on Caesar Viventius and Lucius Navicularis, but now they too were running to the site of the sudden carnage, recording the event for the audience who depended on them for their daily news. Celadus was screaming at them but Aelius and Avita had anticipated his instructions.
For just a moment, Aelius swung back toward Caesar. He was surrounded by aides. A thousand years had passed, and this time it was not Caesar's own trusted friends but those who hated the Universal Republic who had attempted to assassinate the master of Rome.
A different plan, a different tactic, but the same outcome. Caesar lived.
© Richard A Lupoff 1996, 2002
This story was first published in 1996 in Alternate Tyrants, edited by Mike Resnick, and is reprinted in Lupoff's new collection, Claremont Tales II, published in 2002 by Golden Gryphon Press.
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