Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

I've been too busy lazy to do much other than NaNoWriMo this month, so I'll do a thanksgiving post by linking my thanksgiving series from last year.

Gratitude 1
Gratitude 2
Gratitude 3
Gratitude 4
Gratitude 5
Gratitude 6
Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

See it before it's gone

Coral bleaching has been increasing in the Caribbean as well as elsewhere. 2005 was a bad year and they're talking up 2010, too. I flip-flop on whether this talk is alarmist or realistic but I'm glad I'm gonna get to visit there this June.

Significant quotes:

In the study, experts from 22 countries reported that more than 80 percent of surveyed corals bleached in 2005, and more than 40 percent of the total surveyed died.

The researchers noted that other testing had found that the Caribbean's reefs had been stable for at least 200,000 years — until the 1980s when bleaching started to happen more often.

More info here and here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out, out, damned demons!

Is that redundant?

A long, long time ago in this very solar system, for shits and giggles, Ronnie and I used to listen to a radio show called "The Bible Answer Man" with Dr. Walter Martin. What was fascinating about it was that, when he was criticizing some heterodox (to him) Christian individual or group, he was pointed and precise in eviscerating their faulty logic, nonsensical thinking, and ridiculous beliefs. So, I'd kinda relax and start thinking of him as a regular sorta guy, instead of a religious zealot, like the callers he sliced and diced. Until...

Then, he'd get a caller complaining that their waterbed was possessed by demons, and I'd be waiting with great amusement for him to rip 'em a new one; but, instead, he'd say, "Ah, yes! That's a fairly common problem." And I'd have this initial reaction of What the fuck? until I remembered that he was as demented as the callers he excoriated, just with a different flavor of theology.

I hadn't thought of him and his how-to on dealing with possessed waterbeds for a long time, until today, when a high school classmate posted about this weekend's exorcism conference, held in Baltimore by and for the Roman Catholic clergy. Yes, the current pope, and former(?) NAZI, Benedict the 16th, has been pushing for a return to a more classic form of Catholicism and this is yet another result of that effort.

I don't really have much that I want to add here beyond stating the simple fact that the Roman Catholic Church is having a weekend seminar on how to decide when an exorcism is appropriate. In 2010.

I do have a favorite quote I'll share with you. The organizer of this shindig, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, said, "Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one."

I disagree, Bishop Paprocki. I'd say that everyone who thinks they need an exorcism, probably does.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Chapter 4 et sequitur

The Lost Century

Chapter 4. What the Fuck Was That?

...and everything that follows...

[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]

I don't mean to be a tease, but I think I'm taking up a lot of bandwidth and just dumping more noise into the poor, clogged 'net and my quirky little blog by endlessly posting completed chapters as I finish them. Therefore, I've decided to stop doing that. Here's what I plan to do instead.

If you'd like to read this raw version of my NaNo novel, I'll send it out to interested parties as an email. So, if you wanna be on that list, drop me a line with two pieces of information:

1. Your e-mail address.

2. Tell me if ya wanna get each chapter as soon as it gets written, or if ya wanna get whatever material I've written as of December 1 (my official NaNo effort), or if ya wanna get the finished product (still a NaNo-quality, pre-rough-draft version), estimated completion maybe mid-January. Or any combination thereof, huh? I'm flexible.

My thanks to the folks who've commented on what I've produced so far. I appreciate your feedback on this literary lump of coal. If you can see the potential diamond hidden inside, you're more generous to me than I am to myself.

Publius Vergilius Maro (sometimes known as "Frank," but not for this effort)

Despite what I said above, here's Chapter 4. One of the NaNoWriMo gimmicks is "the travelling shovel of death." I added it to this chapter.

Chapter 4. What the Fuck Was That?

"What the fuck was that?"

The aggrieved tone and Tits' unmistakable accent and style erupted from among the legionaries who were standing in the middle of the chamber. Their view of the action had been limited to backlit slices of motion near the Optio and the Centurion, the clearest of which had been Rock's thrust to the second creature's neck as Flavius bent for a new pilum and the resultant spray of arterial blood, a glossy dark rope with variegated beads, shining dully against the night sky as they leapt free of the throat which had previously confined them. The grouped legionaries' aural apprehension, however, was as clear as that of those at the mouth of the cavern. They heard everything.

The preternatural ferocity of the screams which had echoed across the battlefield and rebounded from the rock walls of their cavern chamber made their neck hairs stand at attention, their goosebumps rise, and their blood run cold in their veins, trite stereotypes made manifest by the reality of a night attack by unknown creatures in a land more alien than any they'd ever served in. Those screams possessed an insane, feral quality none of them had heard before, even during their most horrid experiences in years of battles against a variety of enemies. More than one of the clustered legionaries heard the undertones of a soul in eternal agony in those primordial yowls. Tits' comment reflected a general feeling of disquiet among the men, which was amplified as Blue spoke from near the cavern mouth.

During his watch period with Ibby, Blue had been the first to see the shapes moving among the dead on the battlefield. He'd seen many types of scavengers on many battlefields, from those of his frozen home North of the Republic to those which haunted the sands and wastes of Asia Minor, and he knew instantly that these were different, despite his limited ability to observe detail. Their motions and activities were simply wrong, just generally unlike all other scavengers he'd seen. He and Ibby had discussed this in whispered phrases and sentence fragments as they watched the shapes harvesting their way through the corpse crop toward the bluff where the legionaries resided.

Ibby was resistant at first, but after watching the creatures progressing toward them, he agreed with Blue that they should wake the Third and spread the responsibility by kicking the decision uphill. In this man's army, just as it was, is, and will be true of all armies everywhere and everywhen, decision-making shit violated the usual military, and general life, rule that shit flows downhill and it began its uphill course. Third Gus watched for a while, then roused the Optio. Optio Rock listened to what the watchers and the Third had to say, watched for a while to make his own assessment, then went to wake the Centurion, completing the shit river's connection to its headwater. On this occasion, the eternal Uphill Shit River completed itself by emptying into this current, particular Shit Lake, which took the form of the two speared creatures hitting the ground and being carried off by their fellows, leaving the legionaries confused in their cavern, emotionally echoing Tits' thoughts, expressed in his exclamation.

Blue knew he was already on the Centurion's and the NCOs' shitlist for screwing up and probably causing the creatures to notice them and attack their position, but his mouth seemed to connect straight to his hindbrain, completely bypassing his self-preservation faculties. His disgust and horror were evident in his tone and no one noticed his toothless whistling timbre as he uttered, "Draugr! Aptgangr! Glamr's spawn! They're the blood-suckers who stalk by night. We are completely fucked!"

These legionaries had been together a long time and, from quiet evenings sharing stories around an endless string of campfires, the others knew that Blue was talking about horror stories of the blood-drinking, reanimated dead monsters which owned the nights of his frozen homeland.

Ibby felt compelled to support Blue because of their shared experience while observing the creatures. He, too, felt that the things they'd seen on the battlefield were not natural. "We Basque call them the children of Basa-Jaun in my mountains in Iberia. Blood drinkers and flesh eaters. They hide in the day and hunt at night. They're demons from the old time before the gods."

Gus was uneasy himself and the strong reaction from these pragmatic, realistic legionaries added to his disquiet; but this kind of talk was psychological death for a combat group and he knew he had to clamp down on it, even if he had some personal inclination to agree.

"Awrite, that's enough of that. You can stow that shit right now or I'll break my demon-possessed, blood-drinkin' foot off in your ass."

Rock, too, knew they had to get the men thinking about the practical, real-world aspect of the night's actions and the probable course of the next day. "You chickenshits gotta be kidding me. Did you or did you not see us spear and kill those climbers, just like any enemy or any animal we've ever faced before. Ya stick 'em, they die. Regular, normal stuff. Now, I can't say they're animals and I can't say they're men. It was too dark and the action was too fast. But what I can say is that they ain't no night-runnin', bloodsuckin', demon-ridden, undead corpses. Maybe they're some kinda local night monkey. Y'all have seen some of those different kinds of monkeys they bring up from down in Africa. Some of those things are even bigger than men. That's all this was – some tribe of primitive people, livin' like animals in this ass-end of creation, or some big, smart night monkeys. We stuck 'em and they died. Do ya get that? I don't think ya can do that to no supernatural undead demons."

Flavius held back, allowing his NCOs to control the situation. It looked like they were taking a good approach to quelling the terror rising in his somewhat superstitious troop.

"But, Optio," Pinhead said stubbornly, "when I was growin' up, my folks and the priests warned us about the lamiae and the empusae and the striges. And them things Blue and Ibby are talkin' about, they're just the same thing with a funny foreign name. And like where we was servin' before we started hikin' straight East, they talked about the Lilitu doin' all those same things, walkin' at night and drinkin' blood and stuff. That proves they're everywhere and they're as real as Jupiter and Mars and all them other gods, so it could be them we saw tonight. And I remember the priests tellin' me that there were two things all them demon bloodsuckers was afraid of, stuff that would hurt 'em, and that's iron and wood. And what's a pilum made of, huh? Iron and wood. It's got both things that can kill them demons. So, even if you did kill 'em, that kinda don't prove nothin' about them not being unnatural."

Murmurs of assent rose from the group and Miller spoke up, "My aunt was killed by one. Some other people in my village, too. They all went missing at night. The people thought it might be some kinda night demon so they got together and tracked it down. After a coupla days of searching, they found it sleeping in a cave one day. They stabbed it with iron and wood, just like Pinhead said, then they cut out its heart and burned it, then cut off its head and buried the head and body in separate places. It never killed anybody again. I think these things tonight might be like that. I don't like the way they screamed, Optio. I don't like it at all. It's unnatural. That's all I'm sayin'."

Flavius decided it was time for him to add his authority to the discussion and turn down the tension level.

"Men, I hear what you're saying and I don't want to tell you what to believe. But here's the thing. Tomorrow morning, those barbarians we fought today – Remember them? – will probably be back to kill us. They outnumber us by a huge margin and they'll succeed handily, if they're serious about it. I plan for us to take a lot of them with us but you know as well as I do that they'll have no trouble finishing us off. If that happens, we won't have to worry about another night and what might attack us in the dark. We'll be comfortably dead long before dark.

"Ah, but what if we somehow survive tomorrow? Then we do have to worry about what we'll face after dark, don't we? In that case, we're looking at two possibilities.

"One. If those things are just some kind of monkey or a tribe of primitive men, they'll die as easily as any other flesh-and-blood creature we've faced. Holed up in this cavern, we have a great tactical advantage. They have to come at us just a few at a time while hanging on a vertical cliff. We can kill them by the hundreds without breaking a sweat. Right?

"Two. If they're some supernatural scourge, like all of you seem to agree, then what do we do? Well, you also agree that they're susceptible to iron and wood, right? So tactically, we're in the same advantageous position. They have to come at us just a few at a time while hanging on a vertical cliff and our weapons are made of iron and wood. They'll die and fall, just like those two tonight did. Tactically, it doesn't matter what they are. If they attack us, they'll die.

"We're in a good position here. Grow some balls and quit whining like little girls afraid of the dark. You're legionaries. If something tries to kill you, you kill it back. It doesn't matter what it is. What is for when you're bullshitting around the campfire with a liberated amphora of good wine.

"Besides, if you've heard all those stories about all those kinds of night-haunts, I'll be you've also heard the stories of the secret legion whose sole job is to hunt and kill unnatural creatures. Why is Caesar's Legion X called the 'twin legion' but there's no record of another Legion X anywhere in the Republic? It could be that there is another such legion but it's a secret one: Legion X, Demon Hunters. I say, if those legionaries can kill demons fulltime, then we can kill one stinking tribe of demons from our stronghold here, because we're as good as any legion in this man's army. Aren't we?"

A decent "Yes, Centurion!" came from the group. It wasn't enthusiastic but neither was it completely dispirited. Under the circumstances, Flavius considered that a win, so he finished things up.

"We have a lot of stinky, day-hunting barbarians to kill tomorrow and the dawn isn't far away. Get some sleep now." Then, to Gus, "Third, set the watch."

With that, Flavius headed to his own bed to strip off the blood-soaked cloak he was wearing and exchange it for a warm, dry one. Blood-sucking night demons! How the fuck can people believe in that shit? He might have thought more about that but sleep overtook him.

Gus called Miller to sentry duty and told Ibby his watch was over and he was relieved. Ibby started for the sleeping area and Blue tried to quietly follow him.

"Oh, no, Blue, old son. You stand fast. Miller, we're gonna chat about your aunt in a while; but first Blue and me, we got a lot to talk about. Quite a lot, you blue-eyed demon. Oh, 'demon.' That reminds me…"

And Blue winced in the dark, hoping the Third couldn't see his expression.

As the legionaries who were not on duty returned to their beds to settle down for the remainder of the night, Rock stopped by his sleeping site, retrieved his shovel, and headed for the secondary cavern which contained their latrine space. When the Optio passed the area where the common legionaries were, Pinhead cocked his head and said, "Hey, Optio, why do you always take you own shovel to the latrine? I mean, ya know, there's always a common one there, but seein' you right now makes me remember that I ain't never seen you use the common one. You always use your own shovel, don'tcha? Why do ya do that?"

The Optio was not in a desperate hurry to get to the latrine and his immediate mood was calmly fatalistic, so instead of simply shutting Pinhead down, as he usually and typically would have done, he responded to him instead. Any other time and place and it wouldn't have happened, but Pinhead would never know how perfect his timing was in this instance.

"How many years have you served under me, Pinhead? And you're just noticing that? Bloody Mars!, you're a dumb shit and a poor excuse for a soldier."

Pinhead knew that the Optio's words were generic trooper talk but he also felt their sting against him, specifically. He was far from the best legionary in the century and he was painfully aware that he was about the tenth smartest guy in any group of eight. He offered a dispirited, "Sorry, Optio."

Rock hadn't meant to insult the boy or hurt his feelings. This time. He shook his head and decided to make up for it by sharing a story he'd never shared with anyone. Not that it was especially secret or anything and it wasn't like it was embarrassing or demeaning. It was just something he'd chosen not to share. It was a private story, kept in his personal storehouse of mental treasures. But they were destined to die together. Tomorrow, if not tonight. Or soon, if not tomorrow. So, Juno's luscious nethers!, why not tell the boy, and the other attentive pairs of ears perked up in the dark, a story which might amuse and calm them. For tonight at least. It had been one distinctly fucked-up day and they all deserved a break, even if it was only a little one.

"This is Vergil," he began, and he sensed the callous legionaries settling quietly into their bedrolls, like children nestling down in anticipation of being told a story by their father at bedtime. He'd had that passing thought on previous occasions over the years but, for the first time ever, tonight he truly felt paternal toward these men. He eased into a bedtime story appropriate for his professional killers.

"Ah've been a soldier for more'n a decade. This knife on my waist? I got that bad boy when I joined the legions. The sword at my hip? Had that nasty bastid jist as long, too. I rely on 'em and trust 'em completely. I know some guys who say they've kept count of their kills. Really? Me, I don't know how ya could do that and be accurate. I do know that this knife and this sword have a pretty damned high body count to their credit, no matter what the exact number might, or might not, be. But ol' Vergil," he continued, raising the shovel from the ground as if he were saluting an officer with a parade-quality javelin, "he's been with me since before I joined the legions and I trust my pal Vergil more than my knife, more than my sword, an' maybe even more than a fresh-from-the-depot pilum.

"When I was younger, I used to make a living shovellin' shit from the streets of Rome herself. Vergil had been with me a coupla years by then but I hadn't named him yet. One evenin' I was workin' kinda late, catchin' up on a crazy day. There'd been some kinda of feast or celebration, I forget now exactly what, and I was tryin' to get done and get home. Then along come these three young patrician studs... in their white tunics, ya know?... and they're drunk and they decide they're gonna fuck with the plebean guy, cuz if the dark tunic don't give me away, they fact that I'm shovellin' shit definitely does. So they start in with all the usual lame-ass shit drunk assholes have been slingin' since before the Egyptians built the pyramids. And I just ignore 'em, hopin' they'll get bored and go lookin' for somethin' more interestin' to do.

"But it goes the other way. Insteada gettin' bored, they start getting' mad. And mean.

"'Hey, you fucking shit shovelling nobody, you can't just ignore us. You and your girlfriend there,' one of them said in his snooty accent, pointing his chin at my shovel, 'better stand to attention and listen up or we're going to teach you a lesson about minding your betters.'

"The second rich prick chimed in with his two denarii, 'Yeah, boy,' cuz they were a coupla years older than me, 'You two look like you were made for each other. What's her name, huh? Aphrodite?' And, naturally, they all cracked up big time at how smart and funny and just-plain-better-than-me they were.

"It wasn't smart of me, so they were probably kinda right, and I knew better, but I was tired and they just pissed me off. I stopped scoopin' shit and turned to them, brandishin' my shovel, and said, 'This is Vergil and HE don't like you and he don't take shit from any three drunk assholes. Now ya better move on before ol' Vergil decides to teach you a lesson.' I hadn't thought it out beforehand and I don't know where that name came from, really, but it just sorta popped out and ol' Vergil kinda twisted in my hands like it was real and he really was kinda spoilin' to school those fellas about their manners.

"That third white-tunic dude, the one who'd been quite til then, reached into his tunic and came out with a fancy dagger. 'Now you've done it, boy. You've threatened my friends and me and we'll have to defend ourselves.' And I took a careful look in his eyes and saw that it woulda come to that, no matter what I did. He had a fever down in there, and maybe the wine stoked it some, but it was obvious that it always lived there, in his deepest soul. Some things might stoke it, or give him the excuse that it was being stoked, but it was him. Always had been, always would be. It was just the way he was born.

"His friends grinned and drew their own blades. They'd been lookin' for an opportunity and it turned out that opportunity's name was Titus Petronius Catullus, know to you boys as your friendly Optio. They seemed comfortable circlin' me, and it sure smelled like they had some experience at this game. But they were drunker than they thought. Or overconfident from their previous adventures pickin' on young, low-class guys. Or somethin'. Anyway, they were kinda clumsy and they weren't careful, and they were just kinda playin' around like they was cats and I was some gimpy little birdie, floppin' around on their ground, waitin' for them to finish their playtime and just put me out of my misery.

"So, while they was takin' their time tryin' to torment me, grinnin' and gigglin' and shufflin' and brandishin' their fancy daggers, I shoved the business end of ol' Vergil into Young Equestrian Badass Psycho's throat, just below his chin. All but took his fuckin' head off and the blood spray squirted sideways off the bottom of Vergil's blade, paintin' Junior Senator Two Denarii's tunic with lotsa red spots. I pushed and, just like tonight with that second wall crawler, Psycho Dude collapsed backward, limp as Pinhead's dick.

(There were some snickers in the dark and an offended Hey!)

"When Vergil's head came free from that one's neck, it stopped blockin' the blood flow and the spray exploded like a fuckin' volcano eruptin'. Two Denarii Toughguy went from bein' speckled with red to bein' drenched in it. He shuddered and goggled at Psycho's body fallin' to the street, then he bent over and started pukin' like he was preparin' for the next course at one of them rich people feasts where they gorge and puke and gorge and puke all nite long, 'cept he wasn't never gonna be doin' no gorgin' ever again.

"I skipped over him right then cuz he wasn't no immediate threat, what with all the attention he was payin' to empytin' his delicate tummy, and I swung Vergil sideways in a slice at the throat of the one who first started jawin' at me. That one had sobered up some, seein' me practically behead Badass Psycho, and he tried to duck. He was fast enough to make me miss his neck but ol' Vergil caught him upside the head and his duck turned into a collapse as he just kept goin' down. His grip relaxed and his dagger clanked on the street. He was fuzzy but not unconscious and he wobbled around, tryin' to sit up. He stopped doin' even that when I shoved ol' Vergil into his right kidney.

"Now, y'all are smart, tough legionaries, all trained and shit, so you know that a kidney strike will shock yer victim into silence and immobilize him; and after that, you can finish him quick with another strike or just let him bleed out. Killer's choice. Me, I didn't know that back then but I saw him go limp and quiet and that was good enough to let me return my attention to Two Denarii who was still worshippin' Bacchus, if ya know what I mean.

"Except for the moderate, clunky whang! sound as Vergil bounced off Number Three's skull, the gaggin' noises from Two Denarii's pukin' efforts was the loudest sound on the street. Tongueless Laruta!, that was probably part of why they chose this street and me, cuz of the quiet. Anyway, The Last Living Rich Prick is standin' there, all bent over in his red and white tunic, splashin' my recently-cleaned street with all the nasty shit he'd been eatin' and drinkin', so I got Vergil to make that nice, kinda hollow whang! sound again; and Two Denarii flops down into his puke puddle and I'm thinkin', whoa!, nobody's ever gonna get that tunic white again. Vergil figures the guy needs one more just to be sure, so we repeat the whang!. Then we turn and give Kidney Dude another whang!, just cuz it is a really interestin' sound and maybe he needs it. I can’t really even pretend Psycho Eyes could possibly use a whang!, so I take a deep breath and just stand there for a minute. It's over.

"Now my brain is happy, lookin' at those three lumps on the street, cuz they was for sure gonna cut me bad, at least, and probably they figured to kill me; so killin' them was righteous. It was self-defense, pure and simple. But my gut disagreed. I started shakin' and my head was poundin' and before I knew it, I was addin' to Two Denarii's lake of vomit. I donated a coupla times before my insides settled some.

"Yeah, yeah. Again, y'all are hardass legionaries and you know that that shit happens to everybody. Now, you know it. But you all had your first time and that was mine.

"But, like I said, my brain was still workin' ok and I knew I was pretty much fucked. Me gettin' out of killin' three swells was about as likely as me becoming a swell myself and having nymphs throwin' themselves at me. I decided I hadda just make it go away, like it never happened. So, I loaded those fellas and those beautiful, expensive daggers onto my shit cart, threw the cover over 'em and put Vergil on top of 'em so's he could help keep the cover on and so he could also enjoy riding on those guys who thought they were better than us.

"I knew where I needed to go and started pushing the cart that way. I wanted to keep those fancy daggers and sell 'em real bad but I knew that'd get me arrested for sure. Me with one dagger like that was a crucifixion waitin' to happen. Three of 'em? Shit! Forget it. The daggers got left in three different alleys in a hard part of town. If I remembered to make a small offering sacrifice to her, Laverna would take care of shiftin' the blame to folks other than me, if the bodies were ever discovered and identified. Might work that way even without the divine intervention. When I got where I was goin', I stripped them fellas and buried that stuff, although I did empty the purses first. Coins got no provenance, right?

"I dropped my three dance partners into the Cloaca Maxima. I knew they wouldn’t be lonely there. The chance of them bein' discovered was so small it was like a sure bet on a fixed race. Even in the odd circumstance where they did get dragged out of the Tiber or somethin', the chance of them bein' identified was, again, small enough to bet a lot of new-found denarii on. I headed back to my part of town and abandoned my shit cart along the way. Durin' the trip to the body dump site, I'd decided that me and Vergil would sign up for the legions the next day. We were tired of shovellin' shit and we'd discovered we were good at killin'. The legions seemed like a sensible choice.

"That was a long time ago and it's been mostly good times. I started out a common grunt, just like y'all, but after a while I got promoted to Third. Now, I'm the Optio. I like where I am. I'm happy in the legions. Vergil is, too, even though he ain't been promoted. From the day we signed up til now, he's just been Vergil, the Travelling Shovel of Death. But rank don't matter, nobody fucks with Vergil.

"Now, y'all get some sleep. There ain't much more night left and we got some killin' to do in the mornin'."

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Chapter 3: Quiescus Interruptus

The Lost Century

Chapter 3. Quiescus Interruptus
[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]

"Easy, Centurion, it ain't an attack. Yet. But there's somethin' strange goin' on. The sentries woke me cuz they didn't know what to think and after I watched and listened a bit I figured I needed to wake you up so you could check it out yourself and see what you think. I don’t like it. I don't know exactly what to make of it but I don't like it."

Flavius took a deep breath to clear his head. He needed to shake off those unpleasant dreams and make sense of what the Optio was saying. As he levered himself up, his exhausted body resisted with aches and pains from abused muscles, ligaments, joints, and old injuries. In addition, his fresh wounds spoke to him with sharp agony from a myriad of sites. Another breath, sharply inhaled through his nose and hissed out between his teeth into the frigid night air, helped him adjust to getting his worn body vertical.

"What is it, Rock?" he whispered, as he twisted left, then right, to loosen his back. His legs quivered and almost failed to hold him up. Jupiter!, this was no-contest the worst he'd ever felt in a long career of combat and death-dealing. Making it to the mouth of the cavern to see what was up might be more than he was capable of. He rubbed the nearly-frozen sleep glue from his eyes and tried to concentrate on what the Optio was telling him. Ignoring the clamors for attention from the various parts of his damaged body was an effort.

Rock's return whisper was quieter than one would have expected from so rough-looking a specimen but staying alive in the legions required more than just loud, frontal assaults every time. Sometimes a little stealth went a long way toward obtaining an objective without wasting men and Rock, for all his apparent hardness and lack of guile, was capable of being a very subtle fellow. Stupid, brutal men did not reach the rank of Optio; they died on the front lines. "Centurion, if I coulda figured it out, I wouldn'ta woke ya.

"The guys on watch had it quiet until this last pair. They saw movement down on the battlefield and heard noises. Movement and noises that don't seem like normal scavenger animals. Being dark like it is, they couldn't really see much so they watched a while and listened real careful like you ordered and they decided it wasn't animals or, at least, not regular animals. So they decided it was time to wake me up and find out what I thought about it.

"I watched for a while myself and that's when I decided to get you up to see for yourself. I'm sure it ain't animals. Not normal animals, anyway. It's more like people but it's so damned hard to make out any detail in this moonlight. They're kinda whispering to each other but they move real quiet and they ain't wearing clothes, or not much clothin', anyway. And, from what I can tell, they're as pale as the bodies down there on the field. And they ain't just strippin' them bodies for their gear. I think they're… um, feedin' on 'em. Or maybe butcherin' 'em. Or both. It's weird, sir, and I don't like it. You need to take a look and make a command decision. This shit's above my pay grade."

Flavius indicated his agreement with an inclination of his head and they ghosted their way toward the mouth of the cavern. As they neared the opening, Third Gus turned from his kneeling position on the right side of it and nodded to acknowledge their presence. Flavius could make out the subtle gesture because the Third was backlit by the moonlight coming from beyond the cavern's opening. Based on the Optio's cryptic remarks and the fact that both his NCOs were awake and watching the scene and worried about it, combined with the fact that they were willing to wake him, Flavius decided that this was something distinctly out of the ordinary. His NCOs were hard, experienced men, who were not loathe to take responsibility, even in difficult or complex situations. Something had them worried, maybe even scared, and if those men were worried, and maybe scared, then Flavius was smart enough to know that he should be, too.

He recognized the silhouettes of Ibby and Blue as the sentries on duty, standing to the left of the cavern mouth. They saluted silently and moved back into the cave to give the Centurion room to observe the area which had been their battlefield that day. Flavius knelt near Gus and stared out over the field, opening his senses to the night.

The sound was the first thing he perceived clearly. They were being quiet, all things considered, but they were definitely whispering to each other down there. The soft, sibilant susurrus flowed left and right and front and back, like lethargic waves easing their way up a sandy beach. The scavengers were without a doubt communicating with each other. But were they human?

The moonlight on the harsh topography and soft mounds of corpses created scenes which were alternately stark with sharp contrasts, and conversely, dim and soft with fuzzy contours and borders. The creatures' movements were indeterminate as to their species characteristics. They appeared man-like in general but they moved on all fours as often as they walked upright. Their motion also appeared swifter and more fluidly graceful than the kinds of humans Flavius was used to being around; but that was perhaps an effect of the dim moonlight or the fact that Flavius was usually with legionaries for whom elegant gracefulness was not a survival characteristic.

Flavius surveyed the scene and guessed that there were twenty or thirty of them down there, although it was difficult to be specific because of the faint illumination and the subtlety and speed of their movement. They had apparently started at the far end of the battlefield and were working their way toward the bluff where the legionaries stood watching. Flavius considered his options.

The last thirty yards or so of the land before the cave was bare ground. It was where his surviving group had formed that last turtle and no soldiers had fallen there. The corpse garden, whose opposite border began perhaps one hundred fifty yards farther down the canyon where the battle had begun that morning, ended at that space. Whether these were some unknown animals or a group of feral men, would they stop, in either case, at the last of the corpses and forego exploring the bluff which held Flavius' cavern? As Flavius considered the possibilities, Gus whispered to him.

"Just to the right of center, about fifty yards out, you can make out what they're doing. They're feeding on the corpses there. I couldn't tell for sure when they were farther away but you can see it there. Two of 'em look like they're butchering a body but those other two are definitely chewin' on that other body. Right there."

Flavius swung his attention to the area Gus described and tried to focus on what he was seeing. He used the old night trick of looking slightly to the side of where he wanted to see and he could tell Gus was correct but he was glad that the light was dim enough that he could only barely see enough to agree with his Third. He nodded in agreement with the decision he'd made even before Gus pointed out that demonic scene.

He turned to the legionaries waiting behind him, "Ibby, Blue, go to the weapon pile and bring back an armload each of heavy javelins. All heavy ones. I don't think this is a night for light javelins."

Blue had glanced in the direction his superiors were looking and hissed in horror and disgust at what he saw, the sound whistling between his missing teeth, a common phoneme in the "accent" of many legionaries due to the relative hardness of weapons and fragility of human teeth. Ibby elbowed him into silence and they stalked off to retrieve the javelins.

Rock asked quietly, "Should we wake the men?"

"No," came Flavius' ready reply. "Not yet. I want you here in front with me. Third, you and the two legionaries stand behind us with the weapons cache. If it turns into an attack, you'll wake the men and get them organized."

"Sir!" Gus responded quietly and moved back to allow Rock to take his place.

Rock moved up to kneel beside Flavius as Gus moved into position behind them. Out among the bodies, the activity of the scavengers continued. Flavius was unable to determine whether the beings were using knives or claws to butcher the corpses. It seem apparent that the ones eating the corpses were simply leaning in and biting away but they, too, may have been using knives to separate the meat into mouth-sized pieces. Flavius spoke his decision to Rock and Gus.

"We'll sit tight and celebrate quietly if the ignore or bypass us. If they come at us, the Optio and I will meet them with the heavy javelins, Third, you and the sentries will form a second line and pass us new javelins as needed. If it becomes a full-fledged attack, wake the rest of the men and prepare to make a stand. They're gonna have a lot of trouble coming at us up that bluff."

They went back to observing the scavengers and soon Ibby and Blue appeared with the required javelins. As they piled them at the sides of the entrance, Blue fumbled a bit and caused a muffled clatter from his load of javelins. The four scavengers that the legionaries had been observing nearest the cavern turned in their direction and froze.

"Sorry, sir!" Blue said at a normal volume, compounding his error, the whistling in his speech exacerbated by fear and cold.

Third's glare made him feel like the temperature had dropped another ten degrees. "If we live through this, you might be sorry you did, shitbird. You're on my list. "

There was a shrill scream from more than one scavenger throat which rent the soft, black fabric of the night. The legionaries had seen and heard a lot of men die and in the course of that experience they'd heard many, varied noises, some of which a civilian would have said could not come from a human throat. But the legionaries had heard them, chilling and horrible in their import. These screams were something else again. Something deeply vile and soul-wrenching. The four creatures near the cave began to streak toward the bluff as the rest stopped what they were doing and turned in their direction.

Similar insane screams echoed from other voices around the battlefield, each unique but all equally horrific. In the back of the cave, the sleeping legionaries startled awake.

Flavius settled into battle mode, "Gus, organize the men. Ibby and Blue, close up and be ready to assist the Optio and me." He glanced at Rock, who replied to his unspoken query, "Ready, sir." They each placed two javelins on the ground nearby to lie ready for future use and then each took one javelin in hand. It was a comfortable feeling. They were legionaries and this was one of their favorite weapons. They were as ready as they could be.

Gus strode to the middle of the cave to inform and prepare the remaining legionaries, as the night runners reached the base of the bluff. Even at that close range, Flavius couldn't make out any details of their features because of the low level of moonlight but he had seen that they were fast and smooth coming across the field. The rest of the creatures stayed where they were and most even went back to whatever tasks occupied them. The original chorus of responsive screams had stopped but there were still occasional, random outbursts from around the field. One of the four at the base of the bluff looked up and screamed, seemingly right at them, then began to climb.

The other three twitched and moved about almost spastically in random jerks and hops, in contrast to their smooth sprint toward the bluff, releasing occasional grunts and indecipherable noises while they watched the one who was climbing toward the legionaries. It, or he?, was climbing quickly and efficiently, making much better progress than any of the legionaries had made earlier that day during their own ascent. Flavius leaned out to keep track of its progress. Soon, very soon, this new menace would reveal the extent of its potential impact on the weary legionaries.

The creature climbing the bluff stopped some ten yards below the legionaries and stared up at them. It then looked down and squalled something at its fellow night haunts on the ground. After a moment of shuffling, jostling, and indecipherable noises, one of them faced the almost vertical wall and began climbing. The one on the bluff face angled to its left, clearly intending to be at the side of the cavern opening when it reached that level. The one below was climbing as swiftly as the first had and it angled to its right. The creatures, whatever they were, were clearly intelligent enough to flank their prey, rather than coming straight at it. Predators, then, and cunning ones, rather than simply scavengers.

Damn! Flavius thought. Having them be mere scavengers would have been a lot more convenient. Scavengers were one thing to face. Predators, pack predators upped the ante quite a bit. Once again, the legionaries were the game pieces in a gamble for their lives in a high-stakes game at what seemed to be a rigged table. The gods were rolling loaded dice against his eviscerated century, while they drank their nectar, nibbled their ambrosia, and seduced and cuckolded each other in their endless efforts to stave off an eternity of boredom. Bastards! Flavius added, unsure if he was directing that opprobrium at the attackers or at the gods.

The first pale night haunt on the bluff face slowed his ascent to allow the second to catch up. The intention was clearly to mount a simultaneous approach from both sides of the cavern mouth. Flavius turned to Rock and used hand signals to indicate the climbers' intent and his desired response to it. Two attackers. One on each side. You take the one on your side. I'll take the one on mine. Thrust, push, and release. Got it?

Rock nodded a distinct Yes! in response and stood up from where he'd been squatting, stepping forward to take up a combat-ready position. He placed his hands on his javelin in an attack grip, unconsciously giving himself the appearance of a recruiting poster embodiment of the perfect Roman legionary.

Given the climbers' exposed position on the bluff wall and their apparent lack of armor, it should be a simple matter to give a fatal thrust and push, ensuring the creatures' deaths with the addition of the fall from forty feet onto the rocky ground below, especially when impaled by the deadly Roman pilum, the "heavy javelin." Weighing in at approximately eight pounds, it was six feet long overall, the first two feet of which was composed of a pyramid-shaped iron head and thin neck which was attached by tang and binding to the remaining four feet of hardwood shaft. It was an exquisitely designed machine of war. The iron was forged to be hard enough to penetrate a shield, as well as armor and flesh, but soft enough that it would bend once it had penetrated. This design feature left the enemy holding those eight additional pounds, which dragged down on the arm which was trying to support the penetrated shield. An enemy so encumbered became easy meat for a second thrust by javelin or sword.

If the pilum penetrated armor and flesh rather than a shield, the effect was, perhaps, less kind and less cleanly deadly. Even if an enemy managed to remove it from his body before a secondary thrust could finish him quickly, the pyramidal design of the head prevented the wound from closing on its own and the victim soon bled out. In the demesne of Mars and Pluto, the pilum stood out as an elegant and superior work of deadly martial art.

Flavius was confident in his weapon and in his Optio standing at his right hand against the two climbers. No matter how tough they were, no matter how fast they were, in a few minutes they'd lie dead at the foot of the bluff. The question was, would the rest of them attack?

The legionaries all listened carefully to the approaching creatures' sounds as they scrabbled up the rocky face. Flavius, from his ready position standing slightly back from the cavern mouth, smelled them before he saw the one he was waiting for on his side. The noxious odors from the battlefield had been greatly reduced by the cold. They remained at a level which could mostly be ignored, but the effluvium from the attackers was something new and strong to Flavius' heightened, battle-ready senses. He inhaled and was starting to try to catalogue the components of the attackers' scent when he felt Rock's movement beside him.

Rock grunted as he made a short lunging step to thrust his pilum into the night haunt on his side. His aim was true and the point of his javelin entered the creature’s abdomen just below its ribcage. He felt the initial resistance as the javelin’s head penetrated the pale, dirt-encrusted abdominal muscles, then the randomly varied levels of resistance as it passed through a series of internal organs on its way through the climber's body, and finally the muscle and skin resistance as the point passed out its back. When the wood shaft hit the thing’s stomach skin with a thud, he added an extra push and released the javelin as the night stalker was thrust from the bluff face and plummeted into the dark, screaming like a lost soul.

The creature had not expected the swiftness and intensity of the attack by the man in the cavern and, as the javelin entered its body, it screamed in pain and frustration at a volume which dwarfed the screams it had released earlier in the night. A guttural grunt joined that scream as the thicker wooden shaft struck its midsection and pushed it away from its hold on the bluff face. It took a futile swing at its attacker then clawed for a fresh grip on the bluff but the force of the thrust was far too strong and, as it peeled from the rock face, its scream increased in volume in a final cry against its fate.

As Rock bent to grab another javelin from his pile, the climber on Flavius' side reached the level of the cavern. Seeing and hearing its companion's fate, it approached more cautiously and was, therefore, partly able to avoid Flavius' thrust. But not completely.

Flavius heard and felt the action on his flank but as an experienced veteran he was not distracted from his task. When the creature on his side appeared, he aimed and thrust for the sweet spot just below the sternum, but the gods-cursed thing was fast. It swayed back and turned so that instead of the javelin taking it in its midsection, Flavius' point penetrated low on its left side near the hipbone. Its initial scream of pain joined the dying echoes of the final scream from the one speared by Rock.

The night haunt tried to draw farther back and twist free but Flavius continued his thrust and that deadly pyramidal point tore a path through its side to emerge from its back just above and behind the iliac crest. Flavius struggled to keep from losing his javelin to the torque produced by the creature's twist but as the point emerged from its back, his javelin tore from his hands before he could use the impact of the shaft against the creature to push it from the bluff face. As the pilum came free of Flavius' hands, the length of the shaft flopped against the creature's abdomen then rebounded away into the space to the creature's left. The fresh pressure against the wound from a new direction wrested another scream from the night stalker, then, as gravity began to pull at the weight of the mass of the pilum's shaft, the creature screamed yet again as its insides were mauled by the head's movement in its guts.

Flavius bent to grab a new javelin as the wounded creature took a left-handed swipe at him, barely missing Flavius' head which was moving down toward the cavern floor and his weapon pile. The creature hung awkwardly from the bluff face, supported by its feet and a one-handed grip, pulled into a contorted position by the javelin shaft hanging from its left side, torquing its lower body left and away while the swing it had taken at Flavius twisted its upper body to the right and toward the bluff face.

In that suspend moment while Flavius reached for a new pilum and the creature strained to overcome the various forces working on its tortured body, Rock stepped toward Flavius and thrust with his freshly-obtained pilum. He caught the wounded thing in the throat and a horrid gurgling noise replaced the previous prolonged scream. Arterial blood spurted in a broad spray, painting Flavius' back because of his bent position and splattering the Optio's face and chest in increasing pulses as he pushed home his thrust. When the pilum's wooden shaft hit the thing in the throat, it lost its solo handgrip and as Rock leaned into a final push and released the shaft, the creature fell silently to the rocky ground below, joining its companion with an audible thud in the momentary silence following the end of the final scream of the first creature to fall.

Flavius stood with his new javelin and looked down on the scene below, waiting for the night haunts' next move. Rock picked up a new javelin and stood with Flavius, using the bottom edge of his cloak to wipe the recently fallen one's blood from his eyes and mouth.

The two remaining creatures at the foot of the bluff bent to examine their fallen comrades. They shook the bodies and then tugged harshly at the three javelin shafts, pulling them free and tossing them quickly away after only a brief grasp. The screamed as one, shrill ululations which were matched from various points around the field, then abruptly all the screaming stopped and silence blanketed the valley. The living night stalkers flopped the dead ones over their shoulders and started away from the bluff. Figures from around the field joined them and soon they had all disappeared into the dark distance.

Gus squatted to rest on his haunches. "This is some weird, fucked-up country," he said, confusion and disgust coloring every syllable. Flavius made eye contact with both his NCOs and offered a small shrug. He couldn't disagree with or improve on that sentiment.

Chapter 4

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Chapter 2: Past as Prologue

The Lost Century

Chapter 2. Past as Prologue
[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]

The sun was below the horizon and the distant hills were painted in a chiaroscuro of light and shadow under the beautiful, sweeping colors of the twilight sky. Flavius and his men were settling into their position for the night. He'd found a cavern which had a small opening, easily defended by only a couple of men, especially since it sat about forty feet above ground on a steep, crumbling bluff, but the interior opened up into a room sizeable enough for several times the number of men he had left. As an added benefit, there was a pool or spring near the back of the chamber and the fresh water was extremely welcome to the exhausted and dehydrated legionaries.

The waterskins, provisions, and weapons they'd gathered from the battlefield were separated into three piles in the middle rear of the chamber they occupied. The legionaries were clustered near the pool, drinking their fill and wiping themselves free of the accumulated grime from today's battle and the marching they'd done to this point since the last time they'd had access to a good supply of water. The men had spread their cloaks, plus extras from their foraging on the battlefield, around the perimeter of the chamber in anticipation of the night temperatures. They'd learned that things chilled down quickly in this region once the sun disappeared.

Flavius and his two NCOs sat at the mouth of the cavern wrapped in their cloaks, drinking methodically from their waterskins, and chewing quietly on some of their recovered provisions. Between sips and bites, Optio Rock and Third Gus worked on bandaging the Centurion's wounds.

"This forearm slash is pretty deep but it looks clean," offered Rock.

Gus responded, "Yeah, that's the worst one. The rest ain't too bad, except that there are a lot of 'em."

Flavius took a gentle swallow of water and chewed gingerly on his ration. He'd been hit in the mouth at some point and his teeth hurt. They hurt more when he chewed. "What about you two? The parts of you not covered by armor look like corpses that have been flayed by incompetent anatomy students."

"We'll patch each other up as soon as we're done with you, Centurion," replied Rock, "Don't you worry. We're good."

Flavius did begin to feel better as he filled his stomach and his NCOs finished ministering to him. As they began tending each other's injuries, Flavius decided it was time to talk about their situation, "Do you think the men can hear us?"

Without looking up from wrapping a gash on Rock's leg, Gus said, "They're pretending they can't, sir." Rock nodded in agreement.

"Doesn't really matter," said Flavius, "I'll be sharing our plans with them as soon as I decide what those plans will be. We'll pretend we don't know they can hear us and we'll all ease into this night feeling smugly superior."

"For now, let's assume that Rock was right about the barbarians being afraid of the dark. That takes care of us for tonight but the morning will be a different story, unless they've started some religious holiday where they aren't supposed to kill anyone for a week or so. And we aren't that lucky."

"Hades!, sir," Gus blurted, "We're on Fortuna's shit list. All of our luck is bad luck."

Rock countered, "Quit yer bitchin'! We're still alive after that battle we fought today. If one of the Centurion's poetical-type Equestrian-class friends had seen that shit, we'd be immortalized in an epic poem, by the gods! It could end with me getting my dick sucked by Fortuna herself and I'd be the most famous legionary of all time."

Rock glanced guiltily at Flavius, "Except, of course, for you, sir!"

Flavius smiled despite himself. "Optio Titus Petronius Catullus, if we get out of this alive and our story makes it back to Rome, I will happily take a background position in the narrative and let you be the protagonist who becomes the most famous legionary of all time. Who knows? Maybe Fortuna will even take some time out from her godly duties to give you a divine blowjob. Or, you can at least hire a street girl to do the job and call her Fortuna while she's going about her business."

"But first we have to survive. In the very short term, for tonight I propose two-man watches. Of the men we have, who's too injured to stand a watch?"

Rock thought a minute and glanced at the men in the rear of the chamber. The light had faded to a dusty purple but he could see enough and he remember enough about what he'd seen as they climbed to this cavern to respond, "Pyramid's bad, sir. River, too. They might not make it through the night. The rest are more or less ok." Gus nodded in agreement.

Flavius ordered, "Make up a sentry roster for tonight, then, not including River and Pyramid. Two-man teams. That will take us to tomorrow morning. We don't have anything to make lamps or even torches so the men will have to rely on unaided eyesight and hearing. Remind them to listen carefully while they're on watch."

Rock nodded and Gus asked, "And tomorrow morning, Centurion, what about tomorrow morning?"

"Why, tomorrow morning the sun will rise, the birds will sing, we'll all awake well-rested, clean and refreshed, and Fortuna will smile a wide, sultry smile and come give us all excellent, goddess-level blowjobs!" Flavius declaimed and winked at Rock, whose jaw dropped as he sat stunned into immobility.

"Well, either that or the barbarians will return and kill us all." He turned to wink at Gus, who frowned deeply, more confused than he'd ever been in his time with this officer. "This is a good defensive position. I plan to charge these barbarians a great deal for our lives and I intend to make my way to Hades carried on the backs of all those enemies I've killed in the past and will kill tomorrow."

Flavius took a last look at the barely-discernable silhouette of the hills in the distance. "Set the sentry roster and turn in. I want you two to be as rested as possible for tomorrow's slaughter." Flavius finished speaking, gathered his gear, and turned toward the side wall of the cavern to wrap up in several cloaks for a night's sleep. He did not see his NCOs behind him stand to attention and salute as they chorused, "Yes, Centurion."

Before he settled down, Flavius raised his voice to the men, some of whom were beginning to drift away from the pool in search of a spot to lie down and sleep, "Legionaries, you earned your pay today. It was an heroic effort and I'm proud to be the Centurion of such a group of legionaries. Tomorrow, we'll send a cohort of these dirty barbarians to pave our way to the Elysian Fields. Sleep well tonight. Die well tomorrow."

With that final task done, Flavius removed most of his armor and piled it next to his sleeping site for easy access if he needed it during the night. Then, he lay down on two of the cloaks recovered after the battle, rolled another as a pillow for his head, and pulled two more over him for warmth. His exhaustion turned a slab of rock and two ragged cloaks into as comfortable a bed as he'd ever had while serving in the legions. His general muscle aches and the pain from specific injuries was perhaps offset by the lethargy brought on by the blood loss from those wounds. Or maybe he was simply as tired as Hades.

Flavius succumbed to Hypnos and Morpheus like a boulder falling to the Earth from a great height.

Two valleys to the North, the Khan had led his troops over a stream which would never be considered a river by any stretch of the imagination and through some scrub growth which couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything even resembling woods but they had safely returned to the collection of yurts housing any and all grandfathers who had managed to stay alive long enough to achieve that status in such a harsh and violent environment. He had been seething with frustration the entire return trip because of the outcome of the day's battle. He had expected to complete the slaughter of the invaders before midday, then use the afternoon to loot the enemy corpses of valuables, especially their armor. He desperately wanted a set of that damned armor. By the Five Elements, it was incredibly strong, almost magical. But they fought using techniques he'd never seen before, surprising and confusing him. A mere hundred men, without horses, had fought his four hundred to a standstill, killing half his warriors and dragging the battle out so close to sunset that he'd finally had to break off before his men mutinied and forced him to do so. That would have been even worse than having to leave the damned invaders alive.

Well, not many of them were still alive, he consoled himself. There was only a handful left when he turned his troops for the safety of home. He half hoped that the dreaded night stalkers, pale haunts of the dark, drinkers of blood and devourers of human flesh, would finish them off. He simultaneously half hoped that the night haunts would be satisfied with the nearly three hundred fresh bodies left on the battlefield and that they would leave the invaders for him to deal with when the sun returned to the world and the night demons returned to their hidden places to sleep while avoiding the sunlight they feared because of the injury it caused them.

The Khan took a final glance around his village in the purple dusk, then retired to his yurt, exhausted from the day's efforts but ready to extinguish some of his frustration in the newest addition to his harem. She was young and strong; he'd let her do most of the work. It's good to be Khan!

The Khan's three senior leaders sat in a nearby hut, expressing their own frustrations, but lacking a suitable outlet to extinguish them. They wanted, no, needed more than a romp with a woman to soothe their spirits after the battle with the alien troops.

The youngest and simplest complained, "Two hundred men, lost to one hundred unmounted beetle men, hiding inside those metal skins, afraid to fight like men. It's not right."

The most manipulative replied, "Just what do you mean? Are you saying the Khan is losing his ability to lead?" His intent was, of course, to put that idea into the minds of the others while conceptually attaching its origin to the youngest.

The youngest was quick to reply, "I didn't say that!" But the bait was in the water and the fish were hungry.

The strong one knew what the manipulative one was up to but he no stomach for games. More honestly, he didn't have the patience for them. "Who'll be Khan, then, huh? You?" he asked, looking at his manipulative cousin.

"I'd be willing to take on that responsibility, with your help, of course," came the smooth reply.

The youngest started to feel like he might have more in common with the worm on the hook than his fellow fish. "I'd be willing to help, elder cousin."

The strong one was not as smooth as his manipulative cousin but he was experienced and could sense the hook inside the worm. "A triumvirate? You making policy decisions, me making combat decisions, and our youngest cousin here contributing to all discussions?"

The smooth one believed he could take the next step to sole rulership of the tribe once things settled down after the death of the current Khan. "Yes," he agreed.

"Agreed," the youngest hurried to include himself, knowing that when he got a bit older and stronger he could wrest sole power from his aging cousins.

"Agreed," echoed the strong one, thinking that accidents often happened in battle and neither of his cousins was an especially good fighter. He could return from some future battle lamenting the freak, accidental loss of his fellows in the Triumvirate. "At the bottom of the night, the three of us will enter his yurt and send him to the Ancestors."

The youngest visibly twitched in his discomfort and the manipulative one's mouth turned down in a moue but neither one demurred or complained. The night stalkers rarely came into the village and the embryonic Triumvirate would only be outside between yurts for a moment but that exposure bothered the manipulative one the most. The youngest wasn't self-aware enough to fear the night demons as much as he should and he'd killed men in battle but felt some trepidation about stabbing his uncle while he slept in his own yurt. At the ultimate decision point, however, the desire for power trumped everything else for all three.

They settled down to wait for the middle of the dark. The youngest was consumed by thoughts of wealth and access to the best women. The manipulative one was already scheming the next steps in his path to sole rulership. The strongest, although not as politically complex as his scheming cousin, thought more deeply about realities and repercussions outside of his tribe than the manipulator did. He chuckled mirthlessly, realizing that the settling of internal affairs and relationships after tonight's dark deed would take days to resolve, which would keep everyone in the village and leave the metal-armored invaders unmolested for all that time. If they were at all efficient, and they'd certainly shown their capabilities during the day's battle, they had plenty of time to escape the tribe's vengeance.

The strongest was overwhelmed by the irony of it and began to laugh lustily. The other two cousins shared a concerned look and wondered if their strong cousin knew something they didn't.

While the three cousins schemed, the Khan spent a delightful span of time with his newest concubine and fell happily asleep with his head on her luscious young breast. He had successfully pushed away his negative thoughts about the events of the day. Tomorrow, things would be different.

In the mouth of the cavern, legionaries Miller and Squid stood wrapped in their cloaks, their breath steaming into the night, staring out into the darkness which was lightened only somewhat by a waxing moon rising above the hills. Happily, the cold had settled the effluvium from the battle's aftermath and the air they breathed was fresh and clean-smelling with only the slightest undertones of dusty rock, drying blood, and decaying flesh. They hoped they were just marking time until their relief took over and allowed them to return to their bedrolls. The thought of a night attack unmanned them. Dying under Apollo's aegis was one thing. Being snuffed out in the dark seemed unholy.

Miller wished he could make a sacrifice to Mars, or Apollo, or both. He was a vegetarian but he knew and accepted that the gods were carnivores, unparalleled apex predators, and they had to be appeased regularly; but animals were scarce in this wasteland and there had been no opportunities recently and certainly none in the here and now. He knew this was his last night on Earth, so he chose to pray quietly to the goddess he'd never acknowledge to his fierce bretheren but whom he held most closely in his secret heart. "Oh, Ceres, please be with me tomorrow!"

Squid wished, not for the first time since becoming a legionary, that he'd stayed on as his father's apprentice, fishing the Tyrrhenian Sea from their home near Gaeta, instead of joining the Roman Republic's military machine. Adventure! Good pay! Great retirement package! Travel to wondrous foreign lands! Meet the fascinating citizens of civilizations outside the Republic! …and kill them, he added bitterly. "Great Neptune!" he thought, "I know I'm far from your domain but you are the god of my first and best hopes in life. If you could stretch your arm out just a little to find me here in this land which feels like the front yard of Hades, I'd appreciate it. And please watch over my father. I've come to realize he's a much better man than I ever imagined. Here at my death, I admit he's a better man than me. Be kind to him as he fishes your seas. Thanks."

Inside the chamber, the rest of the legionaries slept, occasionally stirring from a bad dream or a twinge from a fresh wound. All slept in a state of deep exhaustion, some closer to a final, prolonged, permanent sleep than to an ordinary sleep from which they would awaken in the morning.

The NCOs, who had bedded down near the mouth of the cavern, trusted their men to know when to change the watch and they were certain these men would not fall asleep on duty. No legionary did that more than once and all of these men had years of service behind them. Nonetheless, both NCOs slept soundly but lightly because that was part of their job description and they were excellent at their job and had been doing it for a long time.

Flavius slept apart, as befitting an officer, although he found it rather silly, given their current strength and situation. The fierce fighting of the day and the fact that he survived it took his dreams to echoes of past glories when his century was one of six making up a full cohort of which there were ten in the legion. His dreams melded comfortable victories of the past with the day's desperate battle. He single-handedly led his century to victory against the Parthians and was promoted, but his new cohort, which should have been composed of six centuries, was made up of only a single squad of eight men. General Crassus, richest man in the Republic and famous for his spendthrift celebrations, threw him a victory and promotion party but the wine tasted like a poorly-cured waterskin, the food felt like dirt on his tongue, and the women were all distinctly undesirable and clearly diseased. Despite his obvious distaste for them, one of the women continued to pursue him. She kept backing him up, while speaking rapidly to him, although he was unable to make out anything she said. She became more insistent and pushed closer, her diseased flesh plainly apparent, even beneath a heavy application of Egyptian-style makeup.

She reached to touch him and he shuddered.

Flavius startled awake, roused by strong fingers digging into his shoulder and a calloused hand over his mouth. Optio Rock's voice spoke quietly at his ear.

Chapter 3

Friday, November 05, 2010

Chapter 1: The Last Battlefield

My sole purpose in doing NaNoWriMo is to minimize my internal editor. Yes, I tried to pick a story concept that I'd enjoy writing and, given my personality, I cannot be totally uninvested in what I'm writing; but the majority of my effort is to write without overthinking. If something is big, I just call it "big" and move on without worrying, as I usually would, about being more precise. Is it "big" or is it "imposing," or "sizeable," or "immense," or "towering," or "capable of blocking the sun," etc.?

In that context, it is not sufficient for me to simply do it in private, hiding my lack of precision from the world. To fully commit to writing copiously but not elegantly, I must allow others to see the product of that effort. Therefore, here is the first completed chapter of my NaNo novel, just as it appeared from my fingertips, no editing, no rewrites, no fucking spell checker, even. Shudder!

The Lost Century

Chapter 1: The Last Battlefield

"Turtle! Turtle! Turtle!" Flavius croaked roughly, his voice hoarsened by a full day of yelling commands at battlefield pitch, trying to be heard over the fierce roaring of the enemy and the piteous cries and screams of the wounded and dying. The remaining Roman legionaries formed up, falling and stumbling together from exhaustion as much as moving purposefully into formation. They positioned their shields to form the "turtle" in preparation for deflecting the flight of arrows which was about to fall on them from the barbarian archers.

"You gotta be kidding me. This is it?" The distinctive rasp of Ibby's Iberian accent sounded even whinier than usual. And, maybe, for the first time ever, a bit fatalistic.

"Fuck me!" came the unmistakable urban-Roman gutter accent of Tits, perennial shirker when it came to noncombat duties but truly efficient and skilled when it came to the primary purpose of a legionary, combat and killing. "There's nobody left! Mars' buttfuckin' uncle! This isn't a turtle, it's a gods-cursed hatchling, a cocksuckin' egg, fer shit's sake! We're, like, one fuckin' squad."

"Be quiet and do your duty or I'll kill you before the barbarians have a chance to!" ordered the Optio.

"Steady, now. You're legionaries. Stand like legionaries. Fight like legionaries. If ya gotta, die like legionaries." the Third added.

Tits persisted. "Maybe I'd rather have Optio Rock just fuckin' kill me. At least I know he'd do it right, quick and clean. I dunno about these fuckin' barbarians. They look like fuckin' cannibals. I hate asshole cannibals. If I gotta get eaten, I don't wanna be eaten by these bastards. I want it to be some luscious Nubian hooker sucking my huge Roman cock while I suck down expensive wine and munch on pheasants' tongues at the Amalfi coast."

A couple of low-energy sniggers bounced around under the roof of their turtle. There may even have been a sotto voce "Fuckin-A!" but Optio Rock couldn't be sure. He was sure that someone muttered, "Huge my ass!" because Tits responded clearly, "Yeah, bitch, thass rite, you do got a huge shit-chute cuz I hear you're worse than that ass-bandit Caesar when it comes to takin' it in the rear. That's why nobody ever hears you when you fart, dickwad."

The Optio touched the tip of his sword to Tits' lower back, under the edge of his armor, and pressed firmly. "Shut up. Now. Stand firm and die like a citizen of Rome, like a legionary, you gutter bastard, or I will do you."

Tits heard the truth in the Optio's voice and clamped his teeth shut. He stood quietly, like everyone else who remained alive to form their desperately tiny turtle, dripping as much blood as they did sweat, the result of a day of hard fighting and numerous small to middling injuries. The pitiful remains of a full century of legionaries numbered only a dozen now, all panting, sweating, and bleeding, stinking of exhaustion and death.

Flavius heard all that was going on behind him but ignored it, knowing that his Optio and Third would control any internal problems. He was only concerned with the external situation. That morning they'd been a full century. A good century. Possibly, even, one of the best. Tough, disciplined men, experienced in the Roman army's strategies, tactics, and teamwork combined with individual fierceness. But they were far, far from home and long past the days of supply trains and reinforcements. They were foragers now, living off the land they happened to find themselves on, more a band of roaming ruffians than a branch of the dreaded Roman legions, relying only on themselves.

Flavius used the back of his sword hand to wipe his eyes and peered between the shields of their pathetically small turtle at the host arrayed before him. This was a harsh, arid land, populated by small, swarthy people who were the very embodiment of what Flavius thought of when he thought about non-Roman barbarians. They were dirty, dressed in skins and ragged furs with astonishingly primitive helmets and breastplates, and even those were few and far between. Most wore no armor or, at best, leather chest protectors; but there were a lot of them and Flavius had to admit, they were fierce and skillful fighters. Ordinarily, he'd have no qualms about facing two-to-one odds, even three-to-one against an unskilled enemy.

Unfortunately, this was not "ordinarily," this enemy was far from unskilled, and he'd started the day down by what seemed like nearly four-to-one. Now, at the end of what looked to be his last day on earth, he'd lost 90% of his men. While losing that many men, he'd eliminated perhaps twice that number of enemy forces, about half of their original contingent, but that still left him with odds which weren't worth computing, although he couldn't stop his brain from determining that he was operating in the neighborhood of twenty-to-one.

A flood of overwhelming emotions threatened to swell up and drown him but he pushed that into a storeroom in a rarely used area his mind and brought forward his combat mentality, cold, calculating, and unemotional. What was he facing? How could he best defend/attack/survive? Look for the options. Look for the advantages.

He'd done the best he could all day and the horrid terrrain had aided him in that. This country was all canyons and bluffs. Cliffs and caves. Rock and rubble. He'd positioned his century in a V-shaped canyon with their backs to apex of the V. The enemy had to come straight at him and had no high ground advantage within range. Without the terrain advantage, they would all have been dead before midday; but here they were, within an hour of sunset, and still standing. Down to 1/10 of their original strength, a reverse decimation, but still fighting.

A bit more than a javeline's throw away, the barbarians were lined up for their archery assault. About a third of the remaining enemy had bows and were getting together to release a salvo. Flavius heard a shrill barbarian voice and the archers all nocked an arrow and readied themselves.

"Steady!" Flavius cautioned his men.

A second barbarian phrase and the archers drew, followed quickly by a third and final phrase and they loosed their arrows as one.

"Incoming!" warned Flavius, almost unnecessarily because the simultaneous release and flight was loud enough to be heard over the wails and screams of the maimed and dying. The turtle tightened up as the men braced for impact. There was a collective intake of breath and slow exhalation, then the rain began striking their roof, demanding admittance.

When the last shafts finished falling, the Optio asked, "Anybody hit?" and got a full tally of negative replies plus a gratuitous "Fucking barbarians!" from Tits. Ibby added, "Optio, I am not happy with our situation."

The Optio would never admit it, but he felt better after weathering the archery assault because he'd feared it might be effective,and he allowed the bitching to persist without clamping down on it. Hell! They were all gonna die, anway; it was a soldier's gods-given right to bitch. He offered, "Here's our next move. Ibby will rush out alone and distract the barbarians while the rest of us hightail it up this bluff behind us and leg it our for parts East. Ready?"

This time he distinctly heard the "Fucking-A!" along with other chortles and amused mumbles.

"Not funny, Optio!" Ibby sputtered. The amusement got louder, with a distinct tinge of relief and a touch of acquiescence. They'd survived a lot of shit in their day and put up a helluva fight in this battle but it was inevitable that they'd die here. And soon. They accepted it ultimately. They were legionaries, by the gods, and they'd die like legionaries. It was either that or die like a coward. Not even a choice, really.

"Bring it on, you fuckers!' an indeterminate voice challenged the barbarian group from beneath the turtle. The remaining legionaries all joined in. "We are the legions of Rome, you shit-eating, sheep-fucking, ignorant cocksuckers!" "Come and die, assholes!" "I'm gonna make you watch while I rape your bitches to death but first I'm gonna cut off your nasty barbarian equipment! Then, after they thank me for giving them some good Roman cock, I'll fuckin' kill ya! SLOW!"

Flavius ignored the survival banter and challenges because he was busy peering out again to see what the barbarians were working on to end their survival. He expected to see the archers preparing another salvo and they were. What he didn't expect to see was the remaining barbarians working their way across the battlefield, recovering their lightly wounded and killing the hopeless, along with killing off all the wounded legionaries. Why start that now?

The second salvo got underway and Flavius warned "Steady!" followed soon thereafter by "Incoming!"

Again the turtle tightened up and endured the pounding from above. And again, they came through with no injuries. And Flavius once again peeked between shields to see the barbarians hurrying to finish policing the battlefield. What could it mean? He considered it as the third flight was launched against them.

"Steady!" preceeded "Incoming!" and the turtle once again kept the stone-tipped rain from rending legionary flesh. Flavius peered through the shield gap to see the barbarians getting very close to his turtle. Was the battlefield cleanup a ruse of some kind? Why not just charge? Ruse or no ruse, nothing would happen until they were in close-combat range. A line of perhaps twenty-five barbarians formed, facing Flavius' turtle as the enemy got closer. Behind that line, the rest of the enemy continued their efforts to separate the quick from the dead or to turn quick Romans into dead ones. There was nothing Flavius could do about that which wasn't suicidal; but he thought about it, considering that they were going to die no matter what. Ultimately, he held steady and let the barbarians finish their work. Time enough to die when the final attack was lauched against them.

For the first time that day, the battlefield was quiet. Certainly, not perfectly quiet. Inside the turtle, sounds were amplified as the Romans breathed and grunted and their armor creaked when they adjusted positions. Across the battlefield, the barbarian horde chattered and made all the noise usually associated with that large a group of men and horses. But compared to the fierce yells of battle and horrible screams of the injured which held sway for most of the day, the quite seemed profound.

The stench, of course, had not abated a whit. The iron tang of blood scent cloyed at the back of their throats, especially after a battle like this, where water was scarce. The vomit fumes of those who'd empited their stomachs, for whatever reason, floated on the still air. The ammoniac nasal pinch of urine and the sewer effluvium of open bowels either from intestinal wounds or from those who'd voided at death was the strongest smell, overwhelming all others; but the underlying tingly, fecund hint of ejaculate from those who'd spewed their seed at death's call added an uncomfortable reminder of the fullness of the losses one suffers at death. But the legionaries were all hardened men who'd served many years in harness to Rome. They'd experienced it all before.

As the barbarian gleaners finished their task and withdrew toward their lines, the archers prepared another salvo. Flavius now saw this effort in a new light. It was not meant as a serious attack but simply as covering fire to keep the legionaries in place while the death squads did their work.

He was almost casual as he ordered "Steady!' and "Incoming!" and the men picked up on his emotional state and treated the latest salvo as a kind of realistic but boring drill rather than the opening notes of the final movement of their death symphony.

When this shaft shower ended, Flavius again looked to see what the enemy was up to. Once again, the archers were preparing a salvo but the rest of their force seemed to be leaving. Flavius was stunned. Could it really be possible that they were withdrawing? Now? When they had the legionaries down to a handful of men, grossly outnumbered? It was ridiculous. It made no sense at all. But it was what he was looking at. They couldn't be planning to sneak around behind him because they would have done that hours ago, if it had been possible. They were simply leaving. Oops, but it's time to go heads-down for a minute.

"Steady!' and "Incoming!" and a tight turtle because they were by-the-gods Roman legionaries and when they did something, they did it right. The rain fell harmlessly all round them and bounced of their roof like air-borne Spring flower petals bouncing off the sturdy slate roof of an architecturally superior Roman villa. Even the usually laconic Optio was moved to comment, "Good work, men! We'll show 'em how legionaries do it!" And Flavius took yet another peek at his adversaries' antics.

There was no mistaking what was happening. The barbarian troops were retreating over a hillock and the archers were peeling off to follow. Flavius told his men what he was seeing but cautioned them to hold. Half the archers turned at maximum bow range and loosed another volley.

Steady. Incoming. Harmless clatter.

When Flavius looked again, he saw the last of the archers disappearing over the hillock after their fellows and the Romans were alone on the battlefield with the dead.

He told the men what he saw but ordered "Hold!" because he didn't understand what was happening and didn't trust the possibility that the barbarians had actually left the field of battle, leaving the remaining Romans alive. It didn't make any sense. However the enemy were clearly out of sight and well out of range and he knew his remaining legioaries were brutally exhausted so he ordered, "Down turtle. Form ranks."

The legionaries gratefully lowered their shields and shuffled into a semblance of rank, given that they were only ten percent of their original and usual force. Flavius looked them over and chose the two who looked least wounded. "Blue, Pinhead, take perimeter lookout duty. The rest of you sit and tend to your wounds. All of you drink whatever water you have."

Blue and Pinhead exchanged a look which would have been understood by any pair of grunts from Ig and Ug, cave warriors, to Melma4829 and Borth35, plasma fodder of the Glalctic Empire; but they trudged off up the V to take up their stations and watch over their brothers in arms, slurping what little water they had left and feeling the specific pains of their battle injuries and the deeper, general aches of bodies used beyond reasonable limits. The rest collapsed and began addressing their various wounds, either singly or with the aid of a fellow legionary for the more serious ones.

Flavius moved over to stand near his NCOs. "Optio Catullus," he inquired, "what do you make of it?"

The Optio, who was used to being addressed as simply "Optio" or "Optio Rock," was uncomfortable with the Centurion's use of his proper name. It was unusual and, therefore, disquieting. Nonetheless, he offered his best opinion. "Some barbarians are afraid of the dark. Won't fight in it. Want to be home and closed in during the night. Maybe these are like that."

"Third Naso?" Flavius sought the input of his thoughtful and pessimistic secondary NCO.

Gus, as he was more usually called, or, even more commonly, simply "Third," because of his rank, was also cautious because of Flavius' use of his proper name. He therefore responded in kind. "Centurion Maro, these bastards are tough and sneaky and I'm pretty sure they've been shadowing us for a couple of days. Somebody certainly has and they've explored and tested our perimeter at night. I know it. They could be just over that hill, resting up, and preparing to creep in later tonight and slaughter us in our sleep." He still couldn't accept that he was alive after the battle they'd fought. It was a silly notion that the barbarians would resort to a plan so complex when all they had to do was march up and slaughter the remaining Romans like temple sacrifices; but could it really be possible that the enemy had departed, leaving them alive. That didn't make sense. Maybe Rock was right. Maybe they were terrified of the dark and were simply hurrying home. Please, Mars, and Hades, if you're not too busy, let it be so!

Flavius nodded at his NCOs and squatted next to them, positioning himself where he could look over his remaining troops, while he thought about their situation. He swallowed some water from his waterskin and relished the stale, going-slighty-foul taste of it. He'd survived. Gods curse it all, he was alive, somehow, after being between the jaws of the death givers. The how of it was a mystery and what to do next was questionable but he was alive right now, with these men, and that was a lot better than standing empty handed on the bank of the River Styx, waiting for Charon and wondering how to deal with that situation.

"How long until dark?" Flavius spoke for his NCOs ears.

They both looked up, then looked at each other and nodded. Optio Rock responded, "Half an hour. Maybe three-quarters, if we're lucky."

Flavius nodded. "Get the men to finish up their bandaging and police what you can from the battlefield within the next half-hour. I'm going to scramble up this bluff and check out the caves above us. That's our best bet for surviving this night. I want everyone still alive to be up there with me and ready to establish a defensive perimeter by dark. Questions?"

"That's not enough time to do anything significant. Maybe gather some waterskins, rations, and a few weapons. Not much else." said the Optio, inquiringly.

"What about burial detail?" added the Third, specifically.

Flavius squared himself to them and said the hard thing. "Waterskins, food, and weapons. There's no time for anything else. It'll be dark in less than an hour. One way or the other, those of us who are still functioning have to be in position and ready in that timeframe. If we're still alive in the morning, we can make more sophisticated plans then. For now, we are in minimal survival mode, gentlemen. Understood?"

Neither man liked it but they both understood the harsh reality they faced. Long habit made their simultaneous response automatic, "Yes, Centurion!" They got to their feet and moved closer to the men to start them moving.

Flavius also rose on pain-drenched knees and aching thighs and eyeballed the bluff. In his current state, it was gonna be a ball-buster.

*Chapter 2 is here.


The Lost Century

[If you want to start at Chapter 1, it's here along with my explanation of what I'm doing and why.]

In the 1950s I was a tween who devoured SF novels as voraciously as I devoured candy and crawfish bisque. There were only a couple of SF authors from the 50s, and 40s and 30s, whom I didn't especially enjoy reading. I liked most of them, I loved many of them, and I adored a few of them. Andre Norton was one of the brightest stars in my literary universe.

In 1953, she (Yes, she. Andre Norton was the nom de plume of Alice Mary Norton.) published a novel called Star Rangers. She was one of those SF authors I adored and when I got this novel from the library I expected to inhale it as I had all of her other works. Unusually for me, however, I only read a couple of pages and then put it down, uninterested in continuing. I returned it to the library unread.

Some time later, on another library trip, I took this novel home again, and again stalled out after just a couple of pages, and again returned it to the library unread. I remember doing this a couple more times. For some reason at that time, I simply couldn't get into that novel. Until I could.

Finally, there came a time when I took it home and began reading and found myself drawn in. Now, more than fifty years later, I still reread that novel every year or two. It's one of my all-time favorites. What does that have to do with this introduction to my novel? Well…

Ms. Norton opened Star Rangers with a prologue which tells the story of a Roman Emperor who commanded a legion to march East to find the Eastern edge of Asia, simply because he had the power to do so. She then imagined that legion's fall to a barbarian horde on an unknown battlefield, somewhere in the vastness of Asia. This is the historic parallel to the plight of the crew of the Central Control Patrol ship Starfire in her novel. That legend of the Roman legion intrigued me as much as Ms. Norton's novel itself and I wondered if there was any historical validity to it.

Roman history was a significant component of my prep school curriculum and we learned about the Republic, later Empire, as we read various Latin authors. Caesar's Commentaries were part of the first year of Latin studies and part of Caesar's history is his interaction with Crassus, the richest man in the Republic and calculated by some to have been the richest man ever. For our purposes, however, the significance of Crassus is not his wealth but his military history. Crassus wanted to make a name for himself as a military man in order to compete with Pompey and Caesar, so while Caesar was running around killing people in Western Europe, Crassus decided to head East and conquer the Parthians in what is now approximately Turkey.

In 53 B.C., Crassus lost to the Parthians and was beheaded by them. As a result of that campaign, many legions were lost, both to the Romans as useful troops and to history. The Parthians would typically have sent prisoners and/or slaves to the Eastern realms of their empire. A couple of decades after the campaigns of 54-53 B.C., there are stories in China of a group of Caucasians who fought with what are apparently Roman armor, weapons, and tactics. This story, which is potentially historically factual, is probably the basis of the legend related by Ms. Norton in her prologue to Star Rangers.

In the half-century-plus since the original publication of Star Rangers, it has been reprinted several times and also reissued under an alternate title, The Last Planet. No matter which printing or which title it comes from, it was Andre Norton's mention of this legend which inspired me to write my novel.

Therefore, I dedicate this novel to the memory of Andre (Alice Mary) Norton, and to my nonpareil wife, Ronnie, and my exquisite daughters, MJ and Chloe.

Dum spiro, disco! Dum vivimus, vivamus! Dum, dum, dum, dum!
Frank Maier, Pacific Northwest 2010

Here is Andre Norton's original prologue to Star Rangers:

There is an old legend concerning a Roman Emperor, who, to show his power, singled out the Tribune of a loyal legion and commanded that he march his men across Asia to the end of the world. And so a thousand men vanished into the hinterland of the largest continent, to be swallowed up forever. On some unknown battlefield the last handful of survivors must have formed a square which was overwhelmed by a barbarian charge. And their eagle may have stood lonely and tarnished in a horsehide tent for a generation thereafter. But it may be guessed, by those who know of the pride of these men in their corps and tradition, that they did march East as long as one still remained on his feet.

In 8054 A.D. history repeated itself – as it always does. The First Galactic Empire was breaking up. Dictators, Emperors, Consolidators wrested the rulership of their own or kindred solar systems from Central Control. Space pirates raised flags and recruited fleets to gorge on spoil plundered from this wreckage. It was a time in which only the ruthless could flourish.

Here and there a man, or a group of men, tried valiantly to dam the flood of disaster and disunion. And, notable among these last-ditch fighters who refused to throw aside their belief in the impartial rule of Central Control were the remnants of the Stellar Patrol, a law enforcement body whose authority had existed unchallenged for almost a thousand years. Perhaps it was because there was no longer any security to be found outside their own ranks that these men clung the closer to what seemed in the new age to be an outworn code of ethics and morals. And their studdorn loyalty to a vanished ideal was both exasperating and pitiful to the new rulers.

Jorcam Dester, the last Control Agent of Deneb, who was nursing certain ambitions of his own, solved in the Roman manner the problem of ridding his sector of the Patrol. He summoned the half dozen officers still commanding navigable ships and ordered them – under the seal of the Control – out into space, to locate (as he said) and remap forgotten galactic border systems no one had visited in at least four generations. He offered a vague promise to establish new bases from which the Partol might rise again, invigorated and revived, to fight for the Control ideals. And, faithful to their very ancient trust, they upped-ship on this mission, undermanned, poorly supplied, without real hope, but determined to carry out orders to the last.

One of these ships was the Vegan Scout –

Thank you, Ms. Norton, for this story and all the others you wrote which inspired me over the years. And thank you, dear reader, for being here. I hope you enjoy yourself.

Chapter 1