Glabrio knelt at the shoreline, washing his bearded face in the wine-dark sea, when he heard the enemy skyship give one final groan. Two hundred yards away the metallic red hulk was still smoking, half-submerged in the Mediterranean like an unsightly island, one wing jutting to the heavens, the forked tail like a wishbone. Then it tilted over and the waters shot up in spectacular foam.
“There it goes!” Glabrio cried, clapping his hands together at the sight of the vessel vanishing into the wake. He gave a savage grin to his wounded friend. “May Lord Neptune eat well today!”
Behind him, Sun Pin nodded thoughtfully at the milky ripples. His skin had turned a ghastly clay color, a far cry from the healthy golden glow he had sported when they left the red-lacquered courts of Xianyang. The bandages of his pulverized leg needed changing. Bald, tunic-clad, he looked like a mosaic from the old Roman bridge that led to the city necropolis.
“How much time to the train pass?” he managed weakly.
Glabrio stood on trembling yet muscular legs. Face washed, he caught a glimpse of his own dark reflection. An old story from childhood floated like flute notes from his memory. Turn your eyes upon dark glass, the story said, and see neither the past nor future, but what might be.
The problem was that he didn’t know how to read his troubled, anxious face in those waters. His watery doppelganger watched him with strangely pleading eyes.
“What did you say?” Glabrio asked, turning back to his friend.
“The train. When’s the next arrival?”
Glabrio retrieved his scroll from his pocket. He snapped it open, and his dexterous thumbs rotated the tabs to transform its surface into a timetable map. The Alexandros train line materialized. It ran the coast from Old Carthage to the inland ports hugging the Nile, all the way to the little island of Elephantine.
His eyes scanned the timetable. Then he looked to the kronoband all soldiers wore around their wrists. A tiny crimson serpent crawled around its surface, passing into each respective hour of the day.
Glabrio looked at Sun Pin in thinly constrained despair. “Fourteen minutes.”
Sun Pin sighed. His lean body inflated in a strange celebration of life. With this breath I am alive! it seemed to say, and when he exhaled the illusion shrank. He was at Pluto’s grey door . . . but perhaps had not yet rung the bell.
“Tell me again how lovely the Nile is?”
“I told you before. There are no words. You have to see it.” Glabrio lifted the other man to his feet, quickly strapping the two-inch pattens to both feet. “And Elephantine has honey-skinned women with eyes outlined in black kohl, and they are as sleek as cats. Their lips taste like sugar-dipped plums.”
Sun Pin leaned his bald head back to the sky, just in time to acknowledge a new peal of thunder. Rain splashed into neat star-patterns on his sweaty forehead. “If not for the war,” he breathed, “then for the sleek cats of Old Egypt! Let’s go!”
They hobbled away from the shoreline barricade, which had been their only shield against the Tlaxcalan skyship—until the jupiterhand’s strike. The red vessel had circled them like an angry hornet, strafing the barricade of wood and scrap metal. Glabrio had hastily loaded a missile into the jupiterhand’s cylinder, and it was Sun Pin who peeked out, placing the enemy into his sights. An instant later, the missile had streaked up on a pillar of blue propellant and split the ship like a gutted fish.
“Hurry!” The pattens creaked, equalizing Sun Pin’s wounded leg. The soldiers briskly pushed up from the muddying beach to sturdier inland, where the port was a tangled mass of Egyptian resistance ruins. Fourteen minutes! Even for a robust athlete it would be a challenge. And they were further burdened by Glabrio’s metallic case, heavy, troublesome, but the very thing the Tlaxcala wanted so badly.
Maybe that was the answer in the dark glass. What the future would be like, if the enemy got their hands on what was in his possession.
Glabrio’s heart squeezed painfully. His fingers tightened their hold on the metal case in response, and he was flooded with a dizzying adrenaline rush. He suddenly saw himself as from a bird’s viewpoint, looking no more significant than an ant crawling on his villa’s mosaic paths. What was the significance of an ant? Crushed easily beneath a sandal’s careless step! And yet, the Fates had all the future weighing on this ant’s shoulders. . . the tormented cries of a thousand future souls howling, phantom-like, around him. Glabrio’s optimism faltered in this cosmic vise-grip. His lean, sinewy body constricted as if trapped in the coils of Python himself.
From beyond the port’s ruins came the blast of the train. The Tlaxcala were famed for bombing cities into total oblivion, with no regard for history or the future. Indeed, changing the world into rubble seemed their ultimate objective—a horizon of shattered glass and fractured pylons.
A troop of baboons were picking through the remains of what may have been a grocer shop, rudely pawing foodstuffs into their mouths. Glabrio glared in disgust at the animals, having too often come upon them gnawing on human corpses. No one knew how, but the beasts now ranged far from their native jungles and Glabrio’s hatred of them grew every time he saw them in a new place.
In the distance, the train suddenly appeared like a fabled sea serpent. Bright green, with engraved scales and Roman emblems glinting on its flanks. Driven by the power of steam.
“I can’t help but thinking this is all your fault,” Sun Pin panted as he went.
“Tell me when we’re on the train,” Glabrio said. The train would pass far ahead of them in just a few minutes; they could already see the tracks cutting through the rubble. Glabrio dropped his metal case and fled from his friend’s side. He leapt onto the tracks.
“What are you doing?” Sun Pin cried, aghast.
Glabrio seized the nearest block of rubble and strained against it, rolling it onto one ungainly side. In half a minute he had set the monstrosity onto the tracks, and he clambered to get another. The ground was trembling now as the train approached.
He never even heard the shot. All he knew was that, struggling to set the second obstruction in place, it seemed that someone with a mighty sledgehammer had swung into his shoulder, spinning him around like a top. He was suddenly facing the forest opposite the Mediterranean. Then that invisible sledgehammer hit him again, in the chest, and Glabrio fell backwards upon the tracks. The locket he always wore slid up into the crease of his neck.
Tlaxcalan snipers! he thought, lying motionless. They’d sit there and wait, itching for his partner to try to rescue him.
Glabrio’s mind raced. What to do? His handgun was within reach, but about as helpful right now as a slingshot. His own gun lay back with Sun Pin, as did the jupiterhand.
The tracks vibrated enough to rattle his teeth. His locket chain jingled musically in the rain.
Glabrio realized in an instant that he didn’t want to die. Years of facing death in service of the Empire had not, amazingly enough, led him to accept his mortality. How many times had he faced Pluto’s grey door? His life often seemed a collection of explosions and shrapnel, while his memories of Rome were just a dream. In that dream was a marble villa, and his two daughters were playing in the gardens, and he would scoop them up in his arms and carry them inside to watch a favorite helioramic together.
An image roared fleetingly through his thoughts. Little Prisca, his youngest, standing at the ivy-strewn doorway of their home, waiting for the father who would never return.
He tensed his muscles, ready to leap up and risk more sniper fire. Again the image of his reflected face drifted into his thoughts, sorrowful, anguished, and with something else in his eyes. Glinting like polished river stones. What was it?
Then he heard the distinctive whine of the jupiterhand. The rocket streaked past him, into the woods, and exploded against the trees as a dazzling fireball. Glabrio scrambled off the tracks in the interim. Sun Pin was already moving to meet him, the metal case in one hand, the jupiterhand cylinder gently smoking against his shoulder.
They heard the squealing of the train wheels, as the conductor spotted the obstructions on the tracks. Glabrio smiled as it drew itself like a green wall in front of the sniper-studded forest. He tugged at Sun Pin, and they hobbled to the closest boxcar, climbing inside.
It took less than two minutes for the train’s soldiers to remove the rubble from the tracks. The crackling forest was quiet.
Safely aboard the train, Glabrio approached a uniformed guard and flashed his military badge. He was ushered in past the gawking passengers to a secluded booth adjacent to the baggage car, where he and Sun Pin collapsed. The Egyptian landscape flew by their window.
He quickly changed Sun Pin’s bandages, rubbing in the antibiotics to stave off infection. His partner turned an even paler shade from the pain, but refused the painkillers.
“Stubborn fool,” Glabrio said wearily, secretly admiring his Oriental friend’s iron-like resolve. It was an inspiration, really. Two years ago while on campaign in Gaul, Glabrio had been shot by steel-tipped dragon teeth. Sun Pin and a local doctor worked to remove the slugs, while Glabrio ground his teeth and tried to match Sun Pin’s tireless example of Han dynasty stoicism. The Hans were better at it than the damned Greeks.
Finished now, Glabrio flopped into the seat across from him. “So how is this all my fault?”
Sun Pin raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Out there, you said this whole thing was my fault. By which I assume you mean the fact that we’re at war, are constantly being shot at, and will likely die a terrible death before we ever see peace.”
Sun Pin nodded. “If your Alexander the Great had just stayed in his part of the world, we wouldn’t be hunted like we are now.”
“Alexander was Greek. I’m a Roman.”
“So argued the chicken and duck, as to who was a bird.” Sun Pin took a hearty swig from his field water jug. “Alexander must have been a devil. How many times was he almost killed?”
Glabrio looked away from the rushing landscape. Night was turning the windows black, and again there was his reflection, mute and unhelpful.
“Lots of times. A Persian struck him on the head with an axe at the Granicus River, and he recovered. Later, he nearly died during the desert march through Gedrosia. And then at Babylon, he struggled for two weeks against a relentless fever, but beat it. That last episode should have killed him, by all rights.” He shrugged, jerking toward the window as he thought his reflection flashed a knowing smile. “Willpower. Alexander recovered and lived to the ripe age of eighty-three.”
“A devil,” Sun Pin repeated, but he smiled at the old joke. There was much to admire in Sun Pin’s strength of spirit. Sun Pin came from the Shaanxi school of Zhong Guo’s philosophers, which had sprung up in the centuries after West and East were brought into contact by Alexander’s eastern marches. Forever obsessed with the exotic kingdoms he found there, Alexander was the one who ordered construction of the longest road in history—the Great Route—facilitating an explosion of trade like nothing history had ever seen before. And centuries later when the Romans annexed Alexander’s empire, the Great Route became more important than ever; Greek rulers had seen fit to adapt the steam engine proposals of Heron of Alexandria to its surface. The trains had been running ever since.
So in a way, Sun Pin owed his very existence to those bygone battles and eventual cross-pollination of cultures. And certainly the world had benefited from that intercourse of powerful empires.
Glabrio snapped open his scroll again, and clicked through the different combinations of pages. His thumb flicked the tabs, moving and retracting the scroll-plate. Maps appeared and vanished, mission instructions, first aid, information on the local flora and fauna, and even a litany of local contacts sympathetic to the cause. The best part was that it could only be read with the right key, and Glabrio carried it: made of a ceramic which could be smashed into dust with one throw should their enemies capture them.
The Tlaxcala had, long ago, been little more than scattered tribes, the lost peoples rejected by the high civilizations of Rome and Zhong Guo: the Huns and Goths and Celts and Norse. Unable to overcome the continent-spanning Great Wall which ran from Zhong Guo’s eastern shores across the crest of Italy, the wretches had been faced with two options. Some settled down and made small, warlike states in Europe’s chilly hinterlands. Others moved across the eastern sea to the Far Continents. There, they encountered a strange multitude of tribal peoples: strangers who dressed in feathers, shells, and deerskins. They gazed in wonder at this vast new land of open plains, forests, and the untouched ores of mountains from which to set up new forges and altars to their thunder gods.
And when the new weapons had cooled, the bearded warriors gathered into gleeful hunting parties and made Valhalla on Earth.
Few in the West realized what was happening on the opposite side of the world. They had knowledge of the new continents, of course; Greek explorers had mapped their coastlines, made tentative contact with the natives, and moved on, thinking them a quaint curiosity. They never penetrated the interiors. They never cut a swath of death through tribal territories, encountering people calling themselves Fox, Sioux, Apache . . .
When Sun Pin was asleep, Glabrio ambled along the train’s length to find the conductor. Egyptian night pressed at the windows. Most passengers slept, while some older men read books by glowlights, and a few children played hide-and-seek among the boxcar seats.
“I need to send a message to Elephantine,” Glabrio told the conductor.
The man was white-haired, clean-shaven, and badly scarred. One side of his head was bubbly and burnt, unsightly with dark scar tissue as were his hands. He had grey eyes, wide and moist. “You may, of course. You’re the soldier, right?”
Glabrio glared. “Just lead the way.”
The wireless transmitter was in the comcar behind the cabin. Glabrio thanked the conductor, and began tapping out a coded message to his compatriots awaiting him on the Nile island.
Sun Pin is gravely injured. We have the prize and are en route to you.
He hesitated, feeling his anxious heart skip a beat. It was a terrible feeling. The blood rushed to his head, his panicked pulse twitched in his neck.
“May I ask,” said the conductor behind him, “why you are going to Elephantine?”
Glabrio spun around, frightened and angry. “I asked for privacy!” His instincts kicked in, and he whirled the old man around, slamming him into the wall. He padded him down, seeking daggers or pistols.
“What’s your name?”
“Silus,” the conductor panted. “I meant no offense.”
“Good. Then get the hell out of here.”
The conductor nodded, head low like a broken-down horse. He turned towards the doorway, halted, and tilted his head at Glabrio.
“I only asked if you were a soldier because. . . well. . . I was one too. Long ago. Before your father was born, I’m sure.”
Glabrio felt his senses go on full alert, suspecting treachery. “That’s fascinating. It isn’t like soldiers are in short supply.”
“I wasn’t saying this to fascinate you,” Silus said, his voice growing firmer. “Younger soldiers can often benefit from a veteran’s advice. Like the importance of not turning your back on me when we entered this room. I could have been a Tlaxcalan agent, with this train line under my control.”
Glabrio started to reply with a sharp comment when he faltered, suddenly perceiving the reasons for the scars on the man’s face and hands.
Silus retrieved a small flask from his pocket. “Drink?”
Glabrio regarded the flask. “A Tlaxcalan agent just might poison it.”
Silus smiled so that all the wrinkles in his face appeared and stretched. He looked like a tribal mask of mirth. “Like I said.”
Empire historians put the time of contact between Eurasian invaders and the Tenochcas at around 900 years after Alexander. While Sino-Roman civilization was flourishing, descendants of the Norse and Goths and Huns finally crossed into the southernmost of the Far Continents. Here they saw the cities of Texcoco and Tenochtitlan, pyramids of sun and moon, and priests who plucked hearts from sacrificial victims.
Here was an enemy they could not conquer. So they traded together, learning each other’s tongues and gods. Was thunder god Odin so very different from Tlaloc? The trade prospered, and marriages were made. Young men of the Norse, Goths, and Huns willingly joined the military schools of Eagle and Jaguar and Feathered Serpent.
Inventions of the west kept coming through the sea trades with their European neighbors. The Sino-Roman Empire had by now connected themselves through trains and skyships, and their laboratories churned out complex discoveries in medicine, engineering, and physics. What man could imagine, so the wisdom of an era cried, man could achieve.
And in the Far West, the schools of Eagle, Jaguar, and Feathered Serpent spread north. We are the Tlaxcala, children of the death god! All shall submit or die! Gunpowder and the secret of flight snuck across the ocean, and became the lifeblood of the Tlaxcalan Empire. Both Far Continents were brought under their sway within as many centuries. All shall submit or die! Tlaxcalan princes were given huge swaths of land to own, develop, and refine into ever better cogs of the conquest machine. All shall submit or die!
The same year the Sino-Roman Empire cured cancer, the Tlaxcalans came.
All shall submit or die!
Glabrio rarely took his locket off. His fingers fumbled to open it; he was shaking. Then the golden circle opened, and there was a perfect capture of Prisca, his youngest. Her face was fat and cherubic, cheeks like red circles. Glabrio turned a knob and the picture shifted, much like his scroll, to show his oldest, Cincinnata, lean and dark, an impish glimmer in her youthful eyes. Another turn of the knob and his stunning wife Veta was there. Her face was aged beyond her years, but she stole his breath to look at her again.
Silus took the locket gently, showing appreciation for its antiquity and the pictures that looked out at him.
“Like spring flowers,” Silus said.
“I’ll give them the world if I can,” Glabrio offered.
“You’re young,” Silus said without any malice. “At your age, it’s possible to believe in such things.”
They stood at opposite ends of the cabin, facing each other. The Egyptian landscape, lush and flowering along the starlit Nile, raced by the windows.
“Then I hope I don’t grow up to be such a cynic as you,” Glabrio quipped.
This brought a real chuckle to the old man. “When I was six, the Tlaxcala bombed my family’s village.”
Glabrio looked again to the bumpy scars on the other man’s face and hands.
“No,” Silus said, “I lived through those bombings without a scratch. These ugly things —” he tapped at his deformities— “came later, when I was a few years younger than you. My ship was shot down over Kiev.”
“You were a pilot?” Glabrio asked, startled.
“A modern Icarus.”
“Did you . . . how many enemy ships did you destroy?”
“Not sure. It’s not like the helioramics you kids watch, with exciting plots and illusions to make you think air battles are romantic!”
“What is it like, then?”
Silus looked to the ceiling, scratching his chin with his ruined hand. “You suddenly live in the moment like at no other time of life. Up there in the blue sky, you become pure reflex and reaction. See an enemy! Shoot it! Skyships coming at you? Evade, pull into a cloud, loop around, get the devils from behind. Drop some flash fire on their main vessels. Then the adrenaline thins out in your blood, and you start to realize that it’s over, you’re alive, and you don’t know what to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You weren’t counting on surviving. It’s a surprise. Zeus sits on your shoulder maybe.” He stopped, reading the flicker in Glabrio’s eyes. “Or maybe you don’t believe in the gods. So it’s chance, combined with reflex and quick thinking. But you find yourself in a bit of daze.”
“It’s different for me,” Glabrio said. “I see my enemy up close. And I always know what to do afterwards.”
“And that is?”
“Get back to my family.” He was startled by how quickly his eyes welled up. “To see my little girls and my wife again.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-four.” Glabrio wiped away sudden tears as he took his locket back. “I want them to live. . . without fear. You know?”
The old man patted the soldier’s arm affectionately. “I do. And I thank you for what you’ve done so far.”
“I thank you,” Glabrio said. “If not for Icaruses like yourself, the sky would be filled with Tlaxcalan birds.”
“More for you to shoot down,” the conductor said. “Yes, your friend told me how the two of you knocked that skyship with your jupiterhand. The weapons of today!” Silus shook his head.
“It isn’t like Sun Pin to brag.”
“Oh, he wasn’t. I could still smell the powder on the weapon, and asked him to indulge an old bird like me. The man has a great way with words. All Orientals I’ve known are like that. You ever been to Beijing or Xi’an?”
“No. But Sun Pin and I have an agreement: When this war is over, I’ll bring my family to see his. If it’s half as beautiful as I hear, I might move there permanently.”
The old man nodded. “Zhong Guo rivals the beauty of Rome, so I hear. Green hills, red-lacquered cities, sampan villages with friendly merchants peddling anything you could want. ”
Glabrio put his locket back on. The hidden pictures rested comfortably against his heart.
“Apollo keep you,” he said, turning to leave.
“What about that case the two of you are guarding so well?”
Glabrio stopped. “The case?”
“The metallic case you came aboard with. The one that looks far heavier than it should be. Shouldn’t it be put in a safer place?”
Glabrio felt his paranoia rise. But before he could say anything, the old conductor leaned closer and said, “The rings of Pluto.”
The train pressed on across the night. After his talk with the conductor, Glabrio promptly went to sleep and, for the first time in weeks, enjoyed deep dreamless slumber. He left the shades open so the brightening eastern sky would awaken him.
Dawn touched their faces with soft golden light. Glabrio awoke groggily. He checked on Sun Pin’s bandages again, and walked to the dining car to get some tea. Along the way he checked his kronoband. Only soldiers needed such precise timekeeping mechanisms. To Glabrio, it was like a slave collar, and he sought the day he could tear it off and never worry about the meticulous crawl of life.
The train slowed, wheels moaning.
“Thanks,” Glabrio told the server, and brought a tray of two steaming cups back to his car. Sun Pin woke as he entered. He stretched, looking sweaty and smelling in need of a shower. The train stopped. Glabrio looked at the station platform and let a smile play at his lips.
“Hephaestus.” He tapped his scroll-plate. The surface transformed into a map. “Next stop, Elephantine.” He stretched and yawned, his fingers brushed the ceiling.
Then Sun Pin touched his elbow. Glabrio turned, and saw his compatriot pointing grimly to the platform.
At first Glabrio didn’t see it. There were morning commuters gathered, mostly brown-skinned citizens in pale togas. Two leashed monkeys were fighting over a toy.
Then it hit him.
Just beyond the station was the main road, and three military trucks were parked there. Dusty troop transports with the red claw of Tlaxcala emblazoned on their sides.
Glabrio looked with renewed eyes at the commuters. As he watched, red-and-black uniformed soldiers emerged from the station, rifles in their hands. They began boarding the train.
Sun Pin tugged at his arm. “Do you see that pretty young thing on the platform? The one with curves like an Etruscan statue, and skin like warmed honey?”
Glabrio followed his friend’s stare. He nodded.
“Is that an Egyptian woman?”
“Yes.” The word was barely a whisper.
Sun Pin sighed deeply. “Beautiful.” His fingers began undoing something from the hem of his tunic. Helplessly, Glabrio watched as his friend dislodged a small case holding a round, white pebble.
“Don’t,” Glabrio pleaded. His eyes watered. “We can figure something out. We. . .”
“There is an expression from Mencius, my favorite of Zhong Guo’s philosophers. But I. . . I cannot abide by it. Mencius. . . did not know. . . the Tlaxcala.”
Tears spilled from Glabrio’s eyes. “My daughters have never seen your homeland.”
Sun Pin nodded gravely. “Then they will have to without me. Good-bye, my friend.”
He swallowed the pebble.
The train’s soldiers surrendered so easily, without so much as a hint of protest, that Glabrio wondered if they had been bribed from the very beginning. Some arrangement must have been made; it was tradition to fight to the bitter end against Tlaxcalans. And why not? The enemy reveled in torturing captives. Skinning them alive, performing surgery while the victim remained conscious. . .
The enemy troops boarded the train swiftly, combing its length for something.
“You found me,” Glabrio told them. They dragged him to their commander at the platform. Now he could see it was even worse than he had imagined. Two red skyships had landed farther past the station. Enemy troops were walking openly among the people here. How much of Egypt had fallen? And how?
For all the ferocity of their sustained invasions, the Tlaxcala were losing their navy due to the Empire’s supremacy of the oceans. And if they still had an air advantage, that was steadily changing too. Empire skyfleets were finally taking the fight to the enemy’s homelands.
Glabrio was brought before a short, ruddy man dressed in an impeccable black-and-red suit. The colors of smoke and fire, so the Empire joke went.
The Tlaxcalan commander gazed sharply at him. Glabrio held his stare.
“Where is the case you were delivering?”
“I ate it.”
The commander didn’t look away from him. To his men he yelled, “Rip that train apart, top to bottom!”
A minute passed in silence. Then, from one of the windows, “Sir? His partner is dead. There’s no sign of the case. We do have his scroll, though.”
Glabrio laughed. “Good luck with that.”
“Did you eat the key, too?”
“No. I smashed it on the floor of the train before coming out to have this lovely conversation with you.”
The ruddy man sighed, fanning himself in the uncomfortable Egyptian heat. “Our interrogators will really want to talk to you. We have legendary ways of extracting information from our enemies.”
“So I’m told,” Glabrio said, propping up his courage as best he could. “Fortunately, I don’t know a gods-cursed thing. But realize that for every drop of my blood that spills, that’s one of your compatriots I personally killed in this war.”
The commander slapped him across the face with his ringed hand. Two cuts opened instantly.
Glabrio grinned savagely. “Start counting.”
Yes, he thought as they dragged him into one of their trucks. Start counting the days to the end of this war. Two-thirds of the world is against you, and all you’ve done is unite us. The Empire will never end.
“‘I dislike death indeed,’” Glabrio quoted, his necklace clutched tightly in his shaking hands, “‘But there are things I dislike more than death. Therefore there are occasions in which I will not avoid danger.’”
He spent the duration of the truck ride hoping that whatever was in the delivery case was worth it.
“You didn’t open it, did you?” the scientist asked, taking the case from the young merchant’s hands and peering skeptically at its battered condition.
“Of course not!” the boy said sullenly. “They all told me it was some kind of poison. You gonna poison all the Tlaxcala’s food and water?”
The scientist stared hard at the boy beneath his bushy eyebrows. “You don’t understand. This . . . poison could render food and water unsafe. But that’s not what we’re using it for. It’s a secret ingredient in a very special bomb we’re making.”
This won over the boy’s interest. His eyes grew wide. “A bomb?”
A bomb as bright as ten thousand suns, the scientist thought. A bomb to level cities as if harnessing the destructive radiance of Jupiter himself. He stared at the shiny case exterior. Within, the Ring of Pluto waited in silent, radioactive anticipation.
The conductor had revealed himself to be Glabrio’s Empire contact, and the case had transferred owners. Now the case would change again, from the conductor to the boy. The boy would take the case to the scientists of the Empire. Then there would be a flight to a secret laboratory in Rome.
“Come along now,” the scientist told the boy. “We’re leaving Egypt.”
The boy blinked. “I’m going too?”
We can’t leave you here, the scientist thought. “Yes. You ever see Rome before?”
The boy shook his head.
Together, they quickly boarded the black skyship. In minutes, they were airborne. Out the observation deck window, the sun was setting in the west.
Notes from the author:
The Empire Never Ended occurred to me while I was giving a public lecture on ancient history. The subject was Alexander the Great, and I wondered aloud how history might have played differently had he lived past that fateful night in Babylon. After all, he was obsessed with exploring the Far East; what if he brought Hellenistic culture into contact with China? The cross-pollination of ideas and inventions (the Chinese had wood-block printing, which might have allowed the Great Library of Alexandria to avert its disaster of having all those priceless books in one flammable location.) This idea (along with my story Checkmate in EV Issue 21/22) completed my seduction by alternate history.
Brian Trent lives at the speed of light. A novelist, producer, journalist, and screenwriter, his work has appeared in more than 100 venues including Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Humanist, UTNE, and much more. You can find him online at briantrent.com.