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Dreams in Amber

The man in the tavern doorway was the one whom Saturnus saw in the dreams which ended in nightmare. The bead on Saturnus's chest tingled, and the fragmented dream-voice whispered in the agent's mind, Yes. . . . Allectus.

Allectus paused to view the interior, smoky with the cheap oil of the tavern lamps. He was a soft-looking man whose curly beard and sideburns were much darker than his flowing ginger moustache. Allectus wore boots, breeches, and a hooded cape buttoned up the front. All his clothing was farm garb, and all of it was unsuited to the position Saturnus knew Allectus held—Finance Minister of Carausius. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, as he was styled on this side of the British Ocean which his fleet controlled. The onetime Admiral of the Saxon Shore now struck coins to show himself as co-emperor with his "brothers," Diocletian and Maximian. In the five years since disaster engulfed Maximian's fleet off Anderida, there had been no attempt from the mainland to gainsay the usurper's claim.

No attempt until now, until Gaius Saturnus was sent to Britain with instructions from an emperor and a mission from his dreams.

Allectus stepped aside as the agent approached him. He took Saturnus for another sailor leaving the tavern on the Thames dockside, the sort of man he had come to hire perhaps . . . but the finance officer was not ready to commit himself quite yet.

Saturnus touched his arm. "I'm the man you want," the agent said in a low voice.

"Pollux! Get away from me!" the finance officer demanded angrily. Allectus twitched loose as he glared at Saturnus, expecting to see either a pimp or a catamite. Saturnus was neither of those things. In Allectus's eyes, the agent was a tall, powerful man whose skin looked weathered enough to fit the shoddy clothes he also wore.

The finance officer stepped back in surprise. He had been tense before he entered the dive. Now, in his confusion, he was repenting the plan that had brought him here.

"I know what you want done," Saturnus said. He did not move closer to Allectus again, but he spoke louder to compensate for the other's retreat. "I'm the man you need." And Saturnus's arm tucked the cloak momentarily closer to his torso so that it molded the hilt of his dagger. The voice in Saturnus's mind whispered . . . need . . . to him again.

A customer had just left one of the blanket-screened cribs along the wall. It was a slow night, no lines, and the Moorish prostitute peered out at the men by the door as she settled her smock. Allectus grimaced in frustration. He looked at Saturnus again. With a curse and a prayer in Greek—Allectus was a Massiliot, no more a native Briton than the Batavian Carausius—he said, "Outside, then."

Three sailors blocked the door as they tried to enter in drunken clumsiness. Normally the finance officer would have given way, even if he had his office to support him. Now he bulled through them. Anger had driven Allectus beyond good judgment; though the sailors, thank Fortune, were too loose to take umbrage.

Taut himself as a drawn bow, the Imperial agent followed the official. Maximian had sent him to procure the usurper's death. The dreams . . .

The air outside was clammy with a breeze off the river. All the way from the docks to the fort there were taverns similar to the one in which Saturnus had been told to wait: one-story buildings with thatched roofs and plaster in varying states of repair covering the post and wattle walls. The shills were somnolent tonight. Only a single guard ship remained while the Thames Squadron joined the rest of the fleet at some alert station on the Channel. Saturnus knew that the mainland emperors planned no immediate assault. He could not tell, however, whether the concentration were merely an exercise, or if it were a response to some garbled news of a threat. The threat, perhaps, that he himself posed.

There was some fog, but the moon in a clear sky gave better light than the tavern lamps in the haze of their own making. Allectus had composed himself by the time he turned to face Saturnus again. In a voice as flat and implacable as the sound of waves slapping the quay, the finance officer demanded, "Now, who are you and what do you think you're playing at?" The metal of an armored vest showed beneath Allectus's cloak as he tossed his head. His right hand was on the hilt of a hidden sword.

Saturnus laughed. The sound made Allectus jump. He was aware suddenly of his helplessness against the bigger, harder man who had accosted him. "My name doesn't matter," the agent said. "We both want a man killed. I need your help to get close to him, and you need . . ." the men looked at one another. "You were looking for a man tonight, weren't you?" Saturnus added. "A tough from the docks for a bit of rough work? Well, you found him."

The finance officer took his hand from his weapon and reached out slowly. His fingers traced the broad dimple on Saturnus's forehead. It had been left by the rubbing weight of a bronze helmet over years of service. "You're a deserter, aren't you?" Allectus said.

"Think what you like," Saturnus replied.

Allectus's hand touched the other man's cape. He raised the garment up over the agent's shoulder. Saturnus wore breeches and a tunic as coarse as the cape itself. The dagger sheathed on his broad leather belt was of uncommon quality, however. It had a silver-chased hilt and a blade which examination would have shown to be of steel watermarked by the process of its forging. The knife had been a calculated risk for the agent; but the meanest of men could have chanced on a fine weapon in these harsh times.

On the chain around Saturnus's neck was a lump of amber in a basket of gold wire. The nature of the flaw in the amber could not be determined in the light available.

Allectus let the garment flop closed. "Why?" he asked very softly. "Why do you want to kill Carausius?"

Saturnus touched the amber bead with his left hand. "I was at Anderida," he said.

The truth of the statement was misleading. It did not answer the question as it appeared to do. It was true, though, that in the agent's mind shimmered both his own memories and those of another mind. Transports burned in scarlet fury on the horizon, driven back toward the mainland by the southwest wind against which they had been beating. With the sight came the crackle of the flames and, faintly—scattered by the same breeze that bore it—the smell of burning flesh. Maximian had clutched the stern rail of his flagship in his strong, calloused hands. His red cloak and those of his staff officers, Saturnus then among them, had snapped like so many pools of quivering blood. The emperor cursed monotonously. Still closer to their position in the rear guard a sail was engulfed in a bubble of white, then scarlet. Maximian had ordered withdrawal. A trumpet had keened from the flagship's bow, and horns answered it like dying seabirds.

No one in the flagship had seen a sign of the hostile squadron. In shattered but clear images in Saturnus's mind, however, a trireme painted dark gray-green like the sea struggled with waves that were a threat to its low freeboard. The decks of the warship were empty, save for the steersmen and a great chest lashed to the bow . . . and beside the chest, the stocky figure of Carausius himself. The usurper pointed and spoke, and a distant mast shuddered upward in a gout of flame. . . . 

The finance officer sagged as if he had been stabbed. "I was at Mona," he whispered. "Eight years ago. He took a chest aboard, bullion I thought, like he was going to run. But he caught the Scoti pirates and they burned. . . . He's a hero, you know? Ever since that." Allectus gave a sweep of his arm that could have indicated anything from the fort to the whole island. "To all of them. But he scares me, scares me more every day."

Saturnus felt a thrill of ironic amusement not his own. He shrugged his cape back over him. Aloud he said, "All right, we can take care of it now. They'll let me into the fort with you, won't they?"

"Now? But . . ." Allectus objected. He looked around sharply, at the empty street and the river blurred in cottony advection fog. "He's gone, isn't he? With the squadron?"

Sure with a faceted certainty where even the high official had been misled, Saturnus said, "No, Carausius is here. He sends the ships out sometimes when he doesn't want too many people around. I've been told where he is, but you'll have to get me into the fort."

The finance officer stared at Saturnus for seconds that were timeless to the agent. "If Carausius knows enough to send you to trap me," mused Allectus, "then it doesn't really matter, does it? Let's go, then." He turned with a sharp, military movement and led Saturnus up the metalled road to the fort.

The Fleet Station at London had been rebuilt by Carausius from the time he usurped the rule of Britain. There had always been military docking facilities. Carausius had expanded them and had raised the timber fort which enclosed also the administrative center from which he ruled the island. Now only a skeleton detachment manned the gates and the artillery in the corner towers. The East Gate, opening onto the central street of the fort, was itself defended by a pair of flanking towers with light catapults. The catapults were not cocked. Their arms were upright, and the slings drooped in silhouette against the sky above the tower battlements. The bridge over the ditch had not been raised either, but the massive, iron-clad gate-leaves were closed and barred against the night.

Someone should have challenged the men as soon as they set foot on the drawbridge. Instead, Allectus had first to shout, then to bang on a gate panel with his knife hilt to arouse the watch. A pair of Frankish mercenaries finally swung open a sally port within the gateway. The Franks were surly and reeked of wine. Saturnus wondered briefly whether the finance officer's help had been necessary to get him within the fort. But the agent was inside safely, now, and a feeling of satisfaction fluttered over his skin.

Allectus looked angrily away from the guards. "All right," he said in a low voice to the agent. "What next?"

Saturnus nodded up the street, past the flanking barracks blocks to the Headquarters complex in the center of the fort. "In there," he said. He began walking up the street, leading Allectus but led himself by whispers and remembered dreams. "In the Headquarters building, not the palace."

The two central buildings were on a scale larger than the size of the fort would normally have implied. Though the fort's troop complement was no more than a thousand men, it enclosed what amounted to an Imperial administrative center. The Headquarters building closing the street ahead of them was two-storied and almost three hundred feet to a side. Saturnus knew that beyond it the palace, which he had never seen with his own eyes, was of similar size.

The fort's interior had the waiting emptiness of a street of tombs: long, silent buildings with no sign of inhabitants. Occasionally the sound of laughter or an argument would drift into the roadway from partying members of the watch detachment. Others of the troops left behind when the squadron sailed were certainly among the few customers on the strip below the fort. Men who chanced near to Saturnus and the finance officer ducked away again without speaking. Both the men had the gait and presence of officers, and the foggy moonlight hid their rough clothes.

"How do you know this?" Allectus asked suddenly. "How do you know about—about me?"

"It doesn't matter," the agent said. He tramped stolidly along the flagstone street with his left hand clutching the bead against his chest. "Say I dreamed it. Say I have nightmares and I dreamed it all."

"It could be a nightmare," the finance officer muttered. "He must consult sorcerers to bring storms down on his enemies. He must be a sorcerer—I've never seen any others of that sort around him."

"He's not a sorcerer," Saturnus remarked grimly. "And he's not alone." "Alone . . ." echoed his mind.

"I can rule without sorcery," Allectus said, aloud but to himself. The agent heard. He did not respond.

The guard at the front door of the Headquarters Building was a legionary, not a barbarian from the Rhine Estuary as those in the gate-tower had been. The soldier braced to attention when he heard the pairs of boots approaching. "Who goes there?" he challenged in Latin.

"The Respectable Allectus, Chief of Imperial Accounts," the finance officer replied. "We have business inside."

The guard waited two further steps until he could visually identify the speaker. Allectus threw back his cowl to expose his face. The guard's spear clashed as he swung it to port against his body armor. "Sir!" he acknowledged with a stiff-armed salute. Then he unlatched the tall double doors before returning to attention. Saturnus watched with a sardonic smile. There were few enough units back on the mainland which could be expected to mount so sharp an interior guard. Whatever else the source of Carausius's strength, he had some first-class troops loyal to him.

"Who's the officer of the watch?" Saturnus asked.

The guard looked at him, surprised that Allectus's companion had spoken. The agent did not look to be the sort of man who entered headquarters at night. That raised the question of the way Allectus himself was dressed, but . . . "Standard-bearer Minucius, sir," the guard replied. Discipline held. It was not his business to question the authority of one of Carausius's highest officials. "You'll find him in his office."

When the big door closed behind them, it was obvious how much ambient light there had been outside. The clerestory windows were pale bars without enough authority to illuminate the huge hall beneath them. The nave could hold an assemblage larger than the normal complement of the fort. On the south end, the tribunal was a hulking darkness with no hint of the majesty it would assume when lighted and draped with bunting. "We'll need the officer of the watch," Saturnus remarked. He gestured.

Lamplight was showing through the columns from one of the offices across the width of the hall. "We need to get into the strongroom beneath the Shrine of the Standards."

The finance officer looked sharply at his companion. It was absurd to think that all this was a charade dreamed up by a common thief . . . absurd. "There's nothing in the strongroom but the men's private accounts," he said aloud.

Saturnus appeared to ignore the comment.

The gleam from the office was a goal, not an illumination. That did not matter to the agent. He could have walked across the building blindfolded, so often had he dreamed of it bathed in amber light. Now Saturnus strode in a revery of sorts, through the arches of the aisle and finally into the office section beyond the assembly hall. Allectus and present reality had almost disappeared from Saturnus's mind until the Standard-bearer, alerted by the sound of boots, stepped from his office behind an upraised lamp. "Who the hell are you?" the soldier demanded, groping behind him for the' swordbelt he had hung over the top of the door.

Allectus stepped into the light as Saturnus paused. "Oh, you, sir," said the startled duty officer. "I didn't recognize your, ah, bodyguard."

"We need to check the strongroom," Allectus said unceremoniously. He gestured with his head. "Get your keys and accompany us."

The Standard-bearer reacted first to the tone of command. He patted the ring of keys he wore on a leather shoulder-belt. Then he frowned, still touching the keys. He said, "Sir, none of that's public money, you know."

"Of course we know!" snapped Allectus. "We need to check it anyway." He did not understand the stranger's purpose, but he was not willing to be balked in any request by an underling.

"Sir, I think . . ." the Standard-bearer said in a troubled voice. "Look, the squadron should be back tomorrow or the next day at the latest. Why don't you—"

He delays us, Saturnus dreamed. His right hand swung from beneath his cape to bury the dagger to its crossguards in the pit of the soldier's stomach.

The Standard-bearer whooped and staggered backward with a look of surprise. Saturnus released the dagger-hilt in time to take the lamp before the soldier collapsed. Minucius was dead before he hit the stone floor.

Saturnus rolled the body over before he withdrew the knife. Blood followed the steel like water from a spring. None of the blood escaped the dead man's tunic and breeches to mark the stones.

"Gods," whispered the finance officer. His hand hovered short of his sword. "You just killed him!"

"We came here to kill, didn't we?" the agent reminded him bleakly. "Help me drag him back behind a pillar where he won't be noticed till morning." As Saturnus spoke, he wiped the dagger on his victim's tunic, then cut the keys loose from the belt that supported them. "Come on, for pity's sake. We haven't much time." Time . . . the mind in his mind repeated.

Allectus obeyed with a quickness close to panic. Vague fears and a longing for personal power had brought the finance officer to the point of murder and usurpation. Now the ordinary concerns of failure and execution to which he had steeled himself were giving way to a morass more doubtful than the original causes.

They tugged the murdered man into the empty office next to his own. Allectus then carried the lamp as he nervously followed the agent's striding figure.

The Shrine of the Standards was a small room in the center of the line of offices. It faced the main entrance across the nave, so that anyone entering the building during daylight would first see the sacred standards of the unit in their stone-screened enclosure. They were gone, now, with the squadron. The lamp threw curlicue shadows across the shrine to the equally-twisted stonework on the other side. Saturnus fitted one key, then the next on the ring, until he found the one that turned the lock. His dreams were trying to speak to him, but trial and error was a better technique now than viewing the ring of keys through eyes which were knowledgeable but not his own.

Allectus sighed when the iron door swung open. Saturnus released the keys. They jangled against the lockplate. For safety's sake, the agent should have closed the door behind them. That would have disguised the fact that they were inside. He was too nervous to do so, however. The nightmare was closing on him, riding him like a raft through white water. "Come on," Saturnus said to the finance officer. He had to remember that the other man could not hear the clamor in his own mind. Saturnus bent to lift the ring-handled trap door in the center of the shrine's empty floor. "We'll need the light when we're inside."

The hinges of the door down to the strongroom were well-oiled and soundless. Saturnus did not let the panel bang open. Rather, he eased it back against the flooring. The room beneath was poorly lighted by the lamp which trembled in Allectus's hand. In any case, the strongroom was no more than a six-foot cube. It was just big enough to hold the large iron-bound chest and to give the standard-bearers room to work in their capacity as bankers for the troops of the unit. The walls of the dug-out were anchored by posts and paneled with walers of white oak to keep the soil from collapsing inward.

Saturnus used the ladder on one wall instead of jumping down as Allectus half expected. "Quietly," the agent said with exaggerated lip movements to compensate for the near silence of his command. He took the lamp from Allectus's hands.

As the finance officer climbed down into the cramped space, Saturnus put the lamp on the strongbox and drew his dagger. "Get ready," he said with a grin as sharp and cold as the point of his knife. "You're about to get your chance to be emperor, remember?"

Allectus drew his sword. The hem of his cape snagged on a reinforcing band of the strongbox. The finance officer tore the garment off with a curse. He had seen battle as a line infantryman, but that had been fifteen years before. "Ready," he said.

An ant stared at Saturnus from the wall opposite the strongbox. The creature was poised on what seemed to be a dowel rod set flush with the oak paneling. The agent's right hand held his dagger advanced. Saturnus set his left thumb over the ant and crushed the creature against the dowel that sank beneath the pressure. The whole wall pivoted inward onto a short tunnel.

With his left thumb and forefinger, Saturnus snuffed the lamp.

Allectus opened his mouth to protest. Before the whispered words came out, however, the finance officer realized that he was not in total darkness after all. The door at the tunnel's further end, twenty feet away, was edged and crossed with magenta light that slipped through the interstices of the paneling. Allectus chewed at one point of his bushy moustache. He could not see his companion until the other man stepped forward in silhouette against the hot pink lines.

For his own part, Saturnus walked in the monochrome tunnel of his mind. Light suffused the myriad facets through which he saw. He was walking toward the climax of his nightmare, the nightmare which had owned his soul ever since his parents had hung the lucky amulet of gold and amber around his neck as an infant. Unlike other well-born children, Gaius Saturnus had not dedicated the amulet with his shorn hair at age twelve when he formally became a man. The blade that would exorcize his childhood was not in the hand of a barber but rather now in Saturnus's own.

There, whispered the mind beyond Saturnus's mind as the agent's hand touched the ordinary bronze latch-lever on the further door. Saturnus had enough intellectual control over what he was about to do to check his companion's position. Allectus stood to the side and a step back. The finance officer's face would have been white had it not been lighted by the rich glow. Allectus was clear of the door's arc, however. In a single swift motion, Saturnus turned the latch and pulled the door open.

The door gave onto a room covered in swaths of ceramic-smooth substance that was itself the source of the magenta light. Carausius stood in the center of the room. Three maggots as large as men hung in the air around him with no evident support. They were vertical, save for tapered lower portions which curled under them like the tails of seahorses. To one side of the room was a large wooden box with its lid raised. The box had been built around a cocoon of the same glowing material that covered the walls. A part of the agent's mind recognized the box as the "treasure chest" which Carausius had strapped to the foredeck of the ship in which he sailed at Mona and at Anderida, where his opponents burned. The cocoon was open also, hollow and large enough to hold the maggot which began to drift soundlessly toward it.

Saturnus's amulet tingled and its commands were white fire in his brain. There were a score, a hundred ants hidden against the whorls of the magenta room. The cocoon pulsed in the myriad facets of their eyes. The weapon demanded the gestalt mind behind them all. It must not turn toward you.

The burly emperor in the center of the room gurgled like a half-drowned man recovering consciousness. He fumbled for his sword as Saturnus ignored him and leaped past.

The agent brushed the drifting maggot as it and he both made for the cocoon. The creature's skin was dry and yielding. Had Saturnus thought, he could not even have sworn that he touched a natural integument and not some sort of artificial one. He did not think. He reacted with a panicked loathing uncontrollable even by the group intelligence riding him. Saturnus cut at the maggot with the motion of a man chopping away the spider that leaped on his shoulder. There was a momentary resistance to the point. Then the steel was through in a gush and spatter of ochre fluids.

The maggot fell in on itself like a pricked bladder collapsing. It shrank to half its original size before the remainder slopped liquidly to the floor. By that time, the agent had grabbed the side of the cocoon. The object, crate and all, began to twist as if to point one of its ends toward Saturnus.

Neither of the other floating creatures was moving. Besides the way the cocoon shifted, a great lens blacker than matter started to form in place of the wall behind Carausius.

The emperor had cleared his sword as much by reflex as by conscious volition. Allectus, almost mad with fears and the impossible present, struck Carausius before the latter could parry. The blade rang on Carausius's forehead. The finance officer was no swordsman, but panic made his blow a shocking one even when the edge turned on bone and glanced away. The Emperor staggered. His sword clanged as the hilt slipped from his fingers.

Saturnus gripped the cocoon with his left hand. He could not prevent the object from turning. Like a man wrestling a crocodile, however, he kept the end from pointing toward him the way it or what controlled it desired. Then, as the dream-voices demanded, Saturnus stabbed into the spongy wall of the cocoon. His steel hissed in a dazzling iridescence. The cocoon's material boiled away from the metal, disappearing at a rate that increased geometrically as the gap expanded toward itself around its circumference.

There was a crashing sound like lightning. The box that camouflaged the cocoon from human eyes burst into flames.

Saturnus rolled back from the destruction he had caused. The blade of his dagger had warped, though its hilt was not even warm in his hand. One of the floating maggots made a sound like that of water on hot iron.

Allectus ignored the maggots as if he could thus deny their existence. The finance officer stepped between them to thrust with the full weight of his body at the reeling Carausius. His point skidded on the breastplate hidden by the Emperor's tunic. Carausius flung himself back, away from the blade. He fell into the lens and merged with the dim shape already forming there.

Carausius's whole body burned. His iron armor blazed like the heart of the sun. In its illumination, the wall began to powder and the maggots shriveled like slugs on a stove. The mind in Saturnus's mind sparkled in triumph.

Saturnus dragged Allectus back down the tunnel toward the strongroom. The agent acted by instinct rather than from any conscious desire to save the other man. The finance officer had been stunned by events and reaction to his own part in them. His skin prickled where it had been bare to coruscance a moment before, and his eyes were watering.

"What was it?" Allectus whispered. He felt his lips crack as he moved them. "What were they?"

Saturnus had been familiar since infancy with the scene he had just lived and with a thousand variations upon that scene. "Things from far away," he said. It was the first time he had spoken to a human being about the nightmare that had ruled him for so long. "They've been helping Carausius for now, getting his support in turn for their own mission, things they need. When they were ready, more of them would come. Many more. They would smooth this world like a ball of ivory and squirm across its surface with no fellow but themselves."

"What?" mumbled Allectus. They had reached the strongroom. With Carausius gone and no one else aware of that feet, the finance minister could seize the throne himself—if he could organize his mind enough to act. The agent's words rolled off Allectus's consciousness, part of the inexplicable madness of moments before. He did not wait for Saturnus to amplify his remarks, did not want to hear more about things whose possible reality could be worse than human imaginings.

Saturnus paused as his human companion began to scramble up the ladder. The agent's left hand closed for the last time over the amulet on his chest. The further door of the tunnel had swung shut on the blazing carnage within. The hinges and latch glowed. As Saturnus watched, the center of the wood charred through and illuminated the tunnel harshly.

Saturnus jerked his hand down and broke the thin gold chain. The amulet was as clear in his mind as if he could see it through his clenched fist. At the heart of the amber bead was the creature trapped in pine resin sixty million years before Man walked the Earth. Trapped and preserved in sap that hardened to transparent stone. . . . Trapped and preserved, an ant like so many billions of others in that age and in future ages. . . . 

Saturnus hurled his amulet back toward the flame-shot door. A last memory remained as the amber bead left his hand. It was not the world of his nightmare, the maggot-drifting globe Saturnus had described to Allectus.

Saturnus's Roman world-view had as little concept of duration as did that of the timeless group mind to which he had so long been an appendage. Thirty million years in the future would have been no more than nonsense syllables to Saturnus if someone had spoken them. But he could understand the new vision that he saw. The dream-Earth crawled with the one life form remaining to it. To salute Saturnus as they left him, all the billions of six-legged units raised their antennae, under the direction of the single gestalt intelligence which had just saved the world for itself.

Then the amber bead and the vision blazed up together.

End note to Dreams in Amber

The short-lived Empire of Carausius caught my fancy as soon as I heard about it in the '60s. I remember getting and reading in 1970 the Panegyric to Constantius Chlorus which is one of the few literary sources on the subject, but it'd been an interest of mine from well before then.

I'm often asked how much research I do for a story. I could honestly answer either, "Almost none," or "An absurdly great amount." To write "Dreams in Amber," I had to learn the history of a little-known and very ill-documented period, the location and design of the Fleet Station of London, the internal layout of a Roman headquarters building, and any number of lesser bits of data which were necessary to the texture of the final story.

But I'd done that for my own whim many years before I put the "research" into a story. Take your pick of the above answers.


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