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BOOK ONE
THE FIRST CAMPAIGN

 


Gaius Vibulenus wore a white horsehair crest to mark him as a tribune. Fear turned the dew dribbling from that insignia into drops of acid on the back of his neck. Dawn was beginning to raise a bitter-flavored mist from the valley before them, and the occasional serpentine trees seemed to writhe as they bathed in the thick air.


The enemy was deploying from its camp in the shelter of great basalt pyramids that the sun revealed as a natural rock formation, not the godlike city which the young tribune had thought he saw against the night sky.


"Mother Vesta," Vibulenus whispered as his fingers tightened on the bone hilt of the sword sheathed at his left side, "let me live to see my hearth again. Father Hercules, give me strength to endure this time of testing."


A signal began to boom from the enemy camp. It sounded like thunder, a crash which built into a rumble and did not slacken though the whole valley began to echo with it.


"Mother Vesta," the tribune repeated, "let me live to see my hearth."


". . . ten feet tall," a legionary was muttering to his fellow as the Tenth Cohort lurched towards its position on the left flank. "And they eat their enemies raw."


"No talking in ranks!" snarled a non-commissioned officer — Gnaeus Clodius Afer, the file-closer who ranked second of the eighty-odd men in the cohort's Third Century. In barracks, Clodius would have carried a swagger stick, but here in the field he bore two javelins and a shield like any other line soldier. He rang the butt of the lighter javelin on the bronze helmet of the man who had spoken.


The legionary yelped and stumbled. Dim light and the helmet's broad cheek pieces concealed the man's face, but the tribune recognized the voice as that of Publius Pompilius Rufus — one of the few legionaries he actually knew. Rufus and his first cousin, Publius Pompilius Niger, came from farms adjoining that of Vibulenus' own family, and the three boys had attended school together in Suessula.


"Here, fellow," Vibulenus said in a squeak that was meant to be a growl of warning to the non-com. He put his arm around Rufus' shoulders and glared back at Clodius. "No need for brutality."


"Sir, that's all right," the legionary whispered hastily, jumping sideways and hunching as if the tribune's arm were afire. Rufus collided with the trooper to whom he had been speaking — his cousin Niger, of course — in a clash of equipment much louder than that of the non-com's blow a moment before.


"No need for little pricks too young to shave, neither," Clodius muttered, enough under his breath that Vibulenus could pretend the words were lost in the artificial thunder from across the valley.


Vibulenus stepped back, rubbing the lip of his Greek-style helmet, more of an ornate bronze cap than functional protection like those of the line soldiers. With his hand raised that way, his forearm concealed the face which he was sure glowed with his embarrassment.


Anyway, it wasn't true. He had shaved, and that first beard had been dedicated in a golden casket in the temple of Juno of Suessula which his father had refurbished for the occasion.


And would that the gods had struck him down in that moment. Then his family could mourn the ashes of Gaius Vibulenus Caper, and he himself would be spared all this.


Whatever this was.


How could General Crassus have bungled so badly at the end of a brilliant career?


Because of the noise around him, and even more because of the turgid echoes of his thoughts, Vibulenus did not hear the sound of the horse approaching until a legionary's curse was answered with, "Watch yourself, dog!" in the nasal bray of the rider, Rectinus Falco — another of the legion's six tribunes.


Falco was the last person Gaius Vibulenus wanted to see right now, but even that had its advantages: Vibulenus' shoulders straightened, his face became a mask of cool disinterest; instead of roiling with fear and embarrassment, his mind focused on the fact that he did not have a horse and that bastard Falco did because of the way he had made up to the Commander.


"Our commander sends me to check on the progress of the left wing," Falco said. His accent implied that he was born and bred in a townhouse in the wealthiest section of Rome. In fact, he was country gentry from Campania, just like Vibulenus himself; and the Vibuleni could have bought Falco's family three times over.


Not that questions of birth affected where the two tribunes stood, right now and for the foreseeable future.


"Not the level of progress one might have expected," the horseman went on, raising himself a trifle in the saddle by pressing his hands against the double front pommels.


"Tell the Commander that he needn't concern himself with this flank," Vibulenus replied in a tone of vibrant haughtiness that surprised him and would have surprised his declamation instructor in Capua even more. He had never shown signs of oratorical power. This was a hell of a place for it to turn out that he had talents in that direction after all. "Though I would have expected more cavalry to support us."


In all truth, this was a Hell of a place.


"Vibulenus, you'll go further if you learn to tend to your own affairs," Falco snapped angrily. He raised his torso higher with his hands and clamped his knees near the top of the saddle to peer at the cohort from a slightly better perspective. No doubt about it, the man was a natural horseman. "Which," he went on in his nasal sneer, "you seem to be doing a very bad job of, as ragged as these lines look."


"Then if you'll get yourself and your animal out of the deployment area," Vibulenus responded with ringing clarity, "we'll proceed with our business."


Falco might have continued the wrangle — which was not about war but rather status, and therefore of much greater importance to him. One of the line soldiers — was it Clodius Afer again, watching the ranks quick-step past — muttered, "Wonder how he'll ride with a spear up his bum?"


The horseman dropped back into a full seat with an alacrity that proved he considered the threat from the ranks more than rhetorical. The sun had risen high enough to clearly limn the anger on Falco's face as he tugged at the bridle and spurred his mount's right flank to twist it into a tight pivot. He continued to kick the horse as he rode back toward the command group at a twitchy canter.


Vibulenus drew a deep breath, obscurely thankful to Falco. Nothing like anger to drive out . . . weaker emotions. And he'd been worse places, they all had — trapped without water and without shade, facing Parthian arrows that could punch through shield and breastplate alike if a man's luck were out. Abandoned by their allies, abandoned by Rome, and utterly abandoned by hope.


Though it was doubtful that any of the three elements were closer to them now than they had been that terrible day in Mesopotamia.


The tribune had a better view of the enemy across the valley than he did of his own men; but the enemy was not his job, not yet, and he determinedly concentrated on the deployment of the legion's left flank.


The legion had only a hundred and fifty attached cavalry at the moment, and horses were in even shorter supply than trained riders. There was a tiny squadron of blue-plumed helmets bobbing in the sunlight ahead of the deploying infantry. Weeks before, or what seemed like only weeks, Gaius Vibulenus would have been too ignorant to be bothered by the lack of cavalry. Nobody who had survived the disastrous advance from Carrhae could ever again be complacent about unsupported infantry. The tribune froze as his mind flashed a memory of Parthians riding out of the dust, the sun glinting like lightning on the steel heads of their arrows. . . .


A trumpet blew three short blasts, answered almost immediately by three thinner, piercing notes from a curved horn. The sound recalled Vibulenus to a present which, bad as it might be, was better than that past in Mesopotamia. The right-hand pair of the cohort's six centuries had reached their proper spacing, and their centurions had signalled a halt.


Like a bullwhip, the tip continued to move for some moments after portions further back had stopped. Vibulenus heard the centurion of the Fourth Century give an order to his trumpeter, followed at once by a two-note call and shortly later by the whine from the Third Century's horn. The legionaries closest to the tribune, three ranks ahead of him and as many behind, clanked and rattled to a halt.


Without a horse, the young tribune couldn't see a thing, not a damned thing, of the legion except the mail-armored torsos of the nearest soldiers. He strode between files, the alignment perpendicular to the legion's front, pausing as each man of the century dressed ranks by rotating one of his javelins sideways and horizontal. "Hey!" snarled a trooper whom Vibulenus jostled with his round shield in brushing past, but the man recognized him as an officer and blurted an apology even as the tribune stepped beyond the ranks and became, for a moment, the Roman closest to the enemy.


"Sir?" said someone in a concerned voice.


Vibulenus turned and saw, to his surprise, that Clodius Afer had spoken. They were all nervous. Perhaps the file-closer was as embarrassed at clubbing a man with his spear as the tribune was at butting into cohort discipline for purely personal reasons.


"It's all right," Vibulenus explained, "I'm —" To his amazement, he then said what he suddenly realized: "I'm less afraid out here. I think it's because — the arrows you know? We were all packed together, and the arrows kept falling. So in ranks I, I expect the arrows."


Clodius blinked in total non-comprehension. Several of the front-rank legionaries looked at one another with expressions which were too clear to permit doubt as to what they were thinking.


"Carry on," the tribune said sharply, flushed again with anger at everything but himself and the tongue that kept blurting things it should not. "I'm attending to the dress of this flank."


Well, that was the conscious reason he'd had for stepping out of ranks.


The legion was in fully-extended order, all sixty centuries in line with nothing held back for support or reserve. That gave them a frontage of almost a mile, a considerable advantage in keeping the enemy from swarming around both flanks — but it provided no margin for error, either on the flanks or in case an attack penetrated the thin six ranks into which the troops were stretched.


Perhaps the new commander knew what he was doing. Marcus Crassus had not. That was a certainty to the gods and to everyone who had served under that hapless general in Mesopotamia.


For all that, the ranks of bronze and iron and leather-faced wood had a look of terrible power. They made Vibulenus shiver with joy that he was on this side of the valley and not the other where the enemy fell to with the disorder of grubs spilled from rotting wood.


The ranks twisted like serpents crawling, for the slope across which the legion deployed was too irregular to accept the straight lines of the parade ground. These even curves had the sinuous power of a living thing, however, and within them the five-foot spacing between individual troopers looked flawless to Vibulenus despite the searing curses of non-coms who felt it could be improved. The First and Second Centuries locked into alignment with a final shudder, trumpet calling to horn. The sun behind threw the legion's long, spiky shadow across the grass toward the enemy.


A legionary — it should have been a mounted man — jogged across the front. He was coming from the pilus prior, the cohort's senior centurion. "Ready as ordered, sir," the man muttered as he passed Vibulenus, but he was on his way to the Commander waiting among his terrible body-guards behind the center of the legion.


The tribune nodded and tugged at one end of his sash, a token of rank like his trailing horsehair crest. Empty rank. He didn't command anything. It required a minimum of ten years' bloody service to become senior centurion of a cohort, and at least that — plus family and connections — to become the legate in charge of a legion.


When his newly-formed legion had marched away from Capua with its standards sparkling, the horns and trumpets calling triumphantly, Vibulenus had believed that he was part of Rome's splendid conquest of barbarians. Mesopotamia and the gilded armor of the Parthian cataphract horsemen had cured him of that mental posturing; and disaster had left nothing behind but his youth, and the empty "oversight" of the left flank which his breeding gained him.


He could probably manage to die heroically, but it was clear that the new commander would care even less about such a death than Crassus would have.


Three cavalrymen trotted from the left flank, their shields slung and their reins spread wide in both hands against the chance of horses slipping and throwing them down between the lines. Vibulenus stamped his right boot to test the footing himself. The hobnails grated a little, but the grass rooted the surface into sod and there was no evidence of shingle to make a horse or armored soldier skid.


But the riders were scouts, not fighters, and they were understandably skittish about the potential problems which they were sent to search out. In battle mode, these men would gallop across the same terrain with shrieking abandon, each of them trying to be the first to come to grips with the enemy. They and their fellows had done just that under the leadership of Crassus' son, disappearing in pursuit of Parthian horsemen who fled until the Roman squadrons were out of touch and support of the infantry.


It was so easy to blame others for the fact that Gaius Vibulenus Caper was here. And it did so little good.


There was a series of horn and trumpet signals from the right flank, distorted by distance and possibly multiplied by echoes. The thunder from the hostile encampment continued, but it was supplemented by deep-throated shouting.


A pair of vehicles drove from the mass of the enemy. With two axles apiece and a flat bed laden with warriors, the vehicles looked like wagons, but their drivers lashed them on like racing chariots. They were drawn by teams of six beasts which looked more like rangy oxen than like anything else in Vibulenus' experience, two pair pulling in yokes, and a beast attached only by hames to either side of the yoked leaders. They made for the scouting horsemen with the singleminded determination of gadflies seeking blood.


Mingled horns and trumpets from the command group called the advance. The signallers of the individual centuries picked up the concentus, until the massed call had spread past Vibulenus to the horn of the cohort's First Century.


"Cohort —" called the senior centurion, his voice audible because he had raised it more than an octave to pierce the bleating signals.


"Century —" the other centurions echoed with greater or lesser audibility, depending on their experience with getting real power behind a shout that was above their normal range.


"Advance!"


Raggedly, because some men did not hear the command and responded to their comrades' motion, the legion began to stride forward. Most of the men gave a shout, and a few clashed the javelin in their right hand against their shield boss.


The three horsemen were cantering back to their fellows, the task of scouting the intermediate ground accomplished by the enemy. The war carts bounded over irregularities, hurling the half-dozen warriors in the back of each into contortions as they clung to ropes looped around frame members. The vehicles lurched awkwardly where the opposing slopes met at the valley bottom, but there was no gully there and not enough of a bog or watercourse to affect the advance of the legion.


A warrior in the back of either cart was banging a mallet against a sheet of bronze slung from a pole. The rumble of changing harmonics explained the greater thunder emanating from the enemy camp.


"Ware!" called Clodius, and the tribune skipped aside as the legion rejoined him at the rate of two paces per second.


There was a slight gap in the frontage between the Third and Fourth Centuries — inevitable because the units dressed ranks within themselves, and useful because it provided a narrow aisle in which the non-coms could scurry between the six ranks for which they were responsible. Vibulenus fell into step between the Third Century file-closer and the centurion of the Fourth, a dull-faced veteran named Vacula whom the tribune had never heard speak a word which was not an order or the response to an order.


"How many do you think there are?" Clodius asked. "Sir?"


Vibulenus was trying to position his round shield. It was lighter and easier to carry than the big oval scutum of the line troops, but a similar piece of equipment had seemed horribly inadequate against the sleet of Parthian arrows. Startled by the question, but openly delighted that someone was treating him as if he had some purpose, he squinted across the valley at the army toward which they strode.


It was like trying to guess how many roses bloomed in the fields beneath Vesuvius, and an honest guess would have been in horrifying contrast to the five thousand, more or less, legionaries bearing down on those opponents.


So instead of blurting, "Thirty thousand, maybe as many as fifty" — the figures that clicked through his mind — the tribune said, "They look like they're all naked, and only the ones in the chariots have shields."


They also looked like they were ten feet tall, just like Rufus had said. Well, maybe eight feet tall.


"Yeah, well. . . ." said the file-closer. "At any rate, they aren't shootin' arrows over their backs as they ride away, this lot."


With no more organization than water bursting a dam, and with the suggestion of equally overwhelming force, hundreds of additional war cars charged from the enemy line without appreciably diminishing the mass that remained. The rumble of flexible bronze as they approached had an omnipresence that horns or even proper drums could not have equalled. It was as if the legion were approaching a swarm of bees, each the size of an ox.


The warriors were shouting as their vehicles galloped onward, but their cries were surprisingly high-pitched for all the breadth of their torsos. Plumes of single feathers or perhaps blue-dyed plant fibers trembled stiffly from the sides of each warrior's helmet.


The naked mass of infantry which remained on the hillslope seemed, when Vibulenus squinted, to be armed with clubs or maces. The warriors in the cars, however, each carried a long spear tipped with the black glint of iron. Some of those who clung to their vehicle with their spear hand brandished huge shields, allowing glimpses of breast-plates and swords or daggers in belt sheaths.


"The chariots that came first," Vibulenus shouted. He was in effect a rank of his own, a stride behind the leading legionaries and a stride ahead of the second rank, but he was marching in time with the centuries to either side. The strap of his shield was already beginning to chafe the skin of his left forearm, and the unfamiliar effort of holding the piece of equipment advanced was causing his biceps muscles to cramp. "What happened to them?"


Clodius Afer twisted his head enough to look past the cheek-pieces of his helmet at the tribune. He grimaced, a facial shrug because those were the only muscles not bound by armor or clutching equipment. "Not our problem," he shouted back; and he, like Vibulenus, hoped that was true.


The trees grew more thickly on the lower slopes of the valley. One of them forced the tribune to dodge aside to pass it between him and Clodius. Close up, the tree had even more of a snaky unreality than it and its fellows displayed at a distance in the mist that had already burned away. The bark was segmented into pentagonal scales, and the trunk, nowhere thicker than a man's thigh, terminated without branches in a single fleshy nodule thirty feet above the ground.


Vibulenus brushed the trunk with his left shoulder and wished he had not. His shield rim and the fabric of his tunic sleeve glistened with a thick fluid scraped from the bark. It felt slimy where it soaked through to his skin.


"Ready!" called the file closer, facing the men to his left.


Simultaneously, the centurion of the Fourth Century roared toward the mass of his own unit, "Century —"


The nearest war cars had rolled across the center of the shallow valley and were now climbing toward the legion. The draft animals looked distinctly unlike oxen now that the tribune had a closer view. They had four gnarly horns apiece, one pair in the usual place atop the head and the other on the nose. Vibulenus had not heard of anything like them, even among monstrous births catalogued with omens.


There were so many of the cars that they were jostling for position as they neared the legion. The unyoked draft animals fouled their opposite numbers in neighboring teams, and one vehicle upset because its driver did not have enough room to maneuver around a tree.


"Charge!" shouted Clodius Afer, a fraction of a second before Vacula shrieked the same command in a carrying falsetto. Both non-coms and their fellows from the opposite flanks of each century in the line began to run toward the chariots only two hundred feet away.


For a moment, the centurions and file-closers were alone, a ragged scattering ahead of the legion like froth whipped from the tops of waves. Then the whole legion broke into a run as the right arms of the two leading ranks cocked back, preparing to hurl the lighter of the pair of javelins each legionary carried.


Gaius Vibulenus began to run also and tried to draw his sword for want of a javelin to throw. He had to catch up with the centurions because he was an officer and if he could do nothing else, he could set an example . . . but it wasn't that simple, except in the part of his mind which refused to think and which was in control now.


Because he was young and fit, for all his relative inexperience with the weight of his armor, Vibulenus was beside Clodius Afer again when the file-closer's arm shot forward and sent his javelin off in a high arc toward the enemy. Clodius' heavy shield swung back around the pivot of his firmly-planted left foot, balancing the heave of the missile.


The advancing line stuttered as each man lost a step when he launched his javelin. The tribune, who had finally gripped his flopping sword sheath with his left hand so that he could draw the weapon with his right, found himself once again in front of the remainder of the legion.


The war cars were drawing up, apparently according to plan rather than in reaction to the legion's advance. Drivers swung their teams to one side or the other in a scene of utter confusion, but with fewer real collisions than the dense array had suggested would result. The enemy were, after all, practiced at their method of warfare even if they made no attempt at discipline in the Roman sense. The warriors were springing from the vehicles even as drivers sawed back on their reins as if to lift the teams' forehooves off the ground.


Some fifteen hundred javelins rained down onto them in a space of less than two seconds.


"Rome!" cried Gaius Vibulenus, while the legionaries behind him were shouting that and a thousand other things as they ran toward the foe.


The warriors' shields were big, even by comparison with the bodies they had to cover, and they were solid enough that even hard-flung javelins penetrated only to the barbs of their heads. The teams had been in confusion before the missiles gouged many animals into rearing agony. Now they were in chaos. Several teams raced off in whatever direction they were pointing, spilling their drivers and occasionally dragging an overturned car like a device for field-levelling.


Most of the warriors were unharmed, though a few had been caught as they jumped from their vehicles and now sprawled or staggered. Their chest armor, even when studded with metal, did not turn or stop the missiles the way the heavy shields had done. The weight of the javelins stuck in the shield facings, half a dozen in some cases, was an awkward additional burden. Many of the warriors were trying to tug the javelins clear when the second flight, from the third and fourth ranks of the legion, hit them.


Vibulenus was running downhill, though the slope was no more than an inch in twelve. When a Roman javelin sailed over his shoulder, missing the back of his neck by no more than the blade's width, his bloodthirsty joy and feeling of invulnerability washed away in a douche of fear. The young tribune tried to stop. His hobnails skidded out from under him, and the long spear the warrior thrust at him gouged a fleck of bronze from Vibulenus' helmet instead of plunging in through his mouth and out the base of his skull.


The spearpoint's ragged edge was the result of forging at too low a temperature rather than deliberate serration, but the difference to Vibulenus would have been less than academic had the blade sawn a hand's-breadth slot through his face. As it was, the tribune's shin hurt more where his shield banged it than his head did from what would have been a deadly thrust.


The warrior who was trying to kill him had two feathery plumes that were part of his head rather than clothing as Vibulenus had assumed from a distance. He was lifting his spear again to finish the job with a second overarm thrust.


In panic that froze the events around him down to gelid detail but did not make them more soluble, Vibulenus swatted at the spear as he would have tried to bat away a spider which was leaping toward his eyes. The sword he held forgotten in his right hand clashed against the warrior's weapon. The iron spearhead shattered, victim of the best blade of Bilbao steel which Vibulenus' father could find for his boy to carry to war.


Something drained from the tribune at the shock — fear or weakness or concern for anything save doing the best job that could be done with the business Fate had handed him. He started to get to his feet.


Clodius Afer thrust his remaining javelin into the center of the warrior's chest until a foot of the point and metal shaft stood out through the back of the fellow's ribs.


"Eat that, pig-fucker!" screamed the file-closer as he released the javelin shaft and tried to draw the sword sheathed on his right side. Vibulenus jumped forward, his shield in front of his body as much by chance as skill, and blocked away the spear with which another warrior was stabbing for Clodius' life.


Close up, the warriors were half again as tall as the five-foot-eight-inch tribune, and their blue feather plumes waved a foot or so still higher. They gave off a smell like something chitinous and dead.


Vibulenus cut at the warrior whose spear he had just brushed aside. It was his first conscious attempt to use his sword, and he was clumsily ineffective: the blade chopped into the framing which supported the multiple layers of hide, scarcely making the heavy shield quiver. As the warrior tried to recover his spear, Clodius ducked under the shaft and hacked at the fellow's leading ankle with the skill of a butcher jointing a rabbit.


The warriors had howled as they came on, but when they were wounded they did not scream with pain. This one twisted silently, trying to brace himself with his spear and the shield whose lower rim he had slammed against the ground an instant too late to protect himself.


You're either lucky or you're not. You know that you are lucky from the fact that it's the other guy sneezing blood and bits of lung tissue onto the spear in his chest.


"He's got it!" Vibulenus shouted, as if he were a spectator at the arena instead of a participant in a full-scale battle. He was premature as well, because the warrior did manage to hold himself upright. The tribune tried a finishing blow at the feathered skull and only notched the shield rim again. Then Clodius put nine inches of steel in under the warrior's right arm and jumped back in time to keep from being struck by the toppling shield.


There were no warriors still standing within a spear-length of the Roman line. A pair of the enemy tried to scramble into action past an overturned war car. A dozen thrown javelins cut them down like wheat before the scythe.


"Come on, boys, we got 'em!" the file-closer cried as he jumped onto the vehicle himself.


"Come on!" Vibulenus echoed as he followed the non-com. He was not really aware of the rest of the legion, much less trying to encourage the men behind him. His conscious mind was shouting to the instinct that was ruling his actions, unnecessary except that it was the only thing his intellectual portion could do at the moment.


The overturned vehicle was floored with rope matting stretched on a dovetailed wooden frame. While the mat supported and even cushioned the broad, bare feet of the warriors, it was woven too loosely to provide safe support for a booted Roman. Clodius Afer's left foot plunged through an interstice which snared his knee like that of a hapless rabbit.


The file-closer cursed and stabbed at the matting, handicapped by his own shield. His point, bright already with warriors' blood, glanced from the tough fibers of the mat and gouged his calf. He raised his sword again.


Vibulenus hopped to an angle of the frame so that his feet were splayed outward but had firm support. The quality of the woodwork would not have disgraced a senator's bed. "Wait!" shouted the young tribune without realizing that he had just given the veteran non-com an order on the battlefield and that he instinctively expected to be obeyed. Clodius looked up in surprise — and he did not for the moment strike again at the ropes trapping him.


Hundreds of additional war cars had drawn up short of the wreckage of the first wave, delivering more warriors to the battlefield. The giant spearman came on in clots, four or five together as they jumped from their vehicles. They made no attempt to form a shield wall, nor did the mass of naked infantry advance from the position it had taken at dawn just below their encampment.


Individually, the warriors were as skilled and strong as they were deadly. A quartet of them, leaping from a car whose driver immediately lashed it toward the rear again, saw Vibulenus and the trapped file-closer. Raising their shields and their fifteen-foot spears, the warriors advanced at a lumbering trot.


The tribune shrugged his left arm from the straps and let his shield drop to the matting. The muscles of his belly drew up as his body tried to twist itself out of the way of the spears he imagined already criss-crossing his flesh. He gripped Clodius under the right armpit and dropped his sword also in order to lock the fingers of both hands.


"Pull!" Vibulenus shouted, though what the file-closer really needed to do was to push down with his shield and right foot while the young tribune himself pulled.


Vacula and two of the legionaries from his Fourth Century ran to meet the oncoming warriors. The centurion flung his heavy javelin so fiercely that the nearest of the enemy staggered back, his shoulder pinned to the shield through whose triple thickness of hide the javelin had penetrated.


One of Vacula's men interposed his shield between a spear and the centurion momentarily, but another warrior took the legionary out of the fight with a thrust through the mail shirt and belly. The non-com was still off balance from his throw and more intent on drawing his sword than on swinging his shield into a posture of defense. One long spear tore through the apron of bronze-studded leather meant to protect the centurion's thighs. While Vacula thrashed like an eel on a fisherman's trident, another warrior thrust through the bridge of his nose.


The surviving legionary slipped aside, his javelin poised as a threat to keep the warriors away from him now that they had finished with his fellows.


Clodius Afer's leg came free. Almost as part of the same motion, he vaulted down from the vehicle to stand between Vibulenus and the warriors advancing with bloody spears. "Watch it, sir!" called the file-closer. "Watch it!"


The tribune picked up his shield by the center strap, acting in too much haste to thread his forearm properly through the loop and then grip the real handhold at the rim.


One of the warriors stabbed at Clodius, but the veteran responded by shifting a handsbreadth to block the point with the thick, keel-like boss of his shield.


Vibulenus' sword stood pommel-up and ready to his hand, caught by the same matting which had held Clodius' foot. He drew it as he jumped down and almost lost the weapon again. The rope fibers snagged the notch left in the blade when it met the spearhead. A warrior thrust at him, and only Clodius' quick sideways chop with his sword stopped the spear from taking Vibulenus through the chest.


"Watch it, puppy!" the non-com screamed, barely able to block a thrust from his own left side.


The Pompilius cousins, Rufus and Niger, launched their heavy javelins as they scrambled over the wrack of vehicles and dead or dying animals. Neither missile was artfully aimed, but one wobbled into the throat of a warrior concentrating on another attempt at Clodius.


The wounded spearman bleated and staggered into one of his fellows. The third warrior, disconcerted, backed a step to take stock of the situation. Gaius Vibulenus, to whom everything since the attack had begun was a white blur, saw an opportunity with the clarity of the moon in a starry sky. He ducked low and swung the bronze-bound edge of his shield onto the bare instep of the warrior who was backing away. The way the small bones crunched made hair raise on the tribune's own neck.


"Come on, boys!" the file-closer shouted with his feet planted and his shield raised. The Pompilii and three of their comrades swept down from one side, and the survivor of the legionaries who had accompanied Vacula circled the hostile spearmen from the other.


The warrior whom Vibulenus had disabled bludgeoned the tribune with his spear shaft. Vibulenus' helmet had been knocked off at the start of the action, but he had not noticed it was missing. The spear was too awkward to be a good club, but the warrior made up with strength and the shaft's weight for any lack of quickness.


Vibulenus sprawled on his back with his eyes and mouth wide open. The sky was a pale orange, a complement to the color it had been a moment before, and against it the young Roman had a double vision of the spearhead which the warrior had poised to finish the job he had started with the shaft. The weapon disappeared in a blur of armored skirts and the blocky, powerful thighs of Clodius Afer, lunging between Vibulenus and death.


The tribune thought he was getting to his feet again only seconds later, but all the warriors he had been facing were dead on the ground and no Roman he recognized was anywhere around. The sixth rank of legionaries had already marched by, disordered somewhat by the debris on the field but not by fighting. Each of the men held one javelin in the right hand and the other, heavier, missile gripped against the shield back.


Beyond them, already starting up the slope toward the enemy camp, were the leaders of the Roman advance. Among them Vibulenus could see the standard of the Third Century and the stocky form of Clodius Afer who was looking back over his shoulder to shout encouragement.


The tribune's vision was clear again. If it had not been . . . .


All of Vibulenus' muscles seemed to work, but when he moved he had the feeling that his body had become a water-filled bladder and that there were no bones within his skin. The only war cars he could see were disabled ones and the few racing, empty but for their drivers, toward the shelter of the massed infantry.


Annihilation of the armored spearmen had scarcely changed the balance of numbers. Tens of thousands of the enemy remained; and Vacula, with pink brains leaking out of the hole which included both eyesockets, was only one reminder that the legion had suffered casualties as well.


The tribune picked up the sword he had dropped. The effort of bending and rising made the left side of his head throb as if he had just been clubbed there again. He retched, but there was nothing left for his stomach to heave up. When he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, he remembered that he had vomited when he first tried to get to his feet. He had forgotten that . . . .


Horns and trumpets called from Vibulenus' right, and the young tribune turned toward the source of the sound. Well behind the last rank, the command group was picking its way through the wreckage — once living and otherwise — of battle.


There were two men on horseback, Falco and another of the tribunes. The rest of the command group was mounted on beasts which bore far less resemblance to horses than the four-horned draft animals of the enemy did to oxen. They were carnivorous, beyond doubt: giant lions, perhaps, or even huger dogs. They wore coats of iron scales, like the horses of the richest Parthian cataphracts. The score of inhuman riders mounted on them, the Commander's bodyguard, were armored in jointed suits which must have weighed hundreds of pounds apiece.


Gaius Vibulenus had not known where his place was. He still was not sure, but he knew he did not belong here, behind the legion, with Falco and those who had bought the Roman prisoners from their Parthian captors.


The young tribune began to jog down the remainder of the slope, clutching his sword but leaving his shield behind with the bodies. Every time his foot hit the ground, it pumped his skull airily lighter so that the pain resonating inside it became diluted to heat and a mild pressure.


When he opened his mouth to cry, "Rome!" he found that his constricted throat would not pass even a croak. He tried to shout anyway as he staggered like a drunk or a madman, reaching the sixth rank as its legionaries dodged the more numerous trees at the low point of the valley.


There were sounds of further fighting ahead, but the upward slope blocked vision. The slight decline from the opposite side of the valley had given the rear ranks an almost theatrical view of the start of the battle.


Gaius Vibulenus was an inch or two taller than most of the line soldiers, because his family could afford to feed him well as a child. That was not enough of a height advantage to permit him to see over the helmets and crests, short black brushes for the legionaries and red transverse combs to mark the centurions. He struggled through the ranks, bumping and once pushing aside the troops who were doing their best to keep their order: the only task they were called on to perform at this moment.


Ahead were the shouts of men and the clattering of weapons, brilliants of sound embroidered on the thunderous background still shuddering from the enemy camp. The young tribune thought of hogs stumbling through chutes toward the slaughterer's knife, fearful and unable to see anything but the gap toward which they plunged between high board walls.


But even if the victims knew their fate, they might run to it for the sake of certainty in a universe of spin and chaos; and for Vibulenus, there was nothing certain except that he wanted the identity of a man who was in the forefront of this battle rather than one who hung back when he had the opportunity to hang back.


As he dodged a legionary who was unconsciously swinging his sword back and forth in an arc which threatened everyone on his right side, Vibulenus slammed into another of the serpentine trees. Its top nodule waved, showering the tribune with gooey, sweet-smelling fluid. Vibulenus swung himself around the bole, unconcerned by the glue-like smear the bark left on his arm and breastplate and unaware that his hair was now gummy with effluvium from the tree as well as with his own blood.


The third and fourth ranks had closed up so that the legionaries stood almost shield to shield as they mopped up spearmen still living in the wake of the front ranks. There had been an attempt to open out again as the advance continued unimpeded, but there were still clots and gaps like the pattern made by frog eggs on a still pond.


The portion of Vibulenus' brain which was in control functioned like a racer's, not like that of a man in the midst of battle. It sent the young tribune through one of the gaps. Ahead of him he could see the standards and the leading elements of the legion already coming to grips with the hostile infantry.


There was a shower of stubby javelins from the enemy lines. One of the missiles, weighted near the head with a lump of stone, hit Vibulenus in the middle of the chest. The bone point shattered against the molded bronze of his breastplate, but the shock threw him back a step and brought him to his senses. Then he took the remaining two paces forward to join Clodius Afer as the file-closer hacked through the ribs of an enemy.


The tribune has lost both his helmet and his shield, but the hostile infantry were just as naked as they looked from a distance. They were taller than the Romans, but they were by no means the size of the spearmen who had ridden to battle on the war cars. Some wore peaked leather caps and bandoliers which held half a dozen javelins like that which Vibulenus' breastplate had stopped; but none of those whom the tribune saw carried shields or wore any armor that would slow an edge of Spanish steel.


One of the enemy swung his stone-weighted javelin at Clodius like a mace. It glanced off the file-closer's neck guard, making the man stagger and his helmet ring. Vibulenus stabbed upward through the enemy's belly and watched its feathers flutter as the creature toppled backward and died.


Gaius Vibulenus Caper had just killed someone — not a man, he supposed; but it might have been. And all that mattered to him at the moment was that his sword caught in something and he had to jerk very hard on the hilt to clear the weapon.


"Bastard," snarled Clodius, slashing at the dead foe who had struck him. His voice was hoarse, and he gasped out the epithet between huge breaths through his mouth and nose together. "Bastard!" and he waded forward over bodies still quivering and oozing fluids from their wounds.


"Rome," wheezed the tribune in what was meant to be a shout. He hacked down the enemy who had just stabbed his left arm.


Hostile infantry higher on the slope volleyed bone and flint-tipped javelins, but those in contact with the Roman lines attempted to use theirs as hand weapons. The points could deliver a nasty or even fatal gash, and their stone weights might have been heavy enough to crush an unprotected skull. Against Romans with shields and full armor, they were singularly ineffective.


For a minute or two, Vibulenus and the leading elements of the legion cut at opponents as thickly packed as wheat in a field — and as defenseless. Then the rearmost ranks of legionaries launched the javelins most of them still carried, arching them well beyond the line of hand to hand combat. The enemy reacted like a glass tumbler struck by a paving stone.


Roman javelins had been reasonably effective against the warriors in the first stage of the battle, creating confusion even when blocked by shields or body armor. In the naked infantry, anyone hit was a victim, and the enemy was packed so densely that most of the missiles punched through two or even three of them. More of the hostile infantry had probably died on Roman swords already, but the suddenness of this disaster in the heart of the mass blew the troops who saw it into panicked flight.


When the pressure of their fellows behind them ceased, the front line of the enemy gave up even the pretence of resisting the legion. Vibulenus fell to his knees when his sword slashed only air. The victim he had tried to decapitate fled backward before the stroke in a great rubbery bound, his feather plumes fluttering like miniature wings as he flung away his bandolier of missiles.


None of the enemy within fifty feet of the tribune were still standing when he got his own feet under him again. The ground writhed with bodies trying to stuff bright-colored intestines back into sword-cuts or withdraw javelin heads which extended as far behind as the shaft did in front of the wound. Survivors of the hostile infantry were loping away in all directions, faster than even the handful of Roman cavalry on the wings could pursue after the slogging effort of battle.


Within and ahead of the fleeing infantry were the war cars, empty now save for the drivers who were as furiously bent on escape as any of their fellows in the infantry. The vehicles (those which the legion had not overrun at first contact) had been drawn up behind the infantry, awaiting the signal to retrieve the warriors whom they had carried to battle. Now, like birds from a blazing forest, they bolted away with nothing behind them save raging disaster.


The thunder from the enemy camp ceased. Legionaries from the right flank were climbing over the low earthen wall, unresisted by those within.


Vibulenus tried to stagger forward in pursuit of the enemy. Someone grabbed him by the left shoulder. When the tribune attempted to brush off the contact in single-minded concentration on his task, he found that he had a nasty wound in the left biceps which he could not remember receiving.


All the strength and determination drained out of the young tribune. He slipped into a sitting posture on the ground. The lower edge of his breastplate gouged him as he slumped, but at the moment he did not have the intellect to care or the energy to do anything about the discomfort.


"That's right, boy," said Clodius Afer, releasing Vibulenus' shoulder and sprawling down onto the ground himself now that he had stopped the younger man. "We've done our job — leave the rest to those as are fresh."


The file-closer took off his helmet and gestured with it at the rear ranks of the legion streaming on in distant pursuit of the enemy. The legionaries would not catch many of their naked foes, but their pressure would keep the enemy from regrouping and launching an attack on men exhausted by victory. "You get so tired," Clodius went on musingly, "you run right up on a spear and you don't know you've done it. Got to know when to stop, boy." He began to massage the back of his neck. Vibulenus could see the skin there had been scraped when the hostile mace drove down the helmet edge.


The tribune looked at Clodius. The younger man's vision had, since he sat down, been an apathetic blur for want of brain capacity to process what he was seeing.


Now the non-com's face sprang into sharp focus. The skin was flushed, and ghostly red and white outlines remained from the pressure of the helmet rim and cheek pieces during the battle.


Clodius' eyes were open. They held no expression, but the crow's feet at their corners belied the youthfulness suggested by the man's thick black hair.


The file-closer was breathing through his mouth, though the breaths were controlled and not the gasping spasms which thrust Vibulenus' ribs against the inside of his body armor. The non-com had the look of an ox in the traces, tired but stolid and immensely powerful.


The tribune remembered the way Clodius had struck Rufus as the legion deployed. He realized now that the veteran had known too well what the next hours would be like, and his knowledge had made him savagely intolerant of lapses in discipline.


Vibulenus glanced at his sword. Fresh, the blood on it had looked normal enough; but as the fluid dried, it took on a purplish sheen. His face stilled to hide his awareness that his right arm to the elbow was covered with the same inhuman fluid, Vibulenus began to wipe the flats of his weapon on the grass and gritty soil. His left arm was too stiff to use, and when he tried to move it, the scab and exposed muscle crackled painfully.


"What's that?" demanded Clodius Afer in amazement, his fingers hesitating in the midst of releasing the laces that held the shoulder straps to the front of his mail shirt.


The tribune shifted his whole body to follow Clodius' gesture, finding as he did so that it was much more comfortable to be facing back down the slope anyway. Coming toward them was a device that resembled a piece of siege equipment. It was circular and turtle-humped, twenty feet in diameter and as high at the center as a man standing. The tortoise-like object was a saturated blue in color, and — though this might have been a trick of the angle — it appeared to move by drifting a foot or more above the ground.


"I don't know," Vibulenus admitted. He did not have enough emotion left to be concerned. "Maybe it's something like what they loaded us onto," And had later marched them out of, though neither he nor any member of the legion to whom he had talked could remember anything about the intervening period. "A boat."


He reached up to unfasten the studs of his cast-bronze body armor. Pain in his left arm brought the motion to a wincing halt.


The file-closer grimaced at the tortoise drifting over the bodies on the slope. Then, turning his attention to something within his experience and therefore not frightening to him, he said, "Here, let me bandage that," and took a folded strip of two-inch linen from the wallet he carried on the back of his equipment belt.


"Hold still," Clodius added sharply as Vibulenus turned his head with a bland expression and an unstated desire not to look at the damage to his body. The older man X-ed the fabric below the wound and began crossing the ends upward toward the shoulder as if he were wrapping leggings.


The front-rank legionaries who had not simply flopped on the ground were wandering in a daze of exhaustion, some of them dragging their shields and many with their armor unlaced. A line of shouting, laughing men climbed back over the wall of the enemy camp, carrying above their heads a single sheet of bronze three feet wide and at least ten times that length.


"Their drum," said Clodius, glancing in the same direction. His fingers, dark with blood and grime, tied off the bandage in a neat square knot. "Their signaller."


"Hey, Gnaeus," said one of the soldiers nearby, brought to awareness by the file-closer's voice. "Where do we get water? We're — oh. Hi, sir."


The last to Vibulenus, recognized also, and the legionary who spoke was Pompililius Rufus with his cousin Niger beside him. Both men carried their helmets in their right hands. Rufus' was missing its crest: the whole socket had been sheared from the peak of the otherwise undamaged headgear.


"They didn't bring the servants on the ship with us," said Gnaeus Clodius Afer, lifting his head and peering back in the direction from which they had deployed. The huge metal vessel onto which they had marched under Parthian guard and which they had exited again in a very different place was out of sight in a canyon lying parallel to this much gentler valley. "I lost three good slaves. Would've brought me a nice bit of coin back to Rome. . . . if we'd gotten back to Rome. . . ."


"I'll," said Vibulenus, alert enough again to be an officer responsible for the well-being of his men, "go demand —"


He tried to get up. Everything went blank for an instant, until the shock of his buttocks crashing onto the ground returned him to buzzing consciousness. His skin felt as if it were expanding because someone was stuffing it with hot sand.


"Steady there, sir," said one of the legionaries. Clodius had caught the tribune's left wrist as he fell, so that the wound did not bang against the breastplate.


"Hercules, I felt fine," Vibulenus muttered. He still felt fine, no pain except for an embarrassment that was worse than the transient burning sensation.


"Sir," asked Niger, "where did you get these?"


The young legionary's hand brushed Vibulenus' hair and then proudly displayed his capture, a glossy brown insect whose wingtips were now pinched together between thumb and forefinger. It was trying to arch its tail back against the prisoning fingertips, though the tribune did not see a sting.


"Well, that's a wasp, Niger," Rufus said with a tinge of "of course" in his voice.


Vibulenus reached up to squeeze the right side of his scalp, which had a crawling sensation in contrast to the severe throb on the left side where he remembered the spearshaft clubbing him. Maybe that was why he felt dizzy. . . .


"Who this side of Hades —" the file-closer began.


Rufus interrupted, "Watch that, Gaius!" and grabbed Vibulenus' wrist, treating him in an emergency as a boyhood friend rather than superior officer. "There's three on you and maybe they bite."


"I'm not sure it's wasps," Niger said, transferring the first-plucked example to his left hand and reaching for another. Something buzzed away from the tribune's scalp, brushing his ear as it did so. "They've got just the two wings, see —" He held out a second squirming captive.


His cousin reached for the tribune's head with thumb and forefinger extended, saying, "Well, these men we're fighting. They don't look like —"


What Vibulenus hoped was the last of the insects escaped ahead of Rufus' fingers, its wings beating what seemed to be an angry note. Perhaps he was projecting his own irritation onto the wasp.


"That's what I mean, don't you see?" explained Niger, gesturing with both trapped insects like a priest conducting some sort of bizarre rite. "Things don't look like what we're used to in this part of Parthia —"


Vibulenus glanced sharply at Clodius, but the file-closer appeared to have heard nothing to which he would take exception.


"—so maybe these're bees, not wasps, and I can make mead, honey-wine, if I can find their hive," the legionary finished triumphantly.


His cousin grimaced, then said apologetically to the tribune, "Niger's been fancying his chances to make mead ever since we boarded ship at Brundisium."


"Well, what are the damned things doing on his excellency?" demanded the file-closer. The respect in his words was mostly formal, because as he spoke he unceremoniously squeezed at the edges of the pressure cut on Vibulenus' scalp to determine its severity. Clodius' touch syncopated the measured beat of the pain in the tribune's head, but it did not make it worse.


"Well, we always helped Daddy make it," Niger said defensively, "and I just thought as it'd make things, you know, more like home."


"There's something sweet. . . ," Rufus said, touching the right side of Vibulenus' scalp gently and bringing his fingertip back to sniff, then tongue. "Don't think it's honey."


He, his cousin, and even Clodius Afer reached out simultaneously to continue the examination. Vibulenus, feeling like a common serving dish at a banquet, lurched upright and this time gained his feet with only a momentary spell of dizziness.


"Pollux!" he muttered as he swayed, the others rising also with expressions of concern both for his condition and the way that they, also detached from routine by the events of the morning, had been treating an officer.


"I'm going to go over there," Vibulenus said with careful distinctness, pointing toward the command group which had at last reached the enemy camp, "and demand to know why there are no water bearers."


"All right. . . ," said the file-closer. He bent to pick up his helmet and shield. The vermilioned leather face of the latter had been gouged in a score of places, and a flint point had been driven deep enough into the plywood to cling there even after the shaft was broken off. "You two," he ordered the Pompilii. "Pick up your gear and come along. We're going to escort his excellency."


"There's water, sir," said Niger, pointing in a gesture distorted by the fact that he still held an insect.


At first the tribune thought Niger meant the gigantic turtle which floated down the line of first contact, moving toward the left flank. The device was particularly evident at the moment Vibulenus glanced back because it was lifting five or six feet in the air to clear the wreckage of two war cars, one run up on the other when javelins killed the drivers of both.


But besides the larger device, there were a dozen or more smaller scurrying constructs, coursing up the slope toward the victorious legion. A fountain on the back of each bubbled high enough to dazzle in the sun. The vehicles were each the size of an ox, small only by contrast with the metallic turtle. They moved at a respectable pace, faster than a man marching, but their jets of water were angled so that they fell back onto the vehicles instead of being wasted on the ground.


"I'm still going to see the Commander," said Vibulenus abruptly. He was not sure whether the decision was the result of reason or because he was dazed and as dangerously monomaniacal as he had been when he returned to the front of the battle without his shield or helmet.


What the young tribune did know was that he had been driven by fear ever since he met the Parthians as a member of Crassus' army, and the rain of arrows from those horsemen had continued for an afternoon that seemed eternity. The battle this morning had shown him that there was something in the world to strive for besides freedom from fear: there was success, in terms however limited; and there was the respect of men who were now his fellows, because he had been their fellow when the chips were down.


If it was not strictly the duty of Gaius Vibulenus Caper to find a place in the front rank of the legion, then it was surely the business of an officer to look after the welfare of his men. It was time to ask the questions that he had been afraid to ask when they were marched aboard the giant vessel or later when they were mustered again in its hold and deployed here — wherever here was.


"Well, come on, dammit!" Clodius Afer snapped to the legionaries. "Get your gear together."


Niger sighed. He freed his hands by tossing the maybe-bees off in ballistic arcs from which they did not recover until, ten feet away from their captor, they were beyond accurate sight range. They hovered for a moment to get their bearings, then sailed off as copper glints in the air. "I sure wish. . . ," the legionary murmured as his eyes tracked them. Donning his helmet and lifting his shield by one handle, he followed the others.


Vibulenus checked the blade of the sword he was carrying. He was pleased that he was so alert. Pleased, in fact, that he had not simply forgotten the weapon on the ground where he sprawled. His left arm was beginning to throb in the intervals in which his head did not, but there was no return of the nausea he had felt just after being clubbed down.


The sword was not clean, but what Vibulenus had not wiped off on the grass was at least dry. He sheathed the weapon, swaying a little because his balance did not seem to be everything it should have been.


"They're picking up bodies," said Rufus, squinting toward the floating turtle on the opposite side of the valley.


"No it's not," insisted his cousin. "Look, you can see there's bodies still lying there behind it." He paused before adding, "Maybe it's the wounded it's picking up."


The glance Vibulenus risked to the side told him only what he had expected: that he would fall down if he tried to walk without keeping his eyes straight ahead. He continued forward with thirty-inch marching steps. That stride, ingrained during training, was easier for him to maintain than shorter paces. Every time his left heel struck the ground, jagged lightning flashed in his arm. When his right boot came down, dull thunder echoed from his skull. The muscles of his face bunched tautly about the prominent bones.


"No, it's taking bodies," said the file-closer, "some bodies. I saw Crescens of the Fourth Century skewered the same time Vacula bought it."


And I nearly bought it, interjected the tribune's mind but not his mouth.


"Vacula's still lying there," Clodius continued, "and all the big wogs we chopped are there, but I don't see Crescens at all."


"Maybe —" offered Niger.


"And maybe he didn't crawl off with three foot of spear through his middle," the file-closer snapped to crush the suggestion even before it had been articulated.


A mobile fountain had halted nearby when a legionary stepped close to it. Now the vehicle was surrounded by thirsty men, baked in their armor by their exertions and the climbing sun. The vehicle was broader than Vibulenus had realized, so that thirty or forty men at a time were able to slurp, dip, or even duck their heads into the water. The fountain continued to dance playfully above them.


"Keep moving," Clodius Afer gruffly ordered the accompanying legionaries, but he himself angled toward the fountain. He jogged the first steps but quickly fell back to a walk.


Vibulenus noticed that the file-closer was favoring his left leg and felt pleased by the fact in a guilty way. It proved that he hadn't been the only one who took a battering this morning. Then the tribune remembered Vacula flopping backward with a ragged hole in the middle of his face. He touched two fingers to the bruise on his forehead left when his helmet was hammered off, and his skin flushed with embarrassment that he had felt his own injuries were exceptional.


Clodius doffed his helmet. Vibulenus thought he might plan to use it for a club to get through the soldiers already struggling for water, but the file-closer instead used the edge of his shield to slice his way expertly to the front. There, he dipped the helmet full without ceremony and wrenched his way out of the confusion again to rejoin his companions.


"Now, hold up a minute and drink," Clodius said, blocking the tribune's path and extending the brimming helmet from which he had not drunk himself as yet. "Sir."


Vibulenus swayed as he halted, but he squeezed his eyes shut and felt his body steady while his retinas pulsed alternately red and violet. He took the helmet, shocked by its weight, and managed to inhale part of the mouthful he awkwardly gulped. Coughing, he handed the makeshift container back to Clodius while trying to nod his thanks because he could not speak.


It was good water, cold at least. Though flavored by the file-closer's sweat as well as the dust and phlegm coating Vibulenus' own throat, the water left no mineral aftertaste.


The tribune looked at the fountain and thought about the larger equivalent of that floating construct, the vessel which had brought them here. He understood nothing about either, except that they were here, and that the water was water. . . . The arcs and circular dead ends in which the young officer's brain spun were so perfectly empty that they acted as an anodyne to the pain of his body, even after all four of them drank a second time and he prepared to march on toward the Commander.


"Everybody all right?" Clodius Afer asked in a cautionary tone, the helmet poised between his palms and the hinged cheek pieces flopping over the backs of his hands.


"Yessir," chorused the legionaries, while Vibulenus lifted his beardless chin in assent and said, "Yes, thank you, I feel much better."


That was true, though the tribune did not know whether it resulted from the water, the pause, or simply that the pain was beginning to overcome his capacity to feel it.


"That's fine," said the file-closer with a wicked grin. He put his helmet back on. The water that still nearly filled it poured over his head and down the links of his mail shirt like a stream cascading through rapids. "Damn but I needed that," the non-com remarked, continuing to grin.


Vibulenus found that the incident made his youthful honor prickle. Had the veteran made a fool of him, getting the officer to surrender the water that could have bathed him instead?


"You earned it," the tribune said, saved by his instincts. He clapped the older man on the shoulder as they strode off together toward the camp.


Legionaries who had scaled the enemy's sloping wall were now staggering back with all manner of loot, most of it as odd as the huge bronze sheet that early-comers had carried off. Vibulenus noticed a trio of soldiers returning through the gate, passing a skin of what he supposed was wine. They supposed it was wine also, but, like a scene from a farce, they spewed up the entire contents of their stomachs and collapsed on a count of three.


Another legionary tried to drag the skin out from under the third victim before all its contents dribbled out. A wiser companion tugged him away.


During the battle, the gate of the enemy camp had been closed by a framework around which were woven briars, a sort of vegetation Vibulenus had not encountered in the valley. Some of the panicked native troops had pulled the barrier aside to flee in one direction or the other. The opening made little difference, because the sloping wall was only a slight impediment without troops willing to defend it.


The Commander and his mounted entourage, who had entered by the gate, were making a dignified exit through the same opening when Vibulenus reached it. The bodyguards stalked out in pairs until six of them were aligned in front of the entrance, armored ankle to armored ankle, to block any Romans who might wish to accost the Commander.


As Gaius Vibulenus did.


The young tribune stepped ahead of his companions, to within six feet of the mounted guards and well within reach of their long-shafted maces. Two of the beasts growled, and a third hunched down on his forequarters, baring his teeth. A gap had been cut in the beast's upper molars to insert a bit.


The guard made no attempt to draw up on his reins. Gravel scattered beneath the creature's non-retractile claws, one of which was bloodied, as the paws extended toward Vibulenus.


"I wish to speak to the Commander," the tribune said in the piercing, inescapable voice which his throat provided at need. "I am Gaius Vibulenus Caper; citizen, military tribune, and member of the equestrian order." In fact, his family was wealthy enough that his father could have bought a Senate seat if he had wanted the trouble . . . and not that it made the least difference any more, except in Vibulenus' mind and the minds of those captured with him.


There were slotted disks a foot in diameter and four inches thick on the chests of all the lion-like mounts. Vibulenus had assumed the disks were part of the beasts' protection but now, as close as he was, he could see this was not the case: the actual armor was formed by blankets of heavy iron scales wired to a leather backing, cut away at the breast so as not to foul the disks — which moaned constantly. From the motion of dust particles, the tribune saw that air was being drawn in fiercely through the slots.


A guard raised the perforated visor of his helmet. The face beneath the iron was broad and brown and looked more like that of a toad than anything else in the tribune's previous experience. He could hear a gasp behind him — from Clodius, he thought. None of them had seen the guards' faces before.


"Get out of the Commander's way," the guard boomed, Latin in a voice so low-pitched that the words, though distinct, were barely intelligible.


Upright, the mount was as high at the shoulder as Vibulenus was tall. Even with its forelegs outstretched, the beast's eyes glared from behind filigreed protectors on a level with the tribune's. The eyes were set frontally, like those of a man or a lion, giving the good depth perception a predator needs but not the nearly 360° field of view that makes a horse sure-footed.


"I must speak to the Commander!" Vibulenus shouted. He set his shoulders, but he could not bear to front the line of guards squarely. Rather, his left side was slightly advanced, and he was glad that he had lost his shield because otherwise he could not have kept from cringing behind it.


The beast carried its rider a clawed step closer, breaking the alignment and bathing the tribune in an exhaled breath compounded of dead meat and less familiar odors.


Vibulenus heard the sound of metal behind him, the ringing of a sword edge as it cleared the lip of its sheath. He did not dare turn his back, but he opened his mouth to shout a warning to his companions — to his fellows, to his friends — not to escalate matters into disaster.


Before the tribune could speak, a voice from behind the guard advancing on him croaked an order made obvious by its timbre although it was not in anything Vibulenus recognized as a language. He thought another guard had spoken, but when those of the front rank reined their mounts aside, the Roman recognized his error.


There were three riders behind the front line of guards, two of them Roman tribunes on horses. The third mounted personage rode a beast like those of his bodyguard, though its only armored trappings were studs on the reins and the saddle between the beast's high, humped shoulders. Because it was not covered in iron, the mount had even more of a shaggy, carnivorous look than did those of the guards, but it was under perfect control as it advanced with measured strides into the gap the guards had provided.


"What is it you want to say, Gaius Vibulenus Caper?" asked the Commander, leaning forward as he spoke, past the bristly mane of his mount.


He looked tiny on his present perch, though he had seemed a man within normal limits earlier, when he presided over the mustering and reequipping of the legion in the hold of the vessel. Vibulenus had assumed the Commander was human, as he had assumed the warriors the legion met and slaughtered in this valley were human for all their height and the feathers which grew from the sides of their skulls.


But the toadlike bodyguards were not men, even if the tales were true of Nubia, where the Blemmyes were said to wear their heads in their bellies and other men sported tails. If the guards were not human, then there was no certainty of anyone except the legionaries themselves . . .


Falco smirked down from horseback. Vibulenus felt a rush of loathing greater than anything the face of the guard had drawn from him.


"I demand to know why we are here," he cried, speaking loudly because the intake whine of the disks on the guard beasts added to something like a howl. The disk on the breast of the Commander's own mount was connected to the beast's throat by a short metal hose, and similar rigging seemed to lurk beneath the armor of the other mounts. "We are Roman citizens!"


"You are here to fight, Roman citizen," said the Commander. There was a high squeal, the sound of an axle with an unlubricated bearing, but it came from the Commander's slight body as his bellowed order to the guards must have done. "To fight for my trading guild on worlds where the Federation does not permit weapons of higher than the local technology.


"And you fought splendidly, Roman. Superbly."


The Commander wore body-covering tights whose fabric was the same shade of blue as the mobile fountains. His face was the only part of him which the suit did not cover, and the flesh there returned sunlight in a direct reflection like that of metal or glass when the angle was right. The hands that gripped the reins, and the feet that rested on the pegs which the Romans were learning to call stirrups, each seemed to have six digits beneath the soft blue cloth.


"I don't —" the tribune said. "Understand," Vibulenus would have continued, but that would be pointless. "Where are we?" he asked instead, the timbre of his voice rising with desperate emotion instead of rhetorical effect.


"That doesn't matter," the Commander replied simply. Probably that answer would have done as well for the other statement, the one Vibulenus had swallowed. "You won't be asked to do anything unfamiliar to you. Anything —" his six-fingered hand gestured broadly toward the wrack of bodies lying on the far slope, giant warriors strewn like driftwood storm-tossed on a beach "—anything but what you do so well. And —" the Commander withdrew his hand and straightened in the saddle "—you will become immortal."


The sun glittered off a variety of new facets as the Commander's face drew up in what might be a grimace. "That is," he added, "your bodies will not age. Not ever again."


His lips did not move when he spoke. The flawless Latin of his statements came from a black embroidery on the fabric covering his throat.


There was another sound in the air, like the suction wheeze of the beasts' equipment, but louder and from above. Over it, Vibulenus shouted, "Will you send us home? We can pay you. Rome will pay you a rich ransom."


As she had not ransomed the soldiers of Regulus, captured in similar ignominy, but even a slave could hope, could pray. . . .


"Release you?" the Commander paraphrased. He squealed again, in apparent humor. "Oh, no, Roman. You're far too valuable for that. And now, I must report to my superiors. You'll be given further details when you've mustered aboard the vessel for your next assignment."


The roar from above was expanding into echoing thunder beside which the warriors' vibrating bronze sheet faded to pale mockery and even a true storm would have been inaudible. Vibulenus looked up as men all over the valley were looking, shading their eyes with a hand or simply gaping in open-mouthed wonder.


The young tribune had guessed that they had come to this place in a ship, a vessel that sailed upon land as those with which he was familiar sailed on water. The thing that roared a hole in the sky as it slowly descended was a ship like that which the legion had marched aboard in Parthia, but it did not slide over the land.


"What —" the tribune began and paused when he realized that, even if he shouted, his words could not possibly be understood. Some legionaries were throwing off their helmets so that they could clamp both palms over their ears.


As if he were speaking within the tribune's skull, the Commander's voice answered the incompleted question: "Now that we have defeated the king who refused us trading rights, the trading mission can go ahead. But move aside, tribune, or you'll require a full physical rebuild yourself."


Vibulenus caught the hint of a croaked order like that which had opened a path through the bodyguard so that the Commander could speak with the young Roman. He stumbled out of the guards' way as they, having heard the new command as clearly as the tribune had heard the last words directed to him, spurred their huge mounts back across the valley.


The pair of Romans accompanying them yipped and kicked their horses, getting off to a less abrupt start than the carnivores of the guard but falling into a fluid canter that looked more comfortable than the others' loping gait. The remainder of the twenty-strong bodyguard followed, surrounding the blue spark of the Commander. Most of them had raised their visors now that the fighting was over, displaying their bulbous eyes and their broad, expressionless mouths.


The descending ship dropped below the ridge, toward the canyon in which the legion's vessel already waited. For a moment, the thunder was redirected upward and the ground quivered in trying to absorb the noise. Then it muted to a growl and ceased entirely. The silence that followed was so complete that Vibulenus could again hear insects buzzing in his hair, where the tree with which he had collided had sprayed him.


"What's it mean, sir?" begged Clodius Afer. The prospect of battle had made the file-closer tense and irritable, but he was a veteran of other wars. What he had just seen was an object the size of the Circus Maximus, descending slowly through the air as if it were a feather and not something that could hold a hundred and fifty thousand human beings. "What's going to happen?"


"I don't know, Gnaeus," the tribune said, using the file-closer's first name because he knew in his guts that there was no rank or class at a time like this. "But if we wait long enough, maybe we'll find out."


And if what the Commander had said about agelessness were true, they would be able to wait a very long time.


 


"All right, next lot," said the man whose blue body suit identified him as one of the vessel's crew. In fact, he would have passed in Vibulenus' eyes for the Commander, save that his garment did not cover his skull and there was no shiny surface between his face and the outside world. This crewman called himself the Medic, a diminutive of the word for doctor — medicus. The word was understandable though not a linguistic formation familiar to the legionaries before flashing, headsized floating machines summoned them back aboard.


There was a gassy wheeze; four doors opened in the wall of the room. Romans who had entered the cubicles nervously a moment before stood, bemused and wrapped in dissipating steam. Some of them were working limbs or kneading parts of their bodies.


"Come on, come on," the Medic snapped from behind the piece of furniture — it looked like a writing desk — at which he stood. "Keep it moving or I'll be here all fucking night. And so," he added in an afterthought, "will your buddies."


The four nude men stepped out into the hall proper, still more focused on their own bodies than they were on what the Medic or anyone else might say.


"Hercules!" muttered Clodius to the tribune at his side, "Look at Caprasius. You saw how they near lifted him and his leg into the booth in two loads."


Caprasius Felix, a front ranker of Clodius' century, had run into a cutting weapon of some sort during the battle, wielded with enough strength to sever the bone of his right thigh. Somebody had slapped a tourniquet on the wound, but neither that field expedient nor the amputation which was all surgery could offer such a case was likely to help the victim long.


Two of his fellows had carried him, unconscious from shock and as pale as the belly of a dead fish, into the booth as the Medic directed. Now . . .


"Well, he's limping," said Vibulenus.


"What in Hades," Caprasius was muttering as he walked toward the marked exit, past the quartet of toad-faced bodyguards who kept order as the returning legionaries processed through the medical check on reentering the vessel. The injured man was clutching his right thigh with both hands. Suddenly, he took the hands away and tried to kick that leg high in the air.


There was a three-inch band of paint or discoloration, bright Pompeian red, around the thigh, but there was no sign of the wound which had gaped to splintered yellow bone. Caprasius stumbled and fell sideways when muscles caught in a way he had not expected, but he was rolling again to his feet before his friends could help him.


"Hades," he repeated, grinning like a man reaching the head of a prostitute's queue. "It works, by Hercules, it fuckin' works."


Others of the soldiers leaving the booths also bore patches of red. They looked like wounds, but in fact the stained areas had borne fresh wounds — and did so no longer. A Sextus Julius — one of several in the legion, a First Cohort non-com, Vibulenus believed — was massaging his scalp as he walked along. Half of it was hairless and colored deep red; but when he had entered a cubicle, his skull was partly exposed and the flap of skin he tried to hold in place included the ear on that side.


"Will you bleeding come on?" the Medic pleaded. "Next lot, move it!"


"Move," boomed one of the armored toads acting as proctors, reaching out with his long-handled mace. The four Romans at the head of the line moved with more or less haste, away from the spiked knob rather than toward the cubicles.


Nothing to be afraid of, Gaius Vibulenus lied silently as he hopped forward. Then he said aloud, "Nothing to be afraid of, men," turning his head toward Clodius Afer who was walking stiffly beside him.


Oddly enough, that worked. The young tribune strode firmly within the cubicle nearest the seated Medic. Acting like an officer to others made it easier to act like a man within yourself — even though you knew you were a coward and you were so frightened that your eyes didn't focus as you stepped close to the back wall of the booth and the door began to shut.


"Just get bleeding in, will —" the Medic whined to someone else, the words amputated by the door sealing.


The legionaries had stripped under direction of the Commander's guards in the long hallway stretching from the vessel's entrance to this room and the Medic. No one seemed to care about the cohort or rank of the men being ordered into groups of four: those who straggled back to the vessel first had run through this process hours before, and there were still a thousand or more soldiers behind the tribune and his immediate companions.


A blood-warm mist of water with an astringent odor sprayed Vibulenus from all directions. He jumped, but the spray at once relaxed the throbbing veins of his head. As the temperature rose, his left arm began to lose some of its sharp stiffness as well.


Vibulenus' right hand unclenched. The booming guards had insisted that the Romans pile every scrap of clothing and equipment against the wall of the broad hallway, saying that every man's belongings would be returned at the proper time.


That was unimaginable, but probably true: when they mustered in the Main Gallery before marching out against the feathered warriors, Vibulenus had been issued the sword his father bought for him — lost irretrievably to some Parthian, he would have guessed. That sword, the only relic of his previous life, would have felt good in his hand as he stepped into the cubicle.


The water felt better. The booth had a diffuse light source, so he could see the grime and scabbed blood wash away from his body. Something else was happening as well, or perhaps the heat was affecting him after the wounds and — when he had eaten last?


The light was pulsing with his heartbeat. Instead of becoming dizzy, he was weak — too weak to stand, but the solid walls of the booth extended limbs to grip his body in a dozen places. His stomach lurched momentarily, but though the spasm passed it was followed by the surge of well-being that usually followed vomiting during delirium.


Vibulenus would have screamed, but he didn't have that much control of his muscles any more. He was no longer conscious of the water spray, but his scalp and left biceps felt so hot that there was no discomfort. He was wax, melting into oblivion and glad of the fact.


The liquescing heat ceased, leaving behind only the damp ambiance of the warm room of the baths. The light was normal again, and the tribune's head began to sag as the cushioning supports withdrew into the wall. Something pricked the skin above Vibulenus' heart before the wall reabsorbed the chest support. He staggered forward, but instinct threw his hands out to save him against the back of the booth.


The bandage was gone from his left arm, and so was the pain that had gnawed him even when he held the injured limb clamped firmly against his chest. His torn skin had reknitted beneath a coating — a dye, apparently — of brilliant red. There was only a tingling in the muscles to suggest a shard of flint had been rammed deep within them.


The door hissed open. The last of the steam dissipated; there was no drain, but the spray with the bandages and other sludge from Vibulenus' body had been borne off somewhere. Fingering the side of his scalp, now hairless but no longer cut and swollen, the tribune stepped out of the cubicle as the Medic tiredly repeated, "Come on, next lot."


Clodius Afer bolted from the adjacent booth with his face set in the same mask of fear it had worn when he entered.


"Down the hall," rumbled one of the guards. The creatures were wearing their helmet visors down. Not, the tribune suspected, for protection, but rather to cushion the shock the Roman captives were receiving already. There had been none of this the first time they were marched aboard the vessel in Parthia; none of this that any of them remembered, at least. But then, they remembered nothing.


Vibulenus looked at the squat figures who had spoken, visualizing the features behind the iron mesh. The bodyguards were taller than most men — most Romans, at any rate — but it was the breadth and the neckless solidity of their bodies that made them look remarkable when covered with iron. Their strength was in keeping with their appearance, for their armor weighed more than a man could lift, much less wear, and they wielded maces on ten-foot hafts with the ease of a centurion brandishing his swagger stick.


The guards, and the various implications the young tribune drew from them, did not affect Vibulenus' present buoyancy at being suddenly whole, no longer wracked by staggering pain. He clasped his left arm around the shoulders of Clodius Afer, keeping his grip despite the non-com's attempt to shudder away when he saw the patch of red dye next to his own skin.


Clodius' legs and forearms were so tanned that pocks of new skin showed up pink in places that he had received minor cuts and abrasions during the battle. None of his injuries had been so severe that the process within the booth had left him with red stains like the tribune and Caprasius Felix.


"Gnaeus," Vibulenus said, "don't be —" He started to say "afraid" but realized as his tongue touched the word that the veteran would hit him, rank be damned. "Don't be angry because they've cured your pain."


"I don't understand," the file-closer whispered, but his calloused right hand reached up to grip Vibulenus' arm to him.


"We'll understand later," Vibulenus said with the confidence of health, not reason. Together, they led the remaining pair of men from their group toward the doorway at the side of the hall. "For now, it's enough that we don't hurt any more."


He looked up, at the toad-faced monsters to either side of the door. "Soon we'll understand," he said, and this time he spoke more in prayer than belief.


 


"All personnel, report to the Main Gallery for an address by your commander," repeated a well-modulated voice. "The red pulses lead toward the Main Gallery."


"They ought to let us form in centuries," said Gaius Vibulenus as he looked around at as many of the legionaries as he could see milling in the Main Gallery. The room was huge, with a smoothly arched ceiling that showed no sign of the groins and coffers that should have been required to carry the stresses. "I'm going to bring that up at the next command group meeting. This is absurd."


"This tunic don't feel right," said Clodius, pinching out the breast of the garment which had dropped at his feet from a wall dispenser as he left the Sick Bay. The file-closer peered down his nose at the tent of fabric between his thumb and forefinger. "Isn't . . . I dunno. Don't scratch the way it ought to, you know?"


"All personnel, report to the Main Gallery for an address by your commander," said the voice.


It sounded as if the words were being spoken a few inches from both of the tribune's ears simultaneously. He no longer jumped and looked around, but the effect still shocked him. Some legionaries covered their ears — uselessly, Vibulenus suspected — and hunched lower in growing fear at every repetition. Clodius Afer seemed to ignore the words, or at least their strangeness.


"Maybe it's Egyptian," the tribune said, trying to speak over the last of the announcement. The vessel was huge, even though it did not compare in size with the ship that had thundered in after the close of the battle. As soon as the announcements began, scarlet beads appeared in the ceiling of all the rooms and hallways. They flowed to the Main Gallery — to here. "The linen, I mean."


If it was linen. If it were even cloth. The walls and ceilings of the vessel were metal, totalling more metal than Vibulenus had ever imagined could be in one place; but sometimes the surfaces took on other semblances, as when the sheer wall opened to deposit garments, or ceilings that had been smooth and unremarkable glowed with light to guide the legionaries toward the assembly.


The floor of the Main Gallery was large enough to have held the legion fully equipped before it marched to battle. With the men — with the survivors — stripped to tunics, there was no hint of crowding, so that legionaries could stand in groups of their closest fellows or wander nervously, looking for somewhere to alight.


One of the latter was Pompilius Rufus who, before Vibulenus could speak, called, "Sir! Sir? Have you seen Niger?"


Clodius and the tribune dipped their chins together in denial as the young soldier paced over to them.


"I was just saying they ought to muster us properly," Vibulenus offered. "Issue standards to the standard bearers so that everyone would know his place."


"He insisted going looking for a cursed beehive," Rufus muttered, oblivious to the disembodied summons as well as to the tribune's conversation. "I thought, well, if I go back, then he won't stay out long. . . . But I don't see him."


"You know," said the file-closer, looking down again at the fabric covering his own broad chest, "The tunic feels funny, but it fits me. Yours wouldn't." He nodded toward the much slimmer tribune and added in an afterthought, "Sir."


"Niger!" Rufus shouted, through the megaphone of his hands. The acoustics of the room absorbed the sound so completely that the shout was lost in the buzz of conversation only ten feet away. A few men turned, then turned back to their own concerns.


"Let's go to the front," Vibulenus said. He was feeling increasingly restive, and there was nowhere else to move that made a difference . . . except back out of the gallery. What result would defiance have?


"What d'ye suppose they do when people don't come back when the little lights tell 'em to, sir?" Rufus asked miserably.


Vibulenus put his arm around the shoulders of his childhood friend. "Strait rations," he said as the three of them maneuvered toward the front of the gallery where they would have a somewhat better view of the gathered soldiers. "Maybe a flogging. Don't worry — the Commander says we're valuable." He began to believe the words as soon as he had spoken them.


"What I mean is," the file-closer continued, completing his own point, "you muster by rank and file so's you know who's there and who isn't. But if you know that already, and I guess they do or they wouldn't be dropping clothes the right size outa the walls, then you don't need that kind of order."


"I don't —" Vibulenus started to say before he realized that he could think of no objections to the veteran's formulation. Who in the name of Hercules were the Commander and his entourage?


"I guess the Commander must be a god," said Clodius Afer, tilting his head to peer at the curving surface of the ceiling eighty feet above. "D'ye suppose we're all dead after all?"


"Castor!" Rufus blurted. "He is."


The three of them had reached the area closest to the front of the Main Gallery where ten of the Commander's bodyguards stood with their maces held crossways at waist level. There was no door in the bulkhead behind them, but a hexagonal outline the size of a man's chest stood out against the shifting pastels that colored the partition.


The very presence of the toadfaced guards was enough to clear an area of almost twenty feet between them and the nearest legionaries. Facing the wall, and as separate from his fellows as from the armored non-men, was the waxen-faced figure of Arrius Crescens — the legionary whom Vibulenus had seen stabbed through the belly so fiercely that the bloody spearpoint burst through the links of mail in back as well.


Crescens was so still and blank-faced that the tribune thought he might in fact be a simulacrum, a death mask worn by a dummy in some unfathomable alien rite. While Rufus and Clodius started away, the young officer began to walk cautiously toward the figure of the dead man.


It was a dummy. There was nothing to fear.


"Crescens?" Vibulenus said, extending his hand slowly toward the figure's shoulder.


"I suppose," said Crescens, turning to Vibulenus with the deliberation of an ox dragging a cart. "Except I'm dead. They all say that."


"Yeah, you are," whispered Vibulenus, uncertain whether he had mouthed the words or only formed them in his mind. He continued to extend his arm until the fingers touched the slick fabric of the legionary's tunic and felt the bone and muscle shifting beneath.


"You think I don't know it!" Crescens shouted, slapping the tribune's hand away and glaring at him as if he was on the verge of further violence. "I felt it go in, didn't I? Hercules, mister, it was like fuckin' ice all the way up me! And ye know what. . . ?"


The legionary leaned closer and reached out to grip Vibulenus' wrist, the hand he had just struck away. The pores of the dead man's face were large, and the unnatural pallor of his skin magnified their relative darkness into freckles.


"I couldn't see any more when that big fucker pulled the fucker out agin," Crescens said. He held Vibulenus' palm against his belly, against a large knot in the muscles that felt like cartilage beneath the fat. "I could hear the edge of it grind agin my rib bones, though."


"You needn't let that bother you, my man," the tribune said in his clear, detached voice. He stepped back, inexpressibly thankful that Crescens released him. The red dye on the legionary's belly made a splotch noticeable beneath the fabric of his tunic. "We've all noted how amazing the Commander's surgeons must be. My own —"


Vibulenus fingered his dyed left biceps, but before he was finished, he was stuck by the absurdity of comparing his recent wound to the way Crescens had been transfixed. His lips twitched silently for a moment. Then, almost without input from his mind, his mouth said, "You weren't actually killed, you see. Just wounded and repaired."


The tribune turned sharply and strode back to his companions, willing his ears not to hear anything the dead man might call after him. When he risked a glance from the corner of his eye, he saw that Crescens had resumed his blank-eyed stance. His right hand continued to rumple the tunic over his wound in a slow massage.


"They, ah. . . ," Vibulenus said, as Rufus and the file-closer carefully looked at the floor or the ceiling to avoid staring at him. "Well, I guess the Medic. . . ," he tried but paused again.


"You will live forever," the Commander had said. Gaius Vibulenus Caper, eighteen years old, wondered how long forever really was.


"Hey, there's Niger," said Rufus, striding across the open space. He was willing to ignore the presence of the guards in order to reach the farther side of the hall, where he had glimpsed his cousin, in the shortest possible time. "Niger!"


"Your commander is about to address you," said the clear voice in everyone's ears. "Before he does so, the floor will shift so that everyone has a clear view. Do not be concerned."


Relatively few of the thousands of men in the Main Gallery listened to what their ears could not fail to have heard. Even those few, like Vibulenus, who didn't tune out the words as just another repetition of the summons, were still trying to process the information when the back of the gallery began to rise.


There would have been panic even if every one of the soldiers understood the statement, of course.


Clodius and Vibulenus, at the front of the long room, felt only a trembling through the soles of their bare feet. The tribune looked back over his shoulder, frowning in concentration, because he thought the voice had said that —


The floor of the Main Gallery was slanting upward, carrying legionaries with it. As their footing shifted, men bolted backward toward the door by which they had entered. The screams were so loud and universal as to overpower the deadening effect of the gallery's acoustics.


The ceiling was lifting in synchrony with the floor, so there was no reason to fear that the surfaces would grind the men between them like millstones. Fear is emotional, not a matter of reason, however, and fear is the most human reaction to having solid become fluid underfoot. The door at the back did not open.


The only thing that kept the panic from being as lethally crushing as an actual mating of floor and ceiling was that the movement of the gallery lessened to zero in the front. Pressure from the crowd behind would have crushed men to death against the wall, as Vibulenus had once seen happen when a chariot crash started a rush for the stadium exits. Here, the men in the middle of the gallery poised, uncertain whether to rush the door or toward the front; and those nearest the front were more bemused than frightened by what they saw happening to others.


Over all the commotion, the disembodied voice kept calling angrily, "Everyone stop crowding! There is no need for concern! Stop this at once or there will be severe disciplinary measures!"


There had been a certain amount of crowding forward by men who closed their eyes so that they would not have to see that they were pushing their fellows closer to the guards. Clodius Afer, with a grimace that reflected his own distaste for the situation, thrust himself back into the press. Snapping, "Loosen up your ranks!" the file-closer slapped men alongside the head to get their attention.


The tribune took a deep breath. He had been trying to brace himself against the men pushing him from behind. Now he turned sideways, slipping back a rank or two, and shouted, "Stop this at once, you men!"


He tried to slap a grizzled legionary whose name he did not know. The man responded with a short punch that numbed Vibulenus' whole left side and blinded him with the pain. He couldn't fall down because the crowd was too tight, and when it loosened a moment later he had enough control of his body to stay upright.


The panic had ended itself in exhaustion and pointlessness. Men who had fought a grueling battle and undergone enervating rehabilitation in the Sick Bay simply did not have enough energy to long sustain a rush to nowhere. Sheepishly, shaking loose their tunics, legionaries drifted back to the center of the long room, leaving the front and rear to those who had preferred those extremes to the neutral median in the first place.


After all, there was nothing frightening about standing in a hall whose solid floor sloped toward the front at about the angle of the aisles of a theatre.


"What in Hades happened to you, sir?" Clodius Afer demanded, dusting his palms as he strode back to the tribune. The legion's front had advanced several feet as a result of the commotion, but the toadfaced guards had relaxed again and were no longer bracing their maces out in front of them as a physical bar to the humans.


"Somebody. . . ," Vibulenus wheezed. He forced himself to stand fully upright, though his right shoulder was still an inch high to put less tension on the ribs and muscles of his other side. "I was going to help you," the young tribune went on with careful steadiness, "but somebody hit me. I don't see him."


He glared at the nearest soldiers. Some blinked in surprise and a few turned their eyes away, but the man who threw the punch had disappeared into the crowd.


"Umm," said the file-closer, sucking in his lips. He laid his hand on Vibulenus' shoulder; in comradeship, but also to face the younger man to the front again. "Gotta be careful about, you know, things like that, sir," the veteran said. "Saw a first centurion tossed right through an oak door, the once, when he broke his swagger stick on somebody and turned his back to fetch another one. You got enough people together, you can lead 'em when there's someplace to go . . . but you need be real careful if you're gonna push."


There was a series of crisp flashes from within the hexagon on the wall, light like the edge-glints of swords drawn in the sun. The figure itself spun, momentarily circular with its velocity. Around it opened a rectangular doorway tall enough to have passed one of the giant spearmen.


The Commander looked even tinier in the doorway than he had when mounted on the carnivore.


"Brave warriors," said the voice in Vibulenus' ears, and the tribune was close enough to see that the sound now synchronized with the Commander's lip movements.


The door closed behind the figure in blue, and another glitter of light from the hexagon haloed his head. The door pivoted from one side, but it did not seem to be attached in any way to the lintel or jambs. Like the vehicles which roved the valley after the battle, the panel of shimmering metal appeared to float in the air until its edges merged again seamlessly with those of the bulkhead.


"Here, on a world far from your own," the Commander continued, "you have undertaken your first duties as assets of the finest trading guild in the Federation. Your success was beyond our expectation — and your reward will be beyond your dreams."


The Commander's chest rose and fell without affecting the words Vibulenus heard, so the pause was a rhetorical one before the voice continued, "You will never grow older. Throughout eternity, you will remain as strong and agile as your are now."


There was so general a buzz of sound from the assembled Romans that the Main Gallery hissed and popped like a fire in wet leaves. The young tribune glanced sharply at Clodius, knowing — presuming, at least — that the file-closer had heard this before, when they had confronted the Commander at the gate of the sacked camp.


Clodius' muscles were still, his eyes wide open and expressionless. His face was not so much blank as masked, and the knuckles of his right hand were grinding against the calloused palm of his left in proof of physical existence.


"This gift of immortality — so to speak," said the Commander, hushing the room with anticipation of what might come next, "is a very expensive boon, one which I myself received only upon being promoted to my present post. You have earned it by the technical skill which you displayed today."


"Have you seen anybody besides him and the Medic?" Clodius Afer whispered into the tribune's ear.


"Well, the guards," Vibulenus whispered back with a quick flutter of his hand that was all the gesture he was willing to make toward the creatures in plate armor.


"You will have no duties, no responsibilities," said the Commander, "save the duty for which you have proven yourselves so splendidly fitted: war against the enemies of my guild, the enemies of galactic progress."


"Them," sneered the file-closer, and it was a moment before Vibulenus remembered that the guards were the pronoun's referrent. "They don't run this place. They're dim as six feet up a hog's ass."


The word "war" had drawn a restive murmur from the legion and another pause from the Commander before he continued, "For reasons that do not concern you, the Federation has interdicted trading guilds, my own included, from the use of military technology higher than that of the natives who must be subdued. It is the ability that you have shown in using your pitiful technology which has enabled you to become assets of a trading guild envied by all its rivals."


"What's he mean?" a soldier behind Vibulenus whined to his fellow. "Them barbs, they wuz nekkid, the half of 'em and the rest warn't much."


And that was true . . . but the tribune realized that what the Commander had said was true also. The warriors dead on the slopes outside had metal weapons — even had iron, unlike the demigods of whom Homer had written. Nobody could fault the strength and individual skill with which they used their weapons either; Vibulenus brushed a hand across his temple in memory of the blow that had almost cracked his skull.


But the giant spearmen didn't know how to use their weapons as an army, as a Roman legion moving forward in ranks as implacable as the metal of their armor. They were barbarians, only barbarians, and therefore of course they died when they met Rome. . . .


"During the period that some of you are convalescing from your wounds," chimed the Commander's crystal voice in Vibulenus' ears, "the ship is limited to proceeding in normal space. Therefore time will seem to pass normally, and you will be permitted to occupy it with recreation as well as training."


"Women!" called someone midway in the hall, loud enough that the tribune could understand.


The Commander's head swivelled minutely, and Vibulenus thought that his ears twitched beneath the fabric of his tight hood. The tribune remembered his own vain attempt to spot the man who had punched him in the crush. Perhaps there were ways other than floating doors and rooms that healed wounds in which the Commander's world differed from that of Rome. . . .


"Yes, of course, women," said the blue figure with a smile that was as perfect as his Latin diction — and every bit as learnedly unnatural. "Not just now, I'm afraid; but they'll be provided for you in what will seem to be a very short time."


He threw the crowd another crisp, uncomfortable smile. "I wouldn't want you to think that my company doesn't prepare properly, but the fact is that we did not expect your success to be so complete you would deserve so high a level of expense, you warriors."


"Warriors," Clodius Afer echoed in a whisper. "We're soldiers. Warriors are meat on the table for soldiers with discipline."


Gaius Vibulenus thought of what they were being told and what it implied about the alternatives had the legion not demolished its opponents so hastily. Well, in Parthia the alternative had been working the quarries under a mind-blasting sun. . . .


"Because you will be conscious and alert during the first portion of this voyage and the voyages that follow," said the Commander, "it is necessary that you observe certain limitations. Your skills, brave warriors, are extensive within the bounds of your technology — but your technology is very low in comparison to what is available to every officer of my guild."


There was a commotion on the far side of the room. Vibulenus thought at first it was a reaction to the statement, then that the floor must be shifting again because there was movement in the crowd both forward and back, like a ship's wake dividing a small pond.


The tribune set his palm on Clodius' shoulder and lifted himself on tiptoes, craning his neck to make the most of his height advantage over the bulk of the legionaries.


"There's no need to be alarmed," the Commander was saying. "This is only a demonstration of things you'll have to understand to make your voyage comfortable."


"It's not the floor moving," said Vibulenus to the file-closer who had gripped him unasked beneath the arms and lifted the tribune vertically, feet off the floor. The pressure of Clodius' hands made it hard to speak but not impossible, and the support the veteran offered was only peripherally physical. "There's another door opened in that wall."


If his feet had been on the ground, Vibulenus would have turned to see whether the wall on their side of the Main Gallery was also marked for an opening. Instead he squinted, his view aided by the way legionaries were clearing from the affected area.


"Okay, let me down," he muttered. Clodius obeyed by lowering, not dropping, the young tribune back to the floor. Vibulenus avoided massaging his ribs for fear that would look ungrateful.


"It's the rest of the bodyguards coming in," he said, indicating the line of armored toad-things. When the file-closer's eyes followed the gesture the tribune was able to quickly rub his chest where it ached. "Only half of them were here before. These must be the ones, you know, keeping an eye on things with the Medic."


They had entered the gallery by a side door near the front rather than marching all the way through the assembly. Nothing surprising about that. The fact that the previously-hidden portal had opened without the sparkle of light which accompanied the Commander's entry was just another datum, another scrap of information that might someday help Vibulenus again understand the world as clearly as he had until — he entered the here and now in which he had just started to live.


"Hercules!" he gasped as he saw what his eyes had been receiving while his mind dealt with other things. "They've got Rufus and Niger!"


"By Death and Hades. . . ," muttered Clodius Afer in a voice without emotion.


Vibulenus did not notice the file-closer's arms move; in fact, he noticed nothing but his one-time schoolmates, each of them gripped by the elbows in the articulated iron gloves of two bodyguards. When the tribune's legs thrust him forward, toward the creatures who held his men, Clodius Afer's hands anchored him as solidly as they had lifted Vibulenus for a look only moments before.


"Now just hold on," said the file-closer in a voice that was soothing despite its raspy tone because it was totally controlled. "Let's see what's happening before we decide we're what's happening ourselves."


"Do not be concerned," the Commander's voice said coolly. "You will believe the evidence of your fellows where you would not accept another sort of demonstration."


In the instant before his reasoning mind took over again, Vibulenus would have lashed out with his fists and elbows to free himself if Clodius Afer had not dealt too often with men driven by a single emotion — hate or fear or fury — to give the younger man that play: His bear hug enwrapped the tribune's forearms so that Vibulenus' thrashing had no physical effect. The tribune's blood pressure shot up momentarily, and the crystal matrix in which he saw the Pompilii cousins became a blood-red haze.


But that passed: Clodius was right as well as being incomparably stronger, and the Commander was — in charge.


When he relaxed, Vibulenus saw the Pompilii were not being severely treated by the guards who had stepped out of the wall behind the foremost legionaries, grabbing the cousins as the two closest Romans before the men realized what was happening. For a moment, Rufus lifted both his feet and was carried, without slowing or otherwise affecting what the toad-things were doing with him.


Vibulenus noticed also that no Roman but himself seemed to have tried to rescue the cousins. Maybe they all had cold common sense like Clodius; maybe nobody knew the boys; and maybe Gaius Vibulenus Caper was a bigger fool than he'd felt since blubbering in fear while Parthian arrows whistled down. At least he knew this time that he was proud of his instinct — and that the file-closer's judgment had kept that instinct from getting him killed.


"Now what, by the Mother's tits," said Clodius Afer, releasing the tribune but not so completely that his hands did not hover near enough to regain their previous grip, "are they doing with a shield?"


The ten bodyguards marched with stiff deliberation to join their fellows already standing in front of the bulkhead. They clumped along two by two, the leading pairs carrying Niger and Rufus; and one of the last pair carried a shield, just as the file-closer had said.


It seemed to be an ordinary legionary's seutum of leather-covered plywood, twice as high as it was wide and slightly convex on the side toward the enemy. The rim was bound with bronze strips, and there was a rectangular boss of the same metal bulging out sharply to give room for the hand of the man carrying it.


Neither the boss nor the shield-facing had any of the fancy work, heraldic engraving and appliqued geometric designs, which distinguished the equipment Crassus' army carried into Parthia. Structurally the shield appeared to be the same, and the way Niger's arms flexed when the guard handed it to him showed that the piece was of at least the usual weight.


The guards who held Niger released the young Roman's arms so that he could take the shield. One of them boomed something to him, probably in Latin, but Vibulenus heard it only as a rumble of sound. Niger's brow knitted as he tried vainly to make sense of the order,


Clodius Afer's hand was back on the tribune's shoulder in a gesture of comradeship rather than control. The two men were blank-faced because they had dissociated their intellects as completely as possible from their bodies and from the memory that would flesh out the data their eyes were receiving.


Two of the armored guards stood close to Niger, near the corner formed with the front wall. Legionaries on that side of the room shifted so they were farther from the comrade snatched from among them than they had been from the original line of guards.


"There's five thousand of us, aren't there?" said Vibulenus softly, rationally. "Well, less after this morning, maybe." But Arrius Crescens stood, open-eyed and stolid, no longer a subject of fear in the midst of newer uncertainties. . . .


"And there's twenty of them," the tribune went on. "Twenty-one, yes. . . ."


The file-closer's hand tightened enough to remind Vibulenus that they would wait and watch, the two of them.


Rufus and the guards directing him marched toward the Commander who stood slim and aloof with the bulkhead behind him and the legion in front — the one with no more volition than the other.


The blue figure glanced toward Niger and perhaps spoke something into his ears alone. The young legionary raised the shield over his head, holding it by the lower rim so that the soft highlights of the boss were toward the Commander. The shield wavered a little; Niger steadied it and himself by backing a step to the sidewall and bracing his shoulder there.


"Our own weapons — those of my guild," said the Commander as his shimmering eyes swept the legion again, "are of greater destructiveness than even this demonstration will prove. Nevertheless, watch the shield which your fellow is holding."


While the Commander spoke, his hands swung forward a black cylinder slung behind him, visible but unremarkable in this interval that held so many remarkable things. The cylinder was about the length and diameter of the Commander's forearm. The irregularities on it, including the handles by which the Commander raised the device to his shoulder, gave it the look of plumbing which should have been decently hidden behind stone facings or molded bronze.


The guards holding the other Pompilius cousin halted near the Commander — behind him, actually, now that he was facing the side — but the blue figure ignored them. There was a glitter in the air above the cylinder, something that could have been static electricity but suggested an image of the shield toward which the cylinder was aimed.


A jet of light so cohesive that Vibulenus thought it was a fluid spurted from the cylinder to the shield. The boss exploded in a fountain of green sparks as the flash-heated metal burned in the air. Niger was one of a hundred men who screamed in surprise. He flung the shield away from him as drops of molten bronze spattered twenty feet in every direction.


The shield hit the floor, walking on its rim in a slow pirouette before clanging down on its convex face. The hole burned through the boss was large enough to pass a clenched fist. Strips of wood glued to form the shield's core sprang outward at the edge of the burned metal so that they looked like ravelled ends of rope.


Pompilius Niger bolted back into the mass of legionaries from which he had been taken. None of the guards tried to stop him — but Rufus found, when he made a similar attempt, that his arms were still held firmly.


"When I or any employee of my guild give you an order," said the Commander with his usual cool precision, turning toward his audience again, "you must obey instantly and utterly."


He released the cylinder. It snuggled itself to his back, out of the way but quickly available at need. Charred wood and burning felt created a musty reek in the atmosphere as the shield continued to smolder.


"He wasn't carrying it outside this building, though," said the file-closer thoughtfully, while his fingers gently kneaded the muscles of Vibulenus' shoulder.


"The shield will remain here after this assembly," said the Commander. "I had intended to have your fellow carry it among you himself, but I underestimated the effect our weapons would have on warriors of your — cultural level."


"Little bastard," whispered Clodius Afer because the Commander's voice in his ears had hinted at amusement.


"Maybe they can't use anything but, but maces outside this ship," the tribune murmured to the veteran. "Maybe their gods would strike them down for violating that law."


Though why would there be such a law?


"Almost the whole of the ship is yours to roam as you please," continued the Commander, "except when you are summoned for training or assembly. This bulkhead —"


He stretched out one delicate, overfingered hand to tap the shifting pastels of the bulkhead behind him "—is my territory and that of my crew and guards. You are not to attempt to enter it, and you are not to approach within three feet of its surface. If you do — watch closely, now."


Vibulenus was watching the Commander's hands, expecting one of them to reach back for the cylinder. The blue figure did not move at all.


Two of the guards flung Pompilius Rufus toward the bulkhead.


The boy did not thump against the lighted metal because his body disintegrated in the air with a tearing crash.


The Commander winced an instant before the noise erupted behind him, and his shoulders hunched against the sauce of pulverized body spitting back into the room.


There was a barrier three feet from the visible wall. The momentum of Rufus' body carried him against it, and the young legionary splashed across the plane of contact as if he had fallen from a high cliff. Bone and muscle, as fluid and finely divided as the blood with which they merged, squirted sideways in a vertical tapestry behind the Commander, thinning and disappearing ten or a dozen feet from the center of impact.


Occasional globules overloaded what was an almost instantaneous process of digestion. Those caused the pops and sputters that threw droplets as high as the ceiling and as far as the middle rows of men watching the demonstration.


The tribune's forehead felt damp. He wiped it with his palm, then wiped his palm on his tunic, telling himself as he did so that it was sweat.


He felt no urge to attack the Commander. In fact, his guts were filling with ice water and his legs began shaking so violently that he was afraid he would fall down.


"This is not something I or my subordinates do, you understand," said the Commander in the chill tones of nightmare, his words heard clearly throughout the Main Gallery despite the gasps and cries of the men assembled there. "It is something that happens automatically to anyone who steps close to the wall. Only those whose nerve patterns have been keyed into the — mechanism of the ship — can survive."


There were smells in the air besides those of the burning shield. Partly the addition was the choking sharpness that near-striking thunderbolts left at the back of a man's throat — but there was charred flesh in the air as well. Something lay on the floor just outside the partition between death and life which Rufus had limned with his body. Vibulenus could not be sure, but he thought it was the heel of one of the boy's feet, sheared off because it did not have quite enough momentum to carry it across the barrier on its own.


"Now," the blue figure concluded, pausing for a perfect smile toward the assembly which stirred like a wheatfield in a fitful breeze. "Go and relax. We are already under way to a new engagement."


"What's he mean by that?" Clodius Afer demanded querulously. He gave Vibulenus a rough shake in an attempt to get his attention. "We can't be going anywhere. We'd hear it. Wouldn't we? Sir?"


The Commander turned and manipulated the hexagon on the wall. The invisible barrier did not affect him, except that one of his feet slipped a trifle in the slime Rufus had left at the demarcation line. Light twinkled within the hexagon and the door drifted open. His bodyguard, pair by pair, shuffled through the portal behind him.


Gaius Vibulenus could not understand the words the file-closer was throwing at him in a desperate attempt to deny what he had just seen. The tribune's mind danced with a montage of images, from the first moment he realized the guards were throwing his friend toward the wall, to the flash of richly-saturated earth-tones as the legionary disintegrated.


"Sir, please tell me we're not moving," begged Clodius Afer.


The younger man blinked down at the file-closer's hands. They gripped his shoulders but no longer tried to shake him into a response. He was a Roman citizen and an officer. He had his duties.


Taking one of Clodius' hands in each of his own and lowering them, Vibulenus said, "I think probably we are moving if he says we are, Gnaeus. I don't understand how that is either, but perhaps we'll learn. We have a lot of things to learn, I think."


He looked at the bulkhead and the door closing with another flicker behind the last of the guards. His eyes were again able to see what was there, rather than what had been happening there in the recent past.


He had a duty to Pompilius Rufus, also. Some day he would fulfill it.


   


"Get up now," repeated the voice in Vibulenus' ears. "This room is about to be cleaned."


The tribune snorted and turned his head on the pillow, thinking in muzzy error that he could muffle the intrusion that way.


A jet of cold — very cold — water from the ceiling played the length of his spine.


Vibulenus leaped up, screaming and certain that he was being burned alive. The water from what looked like an ordinary rivethead splashed momentarily on his chest, but he did not connect the spray with the beam from the Commander's weapon which had devoured him as he slept.


There were half a dozen other men in the room. Those who had started to get up at the summons were staring in bemusement at Vibulenus and two others, prodded by separate spikes of water. None of the men were known by name to the tribune, though he recognized a couple of the faces. He did not know how he had gotten here, but the pounding of his head told him that he had been drunk at the time.


"Leave at once," ordered the calm voice. It would have passed for the Commander speaking, but Vibulenus did not imagine the Commander concerned himself with housecleaning. "Other rooms are open for your use."


The studs which had jetted cold water were now wreathed in steam, and the temperature of the room was already beginning to rise as the Romans stumbled out.


It had been an odd room, now that Vibulenus was alert enough to notice it. The floor was spongy, but its covering and the cushioned banquettes seemed to be of one piece with the walls — which were metal.


The only opening was the door into a broad hallway. That should have made the room stuffy or close under the circumstances, but the wastes voided by sleeping drunks were merely a whiff, not a suffocating reek.


"Pollux, but I need a bath," Vibulenus muttered. Out in the hall he couldn't blame the odor he smelled on his fellows.


"Follow the blue dot in the ceiling to the baths which have been provided for your comfort," said the voice.


The tribune jumped and looked around uselessly. There was a pulsing blue dot on the ceiling, right enough. "You there," he snapped to a legionary who had exited the room with him. "Did you hear something about the baths?"


"Hah? Nossir," said the other, giving a glance at the russet border of Vibulenus' tunic, marking him as a member of the equestrian order — and making the young tribune flush by recalling his mind to the garment's stains. "Good idea, though; if you know where one is?"


Something spoke to the legionary's hopeful question, and the man's eyes flickered up toward the blue dot. "All right," he said cheerfully. Nodding to Vibulenus, he strode off down the hall.


The blue dot preceded him; and the tribune, grimacing, followed an identical dot that waited until he stepped toward it before it slid on. There were other men in the hallway, some of them wandering with puzzled expressions but most seeming to follow beads of varicolored light, just as Vibulenus was. He vaguely remembered that Clodius Afer had said something about wine as the Main Gallery lowered itself after the assembly, and then the two of them had gone off after a bead of orange light.


The ship contained huge areas of open space, making it more like a city than it was a vessel. Most of the rooms flanking this hallway were similar to the one in which Vibulenus had awakened, twelve feet to a side with an eight-foot ceiling and no furnishings except for the cushions built against all four walls.


A few had doors shut flush with the passageway. One of these slid upward as the tribune passed, puffing out a wisp of steam and humid air. He paused — the dot of light halted a half step farther on — and peered in. The room was of the standard pattern, glistening now as steam cleared in tendrils sucked rapidly toward the solid walls. It was clean and ready for occupancy; as, no doubt, was the room Vibulenus had occupied until being turned out.


The bead of light made a right turn down a cross hall long enough that the tribune could not see to either end. The hangover was only a dull shadow of the way battle injuries had left him feeling. Nonetheless, he saw other figures only as blurs. Afterwards he thought he remembered being hailed by name — but he could not be sure.


He would have stumbled past the paths, had not the voice in his ears said sharply, "This is your destination. The dot will go no farther with you."


Alerted if not truly alert, Vibulenus stopped at the open doorway beside him. It was twenty feet wide, opening onto a circular bay that was larger than any room he had seen aboard the vessel except for the Main Gallery. Despite its size, it was thronged by soldiers, many of them bearing the deep scarlet dye of healed injuries.


"Discard your garments here," said the omnipresent voice as Vibulenus took a puzzled step within the bay. "New clothing will be issued as you leave."


There was a shallow bin beside the door, empty; but as the tribune paused, a legionary with less compunction wadded up his own tunic and tossed it in. The garment melted into the bottom of the bin, leaving it empty again.


Shivering with youthful embarrassment, Vibulenus pulled off his tunic and promised himself that he would never again drink more than he could handle. The men around him were not slaves and social equals — the former beneath notice; the latter in no better state because of partying. These were social and military subordinates to whom he must provide an image of irreproachable dignity.


"Choose a location along the wall," said the voice.


The tribune stalked straight ahead, pretending that he did not see any of the other Romans and that they, as a result, could not see him.


"Hey, d'ye see him?" came a fragment of conversation, overheard but unprocessed until minutes later. "Right up t' the front knocking shit outa them bastids, and him without even a helmet!"


The ceiling was the usual eight feet high, the only dimension in which the gigantic vessel seemed less than generous by human standards. Nude men, some of them talking to one another with animation, were passing back and forth through the center of the room. The wall to which Vibulenus had been directed was unusual only in that it was curved, but the soldiers already standing within arm's length of it were in separate capsules whose boundaries were displayed by the water which leaped and sprayed within.


The tribune walked to the first open space he saw, ignoring the men who jostled him on their own slanting courses. Embarrassment about his condition kept Vibulenus from fear of undergoing a process strange to him.


Some of the men in this bath were hanging back in concern, watching cylinders of air glint to enclose their fellows before sprays from the floor and ceiling converged on them. Many of the common legionaries were so unsophisticated, however, that they had not seen a seagoing vessel before Crassus sailed his army from Brundisium. This bathing arrangement was only one more of the unique circumstances they had learned to expect since they left their farms in the Campania.


Gaius Vibulenus knew enough to be afraid; but to his boy's mind, dissolution like that of Pompilius Rufus was less to be feared than his present loss of dignity.


Somebody stepped in front of him to the space he had chosen, but the air around the soldier next to that place lost its sheen. That legionary sauntered away from the wall with a refreshed expression; his skin was flushed and gleaming as if from an expert massage. Vibulenus took his place without hesitation.


There was a ping that could have been in his ears instead of being heard by them. Everything in the room as a whole was now glimpsed through a surface that was perfectly clear but did not pass light in quite the same line as air did. Vibulenus remembered the way the Commander's face gleamed and wondered if that were from the same unknown cause.


"Standard?" asked the voice.


Vibulenus looked around, surprised out of his fuzzy internal dialogue.


"Or do you want to give instructions for changes in the standard cleansing program?" prompted the voice. It had a peevish tinge at such moments, unless the young tribune was imagining the tone from memories of house slaves skirting insubordination under similar circumstances.


"Fine, that's fine," Vibulenus snapped, flushing again. "I'll have the same that the men have."


Before the tribune could wonder whether he had correctly inferred from the question that he was being offered something special because of his rank and class, needles of warm water with a slight astringence began to scrape grime from his body. It was like nothing he had ever felt before, but it was effective; and the steam that clouded the invisible cylinder around him sheltered Vibulenus from eyes more effectively than his mind could do.


As a way of cleaning the body, this "bath" was at least as effective as the system with which Vibulenus was familiar. The sprays varied in temperature and were firm enough to knead his muscles like the fingers of a masseur. There seemed to be an ingredient added to the water which took the place of the olive oil with which the tribune would ordinarily have rubbed himself, then scraped off in combination with the dirt and body grease from his skin.


So it wasn't the result of the bath that bothered the young Roman, only the process. He had expected a social event — sitting with half a dozen others around the water vat in the steam room; racing a friend across the pool in the cold room; and at the very least, being oiled down by a slave in the warm room — a task no individual could effectively perform for himself.


Instead, Gaius Vibulenus Caper was more alone than he had ever been in the eighteen years since he left his mother's womb . . . excepting only what had happened to him in the Medic's cubicle; and this bath was too similar to that event to be comfortable.


The sprays became bitingly cold, then shut off. Blasts of hot, dry air wrapped Vibulenus for a moment, and the voice said, "New clothing will be issued to you at the exit from the bath."


Probably the ping Vibulenus thought he had heard before did have something to do with the invisible shield, because when he heard the sound again he was back in the room with no distortion. The air was cooler than the flows which had dried him, and the atmosphere had a freedom of movement that would have gone unnoticed except that during the bath the tribune had felt that he was circumscribed.


The shimmer of a cubicle next to him ceased without a sound the tribune could hear. It reminded him to step back into the room, to give space to anyone else who wanted it. What were the bath hours here? Were there bath hours? Was it daylight now?


The man stepping away from the wall next to him was Lucius Rectinus Falco. He was two inches shorter than Vibulenus and within days of being the same age, but he always gave the air of being infinitely more knowledgeable.


Vibulenus would have let his eyes slide away from the other tribune, except that Falco was already starting to grin with recognition. To refuse to face him would be cowardly as well as futile, so Vibulenus started to nod a vague greeting in hope that it would suffice.


Falco reached out and gripped his forearm. "Well, Gaius my boy, how did you like our little demonstration yesterday?"


And while Vibulenus' conscious mind told him that he must have misunderstood the words, Falco went on, "You know, I suggested to the Commander that you were the sort of troublemaker who'd be of more use as a demonstration than for anything else. But since you were an officer, so to speak, he thought he'd wait. So I suggested —"


Falco really didn't expect the bigger tribune to hit him.


Vibulenus landed his first clumsy punch squarely on the sneering lips. Vibulenus did not immediately follow that blow with another, because of the pain that shot up his own arm from the knuckle he had broken on Falco's teeth.


"Stop!" called Falco. "Commander!"


"Fighting is not allowed!" shouted the ship's voice as Vibulenus tried to hit Falco with his left hand and wished he had a shield in it. "Stop at once, or this area will be gassed and corrective measures taken!"


"Don't!" cried Falco, throwing up his hands. His lip was bleeding enough to spit droplets of blood. "You heard the Commander! He'll —"


It was impossible to hurt somebody with your bare hands, thought Vibulenus as he slapped at Falco to avoid reinjuring the knuckle while Falco scrunched up his face and punched back.


Neither blow landed, because arms grabbed Vibulenus from behind and rotated him around the man who was holding him. The tribune's bare feet hit the ground six feet from where they had been lifted. The voice continued, "Personal contests can be held through the simulator in the Recreation Room. No direct combats are allowed!"


"Gnaeus?" said Vibulenus.


"Right in one," agreed the file-closer as he released the younger man and stepped hastily away so that his peacemaking would not look like an expansion of the brawl. His arms were splayed slightly so that he could react if the tribune tried to dodge past him to get at Falco again. "Let's stay calm, sir."


Vibulenus was both drained and embarrassed to have hurt himself so badly and Falco not at all. Well, Falco somewhat: the other tribune was dabbing his fingers to the cut on his lips. The rage which he glared at Vibulenus could not have been more real if Falco had just been impaled at his command.


"The red bead will lead you to the Recreation Room," said the voice in a tone of satisfaction. "Private quarrels must not be worked out directly."


"I won't do anything about this now, Vibulenus," Falco said, his hand hovering midway between a gesture and soothing his lips. No one had moved to interfere with him, so he strode in a wide arc around the taller man, trying to look brisk but not cowardly. "You'd better mind your ways, though, or I swear by the gods of my house that the Commander will hear about it personally!"


Falco stepped into the hallway with his legs scissoring so quickly that the tunic which fell out of a wall dispenser lay behind him unnoticed, its russet stripe a reproach.


"He's not afraid of me," Vibulenus muttered as the file-closer stared after the other tribune, disappearing in naked haste. Class pride had not vanished when they all were reduced to captivity together, to slavery. Besides, it was true. "He's afraid of what they'll do to both of us. The Commander."


"He'll do wonders," sneered Clodius Afer. At the time Vibulenus thought he meant Falco. Then, snarling at the soldiers still watching them in hope of further excitement, the file-closer added. "Get on with it, damn ye, or see if I don't find something for ye to be doing."


The tribune began walking because his muscles were shaking with hormones that he had to work off — toward the doorway because that was the direction he was facing at the time. "He was the one who had Rufus killed. I knew Rufus from the time he was . . . we were —"


"Hold it, sir," interrupted the file-closer, taking the first of the tunics that dropped from the wall and handing the next, with its narrow border, to Vibulenus.


"He's got the Commander's ear," the tribune resumed, the first words muffled as he pulled the garment over his head, "and he's using it to —"


"How do you know?" Clodius asked bluntly.


"Where are we going?" Vibulenus said, looking up the hall and back behind him. There was no particular difference: featureless walls and soldiers, most of them going to or from the baths.


"To the Recreation Room, whatever in Hades that may be, said the non-com. "How do you know Rectinus has any control over the Commander?"


"He —" Vibulenus began, and stopped before he gave credence to what at any other time he would have deemed nonsense. "Oh. Sure. Falco could say the sun rises in the east, and I still ought to check it if it matters, right?"


"I thought something like that, yessir," Clodius Afer agreed. "And I guess —"


"This is your destination," interrupted the ship's voice, the Commander's voice. "The bead will go no farther with you."


Vibulenus had expected a sports ground like Rome's Campus Martius, but perhaps safe javelin and discus courses were too large for even the volume of this monstrous vessel. Was there swimming, at least, available? He regretted not having been able to swim a few laps in the baths, where he had hoped there would be a pool.


The Recreation Room was circular again, sloping down from the rim to the center like a double theatre — amphitheater — designed for gladiatorial events. Instead of narrow stone benches for seating, there were couches set radially to the circle. Vibulenus found inexpressibly alien the notion of a couch tilted so that you looked down over your feet instead of reclining on one arm and facing the side.


"This place. . . ." said Clodius Afer. "Look, it must be over the baths. Or under them. The hall wasn't long enough for two rooms this big to be side by side."


"I don't see what they're doing," Vibulenus said. "There's nothing here."


The room was at least as large in diameter as the baths — surely the hall hadn't curved either up or down? But Clodius was right about its distance. This room was high from the center to the ceiling because of the way the ranks of couches sloped downward. There were six or eight doorways around the circumference, which made the room's alignment in the vessel even more confusing. Some hundreds of the thousand or more couches were occupied by legionaries focusing intently on the center of the room —


Which was empty. The rows of couches continued downward until the lowest row filled all but a ten-foot circle, where there was not so much as a pylon standing.


"Maybe if we ask —" Vibulenus began, looking upward though he did not think the voice really came from the ceiling. He was afraid of asking the — the vessel itself — for information in front of the file-closer, though he could not have explained what reaction he feared or why.


In any case, Clodius Afer responded to the problem in his own direct fashion by stepping down to the nearest occupied couch and shaking the man in it to full attention. "Hey!" the file-closer demanded. "What in Hades — oh. Hi, Epidius. Sorry, sir, but what in fucking Hades goes on here?"


The First Cohort centurion that Clodius had aroused grimaced angrily at the junior non-com, but he blanked his face instantly when he saw the tribune, as well, hanging on his answer. "Ah," grunted Epidius. "Well, it's the Battle of the Frogs and the Mice. Just — well, if you lay down on a couch, you'll see. And you sir —" nodding to Vibulenus "—if you please."


The nearest pair of unoccupied couches were some way down the aisle. "That horse's ass," the file-closer muttered to his companion. "What's he think his rank really counts for any more?"


"It's all we have left," replied Vibulenus in a flash of awareness spoken before he fully comprehended it. "It's got to count."


The tribune sat on the center of the couch and began to lower himself carefully into a reclining position. Even before his head had touched the cushion, he was seeing a battlefield in place of the amphitheater he knew was really there. Vibulenus thought he heard the file-closer say something, but he continued to lean back into a medley of clashing weapons and raucous challenges shouted in Latin.


The combatants were not Romans and not humans. Epidius was quite right: the tribune was now watching — had nearly become a part of — a battle of frogs and mice. His viewpoint swooped down the line of frogs . . . or almost frogs. The beasts stood upright and their legs were straight instead of splaying outward at the knees the way those of true frogs did.


The scene was without scale. Certainly there was nothing to prove that the facing armies were made up of minute individuals rather than things the size of men. The ground was very marshy, and the broad webbed feet of the frogs were an obvious advantage to them.


Their equipment was crude, however, and it seemed to have been adapted from local vegetation rather than being created by art. Their shields were of pale, heavily-veined leaves whose edges were wrapped but not smoothed to a regular outline. They wore breastplates of darker material which also seemed to be individual leaves; their helmets looked like Phrygian caps but on closer examination — the viewpoint froze even as Vibulenus considered the question — were seashells bound on with grass ropes.


Unlike their feet, the hands of the frogs were not webbed — though they looked strange enough, having only three digits to grip their shields and the long stone-pointed spears with which each warrior threatened the enemy.


That enemy was as surely an army of mice — and not mice — as they were frogs. In contrast to the smooth, mottled-green hide of the latter, the mice toward whom Vibulenus' unvoiced question slid his viewpoint were covered in brown fur. Their bellies were the same color as their backs and limbs, but the multiple dugs of many of the warriors were so full that they must be females.


The panoply of the mice showed greater artifice, though not necessarily greater efficiency, than that of their opponents. Vibulenus could not tell for sure the material of the spears and shields the mice carried, but they seemed to be ceramic — glazed at the spearpoints and, in a variety of grotesque designs, on the facings of the shields.


The mouse breastplates were of painted leather, framed and cushioned by wickerwork and bound to them with leather thongs. At first glance, their helmets were of leather also, fur side out — but the close inspection which the tribune's wonder granted him showed that the helms were gigantic nut-shells with the shaggy husks still clinging to them.


Neither army carried edged weapons; and, unless Vibulenus were wrong about the spears of the mice, neither army had any metal even as items of adornment.


The tribune's point of view swooped up to a godlike perspective from which the armies, beginning to flow together, were blurred into two unities: the individual warriors shrank from man-size to mere colors, a green jelly and a brown jelly, sliding toward one another across a pan of neutral gray.


"Gaius Vibulenus Caper," said the voice, "you have received the challenge of Lucius Rectinus Falco. Do you accept?"


"What?" blurted the tribune. Below — directly below, not "down" in sense that one looked down from the bleachers onto a gladiatorial combat — the field rang with the cries of the combatants, individually audible when the voice was not speaking in his ears.


"You must accept or not accept," the voice said tartly. "Do you accept?"


"Yes, damn you, but what —"


And Vibulenus spiraled vertiginously down to the marshy battlefield.


 


He was no longer watching the battle as he lay on a couch which he felt even if he did not see. The shield on his left side was supported by a strap of woven grass over his right shoulder and across his back. It weighed more than even a full-sized legionary's shield, and the leaf from which it had been formed was cured to the density of half an inch of oxhide. More awkward still was the breastplate, a harder, thinner leaf whose serrations prodded the skin of his belly when he strode forward.  


That skin was green, with a dozen subtle shades ranging from almost black to almost yellow. His toes splayed at each step, giving him better support than his mind expected when it confronted soil so marshy that water stood around the stems of the coarse, knee-high grass.  


Vibulenus was suddenly certain that he was going to die. It wasn't fear, exactly. The feeling was more akin to knowing that you would hit the ground even as you slid over your horse's shoulder.  


"Caper, you little coward!" cried one of the oncoming line of mice. "Come out and take your medicine."  


Couples of warriors were fighting at intervals between the waiting lines, though when a frog fell or a mouse there would be a general surge from either side and a struggle over the body. One of the mice, striding on hind legs much longer and more powerful than those of the little crumb-nibbler his head and torso mimicked, was coming straight toward Vibulenus. The voice of his sneering challenge was that of Falco, though it came from a furry throat and past great chisel-edged gnawing teeth.  


"I'm here, Falco," Vibulenus shouted back. He charged the spear-brandishing mouse, trying to adapt his mind to the unfamiliar — multi-jointed — leg motion his new body found congenial.  


Vibulenus held his spear overhand, a little before the balance, so that the butt joggled against his shoulder as he ran. The weapon was much longer than the javelins with which he had trained. That made it unwieldy; but in mitigation of its size, the spear was surprisingly light — certainly no weightier than the heavy pattern of Roman javelin.  


All the items of Vibulenus' panoply felt awkward to him, but the frog body he wore was more skillful with them than the tribune had been in battle with legionary equipment. He was not a warrior, but his present muscles and the instincts which came bundled with them were those of a veteran.  


The mouse with the voice of Rectinus Falco sank ankle deep at every step, but his shield and spearpoint had a hard glitter that suddenly frightened Vibulenus. His spear was longer than the mouse's, so he thrust in a panicky attempt more to keep his opponent away rather than to do injury.


The frog spearhead was narrow and slightly twisted because it had been flaked from a seashell. The instant it clicked on the face of Falco's shield, Vibulenus feared the shell would shatter and disarm him. The point broke, all right, but it broke into another wedge-shaped profile which would certainly pierce flesh with an arm's full strength behind it.  


The mouse rocked at the blow and stumbled, his narrow feet less suited to the marshy surface. Vibulenus cried out in relief which replaced his foreboding as suddenly as lightning tears the limbs from a tree.  


He could not follow up on the thrust because his weapon was too long. As his frog hand tried to shorten its grip, he remembered the similar plight of the spearman who had faced him that morning — and Falco, striking desperately, drove the dense, sharp point of his ceramic spear through Vibulenus' shield and into his thigh.  


The wounded tribune screamed. The reasoning part of his mind — which had nothing to do with the struggle — noted that the sound was an unfamiliar croak, though when he cried "Wait, Falco!" an instant later the words were in Latin.  


"I told you you'd pay!" the mouse shouted as he jerked his weapon free with a slime of pale blood on its tip. He had been off-balance even before he struck, and the effort of clearing the heavy spear cost him his footing. Falco fell with a splash and the terrified cry, "Father!"—his own or perhaps Jove, father of gods and of men. He probably did not know that he had spoken.  


Vibulenus' leg trembled with cold fire, but his enemy was under the point of his spear. He stabbed downward as Falco struggled to rise. The shell point chipped again on the edge of the ceramic shield, crazing the surface, then dug into the mouse's breastplate.  


Falco tipped over on his back again. The spearpoint was through the leather, but the wickerwork beneath held it for a moment. Vibulenus strode forward, dropping the handle with which he had maneuvered his strap-slung shield and gripping the spear with both hands.  


His wounded leg buckled so that he fell sideways.  


For a moment, the mouse was still pinned by the spear caught in his breastplate. He slid on his back, twisting, and the point sprang free.  


Vibulenus tried to push himself upright with his left hand, but his shield was in the way. His frog body strained upward with terrified bellows, and the strap across his back tugged him down again with identical force.  


Falco squirmed into a kneeling position. He had lost his ceramic buckler and held his spear with both hands as he poised with foam dribbling out the corners of his mouth. Vibulenus batted sideways with his own spear, but the shaft was light and an inadequate weapon even if swung with greater force than his exhausted muscles could manage.  


The mouse struck back too hastily to rise to his feet first. The blow was clumsy and the spearpoint less sharp than the shimmering glaze had made it seem but the combination sufficed to drive the weapon a hand-breadth into Vibulenus' chest.  


It didn't hurt although he could feel the point grate through bones. Vibulenus realized this was all a game. Then his frog body toppled flat in sudden weakness and pain blazed through him with the brilliance of the sun coming from behind a cloud.  


Vibulenus was still fully conscious, but the only muscles he could move were those which focused his eyes. The world was wrapped in a pulsing white glow through which the mouse warrior withdrew his weapon and struggled to his feet. Falco must be exhausted also. It was not effort, really, not work done that was so draining. Rather, it was the tension of battle, the emotional tautness that kept every muscle keyed against possible use like a top spinning in place.  


Until you collapsed, or you died.  


"You've bought it now, dog-spittle!" the mouse wheezed through slobbering jaws, and he drove his spear down at Vibulenus' right eye. The pain stopped, and the universe snuffed all its lights.  


 


The Battle of Frogs and Mice had proceeded considerably since Vibulenus' previously birdseye view of the struggle. The Frogs had their backs to a steep-banked pond, not the barrier to them that it would have been to a human army; but under pressure from the Mice, the green line was disintegrating as its members hurled away their equipment and plunged into the water.


Gaius Vibulenus screamed and jumped to his feet. The mythic battle dissolved instantly, sound and view together. The tribune stumbled and fell crosswise over Clodius Afer on the couch next to his.


The file-closer lurched upright, giving a shout and a display of muscles toughened by daily training with equipment weighted to make the real thing seem light. He relaxed at once, calmed by the change of mental scenery even before he recognized Vibulenus.


Clodius swung to his feet, permitting both men to pretend that the grip with which he had started to crush the tribune's ribs like a breadloaf was simply help in recovering the younger man's balance. "You okay, sir?" he asked solicitously, stepping away with his arms firmly clasped to his sides.


"Gnaeus," said the tribune when he had recovered enough from the grip of panic and the file-closer to speak. "I was down there." He glanced toward the pit, but there was nothing to be seen but rings of couches — more of them filled than before, though some legionaries were beginning to leave the hall. "Down there!"


"Right," said the file-closer. "Me too. Till you, you know, shook me out of it."


Vibulenus started to speak but paused instead with his mouth open, wondering how he could explain to the veteran that he had been a participant in the fantasy struggle, not merely a disembodied viewpoint.


Before he could find the words, Clodius Afer had said, "I was a mouse, myself. Were you? I've always hated slimy frogs. And look, wasn't there a poem about this, the Frogs versus the Mice? I swear I heard some old bastard bellowing it out in the public baths years ago, 'cause he liked what the echo off the tiles did to his voice."


"Let's. . . ," said the tribune before he lost his train of thought while his eyes drifted across the figures reclining in rapt attention on something which did not really hang in the middle of the amphitheater. What would he do if he spotted Falco? He already had his knuckle and his memory to regret from the last time.


"Let's get out of here," Vibulenus said gruffly. The knuckle at least could be cured. It didn't hurt at all while he was a frog . . . but the scars of that experience, though mental, would never leave him.


"Let's go find the Sick Bay and see if this —" he pointed to his puffy right hand with the other one "—can't be taken care of."


As they walked up the narrow aisle, the tribune in the lead, he continued over his shoulder, "I don't know why they don't want us to fight each other. It doesn't seem to matter even if we —" he hadn't admitted this even to himself before "—get, get killed."


"That isn't true," said the file-closer in a voice that surprised Vibulenus more for its peculiar thoughtfulness than it did by its content.


"What?" the tribune prompted, pausing in the hallway outside the amphitheater for his companion to come abreast.


Clodius would not meet the younger man's eyes, however. "Well," he said, squinting down the corridor as if to estimate its length, "they offered me the centurion's slot in the Fourth Century. Told 'em I'd think about it. You know, up a rank but down a century, and I'm . . . you know, the guys came through real good today."


"But Vacula . . . ," said the tribune, seeing what the non-com meant.


"Yeah," Clodius agreed. "Vacula's gone, dead as Crassus. Some others, too. They said — the voice said, you —" He shook his head angrily, trying to clear the nervous mannerism from his speech. "Anyway," he continued, "they told me it was because his brain got stabbed they couldn't do a thing for him so they just left him lay. Brains and spines, they say."


The file-closer shook his head again, this time in puzzlement. "Why d'ye suppose that should be? Brains and spines?"


"Why should any of this be?" Vibulenus answered as bleak awareness descended on him. "I don't know. But I think —" and the bluntly gleaming spearpoint swelled again as it descended on the eye of his memory "—that Rectinus Falco had heard about brains and spines too."


He shrugged. "No matter. Let's find the Medic, and then maybe some food."


"Right," said the file-closer. "It don't bother me so much now things're starting to get organized."


Vibulenus' mouth was open to ask directions from the voice of the ship. He paused and swallowed. For a moment, he tried to pretend he did not understand what the file-closer meant.


"Lead us to the Sick Bay," Clodius Afer said nonchalantly to the ceiling, where a yellow bead obediently sprang to life.


And the blithe acceptance of their situation which the tribune felt also within his own heart frightened him as much as the spear plunging toward his eye had done.


 


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