Darkness Ends by Gustavo Bondoni
Tita Livia Siriana basked in the silence. Her audience, composed of the best and brightest great leaders of the great families of both inner and outer Empires, hung on her every word. She’d barely begun to speak, but the little that had leaked of her work, the little she’d allowed to leak, was enough to have them on the edge of their seats. By speaking softly, she guaranteed that only those seated nearest the stage would hear her words, but then again, those seated nearest were the truly important men and women. The rest could get a transcript.
“I am honored to be here, among the leaders of the Empire, honored that you have chosen to travel all the way to Palmyra to hear my presentation,” she said. “I only hope that the fruits of my research will meet your expectations.”
Once again, Tita cursed her father for his untimely death. He hadn’t lived long enough to see the triumph of his family. While his precious sons threw away their advantages, one becoming an administrator in the Australis Province and the other a merchant, his daughter, unheeded, unaided and ignored, had not only become Governess of one of the Inner Provinces but was also the Empire’s foremost physicist. Her father, of course, had died before her moment of triumph, broken by his sons’ failures.
Taking a final, deep breath and looking one last time over the arched skyscrapers of Palmyra Nova off to the east, she launched into her speech. “As you are all aware, the greatness of Rome has spread to all corners of the globe. Our invincible armies sit in a state of boredom as they become less and less relevant. The great expansion that began more than two thousand years ago when this amphitheater was new seems to have ended.”
The audience stirred. They hadn’t come all this way to listen to a political speech.
Tita held up a hand. “I am here to tell you that in a few more months, the great expansion will begin again. New worlds will open for our conquest. And this time, we won’t have to fiddle around with rockets and wormholes.”
She smiled. Needling the space agency was always an enjoyable pastime. All those well-funded rocket scientists from the Han Provinces, with their promises of glory and their endless string of disasters, would become obsolete overnight if she succeeded.
And she would. All they needed was a little help.
Bassam al Aama was in his element. Nothing in the world was quite as satisfying to him as squatting over a shallow trench with a brush in his hand and the secrets of an ancient civilization coming to light as he carefully pushed away layers of dirt. Perfection would have required a hot sun beating on his hat, but the powers that were had decided to erect a tent. He wasn’t happy with the fact that they’d blithely hammered four poles into the ground around a dig, but the main thing bugging him was that he wasn’t working in the open. Archaeology was supposed to be hot and sweaty.
But even that couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm. Who could possibly have imagined that after nearly two hundred years of study, there would be a new discovery here in Palmyra? The Syrian government had immediately sent its best team of archaeologists into the area, had invited teams from France and Italy, and had gotten to work. They were delighted to have the old Roman ruins back in the spotlight. After all, this was Syria’s most important tourist attraction.
“Alia, please come over here,” he called.
His assistant, bent over another section of the grid a couple of meters away straightened, stretched to get the stiffness out of her back and walked over. “Have you found something?” Her eyes flashed with excitement.
“I think so. But I’d like your opinion.” He moved aside to allow her to climb into the trench beside him before pointing toward a flat grey area about ten centimeters square, shining in the reflected sunlight.
“Ceramic?” Alia said.
“It seems to be, but I’ve never seen Roman glazing that looked like that.”
Alia nodded. “Much too shiny, almost translucent.” She knew as well as he did that while glazing had been known to survive intact, the shine they were seeing was extremely unusual. She knelt beside him, and they got back to work.
“Why do we need a linguist?” Aulus Fabius, Liva’s assistant, seemed puzzled as he viewed the hologram showing their meetings for that day.
Livia shrugged. “Do you truly believe that these savages speak Latin? We’ll need someone who can communicate with them. From what we’ve seen, the ones in Palmyra don’t even use the semi-civilized alphabet that the rest of their world uses.” She shuddered. “It isn’t real writing with letters – they use pictograms to represent words. Incredibly inefficient.”
“How far can we trust him? If he’s the one doing the communicating, then he’ll have to know exactly what we need the savages to do in order to open the gateway. Do they even have the technology to do what we need them to do?”
“A small electric current through the key? Of course they do. You’re being silly and underestimating them. Some of the tribes even have nuclear weapons. They might not have had the benefit of Roman leadership, but even the densest people would have developed electricity given more than a thousand years! Anyhow, we can’t just tell them what we’re doing. We need to have someone who understands their language find out more about their culture before we send our message.” Taking months to observe the world they were trying to enter before being able to communicate was frustrating, but necessary. The only way the barbarians would be able to stop them is if they refused to activate the key.
He shook his head. “I know. It’s just that I don’t want to involve anyone else. What if word gets out that we need outside help to open the gateway? Where will we be then? Dishonored and disinherited, that’s where.”
Livia knew that if it hadn’t been for his family connections, A. Fabius would never have been allowed to work on this project. But the Caesar’s nephews, even the illegitimate ones, were due a certain respect. Still, it was hard for her to believe that anyone, participating in one of the world’s greatest scientific endeavors could be thinking such inane thoughts. It was almost insulting. “If we succeed, it doesn’t matter. And if we fail, the linguist will share our disgrace. I don’t think there’s much risk of his mouth opening inconveniently.” Besides, she thought, this man’s loyalty is to my family, and where my fortunes run, so do his. But she kept silent on this point – it was never intelligent to let well-connected assistants have too much information.
A chime announced the linguist’s arrival.
Bassam had refused to consider the idea. The single most unusual find ever made in the Palmyra dig would not be turned over to the western archaeologists unless it was done over his dead body. He didn’t care about the tourist value, didn’t mind the consequences. His team would be the first to study it.
The Minister of Tourism had been angry with the decision, but the Minister of Culture had supported him: a Syrian artifact found by a Syrian team in Syria was to be analyzed locally. If there was anything the foreign teams needed to know, they would be informed. And the defense minister, the one with the true power, had not disagreed – which was better than nothing. For now, the artifact would remain in the dark and dusty halls of the Palmyra museum, less than a mile from where it had been unearthed.
This meant that they had it to themselves.
They’d x-rayed it, weighed it, measured it, scraped it (yet another reason not to let it fall into the hands of overly protective foreigners) and generally studied everything about it over the past few weeks before giving their report to the Minister of Culture.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Bassam admitted. In his experience, it was better to get this kind of thing out of the way early, in order to focus on what he believed was important. In this case, the central mystery surrounding the artifact.
Excitement shone in the minister’s gaze. “Do you mean it’s a significant find? Something that might lead to new theories? Or a confirmation of old ones, or whatever it is that you do?” The minister, like most of his peers, was a military man who had very little actual knowledge of archaeology. The only importance a significant find held in his eyes was as a tool to increase his influence at the expense of other ministers.
“Not exactly. What I’m trying to tell you is that we don’t recognize the material. It isn’t anything we’ve encountered before in any ancient civilization. If it hadn’t been buried in a strata that dates it at nearly two thousand years old, I’d say it was some kind of high-tech ceramic.”
His superior frowned. “High tech in what way? Like it was Greek instead of Roman?”
Bassam ignored the absolute ignorance involved in the question itself and answered what his boss was aiming at. “No. Like it was a ceramic from the heat shield of a space vehicle.”
“Have you analyzed it?”
“I’m an archaeologist. I don’t know anything about modern materials.”
“All right. I’ll send someone over to help. You’d better be right, because I’m going to have to call in a favor to get your expert.” The minister dismissed Bassam with a wave.
“I find it enormously hard to believe that their world functions as well as it does.” Gaius Severus remarked, shaking his head. “While it’s obvious that their social structure is far from perfect and their decentralized governments are completely inefficient, I still admire the fact that they seem to be able to function as a planet with so many languages. Some of them aren’t even based on Latin!”
“Their world doesn’t work all that well. At a glance I’d say they’re running three hundred years behind us technology-wise.” Tita Livia was bored with the conversation. Since most of the team had had no real work to do while Gaius Severus worked on deciphering the language of the Syrians in the parallel reality, they’d taken to using the gateway as a giant looking-glass into the lives of people whose fate, except for a lucky break over fifteen hundred years ago, could have been their own. Imagine growing up in such a chaotic world… a world in which the rationalizing influence of the Empire simply wasn’t present.
“But they should be a thousand years behind – at least! From what I’ve gathered of their history, they actually went backwards, both socially and technologically, for a millennium after Rome was defeated.”
The words ‘Rome was defeated’ seemed science fictional even after months of looking through the portal. Such a thing had been inconceivable even when the Empire consisted of a few hills in central Italy, and had grown more and more impossible as time went on. Tita sighed. “How much longer until we can communicate through the gateway?”
“I’ve got the language nearly down pat. I need to check a couple of cultural references but by next week we should be able to transmit something that is not only intelligible to the other side, but also culturally relevant. I think we’ll convince them.”
“For all our sakes, I hope you’re right.”
Alia fumed. She couldn’t believe that she’d been summarily expelled from the meeting just because she was a woman. No matter what strides Syrian women had made towards emancipation – and she didn’t pretend not to be grateful, since most of the Arab world was much worse – there were still moments when the women were dismissed as fluff. The most galling part of it was that though she respected Bassam’s experience, neither of them had any doubt as to which of the two would eventually become the archaeologist remembered by posterity. She’d already put forth a couple of theories more significant than any he’d ever thought of by himself, explaining the social interaction between lower-class Palmyrans and their Roman and local masters. Theories that, unlike the currently accepted thinking, matched all the evidence and fit with Roman practices in other parts of the Middle East.
Worse yet, the three government ministers locked in with him were probably illiterate. All they knew how to do was drive tanks. Judging by their record in the wars with Israel, they weren’t very good at that, either.
Making it worse was the so-called ‘materials expert’. He’d taken one look at the artifact and proclaimed it ‘just pottery’, but had hung around ever since. He presumably had nothing better to do.
The cleric was the final insult. Even the most moderate among their number felt that women’s rights were an aberration. Her khaki field pants would have offended him greatly.
But there was nothing she could do about it. Despite their limitations, all four of the men outranked her. She stormed through the dusty halls back into her office and dropped hard onto her swivel chair. A single touch on her computer’s mouse brought the screen back to life. An image appeared on the screen, the flowing Arabic lettering perfect, as if drawn by Allah himself.
She glared at it. It was this message, which had appeared unexpectedly on the surface of the artifact they’d found, that had led to the emergency meeting being convened and to her offhand dismissal.
Syrian Brothers, chosen of the prophet Muhammad, we greet you from the world beyond, the Paradise of your forefathers.
It is with great alarm that we have observed the decline of Allah’s faithful at the hand of the infidel. With great sadness, we see that decadence is creeping even as we speak into even the greatest Muslim societies.
We cannot condone what you’ve don’t to yourselves since the days in which all eyes turned to the Muslim world for their science and their healing. For it must be said that you have brought it down upon yourselves. And yet we cannot bear to watch our descendants become nothing but an irritant, a minor problem, on the world stage. Our destiny is to bring the word of the Prophet to all, tirelessly converting the infidel to the love of Allah. For this reason, we have been allowed to give you one gift. The block you have found in Palmyra is a gateway, a gateway to Paradise.
But there is a condition. You must prove your worthiness to possess such a gift. You must activate the gateway before the next full moon. If you do so, an army will come to you. An army the likes of which the world has never known. An army that will bring back all the glory of the past.
From Palmyra, the entire world shall be conquered and once more, you will be allowed to bask in the radiance of true godly light. Life, for you, shall be as it was always meant to be. All you must do to signal your desire to accept our gift is to pass a small electric current of any type through the message box. We shall understand.
Alia shook her head. The message made no sense.
She was a good Muslim, if not too devout and if not particularly enamored of the way Arab society treated women, but she still didn’t get it. The message was obviously some kind of joke. An elaborate one, to be certain, but a joke. Which made it no surprise that the men had taken it perfectly seriously.
And yet there was something vaguely sinister about it. Why would Allah, or the spirits of his followers in Paradise, need for the Syrian people to pass an electric current through the artifact? It was ridiculous. If the message were even remotely genuine, wouldn’t it be sufficient to declare their willingness in a loud voice? Wouldn’t the spirits in paradise be able to hear that as well?
She stormed back to the meeting room and burst through the door. “Don’t do it,” she shouted at the men, who jumped away from their coffee. The cleric spilled a large slosh down the front of his tunic.
Bassam recovered first. The look he gave her was icy. “Alia, what is the meaning of this?”
She refused to back down. “The artifact. There’s something wrong with it. I think it’s a trap. Maybe it’s a bomb.”
One of the men, the one who’d been introduced to her simply as the Defense Minister laughed. “It’s not a bomb. I would have recognized it immediately if it were such.” He turned to Bassam, and smiled, a condescending, paternal gesture. “Don’t be too hard on her, Bassam. She’s young.” Then his eyes twinkled. “And perhaps frightened of having to abandon her western clothing. Don’t worry dear, once the true faith is restored you will find peace.”
“It isn’t that! I think something terrible will happen if you do what the message asks. Think a minute–”
“Alia, that’s enough. Please leave us. We have important matters to discuss and can’t spend any more time with your fantasies.” Bassam’s expression brooked no argument and Alia found herself moving towards the door in spite of herself. In spite of the fact that she knew she was right.
Outside once again, she took a deep breath. And what if she was wrong? What if they were right? What if the army came through the portal on command and the world was allowed to fall into strict Islamic law? Could she survive in some sultan’s harem?
She knew she wouldn’t sleep that night.
Alia couldn’t help noticing that the government, despite its support, was not running the show. They’d shrewdly let the church take center stage. No official communiqué had been made, no invitation to attend. It was obvious that they didn’t want to look like idiots if things went wrong. Or even worse, if nothing happened and everyone just stood in the desert trying to avoid each other’s embarrassed looks.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of people in attendance, bused in from the surrounding villages, and even from Damascus, a long hot journey away. The imam in charge was an old-school type who glared at the tourists, especially the women in their shorts and t-shirts. He ignored Alia, though. Her relatively conservative jeans and the hat she habitually wore out in the sun made her the least objectionable female in the crowd who wasn’t wearing traditional Muslim dress.
Flashes, visible even in the midday glare, popped continuously as the imam placed his holy implements on a specially prepared stone, the flattened yellow base of what had once been a Roman column. The greatest ceremony and prayer were reserved for the rectangular artifact but Alia was amused to see that the battery – a twelve-volt automobile unit held inside a jeweled green box – and even the cables received similar treatment.
The priest spewed a litany of acid predictions about the ascendancy of Islam and the subjugation of the infidel in every corner of the world while the oblivious tourists smiled and took pictures of him. Finally, the blessed message, the blessed battery, and the blessed cables were ready for action. With agonizing slowness, the imam placed each item in its assigned position and connected the cables to the battery, one to each pole.
Alia wished he would get on with it so that whatever was going to happen would just happen and she could get back to her dig. She’d been perfectly ready to miss this particular bit of mumbo-jumbo, but Bassam had insisted that after her outburst at the meeting, it would be much better for her if she went along with the official delegation.
With a final prayer, the cables touched the block.
Nothing much happened. A gust of wind stirred the sand a little further up the road, but that was it.
The imam raised his arms, already in damage-control mode. He wailed a prayer about the unworthiness that kept everyone from receiving Allah’s gift.
Alia snorted, and was about to turn away – she had better things to do with her life than watch the scene become a circus with each faction blaming the other – but something stopped her. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw movement.
In the middle of the road that led from the west, a massive vehicle appeared.
Alia was no expert on military hardware, but she could tell a tank when she saw one even though it looked like no tank she’d ever seen before. It had no tracks, no wheels of any sort and floated, in complete defiance of all natural laws, half a meter above the ground. But there was no mistaking the purpose of the pair of long tines that protruded from the turret.
>to here<Two figures protruded from the top of the tank as it moved soundlessly towards them. Behind it, an identical vehicle appeared, and another. Soon there was a column moving towards the crowd, each vehicle seemingly appearing out of thin air.
The tourists backed nervously away, but the imam moved forward, welcoming the wondrous intervention of God’s legions. He stood before the tank, arms upraised. The figures on the tank ignored him and kept moving forward. The imam held his ground until, with a sudden whooshing sound, he was sucked below the tank and simply disintegrated into red mist, leaving a gruesome splotch on the dry pavement when the vehicle passed.
Panic broke out. The tourists ran for their buses. Some of the soldiers opened fire with their ubiquitous AK-47s, but nothing happened. No retaliation, no effect, not even the pinging of bullets on metal. The people in the tank acted as if the shots weren’t there. The soldiers, seeing this, threw down their weapons and ran.
In moments, the only people remaining were Alia and a group of government ministers.
“Do you think it’s Allah’s aid, as promised?” one of them said.
Another snorted. “Were you watching when it ran over the imam? That man had been selected because he was the holiest, most dedicated person in all of Syria. Would Allah have done that to him?”
“Perhaps, even now, he is in Paradise.” But the rest of the group ignored him
“Those markings on the tank. That isn’t Arabic,” Alia said. She surprised herself by speaking in this company, but no one seemed to mind. They were too frightened.
“What is it?”
“Latin. It says ‘Third Legion of Palmyra’.” Even Bassam looked surprised at that, even though he could read Latin as well as she could.
The vehicles came to a stop ten meters in front of them. Someone began barking at them through some kind of speaker system. A woman’s voice. Unintelligible gibberish in a high-speed delivery. The words flowed over the uncomprehending group.
And all of a sudden Allia could understand what they were saying. It didn’t sound anything like the stiff, formal language she’d learned, and some of the words and grammar were unfamiliar, and she suspected that she was missing most of the technical terms, but it was Latin, and she could understand it.
“… We will give you until noon to answer,” the woman finished.
A man’s voice broke in. “Maybe they don’t speak Latin.”
“Then they’d better learn. They’re going to need it.”
“Should we repeat the message?”
A sigh. “All right. People of the former nation-state of Syria. I am Tita Livia Syriana, governess of Palmyra in the true universe and commandant of the Palmyran Legions. We declare that your former nation-state is now part of the glorious Roman Empire. Rejoice at your fortune. Soon, if you behave, you will qualify for citizenship. Even if you don’t behave, the survivors will be treated humanely until you earn our trust. In order to make the transition as painless as possible, we will allow you to bring us a list of customs you wish to preserve. Otherwise, we will establish Roman law and customs. You have until noon to answer.”
Alia turned towards the confused group of men, mouth already open to tell them what the woman had said. To explain that, if they wanted to save any part of their way of life, they had to make a list immediately. Noon was less than half an hour away.
And then she thought about the customs that would likely be saved, the veiled women, the right of each man to four wives. She thought about the way the woman on the tank spoke. Imperious, commanding.
She said nothing, and the sun inched its way towards the top of the sky.