My second short story. I wrote it, or better said, translated from Slovak, for Fantázia Award 2021. It’s not a classical sci-fi or fantasy. I would define it as belonging to surrealism or fantastic realism genre. Read and see yourself.
„Ave Caesar!“ lined-up legionnaires enthusiastically greeted their commander.
„Avete Milites!“ returns Julius Caesar.
The battle began. Gauls proved to be strong opponents. I am a centurion, leading my troops into attack. In the heat of battle, I did not notice the Gallic warrior that came dangerously close. His sword hits the left side of my neck. I’m dying for Rome, for Caesar.
Today falls on the Ides of March. Eighty years ago, before my birth, the Dictator was assassinated in the Senate. That’s how it all started. The surname Caesar, which I inherited, comes from him. My adoptive father, Octavian Augustus, persecuted the murderers of his adoptive father and eventually became the sole ruler of Rome.
I never longed for power or titles. After Augustus‘ death, the Senate gave me the title of Pater Patriae, the father of the motherland. I rejected it so categorically, that it became a farce. I just wanted the Senate and the people of Rome to self-govern our city and its subordinate territories. Without the orders of dictators and Caesars. As the SPQR, proudly inscripted on our legions’ standards, claims. Senatus Populusque Romanus – Senate and the People of the Rome.
„Ave Caesar!“ commander of the guard entered my room.
„Ave Centurio!“ I greet him as I pick up the scroll.
News from Rome. I haven’t been there for eleven years. Few times I found myself at its gates, but I always came back, disgusted by the mud of betrayal and intrigue that reigned there. I returned to my beloved island of Capreae, where I feel as free as I did at the time of my voluntary exile on the island of Rhodes, during the rule of Octavian.
Treachery is the main reason, why I will no longer be able to bring back to life the time when the government of Rome functioned as Res Publica. Citizens and senators are unable and not willing to take their destiny into their own hands, after almost a century of one-man dictatorships.
I am especially disappointed by the fact, that I was betrayed by my closest friend, to whom I gave great power, Lucius Aelius Seianus. I made him commander of the Cohortes Praetoriae, the Praetorian Guard, intended to protect the Caesar himself. I also allowed him to share my rule as a consul.
Sejanus completely abused powers entrusted to him. On my behalf, by intrigue and force, he was slowly and with assurance liquidating his opponents. His charm, which helped him seduce many senators’ wives, secured him a long period of impunity. I finally got to know his crimes. I was horrified to find, that he was also behind the death of my beloved son Drusus, who was to become my heir. The traitor started an affair with Drusus‘ wife – Livilla. He promised her a future marriage and she poisoned her husband.
Greek astrologers claim that my revenge was so harsh because I was born on the day when the sign of Scorpio ruled the heavens. Not only Sejanus but his whole family and all his well-known sympathizers ended up on the scaffold.
I don’t know what astonished me more. Was it the fact, that the people of Rome celebrated with such joy the killing of people they had only recently praised? Or the aspect, that my subordinates kill, those I identified, with such obedience and without grumbling?
Yet, the greatest crime of Sejanus was not that he intrigued against me. In his quest for dominance, he deprived Rome of all my capable successors. Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus will become next Imperator. He is better known by his childhood nickname, „little boot” – Caligula. A darling of the crowd and at the same time an irresponsible, unsettled young man. The three billion sesterces in the treasury will certainly not last long for the new ruler.
My end is near. The disease forced me to stop here, in a villa in the port city of Misenum. What awaits me after death? Will I sail the river Styx? Or will the teachings of the recent Jewish prophet be fulfilled? Pontius Pilatus wrote about him from Iudea. They say, he has risen from the dead after the crucifixion on the third day.
I do not expect that history will be merciful to me. Under the command of Octavian Augustus, I led many legions and won numerous battles. I protected all the borders of Rome, from distant Armenia in the east to the deep forests of Germania in the west. In the north, I almost managed to defeat the Marcomanni and Quadi tribes, but I had to go to suppress the uprising in Illyria. I still remember those cold nights at Carnuntum, near the majestic Danubius River.
Still, during my reign, I did not spread the influence and glory of Rome by any war. Instead of soldiers, I relied on diplomats. I did not spend Romans‘ money on nonsense. However, the memory of the people is too short-termed. Only the bitterness of the last years of my rule will remain in it, when my mind has been overwhelmed by the desire for revenge.
I will probably have to read Pilate’s letters once again. Perhaps, they’ll better prepare me for a journey from which there is no return. The Jew, whom they executed for rebelling against their priests, was said to have been buried with coins covering his eyes. They bore my name written in Greek. TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC.
We knew it would happen. We overthrew Furtius, the king who was a friend of the Romans, and chose his rival, Ariogaes. Romans promised a thousand pieces of gold for the capture of our new king or five hundred pieces to anyone who would kill him and bring his head. None of us betrayed. They had to come for the king themselves. The legions have crossed the Danube and approached us through the valley of the Gran River.
Last year, our Quadi tribe almost defeated them. They were already surrounded by us, even with their emperor, exhausted by the heat and thirst. A sudden rain saved them. It is said that their priests prayed to the old gods and the soldiers to the new prophet from the land of the Jews. We don’t know which of them was stronger than our Wuotan.
I hate those who came from Rome. I am repulsed by their arrogance. Wherever they come, they require the payment of taxes and our men must serve in their armies. Therefore, I throw myself into the fight with courage and enthusiasm. The Roman formation has already disintegrated, we are fighting man against man. I slip and the legionary digs his gladius in the left side of my neck. My fading sight rests on bearded horse-rider dressed in purple. Roman emperor. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus.
I carry myself proudly through the center of Neusohl Town. Wends from the surrounding villages call it Byztherze. A few years ago, we came here, to the Upper Hungary, to this town on the river Gran, from Saxony. After the Tartar invasions the country remained depopulated and a skilled blacksmith, which my husband definitely is, caught on very quickly in the mining city. We are free burghers, we are not subject to any local lord, only the king is above us. He invited us here.
Although there are still a few weeks until St. Johann’s Day, it is a very warm day. I put on my shortest skirt. They definitely would not let me wear it in the church on Sunday. It reveals the ankles and sometimes even a knee appears when I walk faster. The local women greet me respectfully, but at the same time they enviously stare at my almost bare calves.
I’m walking around the pub. I can feel a strange look from behind. I turn sharply. The fat monk quickly moves his sight to his beer mug. Although I enjoy the interest of other men, even those who have dedicated themselves to God, I would never cheat on my handsome blacksmith. Maybe I’ll shorten the skirt a bit more. Let it make those matrons green with envy.
The winter in the mountains of Upper Hungary is harsh. My husband died in a mining accident and I was expelled from the town. They said that my behavior provoked in men thoughts of fornication. I regret that not even the priest opposed this. The sensible man who took part in the crusade and in Constantinople read the book of the pagan Roman emperor. His name was said to be Marcus Aurelius. He often quoted from it in sermons. The cold that is slowly killing me threw one of those wise sentences into my head: “Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.”
„You are sentenced to death for refusing to obey an order and thus betraying the Reich, as well as the Fuehrer himself!“
The morning sun is reflected in the silver skull on the cap of the president of the court-martial with the rank of Sturmbannfuehrer of Waffen-SS. I wear the same skull, but the lemon-yellow edging of my shoulder marks show that I belong to the Nachrichtentruppe – Communication Troops.
I was not a rebel. I have always tried to honestly follow the orders of my superiors. When I first heard the Fuehrer’s speech, still in my native Saxony, I believed him. He said that Jewish bankers are to blame for the Germany destroyed by hyperinflation. He spoke about the dangers of Bolshevism. He stressed the fact that the Germans are destined to save the world.
The first radios that appeared in Germany during my childhood captivated me. A small box, with mysteriously glowing tubes, from which the voices of distant people could be heard. I have greedily read all the books that have been published about this new miracle of technology. The culmination of my efforts was my first hand-made radio receiver.
My knowledge of radio engineering led me to the Communication Troops. I built antennas, laid telephone lines, sent encrypted messages in Morse code to the other end of the Europe. But it was no longer possible to listen to the voices of distant lands. The tuning of a foreign station was punishable by death. Only the speeches of the Fuehrer and the dramatic music of Richard Wagner could be heard on the German radio stations.
The fifth year of the war is coming to an end. Germany is pushed from both east and west. Soviet troops entered Poland. As enemies, not as our allies, then, at the very beginning of the war. In the west, British and Americans landed in Normandy. At this critical time for Germany, an uprising broke out in the country of our vassal.
The regular army was not able to suppress the rebellion. That’s why they sent us, Waffen-SS, here. From the south, along the Gran River, we fought our way to the center of the revolt, to the town of Neusohl. Slovaks call it Banská Bystrica.
The rebels were defeated. Our soldiers were decorated by the Slovak president on the main square in the heart of the uprising. Only isolated centers of resistance, partisans and their helpers, remained. There was a shortage of troops, the Western and Eastern Fronts required reinforcements, and non-combat forces had to be involved in „cleansing“ operations. So did we, the signalmen.
That’s why I am standing here now. Like a traitor, in the front of aimed rifles.
I never had a problem to shoot at an enemy that directly threatened me. I was trained that way. But these people were not armed opponents. Not even fat Jewish bankers or Bolshevik tyrants. Just ordinary villagers who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I refused to carry out the order.
The execution squad unlocked their weapons.
In an instant a quote from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which we translated into German at the Grammar school, came to my mind: “Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good!”
Volley fire has ended my last morning.
A lone McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II skims over a carpet of the Vietnamese jungle. We are flying in low altitude to avoid detection by enemy. We have successfully completed our mission. Its target, the North Vietnamese radar, is in ruins and will no longer threaten our airplanes. We’re returning to our aircraft carrier.
Our plane is a two-seater, I’m sitting in the back. We are in the Navy and my function is therefore called the Radar Intercept Officer. In the Air Force, a Weapon Systems Officer would be sitting in my chair. This bureaucratic raillery between different services has always made me laugh. In both cases, it is necessary to manage the radar and weapon systems.
George is sitting in the front. He is a pilot and would be pilot in the Air Force as well. The creativity of bureaucrats has reached its limits here. He came from Kansas, where he flew in a family company with a crop duster before joining the Navy. We often tease each other; I call him a “Redneck” and he calls me a „Jew from Brooklyn.“
I’ve been always fascinated by technology. Behind my control panel I feel like my teenage hero, engineer Scotty from Star Trek. My father fought in Europe the Nazis, who sought to exterminate all people of our faith. I struggle in Asia against the spread of communist totalitarianism. I’m a proud American. Neil Armstrong’s famous words, about a small step for man and a big leap for mankind, almost brought me to tears last summer. Just a few months ago, an equally thrilling show took place to rescue the Apollo 13 crew.
A flashing dot on the radar screen caught my attention.
„We have a visitor,“ I warn George through the intercom, „three o’ clock, probably Fishbead.“
Fishbead is the code word for the MiG-21, the most advanced aircraft of the North Vietnamese Air Force. An incredibly ugly machine. It looks like a thick, shredded pencil, tucked into an empty toilet paper roll and attached to a balalaika. The front of this aircraft resembles a penis after circumcision, I add a piece of Jewish humor. But it is a dangerous adversary.
We are not in an ideal situation for battle. Most of our armament consisted of AGM-78 anti-radar missiles, which we used to destroy the target of our mission.
The Vietnamese has not noticed us yet, reflections from the vegetation protected us from his radar.
„Let’s go into it!“ commands George. As a pilot he’s my superior.
Through the pressure in my buttocks, I feel that we are turning to the right to have the enemy directly in the front of us. I switch the radar into tracking mode. I’m waiting for the target lock indicator.
„Fox One!“ I use the proper code word to announce the launch of a radar-guided AIM-7 missile.
The rocket ignited its engine, but instead at target, it headed down, among the densely growing trees. The unreliability of „sparrows“ was a well-known thing among aviators.
The MiG pilot has noticed us. Afterburner flames appeared behind his outlets. Gentle shaking of our machine confirms to me that George threw away external fuel tanks. Even without them, we are about twice as heavy as the MiG-21, not for nothing is our aircraft nicknamed the „Lead Sled“ or „Flying Brick“.
G-force is pushing me into the seat. It indicates that George is trying to get us, using afterburner, to a higher altitude as quickly as possible. There is simply not enough room for maneuvers few feet above the jungle.
„Atoll at six o’clock!“ I shout hysterically into the microphone.
The Soviet K-13, for which we use the code designation AA-2 „Atoll“, is an excellent heat-guided missile. It is a Russian clone of our „Sidewinder“. The copy is so verbatim, that components can be exchanged between Russian and American missiles.
George directed us to the setting sun. It shines in the infrared spectrum much stronger than our engines and the enemy rocket was willing to choose it.
A Vietnamese plane got in front of us. Typical growl in the headphones confirmed that our infrared-homed AIM-9 locked on hot engine of a machine made in Russia.
„Fox Two!“ I hear the appropriate code word for a heat-guided missile as George fired both of our Sidewinders at the MiG. Even in Vietnam, they now know what the American original looks like.
However, the Vietnamese, piloting the MiG, was no amateur. He mastered the missile avoidance tactics perfectly. Using a loop, he changed the direction of flight sharply and his hot exhaust disappeared from the field of view of our missiles. The lighter, more agile design of the MiG-21 made it possible. Suddenly he appeared behind us and fired his last R-13. The missile successfully found the nozzles of our engine. We didn’t have time to eject.
Just before my body was destroyed by a blast wave, sentences flew through my mind. They were from a book by Marcus Aurelius, which I have always had at bed since I was a child: “Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.”
A hot day had undressed women into miniskirts. I’m sitting on the terrace of a café on the banks of the Danube River, sipping large Caffè Americano and enjoying the natural beauty of half-exposed bodies. It is a pity that it is not possible to sit near Hron River in my birthplace – Banská Bystrica.
I remember watching all my favorite movies again last weekend. „Apollo 13„, a tragedy with a happy ending, where one incorrectly designed component thwarted the journey of American astronauts to the Moon. „The Final Countdown“, about a modern American aircraft carrier that goes back in time, just before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Time travel and thinking about time as an illusion have always attracted me.
However, the icing on the cake of my love for films are „Radio days“. Here, Woody Allen shows the fate of a Jewish family from New York at the turn of the 1930s and 1940s, when radio became an essential part of life and culture. I don’t know, why the atmosphere of this film fascinates me so much. Perhaps is it the detail, that everything revolves around the old radios, which I have admired since my childhood. My only visit to the USA was to the city where this story takes place. While walking on the Brooklyn Bridge, I had a strange feeling of déjà-vu.
I notice the massive flow of Danube River that formed the border of the Roman Empire, the Nazi Third Reich and the Communist Iron Curtain. A few tens of kilometers upstream is Carnuntum, a Roman military camp from where Tiberius set out on his military expeditions against the Germanic tribes of Marcomanni and Quadi, living in the territory of today’s Slovakia.
Some historical sources even claim that at the beginning of our era, the name Carnuntum referred to the settlement of Bratislava, and the Roman legions, led by a man who later became the Roman emperor, camped on place where I sit now. Nearby, on the shores of Lake Neusiedl, was also born Teodorich the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, who ruled in Italy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Longobards, who took over Rome from the Ostrogoths, had also lived here, in region that is now Slovakia.
A little further upstream is Vienna, the former Roman city of Vindobona. Place of death of Marcus Aurelius, who began to write his most famous work Meditations when camped in the territory of today’s Slovakia during the war with Quadi tribe.
Caffeine in the veins and the thoughts of being on place where history was made are speeding up my mind. I touch the birthmark on the left side of my neck, exactly there where I might be hit by an ancient warrior holding a sword in his right hand. Eternal questions start to swirl in my head.
Are our desires, fears, preferences and birthplaces influenced by what we have experienced in other times and existences?
Do we play the role of Juliet once and of Romeo other time in the Theater of Life to get to know both sides?
Are we the Capulets once and the Montagues another time, until we understand that there is no difference between us?
Are we born both as dictators and as their more or less obedient servants, to find that it is not morally justifiable to blame only the orders of superiors?
Are we returning to the „crime scene“, where we have previously lived?
Is the Matrix of this reality just a school to teach us to respect other beings?
The words of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, which he wrote down when he camped by the Hron River, resonate in me: “All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to one universe.”
A female student in her twenties, with beautiful legs, notices my gaze. She turns abruptly. Her expression clearly signals: „Don’t stare at me, pervert!“
This is a review by Lívia Hlavačková (technically, name of the narrative is not mentioned here, but this assessment most accurately describes plot of my story):
“The third one consisted of snippets of texts that slid through centuries of European history without apparent connection. Maybe the writer relied on my detailed knowledge of history and expected me to figure it out? But while I agree we should never underestimate the reader, it is the job of the author to narrate a story. That is to make some connections for the reader. The story had very nice language use and some bits were quite intriguing. It was probably an experiment. If so, another piece of advice for beginner writers – don’t enter competitions with experiments unless you’re 100% sure you can pull it off.”
Well, as an author I definitely agree, that my story is an experiment. All my “literary work” is an experiment. On the other hand, I think that there is a connection between “snippets”. The link is not typical, because “hero” or “heroes” is/are playing its/their part in different times and „bodies“. In the end, however, there is only one character.