The harsh white sun and the softer yellow day star shone directly overhead.
Herius Asinius squinted against their combined light, searching for something wrong. Commander of Legion LXXI Draconis, Herius Asinius had a finely honed sense of wrongness.
Saw it. A smudge on the sky way up high among the icy streaks of cirrus clouds. More than one smudge. And they were moving.
Like veils of smoke or torn shreds of netting, they undulated in the lofty winds.
Sheets of the stuff rippled, furled, and spread back out, slowly falling. An edge of a broad sheet slipped, spilled the wind, dipped down quickly, caught the air, and spread itself out yet again.
Lower, closer, the cloudy sheets took on dimension, bigger, peppered, more like a swarm of gnats blowing in from a lake.
The lower they descended the clearer it became that each gnat was a meter wide and haloed in tentacles.
Herius Asinius, on the stone rampart of the Roman fortress, lifted his wrist com, swearing and shouting into it for someone to identify the descending clouds. But he already knew what they were.
Mostly they were called gorgons or, altogether, the Hive, as the gorgons in their countless millions seemed to compose one organized whole. A single vast alien entity characterized by an inexhaustible, indiscriminate capacity to eat organic matter.
And Herius Asinius threatened all ships in orbit with crucifixion for not alerting him to this latest wave's coming.
Someone should have detected the gorgons' distinctive spheres approaching the planet Thaleia before the damn things hit atmosphere.
No one answered from above.
The ships' coms could be out.
Or everyone up there could be dead.
The very first appearance of Hive swarms on Thaleia days ago might be excused as wholly unexpected. The Americans had led Rome to believe that the Hive could not possibly arrive in Near Space for another hundred years.
But gorgons were here, on the Roman planet Thaleia, right now, less than fifty parsecs from Palatine. Been here for days.
Was it only days? How many? Felt closer to an eternity. How time crawls when you are in hell.
And how in bloody hell had more gorgons come to the planet without warning from the lookouts in orbit?
Herius did not care if Rome was desperately short of soldiers, someone was going to die for this.
Someone besides Herius Asinius, who was pretty sure he was not getting out of this alive anyway. Whoever let gorgons approach Thaleia needed to hang on a cross for awhile and have his children killed before his eyes, then get eaten by gorgons.
Herius roared orders to his legionaries as he hefted a beam cannon onto his shoulder, and trained it on those clouds. Fired.
The netted clouds were elusive. The gorgons splayed themselves flat, tentacles fanned wide making themselves into a net of parachutes. Under fire, they split apart into individual parachutes, drifting on the wind. They fell in spidered rain, tipping and dodging, darting in the air currents like minnows. The fortress gunners scribbled the sky with fire. Oh, you hit some, but it was like trying to prevent every drop of rain from touching the ground.
Early in the siege, Legion Draconis had scorched a wide ring of land around the Roman fortress and brought all the residents from the surrounding region inside these stone walls. The burned fields around this place made it unattractive to the ravenous aliens.
Despite all the beam fire from the high ramparts, the rain of gorgons made landfall by the hundreds of thousands in the forested hills beyond the burn area.
The fortress was an ancient style structure, made of local red stone. The buildings within its thick walls were roofed in terra cotta. It was a historical recreation, never meant to serve as a real shelter in Anno Domini 2445. But when the invading aliens caused computerized systems to fail and made automated defenses to turn on their makers, these primitive walls of stone became the place of last refuge.
The monsters continued to fall in the surrounding hills.
The legionaries fired beam cannon until the sky was empty and all was dead quiet on the blackened perimeter.
A flock of green birds came over the hills in a wheeling flock. Alighted on the ramparts, chattering, their double wings flicking.
Herius Asinius lowered his beam cannon from his shoulder. Dropped into a crouch on his heels, let his head hang. His back ached. His soul ached.
He had thought his legionaries were getting ahead of the monsters. Till this. A rain of gorgons.
How in the hell.
Heard footsteps on the catwalk. The sound halted a few paces away from him. "Are you hurt, Domni?"
Herius Asinius shook his bowed head and waved off whoever it was. The footsteps continued along the wall, paused once, fired a single shot over the wall. Walked on. It was a sometime dream of Herius Asinius to be the one to stand between Rome and its most deadly peril. In his dream, however, he had all the resources he needed to win the desperate battle.
Troops in the Deep End -- two thousand parsecs away from here, on the far side of the abyss between galactic arms -- those troops had weapons with which to combat these aliens. Legion Draconis did not. Legion Draconis was equipped to battle conventional enemies in Near Space with modern weapons. Herius Asinius had never been trained in -- or armed for -- combat against gorgons. He felt set up, cheated. A naked slave thrown to the lions.
And he could not run -- take his Legion, withdraw to his ship Horatius, and abandon the planet Thaleia to the predators.
It was unRoman.
It was unthinkable.
Herius Asinius was going to die here.
Sometimes certain death gave soldiers a weird sense of elation. Herius had seen that bouyant fire in the recordings of the last stand of the Roman 10th cohort of the Praetorian Guard at Corindahlor. The famed 300. Their faces damn near glowed. Some of them laughed. And died to a man.
The battle for the bridge at Corindahlor had been a defeat that opened the way to planetary victory. A defeat like Thermopylae, Masada, the Alamo. A defeat that made the 10th immortal.
Herius Asinus was not going down to immortality. His Dracs were just going to be eaten like sixty-four other Legions before his.
He stood up, stared at his own grave, this planet Thaleia.
The enemy was here. Now. And if here on Thaleia, they could be on the Roman capital, Palatine, within the year.
It fell to him to stop them.
It was too late for Herius Asinius to be careful what he wished for.
A voice sounding from his wrist startled him: "Ave, Domni. Vivas tu?" It was his ship's commander, his cousin Marcus.
Lifting his wrist comm to his mouth -- too hurried -- Herius hit himself in the brow with his beam cannon. Stinging, furious, he rasped into the com in Latin, "Yes, I'm still alive, hang you! Where have you been!"
"The gorgons shut down the ship's systems," Marcus returned. "It's true what they say. With mobs of gorgons clustered on the shields, they shut down almost everything. We had to dive into the atmosphere to burn them off. We didn't have enough sharp objects to kill the ones that got on board."
The Americans had told them the only weapons that work against gorgons were fire and a sharp edge, and even a sharp edge wouldn't cut the white ones.
"We set fires to two decks," said Marcus. "O Heri, I messed up your ship."
Herius Asinius touched the rising welt on his forehead. It was bleeding. He had not slept. Anger sapped out of him. Remembered to worry about his younger cousin. "Are you okay?" Herius used the American word okay. Everyone did. Every nation on Earth. Every alien colony of Rome. Everyone knew that okay meant okay.
"I am --" Marcus could not say he was okay. Finished instead, "-- unhurt."
A sudden boom split the quiet with a roar of heated wind. A rumbling vibration rolled through the ground. The noise thundered through everything, pounding.
No Roman ever took to space without sonic filters implanted in his ears, so the sound did not deafen Herius Asinius. But it dropped him into a crouch and knocked a chunk of the stone rampart over the edge.
"What is that!" Marcus' voice shouted from Herius' wrist. "Domni, are you there!"
Herius stood up, turned toward the north where a blazing cloud mounted higher and higher above the horizon. He tried to remember the map of this side of the world. "The Ephesian munitions factory, I think."
Nothing edible in the factory, but masses of gorgons corrupted automated controls. Everything on this world was automated.
That's why we're hiding in this relic.
"Which way are the winds blowing?" Marcus demanded quickly.
"Northerly," said Herius. Away from the fortress. "There's a break."
"That's a first," said Marcus, sour.
Herius nodded. Marcus would know he was nodding. "Before you roasted my ship, Marcus, did you see gorgon spheres on approach?"
"No. There's nothing more coming."
"A million or more just fell."
Marcus was unintelligible for several moments. Finally choked: "Are you in danger!"
"Not immediately. They fell outside the burn area." And on the Ephesian munitions factory apparently. "Are you still blind up there, Marcus?"
"No, Domni. The systems came back on after we burned our gorgons off."
"What do you see coming toward the planet now?"
"Nothing! I didn't see anything before, and I don't see anything now! The Americans never told us gorgons could sneak up like that." Marcus sounded defensive. "They said gorgons travel through space in spheres!"
"There's a lot the Yanks didn't tell us," said Herius, watching the tower of fire in the distance. The gorgons had taken out a munitions factory. Convenient for the Americans.
"Heri? When is the last time you slept?"
Herius Asinius stammered in a fog. Admitted at last, "I'm due. I'm due. I'm overdue."
He would be of no use to anyone if ran himself into the ground.
"I have your sky," said Marcus.
Herius glanced up. A silver glint passed overhead, horizon to horizon. His ship, the mighty Horatius.
"Marcus, check on my tribunes." Herius had split his legion into its ten cohorts to defend the major population centers of Thaleia. Draconis, like most of the modern legions, only numbered 3000 -- ten cohorts of 300 each -- in addition to the crew of the Horatius.
Fortunately Thaleia hadn't much of a population. The Dracs had gathered the citizenry into six refugee centers. Herius had no idea what was happen to them. "The other refugee centers--"
"I've got you, Heri," said Marcus.
Let go, Herius told himself. Herius Asinius never delegated well.
And it was not till dusk that Herius actually dragged himself down the ladder into the fortress. He set out on foot up the via Praetoria toward the center of the 40 acre complex.
Dazed refugees, wrenched from their automated homes, looked quite lost in the open air amid the stone buildings. The whole complex murmured fear, soft crying, a worried tone to all the muted voices.
God or gods, how had it come to this? How did we get treed like scared animals?
It began with the disappearance of a ship. The Sulla. At first few people even knew she was gone. Sulla was about secret business.
And those who knew, kept the secret. Tried to. Rome never advertised its difficulties. The matter was to be handled quietly, done without anyone ever knowing there had been an incident in the Deep.
Rumors of Sulla got out. A shadow tale. A ghost story. The ship that never returned. You could not hear the name Sulla without a spectral cold lifting the hairs up your neck.
What had found Sulla then found more Roman ships. It destroyed warships, exterminated legions, consumed worlds. Crushed the might of the star-spanning Roman empire so that this proud people had to crawl under the heel of their hated enemy, the United States of America, to survive.
Hiding behind stone walls.
On one of the cross streets inside the legionary fortress, a hunched-over young woman, her mouse-colored hair hanging in her mouse-colored eyes, clutched a landing disk to her chest. Herius did not know where she thought she was going with that. Nobody was displacing off this world. No one ever displaced at all without a collar -- and she did not have one.
"Drop it!" Herius barked.
The woman shied behind her mousey hair, quickly set the landing disk down and scurried away. "Pick up a sword!" Herius shouted after her.
Unlikely she would need one. The fortress was a secure place, unattractive to gorgons.
But just in case, his Legionaries had hauled reproduction catapults and ballistae onto the ramparts of the reproduction legionary fortress.
Everyone had heard the stories. If the Hive moves on you, you will be thrown back into the most primitive warfare you can imagine.
The reproduction siege engines were constructed of massive beams of wood -- real wood from imported Earth trees. There was nothing remotely like wood growing native on Thaleia. Those giant stalked spongy, corky, sinewy, rubbery things that sprouted leaves and passed for trees on this world did not make for suitable building material.
However, the native vines' twisted sinews served very well for the ballistae's torsion springs in place of horsehair, and sharpened native ironreeds could serve as projectiles for the ballistae.
Heavy round stones stood stacked next to the catapulta in their historical role. But hurled stones were useless against gorgons. You can't crush a gorgon.
But you could set them on fire. So the Dracs and the refugees had wound strips of native saptrees tight into highly flammable balls, which could be catapulted at gorgons. Pressure operated fire suppressants would keep the operators from torching their own catapults. If it came to that.
It could not come to that, Herius told himself. There was too much vegetation out there for gorgons to bother crossing the fields of ash to get at these stone walls.
This has got to be the safest place in the world.
In the fading double light, the battlements drew a surreal horizon against the alien sky.
Stars appeared quickly, winking behind wispy clouds. Two very bright ones were part of this solar system. MuCygni. The portside wingtip of the Swan as seen from Earth.
Herius Asinius came to the Principia at the center of the fortress. His standards were grounded here, the silver eagle staked beside his Legion colors, the gray dragon on a scarlet ground.
His men had prepared the commander's house for him.
Knew he had to sleep. Real sleep. The jack drugs would only take him so long before the nerve damage started.
The room was fittingly Spartan. A simple fresco of an ancient hunting scene on the walls. A simple mosaic on the floor. A single window.
A pernicious native vine had wedged itself between the window jamb and the sill with the slow force of plants everywhere. All native species of Thaleia were pernicious. Made terraforming difficult. In fact, terraforming had not really happened on Thaleia. Native life trumped the fragile imports.
Life emerged to survive conditions present.
Conditions on Thaleia were pernicious.
Herius did not undress. He stretched out on the plain chaff-stuffed linen pallet, his boots still on. Closed stinging eyes. Lay rigid and twitching.
It was hot. There were no climate controls. Alien smells carried on a thin breeze through the open window. He heard the quiet whirr of the transports. Voices. Footsteps. Loading and unloading. Strange spiraling song of the green birds.
Insectoids, the kind called rotifers, flew in and out of the open window, keeping themselves aloft by means of a single flagellum like tiny copters. Rotifers normally made a humming sound, which became a whine when the creatures felt randy.
The room was filled with whining.
Herius bunched a chaff-stuffed pillow around his ears.
Woke flailing from a sleep he did not remember falling into. The rotifers were in a milling chaos. They bounced off his face. Sounded like tiny buzz saws. Their little copter whip-wings stung.
Crashed into his own aides in the doorway as they came to wake him. Blare of a general alarm filled the fortress.
It was dawn. Maybe. The sky had clouded over during the night.
Beamfire knifed down through the cloud bank and drew a circle around the legionary fortress.
Herius shouted into his com: "Marcus, what are you shooting at! What is happening!"
"Gorgons. They're massing. Looks like a coordinated attack on all refugee centers planetwide. Gorgons have surrounded every one. The numbers are crippling. When they close in, you won't be able to shoot."
"You have got to be --" Herius cut himself off. Kidding? No. "Which way are they coming at us here?"
"All sides. They're massing over the hills. You should be able to see them in the next several minutes. Our last beam salvo had no effect."
Herius knew the gorgons could generate a weak deflection field when formed in a sphere, but never singly on the ground. "How can that be?"
"Heri, you won't believe how much they look like a Roman tortoise right now. And --" Marcus' voice cut off. Herius could hear someone else speaking in the background. Marcus came back on the com, "The ship is under attack."
Herius caught himself about to demand how. If Marcus had seen the attack coming, it would not have happened.
Asked instead: "Any word of reinforcements?"
"No, Domni," Marcus said. His tone said Of course not.
The United States of America, the League of Earth Nations, and most individual member nations of Earth had all promised aide to Thaleia. But they mobilized as fast as any other slug. All the really useful weapons were in the Deep End -- where the gorgons were supposed to be. As for the Roman homeguard, Legion Draconis was it. The Dracs were on their own.
"Marcus, get the ship cleaned off, then assist where you can at your discretion. Valere."
Herius waved down a transport on the via Praetoria. The party of soldiers on board squeezed together to make room for him, caught his arms as he leapt aboard, running. The transport sped to the front gate.
Herius scrambled up the ladder to the rampart in time to see a black mass shroud the dawn hills. He got out the order to open fire just before the coms died.
Beam fire from the ramparts effected nothing, glanced harmlessly off the top of the approaching mass. But beam fire from the ground, aimed at tentacle-level, killed the approaching gorgons.
For a moment it looked as if this would be easy.
Dracs stationed before the gates mowed down row on advancing row. Monsters stumbled over monsters, no end to them. The black sea flooded closer and closer, splashing in the remains of their own dead.
When the burn area was filled with nothing but black bodies and thrashing tentacles, the beam cannon would not fire anymore, and it became difficult to breathe.
Herius Asinius had been told about soldiers suffocating -- or feeling like they were suffocating -- when surrounded by crushing numbers of gorgons.
Herius issued orders for his gunners to fall back inside the fortress.
The massive wooden gates boomed shut. Legionaries took to the ancient weapons on the ramparts.
On the towers were stationed men with crossbows, charged with repelling the enemy from the fortress's most vulnerable part, its edible gates.
Herius prowled the top of the walls, exhorted his men to keep fighting, and keep inhaling and exhaling. The airless sensation is not real.
It felt real as hell.
Flaming balls tore from the catapulta with a screeching hiss and rain of sparks. Plunged into the sea of gorgons.
The monsters fanned in rings, scrambling on top of each other to get away from the flames. And kept coming.
Storms of crossbow bolts, flaming arrows, javelins, spears and fragmentation grenades rained from the stone walls.
Odor of burning lead drifted in foul clouds. The legionaries had cauldrons of the stuff bubbling ready on the ramparts should the gorgons make it to the walls.
And they would.
We cannot win like this. . . .
Order THE SAGITTARIUS COMMAND from