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Ben Bova – Orion and the Conqueror

Prologue

In the timeless city beneath the golden energy dome, Anya healed me of my wounds, both physical and spiritual. The other Creators left us alone in that empty mausoleum of a city, alone among the temples and monuments that the Creators had built for themselves.

My burns healed quickly. The gulf between us caused by her seeming betrayal, less so. I realized that Anya had had to make me think she had abandoned me; otherwise Set would have seen her trap when he probed my mind. Yet the pain was still there, the awful memory of feeling deserted. As the days quietly passed and the nights, the love we felt for each other slowly began to bridge even that gap.

Anya and I stood on the outskirts of the city before the massive bulk of the enormous Pyramid of Khufu, its dazzling white coat of polished limestone gleaming gloriously in the morning light, the great Eye of Amon just starting to form as the sun moved across the sky toward the position that created the shadow-sculpture.

I felt restless. Even though we had the entire empty city to ourselves I could not overcome the uncomfortable feeling that we were not truly alone. The other Creators might be scattered across the universes, striving to maintain the spacetime continuum that they themselves had unwittingly unravelled, yet I had the prickly sensation in the back of my neck that told me we were being watched.

“You are not happy here,” Anya said as we walked unhurriedly around the base of the huge, massive pyramid. I had to admit she was right.

“It was better when we were back in the forest of Paradise.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “I liked it there, too, even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.”

“We could go back there.”

She smiled at me. “Is that what you wish?”

Before I could answer a shimmering sphere of glowing gold appeared before us, hovering a few inches above the polished stone slabs that made up the walkway around the pyramid’s base. The globe touched lightly on the paving, then contracted to form the human shape of Aten, dressed in a splendid military tunic of metallic gold with a high choker collar and epaulets bearing a sunburst insignia.

“Surely you’re not thinking of retiring, Orion,” he said, his tone just a shade less mocking than usual, his smile radiating more scorn than warmth.

Turning to Anya, he added, “And you, dearest companion, have responsibilities that cannot be avoided.”

Anya moved closer to me. “I am not your ‘dearest companion,’ Aten. And if Orion and I want to spend some time alone in a different era, what is that to you?”

“There is work to be done,” he said, the smile fading, his tone more serious.

He was jealous of me, I realized. Jealous of the love that Anya and I shared.

Then the old smug cynicism came back into his face. He cocked a golden eyebrow at me. “Jealous?” He read my thoughts. “How can a god be jealous of a creature? Don’t be ridiculous, Orion.”

“Haven’t I done enough for you?” I growled. “Haven’t I earned a rest?”

“No. And no. My fellow Creators tell me that you have grown much like us in your powers and wisdom. They congratulate me on producing such a useful… creature.”

He was going to say “toy” until he noticed my fists clenching.

“Well, Orion,” he went on, “if you are going to assume godlike powers then you must be prepared to shoulder godlike responsibilities, just like the rest of us.”

“You told me that I was your creature, a tool to be used as you see fit.”

He shrugged, glancing at Anya. “It comes out to the same thing. Either you bear responsibilities like the rest of us or you obey my commands. Take your choice.”

Anya put her hand on my shoulder. “You have the right to refuse him, my love. You have earned that right.”

Smirking, Aten replied, “Perhaps so. But you, goddess, cannot evade your responsibilities. No more than I can.”

“The continuum can struggle along without me for a while,” she said, almost as haughty as Aten himself.

“No, it can’t.” Suddenly he was utterly serious. “The crisis is real and urgent. The conflict has spread across the stars and threatens the entire galaxy now.”

Anya paled. She turned her fathomless silver-gray eyes to me, and I saw real pain in them.

I knew that we could escape to Paradise if we wanted to. To those who can control time, what matter days or years or even centuries spent in one era or another? We could always return to this exact point in spacetime, this individual nexus in the continuum. The crisis that Aten feared would still be waiting for us.

Yet how could we be happy, knowing that our time in Paradise was limited? Even if we remained there for a thousand years, the task awaiting us would loom in our minds like the edge of a cliff, like a sword hanging over our heads.

Before Anya could reply I said, “Paradise will have to wait, won’t it?”

She nodded sadly. “Yes, my love. Paradise will have to wait.”

BOOK I — MERCENARY

War therefore is an act of violence

intended to compel our opponent

to fulfil our will…. War is a mere

continuation of policy by other means.

CHAPTER 1

Their tread was like the pacing of a giant, some ten thousand men marching in perfect unison, making the air quiver and the ground shake with the weight of each booted step.

They were coming straight toward us, the heavy long sarissas of their front ranks pointed at our eyes, those in the rear still held upright. It looked like a forest of spears advancing upon us.

“Steady,” yelled our phalanx commander. “Let them tire themselves out marching toward us. Hold your places.”

We stood at the crest of a modest rise in the stony, bare ground. Hardly a blade of grass was growing here. The morning sun was already hot, the sky so bright it almost hurt to look at it. On the other side of the rocky hills before us stood the besieged city of Perinthos; we were here to lift the siege.

I was in the tenth rank of our twelve-deep phalanx, on the right end of the row, with no man’s shield to protect my right side. The officers were up front, of course, except for the quarter-file and end-file commanders, who had stationed themselves on the left ends of their ranks. I was bigger than most of the other hoplites and could handle a twelve-foot spear easily. But the army we faced had those sixteen-foot-long sarissas and a reputation for winning their battles.

Their right wing was the heavy one, as usual. At least sixteen ranks deep; it was hard to tell because they were kicking up a fair amount of dust as they advanced across the open ground toward us. Behind them and to our left, off by the scrawny trees that dotted the hillside, I could see their cavalry shuffling nervously, waiting for the order to strike. We had no cavalry, and I feared that once the fighting began the Perinthians’ own hoplites would quickly turn tail, leaving us to be butchered. They were civilians, after all, citizens of the city we had been hired to help protect. I doubted that they could stand up before the professional army advancing upon us.

“Steady,” our commander repeated. He was a tough old vulture, his bronze breastplate and shield dulled and dented from many a battle, his arms covered with white puckered scars. Diopeithes, the leader of our mercenary band, was mounted on a lovely white steed well to the rear, ready to run all the way back to Athens if the going got bad. He was more of an opportunist than a soldier; I doubted that he had ever led his men against trained professional troops.

I worked a finger through the chin strap of my helmet. I was sweating, and not merely from the hot morning sun. We were professional soldiers, mercenaries, but we were badly outnumbered and forced to fight at a time and place of the enemy’s choosing. The politicians of Perinthos may have known how to govern their city, but they made poor generals. Their biggest mistake was to expect that Athens would fight for them. The Athenians had not even paid Diopeithes; or so he told us. We were forced to live off the land, which hardly pleased the Perinthians we were supposed to be defending.

The distance between our spear points and theirs was shrinking steadily. Our commander stepped out in front of the phalanx and bellowed, “On my word—forward!”

We started marching toward the advancing enemy, each one of us stepping out with his left foot, spears levelled, shields raised. I felt exposed on the right end of our rank, with no shield to protect my right side, though I knew I could take care of myself once the fighting started. Yet, as I marched in step toward the advancing enemy, my thoughts churning, I found I could remember nothing about the battles I had fought. Nothing at all. My brows knit in puzzlement. My memory was as blank as a newborn baby’s. I could remember nothing earlier than a few hours ago, when we had picked up our weapons and formed our ranks.

This was no time for soul-searching. Skirmishers appeared from behind the files of the advancing phalanx, firing arrows into us, pelting us with stones and javelins. Someone screamed and went down with an arrow in his neck. A fist-sized stone banged off my shield. They wanted us to raise our shields against their missiles, or, better yet, break ranks. Then their phalanx would hit us at the run and shatter us completely. We were trained to ignore the skirmishers and close ranks whenever a man went down. I knew that but I could not remember when or where I had learned it.

Their cavalry off in the woods started to move. Horsemen could never attack a solid phalanx; our spears were like the spines of a hedgehog, and the horses shied away no matter how much their riders urged them. But cavalry could swing around our flank and attack us in the rear. And once a phalanx is broken the cavalry enjoys riding down individual soldiers. More men are slaughtered in the flight after the battle than during the battle itself.

The skirmishers melted away like the annoying insects they were. The bare stony ground between us and the enemy was shrinking rapidly. Our pace quickened. So did theirs. Trumpets on both sides blared and we yelled as loud as we could and broke into a run and the two phalanxes smashed into each other with a thunderous bloodthirsty roar and the screeching, clanging, terrifying clamor of iron spearpoints against shields and bronze breastplates—and flesh.

The world seemed to slow down for me. Time stretched out like an elastic ribbon. Everyone around me began to move in sluggish, torpid slow motion, as if they were all underwater or in a labored blood-soaked dream. I saw the men in our front ranks go down under those sixteen-foot-long sarissas, skewered or pummelled or just shocked off their feet before their own spears could reach the enemy soldiers. Men were trampled underfoot as the two phalanxes ground into each other, each still advancing despite the shredding of our front ranks. Spears snapped, men howled with anger or pain or blood-lust, shields split apart under the tremendous impact of collision.

I reached over the men in front of me and drove my spear into one of the enemy hoplites. I saw him raise his shield as my point came toward him so I hooked the edge of his shield with the rear barb of my point, jerked the shield aside, then rammed the point into his throat. He looked surprised and then his gushing blood spattered me as he began to fall and I wrenched the spear point free.

Our front ranks had collapsed under the enemy’s impact and I was suddenly shield-to-shield with them, shoving and struggling, pushing against the men in front of me as I jabbed with my spear. It was too long for this close-in work and out of the corner of my eye I saw their skirmishers sneaking around our right flank, firing arrows and javelins into our exposed side.

I ducked an arrow as it flew in lazy slow-motion toward me, then rammed my spear through the shield and breastplate and body of a hoplite. The battle was becoming a chaos of screaming, bloodied, falling men; all order gone among our side. My rank was being shredded by the enemy. I saw a javelin coming at me. Leaving my spear in the falling body of the man I had skewered, I batted the lighter javelin aside and then reached for my sword before the two hoplites in front of me could react in their dream-like slow motion. I cut them both down but there were more of them moving with mechanical discipline, spearing, stabbing, using their shields to knock men off balance, moving forward in an unstoppable tide.

There were too many of them and they were too well led, too disciplined, for us to overcome. My fellow mercenaries fought well, but we were clearly outmatched. We did not turn and run because we knew that would be sure death. But we were cut off from the Perinthian citizen troops, separated from what remained of their phalanx and driven backward across the field toward the trees. Sure enough, the Perinthians broke and fled. And, even surer, the enemy’s cavalry came thundering out of the woods, shrilling their exultant battle cries, and started to cut them down without mercy. The cavalry leader could not have been more than a boy, golden hair streaming in the wind as he bent eagerly over the mane of his magnificent black charger, sword held high and eyes intent on the fleeing men who had foolishly thrown down their shields and helmets in their frenzy to escape.

There was hardly more than a handful of us left as we retreated slowly, grudgingly, up the slight slope toward the trees. Our phalanx had been slashed to ribbons; there were only a few knots of individual men fighting now. Still, everything seemed to be moving as slowly as a beetle trapped in honey. Sword in hand, I could see the moves my enemies were going to make by the shifting of their eyes, the knotting of muscles in their legs or arms. I ducked under one of the long sarissas and drove my sword point through the man’s leather cuirass into his belly. He shrieked and I wrenched his long spear from him with my left hand.

And saw that I was alone now, my back to a tree, sarissa in one hand and sword in the other. A dozen wary soldiers ringed around me, eyes ablaze, armor smeared with blood, watching me, waiting for an opening. Most of them had lost their sarissas and were gripping swords. They were veteran troops; they intended to take no chances against a man who had killed so many of their own. But they were not going to let me escape them, either. The best I could hope for was to take as many of them down with me as I could before they finally did me in. Then I saw one of them signalling to a handful of archers. They were going to take no risks at all.

“Hold!” called a gruff-voiced man on horseback. He rode up and stopped at the edge of the ring facing me. His armor was white with gold filigree, but caked now with dust. His helmet was topped with a white horsehair plume, and he had unfastened the cheek flaps so I could see his face. A bristling black beard, streaked with what looked like crusted blood on one side. Then I saw that he had lost the eye on that side of his face long ago. It was half closed, and beneath its drooping lid I could see the blank whiteness of dead flesh.

He was obviously one of their generals. The men backed away from me slightly, but none of them lowered their weapons. Another general rode up and I realized that both of them were mounted on powerful chestnut brown horses, but had neither saddles nor stirrups, only a pad that seemed to be made of layers of blankets.

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