Rings of Saturn: Part 4 – Aug. 11-12, 79

Rings of SaturnTraveling with Marcus made Evie feel like her feet might fall off at the end of the day. He roused everyone before dawn and got them into a marching file, and they walked until the sun reached its zenith. They’d stop for a bit of wine, bread, and cheese, and then march some more. Marcus might not be an actual soldier, but Evie sure felt like she was in the army. Whenever they passed villages or other cities, Marcus would send a man or two ahead to scout the area and buy more provisions when necessary.

“I have to admit,” Evie said as they approached Naples, “he’s efficient.”

Tatius had not enjoyed the last four days. Despite his lanky build, he was slow on the road. He liked to say it was the mule slowing him down, that the beast was stubborn, but that excuse was dashed to bits when one of Marcus’s men took the rope and the mule matched the man’s pace. Since then, Marcus had taken to prodding Tatius verbally and physically. He walked by now, jabbing the farmhand in the back with the butt of his spear. “I’m going as fast as I can,” Tatius said.

“Not fast enough. Something tells me those symbols won’t last forever.”

“What does that mean?” Evie asked. Marcus didn’t answer, but set his jaw and stared forward. She stopped. “What do you mean by that? That I won’t be able to get back home?”

Marcus stopped and looked back at them. “Keep moving.”

“Not until you answer me. I didn’t know these things,” Evie held up my arm, “have an expiration date.”

“I don’t know how long they’ll last. But quests aren’t meant to be delayed. I don’t know why you even let this boy stay with us; he’s slowing us down. Slowing you down. Campania is still another day away–two if he doesn’t pick up his feet.”

“I’ve been traveling ten days already,” Tatius said.

Evie shifted her weight. “I keep him around because it’s his master’s mule. Besides, neither of us are used to walking so much in a day. Where I come from, we have–” She stopped, because she didn’t know how to describe subways and taxicabs to a Roman bandit dressed as a soldier. “This isn’t your quest, Marcus. It’s mine. I’ve hired you and the coin I gave you should be enough to pay for an extra day. Quit giving Tatius a hard time.”

Marcus shook his head. “The priestesses. Far as I’m taking you.”

“Right. Just like we agreed.”

The rest of the day, and half of the next, passed with more marching, though Marcus was gentler to Tatius. He only told him to walk faster instead of happing at him with the blunt end of his weapon. As they approached the city, Evie quieted.

“Are you frightened?” Tatius asked.

“I don’t know. I’m sure if there is some quest to fulfill, it’ll require more than walking from north of Rome to Campania. What if–what if I can’t do it, and I never get to go home again?”

“That may happen, but the gods will perhaps take into account that you tried. Well, Saturn probably wouldn’t.”

“Tatius.”

“I’m only mean that he’s rather stern, isn’t he?”

“Tatius! That’s not helping.”

“Sorry. Will you–” He adjusted his grip on the mule’s rope. “Will you send word to Publius Sepunius Columella either way?”

Evie stopped and turned toward him, mouth hanging open. “Tatius, are you worried about me?”

Tatius stopped too and looked up at the sky. Not a single cloud drifted by to distract him. “I–only because my master was concerned. And setting off as we did without the time to make a sacrifice or consult the augurs…”

Evie placed her hand on Tatius’s forearm. “I will send word if I can but I probably won’t be able to. I don’t know what’s coming and if given the opportunity to go home, I have to take it. Tatius, I don’t belong here. You didn’t see–didn’t see what I looked like when I arrived.”

“I know my master had to bring you clothes. You only know about some of our gods. Your accent is all wrong and you don’t know where some of the small villages are between the larger cities. I know you’re an outsider, but I don’t know from where.”

Or when, Evie thought. “Right. So I have to go back the moment the priestesses give me the chance–or I might lose it.”

Tatius hung his head. “I understand. Publius Sepunius Calumella will be disappointed.”

“And you?”

Tatius lifted one corner of his mouth to smile. “I haven’t got much of a choice. Just bring the mule here, bring the mule back. Probably won’t even make it back alive.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard you tell a joke. You shouldn’t. It’s weird, Tatius.” Evie smiled to him though.

“Are you two finished? The priestesses won’t wait forever,” Marcus said.

After Tatius left with the mule, Evie followed Marcus into Campania proper. It was more beautiful than anything she’d ever imagined, but somehow she knew it fulfilled every part of a Mediterranean dream, even though it was on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Turquoise water, sailboats, and villas carved into cliffs were accompanied by the calls of gulls overhead, and a chorus of voices. Some advertised the catch of the day, others wares from all over the region. Wheat from Egypt. Pottery from Greece. Spanish leather.

“This way,” Marcus closed his hand around Evie’s elbow and led her through a maze of streets. Each time she was certain they’d hit a dead end, he turned into an alleyway that was so narrow it seemed to appear out of nowhere. It would widen and then lead to other alleyways that worked like capillaries, arteries, and veins carrying people, animals, and goods to and from the port. Evie imagined a great heart there, beneath the docks, pulsing. Marcus turned with her so many times that she lost track of which direction they’d come from, until they finally stopped before an archway over a door twice her height. “The priestesses are inside. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain.”

“So you’re just going to abandon me here?”

He shook his head, lips pressed into a thin line. “It is no abandonment. You paid me to take you to the priestesses.”

“You said you knew them. You have to at least make an introduction.”

Marcus sighed and approached the door, raising his fist and pounding on the wood with his whole forearm. For a moment, nothing happened, and Evie wasn’t sure if she would be happy about that or not. Would it be easier to just go back to Publius Sepunius Columella and try to find a job she could do for him? The door swung open and her wrist burned. Evie hissed and covered the marks with her other hand. Marcus turned toward her. “What is it?”

She uncovered her wrist, which looked red and angry, like the symbols had just been branded mere moments ago. “It hurts.”

“It would, wouldn’t it?”

Evie narrowed her eyes at him. “Why? Why should it hurt?”

“Means you’re on the right path, I bet. Come on.”

Evie didn’t consider herself a wimp but she wouldn’t have minded getting some sympathy from Marcus. Tatius would have shown empathy, she thought–but then, Marcus was a cruel mercenary, probably. Or brigand. She shouldn’t expect such kindness from him. She followed him through the archway, her cheeks heating up as she looked up at the barrel-vaulted expanse before her. The walls were frescoed with scenes of the gods. Evie couldn’t help but think how much Pete would love to get a team in here. If she ever made it home, she’d have to make sure that the museum got someone to come check this place out. Maybe she’d get to come back in two thousand years or so and see it with an archeologist’s eye.

“Marcus,” a woman in a dark blue dress walked up to them and regarded him. “You weren’t going to ever return here. On pain of death.”

Evie turned her head toward him so fast that her neck spasmed. “You–you said they owed you.”

The woman laughed. “We do! We owe him death. But,” she turned toward Evie, trailing cool fingertips down Evie’s arm to clasp her wrist. She pried Evie’s fingers away from the symbols and held them up close to her face. Evie examined the paint around the woman’s eyes. Tiny Roman numerals–just numerals here, I suppose–lined her brow. “But maybe we can find a way for him to settle this debt between us. Marcus, you will both stay the night.” She smiled to Evie, releasing her wrist. “I am Aelia, and you and I have much to discuss. You come with the gods’ blessing, on a quest that…” Aelia closed her eyes and inhaled a deep breath that shuddered her torso, “that will either save or doom you.”

Evie couldn’t look away from Aelia. Her low, soft voice, her painted amber eyes, her soft black curls that framed her face and rested weightless on her shoulders, entranced Evie. “Can you help me? Tell me what I’m supposed to do? And how to get back home?”

Aelia smiled. “There is only one way to go home. You must do as the gods ask, and you must have faith in them. I must consult with them–you will both dine and sleep in this temple tonight.”

“But–” Marcus said, but silenced himself when Aelia held up her hand, palm facing him. He nodded and Aelia waved that hand, beckoning three more young women. They kept their gazes down, but two of them led Marcus one way, and one of them led Evie down another corridor.

“You must bathe, then sup, then sleep,” the woman told Evie.

Despite how much she wanted to get home, Evie agreed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a real bath. Food sounded great, and sleep in what she hoped would be a bed would be divine. Then in the morning, she could find out from Aelia exactly what she had to do to get back home where she belonged.

Pathogen: Jana – 3

PathogenThe next morning, at least she figured it was morning, the heavy door to the room opened once more. Two women stood on the other side, and behind them, the man with the gun. “You’re to come with us then, to get cleaned up.”

“What if I would rather just leave?” Jana stood from her corner.

“Then I’ll kill you,” the man answered.

Jana didn’t think he’d shoot her for not going with the other women. She crossed her legs at the ankle, leaned back, and said, “You know, threatening to kill people isn’t exactly the best way to get them to do what you want.”

He shrugged. “I don’t care. It’s effective, isn’t it? Now, on your feet. Go and get cleaned up.”

Jana reluctantly followed the two women. Not that she had much of a choice with the man with the gun walking behind her, so close that she could hear him breathing. “Do you all have names,” she asked idly.

“Yes.” He didn’t tell her his name, nor the names of the women who led her into the bathrooms.

“Is this a cult?” Jana was alone with the two women now. They didn’t speak, but just shook their heads as they gently stripped her of her clothing. Beneath her coat she wore a pair of spandex shorts and a tank top–far more appropriate for a Manhattan summer than Ryan’s coat. “Take it easy with that,” she instructed the woman who dumped the coat into a wash bin. The coat was a faded parka, and the women looked at her like she was crazy for wanting them to take such care.

The water they dumped over her head was room temperature, so that she stood shivering and dripping. They scrubbed at her hair and body with a sharp-scented soap. One of them stopped and pointed to the small black cat on her upper arm. “Oh, that?” Jana asked. “Ryan and I got tattoos together about four years ago. We were separated.” Again, the women said nothing, but resumed washing her. “You know,” Jana offered, “I’m capable of doing this myself.” They merely shook their heads and continued working. They dumped another bucket of water over her head to rinse away the suds and then came at her with towels and clothing.

Outside the room, the man with the gun waited. “At least you don’t stink anymore,” he offered, placing one hand on her shoulder to direct her further down the corridor.

Jana watched the door to the room where they’d imprisoned her. They passed it, but she figured it was pointless to ask where they were going as she’d find out soon enough. “There are better places to live, you know. Brighter places. Even my apartment is nicer.”

“We can keep this secure.”

“Figures you’d say something like that.”

“I don’t want to be your friend thief. I wanted to kill you. Don’t forget that.”

Jana said nothing else to him as he steered her around the corner and into another room. A wooden conference table sat in the middle, surrounded by a semi-circle of chairs. White paint was chipping off of the walls and she wondered how this place could look like it was abandoned decades ago when the riots only started earlier in the year.

“Sit there,” the man pointed to a chair at one end of the table. He and the women left the room.

Jana sat where indicated and waited. An older man she’d not seen before strolled in and sat across from her, laying his palms on the faded table. He was balding, but it seemed like all the hair that had fled the top of his head took up residence on his eyebrows. For a moment, he sat, back rigid, staring at her. She stared right back, reclining in the over-sized chair, arms folded over her chest.

“You are obviously skilled at stealth.”

Jana shrugged. “Not skilled enough it seems.”

The man waved his hand dismissively. He wore a gold wedding band a gold watch. Jana could see from here that the watch face was frosted white and cracked. “Do not undervalue your abilities. No one gets past them–they were CIA, you know.”

“I didn’t know. What’s your point?”

“Everyone must pull their weight. We have a lot of people here. The group who determined your judgment…they were just the first thirty or so in line.”

“Great legal system you have here.”

The man’s mouth quirked up at one corner, but it didn’t put Jana at ease. “You have three choices. You can either work for us willingly, work for us unwillingly, or suffer the ultimate consequences.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

The man rose to his feet deliberately, as though testing the reliability of his legs beneath him. “Well, if you work for us willingly, you’d be finding information. Finding food. Supplies. That sort of thing. If you work for us unwillingly, you stay here and…and we take something from you. The final choice is to forfeit your life.”

“What’s to stop me from just leaving if I work with you?”

“Every mission you’ll be with the two men who tracked you.”

“You really know how to sweeten a deal, hm? What do you take from me if I choose to be uncooperative? Obviously I’m not going to just let you kill me.”

“Well, that would be your choice. Your hand, your ear, your eye, your nose, or your tongue. The women who bathed you…they chose that route. Plus, if you don’t cooperate, then you will never leave this place.”

“Ah, that’s why they were so silent. Well, as fun as that sounds, I think I will keep all of my body parts. I guess I have no choice but to work with you. Though I’m not too keen on spending my days with those two idiots.”

“They are not idiots. Quite intelligent actually. And what you are keen on…does not really matter. You must be hungry; I will have someone show you to your permanent quarters, and tomorrow, you will begin.”

Rings of Saturn: Part 3 – Aug. 7, 79

Rings of SaturnFor the last two days, Evie and Tatius were not on speaking terms. That is, they spoke whenever they needed to, in order to make the journey to Campania, but after several days of arguing about which road they should take, whether they should detour to Rome–Tatius wanted to, or who was actually in charge of this journey, they’d fallen into silence.

“I think I should lead the mule,” Tatius spoke up, his hand outstretched for the rope. He was a lean man with stringy muscles that looked more like tendons than anything else. His features could be called classically Roman, ideal even, if not for his long, ski-slope nose that looked like it might jump off his face.

Evie sidestepped to keep him from taking the rope. The mule whimpered. “I have him.”

“You don’t know how to walk him. You’re scaring him.”

“No, I’m not. He’s fine. I wouldn’t have lurched away if you weren’t grabby.”

“How do I know you won’t steal him? And our supplies?”

Evie narrowed her eyes at Tatius. “Because Publius Sepunius Columella entrusted me with this mule. He was going to give it to me even if you didn’t come along. So far, you’re just one more person to feed.”

“You don’t feel safer with me than alone?”

“Not really, no.”

Tatius harrumphed. “Maybe I should go home.”

“Then who would take the mule back?”

He opened his mouth and then clamped it shut again. No wisecrack answer this time. Evie smirked. They shuffled to the side of the road to make way for a wagon. It was pulled by four black horses and driven by two soldiers. About a dozen soldiers marched behind the wagon, spears on their shoulders, sandals kicking up dust.

“I think you should ask them.”

“I won’t.”

“They will settle it. Excuse me!” Evie started after the soldiers, but the mule wouldn’t have anything of it. Reluctantly, she tossed the rope to Tatius and ran after the marching men. “Excuse me.” Evie fell into step with them. “Can you tell us the fastest way to Campania?”

The soldiers didn’t slow or turn. “If you’ve got money,” one behind her said, “we’ll help.” A burst of laughter sounded around Evie.

She reached into the pouch at her hip. “Very well, I have–” Before she could count out what rested in her palm, a spear was at her throat. The men stopped marching. The wagon stopped rolling. The metal sliced the air fast enough to sing.

“We’ll take it all,” the man from before said. He had gray stubble, more than his fair share of scars, and too-tight armor. It dug into his shoulders.

“Who are you?” Evie asked, tipping the coins back into the purse. She didn’t see Tatius come over, but she heard one of the soldiers yell at him to stay back.

“We’re the men who are happy to relieve you of your coin. And take your mule.”

“Mule’s not for sale. You said you’d give us directions for money.” All Evie could think about right now was the self-defense class she took when she first moved to the city. If you’re ever robbed and they just want money, stay calm and give it to them. Money could be replaced, even if with some difficulty. Life and limb could not.

The stubbled-and-scarred man snatched the coin purse from Evie’s hands. “Follow this road. It’ll take you straight to Campania.” He tossed the purse in the air and caught it; the coins inside jingled like miniature bells.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” Evie asked.

“You’ll just have to trust us.”

“But you’re all dressed as soldiers. Clearly you’re not soldiers. That makes you untrustworthy.”

The man grinned. He was missing several teeth, their gaps creating dark caverns in his mouth. “Too bad for you, eh?”

“I tell you what. One of you comes with us to Campania and you can have everything in the saddlebags on our mule. You can’t have the mule.”

One of the men from the back yelled, “Can we have him?” Another man cuffed him upside the head for shouting out.

“He’s not a slave. I can’t give him away–believe me, if I could, I would have awhile ago. He’s annoying.”

The man who’d stolen her purse scratched at his chin. He seemed to be their leader, which struck her as odd because he was walking on the ground instead of driving the wagon. “What’s in the saddle bags?”

“Food, supplies. But that’s not all–we’re going to Campania for a special reason.” Evie dropped her voice into a grave tone, and pulled her sleeve up to reveal the markings on her wrist. “See that? I’m on a mission. A quest. For the gods.” Maybe. Maybe it’s all a load of hooey. Maybe I hit my head and I’m laying on the floor, or maybe Pete had me loaded into an ambulance.

The men gathered around to view her wrist. The leader looked at them, then at Evie again. “Half of you, continue forward.” He pointed out a half dozen men. “You men with me. We’ll escort them the rest of the way to Campania.”

Four of them walked ahead, and three behind, with Evie, Tatius, and the mule in the middle. “What were you thinking? Are you mad?” Tatius asked.

“Not at all. After I saw how poorly you protected me from them, I decided I needed to hire someone more capable to see to my safe transport. Besides…it seems like they know something about these symbols. Maybe they’re from Campania. Maybe they know the temple Publius Sepunius Columella talked about.”

“I don’t trust them, Evie.”

“Yes, well, you don’t have a choice. My quest. I give you leave to go back to the farm, but the mule,” she snatched the rope back, “stays with me.”

Tatius decided he wasn’t going to leave the mule. He grumbled about how certain he was that he’d never see it again if he returned to the farm now. He also told Evie that if these men killed her, and Publius found out, the fault would rest on his shoulders. Evie didn’t think much of that problem, since not only did Publius Sepunius seem like a decent human being, but it didn’t seem to her that Tatius’ shoulders could hold much of anything, let alone fault. This whole journey, nothing was his fault, including why it was so warm out.

That night, the nine of them and the mule made camp just off the road. Evie sought out the leader of the fake soldiers and sat next to him before a small fire. “You’ve seen these symbols before.”

“She that wears the bracelet bearing them is either blessed or cursed. If you’re blessed, then I want some of that blessing too. If you’re cursed…not helping you could anger the gods and then I might be cursed too. Besides…the priestesses of Campania owe me.”

“What do they owe you? And how do I know if I’m blessed or cursed?”

“That’s between them and me. And you’ll know from the priestesses. They’ll tell you when we get there.”

“What’s your name?”

“My men call me Marcus.”

Evie suppressed a laugh. It seemed so cliche to her, a Roman named Marcus. But then, she supposed the name did suit him, especially in a soldier’s uniform. “Warlike,” she said, “after Mars, the god of war.”

“Obvious.”

“Who do the priestesses in Campania worship?

“Saturnus and Lua.”

Evie had never heard of Lua, but she knew who Saturnus, or Saturn, was. The god of seed, of time. She decided that his priestesses would be able to get her back to her own time, when she could just imagine this sort of thing instead of living it. “Why’re you all dressed like soldiers?”

“Too many questions. Go and sleep.”

“But I–”

He turned, a burning stick pointed at her. “Go and sleep. I am not your friend. We are not your friends. We’re guiding you because it’s convenient and I don’t want to anger the gods.”

Evie’s eyes locked on the fire right in front of her face. Perspiration gathered on her upper lip. She licked it away, tasting salt. “Very well,” she held her hands up in surrender. “But remember that if you kill me, you might anger the gods.” She stood and left him by the fire, to seek out Tatius and the mule.

Tatius had already set up a sleep space for them and tied the mule to a tree nearby. He tied another rope from the mule’s to his wrist. “So I know if they try to steal,” he told Evie when she cocked her head to the side. “We should sleep in turns,” he added.

Evie agreed, even though she didn’t think Marcus and his men would attack them–not with the gods on her side. Potentially on my side. But she knew that Tatius would just wake her anyway if she said she didn’t want to take turns guarding. “I’ll take the first shift. I’m not sleepy.” Tatius nodded and he was asleep within minutes.

Pathogen: Jana – 2

Pathogen

Theft and assault–that’s what they were accusing her of.

Stealing was technically a crime, but she’d stolen food so often in the past months that it didn’t feel like one anymore. She was hungry and the only way to keep going was to eat when she could, and Jana didn’t trust anyone else enough to form or join a group. Groups ultimately turned on one another when resources ran out or someone disagreed about how things were run. Or worse–she could get close to someone and then they could die.

As for assault, she only kicked the other man because he was trying to drag her out of her hiding spot. How could she know if they would try to hurt her or not? How could she know they weren’t sick? That she never got sick from living with Ryan was a miracle; Jana wasn’t eager to tempt fate if she could avoid it.

Eventually she made her way to the center of the room. She didn’t want them returning to find her hiding in the corner. She sat again, crossing her legs and resting her hands on her knees. She waited, mentally tracking the doors and corridors that led from the street to this room. The door opened with a squeal of protest and men and women of all ages–along with some children–filed into the room, lining the walls. They held slender candles that dripped wax of all different colors onto their skin. They didn’t even flinch.

“Rise, thief.” The man who’d led her here spoke clearly, forcing each word out with bitter distaste. “You may speak for yourself before we lay judgment upon you.” He was clean-shaven, his angular face shadowed in the flickering light so that his nose, jaw, and cheekbones looked sharpened.

Jana got to her feet. “I did steal from you, yes. Because I was hungry. I only kicked your brother to protect myself.” She wasn’t going to rationalize beyond that. Everyone had a sob story and whether or not they wanted hers, she wasn’t going to provide it. Jana didn’t want their pity–she just wanted to get out of here alive.

“You broke his nose. And the bread you stole, you might as well have taken from the mouths of these children.” The man slowly waved his paddle of a hand through the air, indicating the four or five children pressed between adults along the walls. They didn’t budge. “Cast your vote,” the man ordered. The soft rush of forced breath echoed around her as the room began to darken, followed by a moment or two of silence. “Wait here.” The man led everyone else out of the room and Jana heard the door latch in their wake.

“As though I have any choice,” she answered the now-empty room. Were they going to kill her? What did blowing out a candle signify–to snuff out her life? Did one third of the room want her dead, and, what would happen to her if they decided to let her live? She remained standing until her knees began to ache, and Jana realized she’d stood with them locked since the vote. She let her legs buckle beneath her, ignoring the dull wave of pain that radiated into her knee caps from the cement floor. Jana sat back on her heels and stared into the darkness.

When the door opened again, she lifted her head. How much time had passed, she didn’t know, but she’d ended up curled up on her side, her cheek resting on the back of her hand. A child walked forward and placed a bowl about four feet away from her. “Wait,” she called out as he retreated. “What do the candles–” The door slammed again before she could get her question out.

Jana scooted over to the bowl and sniffed at it. She didn’t know how to tell if something was poisoned or not. Maybe this was their way of executing someone who wronged them. Frowning, she kicked the bowl over and wished they’d not taken back the bread she stole. She was so hungry that she only had the memory of hunger, the way her stomach would grumble and feel like it might fold on itself.

Jana had to do something to distract herself, so she stood and walked to the door. She tried the handle; it turned but the door wouldn’t open. It was barred, not locked, which was unfortunate because she’d become deft at picking locks over the last months–or maybe a year–since everything went wrong. She turned to lean back against the wall and sank to the hard floor once more.

The next time the door opened, the man with the broken nose entered. He stepped in front of her. “Here’s the deal. Two-thirds of our group voted to spare your life. A majority of those decided you’re going to join us. However,” he reached down to drive his fingers into her short hair, tilting her head back so that she was forced to look up into his face, “if you take one misstep against us, I will kill you. Or my brother will kill you. Do you understand?”

She clamped her hand down on his so that he couldn’t pull her hair. “What do you count as a misstep, then?”

“Get some sleep. In the morning you will be taken for a shower. You smell, thief. Then the rules will be laid out for you.” He released her hair and peeled her hand off of his. Before opening the door, he kicked at her, knocking her onto her side.

Jana stifled a cry when his foot connected with her arm. She heard the bar slide into place again. A yellow light flickered to life in the corner and a voice filtered through the door. It wasn’t either of the men who caught her in the bank.

“The generator won’t be on forever. There is a closet there on the other side of the room, where you can relieve yourself.”

“Who are you?” Jana scrambled to the door, pressing her ear against it.

The voice didn’t reply right away. “Two more minutes, thief. Then it’ll be dark again until the morning.”

Jana sighed and crossed the room. The door to the closet was coming off of its hinges, and it wobbled as she pulled it open. Inside the closet sat a single bucket.

Rings of Saturn: Part 2 – Aug. 1, 79

Rings of SaturnA gray plume of smoke climbed into the sky, mixing with the clouds to muddy them. It came from just over a slight rise in a landscape that showed no other signs of human life, so Evie decided to walk toward the smoke. After what felt like about a half hour, she saw an olive orchard growing next to a grain field. Willows lined the far edge of that field, like shepherds protecting their flock. The contrast between the crops and dark soil drew her eye, and Evie realized she was hungry.

It was too soon to pluck an olive from the vineyard, and that would be stealing anyway. But where there was a farm, there were sure to be people, and perhaps the owners of this farm would help her. She had to get home. As much as her eyes enjoyed soaking in the sight of this idyllic landscape, Evie knew she’d somehow traveled a great distance. There was nowhere like this farm near her apartment in the city, which cultivated concrete and brick instead of vineyards and trees.

She stopped just before the growing crops and examined the house. Evie blinked and pinched her arm. “Ow.” The house was real, and it looked like an Italian villa. How could putting on the bracelet transport her to Italy? The whole idea was preposterous. She started walking again, intent on finding someone–anyone–who could answer some questions for her, but she stopped short when she saw an older man emerge from the villa. He wore a toga, like an Ancient Roman. Evie ducked into the vineyard, breathing hard.

She looked down at her own clothes. Jeans, a white tee shirt, and a pair of Adidas. Not exactly acceptable garb for a woman in Ancient Rome–or for anyone in Ancient Rome! “This is insane,” she muttered. Evie duckwalked along the row of olive vines, trying to keep her eye on the man between the bunches of young olives and the leaves clustered around them. From one branch to another, he disappeared. Evie stopped and rose inch-by-inch from crouching. Her thighs burned but she didn’t want to stand up too fast.

“You there! Who are you?” The man spotted her, and gathered his toga in his hands so he could run her way.

If I run, I’ll only look guilty, she thought. “I’m Evie, and I’m lost.”

“You steal my olive branches?”

She shook her head. “No, not a one. I was hiding.”

He narrowed his eyes. He was about her height. Deep wrinkles carved a path between his eyes, one of which was milky-white with a scar on the lid. It looked painful just to open it. His toga stretched over an ample belly, but his breathing wasn’t labored from the vineyard sprint. His hand darted out to grab her arm so fast that Evie couldn’t pull away. He twisted her forearm up to his face and examined the scorched symbols on her wrist. Then, he looked her up and down and, keeping a vice grip on her arm, turned back toward the villa.

Evie had no choice but to let him drag her. She tried to pull her arm free but he was holding on too tight. “Hey, let me go! I’m no thief–”

“I know you’re not. Hush, girl.” He didn’t walk to the front of the villa, but rather to the side, where he shouldered open a wooden door to reveal a storeroom. He swung her inside. “Stay here. I will return with food and clothes.”

“Wait, don’t–the symbols on my wrist–you know what they mean.”

“Shh! I will return.” He closed the door.

Evie felt for a handle but there was none. Not on this side. She tried to fit her fingers into the cracks between the planks, but they were too narrow, leaving her fingertips sore. If dreams couldn’t hurt, this definitely was not a dream. A few minutes passed before her eyes adjusted to the dim light pouring through the cracks in the door. The room was filled with jars and crates. Most of them were empty, but a few of the jars held milled grain.

She turned over one of the crates and sat down, watching the sunlight move outside. If that bracelet really took me back to Ancient Rome, I’m in so much more trouble than I thought I was. How was she going to get back to America? How was she going to get back to the twenty-first century? With the bracelet gone, she couldn’t think of any hope for her escape. But she couldn’t just live here, in the past. Sure, she’d studied Ancient Rome and Ancient Romans for years so she could probably survive but she didn’t belong here. Evie closed her eyes and tried to calm her racing heart.

It wasn’t until dusk that the door was shoved open again. The older man from before stooped to pick up a plate and a cup. “Foot and water first, I think,” he said, and passed them both to Evie. He turned from her and scooped up a dress. “My daughter’s–she’s outgrown it. She won’t miss it, I don’t think. You must wear this.” He draped it over one of the empty jars. “Eat. Drink.”

Evie eyed him warily but then thought, if he was going to poison her, why bring her clothes? She tore off a piece of bread and dipped it in a pool of olive oil on the plate. It tasted better than any bread she’d ever eaten before in her life–or maybe she was just hungry. The man had also brought her vegetables and a bowl with two dormice dipped in honey. She looked at the mice, then at the older man. He nodded. “Go on, woman, eat.”

“Evie. My name is Evie.”

“No family name?”

“Russell.”

His eyebrows pinched together. “Russell…strange name. Never heard of your family. Never seen someone in clothes like yours, but I’ve seen those symbols.” He pointed at her wrist.

“The bracelet–it disappeared when I arrived. How do I get it back? What do they mean?”

The man shook his head. “I was young when I left Campania. You need to go there, Evie Russell, and consult with the priestesses. They will help you. Food and clothing is all I can do for you.”

“Who are you?”

“Publius Sepunius Columella.”

The name didn’t ring a bell, save for the writer Columella who wrote about agriculture in Ancient Rome. But this man wasn’t him. “Publius Sepunius Columella,” Evie repeated his name. “I am so grateful for your help but I must beg for more. I have no money. No means to get to Campania. These symbols,” she thrust her wrist out at him, “obviously mean something to you.”

He cast a furtive glance behind him. “I can give you a mule and tell you that you must ride south for,” he scratched at his chin, “ten days, if the weather’s fair. Campania is past Naples, near Herculaneum and Pompeii.”

Evie knew where towns were in Italy. She was hoping for a guide though. “Thank you, for the offer of the mule.”

“I can give you some money, too, to feed yourself on your journey.”

“Thank you. I am most grateful. Is there no one who can guide me?”

He huffed. “Gods above and below, will you take everything?”

Evie set aside the food and water and stood. “These symbols are important, yes?”

“I remember seeing them carved into the stones of the temple when I was a boy.”

“And you wouldn’t want to upset the gods?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line. “Very well. I will find someone to guide you. But one mule, and one only.” He turned from her. “Wear the gown I brought you. I will return soon.”

“Publius Sepunius Columella?”

He stopped but didn’t look at her.

“What temple was it?”

“I don’t recall.”

He left, and Evie changed out of her clothes and into the dress. It was a little too long, but otherwise a decent fit. She’d only have to wear it for the next ten days–as soon as she found these priestesses in Campania, she was going to find a way to make them send her home. While she waited, she wondered how it was Publius Sepunius Columella could speak English, a language that shouldn’t exist yet. Maybe she was losing her mind, but if so, she wasn’t going to spend her time sitting in an imaginary storeroom.

True to his word, Publius Sepunius Columella returned when the moon was high with a mule, a pouch of coins, and a young man. “This is Tatius,” he introduced the other man. “He will guide you to Campania–and then he will have to leave you to return here. I cannot spare him longer than that.”

Evie thanked him again, and tucked the money, her jeans, tee shirt, and Adidas into the baskets draped over the mule’s hind quarters. Tatius took up the rope and the two of them left the farm and Publius Sepunius Columella behind.

Pathogen: Jana – 1

PathogenAsphalt pebbles kicked up behind Jana’s heels, stung the backs of her calves. Black smoke plumed from a storefront ahead. The ringing in her ears drowned out the surrounding screams. The thick August heat, intensified by the explosion, pressed against her skin. She flung the sweat off of her forehead with a flick of her hand. Tugging her shirt collar up over her mouth and nose, she ducked into the smoldering building and skidded to the floor behind a counter. Rolling a cushioned chair out of her way, Jana crawled into the space beneath the desk.

Money floated to the floor, riding the air like feathers. If those men followed her in here, she hoped they’d be too distracted by the cash everywhere. Jana couldn’t imagine what anyone would do with money these days. It wasn’t worth anything on the island of Manhattan, not anymore.

The smoke didn’t hold back her pursuers. Their muffled voices conferenced on the other side of the service desk, though Jana couldn’t make out what they were saying. She caught only one word, which replayed in her mind again and again: Food. Her stomach rumbled. She clamped her arms over her abdomen as though that would silence her hunger. Even the pungent odor of burning couldn’t stop the need to eat something, but she didn’t budge. She didn’t budge even though her coat pockets were stuffed with rolls and cheese she lifted from a market a few blocks over. August was too warm for a coat, but this one came in handy, and it was all she had left of Ryan.

The coat was too long for her; it hung almost to her knees. The broad shoulders drooped over her arms. She’d sewn pockets into the lining. Taking a bag from someone was too easy–but Ryan’s coat was like a bag that she wore around her whole body. Besides, it served to remind her that in a way, she was doing this for him.

The two men, burly and stomping, knocked over charred chairs, spilled contents of desk drawers, and shouted “Clear!” on their march toward her. Jana glanced toward the window…or the gaping hole that was once the window, behind the service desk. She could probably escape, but not without being spotted.

A moment later, the chair that hid her was pulled away. “Found her!” A meaty hand clenched around her ankle and tugged. Jana kicked out with her free foot, connecting with the man’s face. He released her, his own hands coming up to his nose. Blood poured from beneath his palms. She kicked again.

She scrambled and ran for the window. A few rolls slipped out of her pocket, but she couldn’t go back for them. Jana jumped over the counter and surged forward, only to stop short. Something caught her coat. Jerking her head to see what snagged her, she saw the other man holding the hood. He snatched her arm and tugged. The floor came up fast.

Jana crab-walked backwards, away from both men now, though the one she’d kicked didn’t seem menacing. He stuffed tissue after tissue into his nose. But the other man loomed. Smoke hung in the air around him, like fog drawn in charcoal, obscuring his face. She could tell by the way he carried himself that he was strong.

“You stole from us,” the looming man growled. “No one steals from us.”

“I was hungry.” Jana got to her feet. She still had to crane her neck to look up at him but she wasn’t going to cower. She’d only cowered once and it was the night Ryan was taken, and only because he made her promise to hide. To this day, she regretted honoring his request and refused to show fear to a stranger.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us.”

“Why? You’re not the law. There is no law. Take back what I stole if you want but I’m not going anywhere with you.”

The looming man reached into the back of his waistband and withdrew a semi-automatic pistol. “I think you are.”

Jana eyed the gun. When everything went crazy in the streets, there had been guns reporting almost every night, but after a couple of weeks, the gunshots diminished. Jana figured the island was running out of ammo. She had no way of knowing though whether this guy saved some. She nodded.

“And you’ll answer for your theft and assault on my brother here.” He grabbed her elbow with his free hand and called to his brother to come along. The trio exited the bank, the stunning sunlight forcing Jana to close her eyes. A light tug at her elbow and she turned left.

When her eyes adjusted, she looked up. A street sign that read “Lexington” dangled from a pole. They passed a few others on the street, though no one stopped them even though the gun was in full view. Either they didn’t care or they were afraid. Afraid of the gun. Afraid of the man holding it. Afraid that one of them–probably the guy with blood dripping from his nose–would get them sick.

The gunman stopped on the corner of Lexington and 68th. His bloody-nosed brother skirted around them to hold aside a sheet of corrugated metal that served as a door. Pushed through the doorway, Jana followed through a series of hallways. They stopped outside of a locked door and the broken-nose-man drew a ring of chiming keys from his belt to unlock it. The gunman tossed her into the room so that she had to stagger to keep from falling. “Wait here.” He shut the door again and the room went dark. No windows, no lights. Jana closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once she could make out the edges of the room, she sat down in the corner, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. They never said how long she would wait, or what it meant to them to answer for her crimes.

Rings of Saturn: Part 1 – Aug. 1, 2015

Rings of Saturn

Evie remembered she used to love Saturdays. Now it didn’t matter what day of the week it was, because every day was a study day. Or a teaching day. She didn’t have any summer courses to teach, so she invested her time in research. Evie’s dissertation was a wreck. No title, no focus, no organization. Right now, it existed only in the mess of index cards spread across the chrome-and-formica table in the middle of her apartment. She used to have a roommate, but Evie couldn’t say when he moved out, because all the days and weeks melted together. She could only say that he left because she was too messy.

Not dirty, but messy–stacks of books in front of the television, her nest of index cards that forced them to eat on the couch, and unruly piles of paper claimed every corner, hid every baseboard, and probably presented a fire hazard. His name was Erik, and he’d had enough. Their friends called them Erik and Evie, E-squared, and the Two E’s. Evie hadn’t seen her friends since Erik moved out, but she could if she wanted.

Evie’s eyelids didn’t want to stay open. With each blink, she felt like her eyelashes might weave together, locking in a tapestry of tiny hairs to blind her. Coffee. She needed coffee–that would wake her up. Making a pot without scattering grounds across the peeling countertop was a smile-worthy victory, and, as the coffee began to percolate, she inhaled through her nose and her eyes stayed open. She looked up at the analog clock hanging crooked on the wall. Ten fifteen. Evie yawned and then looked again.

“Shit!” She ran into the bathroom around the corner and twisted the shower knob. She had precisely six minutes before the hot water turned cold, and only fifteen minutes before she had to be at the museum eleven blocks south of her apartment. Hopping on one leg until her shorts flew somewhere–probably behind the toilet–she squeezed toothpaste out and brushed her teeth, dropping the brush into the sink to climb into the shower. She had just enough time to wash her hair and skin before the water cooled. She turned it off and felt for her towel.

Evie poked her head out from behind the shower curtain. Her towel was missing. “Ugh, great.” At least, she thought, Erik wasn’t here and she could walk to her room in the nude. Scooping up her pajamas, she shivered from bathroom to bedroom, where she dressed as fast as she could, barely paying attention to what she pulled on. Back to the kitchen where she filled her travel mug, and Evie was out the door with four minutes to spare.

Her PhD program paid her tuition, and gave her a small stipend, but it wasn’t enough to live on so she worked at the local history museum. It was small and underfunded, which meant her paycheck was too, but if she decided not to teach after finishing her program or if she couldn’t find a placement, it’d be great on her resume. She didn’t get to go on any archeological digs, but her job was to clean and catalogue all the finds when the “real” archeologists brought them back to the museum. A new shipment had just come in the week before, and now she was running late.

“Sorry Pete!” she exclaimed after she got through security. Evie was still holding up her badge and her coffee while trying to shrug out of her jacket.

“No big deal, Evie. Just waltz in whenever. The artifacts can wait–they’ve waited centuries already.” Pete was in his fifties, balding, sarcastic and a little mean until he was four cups of coffee into the day. At 10:45 am, Evie figured he’d only had three.

“I’m sorry. Couldn’t get hot water.” Alright, not completely honest, she thought. But it’d gotten her off the hook before.

“When are you going to move out of that dump? I told you my wife and I have a spare room we could rent out to you.”

Evie smirked. “Living and working with you? That’s more than I can handle.”

“Ouch,” Pete smiled. He always liked when she was sarcastic back–that’s how Evie knew he didn’t actually hate her. That and the fact that he always overlooked her tardiness. “Get yourself settled and then I’ll show you what needs to be cleaned today. Then I have a meeting with the board.”

“That explains your attitude. I thought you haven’t had enough coffee, maybe–”

“I could use some more, but we’re out.” Pete eyed Evie’s travel mug.

“This is my one and only cup. You know I’m trying to cut back.”

He sighed like she’d told him she thought the world was flat. “Fine.” He drew the word out. “I’ll just have to drink whatever sludge they have in the boardroom.”

“How long will you be up there?”

“All day. It’s a budget meeting.”

“Ew.” Evie and Pete had one thing in common: They lived for archeology. Board meetings or anything remotely resembling anything corporate were the worst, the antithesis of their passions for the ancient world. “When people lived on a barter system, they didn’t need to have budget meetings.”

“It’s not going to happen, Evie. I’ve told you. We’re way past the point of no return on that.”

“Yeah, I know. But a girl can dream.” Evie left him and the artifacts to put her bag and jacket in her locker. When she went back out into the main room, Pete stood waiting for her with a small box in his hands. Evie peered into it to see a bracelet. “Is that–”

“Gold.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” Pete put the box down on a table and pulled on a glove, lifting the bracelet from the box and examining it. “Engraved with what look like zodiac symbols.”

“And you want me to clean that so we can see the symbols perfectly.”

“Bingo. Should take you the better part of the day. I’ll check back after the meeting?”

Evie nodded. Pete put the bracelet back into the box and snapped his glove off, dropping it into a bin by the door. He waved over his shoulder and grabbed a pile of folders and notebooks before disappearing into the corridor. Evie pulled her phone out of her pocket, selected Beethoven from her music library, and placed it on the table. She pulled on a pair of gloves and set to work.

On days like this, when she got into the zone, Evie didn’t eat or drink anything. Her coffee cooled next to her phone as she carefully cleaned off what had to be almost two-thousand years of dirt. The bracelet was from a site just outside of Rome. It’d probably belonged to someone of the patrician class. Plebs didn’t always have the money to wear gold. The symbols definitely looked like the signs of the zodiac, though she only knew a handful of them: Sagittarius with the bow, the two fish of Pisces, the scales of Libra, and the bull of Taurus.

Evie finished cleaning the bracelet around three-thirty, and set it back in its box. She peeled her gloves off, and took a swig of her now-cold coffee, gagging. Iced coffee was delicious, but once-hot, cold coffee was gross. The former was probably filled with sugar. She dumped the rest down the drain. Evie wandered back over the bracelet, just to look at it. She even clasped her hands behind her back to keep from touching it with her bare hands. The oils on her skin could damage it, and then she’d have to clean it again.

Beethoven played quieter and quieter, and she heard people screaming. She heard their feet pounding against the ground, and that sound morphed into a louder rumbling, like the whole earth was breaking apart around her. She reached forward and clasped the bracelet. Evie watched her hand lift it from the box like it was someone else’s hand picking it up, sliding it onto her wrist, and closing the clasp.

The world really did crumble then. The floor opened up, cracking apart to reveal bright white streams of light. Evie closed her eyes so it wouldn’t blind her. All she could hear was the whoosh of her blood in her ears. Her head pounding, she cried out when something burned her wrist. The bracelet. Evie clawed at it, but couldn’t unlatch it. She scratched until there was no bracelet left and she only felt her nails scraping over raw skin.

She opened her eyes. Evie was laying in a field, under a cloudless sky. Her wrist bore the symbols she’d seen on the bracelet, but the jewelry was nowhere to be found. Two thoughts filled her head: She had no idea where she was or how she got here, and Pete was going to kill her when he found out she lost the bracelet.