Semivivi

14 Sep

As the harbor of Alexandria grew dim and quiet, only one person remained in the workshop beside the keel of a new steamer. He was the renowned engine designer named Heron.

Dead stillness prevailed about the shipyard where vapor-powered atmodromoni were built. One by one lanterns came on along the docks and shores. Exhausted carpenters and construction workers had abandoned their heavy labors till the next morning. Silence prevailed.

Third-century Alexandria, a city now under Roman rule, consisted of Greek, Jewish, and Coptic sectors. Heron, a Greek, had all his life been a member of the sea-oriented population next to the harbor. He shared their quick thinking and curiosity about the world beyond the city.

The inventor-designer was a white-haired, stooped figure who had seen most of his contemporaries die. He continued his hard work of planning and assembling advanced steam vessels. Heron never considered what might happen to his projects and aspirations when he was gone.

There was one individual who did, his chief assistant named Hago.

The thin, towering Egyptian suddenly appeared beside his chief, ebony eyes gleaming with fire.

“You are still here, Master. Why do you not return home? There is no more that can be done till daylight comes back to us. You need sleep and rest.”

Heron, seated at a small drawing table, looked at his aide, focusing his clear azure eyes on the young Copt.

“I was thinking and considering, Hago. What will Alexandria be like in the ages of the future? What marvels of enginery shall our successors see in this harbor?”

No answers came from the clever assistant, who did not like to speculate like his master.

“Allow me to walk home with you, sir,” proposed Hago. “I will tell you what I have seen done today among the ironmasters that could have enormous value in constructing an all-metal engine for ships.”

The two were soon walking away from the newest ship designed by Heron.

Gordian, born in Rome, had been sent to Egypt to fill the post of police praetor of Alexandria. He had not foreseen the problems he would face in this strange city of the Nile Delta.

The steely official walked alone through the  narrow streets of the Coptic quarter, alone and unguarded. He felt completely safe because of his bulky body and the sword he conspicuously wore on his belt.

Self-assured, the magistrate was on the prowl for he knew not what.

This land, he believed, hid mysteries that were only seen as fleeting shadows.

What did time mean here? Eternity was like a palpable presence everywhere.

Rome, with its might and authority, did not at all compare with what was present in this ancient city of unknowable history. This was like some other world.

People of different origins congregated as if in parallel places and centuries.

Gordian, so new to Alexandria, realized that there was an invisible evil about in the cosmopolitan port city.

He was certain this demonic force was always present and could attack at any time it chose.

Fearlessly, the praetor strode the streets even at night, on the look-out for the indescribable, the incomprehensible. How was it possible to hunt down what was unknowable to finite minds such as his? With what weapons did one oppose the unseen and unheard?

I shall recognize it when I find it, Gordian repeatedly told himself.

There was no doubt for him that such a moment was inevitable. But in the meantime he had to go on with his nightly searching in the silent streets.

The quiet of death seemed about him on all sides.

In a tiny cubiculum in the Coptic sector, three individuals sat at  circular table. As a candle slowly burned, Hago spoke to his confederates.

“The situation is nearing a climactic fulfillment. The new atmodromon will be the fastest, most powerful engine in existence anywhere. My master and his workers will soon hold a congratulatory celebration to mark its completion. There is no going back on the plans that Heron has set.”

One of the others present gave his opinion.

“That offers us the opportunity we have long awaited,” he declared.

Hago turned to him with an affirming nod of the head. “I have full knowledge of the operation of the new engine. It will be easy to start it working with the silanthrax stored alongside the vessel for fuel. Only a short time should be needed for us to fill the bin with charcoal and start the device operating. Then we can begin our voyage into the wide Mediterranean with confidence. No one will understand what is going on. We shall appear to be the regular crew taking the new ship out for its practice run. And because of the unprecedented speed we will attain, no one will be able to pursue or capture us.

“Our confiscation of the ship and the engine will succeed, I swear to you.”

The others looked at Hago as if spellbound by his words.

“We three need never return to Egypt,” predicted the leader. “Our new home shall be mighty, magnificent Rome.”

All three of them stared at the candle on the table until Hago rose to his feet and left the cubiculum without a further word. Then the other two plotters also disappeared into the shadowy night.

Gordian, after a morning of sleep, decided to give himself an afternoon treat. He was going to observe sights he had never before seen at the Theater of Wonders, where automata invented by Heron were on display.

The building housing this exhibition lay in the Greek quarters near the harbor. Paying two drachmas at the entrance, the praetor was taken in hand by the official guide to the varied attractions of the place. His voice resonated with the Ionian dialect that predominated among Alexandrian Hellenes.

“Let me begin with the earliest creations of the great Heron,” said the small, bald man in Ptolemaic attire. “You can graphically follow the course of his work as an inventor.”

Gordian proceeded to examine the shelves containing the written treatises of Heron on mechanics, pneumatics, mirror optics, the raising of heavy weights, and the construction of operational automata. Then he moved along with the guide to examples of the critical inventions: the siphon, the water fountain and musical organ, and simple engines that used air, water, or steam. A large vending machine sold soap when a coin was dropped into a slot. A hodometer measured distances traveled by vehicles with wheels. A complex screw-cutter could bore large holes in the ground.

The visitor was treated to the sounds of a water-organ and a wind-powered one. His guide demonstrated a surveying device called a dioptra. A rapid-fire crossbow was an advanced weapon of war. One mechanism was specialized for dispensing holy water, while another was an automatic door-opener to churches. A steam-powered aeroliple held an ever rotating sphere as its attraction. Finally, Gordian was led into a large theater room where moving, automated puppets were put into action by the man in charge.

The figures were able to move back and forth, as well as change direction. Adept stagecraft enabled the robotic machines to enact a complicated pageant. A large model of Hercules battled against a dragon. A crowded scene from the Trojan War was enacted. Figures with hammers pounded on the ship of Ajax, while dolphins leaped around the ships of a Greek fleet. Mighty Zeus was shown throwing down bolts of lightning from Mt. Olympus.

His tour of the museum of wonders left the praetor breathless and speechless. He had not foreseen such thrilling, inspiring sights in Alexandria. The guide was smiling broadly as he led Gordian back to the front of the building. “What you see here today, sir, you can never forget,” whispered the host.

All of a sudden, as the Roman was about to exit the place, a lanky Copt blocked his way. It was Hago, the assistant shipbuilder, who was entering.

“Pardon me,” said Gordian, stepping back to make way for the stranger. There was a kind of ethereal spark in the midnight eyes of the Egyptian, caught at once by the police magistrate. The latter studied the strange ocular fire.

Gordian decided to introduce himself to the person he had nearly collided with. “I am new to Alexandria and its rich history,” he grinned. “My official duties take up most of my time, but I am profoundly interested in the technical sciences and how they have advanced in your extraordinary city.”

“We are proud of what has been achieved through the wisdom of Heron,” said Hago.”I happen to be his chief assistant. It is my privilege to work with him on the ship being built at the harbor.”

“I would love to meet and talk with the famous genius,” said the Roman. “There are many questions I might ask. So many topics I would like to discuss. What do you think? Is it possible to converse with Heron?”

Hago studied the face of the man he had just met.

“I came here to collect some old papyri for my Master, but that will take only a few moments to do. If your time is free, you can accompany me down to the shipyard. Heron is certain to be interested in meeting someone like you, sir.”

So it was that the praetor and the Greek inventor were brought together by the latter’s Egyptian assistant.

Hago listened from nearby as the two strangers became acqainted. His master did most of the talking that he overheard.

“My curiosity has never been fully satisfied, despite the inventions that have resulted from my work. I feel more dissatisfaction today than I did when I first set out. Perhaps at the end of my life this thirst for knowledge will still haunt my mind. That is what I expect will be my fate.”

“But you have brought about many real, tangible benefits through your mechanisms,” objected Gordian. “Humans now have greater abilities and capacities than ever in the past.”

“My inventions can be misused if someone has evil intentions,” muttered Heron, his azure eyes suddenly darkening.

Gordian realized the gravity of what he had just heard. He sensed he had to say something to enhearten the inventor.

“When destructive spirits attempt to take command of a product of human imagination, it is our duty to fight back and defeat the demonic. Victory may result or not. But the battle to secure the future of the invention must be taken up. Our very honor is at stake.”

Heron thought deeply on these words, then changed the subject.

“Let me show you the new atmodromon,” he proposed. “It will surprise you.”

The inventor explained his vessel from the prora in front to the rear rudder and timonian. But his main delight was the great vapor engine and its wheel box with a series of prostori propellers.

“This is where the silanthrax is to be shoveled in,” pointed out Heron. “All these paddles on the wheel will rotate and thus move the ship forward. The speed will be unprecedented. Long voyages over the sea will be shortened.”

The pair, still talking, went off the vessel onto the dock.

Heron did not notice that Hago was watching them, but Gordian did.

The latter excused himself, saying that he had duties that called him.

That night the praetor roamed the dark, empty streets of Alexandria. He had to have time to think, he said to himself. Inner warnings rang in his brain. He feared that the city contained a dangerous creature, for he had immediately recognized the deadly nature of the assistant to Heron. Each time he had viewed the unnatural being, he had confirmed the initial impression. There was no question about the essence of what Hago was.

Being only fractionally among the living, his years would be infinite unless interfered with.

Something had to be done, but what?

What were the plans and intentions of the evil entity that was half dead already?

What harm might he accomplish against the old inventor?

It was necessary to find out the hidden goal of this semivivus. Being only half alive, the demonic one had endless existence before him.

As in Rome, as throughout Italy, semivivi lurked here in Egypt.

Gordian resolved to find out what Hago was up to. He suspected that it might be the atmodromon that attracted his evil calculations.

The following day and each subsequent one the Roman visited the dock.

He often spoke with Heron, but avoided contact with Hago.

The day of the completion of the construction arrived. The following morning was set for the launching of the ship.

Gordian decided he would keep watch over the site all that fateful night.

It was shortly after the first crowing of roosters that a trio of shapes arrived. There was no dawn light yet. The praetor, behind a giant barrel, watched as they leaped aboard the steamer. The largest figure began to shovel charcoal into the bottom of the vapor engine.

Gordian noted every move of the three. It was clear to him that Hago was the one ordering the others in their tasks.

Small jets of steam started to rise into the dark sky.

An inner voice told the observer of this that it was time to intervene. As he moved toward the vessel, the first to catch sight of him was Hago at the rudder.

Gordian continued on until he stood at the edge of the wharf.

“I know what you are and what your plan is,” he shouted in a strong, fearless voice. “The stealth of the atmodromon cannot be permitted.”

Hago suddenly jumped to the shore and climbed onto the wharf till he stood directly in front of the praetor. His eyes blazed with a dark fury. At the same time, his two companions moved to the edge of the ship, ready to help their leader.

“Did you come here to prevent further migration by our kind to your country?” Hago demanded of Gordian. “I take you to be one of the undying ones native to the Italic regions.”

“My ancestors are Sabines conquered by early Rome,” slowly explained the praetor. “I myself was born in the imperial capital in the community of semiviri, as we are called. But our kind in Rome and Italy are not evil conspirators like you and your cohorts. We are loyal to our Emperor and the rule of Rome everywhere. Our honor is elevated and unquestioned. We guard it jealously and do no harm to anyone. Our purpose is service to Rome.”

“I warn you not to interfere with us,” threatened Hago. “We cannot be prevented from going by ship to Rome. Our future lies there.”

The tall Copt leaped forward onto his opponent, wrestling him to the dock.

A heavy blow to the side of the head was sufficient to make Gordian pass out.

Hago turned around and gave a command to the other two.

“Help me carry this Roman aboard. We will take him with us, for now.”

The comatose body was hoised up and thrown into the sea by the two assistants of Hago.

With all danger gone, the voyage to Rome continued.

Gordian had failed to protect the imperial capital from the evil that wandered the night in ancient Alexandria. The future power and glory of Rome were to be shadowed by the presence of strange semivivi from the east.

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