An hour later, Gaius Vibulenus called the meeting to order.
There were almost sixty former legionnaires sprawled everywhere in the great salon. Fortunately, Gaius owned an enormous villa. The entire estate-not far from Capua, to his delight-had been a historical museum before it was turned over to him by the Italian regional government, following the dictates of popular demand.
Many more legionnaires had offered to come, but Gaius had kept the invitations reasonably small. Too many people would make decisions impossible. Besides, the men in the room were, almost without exception, the surviving leaders of the Roman legion. All of the centurions were there, and almost all of the file-closers. Whatever decision they made would be accepted by the rest of the legionnaires.
“All right,” began Vibulenus, “you’ve all heard the Gha proposal. In its basic outline, anyway.”
He waved his hand airily. “I have it on the best authority that the Confederation government will give its backing to the scheme. Unofficially, of course.”
Clodius Afer sneered. “Those politicians? Be serious, Gaius! They’re even worse than that sorry lot of senators we left behind.”
Several other legionnaires grunted their agreement with that sentiment. Ainsley, watching, was amused. With few exceptions-Vibulenus, for one; and, oddly enough, Julius Rusticanus-the Romans had never been able to make sense out of modern politics. They tended to dismiss all of it as so much silly nonsense, which could be settled quick enough with just a few crucifixions.
Much as the historian admired-even loved-the Romans, he was glad not to have lived in their political world. True, much of modern politics was “so much silly nonsense.” But, much of it wasn’t, appearances to the contrary. And, modern man that he ultimately was, Ainsley thoroughly approved of the world-wide ban on capital punishment-much less torture.
“You’re wrong, Clodius,” rumbled Julius Rusticanus. The first centurion set down his wine goblet, almost ceremoniously, and stood up. Trained in the rhetorical traditions of the ancient world, he struck a solemn pose. His audience-just as well trained-assumed the solemn stance of listeners.
“Listen to me, Romans. Unlike most of you, I have paid careful attention to modern politics. And I do not share your contempt for it. Nor do I have any desire to listen to puling nonsense about the ‘glories of Rome.’ I remember the old politics, too. It was stupid Roman politics-the worst kind of personal ambition-that marched us all into that damned Parthian desert. Whatever folly there is in modern men-and there’s plenty of it-they are a better lot than we were.”
He glared around the room, as if daring anyone to argue with him. No one, of course, was foolish enough to do so. Not with the first centurion.
“No children starve, in this modern world. No old people die from neglect. No rich man takes a poor man’s farm by bribing a judge. No master beats his slave for some trifling offense. There are no slaves.”
Again, the sweeping glare. The silence, this time, came from more than respect. Whatever their crude attitudes, the legionnaires all knew that in this, at least, Julius Rusticanus spoke nothing but the plain and simple truth.
“So I’ll hear no sneering about ‘politicians.’ We humans have always had politicians. Our old ones were never any better-and usually a lot worse. I know why Gaius is confident that the Confederation will support the proposal. I don’t even need to know who his ‘best authority’ is. All I have to do is observe what’s in front of my nose.”
He laughed heartily. Theatrically, to Ainsley; but the historian knew that was an accepted part of the rhetoric. The ancients had none of the modern liking for subtle poses.
“The simple political reality is this, legionnaires,” continued Rusticanus. “The people, in their great majority, are now filled with anti-Galactic fervor.” Again, that theatrical laugh. “I think most of them are a bit bored with their peaceful modern world, to tell you the truth. They haven’t had a war-not a real one, anyway-in almost a hundred years. And this is what they call a crusade.”
“Won’t be able to fight, then,” grumbled one of the file-closers. “They’re all a pack of civilians.”
“Really?” sneered Rusticanus. “I’ll tell you what, Appuleius-why don’t you explain that to the Guild fleet? You know-the one that’s nothing more than gas drifting in space?”
The jibe was met with raucous laughter. Joyful, savage laughter, thought Ainsley. For all their frequent grumbling about “modern sissies,” the historian knew the fierce pride which the Romans had taken in Trumbull’s destruction of the Guild fleet.
The first centurion pressed home the advantage. He gestured-again, theatrically-to one of the Medics standing toward the side of the salon. This was the “old” Medic, not the “new” one-the stocky, mauve-skinned, three-fingered crewman from the ship the Romans had captured years earlier. A few months after their arrival on Earth, the troop transport’s Pilot had committed suicide. But the Medic had adjusted rather well to his new reality. He had even, over time, grown quite friendly with many of the legionnaires. Vibulenus had invited him to this meeting in order to take advantage of his Galactic knowledge.
“Tell them, Medic!” commanded Rusticanus. “Tell them how long it’s been since an entire Guild fleet was annihilated.”
The Medic stepped forward a pace or two. All the Romans were watching him intently, with the interest of veterans hearing the story of an unfamiliar campaign.
“As far as I know, it’s never happened.”
The legionnaires stared.
“What do you mean?” croaked one of them. “What do you mean-never?”
The Medic shook his head, a gesture he had picked up from his long immersion among humans. “Not that I know of. I’m not saying it never happened-way, way back toward the beginning of the Federation, sixty or seventy thousand years ago. But I know it hasn’t happened in a very long time.”
The Romans were practically goggling, now.
Again, the Medic shook his head. “You don’t understand. You all think like-like Romans. All humans seem to think that way-even modern ones like Trumbull. The Guilds-and their Federation-are merchants. Profit and loss, that’s what sets their field of vision. The Guilds fight each other, now and then, but it’s never anything like that-that massacre Trumbull ordered. After one or two of their ships gets banged around-they hardly ever actually lose a ship-the Guild that’s getting the worst of it just offers a better deal. And that’s it.”
The room was silent, for over a minute, as the Roman veterans tried to absorb this fantastical information. Ainsley was reminded of nothing so much as a pack of wolves trying to imagine how lapdogs think.
Suddenly, one of the legionnaires erupted in laughter. “Gods!” he cried. “Maybe this crazy Gha scheme will work after all!” He beamed approvingly at the huge figure of Fludenoc. “And at least we’ll have these damned giant toads on our side, this time.”
Fludenoc barked, in the Gha way of humor.
“Only some of us, you damned monkey shrimp,” he retorted. “In the beginning, at least. All the members of the Poct’on will join, once they learn. But most Gha do not belong to the secret society, and it will take time to win them over.”
“That doesn’t matter,” interjected Gaius. “The new legions are the heart of the plan. They’ll have to be human, of course. There aren’t very many Gha to begin with, and half of them are scattered all over the galaxy. Whereas we-!”
He grinned and glanced at his watch. “Let’s stop for a moment, comrades. I want you to watch something.”
He nodded at Rusticanus. The first centurion picked up the remote control lying on a nearby table and turned on the television. The huge screen on the far wall suddenly bloomed with color-and sound.
Lots of sound.
Wincing, Rusticanus hastily turned down the volume. In collusion with Gaius, he had already set the right channel, but he hadn’t tested the sound.
The legionnaires were transfixed. Gaping, many of them.
“This scene is from Beijing,” said Vibulenus. “The small square-the one that looks small, from the camera’s height-is called Tien-an-Men.”
The scene on the television suddenly shifted to another city. “This is Shanghai,” he said.
Another scene. “Guangzhou.”
Another. Another. Another.
“Nanjing. Hangzhou. Chongqing.”
China was on the march. Every one of those great cities was packed with millions of people, marching through its streets and squares, chanting slogans, holding banners aloft.
“It’s not just China,” said Rusticanus. His voice, like that of Gaius, was soft.
Another city. More millions, marching, chanting, holding banners aloft.
Another. Another. More and more and more.
Sao Paolo. Moscow. Los Angeles. Lagos. Ciudad de Mexico.
On and on and on.
A different scene came on the screen. Not a city, now, but a hillside in farm country. The hillside itself-and everywhere the camera panned-was covered with an enormous throng of people. Speeches were being given from a stand atop the ridge.
“That is called Cemetery Ridge,” announced Rusticanus. “It is near the small town of Gettysburg in the North American province called Pennsylvania. These people have gathered here to participate in what they are calling the Rededication.”
Harshly: “Most of you ignorant sods won’t understand why they are calling it that. But you can find out easily enough by reading a short speech which a man named Lincoln gave there not so very long ago. He was a ‘stinking politician,’ of course.”
None of the legionnaires, Ainsley noted, even responded to the jibe. They were still utterly mesmerized by the scenes on the television.
The historian glanced around the room. Its other occupants, mostly aliens, were equally mesmerized-the Gha, Quartilla, the two Medics and the Pilot.
But only on the faces of the legionnaires did tears begin to fall.
They, like the others, were transfixed by the unforgettable images of sheer, raw, massive human power. But it was not the sight of those millions upon millions of determined people which brought tears to Roman eyes. It was the sudden, final knowledge that the world’s most long-lost exiles had never been forgotten.
One thing was common, in all those scenes. The people varied, in their shape and color and manner of dress. The slogans were chanted in a hundred languages, and the words written on a multitude of banners came in a dozen scripts.
But everywhere-on a hillside in Pennsylvania; a huge square in China-the same standards were held aloft, dominating the banners surrounding them. Many of those standards had been mass-produced for the occasion; many-probably most-crafted by hand.
The eagle standard of the legions.
Gaius rose. Like Rusticanus, he also adopted a theatrical pose, pointing dramatically at the screen.
“There are twelve billion people alive in the world today,” he said. “And all of them, as one, have chosen that standard as the symbol of their new crusade.”
The tribune’s eyes swept the room, finally settling on the scarred face of Clodius Afer.
“Will history record that the first Romans failed the last?” he demanded.
Rusticanus switched off the screen. For a moment, the room was silent. Then, Clodius Afer rose and (theatrically) drained his goblet.
“I never said I wouldn’t do it,” he announced. With a dramatic wave at the screen:
“Besides, I couldn’t face my ancestors, knowing that all those innocent lads went off to war without proper training from”-dramatic scowl-“proper legionnaires.”
Very dramatic scowl: “The poor sorry bastards.”