In the year that Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii, the Roman Centurion Vitellan set off for the twenty-first century as Imperial Rome's last human-powered time machine. He killed an unfaithful lover by just letting her grow old, but her hate pursued him across seven centuries. In 1358 he stood with a few dozen knights against an army of nine thousand to defend the life of a beautiful countess...and earned a love that would conquer death.
Now Vitellan has awakened in the twenty-first century, a bewildered fugitive, betrayed and hunted in a world where minds and bodies are swapped and memories are bought, sold, and read like books. But worst of all, a deadly enemy from the fourteenth century is still very much alive--and closing in.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Sean McMullen is one of the leading Australian SF authors to emerge during the 1990s, having won more than a dozen national awards in his homeland. In addition, he has sold many short stories to magazines such as Analog, Interzone, and Fantasy&Science Fiction, and was co-author of Strange Constellations, a History of Australian SF. He established himself in the American market with the publication of the Greatwinter trilogy (comprised of Souls in the Great Machine, The Miocene Arrow, and Eyes of the Calculor). His fiction has been translated into Polish, French, and Japanese. The settings for Sean's work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future.
He has bachelor's and master's degrees from Melbourne University, and post-graduate diplomas in computer science, information science and business management. He is currently doing a PhD in Medieval Fantasy Literature at Melbourne University, where he is also the deputy instructor at the campus karate club, and a member of the fencing club. Before he began writing, Sean spent several years in student reviews and theatre, and was lead singer in three rock and folk bands. After singing in several early music groups and choirs, he spent two years in the Victorian State Opera before he began writing.
He lives in Melbourne with his wife Trish and daughter Catherine.
Read an Excerpt
The Centurion's Empire
By Sean McMullen, Jack Dann
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1998 Sean McMullen
All rights reserved.
Nusquam, the European Alps: 17 December 71, Anno Domini
Rome was near the height of its power in the second year of Vespasian's reign as emperor, and nobody would have suspected that the Empire's fate hung by the life of a five-hundred-and-eighty-year-old Etruscan. Celcinius lay with his ears and nostrils sealed with beeswax plugs, and his mouth bound shut. His body was frozen solid in a block of ice at the bottom of a shaft two hundred feet deep.
Regulus held his olive oil lamp high as he entered the Frigidarium Glaciale. He shivered, even dressed as he was in a coat of quilted Chinese silk and goosedown. The sheepskin lining of his hobnailed clogs did no better to keep out the cold, and the fur of his hood and collar was crusted with frost from his own breath. Wheezing loudly after the long trek down through corridors cut through solid ice, he paused for a moment.
"There'd be something wrong were it not so damn cold," he panted to himself as he leaned against the wall, watching his words become puffs of golden fog in the lamplight.
The Frigidarium Glaciale was a single corridor cut into the ice. It stretched away into blackness, as straight and level as a Roman road. On the walls on either side of him were rows of bronze panels, each two feet by seven and inscribed with names and dates. After a minute Regulus reluctantly heaved himself into motion again, shuffling down the corridor and leaning heavily on a staff that bore the Temporian crest of a winged eye. Its other end was tipped with a spike, so that it would not slip on the ice of the floor.
He paused again by a panel marked with his own name and bearing twenty-six pairs of dates. There was something strangely alluring about this cell cut into the ice, where he had spent 360 of the 437 years since his birth. Following his own private ritual he knocked out the pins securing the top of the panel to retaining bolts set into the ice, then levered it down with his staff. The hinges creaked reluctantly, shedding a frosty crust. Behind it was an empty space six feet long and two feet deep.
Regulus stared into the little chamber, holding the lamp up and running his gloved hand along the surface of the ice. He had been in there when Plato had died, and for the whole of Alexander the Great's short but remarkable career. Regulus had, of course, been awake to attend the Temporians' Grand Council, the single time when all his fellow Temporians had been awake together. That was when they had decided to abandon their Etruscan heritage and support Rome. The Punic Wars and rapid expansion of Roman power and influence had followed, and Regulus had been awake to earn scars in the fighting against Hannibal. There had been more years in the ice after that, until he had been revived in time to cross the Rubicon with Julius Caesar. That time he had stayed awake for two decades, until after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. He had returned to the ice again by the time Christ was born.
The old man was secretly a little claustrophobic, and disliked both being in the Frigidarium Glaciale and the prospect of some day returning to his assigned cell there. He heaved the bronze panel back into place. "Never again," he promised himself as he scanned the dates in the dancing lamplight, then he turned and shuffled farther down the corridor of the Frigidarium Glaciale like a short, arthritic bear.
At a vacant cell he took a metal tag from his robes, slid it into a bracket and sealed it into place. He studied the entry for a moment before moving on.
"Vitellan Bavalius, eh?" he chuckled softly to the name on the panel. "You're the lad who survived five days in a cold sea after that troopship sank last September. You don't know about us yet, lad, but you are destined to join us and sleep in this hole. We're watching you now, and you are very promising. You're a strong, natural leader, and you have great resistance to the cold. Those are perfect qualifications to become a Temporian and live for a thousand years."
Regulus patted the tag with Vitellan's name like a teacher encouraging a good student, then walked down to the very end of the Frigidarium Glaciale. The panel bearing Celcinius' name was alone in the wall at the end of the corridor. Regulus turned and glanced behind him, more through habit than paranoia. The entrance had now faded into blackness, but the corridor was empty as far as he could see. He released the pins and pried the panel out to reveal a block of rammed snow, from which emerged leather straps bound with a wax seal. He allowed himself a little smile: the imprint in the seal was his own: 217 years earlier he had been acting as the Frigidarium Glaciale's Master of the Ice for the first time when Celcinius had returned to the ice. Satisfied, he swung the plate back and checked the dates inscribed in it. Celcinius was ninety-four in terms of years awake. That was bad. It would be a difficult revival.
Regulus slowly made his way back down the length of the Frigidarium Glaciale, past the 370 other bronze plates, and stopped at the thick, metal-bound oak door. With a twinge of shame he realized that he had not checked the reading in the lock when he had entered. "Memory's going too," he muttered, taking a stylus and wax tablet from the folds of his heavy robes and peering through a slit in the lock's housing. Three numerals were visible, and Regulus noted them. He was about to pull the door shut when he realized that he had not locked the door behind him while he was inside the Frigidarium Glaciale. "Lucky nobody's here to see all this," he said, pulling the door shut. Taking an iron key nearly a foot in length he locked the door, unlocked it, then locked it again. The lock's mechanism was the most advanced in existence, and had been installed only five years earlier. It incorporated a counter-wheel that recorded the number of openings and closings, and could not be reset. He noted down the second — and now correct — reading.
"If my memory's as bad as that I'll not get out alive," he muttered as he pulled his fur-lined mittens back on.
The Frigidarium Glaciale was not located in a glacier, but was cut into unmoving, stable ice in a deep ravine between two mountain peaks. Regulus cautiously walked down a flight of steps carved out of the ice and along another passage. At the bottom was a door, in fact every twenty feet there was another door to seal in the cold air. There were no guards down here, but it was still a dangerous place for intruders. One door opened onto a walkway above a deep pit with long, sharp spikes at the bottom. The walkway was designed to tip unwary visitors off if they did not reset a group of levers in the right sequence at the halfway point. Beyond this was a vault of ice blocks that would collapse unless a lever back at the previous door was moved to the correct notch first. Finally there was a cage of metal bars, and beside it three wheels with numbers engraved on the rims. Set the wrong code on the wheels and the lower passage would be automatically flooded with water piped from a heated cistern two hundred feet above. The right code alerted a slave in the palace to start his horse turning a windlass to raise the elevator cage. Regulus entered the cage and pulled the door shut. He reached back out through the bars and set the wheels to the correct code.
After an interval that never failed to unnerve him the cage jerked slightly, then began to move upward. He leaned back against the bars and sighed a long plume of condensed breath. Perhaps his memory was not so bad after all, perhaps his lapses in the actual Frigidarium Glaciale had only occurred because his life had not been at stake down there. The olive oil lamplight showed stratified layers in the ice and occasional stones as he made the slow journey upward. He had a name for every embedded stone that he passed, he had made the trip hundreds of times. All that seemed to change was the intensity of the cold. For the last few feet the shaft was lined with marble blocks.
The cage emerged into a torchlit stone chamber, then stopped. A woman in her late fifties was waiting for Regulus, shivering within several layers of pine marten fur. She unlatched the cage door while the slave in charge of the windlass threw the anchor bolts at the base of the cage. Regulus was trembling almost convulsively as she led him to a little alcove that was heated by air piped from a distant furnace. The warmth slowly eased his distress.
"I told you to take an assistant," she said as she poured him a cup of warm, spiced wine from a silver flask on an oil-burner stand.
"The rules are the rules," he replied between chattering teeth.
"Do you know how long you were down there?"
He ignored the question. "Well Doria, the seal on Celcinius' body is intact," he reported, then gulped a mouthful of wine. "Everything is as it was during my previous inspection. I can authorize his release if the Adjudicators vote for it."
"He was eighty-nine last time he was revived," said Doria, putting a pan of wax on the oil-burner. "According to the Revival Ledger he hovered near death for six days. I'll not vote for revival. Not just now, anyway."
"The last unpaired date on his panel shows that he was ninety-four at the time of his last freezing."
"I know, I know. It is in my own records." Doria closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Surely we can make our own decisions by now. We don't need his sanction."
"Perhaps not, but the Adjudicators are still calling for his sanction," Regulus said as he rubbed the circulation back into his hands. "That's why they want him revived."
"If he dies, what then?" asked Doria.
"If he dies we have lost our founder," he replied with resignation.
"Precisely," she said with some vehemence, now leaning forward and tapping the heated stone bench. "We lose our greatest unifying symbol."
"Doria, please — there are complex issues here. The Adjudicators cannot be forced to rely on their own authority and judgment when they rule on Vespasian making himself Emperor."
She sat back, shaking her dyed black curls. "With Celcinius frozen, at least we still have our founder symbolically alive. The Adjudicators must learn to make their own decisions without a nod from him."
Regulus slowly picked up his cup and took another sip of wine. "I'm confused. Would you have Celcinius frozen forever? What is so bad about such an old man's death?"
Doria sat watching the condensation of her own breath as she considered her reply.
"It is bad for the woman in charge of the revival team that fails to restore Celcinius to life, and I am that woman," she said slowly and clearly, then closed her eyes.
"So, a hidden agenda."
"In the ice he is at least not dead, but if we try to revive him he will almost certainly die. Why bother, why not leave him alone? What is your hidden agenda, Regulus?"
The slave appeared at the door of the alcove, bowed and entered.
"We shall continue this later," said Regulus with some relief.
The slave reported that the cage was secure for his inspection. Regulus grumbled, but got to his feet, pulling himself up hand over hand with his staff. The slave bowed again and backed out of the alcove, and Doria followed them with the pan of hot wax. Regulus gave the cage a cursory check, tapping bars, pins, and gears with his staff, then he gestured to Doria. With a practiced flourish she poured the wax over the master lock pin of the windlass, and after a moment Regulus pressed his ring seal into the soft, warm wax. The heat was welcome on his chilled fingers, and he withdrew the ring with reluctance.
"Did you attach the tag plate for young Vitellan Bavalius?" Doria asked as they walked through the blackstone access corridor.
"Yes, yes, yes, I'm not senile yet. When is he due to be initiated?"
"In a few months. He was to be sent to Egypt, but I had him sent instead to the Furtivus Legion that guards the approaches to this palace. He is stationed in Primus Fort, and Centurion Namatinus has been sending me reports on him — in fact he is due to be part of the escort for our next mule caravan of supplies."
"How has he reacted to being in a secret legion?"
"Extremely well. He is our first Christian recruit, did you know that? The Christians have a strong sense of discipline, dedication, and duty, and they teach their children to keep secrets almost as soon as they can talk. They could well become a prime source of new blood for us Temporians. Vitellan is certainly a model recruit."
Regulus spat and cursed. "Damn cruel, it is, taking a boy of seventeen and freezing him for fifty years. It's killing his friends and family for him, even though they will live out their lives unharmed."
"But he must have all his personal ties severed while he is young and flexible, Regulus. He must become accustomed to living as we do. It may be a sharp wrench for him, but the rewards are great. Our reports certainly indicate that he has the rare combination of qualities that makes a good Temporian."
"He may not want to join us, once he has been told of our existence. He may have a girl somewhere."
"Then he will be killed," said Doria simply. "You know that as well as I do." They emerged into the palace, but Regulus insisted on going out onto a balcony at once. The winter sky was blue and clear, although the lower part of the mountain was shrouded by mist. The air was still and crisply cold. He breathed deeply, savoring the pure, fresh air and swearing to himself that he would never again drink the Venenum Immortale and sleep frozen in the Frigidarium Glaciale.
An Alpine Trail: 17 December 71, Anno Domini
Gallus was thankful that this was the season's last trek through the Alps to feed the gods. Already the snow was deep, and within a few weeks his mules would find it impossible. An unseasonably heavy fall could easily happen as early as tomorrow, he reminded himself. Vitellan rode the last mule in the line, alert and keenly observing everything. He was young and enthusiastic, like all the other Roman legionaries that had been assigned to escort Gallus' mules over the years. In the spring Vitellan would be transferred somewhere else, but Gallus could look forward to many more years of hauling grain, oil, firewood, and luxuries through the mountains, and leaving it all on a huge altar for the gods to take. Why are my assistants transferred so quickly yet I remain here, Gallus wondered. Have I failed some unspoken test of the Furtivus Legion?
In all his years of travel Gallus had never seen the gods. Their altar was at the base of a sheer cliff whose top was generally obscured by mist. Occasionally a muleteer-legionary would stay back and hide among the rocks to see what took the piles of sacks, bales, amphorae, and firewood from the altar, but the story was always the same. An enormous hand would reach down and snatch away the piles during the night. Some muleteers who stayed back were never seen again.
Gallus was steady and conservative in his work. He displayed no curiosity about the gods, did as he was ordered, and was always punctual. It was a hard but secure life, as there were no bandits to fear in such a remote part of the Alps. Later that day they would meet with the main convoy of seventy mules, and from there it was another two days to the altar.
An arrow thudded into his chest. Gallus stiffened, then toppled across the neck of his mule. His thick butt-leather breastplate had taken most of the impact so that the point barely scratched his skin, but Gallus was not about to let anyone know that. Behind him came shouts and curses from Vitellan and their attackers: "He's hiding!" and "Mind the mule!" The animals were in a panic already, but the snow and their leads prevented them from bolting.
More shouts echoed through the mountains, mingled with the clang of blades. Vitellan was fighting from behind his mule. The mules had value, and the bandits would not risk injuring them. Gallus listened to the voices. Four or five of them. "Grab the lead mule!" That was his cue. Footsteps came crunching through the snow, lungs wheezed that were unaccustomed to the thin alpine air. "Off with ye," said a voice with the intonations of a pleb from the lowlands cities, but as the bandit tried to push Gallus from the mule the old legionary suddenly reached forward with an unthreatening, fluid, even gentle gesture and plunged a dagger into his throat.
Now Gallus slipped from the mule and looked back, the arrow still protruding from his chest. Vitellan had sent one of the bandits staggering away clutching his side and was engaging the other two. Two down. No more than five in total, including one hidden archer. Gallus started back, sheltering behind each mule in turn. An arrow struck a grain sack, fired from the rocks to the side of him. Good, good, nearly past the archer, Gallus thought.
Excerpted from The Centurion's Empire by Sean McMullen, Jack Dann. Copyright © 1998 Sean McMullen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 - Venenum immortale,
2 - pax romana,
3 - charon's anchor,
4 - the centurion's champion,
5 - the deciad,
6 - countess and knight,
What People are Saying About This
Sean McMullen is one of the rare ones who can combine high technology, daring visions of future societies, and strong characters into first-rate science fiction.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Minireview: In the first century CE, Roman Centurion Vitellan finds a way to freeze himself and sleep through the years without aging, travelling through time the slow way. After brief encounters with Vikings and the Hundred Years' War, the bulk of the plot is set in the 21st century, as Vitellan and other travellers like him become objects of adoration for cults. Although the book can drift a bit, its focus on the central character of Vitellan helps keep it from sprawling as badly as Souls in the Great Machine, the only other book by McMullen I've read.
This book is absolutely amazing! After taking 3 years of Latin, I loved the Roman culture in this book, which has a lot of twists and betrayals with the Romans still being the coolest people out there!