Daniel Ottalini’s new novel – Brass Legionnaire
Julius Brutus Caesar used his wrench to tighten the bolt on the sprocket. When connected to the rest of the engine, the engineers could begin the final assembly of yet another mechaniphant. Not for the first time in his life did Julius wonder why on earth someone had the desire to invent such a mechanical monstrosity in the first place. Although, he did have to admit, it was impressive, standing over fifteen imperial feet tall, with a protected driver’s seat and razor sharp chain tusks. Perfect for crashing through the center of an enemy’s battle line, especially when combined with other mechaniphants. Julius shook his head to clear his wandering mind and returned to the situation at hand. Gas lanterns burned all around the factory. Steam pipes crossed haphazardly near the ceiling, matched by spindly gantry ways and support struts. The whole factory would have been a safety inspector’s nightmare. Of course, the inspector was bribed, so the whole situation was swept under the rug, so to speak. Far above Julius’ head, large windows were open to let in the sounds and smells of Brittenburg, otherwise known as Majoris Brittenburgia, factory city and capital of the Imperial Roman Province of Germania Inferior. Julius picked up his wrench, carefully cleaning it with a dirty rag pulled from his utility belt.
“Much better.” He thought to himself as he tucked the rag back into a pouch on his belt. A loud whistle sounded on the floor and Julius trudged towards the massive steel doors covered in peeling paint and rust splotches. The air smelled of bitter industrial coolants, welding smoke and various other chemicals. Crossing the factory floor, Julius nodded his head in greeting to several other workers as they all moved towards the pay office at the other end of the floor. Being Friday, it was payday. Julius had been working overtime to try to support his family. His father had been injured several years ago in the same factory when part of a mechaniphant collapsed during construction. Marcus Caesar had required hospitalization as well as a complete leg replacement. The medical bills continued to pile up, and it was all that Julius could do, as the main family breadwinner now, to stave off eviction from their small Sludge Bottom apartment. With three other family members to support, Julius had thrown himself into his job at the factory, hoping to impress his supervisors enough to be promoted and get a raise. The factory workers quietly cued up before the office window, where the paymaster carefully checked his charts and notes before grudgingly handing over a small handful of copper and silver coins to the different workers.
Julius stepped up to the window. “Caesar, Julius B.” He told the attendant.
“Here you go Julius, and don’t bother counting, I added in what you earned in overtime. So no complaining!” The gruff rumble of the paymaster’s voice contrasted with the thin, weedy appearance of the older man. A thin, droopy mustache hung over his mouth, where his lips barely moved as he talked.
“That’s all?” asked Julius incredulously. It was barely more than he had earned last period. “But I was here for thirty extra hours this week!”
“Oh yea? Well, money don’t grow on trees, you know that! Of course, since you are our resident ‘emperor’ how about you just command money to appear! Ha! Hahahah!”
Julius glared at the paymaster as he doubled over, laughing and coughing at the same time.
“You’re a real Plato aren’t you?” Julius mumbled as he scooped up his denarii and walked through the steel factory doors into the murky grey sunlight of a Brittenburg afternoon, once again cursing his family for naming him after the founder of the empire.
Outside, the cobblestone streets were filled with people, machines and animals. Julius navigated his way past booksellers, out of town merchants, a pair of barbarians with matching trousers and face tattoos standing next to an aviator in a long leather flying jacket and goggles around his neck, and a group of school children herded along by a matronly woman and a portly teacher. Julius’ home was on the west side of town, almost right against the massive curtain wall that was both defensive fortification and bay dyke. The area was dark, dank and affectionately known as Sludge Bottom to the rest of the city. On a whim, Julius stopped by a bakery as he crossed town, stepping over the electrified rails of the motortrollies.
“Customer! Customer!” Squawked a mechanical bird in the corner. A shaft connected to the opening door had triggered the mechanism. An older woman wearing a smock over her grey dress walked out of the back. She waved a greeting.
“Hello Julius! Picking up groceries for the family?”
“Naw, just grabbing a snack” he looked carefully through the clouded glass display windows. “Are those honey nut tarts?” He asked excitedly. The heavily glazed treats were a traditional Brittenburg desert and snack food, popular from the lowest plebian to the Governor himself, who was rumored to have devoured trays of them on his own.
“Absolutely, you know how hard they are to keep in stock. Ignacious is starting another batch to make sure we have enough for tomorrow.” She handed him the bread in one hand and a small, delicate box with the other. “Take the runt of the batch for free, it will go stale otherwise. And make sure your sister gets at least a bite!” She shouted at him as his smile went from overjoyed to smirk in a heartbeat.
“Crumbs count as a bite, don’t they?” He joked back.
Julius paid for the loaf of bread. It was still warm and he wrapped it in paper against the chill he had felt in the air. Fall was coming to the city, and soon with it, the rainy season. Which made living in Brittenburg all the more challenging. He paused at a street corner to tear off a chunk of bread.
A horn call from nearby tugged at his senses and he found himself wandering closer to see what the fuss was about. A short, stocky man with an amplification device stood on a raised platform, haranguing the crowd.
“Patricians and Plebeians, Servants and Republicans, my countrymen! The Imperial Army is recruiting! We have need of good, strapping young men to join our army! Join the newest, most extraordinary legion, the XIII Germania! The Imperial Senate clamors for war! Will you join your countrymen to bring punishment and pain onto these barbarians and bloodthirsty raiders? Those dastardly pillagers and savages who steal children, destroy livelihoods, enslave our women and kill our men! Will you join with me?” His voice, amplified by the device, echoed around the square as crowds cheered. A throng of young men rushed to the smoking steam wagons to sign their names up for enlistment. Although the Empire had long ago eliminated the compulsory military service for all male citizens, many families continued to see military service as a constant, required duty. The military paid well and consistently, no small feat for an empire stretching half the known world.
For a moment Julius considered enlisting. Although he was the right age and was in great shape, both mentally and physically, he doubted his ability to complete training and earn a place as a Legionary in the Imperial Legions. He watched as, one by one, the men were led into an enclosed steam wagon where, presumably, they would be examined to see if they were fit for duty. He walked closer, and suddenly the speech-giving legionnaire was right in front of him.
“Good day, son, looking for a little excitement and a chance to see the world?” He asked.
Julius considered. Although that did sound fun and exciting, he had more practical things to worry about. “I’d love to, but I’ve got to take care of my family here.” He said.
The legionary smiled. This was not a new argument for him. The young man before him, a little taller than usual, but strongly built with muscles on his frame, looked very serious for his age. “Do you know about the signing bonus? And the monthly paychecks? We can have them deposited straight to your bank account here. If your parents have telecom service, you can even hear them over the wireless when at base.”
Julius was intrigued. “How much is the signing bonus?”
The legionnaire named a figure. Julius’ eyebrows rose.
“I can tell you need some time to think about it. Don’t miss out on this chance. The army offers mobility, a chance to improve your life. Don’t stay here and be a slave cog in some factory the rest of your life. That’s not much to tell your grandkids about.”
The man’s eyes met Julius for a moment. To Julius, it seemed as though those eyes had seen way too much in this world.
“I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.” The legionnaire seemed to have read Julius’ mind.
“We’ll be here for three more days. Simply ask for us at the Auxilia barracks. Then we march for Camp Titus near the Black Forest. You get the signing bonus the moment you sign on the dotted line and receive the tin Aquila, the symbol of being a legionnaire in training. I’m Duplicarius Apollonius, head recruiter.” The soldier shook his hand and moved off into the crowd.
Julius resumed his walk home, his heart seemed to beat a bit fast as he envisioned himself proudly wearing the uniform of the legion. His only worry was how he would convince his parents.
* * *
Marius Caesar’s well-calloused fist slammed onto the well worm dinner table.
“NO. No. No. No. No son of mine is going to go join the army. You are this” he held up his thumb and forefinger nearly touching “close to getting that promotion. I can feel it in my bones. Even my metal ones.” He joked.
Two pairs of brown eyes stared at each other across the table. A few years ago, Julius could not have even kept his eyes up. His father’s eyes had seen much in the last few years. Living in one of the poorest areas of the city had been a drain on his father both mentally and physically. The lines on his face were deeper, and the hair on his head, black and curly, was thinner, peppered with grey hairs that hadn’t been there recently. He cracked a nut in his hand and popped it into his mouth. “Aurelia, give me a hand here.”
“Now Marcus” said a soft voice from the sink. Aurelia Marcia stood at the sink, washing dishes. Her slender, narrow boned figure moved slightly as her hands used the dishrag to wash the dirty plates and cups. “He’s old enough to make his own decisions. I don’t want him joining the Legions either. But we’re at peace. You know a peacetime army does little more than march in circles and look nice for the Legates.” Marius look peeved.
“I am still the paterfamilias of this family and I say you will not be joining the Legions.” His voice was actually louder now. Julius had never heard his father yell before. He was always one of those deadly-quiet-voice types. The creaking sounds of floorboards and the pitter-patter of small feet indicated that seven-year-old Marciena had entered the room.
“Momma, why is Papa yelling?”
Aurelia gave her husband a dirty look as she dried her hands on her apron. She placed the last of the dishes into the autodrier, turned the crank and walked away as the machine began to emit the low pitch wine. Marcus pushed his chair back and stood up. His mechanical leg squealed and hissed and settled down. He walked over to the autodrier and smacked it on the side.
“Holy Emperor, this stupid piece of crap never seems to work” He smacked it again for good measure and the machine’s whine turned into a low, steady hum. “I’m amazed it’s kept together this long. Gonna have to break out the wrench-spanner tomorrow and take this thing apart to see where that wire’s crossed.” He turned to look at Julius.
“You’ll help me right?” His voice almost seemed to plead.
Julius mustered his courage. “Father, I know it’s been hard for us. This is our way out. The army pays better than the factory does. They also offer a signing bonus. 25 denarii! That will pay off our loans and you’ll own this place. I’ll even have my money sent back here, so Marciena can go to school and you and Momma won’t have to worry.”
Julius set his mug down on the table. His hands felt the cracks in the mug, repaired again and again by his mother to stretch every denarii they had.
“We need the money. It’s the only thing we can do.”
His father was staring out the window over the kitchen sink, gazing at the sparkling glass and electric lights of the city around them. A clattering steamwagon chugged through the streets below them, metal wheels scratching against the street surface.
“Looks like fog tonight” his voice rumbled low. He turned to give one brief glance at his only son, still sitting on the three-legged stool at the table. He remembered when Julius had made that stool using his own tools, his own hands. He had never been so proud. And then, getting that job in the factory at only 16! Why, no one else in the slum could boast of a son like that. To have his son leave, disappear from his life like this, even in the name of supporting the family, was unthinkable. Unacceptable.
“You cannot leave. You do not have my blessing.” He stumped out of the room. Julius sighed. He knew it would be a challenge to bring his father around. He hadn’t anticipated the extreme opposition though. He had though his father would support him following his dreams.
His mother walked back into the kitchen. She put her arm around his shoulder and gave it a tight squeeze. His mother was a gentle soul. Rarely did she ever express anger or frustration. She worked as a weaver, weaving and selling basic tunics for the poor people of the slums. His mom was similar to the clothing she made. Simple and plain, but solid and strong, too. Not flashy or rich but dependable and long lasting. His mother had made a life for herself here in the slums. She sat down next to Julius.
“Your father is not angry at you. He’s angry that you are leaving your family. You have responsibilities here to your community, to the factory, and to your sister and father and I.” Her voice was low, almost a whisper now. The sounds of the city crept into the quiet kitchen. The clanking and whirring of a nearby patrol walker. The occasional screech of metal against rusted metal. The faint sound of waves hitting the city wall behind them.
“Can you bring Papa around? I have to go. This is about my only chance out of here. To see the Empire. Can you imagine Mother? There is a world beyond these black iron walls, beyond this stinking slum. I can’t stay here. I’ll leave without his blessing, but leave I will.” He promised his mother.
She smiled wanly at her only son. “Sometimes I think it’s hard for your father to see how much of him there is in you. I’ll do my best to bring him around. You know how he needs time to adjust. Now you get some sleep. We’ll discuss this more in the morning.”
She stood up and moved quietly from the room. Julius gathered his thoughts and left the table. The gears in his head were turning full blast. As he lay in his bed close to falling asleep, he heard the sounds of his mother’s whispered prayers to the gods for his safety. The soft murmur of her voice lulled him to sleep.
* * *
A few blocks away, the constabulary auxilia walker Justica III slogged its way through the darkened streets of Sludge Bottom. Traditionally, Sludge Bottom was not a bastion of law and order in the vibrant mechanical city of Brittenburg. The Governor, under pressure from various city council members, merchants and the province senators, had agreed to send the patrols in during both day and nighttime. The constable auxiliary forces were, understandably, not pleased by this turn of events. After all, they reasoned, they were the ones putting their necks on the line in old and beat up equipment. Not the Governor.
The four-man patrol manned various points on the walker. With four legs and a flat top, it looked like a giant beetle was crawling its way around Sludge Bottom. The decanus in charge of the patrol stood on at the bow of the beetle, the best vantage point on the walker. Moving through Sludge Bottom was always risky late at night, so they had both running lights and security lights on, sweeping the alleys and streets. Although it wasn’t exceptionally late, there were almost no citizens about. An odd feeling tingled at the back of his neck. 20 years of constable instinct telling him that something was not right. The streets shouldn’t be quite this silent, especially in the Sludge Bottom quarter, so early into the evening watch.
A clattering of shingles on the roof of a nearby building caught his attention. He turned, facing the auxiliary manning the helm and the wireless operator.
“What is –-“ His voice cut off as a crossbow bolt tore through his neck, sending him over the side of the walkway. Blood tore through the air and spattered the old and worn side of the walker on the way down. One sickening thud later and the decanus was splattered all over the cobblestone street.
At this point the helmsman made a grave error. Instead of continuing on at full speed to escape the ambush, his hands left the controls of the walker to reach for his weapons. The walker came to a stop. The other legionary was cranking the handle of the wireless set, watching the light go from red to amber to green. If he could get a message off, help would arrive quickly. From behind him came the sounds of combat. The fourth member of the patrol was fighting for his life, sword against daggers wielded by a cloaked figure who had dropped noiselessly onto his portion of the walker. There was a brief clash of metal, then a sigh as one found its mark in his arm, then his eye. He slumped to the deck. A powerful kick by the cloaked figure sent his lifeless body under the railing and over the side to the street below.
Seeing this, the helmsman drew his sword and battered shield from the rack and charged. He knew it was only a matter of time until they were overrun, as he heard the sounds of men climbing the walker and saw several grappling hooks arc over the sides and attach to the railings. He stalled for time, keeping himself between the boarder at the rear and the young auxiliary manning the radio.
“Hurry! Get that signal off!” He cried out, seeing the young operator seemingly frozen in fear. A flurry of impacts hit his shield. The helmsman backed off, then, whirling his sword, pressed forward, attacking. For a moment or so, it appeared that momentum was on his side. A sudden sidestep by the figure made his sword clang loudly off the metal decking. The figured raised a two prong bar and a pulsing blue arc lanced out, hiting the veteran auxiliary in the head. His body lifted off the deck plating to fall with a thud and clank of gear. The auxiliary at the radio turned around, his sword still at his side.
The figure in the cloak nodded imperceptibly at the auxiliary, placing one hand on his shoulder before moving away. She gave silent directions to the rest of the boarders, who swiftly moved to hide all evidence of their ambush. Another man walked to the control console and activated the steam engines, propelling the Justica III forward. Seeing the helmsman still breathing, the traitorous auxiliary walked over, placing his sword over the downed man’s neck.
“You never were a very good driver.”
The sword stabbed down.