Destiny's shielderic Flint & David Drake



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Chapter 28 ALEXANDRIA
Autumn, 531 a.d.
As her ships approached the Great Harbor of Alexandria, Antonina began to worry that her entire fleet might capsize. It seemed to her, at a glance, that the soldiers on every one of her ships were crowding the starboard rails, eager for a look at the world-famous Pharos.The great lighthouse was perched on a small island, also called Pharos, which was connected to the mainland by an artificial causeway known as the Heptastadium. The causeway, in addition to providing access to the lighthouse, also served to divide the Great Harbor from the Eunostus Harbor on the west.Built in three huge "stories," the Pharos towered almost four hundred feet high. The lowest section was square in design, the second octagonal, and the third cylindrical. At the very top of the cylindrical structure was a room in which a great fire was kept burning at all hours of the day and night. The light produced by that fire was magnified and projected to seaward by a reflecting device. At night, the light could be seen for a tremendous distance.She and her troops had seen that light only a few hours earlier, as her fleet approached Alexandria in the early hours of the morning. Now, two hours after dawn, the beam seemed pallid. But in the darkness, the light of the Pharos had truly lived up to its reputation. And now that they could see it clearly, so did the lighthouse itself.Her soldiers were absolutely packing the starboard rails. Antonina was on the verge of issuing orders—futile ones, probably—when a cry from the lookout in the bow drew her attention."Ships approaching!" he bellowed. "Dromons! Eight dromons!" She scrambled down the ladder from the poop deck and hurried along the starboard catwalk to the bow. Within a minute, she was standing alongside the lookout, peering at the small fleet which was emerging from the Great Harbor.Eight dromons, just as he had said. Five of them were full-size, the other three somewhat smaller. In all, she estimated that there were at least one and a half thousand soldiers manning those dromons. Most of them were oarsmen, but, after a quick count, she decided there were well over four hundred marines aboard as well.Armed and armored. And the oarsmen would also have weapons ready to hand, in the event of a boarding action.As she watched, seven of the dromons spread out, forming a barrier across the entrance to the Great Harbor. The eighth, one of the smaller ones, began rowing toward her.She felt someone at her elbow. Turning her head, she saw that Hermogenes had joined her, along with two of his tribunes and the captain of her flagship."What are your orders?" asked the captain."Stop the ship," she said. "And signal the rest of the fleet to do likewise."A pained look came on the captain's face, but he obeyed instantly."What did I say wrong this time?" grumbled Antonina.Hermogenes chuckled. "Don't know. I'm not a seaman either. But I'm sure you don't just 'stop' a ship. Much less a whole fleet! That's way too logical and straightforward. Probably something like: 'belay all forward progress' and 'relay the signal for all ships to emulate execution.' "Smiling, Antonina resumed her study of the approaching dromon. The warship was two hundred yards away, now."I assume that dromon is bearing envoys.""From whom?" he asked. Antonina shrugged."We'll find out soon enough."She pushed herself away from the rail. "When they arrive, usher them into my cabin. I'll wait for them there."Hermogenes nodded. "Good idea. It'll make you seem more imperial than if you met them on deck.""The hell with that," muttered Antonina. "It'll make me seem taller. I had that chair in my cabin specially designed for it." Ruefully, she looked down at her body. "As short as I am, I can't intimidate anybody standing up." As she hurried down the catwalk toward her cabin, Antonina noted that the appearance of the eight dromons had at least had the salutory effect of eliminating the danger of capsizing her ships. The soldiers of her fleet had left off their sight-seeing and were taking up battle positions.She stopped for a moment, steadying herself against a stay. Now that Antonina's fleet had come to a halt, the flagship was wallowing in the waves, drifting slowly before the wind. The sea was calm that morning, however, and the wind not much more than a light breeze. The ship's motion was gentle.Searching the sea for John's gunship, Antonina spotted the Theodora within seconds. To her satisfaction, she saw that John was already tacking to the northwest. In the event of a conflict, the gunship would be in perfect position to sail downwind toward the dromons blocking the harbor.Ashot came to meet her."There'll be several envoys from that ship"—she pointed to the dromon—"coming aboard. Hermogenes will usher them into my cabin. I want you and—" She broke off, studying the officers in the oncoming warship. Taking a count, to be precise. "—and four of your cataphracts to be there with me," she concluded.Ashot smiled, rather grimly. "Any in particular?"Antonina's returning smile was just as grim. "Yes. The four biggest, meanest, toughest ones you've got."Ashot nodded. Before Antonina had taken three paces toward her cabin, the Armenian officer was already bellowing his commands."Synesius! Matthew! Leo! Zenophilus! Front and center!"  The first thing the visiting officers did, after Hermogenes ushered them in, was to study the four cataphracts standing in each corner of Antonina's large cabin. A careful study, lasting for at least half a minute.Antonina fought down a grin. The visiting officers reminded her of nothing so much as four sinners in the antechamber of Hell, examining the denizens of the Pit.Four devils, one in each corner. Counting arms and armor, Antonina estimated their collective gross weight at twelve hundred pounds. Two of the cataphracts were so tall their helmets were almost brushing the ceiling of the cabin. One of them was so wide he looked positively deformed. And the last one, Leo, was considered by all of Belisarius' bucellarii to be the ugliest man alive.Not "cute" ugly. Not pug-nosed bulldog "ugly."Ugly ugly. Rabid vicious slavering monster ugly. Ogre ugly; troll ugly—even when Leo wasn't scowling, which, at the moment, he most certainly was. A gut-wrenching, spine-freezing, bowel-loosening Moloch kind of scowl.Antonina cleared her throat. Demurely. Ladylike."What can I do for you, gentlemen?" she asked.The officer in the forefront tore his eyes away from Leo and stared at her. He was a middle-aged man, with greying hair and a beard streaked with white. He was actually a bit on the tall side, Antonina thought, but he looked like a midget in the same room with Ashot's four cataphracts.For a moment, the man's stare was simply blank. Then, as recognition came to him, his eyes narrowed."You are the woman Antonina?" he demanded. "The wife of Belisarius?"She nodded. The officer's lips tightened."We have been told—that is to say, it is our understanding that you have been appointed in charge of this—uh—fleet."She nodded. The officer's lips grew thinner still, as if he had just tasted the world's sourest lemon."The situation here in Alexandria is very complicated," the officer stated forcefully. "You must understand that. It will do no one any good if you simply charge into—""The situation in Egypt is not complicated," interrupted Antonina. "The situation is very simple. The former civil, ecclesiastical and military authorities have lost the confidence of the Emperor and the Empress Regent. For that reason, I have been sent here to oversee their replacement by people who enjoy the imperial trust. On board this fleet are the newly-designated Praetorian Prefect, Patriarch, and the merarch of the Army of Egypt."She pointed a finger at Hermogenes. The young merarch was leaning his shoulder into a nearby wall, the very figure of casual relaxation."Him, as it happens. May I introduce you?"The four naval officers were goggling at her. Antonina smiled sweetly and added:"I will also be glad to introduce you to the new Praetorian Prefect and Patriarch, as soon as possible. But I'm afraid they are not on this ship."One of the younger officers in the rear suddenly exploded."This is absurd! You can't—""I most certainly can. I most certainly will." The same officer began to speak again, but the older officer in the forefront hushed him with an urgent wave of the hand."We agreed that I would do the talking!" he hissed, turning his head a bit.When he looked back at Antonina, his lips had disappeared entirely. The lemon had been swallowed whole."I can see you are not open to reason," he snapped. "So I will speak plainly. The naval authorities in Alexandria—of which we are the representatives—will take no sides in the disputes which are roiling the city. But we must insist that those disputes be settled by the city itself. We cannot agree—we will not agree—to the imposition of a forcible solution by outsiders. Therefore—""Arrest them," said Antonina. "All four." She spoke softly, calmly, easily.The officers gaped. One of them reached for his sword. But before he could begin to draw the blade from its scabbard, a hand clamped around his wrist like a vise. Zenophilus' hand, that was about the size of a bear's paw. The other huge hand seized the officer by the back of the neck. The officer began to shout.Zenophilus squeezed. The man stopped shouting instantly. Began to turn blue, in fact.The other three officers were likewise pinioned, wrist and neck, by the rest of Ashot's cataphracts."You can't do this!" shrieked the one in Matthew's grip.Matthew was one of the cataphracts who almost had to stoop to clear the cabin's ceiling. He grinned cheerfully and squeezed.Silence."Why not?" asked Antonina, smiling like a seraph. She made a little gesture at Matthew. The cataphract eased up the pressure on his captive's throat.The man coughed explosively. Then, gasping: "Those dromons have orders! If we don't return within an hour, they're to assume that hostilities have commenced!"" 'Hostilities have commenced,' " mused Hermo-genes. "My, that sounds ominous."He glanced at Ashot, leaning against the opposite wall in an identical pose." 'Hostilities have commenced,' " echoed the Armenian cataphract. "Dire words."With a little thrust of his shoulder, Ashot stood erect. He and Hermogenes exchanged a smile."Dreadful words," said Ashot. "I believe I may defecate."The officer who had issued the threat snarled."Make light of it if you will! But I remind you that those are eight warships. What do you have, besides those grain ships and that horde of corbitas? Two dromons—that's it!""Not quite," murmured Ashot. He swiveled his head, looking at Antonina.She nodded. Ashot walked out of the cabin. Seconds later, his voice was heard:"Send a signal to the Theodora! The blue-and-white flag! Followed by the red!" A moment later, he ambled back inside the cabin."That means 'hostilities have commenced,' " he explained to the four arrested officers. Then, grinning:"In a manner of speaking."The captives were so busy staring at Ashot that they never heard Antonina's little murmur:" 'Cross the T,' to be precise. And 'fire broadside.' " Aboard the Theodora, John of Rhodes and Euse-bius were standing on the poop deck. Seeing the blue-and-white pennant, followed by the red, John whooped."Yes! At last! Now we'll see what this beautiful bitch can do!""Wouldn't let the Empress hear you say that, if I were you," muttered Eusebius. The artificer was standing next to John, clutching the rail. His face was drawn and pale. The Theodora's tacking against the wind had awakened Eusebius' always-latent seasickness."Why not?" demanded John cheerfully. "The ship's named after her, isn't it? Isn't the Empress a beauty? And isn't she just the world's meanest bitch?" Gaily, he slapped Eusebius on the shoulder. "But she's our bitch, boy! Ours!"John pointed to the ladder leading to the deck below. "Get on down, now, Eusebius. I want you keeping a close eye on those overenthusiastic gunners."Making his way gingerly down the ladder, Eusebius heard John bellowing to his sailors and steersman:"Head for that fleet of dromons across the harbor! I want to sail right across their bows!"When Eusebius reached the gundeck, he headed to the starboard side of the ship. On the Theodora's new heading, northwest to southeast, she would be bringing the five cannons on that side to bear on the enemy.Soon enough, Eusebius forgot his seasickness. He was utterly preoccupied with the task of preparing the cannons for a broadside. He scampered up and down the gundeck, fretting over every detail of the work.For once, the Syrian gunners and their wives did not curse him for a fussbudget and mock him for an impractical philosopher. This was not an exercise. This was the real thing. They would not be firing at empty barrels tossed overboard. They would be firing at front-line warships—which would be attacking them.True, those warships had no cannons. But the word dromon meant "racer," and the sleek naval craft positioned at the entrance to the Great Harbour lived up to the term. Beautifully designed—elegant, in fact, as no tubby sailing ship ever was—they reminded the Syrian gunners of so many gigantic wasps, ready to strike in an instant.Long, narrow—deadly.By the time the Theodora was halfway to the dromons, the gunners had the cannons loaded and ready to fire. They were very familiar with the process, now, due to the relentless training exercises which Eusebius had insisted upon during the weeks of their voyage.They had resented those exercises, at the time. The Theodora's gunners were all volunteers from the Theodoran Cohort. When the posts had been opened, the bidding had been fierce. Most of the Syrian grenadiers had wanted those prestigious jobs. Prestigious and, they had all assumed, easy—certainly compared to the work of toting grenades and handcannons under the hot sun of Egypt. Lounging about on a ship, never walking more than a few steps—what could be better?They had soon learned otherwise. Within a week of setting sail from Rhodes, they had become the butt of the Cohort's jokes. The rest of the grenadiers had lolled against the rails of their transports, watching while the gunners were put through their drills. Watching and grinning, day after day, as the gunners sweated under the Mediterranean sun. Not as hot as Egypt's, that sun, but it was hot enough. Especially for men and women who practiced hauling brass cannons to the gunports, lugging ammunition and shot forward from the hold, loading the guns, firing them—and, then, doing it all over again. Time after time, hour after hour, day after day. All of it under the watchful eye of a man who, by temperament, would have made an excellent monk. The kind of monk who vigilantly oversees the work of other monks, copying page after page of manuscript, alert for every misstroke of the quill, every errant drop of ink.A fussy man. A prim man, for all his youth. A nag, a scold, a worrywart. Just the sort of man to drive peasant borderers half-insane.Now, as they stood by their guns, the Syrian gunners gave silent thanks for Eusebius. And took comfort from his presence. The young twit was a pain in the ass, sure—but he was their pain in the ass."Knows his shit, Eusebius does," announced one."Best cannon-man alive," agreed another.Suddenly, one of the wives laughed and cried out, "Let's hear it for Eusebius! Come on! Let's hear it!"Her call was taken up. An instant later, the entire contingent of gunners was shouting: "EUSEBIUS! EUSEBIUS! EUSEBIUS!"Startled by the cheers, Eusebius stiffened. He knew that a commanding officer was supposed to give a speech on such occasions. A ringing peroration.Eusebius was no more capable of ringing perorations than a mouse was of flying. So, after a moment, he simply waved his hand and smiled. Quite shyly, like the awkward young misfit he had been all his life.The smile was answered by grins on the faces of the Syrians. They were not disappointed by his silence. They knew the man well.Their overseer. Their pain in the ass. Above, on the poop deck, John of Rhodes smiled also.Not a shy, awkward smile, this. No, not at all. John of Rhodes was neither shy nor awkward nor a misfit. True, his former naval career had been shipwrecked by his incorrigible womanizing. But he had been universally recognized by his fellow officers—except, perhaps, those whose wives he had seduced—as the Roman navy's finest ship captain.He knew a fighting crew when he saw one. And now, understanding that Eusebius would give no ringing peroration—could give none—John made good the lack.In his own way, of course. Pericles would have been aghast."Gunners! Valiant men and women of the Theo-doran Cohort!"He leaned over the rail, pointing dramatically at the seven dromons some three hundred yards distant."Those sorry bastards are fucked! Fucked!" A loud and boisterous cheer went up from the gunners and their wives. Then, coming from far off, John heard a faint echo. Puzzled, he turned and stared at the causeway leading to the Pharos.The causeway was now lined with people. He could see more and more running down the Heptastadium, coming from Alexandria. Residents of the city, he realized. The news had spread, and Alexandria's people were pouring out to watch the show.Alexandria's poor people, to be precise. Even at the distance, John could see that the men, women and children on the causeway were dressed in simple clothing. Alexandria's busy harbor area was surrounded by slums. It was the occupants of those tenement buildings who had first gotten the word and were packing the Heptastadium and, he could now see, every other vantage point overlooking the Great Harbor and the sea.He grinned. "Our people, those." Aboard her flagship, Antonina came to the same conclusion. She had come out of her cabin as soon as the four captured officers had been securely bound and gagged. Hearing the distant cheers, she studied the crowd lining the Heptastadium. Then, walked over to the starboard rail and stared at the dromon rolling in the waves not far from her ship. After disembarking the four envoys, the dromon had withdrawn some thirty yards and positioned itself facing her flagship. The oar banks were poised and ready for action. At the moment, they were simply being used to keep the dromon in position. But it was obvious to Antonina that the dromon would be able to ram her on an instant's notice.She would not give them that instant.She turned her head and called out for Euphronius. The commander of the Theodoran Cohort immediately trotted over.Antonina gestured toward the nearby dromon with her head. "I want that ship obliterated. Can you do it?"The young Syrian officer eyed the dromon. A quick glance, no more. "At that range? Easily. Won't even need to use slings.""Do it," she commanded. As Euphronius began to turn away, she restrained him with a hand."I want a hammer blow, Euphronius. Not just a few grenades. If that dromon can get up to ramming speed, it'll punch a hole right through the side of this ship."Euphronius nodded. A moment later, using gestures and a hissing whisper, he was assembling his grenadiers amidships. The grenadiers, Antonina saw, would be invisible to the seamen manning the low-lying dromon until they appeared at the rail itself, tossing their grenades.Hermogenes came out of the cabin. Seeing the activity amidships, he hurried to her side."You're not going to give them any warning?" he asked. "Call on them to surrender?"Antonina shook her head."I don't dare. That dromon's too close. If they have a warning, they might be able to ram us before the grenades do their work. And if they get close enough, the grenades'll pose a danger to us."Thoughtfully, Hermogenes nodded. "Good point." He stared out at the nearby warship. He could see several officers standing in the bow of the dromon. They were close enough for their expressions to be quite visible.Frowns. They were worried. Wondering what had happened to their envoys. Beginning to get suspicious."Fuck 'em, then," growled Hermogenes.Antonina heard a low hiss. Turning, she saw that Euphronius had his grenadiers ready. At least three dozen of them were poised, grenades in hand. Their wives stood immediately behind them, ready to light the fuses. The fuses had been cut very short.Casually, she gestured with her hand held waist-high, waving the grenadiers forward.Do it. The wives lit the fuses. The Syrians charged for the rail, shouting their battle slogan."For the Empire! The Empire!"The officers on the dromon stiffened, hearing the sudden outcry. One of them opened his mouth. To shout an order, presumably. But his jaw simply dropped when he saw the mob of grenadiers appearing at the rail of the taller ship.He never said a word. Simply watched, agape, while the volley of grenades soared into the air. Then, along with all his fellow officers, crouched down and ducked.He must have thought the objects coming his way were stones. He never learned the truth. The six grenades which landed in the bow blew him into fragments, along with the bow itself.Grenade explosions savaged the dromon down its entire length. The warship's orientation—faced toward Antonina's flagship, with its ram forward—was the worst possible position in which to avoid a grenade volley. Some of the grenades missed the ship entirely, falling into the water on either side. But in most cases the grenadiers' aim was true. And if one grenadier threw farther than another, it simply spread the havoc. The dromon stretched almost a hundred feet from bow to stern. Most of the grenadiers were easily capable of throwing a grenade across the hundred feet of water which separated Antonina's ship from the target. Many of them could reach halfway down the length of the craft, and some could heave their grenades all the way into the dromon's stern.The grenades landed almost simultaneously, and exploded within three seconds of each other. Dozens of bodies were hurled overboard. Precious few of the men who remained in the ship survived, and they, primarily in the stern. The middle of the warship, where at least a dozen grenades had landed in the midst of two hundred men, was a mass of blood and shredded pieces of flesh.The warship's hull had been breached, badly—outright holes, or simply planks driven apart. The sea poured in, pulling the dromon under the waves. Some of the surviving sailors began diving off the stern. Others, not knowing how to swim, simply watched their death approach, too stunned to even cry out in despair.Without turning her head, Antonina spoke to Hermogenes."Rescue the ones you can," she commanded. "Put them under guard in the hold."Antonina's eyes searched for the other dromons in the mouth of the harbor. The warships were stirring into motion. Already she could see the oar banks begin to flash. But, after a moment, she realized that only four of the dromons were heading toward her. The other three were moving to intercept the Theodora, bearing down on them from the northwest.Trying to intercept the Theodora, that is to say. Even to Antonina's inexperienced eye, it was obvious that the gunship would pass across their bows with at least a hundred yards of searoom."I'm counting on you, John," she murmured. "Smash up some of those dromons for me." On the Theodora, John was issuing new orders."Ignore those three heading for us, Eusebius!" he bellowed. "Concentrate your fire on the ones heading for Antonina!"Eusebius did not bother to look up. Preoccupied with helping a guncrew lay their cannon, he simply waved a hand in acknowledgement.Finally, satisfied with the work, he looked up at the enemy. Already they were crossing the bows of the three warships who had peeled off to intercept them. The nearest of those ships was two hundred yards away—much too far to be able to get into ramming position, even given the greater speed of the dromons.Eusebius turned his attention to the other four ships. The nearest of those was still three hundred yards distant. Estimating the combined speed, Eusebius decided they would be within firing range in less than two minutes."Fire on my command!" As always, Eusebius tried to copy John of Rhodes' commanding bellow. As always, the result was more of a screech. But he had been heard by all the gunners, nonetheless.Again, he screeched:"No broadside! Fire each cannon as it bears! On my command!"He scurried forward to the lead cannon. For a moment, he almost pushed the chief gunner aside. Then, restraining himself, he took a position looking over his shoulder. Sighting, with the chief gunner, down the barrel of the cannon.Two hundred and fifty yards, now.Two hundred.They would cross the nearest dromon's bow with a hundred yards to spare. Good range.Eusebius blocked everything from his mind but the dromon looming ahead. As near-sighted as he was, the ship was not much more than a blur. But it didn't matter. His decision would be based on relative motion, not acute perception.He and the chief gunner moved aside, so as not to get caught by the cannon's recoil. The effort did not distract Eusebius' attention in the least.The moment came. He tapped the chief gunner lightly on top of his leather helmet."Fire," he said, quite softly.The cannon roared. Bucked; recoiled. A cloud of gunsmoke hid the target.But Eusebius wasn't looking at the target, anyway. He was scampering down the line to the next cannon. By the time he got there, the chief gunner had already stepped aside, clearing a space for the cannon's recoil.He gave a quick, myopic look. Again, all he saw was a blur. Relative motion, relative motion—all that mattered.He tapped the chief gunner's helmet. "Fire."Down the line; next cannon.Blur. Relative motion; relative motion. Tap. Fire. Down the line; next cannon.Blur. Relative motion; relative motion. Tap. Fire. Down the line; next cannon.Blur.Blur.No motion.He looked up, squinting. Suddenly, the noise around him registered. Cheers. Syrian gunners cheering. Syrian wives shrieking triumph. And then, above it all, John of Rhodes' powerful bellow."Oh, beautiful! Great work, Eusebius! She's nothing but a pile of kindling!" The chief gunner of the last cannon in line was grinning up at him. "That dromon is still floating," he said. "You want I should smash it up?"Eusebius shook his head. "No, save it. There's more of them."He squinted. Everything was a blur. He thought he could make out two ships clustered together, but—Years later, the young artificer would look back on that moment and decide that was when he finally grew up. All his life he had been sensitive about his terrible eyesight. Yet, too proud—too shy, also—to ask for help.Finally, he did."I can't see very well, chief gunner," he admitted. "Am I right? Are the next two ships lying alongside each other?"The Syrian's grin widened. "That they are, sir. Bastards almost collided, shying away from the gunfire. They did get their oars tangled."Eusebius nodded. Then, straightened up and screeched: "Gunners! Are the cannons re-loaded?"Within seconds, a chorus of affirmative answers came.Screech: "Prepare for a broadside! Aim for those two ships! Fire on my command!"He leaned over, whispering, "Help me out, chief gunner. Tell me when you think—""Be just a bit, sir. Captain John's bringing the ship around to bear. Just a bit, just a bit."The Syrian studied the enemy. Two dromons, a hundred yards away, just now getting their oars untangled. A fat, juicy target.He tapped Eusebius on the knee. "Do it now, sir," he murmured.Immediately Eusebius screeched:"Fire! All cannons fire! All cannons—"The rest was lost in the broadside's roar.When the smoke cleared away, a new round of cheers went up. True, the broadside had not inflicted as much damage as the earlier single-gun fire had done to the first dromon. It hardly mattered. The rams of war galleys were braced and buttressed, but the hulls of the ships themselves were made of thin planking for the sake of speed. Those hulls had never been designed to resist the impact of five-inch diameter marble cannonballs.One of the warships had been holed in the bow. Not enough to sink it, but more than enough to send it scuttling painfully back to shore.As for the other—The bow was badly battered, though not holed. But one cannonball, by sheer good luck, must have caught the portside bank of oars just as they were lifting from the water. Many of those oars were shattered. What was worse, the impact had sent the oarbutts flailing about in the interior of the galley, hammering dozens of rowers like so many giant mallets. Objectively speaking, the warship was still combat-capable. But its crew had had more than enough of these terrible weird weapons. That dromon, too, began heading for the Great Harbor, yawing badly with only half a bank of oars on one side.On the poop deck, John was bellowing new commands. The four ships which had been heading for Antonina's flagship were effectively destroyed—one sinking, two fleeing, and the last floundering about with indecis

on. Antonina could handle that one on her own. John had his own problem, now.The Rhodian brought the ship around to face the three dromons which had tried to intercept him earlier. The war galleys had chased after him and, with their superior speed, were rapidly approaching.Not rapidly enough. By the time they got within range, John had brought the ship's port side to bear—with its five unfired cannons and fresh guncrews.Eusebius was already there, prepared. John was a bit puzzled to see that the artificer had brought one of the chief gunners from the starboard battery along with him. He saw Eusebius and the man confer, briefly. Then, Eusebius' unmistakeable screech:"Broadside! On my command!"John smiled. As he often had before, he found the young artificer's boyish voice comical. But, this time, there was not a trace of condescension in that smile.Comical, yes. Pathetic, no.Again, he saw Eusebius and the chief gunner's heads bobbing in urgent discourse. The three dro-mons were two hundred yards away, their oarbanks flashing, their deadly rams aimed directly at the Theodora.Again, the screech: "Fire! All cannons fire! All—" Lost in the roar. A cloud of smoke, obscuring the enemy.Screech: "Reload! Reload! Quick! Quick!" John watched the guncrews racing through the drill. He gave silent thanks for the endless hours of practice that Eusebius had forced through over the Syrians' bitter complaints.They weren't complaining, now. Oh, no, not at all. Just racing through the drill. Shouting their slogan:"For the Empire! The Empire!"The smoke cleared enough for John to see the enemy. The three dromons were only fifty yards away, now. He flinched. No way to stop them from ramming.Except—Their forward motion had stopped, he realized. None of the ships were sinking, true. Only one of them, judging from appearance, had even suffered significant hull damage. Still, the shock had been enough to throw the rowers off their stroke. The men on those galleys were completely unprepared for the sound and fury of a cannon broadside. Instead of driving forward in the terrifying concentration of a war galley's ramming maneuver, the dromons were simply drifting.Again, the screech: "Fire! All cannons—" Lost in the roar. Cloud of smoke. Enemy invisible.John leaned over the rail, ready to order—No need. Eusebius was already doing it.Screech: "Cannister! Cannister! Load with cannister!" The smoke cleared. Enough, at least, for John to see.One dromon was sinking. Another had been battered badly. It was still afloat, but totally out of control. Yawing aside, now, its deadly ram aiming at nothing but the empty Mediterranean.But the third ship was still coming in. Not driving for a ram, however, so much as clawing forward with broken oars and wounded rowers. Desperately seeking to grapple. Anything to get away from that horrible hail of destruction.No use. John could see Eusebius at the middle cannon, fussing over the guncrew. The dromon was only ten yards away—close enough for the artificer's myopic eyes.John saw Eusebius tap the gunner on his helmet. He saw his lips move, but couldn't hear the words.An instant later, the cannon belched smoke. Cannister swept the length of the dromon like a scythe.John of Rhodes was, in no sense, a squeamish man. But he could not help flinching at the sheer brutality which that round of cannister inflicted on the dromon's crew. Firing at point-blank range at a mass of men seated side-by-side on oarbanks—one oarbank lined up after another—He shuddered. Saw Eusebius scamper down to the next cannon in line. Aim. Tap the gunner's helmet.Another roar. Another round of cannister savaged the dromon. Blood everywhere.Eusebius scampering. Aim. Tap. Fire.It was sheer murder, now. Pure slaughter.Eusebius scampering.John leaned over, bellowing: "Enough, Eusebius! Enough!" The artificer, his hand raised just above the next gunner's helmet, ready to tap, looked up. Squinted near-sightedly at the poop deck."Enough!" bellowed John.Slowly, Eusebius straightened. Slowly, he walked to the rail and leaned over. Looked down into the hull of the dromon, which was now bumping gently against the Theodora's side. Studying—for the first time, really—his handiwork.Under other circumstances, at another time, the artificer's Syrian gunners—country rubes, the lot of them, coarse fellows—would have derided him then. Mocked and jeered, ridiculed and sneered, at the sight of their commander Eusebius puking his guts into the sea.But not that day. Not then. Instead, Syrian gunners and their wives slowly gathered around him, the gunners patting him awkwardly on the shoulder as he vomited. And then, after he straightened, a plump Syrian wife held the sobbing young man in a warm embrace, ignoring the tears which soaked her homespun country garments. Above, on the poop deck, John sighed."Welcome to the club, lad. Murderers' row."He raised his head, scanning the sea.Victory. Total. Four ships and their crews destroyed. Three battered into a pulp. The only unscathed dromon racing away.He looked toward Antonina's flagship."She's all yours, girl. Alexandria's yours for the taking." Aboard her flagship, Antonina studied the situation. Studied the pulverized enemy fleet, first, with satisfaction. Studied the wildly cheering mob on the Heptastadium, next, with equal satisfaction.Then, all satisfaction gone, she studied the city itself. Beyond the harbor, looming in the distance above the tenements and warehouses, she could see Pompey's Pillar. And, not far away, the enormous Church of St. Michael. The Caesareum, that edifice had been called, once—the temple of Caesar. Its two great obelisks still stood before it. But the huge pagan structure, with its famous girdle of silver-and-gold pictures and statues, was now given over to the worship of Christ.And, of course, to the power of Christ's official spokesmen. The Patriarchs of Alexandria resided there, as they had for two hundred years. A hundred years after they took up residence, in the very street before the Church, a brilliant female teacher of philosophy named Hypatia had been stripped naked and beaten to death by a mob of religious fanatics."Fuck Alexandria," she hissed.  
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