Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Seer of Trajan's Market

Built into the Quirinal Hill on terraced slopes, Trajan's Market dazzled the eye with its vaulted skylights. Tiered levels did flourishing business under its hazy ambiance. Dust was always a problem, tracked by so many feet, but the design admitted fresh air while keeping rain out.

The ground floor featured hundreds of shops fronted by counters where orders were placed. Patrons ate or gossiped on stone benches. The more affluent availed themselves of gated enclaves like the one that drew Severus Longides to a much-anticipated appointment. One needed a wealthy patron if he intended to escape a doomed world.

At a sumptuous table sat Flaminius Narvo. The plump money lender looked imperial with his yellow sash and curled ringlets. He sampled a platter of boiled tree fungus in fish sauce, noticed Severus, and waved him over. He pushed across a jug. "Try the caroenum."

Wine cooked down to half volume was somewhat rich for a nervous stomach, but Severus decided to be obliging. By its feathery embellishment, he recognized boiled ostrich in sweet sauce. Romans were sauce-crazy to the point of buying it in amphorae.

"Eat up," Flaminius urged. "I've been to the vomitorium, so there's room for the main course when it arrives. The sweet sauce is defritum." That explained the heavy cloying taste of fig sauce boiled down to one-third volume.

Severus appreciated the splashing fountain that muted conversation at other tables. "You've heard of Artemus of Brittania?"

"Of course." Flaminius dug into rose fricasse in pastry, with its custard of sheep brains. "The madman claiming to be from the future. Flying machines, talking picture boxes. Preposterous!"

"The immediate future is just as grim as he paints his own. The empire will fall."

The host's forehead crinkled. "That is dangerous talk for a dockyard clerk."

"Hear me out, Flaminius. He escaped the disaster at Pompeii, brought back in time by some magician's trick. His predictions are uncanny. He foretold how Fundanus would be governor of Illyricum twenty years before it happened." Severus paused to watch a pair of ladies saunter along the second tier, servants in tow who carried their purchases. "He cannot go back to his own time, but knows of an alternate world."

Flaminius tossed his head. "I've heard the tales coming out of Burnum. It's concocted to scare the locals away from the fortress." The main course appeared: ham pastry stuffed with fig sauce, garnished with lobster and asparagus.

Nut-stuffed dates fried in honey tempted Severus into taking one unbidden. "Perhaps you haven't heard how it all began. A soldier of the Thirteenth Legion, on maneuvers at Illyricum, went to relieve himself in some brush. He discovered an apparently bottomless hole and figured it was just another gold mine. Instead, it was a vast cavern system. Numerous parties failed to return before the cause was ascertained--unearthly horrors, some of which wielded magic."

"Yes, yes, and that's why they built a fort atop the thing. So why haven't we seen any of these denizens brought back for the colosseum games? Magic is little use against lions!"

"I don't know," Severus admitted. "It's a great conspiracy. I was hoping your influence could raise a delegation to the base commander. One thing I'd like to know is why he's bringing pure representative cultures there: pedigreed Romans, Northmen, Britons, Gauls, Teutons."

Flaminius raised an indolent brow. "Perhaps he's stocking his world with all the right connections. Come now, Severus, you aren't much of a salesman."

"If you ask me, I'd say they're operating a secret school for magicians, then putting together teams to fight their way down to a rumored gateway." It would take more than crazy theories, Severus realized, sensing defeat. He excused himself, already considering the next name on a rapidly-shrinking list--he was starting to get a reputation as a crackpot.

A man beckoned from an alcove. Severus put aside his fear of robbery, since a hairdresser conferred nearby with an aristocratic lady.

"You seek patrons," the man said.

"Who are you?"

"I am called Artemus." He furtively displayed a rectangular device having rows of mysterious symbols and a smaller rectangle of glass. "One day, even the poorest will have one of these. With it, you can speak with anyone in the world."

"Then it is you," Severus allowed. "What can I do?"

"I need people I can trust. There is a secret entrance to Burnum. Avallach, Lord of the Dead, created a secret passage that avoids the dangerous areas. Are you prepared to spend two weeks underground?"

"Of course! But. . . .what awaits on the other side?"

"Others of my kind are there, having found a gateway in modern Brittania. I intend nothing less than returning to my future, where a certain newly-arrived magician awaits a punch in the face for doing this to me."

Severus hefted the surprisingly heavy device. "Could I get one of these?"

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Mick and Jane on the Moon

"We're here!" said Mick. "Big tree. I could climb it. Can I have some of your water? I'm thirsty."

Jane took her canteen and shook it. There was a little on the bottom. She unscrewed the top and drank the water. "There's no more," she said. "You shouldn't have dropped your canteen."

"I fell off around the fourth time I tied your shoes."

"You don't tie shoes good."

Mick said, "Look. See the well on top that crater? Let's get water."

"I can't walk anymore; my shoes have holes."

"I told you to tie the laces them together and throw them over your shoulder."

"You wouldn't carry them," said Jane. "I'll stay here in the shade."

Mick said nothing, but took the canteen and walked off.

"Hello, little girl," said a voice in the tree.

Jane said, "What do you want? There's no more water."

"I came here when I lost my job. I wanted to get on the ground floor. This was the next big thing. I take care of apple trees. I heard what you said to that boy. Do you want an apple?"

"It's your apple?"

"Who will miss an apple? These apples will make you very smart. You will know the answers to all the puzzles."

"Then they will be boring."

"Well, you will know everything in the world."

"Then everything will be boring."

"That's an unusual answer. But you will be so smart, like God."

"God must be bored. God must have died from being bored."

"Why did you come to the moon?"

"I was bored."

"Ha, ha," said the voice. But God is still trying to understand everything. It's not easy to know everything. God is trying to count to the last number; but, ha, I know a little secret; I know why eternity will last forever."

"I know the last number. It's 10. I have no more fingers," said Jane.

"But what about your toes?" asked the shaded one.

"Oh," said Jane.

"Yes, and if you count everyone's fingers and toes, you get a big number; but there are still people being born. You have to continue counting, don't you?"


Mick reached the well, and saw a girl on the ground crying. "What is wrong?" he asked. "Why are you crying?"

The girl sobbed and said something; but Mick couldn't understand what she said. He looked down the well.



July, 2004, 0645

The day shift filtered in on a cloud of feminine laughter. That was the usual reaction to my daily comic strip posted in the break room. Maybe us guys were outnumbered 21 to 4, but humor was the universal bridge. Despite the popularity of the Lab Trek series, featuring the whole lab staff as Enterprise crew, I was in a rush to start a very different format.

Lab manager Dan wasn't here yet, so I felt out the two ladies of our proposed Team Dan idea. They had no interest in fantasy, of course, but roles and costumes were the first order of business. Sorceress: the hard-hitting offensive arm of the team. Wizard: in charge of defense and healing. Since Bonnie was already in chemistry, and wore glasses, she fit the role of bookish wizard. Zena was head of microbiology, a rather conservative type who was a perfect foil for the in-your-face spell caster. It was the same reason I made her the trigger-happy first officer of Enterprise for Captain Dan.

The costume idea made the most of her, well, attributes, which she afterwards found hilarious; you'd never catch her on the street in a getup like that. Summing up each member's take:

Zena: Cool!
Bonnie: My dress has a split all the way to the waist. . . .
Pete: If this catches on, can I sue?
Dan: My wife wants to know when we all get rich.
Ed: Being a super hero is the greatest!

Nearly 400 comic strips, half a dozen T shirts, and dozens of stories later, Team Dan is still around. It gave rise to the inevitable spinoffs.

Dan: Who is this Wicca character?
Mick: Just a comedy villain. I wonder what would happen is she suddenly found the power to act on her crazy opinions. . . .
Dan: Heh! Watch out, world.

Monday, July 13, 2020

An Out Of This World Offer

The visiting mermaids could hardly leave the west coast without doing the Wicca Horror Show. After a stint at Ocean World, covered by one of her segments, they appeared on the horror set in costume. One of them had an announcement to make during the live spot.

Seated next to the trio, Wicca rushed through the ubiquitous drug ads. "And if you can't afford your meds--neither can we!" She swiveled about. "All right, ladies, who is it and what is it?--twins or triplets?"

"Nothing like that," said blonde Binia, frowning.

Wicca focused past Ellie, the redhead in green, to regard the brunette Sirtis in blue. The producer, Ed, had just slunk on stage to fix her mike. Naturally the cameraman zoomed in. "Ned, that's the first time you ever got a girl out of trouble."

The dwarf Hecabano sat cross-legged on the low table, holding the glass skull, source of the Team Dan adventures from the Outworld. "A lot you know, Mistress of Mattress. The ladies have earlier informed me of the news."

"Thy art a nose wart, imp."

The dwarf scowled. "If you must use Elizabethan like Cambris does, then learn the grammar system. 'Thy' is possessive."

"Am not, am not."

Ed gestured from between cameras. "Can we get their news, already?"

"Thank you." Binia waggled fins, forgetting there was no water."Sirtis has a modeling offer."

"Been that, gone there," Wicca said. "Don't tell me you're hanging up your tails."

Ellie fiddled with hair beads. "We don't plan to. But there isn't much of a market for elderly mermaids. We need to plan ahead."

"How did this transpire?" Hecabano asked.

Binia traded grins with Ellie. "Sirtis doesn't smile a lot--she's too hip for that. But I was telling a joke, and a photographer caught her in the act of shaking out wet hair. He was hooked on the spot."

"A joke?" Hecabano leaned closer. "Pray share the mirth, Miss Sirtis."

The brunette wasn't thrilled. "Yah, well, it's about soldiers in World War Two. 'Nuff said, you know?"

"Ah," Hecabano mused. "I perceive a naughty element."

"At our expense as usual," Ellie said with a skyward glance.

Wicca rose and strutted on five-inch Dolce and Gabbanas. "Before you decide, let me invite you to Outworld. You know these looney tunes are getting ready to blow this one up."

Unlike the studio crew or the TV audience, the mermaids knew the reality of magic and parallel worlds. Team Dan, five former lab workers, had become celebrity super heroes there.

"We need to get back to the east coast," Binia decided. "But we can find substitutes for a week or two."

"Perfect!" Wicca regained her wing chair by the fireplace, paused for pseudo wind and rain effects while the wind moaned about her "castle". "Stick with me, ladies, and you'll be making little fish on a new planet!"

Hecabano blanched. "Can you say that on TV?"

"Okay." Sirtis offered a rare smile, this one on the impish side. "First, you come to Six Forks and try our gig."

"Yeeks?" Wicca did her classic slant mouth and bug eyes. "Fair enough, missy--you're on!"

"Just what we need," Ed muttered. "A Goth mermaid. I can't wait to hear the music she picks out."