Set a few decades into the Common Era, Steam Legion follows the quest of Dyna of Sparta as she works to defend her Library and City from the Zealot uprising that has been goaded and exacerbated by the actions of Rome. Cut off from their rightful defenders, the city’s inhabitants now depend on the genius of the Library’s Master, and his last protege to protect them and the countryside around them.
The Original Book Burning
The steam engine was not invented in the eighteenth century, but in the first. In the year 50 AD, Heron of Alexandria offered a wondrous new invention to his Emperor, with a startling and visionary description of how very much could be done with this new technology. The conversation only exists now as an anecdotal story, but as it has been told, the most powerful man of the most powerful Empire on the planet took this most brilliant mind aside and gently shook his head.
“Heron, my friend, were I you, I would forget this thing.”
“But why?” Heron cried out, confused and shocked.
The Emperor smiled at his friend’s naiveté and replied, “Because if we did all that, my friend, what would we do with the slaves?”
On such whims history turns, and yet in some worlds, the tide shifts and history turns another direction entirely: In another world, in another time, a giant sleeps in the city of Alexandria… One should never wake a sleeping giant, for once awake, who can hope to control him?
Section One–The Original Book Burning
Alexandria was burning.
The normally soft flickers of the oil lamps and wood fires that lit the ancient city by night had been replaced by the harsh and angry red flashes of fires burning out of control. The city Garrison had fallen quickly, not being ready for the fierce invasion of the rebelling Zealot forces. The rebels against the Empire had moved swiftly, taking towns and villages along the way, and managed to outrun the Roman messengers, who should have brought warning.
The Legions of Rome were nowhere to be found.
With rebellions across the Empire to be put down, the normally quiet coast of Egypt was of lower concern. The famed Legions had been arrayed to the east, where the rebels were thicker, or to the north along the borders in Gaul and beyond. On the strategic board, it was a sensible move. However, the enemies of the Empire played those games too.
The streets were alternately deserted in places and filled with fighting in others, bands of roaming thugs in military dress roving through the defeated city, pillaging, looting, and burning to their dark hearts’ content. Near the famed University of Alexandria and its adjoined Library, one such band paused only briefly to slaughter the handful of guards the institution maintained before pushing through the gates and into the Campus beyond.
They had not travelled far before they came upon a young woman walking briskly across the Campus, obviously intent on her destination. She didn’t see them until they fell on her, dragging her to the ground in their bloodthirsty glee.
Had they been less drunk on the blood and carnage they were visiting on the city, they may have noticed that, while surprised, she did not yell out even as they tore the tunic from her back. They didn’t even note that the tunic had obviously been imported from Memphis, and was clearly of a finer weave of cloth than any of them had ever seen, let alone worn.
Had they noted those two things, they wouldn’t have cared, other than to be pleased at the chance to enjoy themselves with the daughter of some Roman noble. Perhaps with a little more sense in their blood-addled minds, one or two of them would have noted that the gleam in her eyes was not fear, but repressed rage as they groped at her now bared breasts and fought to divest her of her leggings.
She did not scream, nor cry, nor struggle as they tore at the coarser cloth of her pants, fighting each other to be the first to bare her ass to their sight. Stoically, she bore it without visible emotion, until one of them finally turned just enough as he grabbed at her breast and groped her crotch roughly. Her slim hand wrapped itself around his pommel, the one attached to his sword and not the one he was currently thinking with, and then she made her first sound since the surprised gasp at being tackled.
Her scream of rage startled them; they’d become accustomed to her cooperation, and the blade slid free of the man’s belt in a vicious arc that bisected one of his friend’s belly in an instant. The wounded man screamed, wailing in surprise and pain as he tried to hold in his intestines, and fell back on his ass in shock. Around him, his friends made what would be the last mistake of their lives.
They froze and fell back in shock.
In an instant, she was on her feet, blade ringing in the air as she spun it about and brought it down through the shoulder of a second man. His arm was disconnected from his body, save for a ragged length of flesh hardly able to hold the weight of the now-dead arm.
Some intelligence won over in that moment, and the men instantly put more distance between them and her, keeping out of reach of her captured sword as they drew their own weapons again and glared on at her as her near-nude body gleamed in the reflected light of the burning buildings of Alexandria.
“You shouldn’t have done that, girl,” one said, taking the leadership of his group, staring furiously at the woman who had slaughtered two of his friends. “We may have let you live when we were done.”
She glared back at them, eyes barely acknowledging their existence as human beings.
“I am Dyna of Sparta, daughter of the Agiad line, descendant of Leonidas and Anaxandridas and Heracles himself. So I tell you here and now that there are only three conditions upon which you will ever touch my body with your rotted members,” she snarled, a now-clear fury showing in her face. “First, if I permit you, which not even your bastard God has the power to demand of me with any surety of success…”
“Woman, blaspheme against the one true God at peril of your immortal soul…!” He took a step forward, halting as the sword swung in his direction.
“Two,” she continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “If you should win my hand in marriage…a feat I assure you that none of your filthy band has neither the intestinal nor scrotal fortitude to even attempt.”
The men spread out, their weapons warily waving ahead of them as they moved to surround her. The leader sneered at her, trying to distract her attention from their motions. “And the third way?”
She looked at him as if he were the lowest form of mobility on the face of the world. “Third, is if you defile my cooling…rotting…corpse!”
Dyna spoke the last three words deliberately, with dripping derision for her audience, but as the last word snapped from her lips, she lifted her captured short blade and charged. The leader of the brigand stumbled back in shock as she drove straight into him, the bare and tanned flesh of her body almost hiding the lethal intent of her motion from his mind.
He brought his blade up to block, but she turned low and spun on her heel, the gladius blade reaching just far enough to sever his foot above the ankle and slash deeply through flesh, sinew, and bone along the other side. He screamed, toppling like a felled tree, and hit the ground hard on his left side just as she pivoted in place and swung the blade up and over in a powerful chop that cleaved his skull from brow to cheek.
She rolled over his body, tucking tightly to bring her feet back under her, and spun to a fighting position on the other side, keeping space, and his corpse, between her and the men who had been trying to surround her.
At her home in Sparta, Dyna had been raised with four brothers and three sisters. She first wrapped her hands around the pommel of a sword during her fifth summer and had spent the next ten years training alongside her brothers in the ancient arts her family held to tightly as the world around them changed. She wasn’t fully trained as a warrior, of course, that was her brothers’ lot. Dyna spent more of her time learning to manage the estate, maintain the family fortune, and properly administrate their slaves and employees.
She was, however, still a Spartan.
She eyed the remaining four as they stared at her in shock and horror, idly flicking the blood from the blade she’d taken and spattering it across the ground and body before her. She had no shield—though, honestly, she’d never fully mastered shield use due to the extreme weight of the bronze-and-leather monster true Spartan warriors carried at all times—and no armor either, so this would be a primal conflict and a challenge.
Nudity was no taboo for her, however, so she ignored it. Skin was as effective an armor as Egyptian cotton, so her tunic or her bare flesh mattered little. Most of her sparring with her brothers and sisters had been done in the nude. Flesh healed, pain strengthened, but armor was expensive to repair.
There was an interminable moment where she wished for a pylum to skewer at least one of the bastards before her. They were well within her range, but she didn’t have one of those either. Her father would chastise her for being caught so unprepared.
Her lips curled up, amused by the direction her mind was taking given the circumstances, but her eyes never left the four thugs before her. When one twitched in her direction, Dyna knew it was time to move.
They charged forward, swords raised to deliver clumsy overhand strikes that would likely cleave her in two if she remained in place.
Dyna dove to the right, coming up along one flank of the group, and slashed out with her blade. The unarmored Zealot thug never even saw the flash of the blade as she caught him low in the abdomen, opening his guts to the night air. She drew the blade out along his spine and spun, ending his life with a diagonal slash across the face.
The others were still trying to get turned around on her when she leapt over the collapsing body of their comrade and charged into the middle of them.
Zealots, religious fanatics whipped into a frenzy by fools in Jerusalem, were devoted to their cause, but hardly warriors. Dyna slit the hamstrings of one, ducking under a clumsy swing of a sword, and flipped her blade forward while bracing herself against the pommel. She drove it through the second, only stopping when the hilt was a half inch deep in his gut and his blood was pumping furiously out over her hands.
“Tell your God that Sparta’s shine may be faded, but it will take more than the likes of you to humble any empire we claim allegiance to,” she hissed in his ear as the lights faded in his eyes.
She let him drop then and turned to the single remaining man.
“And then there was one.” She smiled coldly, spreading her bloody hands wide, as if in invitation.
This Zealot wasn’t of the sterner stuff some of his brethren; his legs shook as he looked on the nearly-nude beauty before him. She was covered in the blood of his comrades, a demonic gleam in her eyes as she dared him to attack.
He quivered for a moment, then screamed, dropped his sword, and ran.
Dyna smirked as she watched the coward run right into a small cadre of Legionnaires who were jogging up the path in various states of dress and armaments, presumably drawn by the sound of fighting. The Centurion in the lead barely paused as he drove his gladius into the man’s gut and stepped lightly to the side to let him fall.
“Miss? Are you…” The Roman froze when he saw her, both because he recognized Dyna and because of the state of her clothing, or lack thereof.
“I am fine, Cassius,” she said calmly, planting her foot on the last man she’d killed and grunting as she pulled the blade clear of his torso.
“My Lady!” He stiffened, slamming his fist over his heart and looking away from her as much as he could force himself, though his eyes kept darting back.
She ignored the glances, both of horror and lust, from the men. She was no Grecian doll or Roman lady, a whore in private yet too concerned with proprieties in public to get dirty when needs be. She would live her life honestly in all aspects and do what needed to be done to forward her goals.
“These are your men?” she asked, picking up her torn tunic and using it to clean her blade.
“I… Yes, my Lady. Are you certain that you’re fine?”
“They didn’t lay a finger on me that I did not allow,” she said coldly, eyes drifting out to the city beyond the Library Campus. “Zealots. I didn’t know they’d come this far west.”
“No one did, my Lady,” Cassius said, still trying not to look like he was looking at her. “Reports had them a hundred mile markers from here, at a minimum. I do not believe these are soldiers from Jerusalem, however.”
She glanced at him, an eyebrow crooked in question.
Cassius sighed, pursing his lips as he spoke. “Most likely, this is the result of agitators stirring up our own population.”
That surprised her, though she supposed that it probably shouldn’t have. Alexandria contained one of the largest populations of Jewish people anywhere other than the Province of Judea itself, so it wasn’t so unlikely that the unrest elsewhere would billow up here as well, she supposed. Still, those she worked with were among the most dedicated to knowledge and research of any people she knew. It was difficult for her to match those men with the ones on the ground around her.
“What caused this?” she asked dumbly, not really thinking.
Cassius grimaced this time, knowing that she wouldn’t like what he was telling her. “Likely? There were reports of Grecian assaults on the Israelite centers of town, including the defacing of a temple earlier. I have been undermanned here since the Senate ordered the Twenty-Second to the north to cover for the loss of the Twelfth, however, so I can’t be certain.”
“Imbeciles,” she muttered, not clarifying if she was referring to the rioters, the instigators, or the Senate itself.
When the Jewish revolt occurred in Jerusalem, it had not come as much of a shock to those in the Empire who paid attention to such things. The tensions had existed for generations, and recent actions by Grecian elements in Jerusalem had only served to exacerbate them significantly. Particularly when the Roman Garrison had chosen to ignore their actions outside the Temple of Jerusalem.
Honestly, Dyna had no particular love or care for the Israelite people, as a rule. Their religious beliefs not only did not reflect her own—the two clashed quite severely—but she actually held a great deal less respect for many of her countrymen. As a Spartan, even when her and her city’s interests coincided with those of other Greek cities, she tended to follow her ancestors’ beliefs and watch her back constantly for blades.
The entire situation, however, looked more and more traceable to the Senate and, through them, the Emperor himself. The destruction of the Twelfth Legion near Galilee had been the result of orders of nearly incomprehensible stupidity, and now this situation was thrust upon them by the reassignment of the Twenty-Second to the north of the Judea Province.
It almost seems that the Senate or the Emperor hopes to induce the very sort of actions we are now seeing.
For the moment, that was neither here nor there. They had other concerns to be dealt with. If the instigators of this mess were Grecian, likely Athenians, in her opinion, they would be dealt with later. Of course, given the mess the mob was currently making of the city, it was unlikely any of them would be found even if the Governor could be convinced to punish them. In either case, it wasn’t her immediate concern.
She nodded. “I see. Have you contacted any others of the Garrison?”
He shook his head.
She pursed her lips sourly. “Very well. With me, the lot of you. We have work to do, and little time to do it, I expect.”
“My Lady?” he asked, sounding confused.
Behind him, one of the others grumbled about not taking orders from a highborn whore, but she ignored the comment for the moment. Time enough to deal with slights later.
“I detest an enemy too stupid to know the first rules of warfare,” she said coldly as she watched the fires burn.
“Which rules would those be, my Lady?”
“When you capture a city, Cassius, first you pillage…and only then,” she said sourly, “do you burn. I will not lose the Library to these ignorant goat-mating bastards. It is bad enough that the civilized presence of Julius Caesar himself nearly resulted in burning the whole lot to cinders, but there are scrolls of knowledge here older than their cities, older than their God. We will not let them destroy the light of Alexandria this night.”
“My Lady, we’re undermanned,” Cassius said, shaking his head. “A short unit, not fully armored or fully armed. I hate to admit it, but we aren’t a match, even for these thugs.”
The men behind him grumbled, some angry at the words, some relieved and in agreement. Dyna merely turned to look at the Centurion for a long moment before she spoke.
“Thirty feet behind you, Cassius, lies the workshop of Master Isthene, one of the finest iron workers in the Empire. Another eighty will bring you to the supply room in which we keep materials for testing against the weapons we develop here at the University Campus, and to the right of that you will find the personal workspace of Master Heron himself,” she said coldly. “Weapons, Cassius? Armor? These things we have. The question of men is one I leave to you. Men may follow me, boys may return to their beds and hide from the terribly frightening Zealot soldiers.”
With those words, Dyna simply turned around and strode through the group of Roman soldiers without another glance, completely ignoring her nudity and blood-spattered state. The men were too surprised to do more than dodge quickly out of the way before she was gone.
One of them turned to Centurion Cassius, eyes flaring. “Who does she think she is?”
“She thinks she’s Dyna of Sparta,” he said simply, “born to the Agiad line, one of the last of the adherents to the old Spartan Code. Don’t mistake her for the pandering sops you see in Laconia today. She’s held a sword longer than you, Tempius, and had harder knocks as a child than any of us here have experienced in battle, I’d warrant.”
He frowned for a brief moment, and then shook his head. “Legionnaires! Form up! We march. We prepare. We fight!”
A couple of the ten-man unit appeared to want to object, but they stiffened to attention anyway and clapped their fists over their hearts.
“For the Legion!” he called out.
“For Rome!” they answered back.
The unit turned and set off in pursuit of the blood-soaked woman who’d left seven armed men rotting on the ground in her wake.