Twin tales of legend and fact—Ottoman space voyagers from an alternate universe, and the truth about an ancient Greek cosmic prediction machine. To Be First/Wheels of Heaven by Steven R. Southard. Available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, other fine eBook vendors and Gypsy Shadow Publishing at:
Two intriguing historical tales packaged together! “To Be First” follows two space voyagers from an alternate universe as they return from the moon, in 1933. In their timeline, manned rocketry began in the Ottoman Empire, which advanced and spread. When these Ottoman lunanauts end up orbiting our comparatively backward world, they have a choice to make, one that will forever change their future and ours. In “Wheels of Heaven,” an arrogant Roman astrologer finds a geared Grecian machine for predicting the positions of celestial bodies. On the voyage back to Rome, he meets a sailor who dismisses astrology, an astonishing notion in 86 B.C. But when the sailor's prediction is right, and every one of the astrologer's is wrong, he must question his most basic beliefs.
Word Count: 10350
Pages to Print: 37
Wheels of Heaven
Athens, 86 B.C.
The star-signs decreed it an ordinary day for routine matters, but when Drusus Praesentius Viator saw the box, he knew his world had changed.
“What is this device?” General Lucius Cornelius Sulla stood nearby with arms crossed. “Something related to your craft?” After conquering Athens, the General and his officers were inspecting the art and treasures of the Greek city-state, selecting items to send to Rome.
Viator, the General’s personal Astrologer, turned his gaze back to the box with his good right eye. A patch covered the left one.
The small wooden box sat on a waist-high pedestal, looking dull and ugly among the museum’s bronze statues, marble sculptures, and ceramic urns. Looking around at the Grecian artwork, Viator wondered how some of the museum’s delicate pieces would remain undamaged after being lifted onto carts, pulled by draft animals over rutted roads, and unloaded at Rome.
“Well?” Sulla asked. “I can’t spend a whole day on this matter.” The port wine stain birthmark on his face made him look angry even when he wasn’t, and he rarely wasn’t.
“I’ve heard of such machines, my liege, but never seen one,” said Viator, and never imagined they could be this small. The box stood no taller than the length of a man’s forearm, about as wide as a man’s hand was long, and one hand-width deep. A large metal dial with a projecting handle adorned the front face. Two similar dials dominated the back side, one above the other. Grecian inscriptions covered all sides of the wooden box and all three dials. No doubt the General saw the star and zodiac symbols and sent for me.
The machine’s dials showed a date in the Grecian Calendar, which Viator converted to the Roman equivalent, the Nones of Quintilis. He touched the handle and found it turned with ease. When he did so, concentric outer wheels turned as well, as did dials on the back of the box. “I think it is a device for showing the positions of stars, sun, and moon for any date.”
“Would it be of any use to you?” asked the General in an impatient tone.
“Yes,” Viator said. He didn’t want to sound too eager, but feared Sulla was losing interest and would turn to other matters. He gazed at the box with increased admiration for Greek mechanical skill. If this machine was accurate, it would save countless hours of computation time. “I believe it is worth further study.”
“Fine.” The General walked away and spoke to one of his men. “Have the box loaded aboard ship with the artwork and other treasures. The Astrologer will sail with the machine to Rome.”
Viator decided he would test the mechanism, see if it truly indicated celestial positions, and then—
Sail? Aboard . . . ship? Viator looked up at the receding General and his officers. “Wait! General! My liege!”
Viator’s heart sank when he arrived at the Piraeus quay, just southwest of Athens, and saw the tiny ship he would ride. Even just thinking how such a craft would roll in the waves brought on a pang of nausea.
He’d been given no chance to avoid this trip. General Sulla had ignored his pleas and his caution that the General should not march with his army all the way to Rome without the services of his astrologer. Years before, Viator had ridden a warship and well recalled getting seasick, but telling the General even this failed to reverse the decision.
He boarded, along with one of Sulla’s officers, the Decurion known as Metunus. Metunus supervised the loading of cargo, including Grecian artwork and the celestial prediction machine, into a hold beneath the main deck.
From Viator’s limited experience with vessels, this one looked odd. In contrast to the warship he’d once had the misfortune of riding, this ship held no oarsmen. Only sails moved her along. Even odder, a huge, wooden replica of the graceful neck and head of a swan jutted upward from the stern deck. Twice the height of a man, this white-painted swan gazed aft at the ship’s wake.
“Welcome aboard the Prospectus,” said an old man who came up to him. “You must be the Astrologer they told me about. I’m the ship’s captain.” Except for his pinched and wizened face, he could have been Neptune himself, complete with flowing, gray hair.