The great invasions which destroyed late Bronze Age civilization came from two directions. From the northwest a variety of tribes, called by the Egyptians the “sea peoples,” began raiding the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean … [by] 1200 B.C. the Hittite empire was destroyed… While these invasions from the northwest swept over Greece, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean coasts, other hordes of invaders came from the southeast, from the fringes of theArabian desert … The movement began early: the Israelites were already in Palestine before 1220 B.C—The Columbia History of the World, 1972
I am not superhuman. I do have abilities that are far beyond those of any normal man’s, but I am just as human and mortal as anyone of Earth.
Yet I am a solitary man. My life has been spent alone, my mind clouded with strange dreams and, when I am awake, half memories of other lives, other existences that are so fantastic that they can only be the compensations of a lonely, withdrawn subconscious mind.
As I did almost every day, I took my lunch hour late in the afternoon and made my way from my office to the same small restaurant in which I always ate. Alone. I sat at my usual table, toying with my food and thinking about how much of my life is spent in solitude.
I happened to look up toward the front entrance of the restaurant when she came in — stunningly beautiful, tall and graceful, hair the color of midnight and lustrous gray eyes that held all of eternity in them.
“Anya,” I breathed to myself, even though I had no idea who she was. Yet something within me leaped with joy, as if I had known her from ages ago.
She seemed to know me as well. Smiling, she made her way directly to my table. I got up from my chair, feeling elated and confused at the same time.
“Orion.” She extended her hand.
I took it in mine and bent to kiss it. Then I held a chair for her to sit. The waiter came over and she asked for a glass of red wine. It trundled off to the bar.
“I feel as if I’ve known you all my life,” I said to her.
“For many lifetimes,” she said, her voice soft and melodious as a warm summer breeze. “Don’t you remember?”
I closed my eyes in concentration and a swirl of memories rushed in on me so rapidly that it took my breath away. I saw a great shining globe of golden light and the dark brooding figure of a fiercely malevolent man, a forest of giant trees and a barren windswept desert and a world of unending ice and snow. And her, this woman, clad in silver armor that gleamed against the dark-ness of infinity.
“I… remember… death,” I heard myself stammer. “The whole world, the entire universe… all of space-time collapsed in on itself.”
She nodded gravely. “And rebounded in a new cycle of expansion. That was something that neither Ormazd nor Ahriman foresaw. The continuum does not end; it begins anew.”
“Ormazd,” I muttered. “Ahriman.” The names touched a chord in my mind. I felt anger welling up inside me, anger tinged with fear and resentment. But I could not recall who they were and why they stirred such strong emotions within me.
“They are still out there,” she said, “still grappling with each other. But they know, thanks to you, Orion, that the continuum cannot be destroyed so easily. It perseveres.”
“Those other lives I remember — you were in them.”
“Yes, as I will be in this one.”
“I loved you, then.”
Her smile lit the world. “Do you love me now?”
“Yes.” And I knew it was so. I meant it with every atom of my being.
“And I love you, too, Orion. I always have and I always will. Through death and infinity, my darling, I will always love you.”
“But I’m leaving soon.”
Past her shoulder I could see through the restaurant’s window the gaudy crescent of Saturn hanging low on the horizon, the thin line of its rings slicing through its bulging middle. Closer to the horizon the sky of Titan was its usual smoggy orange overcast.
The starship was parked in orbit up there, waiting for us to finish our final preparations and board it.
“We’ll be gone for twenty years,” I said.
“To the Sirius system. I know.”
“It’s a long voyage.”
“Not as long as some we’ve already made, Orion,” she said, “or others we will make someday.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll explain it during the voyage.” She smiled again. “We’ll have plenty of time to remember everything then.”
My heart leaped in my chest. “You’re going too?”
“Of course.” She laughed. “We’ve endured the collapse and rebirth of the universe, Orion. We have shared many lives and many deaths. I’m not going to be separated from you now.”
“But I haven’t seen you at any of the crew briefings. You’re not on the list…”
“I am now. We will journey out to the stars together, my beloved. We have a long and full lifetime ahead of us. And perhaps even more than that.”
I leaned across the table and kissed her lips. My loneliness was ended, at last. I could face anything in the world now. I was ready to challenge the universe.
THE slash of a whip across my bare back brought me to full awareness. “Pull, you big ox! Stop your daydreaming or you’ll think Zeus’s thunderbolts are landing on your shoulders!”
I was sitting on a rough wooden bench along the gunwale of a long, wallowing boat, a heavy oar in my hands. No, not an oar. A paddle. We were rowing hard, under a hot high sun. I could see the sweat streaming down the emaciated ribs and spine of the man in front of me. There were welts across his nut-brown skin.
“Pull!” the man with the whip roared. “Stay with the beat.”
I wore nothing but a stained leather loincloth. Sweat stung my eyes. My back and arms ached. My hands were callused and dirty.
The boat was like a Hawaiian war canoe. The prow rose high into a grotesquely carved figurehead; some fierce demonic spirit, I guessed, to protect the boat and its crew. I glanced swiftly around as I dug my paddle into the heaving dark sea and counted forty rowers. Amidships there were bales of goods, tethered sheep and pigs that squealed with every roll of the deck.
The sun blazed overhead. The wind was fitful and light. The boat’s only sail was furled against its mast. I could smell the stench of the animals’ droppings. Toward the stern a brawny bald man was beating a single large mallet on a well-worn drum, as steady as a metronome. We drove our paddles into the water in time with his beat — or took a sting from the rowing master’s whip.
Other men were gathered down by the stern, standing, shading their eyes with one hand and pointing with the other as they spoke with one another. They wore clean knee-length linen tunics and cloaks of red or blue that went down to midcalf. Small daggers at their belts, more for ornamentation than combat, I judged. Silver inlaid hilts. Gold clasps on their cloaks. They were young men, lean, their beards light. But their faces were grave, not jaunty. They were looking toward something that sobered their youthful spirits. I followed their gaze and saw a headland not far off, a low treeless rocky rise at the end of a sandy stretch of beach. Obviously our destination was beyond that promontory.
Where was I? How did I get here? Frantically I ransacked my mind. The last firm memory I could find was of a beautiful, tall, gray-eyed woman who loved me and whom I loved. We were… a shudder of blackest grief surged through me. She was dead.
My mind went spinning, as if a whirlpool had opened in the dark sea and dragged me down into it. Dead. Yes. There was a ship, a very different ship. One that traveled not through the water but through the vast emptiness between stars. I had been on that ship with her. And it exploded. She died. She was killed. We were both killed.
Yet I lived, sweaty, dirty, my back stinging with welts, on this strangely primitive oversized canoe heading for an unknown land under a brazen cloudless sky.
Who am I? With a sudden shock of fright I realized that I could remember nothing about myself except my name. I am Orion, I told myself. But more than that I could not recall. My memory was a blank, as if it had been wiped clean, like a classroom chalkboard being prepared for a new lesson.
I squeezed my eyes shut and forced myself to think about that woman I had loved and that fantastic star-leaping ship. I could not even remember her name. I saw flames, heard screams. I held her in my arms as the heat blistered our skins and made the metal walls around us glow hell-red.
“He’s beaten us, Orion,” she said to me. “We’ll die together. That’s the only consolation we will have, my love.”
I remembered pain. Not merely the agony of flesh searing and splitting open, steaming and cooking even as our eyes were burned away, but the torture of being torn apart forever from the one woman in all the universes whom I loved.
The whip cracked against my bare back again.
“Harder! Pull harder, you whoreson, or by the gods I’ll sacrifice you instead of a bullock once we make landfall!”
He leaned over me, his scarred face red with anger, and slashed at me again with the whip. The pain of the lash was nothing. I closed it off without another thought. I always could control my body completely. Had I wanted to, I could have snapped this hefty paddle in two and driven the ragged end of it through the whipmaster’s thick skull. But what was the sting of his whip compared to the agony of death, the hopelessness of loss?
We rowed around the rocky headland and saw a calm sheltered inlet. Spread along the curving beach were dozens of ships like our own, pulled far up on the sand. Huts and tents huddled among their black hulls like shreds of paper littering a city street after a parade. Thin gray smoke issued from cook fires here and there. A pall of thicker, blacker smoke billowed off in the distance.
A mile or so inland, up on a bluff that commanded the beach, stood a city or citadel of some sort. High stone walls with square towers rising above the battlements. Far in the distance, dark wooded hills rose and gradually gave way to mountains that floated shimmering in the blue heat haze.
The young men at the stern seemed to get tenser at the sight of the walled city. Their voices were low, but I heard them easily enough.
“There is it,” one of them said to his companions. His voice was grim.
The youth next to him nodded and spoke a single word.
WE landed, literally, driving the boat up onto the beach until its bottom grated against the sand and we could go no farther. Then the whipmaster bellowed at us as we piled over the gunwales, took up ropes, and — straining, cursing, wrenching the tendons in our arms and shoulders — we hauled the pitch-blackened hull up onto the beach until only its stern and rudder paddle touched the water.
Hardly any tide to speak of, I knew. When they finally sail past the Pillars of Herakles and out into the Atlantic, that’s when they’ll encounter real tides.
Then I wondered how I knew that.
I did not have time to wonder for long. The whipmaster allowed us a scant few moments to get our breath back, then he started us unloading the boat. He roared and threatened, shaking his many-thonged whip at us, his cinnamon-red beard ragged and tangled, the scar on his left cheek standing out white against his florid frog’s-eyed face. I carried bales and bleating sheep and squirming, foul-smelling pigs while the gentlemen in their cloaks and linen tunics and their fine sandals walked down a gangplank, each followed by two or more slaves who carried their goods, mostly arms and armor, from what I could see.
“Fresh blood for the war,” grunted the man next to me, with a nod toward the young noblemen. He looked as grimy as I felt, a stringy old fellow with skin as tanned and creased as weather-beaten leather. His hair was sparse, gray, matted with perspiration; his beard, mangy and unkempt. Like me, he wore nothing but a loincloth; his skinny legs and knobby knees barely seemed strong enough to tote the burdens he carried.
There were plenty of other men, just as ragged and filthy as we, to take the bales and livestock from us. They seemed delighted to do so. As I went back and forth from the boat I saw that this stretch of beach was protected by an earthenwork rampart studded here and there with sharpened stakes.
We finished our task at last, unloading a hundred or so massive double-handled jugs of wine, as the sun touched the headland we had rounded earlier in the day. Aching, exhausted, we sprawled around a cook fire and accepted steaming wooden bowls of boiled lentils and greens.
A cold wind blew in from the north as the sun slipped below the horizon, sending sparks from our little fire glittering toward the darkening sky.
“I never thought I’d be here on the plain of Ilios,” said the old man who had worked next to me. He put the bowl to his lips and gobbled the stew hungrily.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“Argos. My name is Poletes. And you?”
“Ah! Named after the Hunter.”
I nodded, a faint echo of memory tingling the hairs at the back of my neck. The Hunter. Yes, I was a hunter. Once. Long ago. Or — was it a long time from now? Future and past were all mixed together in my mind. I remembered…
“And where are you from, Orion?” asked Poletes, shattering the fragile images half-forming in my mind.
“Oh,” I gestured vaguely, “west of Argos. Far west.”
“Farther than Ithaca?”
“Beyond the sea,” I answered, not knowing why, but feeling instinctively that it was as honest a reply as I could give.
“And how came you here?”
I shrugged. “I’m a wanderer. And you?”
Edging closer to me, Poletes wrinkled his brow and scratched at his thinning pate. “No wanderer I. I’m a storyteller, and happy was I to spend my days in the agora, spinning tales and watching the faces of the people as I talked. Especially the children, with their big eyes. But this war put an end to my storytelling.”
He wiped at his mouth with the back of his grimy hand. “My lord Agamemnon may need more warriors, but his faithless wife wants thetes.”
“Hah! Worse off than a slave. Far worse,” Poletes grumbled. He gestured to the exhausted men sprawled around the dying fire. “Look at us! Homeless and hopeless. At least a slave has a master to depend on. A slave belongs to someone; he is a member of a household. A thes belongs to no one and nothing; he is landless, homeless, cut off from everything except sorrow and hunger.”
“But you were a member of a household in Argos, weren’t you?”
He bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut, as if to block out a painful memory.
“A household, yes,” he said, his voice low. “Until Queen Clytemnestra’s men booted me out of the city for repeating what every stray dog and alley cat in Argos was saying — that the queen has taken a lover while her royal husband is here fighting at Troy’s walls.”