Warning - this will not be regularly updated for the next two weeks, as I will be in and out of town, and not always with Internet access. So, here is a short story that should serve as a transition to the next stage of the "ATL Dark Ages Map" timeline... Any comments and suggestions are very much welcome! November 24th, 1173 AD High Earth Orbit The stars formed patterns all above, below, and around the bridge of a giant starship, the command unit of a great fleet assembled here in high orbit. As far as she could see, there were others, transports, military vessels, just about any space-worthy piece of machinery lifted off ground on the war-torn Earth. Anna Cantacuzina, the Celestial Admiral of the First Rank in the Imperial Roman Starfleet stood at the bridge of the Augustus watching over the largest assembly of spaceships ever gathered in one spot. Even the early battles of the Final War never saw this many, from this many nations and peoples, all in one place at the same time. “All ready?” she asked of the ensign waiting on her word. “Yes, m’lady,” the young Italian ensign replied. This was not his first spaceflight, but he had way too few hours of training under his belt, and his look definitely showed it. But then again, she thought, when the Final War begun, rank mattered much less, and some people got amazingly quick promotions, their only merit being survival. There, in space above the home world dying in embers of nuclear fire, the great flotilla included ships from Rome, Giovannia, Axum, Khazaria, China, Russia, and even a few vessels from Maya Vandalor, amongst smaller, but more numerous Confederate vessels. She already knew it would not be an easy journey. The Russians and the Chinese were at each other’s throats; the Khazars and the Vinnlanders hated the ground the other walked on; the Chola, the Arabs, and the Khazars had disputes going back centuries. The Romans had more than a few issues with most of the nations representing the remainder of humanity; the opposite was also true. There was no love lost between most of these unlikely companions, united by terror and despair, knowing well that the only sky they will ever see for the rest of their lives will be that of Ares, the cold, barren fourth planet from the sun. Yet, she had a mission. Aboard the Augustus, seventy thousand colonists lay in cold sleep – only a few out of more than a million Romans lifted off ground to be safely delivered to Ares Nova, millions of miles away. She knew that many more colonists packed the tight confines of the other nations’ ships – probably as many as three million total. Many would still be in the state of deep freeze for years, until sufficient living facilities were built on the surface of Ares to accommodate them. Now, only about fifty thousand people lived on the surface of the red planet, barely self-sufficient; yet it was their only chance. She knew salvation was only temporary, and this second lease on life for her species was nothing but a brief extension – for if they could not find sustenance for the entire expedition, any future for them would be only extremely brief, and filled with strife, starvation, and misery. Yet, they still had the entire Imperial Starfleet, and, judging by the numbers of ships besides them, most of the surviving civilian and even military units from the others. “Ensign, send the order to depart,” she said, knowing that her order will be obeyed. Not many wanted to admit the pain they felt upon looking at the planet of their birth – yet she knew it deep inside, she knew they felt it too. For a moment, she wished to see the ancient beauty of Nicaea, the city of her birth, older than time itself, its high-rise buildings scraping the sky while the ancient double walls seemed to have grown out of the earth below. But Nicaea, Rome, Ravenna, Veneto, even Constantinople itself were now gone, uninhabitable for longer than a human memory could comprehend, their multi-million populations disintegrated by the nuclear weapons that should never have been unleashed. This was the end. But also, this was a new beginning. In three weeks time, they will be at Ares, ready to unload their precious human cargo that held the future of the species. They will be safe from the radiation sickness, genetic mutations, famine and disease that would ravage those still on the ground. Only few areas, she knew, were left untouched by the nuclear fire, either those deemed too remote, too sparsely populated, or too unimportant to be of any significance. For a second, she wondered if anything could survive on the ground, to greet the colonists’ children and grandchildren when they attempt to reclaim the world of their ancestors’ birth. Before the starship’s huge engines started emitting familiar rhythm that signaled their departure, she thought with pity of those still on the surface. November 25th, 1173 2 miles under the surface at the undisclosed location in the Himalayas Batu Zhong Khan was afraid, for the first time in his life. As a member of the Imperial family and the high Speaker of the Dini assembly, he has always assumed both his office and his person were inviolate, subject only to the Emperor himself, his grand-uncle. Yet, when the bombs went off, and the dreaded Russian attack finally came, the air of invulnerability, the aura of invincibility, the illusion of might – they were all gone. Sure, serfs and workers could die. This is all they had done for thousands of years, giving their lives away for the greater glory of the Middle Kingdom, for the greater light of al-Din and its great prophets; as long as the Divine Emperor himself was safe, the Empire could go on. But now, the Emperor himself, an old man of eighty two years of age, was dying; the people on the surface were most likely dead. Even the elite guards in this most sacred bunker, hidden miles below the surface, even they seemed to share the common pessimism. A young girl servant interrupted him. “My Lord Khan, your uncle wishes to see you.” Great, he thought, the old bastard has some more crap bothering him. Then, he shirked away the thought, that in better times would have not only been considered treacherous, but would have earned him a place at the gallows – that is, if he had been lucky. There were many tales of fates much worse than the gallows, the fates that many enemies of the crown had suffered. Batu Zhong Khan attempted to not betray any notion of the thoughts in his head. Instead, he nodded in silent approval, then walked into a long curving corridor, where speechless loyal guards stood like stone sentinels guarding the palace of a living god. He attempted to get his thoughts in order. He needed that to pass by the thought probe; no one could get into the presence of the Emperor without being constantly monitored by the probe. Along the way, four burly giants, Mongols from the Northern Territories by the looks of them, joined him, their hands gripping their weapons, charged with explosive rounds that could kill or cripple with but one shot. The Mongol guards made their presence known, but walked silently, as if not sure whether to slay him or to protect him. For some reason Batu Zhong Khan thought they were just as confused as he was, not knowing what happened to the world they all knew and the order that was suddenly gone. Finally they stopped in front of a large metal door, where an honor escort of ten guards saluted them – all the while keeping their fingers on the triggers of their guns. Blank, empty slate, he remembered the exercise he and select few others were taught years ago. Let nothing but the flow of time enter and exit your mind. Your mind is a fishnet, let no fish get caught in. Your mind is a flower, let no bees around. Your mind is a target, let no… The opening of the door caught him unawares, producing the effect its instructors desired; yet he let no awareness of surprise show. The giants led him to a small chamber, seemingly built to surround an ornate bed, populated only by its one sole inhabitant. “Leave us,” the desiccated ancient figure resting on the bed spoke. The guards saluted and retired out of the room, leaving the dying Emperor alone with his grand-nephew, and, could Batu Khan hope, his successor? November 25th, 1173 Nikopolis, Southern Cape of Africa The city was silent, patrolled by the remaining airships and few of the fighter aircraft enforcing the curfew from the sky, but by now, there were not many citizens who would dare to venture outside for the fear of fallout. From behind the reinforced windows, the latest fashion in the days before the Final War, four men watched the dark sky, even darker now in the night than it should have been. One of the men was wearing what looked like a tattered military uniform; he was just approaching late middle age, but liberal consumption of food, drink, and tobacco made him look just a bit older. The second one was at least in his sixties, with bent back and a cane, and with hands that could have only earned the greases and scars from heavy industrial work. The third was, by the looks of him, a wealthier merchant before the War, and seemed very uncomfortable in the company of the others. The fourth was but a boy, maybe fifteen, sixteen years of age at the most, bearing more than a striking resemblance to the old man in his facial features. Behind them was a bar stuffed with every kind of alcohol from every nation on the planet – or at least it was, until the hordes of refugees descended at Nikopolis and few remaining Roman outposts that were not the targets of orbital bombardment or the stray missiles. Now, the barkeeps could ask ridiculous prices for even the cheap Bantu beer, the kind that even most of the poorer laborers preferred to avoid; the supply was running low, and so were the money. And yet their mutual sorrows, and the rumor that alcohol protects from the effects of radiation poisoning was enough to keep the poor, the rich, the soldiers, and the civilians coming. “So what brought you here, Demetrios?” the man in the military uniform asked of the merchant. Demetrios thought for a second and decided that it was not sarcasm speaking from the commoner’s lips. “Well, I was in Liguria when I heard of the bombardment. Luckily for me and my son, we were just about to lift off on our own plane for Iberia; it did not take much persuasion to direct the pilot here.” “So, son,” spoke the old man, “why did you seek out the family you have always seemed to be ashamed of?” “Father,” Demetrios tried to speak, then stopped, as if pleading. “Never mind,” the old man shrugged, “the Bible says that one should turn the other cheek, be a good Samaritan.” “But,” the man in the military uniform interrupted with a tone of bitterness in his voice, “does the Bible not also say to honor thy mother and thy father? Our mother was dying, Demetrios, and all she was calling for was you – for you were her favorite, the youngest, the smartest. The beautiful Demetrios, Kaloiannis, that is what she called you, and where were you when cancer was killing her two years ago?” Demetrios looked away. He knew that his roots were humble, something he has always tried to hide amongst his business associates and the partners. Even his wife, his late wife whose radioactive ashes may as well be the ones dropping on the city, even she did not know until much later, until after he has made his career as the leader of the business conglomerate that sought to do business with the Russians, the Chinese, even the Vandals to boost profits buying and selling technologies, weapons, vehicles, just about anything. “You know brother,” the man continued, “it is the people like you that care more about the money than anything else that brought forth the doom of us all.” “Alexander, we are not to blame!” Demetrios exclaimed, raising his hands up in the air. “We all thought that even those crazy Anarch Russians would have enough sense not to begin this. Besides, everything we did went through the Senate’s approval. I, and any of my employees or associates have never intended for this to happen.” The old man stood in between them, looking at his two sons, then at his young grandson. “Children,” he said. “You may not have been the kind and remembering son that me and your mother wished for, Demetrios, but for your son’s, and my grandson’s sake, my house is your house.” The teenager, with a trembling voice, mumbled something like “thank you, grandfather.” All four then turned to face a giant visual screen occupying portion of the ceiling. On the screen, there was a face of the man, middle aged, with short military haircut and military uniform. The man was talking, and even here, among the bar’s busy life, his voice seemed to cut above that of the crowd. “…Thus, in the absence of contact with the capital, and any surviving members of the Imperial Family, I, Leo Sphrantzes, declare myself Emperor of the Romans, and the Archbishop of Nikopolis shall from now on bear the title of the Patriarch. Therefore, my first action as Leo the Sixth is going to be the restoration of all we held dear about the Eternal Roman Empire…” The old man spit at the floor. “There will be dozens of men like this one declaring themselves… all full of crap.” Little did he know that on the island of Terra Australis, and in the Southern continent of Vandalia, two others made the same claim as Leo. November 26th, 1173 Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico The water was everywhere around their submarine, filled with ashes, debris, dead sea creatures, and all sorts of things they could and could not imagine being in the waters near Ottonia and Yucatan. There were twelve of them, all looking exactly alike, and thinking in unison of a collective mind. They were linked through microchips in their heads to the Central Command’s database, being its eyes and ears for the events that happened above the Command’s safe hideout on the ocean floor, protected from the worst effects of the nuclear fallout by tons of water separating them from the deadly surface. They were clones, speechless, and individually thoughtless – perfect troops for suicide missions, genetically altered to withstand higher degrees of radiation, poison, and harmful environments than any ordinary human would. Of course, they still would die; the clones were plentiful, and cheap to make – but their deaths would not be in vain, as scientific data gathered by Maya Vandal scientists below would help them to create a new, more durable breed of clones, and eventually a new race that will be able not only to survive, but to thrive in the world all other human and animal life would forsake. Below the water, the scientists rushed about their business, following the plan written decades ago, attempting to keep Maya Vandal civilization alive no matter what cataclysm, short of destruction of the Earth itself, came about. So many had been turned away from the underwater shelters, their genetic material deemed too polluted by the fallout; so many had been left to die on the surface of the dying world. Yet the select few were brought in, the best of the best, the superior specimens, who, in addition to thousands of the Sleepers, would form a core that would return Maya Vandalor to the heights of its dominance. And then, beyond. November 26th, 1173 The Grampians, island of Albion The man was tired and bleeding from dozens of minor wounds, but he would not quit running. Behind were the hounds of the newly declared Earl of the Midlands, Erik Kenttson, who in the life before the Final War was probably an individual of rather mundane occupation, transformed into the lord of the wastelands by the event that destroyed all central government, as all the rich and the powerful escaped on their space transports – leaving the poor, the downtrodden, the miserable behind. The man felt rage inside of him; how did it happen, he asked himself. Why did he, the Chief Banker of the Angleland Bank at Londinium, have to run for his life with scraps of bread, while his former employers were in cold sleep on board of a starship, ready to be awakened when their quarters were ready on Ares? He cursed under his breath, trying not to waste too much energy. He did not dare to look back over his shoulder, knowing that the hounds, genetically modified toys made by the Vandals (curse them bastards, he thought) were in their element, and would find his scent quickly, unless he can somehow outsmart these remorseless predators. There were only a few trees left around here, and not an abandoned vehicle to take shelter in, and possibly outrace the creatures chasing him. He could not hear the hounds or their masters, the gang of ruffians in service of this so-called “Earl of the Midlands”, but he knew they were coming. Food was preciously rare these days, money worth not more than the paper they were printed on – and the paper was not even very good to keep one warm on a cold night. Whatever automated services still functioned, food, water, electricity, anything, were worth more than their weight in gold, making whoever controlled the facilities ruler over lives of the people requiring them to survive. Yes, in the first days there was still hope that a relief ship would descend from the sky, picking up any survivors it could find to carry them into safety beyond the orbit of Earth. But as time went on, the hope faded; the few other survivors he has met were ready to kill him for whatever little canned food he was able to steal from the storehouses that by now were completely gutted of all valuables. He was smarter, faster, stronger; he survived. They did not. This was all he needed to know, and all he cared to know about. For a moment, he thought he saw a glimpse of something in the clouds. Could it be, the hope rose in his chest? Could it be the rescue mission? Then, the sound made his heart sink. It was an old airship, a relic of the times long gone, with the lions of Angleland on its side badly painted over. The insignia on it was the one he knew, the insignia of a man whose warehouse he stole the few scraps of food he carried from. It was the dragon of Erik Kenntson, the emblem the man adopted to supposedly signify his noble heritage (which, as far as he knew, was most likely a complete sham). Before the hounds and the hunters reached him, the man had time to fall to his knees and curse them all, wishing unspeakable horrors upon his pursuers and their descendants. Little did he know that much of that would come true. November 27th, 1173 Secret military facility under the Ural Mountains This should have been his day of triumph, but now he felt hollow. Aksenii Vlasov was not an emotional man, and not a very flexible one. This was the exact reason that allowed him to be in charge of the Anarch party in this part of Rus, and also, the exact reason he was not allowed to advance any further. Good subordinate, his superiors said. Good leader, they praised him; but not a man of vision, not the one to lead the Rus into the hostile world. Deep inside the mountain, he directed the efforts of the space bombers and intercontinental missile launchers, hidden by an elaborate network that could not point his exact location to the enemy satellites. The day the world bled and cried out in terror, it was his doing, his orders that set out the assault on Chinese Starfleet, crippling his nation’s arch-enemy’s will to fight and ability to respond forever. Hero of the Respublica, they called him, the great military leader, the greatest commander since Svyatoslav himself. Then, the weapons were unleashed, rendering his victory, the triumph that should have been his by right, useless, destroying all that he has once cared about. Yet, this facility still functioned, even if cut off from the radioactive wasteland the ancient lands of the Rus had now become. Below the mountain, thousands of cold sleep coffins held the remnant of the Russian people, the only chosen people in the world of chaos, the world that stood poised to crush them. With a grim satisfaction he thought that the Greeks, the Khazars, the Chinese, all those who had oppressed his nation throughout the ages were now also gone. Time has come for the Rus to reclaim its rightful place as the leader of the world, as the one true nation of God, and as His chosen people. Unbent, unbowed, and unbroken, just how it should be. Aksenii Vlasov swore that the fight was not over – it was only beginning.