The Queen of Bithynia
That night, Rick unsurprisingly returned to the life of Titus Lentulus Romulus that night. It was not in the streets of Rome or rolling hills of Greece that he found himself, but the palace of an eastern king. Based on the history that Rick had familiarized himself with, it was a Greek kingdom located somewhere in the north of modern day Turkey. Titus had shaved since Rick had last felt his memories, as he lacked the characteristic bushy beard that he had recalled. His clothing had been recently acquired, likely after the werewolf transformation he had endured. Titus was more formal in his dress, a feeling Rick received after seeing his surroundings.
Like their modern counterparts, the political leaders of the ancient world favored garish outfits and gaudy status symbols. The Bithynian royal court of Nicomedes IV Philopator was no exception to that rule. A man Rick would have pegged as middle-aged sat on a gold-trimmed chair with polished gems inserted into it. The room around him bore distinctly Hellenic aesthetics, with painted sculptures and urns adorning marble walls. Surrounding him was the typical swarm of couriers, sycophants, and other leeches, but a distinctly Roman man stood just outside their ranks.
Titus approached slowly, but drew only the disparaging stares of the political plankton. Eventually, his eyes made contact with the young Roman man, who greeted him with a right hand outstretched. Rick recalled that Mussolini's fascists and their German allies had stolen that salute, in their obsession with all things Roman. Titus and his friend performed it without the historical baggage Rick associated with it. The young man had parted brown hair and a fair complexion.
"It is good to see a fellow Roman so far to the east, here in Bithynia."
"Aye, especially with the troubles back home," Titus said. "Sulla still breathes, Julius."
"Not for long at his age."
"I heard of a youth, Cato, who desires to hasten his end."
"Why waste the effort? The arrow of time is a dagger trained directly at his heart," Julius said. "And once it falls, the Senate will again become the corrupt, inept mess it always has been."
Titus clenched his fists as he paced around Caesar. "Better the corruption of many than inept despotism of one."
Caesar sighed. "So you say. But the Senators also fear the passage of time. Why else would they add months to the calendar to extend their terms?"
"The Senate can still be reformed. What if the calendar was standardized?"
Julius folded his hands behind his back and snickered lightly. "Depends upon who writes the standards."
"Why not use something that cannot be cheated, such as the waxing and waning of the moon?"
"Hmm, a clever idea." Caesar complemented. "But it must wait until fortunes shift."
"And what would you do until then? Let Rome rot?"
"Nay, friend, for there us much work to be done in the East. Mithridates' war has caused some setbacks, so we must clean up someone else's mess."
"While a tyrant oppresses our countrymen."
"A tyrant who reigns only because of an incompetent Senate," Caesar said. "Now, I am raising a force to pacify this land, and I am in need of men to train them. You certainly look the part of a former warrior, if you'll pardon my presumption."
"You presumed correctly. I fought Sulla's men when I served."
"That explains other things," Caesar put his hand on Titus' shoulder. "Now, what is your name? What unit did you serve with?"
The memory ended as Titus introduced himself. The last thing that Rick could feel was Titus relaxing into a comfortable ease. The Roman's relaxation hovered on the edge of Rick's own instinctual mind as he hovered at the edge of sleep. Rays of sunlight filtered through stack of boxes as he struggled to guess what time it was. In the morning silence, he could hear the motor of a stalling car outside. His instincts immediately assumed the worst, before the house phone rang down the hallway. From within the guestroom, Rick could hear Ted answer in Vietnamese.
He returned to his makeshift bedroll and forced himself into a fetal position. Footsteps sounded down the hall as his instincts told him to run. His heart raced and chest ached as his body braced itself to flee from an unknown adversary. Just as he wriggled behind the stack of boxes, Ted Pham opened the door and held the cordless phone.
"It's for you. He says its urgent," Ted said, handing Rick the cordless phone. "Better be, to get me up this earlier."
Rick hesitantly grasped the phone like a venomous creature, slowly moving it towards his ears. He did not know why beads of sweat formed on his forehead, but considered the steady thrumming of an engine outside had something to do with it. With fear and trepanation, he spoke into the receiver. "H-hello?"
"Your package is outside in the car," came Risona's voice. "Please collect it."
The voice was unnatural in a number of ways, from the syntax to the pronunciation of the syllables.
"Dave, is that you?"
"This is an automated message. Please examine the package."
Rick sighed in relief. His tension vanished almost as soon as it had came, but some things made sense. Dave was certainly capable of rigging some robo-dialing system to call when his delivery had been made. He set the phone down and threw on some clothing before heading out front.
Paranoia drove him to peek out the front window before exposing himself to whatever was outside. A light blue car with Delaware plates idled just outside the driveway, tinted windows preventing him from getting a clear view of the driver. Even from inside, he could easily identify it as a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale. The classic car was waiting outside for him, hopefully bearing essential supplies. After seeing no one else outside, he walked outside to meet the driver.
There was something unusual about the car, but he could not place it. He knocked on the opaque window, but there was no response. He waited for a moment and the door locks released. Rick cautiously opened the door, and now understood why.
The absence of a driver should have worried him more, but a realization of his friend's abilities quelled all doubts he had. Instead, a module of circuits was lashed to the steering wheel like Odysseus to the mast. A smart phone hung from a charger near the cigarette lighter, with a note reading "To R." on it. He tapped on the screen, and a message began to play.
"Hello there," Dave's voice said, with the crashing of waves somewhere behind it. "This car's been pulled from the scrap heap, had a more efficient engine and armor installed, and refitted with a robotic control system. There's goodies in the trunk, and the phone's clean. You can call and control the car with the phone if you select the appropriate ap. Any more questions, just call."
"Figures he'd go overboard like this," Rick said, muttering to himself.
He sat down in the driver's seat and parked the car in front of the Phams household before popping the trunk. With a well-warranted sense of caution, he stood back as he peered inside. Instead of the crate of weapons he had expected, he found only a duffel bag and spare tire in the rear of the car. Unsure of its contents, he resolved to open it inside. He slammed the trunk shut, took the phone and keys, and locked the vehicle behind him. For a moment, he looked back, half expecting that it would spring to life and chase him inside. Part of him wondered if he shouldn't just hop inside and keep driving until Cornelia was in the rearview mirror, where it belonged. He decided to see whatever David had sent him before heading off. Titus and Caesar had fled to the edge of their world, and RIck wondered if he should not stop running until he went over the edge of his.