August 25th, A.D. 79
The air was thick with ash. It came down like a heavy snow, shrouding everything in black and grey. The air itself felt heavy - heavy with the scent of smoke and sulfur and death. Gaius watched the streets through the open window for any signs of life, but his view was inexorably drawn to the massive column of smoke that towered above. It wasn’t long before he turned away from the window, coughed, and spat a mouthful of black on the floor.
“No use, young sir.” The gray-haired slave said. “Not even for a soldier such as you. The gods have come. Vulcanus has stoked the fires of his forge.”
Gaius ignored the slave and walked to the center of the small house. He looked around at the survivors huddled around his makeshift fire. The flames made their ash-smeared faces seem to float in the unnatural gloom. All eyes had turned to focus on him. He wondered if his own face looked as grim as theirs.
“No sign of others,” he said. “I think-” he began, then turned his head to cough again. “I think we should make for the harbor. There may still be ships that can take us to safety.”
“Then it’s settled,” Gaius said after a long silence. He gestured to the other guards. “Pick up your load.”
The guards slowly rose to their feet and murmured amongst themselves as they sorted out their satchels. He turned and gestured to slaves who had huddled together at the opposite side of the chamber. “Rise. You must help to carry the young and the infirm,” he said.
They did not rise, but stared at him, sullenly.
“To leave here is death,” said the gray haired slave. “Who can resist the gods?”
Gaius spread his arms, “To stay here is death, cur.” He took up his satchel from the cracked mosaic floor. “I go to the harbor. Any who wish to go with me, take up your belongings.”
A moment of silence passed.
“We will go, soldier,” came a voice from out of the darkness. An older patrician man came forward, his arm protectively wrapped around a young woman. He was heavyset, but his arms and legs were corded with old muscle. She was small and pale, her yellow hair and blue gown dirty with soot.
Gaius looked to them and then to the rest of the huddled forms. “Come then, and stay close.” He turned and walked to the door only to stop short when he heard no clatter of boot-shod feet behind. The guardsmen remained where they were, casting furtive glances at one another.
“That was an order. Quickly, now!”
“Gaius, hold.” Quintipor, one of the older guards under his command, approached from the inner darkness. He drew Gaius out of earshot of the patrician man and woman. “I say we leave,” he said, “without the dead weight of an old man an’ his bitch.”
Gaius stared into the grizzled guard’s unblinking eyes. “We have a duty,” he said after a long silence.
“You think that lot would give a whore’s rag to save you?” Quintipor said, gesturing at the patricians. “No, sir, you’re filth to them. Better to run and save your skin.”
“That’s nothing to me, Quint. We do our duty.”
“That’s just it. There’s no ‘we’ sir,” said Quintipor. Me and the boys were talking. We decided. We leave the dead weight here or we go our own way.”
Gaius looked off into the smoky darkness of the streets, now empty, except for the gathering ash. His hand tightened on the grip of his sheathed sword. “You think I’ll just let you run off?”
The old guard flashed a mirthless smile. “Don’t see what you can do about it, sir. Me and the boys, we go our own way.”
“Then you go your own way, Quint- straight to hell.”
Quintipor spat and turned to the remaining guards. “We go boys. Leave the rabble.” The group of sullen men filed out of the darkness. None met Gauis’ eyes as they passed.
He watched them trod off into the gloom, and then turned and called back into the dark house, “Any who wish to go to the harbor, follow and stay close.”
Gauis set off, with the patrician, the young woman, and the gray-haired slave in tow. The rest of the huddled forms disappeared behind him, swallowed by the dark of the abandoned house.
They had not walked for long before they came upon a mass of ash-stained people shambling through the wide thoroughfare that ran down to the city’s harbor. They joined the sad procession, arms raised to shield from the occasional pumice stone that would fall from the sky. The ash now poured down like steady rain. The gloom of the day had darkened to the shade of deep night, and the only discernable light came from sputtering lamps and torches carried by those around them. Few of them spoke above a whisper. Children wept. Some called out for lost parents.
The young woman looked to the old patrician. “Is it true, pater?” she said in a small, raspy voice. “Have the gods come down? Will they devour us?”
The patrician man walked on, saying nothing.
“Of course, young mistress,” said the old slave. “The gods are wroth and they walk the streets, even now. Vulcanus has opened his forge, and earth shall be consumed.”
“Silence!” hissed Gaius.
Gaius choked on ashen fumes and bent double with a racking cough. He could not tell how long they had been trodding down the avenue. The half-light under the unnatural clouds hid the time of day. The old patrician moved along with a grim, set face. The young woman fared less well, mostly carried by the patrician at this point. The stream of refugees had reduced down to a trickle, with many of them pulling away into narrow alleys or empty buildings. Others simply stopped, huddling against walls for the relative shelter they offered. Some called out from the ground, their minds taken by lunacy, crying for an end to the night. The pumice stone came down more thickly now. Roofs collapsed under the weight of the ash and stone. Still, Gaius led on.
“There is no way forward, young sir,” said the ash-stained slave in a hoarse whisper. “The gods have abandoned us. It is the end of all things. We must take shelter.”
Gaius pressed on. “And if it is the end, what will shelter avail you, fool?” he said, his dry voice breaking. “We move on.”
“Perhaps, soldier,” said the patrician, “It would be best to rest.”
Then the sky broke. It started as a rumble and grew to a roar. Gaius turned to look back at the terrifying sound, but could see nothing. The ground began to rumble beneath his feet.
“Vulcanus walks among us!” screamed the old slave. He fell to his knees and tried to hide himself in the knee deep ash. “Vulcanus has come! He will devour all!”
Gaius turned to the patrician and the girl. “Run to the harbor!” The old patrician obeyed, scooping up the woman into his arms and running from the oncoming roar. Gaius drew his blade and hefted his shield.
The slave looked up from his cowering. “None can stand against the gods!”
Gaius kicked the slave out of the way and moved toward the sound - the sound of a world’s ending. He raised his blade, and screamed in defiance.
August 25, A.D. 2019
“Papa,” said the young girl, “You have to see this!”
Professor Giacomo Accardi followed his daughter as she darted between crates and statuary in the cataloging warehouse.
“Teresa,” he said, trying to keep up, “slow down, girl.”
She stopped and waited near the entrance to the newly discovered harbor district of Pompeii, arms crossed and foot tapping as he slowly limped over. When he had caught up she continued down the walkway at a more manageable pace for the him.
“What have you found?”
“An ash man!”
“What is so new to you, little girl, about an ash man? You see them all day.”
She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him along more quickly. “You’ll see!”
They descended into the excavation pits, turned into a newly dug trench, and came to an abrupt stop.
“Shit!” Giacomo said under his breath.
“It’s a sight to see, Professor,” said one of the workmen who had been excavating the area. “I thought my eyes were deceiving me as we dug the old boy out.”
Teresa led her father by the hand close to the ash man, a corpse that was mummified in its death throes by ash and heat. “All I ever see are ash people lying down,” said Teresa. “But this one-”
“He’s standing,” Giacomo said.