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The Guest Star

It was early December of a remarkably warm autumn in Alexandria. The year of 185 was going to expire soon and Hero felt that the next one would be the most challenging in his entire life. He turned 15 today and was at the very end of his first master class in the Great Library. Hero was fluent in several languages even before he entered his teenage years and he knew that Alexandria had to be his next stop a day after he read Ptolemaîos' Almagest, the scroll he had lucky to stumble with in Antioch's atheneum.

Today and after two years in the campus he knew that he was at the crossroads. Earlier this morning Hero realized the passion he shared toward the imperial history and the stories from the past was taking the toll with every passing day and the time has come for the next step. Here, laying on the small carpet just outside southern city walls and watching the starry sky he made a definite decision. As soon as his course is finished he would start traveling the world with his own papyrus and quill. The Rome first. All roads lead there anyway.

"Here's our birthday boy!" - He heard Cassius' hulking baritone from the dune next to his. Hero waved him back little embarrassingly. He didn't try to avoid his best friend tonight - just needed couple of hours alone time to summarize the past year on his own.

"What's wrong with the Pharos promenade? Everybody went there tonight. The Greeks have a new play at the beach theater, you know.. Come on Hero, it's your day today! There is nothing wrong with a little fun, once in a while." - Cassius and Lucia appeared behind him with a bottle of wine and three cups.

"The fire is too bright. I can't see Mars from the beach." - Hero said and moved to make room for the couple. He was the youngest pupil in the class and Cassius was nearly seven years older but their minds were almost the same age with the same interests and plans for going to Rome next year. Lucia was probably the smartest girl in the class and Hero was always little envious of Cassius for dating her.

Lucia poured the wine, mixed it with warm water and salted with pinch of sea salt each. "It's Cass' grandfather's." - she said. "The best wine you can try anywhere in Bithynia and all eastern Mediterraneum."

Cassius raised the wine, touched Hero's shoulder and with an initial cough said: "To the Herodian of Antioch, future citizen of Rome and the youngest public servant in the history of the empire. May the ink he always carries in his left pocket never dries!"

"Thank you Cass." Hero said with boyish smile. "I know I wouldn't be here without your support. I owe you big time. To our friendship!" He raised his cup and sipped a long gulp. The wine was sweet and had a delicious taste but he knew well enough what more than one cup of this could do to him. After all he entered his manhood only yesterday, so to speak. He glimpsed the southern Alexandrian walls. "It's difficult to leave this place. It's amazing that this city even exists. I know there's no such extraordinary place like this anywhere in the world and I mean people more than anything else."

They emptied their cups and sat on Hero's carpet facing south toward the invisible horizon. The darkness was not complete, spoiled by faint city lights and grand lighthouse fire on the north but enough to provide the full greatness of the active heavens above their heads.

"So you are here because of Mars?" Lucia needed only second to find the bright reddish dot just dozen of angles titled to the left. "What's so special about Mars tonight Hero?"

Hero produced a piece of papyrus showing complex curve with his observation of the planet. Every dot he sketched accompanied the date of the observation. "I come here once a week in the past two years trying to understand the motion. It's amazing.. It's almost like Mars is determined to reach the horizon this year. Look. She was here two months ago, then took little retrograde motion to the back and then furiously returned to the initial path. It's like... I don't know.. She did that exact motion two years ago but not last year. Her path was completely different last December. I am trying to understand what's causing her to..."

"Her?" Cassius interrupted. "You know that this particular planet is named after the god of war himself?" He chuckled strangely. "There is nothing feminine and gentle in that bloody wandering star of yours. Just hints of future wars.. Mars was always a bad portent. The scrolls are full of it."

"Cassius, you know you're an idiot sometimes, don't you?" Lucia looked at him in the way many teachers from the astronomy class addressed superstition and myths. "Even centurions don't believe that anymore."

"Yes they do." He replied and gazed a long look up. It was obvious he was not entirely conformable about the religious folk tales and legends but his scholar mind couldn't push the mystery behind. "So you think Mars is headed for the horizon? Where exactly?"

Hero consulted his sketch for a second and pointed. "Right about th..."

In that same moment when his finger pointed the sky, a faint dot on the horizon started rapidly to glow and in less than a second became twice as big as Venus and much brighter, twinkling and shining in different colors but mostly orange and white.

Lucia screamed.

They got up slowly and for a long moment were frozen in time. In the absence of the Moon that particular night the night sky was surreal. It seemed like the newcomer stole the sky from the rest of the stars standing right there ominously waiting.

Apparently with Mars silently heading toward it.

A light breeze came out of nowhere and they all felt the chill. Cassius was first to react.

"You still don't believe in bad omens?"
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