AUTHOR’S NOTE: The draws for December’s Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (by Cait Gordon, thank you very much!) were a dystopian story (yeah, like that could happen!) set on the Eiffel Tower involving a cane. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about Ancient Rome, so this is what came out!) ——jsb
When In Rome
By Jeff Baker
Devius Flatulus Maximus XVII raised a hand ordering the liter to stop. He stared up past the banners proclaiming Saturnalia there in Roma-Gaul Past the huge pictures of Devius Flatulus Maximus adorning the walls. The tower was made of grey metal and narrowed as it reached the top. It hadn’t been there a few minutes before. It wasn’t part of the Factorum Complex; there were no workers streaming in for their shift.
“Move over to the other side,” Maximus ordered the liter bearers. The young slave at the front nodded and the four of them proceeded to carry the leader closer for a better view. He didn’t notice someone had pasted a small banner on the back of the liter: HONK IF YOU VOTED FOR MAXIMUS; NEITHER DID ANYBODY!
The two slaves carrying the liter in the back were keeping their mouths shut.
Maximus stared again; he hadn’t heard of any new construction projects. He would have demanded the new erection be named after him. He touched the metal; there was a tingly shock.
He touched it again. Static lightning, like he’d felt on his carpet. Maximus pointed at one of the slaves at the back.
“You,” Maximus said. Then he gestured.
On the Eiffel Tower’s observation deck, M. Alden Engrenage was staring through what looked like a cross between a potbellied stove and a telescope. A moment earlier, he had been staring down at a muscular young man eating at a sidewalk café. Now, it was a set for a bizarre sitcom. Behind him, a weathered old man stamped a steel cane on the platform.
“What in the blazing Hell is this?” M. Charles Pelouse was the richest man in the E.U. “You don’t have to spend money on some kind of show; I just want a new viewing scope that works!” M. Pelouse slammed his cane against the metal railing. “I bought this tower, and by God I can buy you if your gadget doesn’t pan out!”
M. Engrenage had been paid to create a device that could see through time. He’d flipped the switch, hoping for a view of Paris in 1890. Then the scene had changed beneath them. His fingers tapped the steel bolts that held the device to the Eiffel, or rather, the Pelouse Tower. It was like the device was part of the tower now. That would explain some of this The whole tower had moved and them with it. The horizon was full of smokestacks topping dour-looking buildings.
“Well?” M. Pelouse grumbled.
“We seem to have moved,” the inventor said. “But I believe I can…”
“Um, excuse me,” came a voice in oddly-accented Greek.
“What?” M. Pelouse said.
“I am Etienne,” the muscular, red-haired young man said. “Loyal slave to Master Maximus who demands that you explain how this edifice was built without his approval.” He paused. “Unless you are working for the Gods.”
M. Engrenage spoke Greek, along with six other languages (being a polymath had some perks.) and was even more unsettled by what the young man had said, as by his ragged tunic and the chain tattooed on his right forearm. This was no joke. He introduced himself and then asked to see the paper he observed sticking on the young slave’s belt. He made sure to ask for it with a tone of authority.
“Yes, Sir,” Etienne said, responding automatically to someone who was of a higher station and handing over the rolled-up newsprint. “But my Master, the Great Maximus, demands that you immediately appear before him.”
M. Engrenage quickly scanned The Daily Acts, with a headline proclaiming “Saturnalia MMDCCLXXIII.” An alternate world! One he didn’t want to stay in.
“I don’t know how to explain this to you,” the inventor began in his best Greek, “but we have travelled from another, another…” how the hell does that police box doctor whatever explain things like this? M. Engrenage thought.
“I don’t know what the Hell you think you’re up to,” M. Pelouse said, limping towards the device, cane raised. “But you wasted too much of my money and time!” He quickly slammed the cane down on the telescope-thingie.
There was a crackle and the scene around the tower flickered in and out like a TV picture when the dog chewed the remote. In another instant 2021 flickered into view.
“See?” M. Pelouse shouted. “A trick! You’re fired.” He stalked towards the elevator.
M. Engrenage stared. Etienne was still standing there, staring over the railing.
“I’m not where we were, am I?” he asked.
“No, and I doubt we can take you back,” said the inventor.
“Good,” said the former slave. He grinned broadly. “This is a better place?”
“It depends,” M. Engrenage said, “on who you ask.”