“I knew it was far too soon for my world to be ready for the locomotive uses of petroleum, but I knew it was possible for one man working in his laboratory to create a more immediate application of the substance and its derivatives. As part of a deep cover, I told my wife that I was delving into the world of alchemy (which, in a sense, was entirely correct), and she promptly exercised her legal and maternal rights by departing for another part of the city with our children in tow. I responded by purchasing an Avar servant girl captured along the Danuvius and sold in the Tavrou Foros, then having the young creature take care of all my needs as I settled into the hermitic life of a scientist.
“And so I sat in my laboratory for a full day, staring at the casks of crude which had been carefully stacked at one end and contemplating (unsuccessfully) how I was to convert their contents into a more useful product.
“My inspiration came to me from a most unexpected quarter. I had long been in the habit of taking tea in the early evening, tea prepared with water boiled in my ‘invention’ of a tea kettle, and my new concubine insisted on pulling me out of my lab as darkness fell over the city of Constantinopolis to the sound of the kettle’s whistle in the next room. It was as I settled into a seat at the kitchen table, watching droplets from the jet of steam condense on the rims of our pair of earthenware mugs, that the lightning flashed through my brain. I made a hasty exit from the room against the protests of my concubine, and this time I locked myself in my lab until sleep overtook me in the wee hours of the morning.
“After much experimentation with the process of distillation, I settled upon the following scheme: I built a large brick furnace in the courtyard of my villa, and used iron piping and gravity to send oil circulating from my laboratory on the second floor above into the intense heat of the furnace’s fire. The piping continued through the furnace and out another ten feet to an iron cooling tower divided into different levels, the lighter elements rising to the upper levels and condensing before trickling out one final set of pipes into a collection of iron barrels (yes, it had been difficult even in Constantinopolis to find a team of blacksmiths able to fulfill my needs).
“And so on that first day of distillation I was rewarded with a liter’s worth of gasoline, a liter which I promptly stored in a covered rooftop rain cistern for safekeeping and proceeded to add to with alacrity. I conducted many more experiments as I refined my oil, soon introducing salts into the gasoline to cause it to gel properly. After much such trial, error, and success, I was ready to take the next natural step and present my new invention to the only power which counted: the fourth Emperor Constantine.
“Konstantinos the Fourth was then engaged in a life-or-death struggle for the Empire, the Muslims newly united after a civil war and advancing all the way to the Propontis, Sicily, and Carthage. Not surprisingly the multiple levels of bureaucrats left behind in the capital were none too excited by the wild claims of an unknown inventor, but my persistence and the military nature of my proposals gained me an audience with the domestic Logothete, the man in charge of Constantinopolis while the Emperor was across the Propontis fighting the infidel invaders.
“The demonstration of my weapon took place in the garden of the Imperial Palace. I borrowed a small catapult for the event, and used the machine to hurl a burning cloth-wrapped ball containing a flask of my liquid into one of the garden’s dying trees. The condemned wood promptly burst into flames, and, more importantly, the flames were not extinguished by the buckets of water the palace servants had at the ready. I drove home the terrifying nature of my ‘discovery’ by allowing a few moments to pass before suggesting that the servants put out the flames with soil and sand.
“The Logothete instantly recognized the value of the invention, particularly in sea combat, and I, along with two barrels of my liquid, was escorted across the Propontis under heavy guard to the city of Cyzicus, which was then under Muslim siege and therefore was where the Emperor could be found. My barrels and my person were immediately taken on a wagon from the harbor to the Emperor’s headquarters just inside the city’s walls where, upon my arrival, that man eighteen years of age was directing a repulse of the latest Muslim attack. One might have expected such a young man to be following the directions of his elder advisors, but Konstantinos had already endured the assassination of his father, a usurpation by one of his father’s killers, and now an invasion which had reached to the heart of his realm. As I and my guards watched from a corner of the room, the Emperor directed teams of archers to each of the two simultaneous breaches in the walls, and a numerus of cavalry to a position between the two breaches for the possibility of the enemy pouring through either gap in the defenses.
“The defenses held that day, the piles of Muslim bodies providing ironic plugs in both of the breaches, but it was with the weariness of an old man that the Emperor finally sat himself in my corner of the room, as darkness fell outside a translucent window, and asked me what I wanted. It was the prefect who had escorted me from Constantinpolis who answered on my behalf, telling the Emperor of the ‘new and wondrous’ weapon which I had created.
“Konstantinos listened with disinterest at first to this tale from two who had supposedly not seen war, but his disinterest turned to interest with the telling, especially when I produced a flask of my liquid and offered to demonstrate for him. The young Emperor looked at my flask, looked at me, and flashed the room a wicked smile as he allowed his chair to land forward from a lean with a loud snap.
“The demonstration turned out to be a burning of the enemy dead in the first breach of the walls. The Emperor and his entourage observed from behind the remaining sections of wall as I doused the near side of the body pile with my product, showed no reaction as the human flesh began to barbecue (even as the dead’s comrades cried out in anguish from their own observation points), then lit up with ‘ooh’’ s and ‘aah’’ s when I splashed the pyre with water to demonstrate how water only spread the fire.
“Instantly it became obvious that Konstantinos now considered me and my barrels of liquid fire the most valuable assets in the city, and it was an ill omen for the city’s defenders that he ordered me and my barrels back to Constantinopolis before the demonstration fire had even died. The Emperor followed my ship closely with his own, and, as dawn began to break over both ships on the Propontis, I realized just how dire the Empire’s position was.
“From Cyzicus the Muslims had a base for naval attacks throughout the heart of the Empire, and Smyrna and other coastal cities soon fell. The Romaioi navy was bottled up at the eastern end of the Propontis for the next five years, and the Slavs attacked Thessalonika in Greece.
“And yet my Emperor did nothing with my fire. With Imperial funds and resources we set up a secret production facility within the city walls and proceeded to stockpile substantial quantities, but my Emperor remained in his capital, perhaps less than confident in a new technology and certainly less than confident in his own army, at least vis-à-vis the Muslim hordes.
“But eventually Konstantinos did attack, in Anatolia by both land and sea. As the premier expert on my weapon, I accompanied the fleet in the Battle of Syllaeum, and watched as Muslim ship after Muslim ship burst into flames upon the impact of a catapulted flask-in-flaming-ball, burning and screaming crew members leaping into the surrounding sea in vain attempts to end their agony. The destruction of the enemy fleet was completed by a storm which crossed its path of retreat, the Muslim army was defeated on land, and peace was restored to the Empire for the time being.
“I’ve always had a knack, my friend, for the best moment to make a graceful exit, and the fact that I had been allowed to make the journey to Syllaeum indicated that I was dangerously expendable. The moment I was back in Constantinopolis, I took leave of my wife, children, and concubines, and took advantage of the brief lull in Muslim piracy to charter a ship for a long sail. I left under cloak in the middle of the night so as to avoid detection by the Romaioi authorities, and sailed as far away from Constantinopolis and that authority as I could, which at that point in time was to the fortress of Septum beneath the Pillars of Hercules. I had hired more than a few mercenaries to make the journey with me, and we as a force rowed ashore in a pair of boats after dropping the ship’s anchor.
“I demanded that the Visigoth commander surrender the port and fortress to me, and when he naturally refused, I signaled for my cannoneers aboard the anchored ship to fire away and blow a hole in the seaward wall of the good commander’s fortress. The Visigoths were much disturbed by this, but did not see the light of reason until they attempted to charge our position at the end of a dock, at which time a good number of them were barbecued alive by a stream of the Greek fire I had taken with me across the breadth of the Mediterranean.
“Yes, my friend, I had carefully refined both of my martial inventions, and I was amply rewarded for my diligence. King Wamba of the Visigoths in his court at Toletum across the Fretum Herculeum no doubt heard wild tales of my incredible victory, and having no naval base to speak of, he sent an ambassador instead of an army to my own court at Septum. The Visigothic diplomat proposed that I become a vassal of the king across the strait as a count of my own side of the Fretum, and, as no tribute was demanded, I readily agreed.
“‘Readily’ because the Muslims had completed the construction of Kairouan, a new base city south of Romaioi Carthage, and they were no doubt intent on continuing their African conquests. A Berber tribe immediately to my east converted to Islam, joining the armies of Allah, and soon indeed I found Muslim warriors at my doorstep.
“But I, who had taken the new name of Julian and who now commanded a sizable force of locals, ambushed the enemy vanguard in a mountain pass by detonating a large barrel of gunpowder beneath a rock outcropping, thus cutting off that force’s retreat and panicking their horses in the same stroke. My swordsmen moved forward against the foe whose numerical superiority was nullified in the narrow defile, and we slaughtered that trapped force to the last man. The Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi retreated back toward Kairouan with the remainder of his men, but he was betrayed in a second ambush by his erstwhile Berber allies long before he got there, and the newly-converted Muslim Berbers became the undisputed masters of northwest Africa, save for my little notch in the Herculean corner.
“But my notch of a kingdom was now in danger from the north as well, for an accidental explosion had sunk the harbored ship which had been the sole storage depot for my gunpowder and Greek fire. Wamba’s successor-by-overthrow King Erwig naturally got word of this, rightly surmised that I was much weakened as a result, and promptly demanded my beloved daughter as a hostage in his court to ensure my loyalty.
“Yes, I had sired a daughter shortly after my arrival in Africa, with the daughter of a local Catholic Berber tribe’s chieftain. My own daughter was now five, and I hesitated to send her to the Visigothic court of that king, but I was equally afraid of what might happen to all the women of my realm if it were to be invaded. Over my wife’s objections, I sent the crying girl under escort across the Fretum, thus ensuring peace for my kingdom.
“But not peace for my soul. It was when my daughter was a fully-grown woman, still trapped in the royal court out of a refusal by my successive lords to release her, that the most vile outrage was visited upon her. Rodrigo the Dux of Baetica defeated and killed Witiza the King of the Visigoths, and, at my invitation, the rivals of the usurper gathered in my city of Septum along with the Arians and Jews fleeing forced conversion at the hands of the Catholic bishops who backed Rodrigo for king.
“Even ‘Wicked Witiza’ had not dared touch my daughter and include her among his many wives and concubines, but the new king seemed to have no compunction about ravishing my progeny repeatedly and sending her back across the Fretum in a pregnant state. That son of a man who been blinded and imprisoned by the previous king seemed to have gone mad with rage, for his action most assuredly turned me against him and his kingdom without inducing the least bit of terror in my soul. It was upon seeing my crying, shamed and swollen daughter standing before me in my own court, the best years of her life wasted, that I resolved to exact revenge upon King Rodrigo and the Visigoths at any and all costs.
“And the Muslims made it easy for me, in more ways than one. I had witnessed as a neighbor the fair and tolerant treatment the Muslim conquerors bestowed upon their subjects, and I knew that they were always willing to conquer new lands in the name of God. So I approached the Muslim governor at Tingis with a proposal, and he agreed to consider it. Consider it he did for a night, no doubt consulting the members of his harem taken from across the Fretum, then agreed the next morning to give the matter more consideration after a joint scouting raid conducted by myself and the general Tariq ibn Ziyad. Part of the raid’s rationale, I deduced, was to test my disloyalty to my nominal Visigothic overlord, and I, who had nothing left to lose to Rodrigo, played along splendidly. Ziyad, myself, and a combined force landed on the coast across the Fretum, made allies, took prisoners, and returned to Africa to prepare for the following year’s invasion.
“I was left behind in Africa the following April, but that could only partly assuage the guilt which was now beginning to rack my soul. Rodrigo was defeated by a smaller Muslim force at the height of that summer, after his wingmen deserted him according to prior arrangements with myself, and the king and his court were slaughtered. The resulting power vacuum allowed the Muslim invaders to dominate the entire peninsula within seven years, save for the northwest corner, and in return for my treachery I was given land in Lusitania. I crossed the Fretum for an inspection tour of that parcel of real estate at the first possible moment, a youthful old man taking leave of his concubines, children, and grandchildren.
“The spoils of war for me proved to be barren and windswept, and it was with little hesitation that I contrived yet another disappearance my first night in the local town, murdering one of my own guards and riding off into the night atop a stolen horse. I rode hard for the north, hard for the Kingdom of Asturias, where a former bodyguard of Rodrigo’s named Pelayo had escaped and was now organizing Christian resistance to the invaders. The beleaguered residents of Cangues d’Onis welcomed with open arms this mounted warrior from the south who was most certainly not a Moor, but I suspected my cover as a refugee from Baetica would not last long, and I pressed on across the Pyrenaeus with a band of armed merchants to the city of Tolosa.
“Yes, my friend, I had finally returned to Gaul after an absence of two centuries, and I felt a sense of homecoming when I saw the walls of the capital of Aquitania, even if I had never seen that particular city before and even if, upon approach and entry, it was plainly evident Gaul had declined under two centuries of Frankish rule. This former capital of the Visigoths was dirty, poor, and relatively deserted, even if its Roman walls still stood to encircle its misery.
“I might have been tempted to remain in the Duchy of Aquitania, but Dux Odo, along with King Chilperic the Second of neighboring Neustria, had recently been defeated at the Battle of Suessiona by a force whom this wanderer found much more fascinating: Carl, Dux Francorum, the Duke of the Franks.”
“I joined another band of armed merchants, this one headed up the Garumna Valley and on to Paris, a city which had suffered a disastrous fire amongst its timber buildings but had recovered and continued its expansion beyond the Ile. I sought out the descendants of the trader who had departed for Italy long, long before, presented myself as a cousin descendant in need of shelter, and thus secured a respite amongst a family of traders who had prospered modestly after selling the family estate and returning to the Ile upon Paris’s fiery destruction seven generations before.