It’s from way back in 2012 and the second issue of the now sadly defunct Alt Hist, but David X Wiggins’ “The Apollo Mission” is a story that has stayed with me.
The full story is available with a purchase of Alt Hist 2. Here are the opening paragraphs:
The legionnaire awoke, surprised to see that he was still alive. He had dreamt of fire and pain and an endless fall that filled the blue void with screams. Pink light from the rising sun oozed over the darkness of the hut around the edges of the window shades. A knock came at the door. It was time.
He dressed slowly, keeping his mind focused on each individual task. He meticulously double-checked every strap of his armour and carefully avoided the thoughts that made his heart beat like a sparrow’s. A smartly dressed regiment of Rome’s finest awaited him outside. They saluted him in the manner befitting a patriot and he returned their salute in the manner of a man too proud to show his terror. They lead him—silent but for the clank of their weapons and the beat of their sandals upon the dust—and he let himself be led like a docile ox to the slaughter. He looked up at the dawning sky as they marched and saw puffs of cloud aimlessly hanging above like Jupiter’s lost sheep. Soon he would be high above them, looking down at their backs with an eagle’s disdain. Would they look so soft and gentle then? None but the gods and Icarus had ever beheld such a view until now.
More of the premise can be gleaned from this interview with David X Wiggin. Here he is on the genesis of the story:
Apollo, being the Greek & Roman deity of the sun and archery (not to mention a symbol of the triumph of rational civilization over nature), is really the most logical choice for a program that involves shooting giant arrows into the sky. Originally this story was going to be about the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory (not something I believe in but I think there’s some wonderful potential there) and in the course of doing research on space travel I came across the story of Wan Hu, a minor Ming Dynasty official who tried to fly into space using rockets attached to his chair. Immediately this turned to thoughts about earlier civilizations starting up space programs and a program for Rome – with its expanding empire, advanced technology, loyal soldiers, and actual worship of Apollo – suddenly made way too much sense. I’m surprised we don’t see more ideas for flying machines or lunar travel in ancient texts, frankly, but I guess that was seen as pretty far fetched for even those advanced civilizations.