The day’s excitement has not worn off as honorary gladiatorial games begin. The Imperial Colosseum is brightly lighted, and massive searchlights circle against the clouded sky. Spectators try to get in, buying overpriced tickets from scalpers outside the Colosseum walls. Rumors circulate that the new emperor has a special event planned. Vendors are handing out bottles of Crystal Blue and the revelers spritz the substance into the air.
“The one-of-a-kind fragrance designed by the emperor himself! Buy it here and show your support for Caesar!” the sellers shout. The people grab at the bottles desperate for the sensations of the Martian substance.
Marcus’s limo appears in the air over the Colosseum and the crowd wildly cheers. He is using a ground transportation to be closer to his subjects, another bold move that only endears him to their hearts. He waves from the window and clasps his hands together in a sign of unity. The car disappears down into a sub-basement parking lot.
The driver wheels it down to the rear of the building. Chase vehicles and police hover bikes surround it as it stops. Jumping out is a host of Praetorian guards thoroughly armed. They open Marcus’s door and he steps from the vehicle, then reaches in and takes Lucilla’s hand and helps her out.
In the locker room of the Colosseum, gladiators prepare for their matches. The entrance opens and Marcus and Lucilla step through. All the athletes bow to him. He sees several bottles of Crystal Blue scattered about, and feels the brace of absolute power.
“Rise my friends, and thank you for your service!”
One of them is Servius, the instructor from the academy. He has come out of retirement to take part in the ceremonial games. It is an extreme honor to fight in front of the emperor. He steps forward and bows to Marcus.
“Sire, it is we who are honored. What is your bidding?”
With an evil gleam in his eye, Marcus considers Servius’s question. He knows what he wants but needs to word it right.
“I value the old ways. I believe the games as they were then strengthened. Such violence showed with utmost clarity the preciousness of life. How you died was as important as how you lived. Death became was normal. We weren’t afraid of it. I think we need to reexamine that way of thought. The people will need strength in these dark days.”
Servius bows. “Your majesty, we will do as you have commanded.” The return of blood sport does not phase the gladiators, all under the control of the Crystal Blue Marcus’s piercing eyes direct their actions. The gladiators take up their Gladius swords and slide the razor sharp edges across their bare chests, cutting deep gashes that bleed down their bodies. In an almost mechanical tone, they repeat in unison the antiquated phrase, “We who are about to die to salute you.” Each of the gladiators steps back and salutes Marcus with an open palm, uncaring that they are committing to a death match.
Lucilla comes out of her trance and shakes her head. Marcus sees her and pulls a vial of Crystal Blue from his pocket. He sprays her again but it takes several tries before she goes under. So far only those with strong wills were unaffected or had to be exposed to more of the substance for it to take effect. In Marcus’s mind, the general effectiveness of the substance served as evidence that most people were mere cattle waiting to be led. Some, such as Lucilla and Claudia, were born to lead and showed much more resolve. Some of the Senators, as well, were resistant. Claudia could be contained. As for the defiant others, he had a treat for them and the crowds. Satisfied that things are going well and the games will proceed to his liking, he guides Lucilla out of the locker room. The Praetorian guards assume a protective formation around them.
The imperial viewing stand is high above the floor and has a panoramic view of the whole arena. Giant screens line the upper tiers and remote camera drones hover everywhere to catch all the action. The cameras spy Marcus and Lucilla entering and, as they take their seats, the crowds give a crescendo of praise, shouting his name. Marcus acknowledges them with a wave of his hand. His face is plastered on all the giant screens. People outside watch on their phones and computer pads.
Trumpets sound, announcing the entrance of the combatants. On the other side of the venue, three giant doors leading up from the locker room open. A small army of a hundred gladiators marches up the ramps onto the field, all decked out in traditional gear and brandishing their weapons. None have protective systems or sensors on.
The men are bare-chested and the women have a piece of armor covering their breasts. Some have shields and a Gladius, others are armed with different tridents or bows. They march in unison towards Marcus and the royal family.
Lining up in a long row. they cross their weapons across their chests. All together they shout, “Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!”
The crowd is silent. They were not expecting death matches. Men and women are about to slaughter each other right in front of their eyes. To Marcus, the air is concrete. Did he cross the line this time? Did Crystal Blue have its limits even on the weak-minded?
The worry is short lived as everyone cheers and begins chanting, “Kill! Kill!” Marcus has worked them up into a blood frenzy. There are no boundaries to his power now.
The combatants pair off, but not before another door opens. The Praetorian guards bring out the Senators who Marcus was unable to corrupt. “Frightened rats,” Marcus whispers, a wicked smile bearing his teeth.
Knowing what is coming, some of the Senators drop to their knees and beg for mercy. Marcus is deaf to their cries. He stands and tries to gauge the desires of the people. The crowd is so frenzied, the only thing that will quench their thirst is death. Marcus raises his thumb upwards. Some of the condemned are momentarily relieved, but Marcus abruptly jerks his thumb downwards. They scream as their executioners approach. Some of the men try to flee, but they do not stand a chance against trained killers.
The nearest Senator dies quickly. Servius, with mechanical precision, thrusts his blade down through the back side of the neck of one the cowering individuals, ripping through the esophagus before piercing the heart. Gladiators pounce on their prey, slashing the men’s throats. Some are decapitated, others hacked to pieces.
Marcus maintains his concentration, spurring the murderous rampage. Each man is executed by the merciless, brainwashed combatants. In one fell swoop, Marcus’s opposition has been swept away. His hold grows stronger. Just in case, he pulls a transceiver from his cloak and presses a button.
From compartments lining the wall of the arena, small, round drones fly up into the audience and spray the drug into the air. The crowds grow madder.
The gladiators, with their first order finished, turn on one another. It is a great orgy of death; men and women who knew each other for years became hardened enemies. The skill of training shines through as the combatants fray. The combat is vicious, cruel and inhuman, not a contest but mutual annihilation. When a fighter gets in trouble, he is finished off by a mob who then take up the fight with each other. The crowd chants ever louder, “Kill! Kill!“, driving the warriors harder. Their destruction of each other is awful even by Roman standards. Every possible method of killing is witnessed.
Finally, only two remain. The camera drones fly over the combatants’ heads to capture the action. On the screens above, their moves are displayed in crystal clarity. Outside and in homes the world over, all the carnage is broadcast in gory detail. A male and female go at each other with furious intent. He is stronger but she is quicker. As he comes down in what he thinks is a winning blow, she darts under him and swings her Gladius, catching him in the small of his back. He weaves, getting off balance. It is the opening she is looking for. She strikes again, this time severing his calf tendon. He falls to his knees, now at her mercy. The people break into a thunderous cry for blood. Marcus rises and with the same fanfare he showed for the Senators, points his thumb down for death. The woman is fast and efficient. She dispatches her opponent with ease. She stands with her arms in the air, victorious. The cameras move in tight as she removes her helmet. Her blonde hair cascades down past her shoulders and her name is flashed on the boards in dazzling light.
“There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Tatiana is our winner. She has only been in training for six months, but boy, she put on a show for us tonight,” says a dispassionate commentator.
All the civility and compassion that have been part of the games for centuries is forgotten in a single night. The empire is under Marcus’s control. The arena floor is a lake of blood. Claudia gets sick and has to run out of the box. Marcus glances at Lucilla. A single tear runs down her cheek as she vacantly stares ahead. Marcus feels for another vial of Crystal Blue but decides against it. He cannot keep pouring it on her as it might cause other problems. He turns his attention back to his subjects and waves at them.
The crowds want more, but there has been enough bloodletting tonight. Marcus eases his emotions, trying an experiment. As he calms down, so does the crowd. He is almost godlike. The empowerment he possesses goes to his head and he wants to try one more thing. Glancing around at the mass of people, he singles out a young man with what appears to be his girlfriend or wife. They are kissing and look to be in love. He conjures up thoughts of rage and directs it towards them. As they embrace, his fingers creep up to the woman’s throat. He jerks her away from his lips and grasps her by the neck. Squeezing her throat, she tries to beat him off to no avail. The man’s eyes are fire as Marcus glares, focused and directed on the single intent to kill the woman. The man’s grip grows tighter and the woman’s face turns blue and she gasps her last the larynx is crushed. Marcus can feel her dying in his hands. Bystanders next to the couple laugh. “This is fun,” Marcus thinks. A rush of satisfaction wells in him before something claws his subconscious in searing pain.
The buzzing noise has returned, growing louder, beating on the inside of his skull. This time it is not letting up. He stands, trying to shake off the horrific noise. The blood drains from his head and he collapses. Half awake, he lies on the floor as medics and drones surround him.
From a silky, cold darkness, Marcus rouses and sits up straight.
“Sire, are you alright?” says Septimus.
Marcus is disoriented and pulls himself up. The crowds are worried for his health and the television announcers have begun their speculations.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the emperor has collapsed... No, I see him standing now! I guess he’s okay. Maybe too much excitement.”
Deciding it has been enough for one day, Marcus motions for his guards to bring the cars around. The Praetorians gather him, Lucilla and the rest of the first family and accompany them to the vehicles. Claudia is in the hallway as Marcus passes. She keeps her head down, knowing full well that he would not hesitate to kill her if she tried to speak out against him.
“Feeling all right, dear? I hope this won’t become a regular occurrence,” he says.
Claudia sees the darkness in Marcus’s eyes. She has to stay in it for her and her children’s sake. She needs to warn her husband, who is still on patrols around the Moon. Marcus is taking the Empire down a dark path. She has long recognized his unyielding ambition, but never believed he would take it to this extreme. Murdering parents was not any conspiracy by Darius or Trajan, it was him.
She is too terrified to do anything about it. She must summon up the courage and discover its secret. He will monitor her transmissions, so she has to communicate with a third party outside the imperial compound. She had to find someone who was under the spell of Crystal Blue. She is secure for the moment, but her brother’s mood can change in an instant. A wrong glance from her and she’d be history. She feels sure the children are safe. That’s it! The kids. Not once has she seen any of the little ones affected. It has been distributed around enough that they would have smelled it. Maybe it has to do with hormones? No, that could not be it. She had never been changed and Marcus has frequently sprayed her with the noxious perfume. It would have to do with the personality or willpower or even the soul. She is no scientist or philosopher but the Senators he slaughtered were men of honor and had not been swayed. She is confident that the evil Septimus tried his best to influence them before the vote. She witnessed their reactions when he called for absolute power; now they were dead. This is all hypothetical. She has to find a compatriot. Lucilla is her only option. She has to break the spell that Crystal Blue has over her, but first, she has to get in touch with her husband.
Marcus stops ahead of her and stands motionless. Did he hear her thoughts? Claudia trembles as he turns to her.
“Sister, do not doddle. I and the children are tired.” He continues on to the hover car. Relieved, she can tell by his voice that there was nothing there. At least he cannot read minds, but that may change. She has to act fast.