Forever Rome

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Chapter 14

The hover limo carrying the royal family glides into the imperial compound and parks under the overhang. Construction continues at a feverish pace repairing the blown out wing of the palace. Even at this late hour, workers are busy trying to finish. The Praetorian guards form a line on either side of the door leading up the stairway, creating a corridor of protection for the royals to walk between.

Marcus proceeds inside, not bothering with anyone else. He is tired and wants to go to bed. Claudia can exploit this to her advantage and use the lateness to contact her husband. First, however, she will see if there is any reaching Lucilla.

Claudia steps from the hover limo with her children right behind her. Lucilla is beat and follows them. Claudia wonders if she is fighting the effects of the drug. If so, this might be the opportune time to find out. She takes Lucilla’s hand.

“You look exhausted.”

“It’s been a long day,” she says.

Lucilla is a little amiable. Claudia is forward. “Could it be Marcus is taking things way too fast? I mean, the normal time of mourning hasn’t even passed and he’s already declared himself emperor...” Claudia pauses to see if it sinks in. Maybe some hint of what Marcus is doing will trigger a response from Lucilla. She turns to Claudia with tired, sad eyes.

“Crystal Blue is a narcotic he’s made somehow, and he’s using it to control you and everyone else. You need to snap out of it for all our sakes. You are the only one close enough to take action.”

“Not a drug, something more even Marcus isn’t aware of it. They are here. Must kill them all... and me... they want a new planet... been asleep so long,” says Lucilla.

Claudia doesn’t understand.

“The kids have not been affected. Their minds are pure. Others with good consciences and strong wills can fight them. I’m trying, I’m but weak. It possesses me. They came here long ago, watched over us, tried to guide us, but we wouldn’t listen. Old ones have returned... still many on Mars that want to come here... must stop them all...”

Lucilla wobbles as she passes out. “Quickly!” calls Claudia. A guard takes Lucilla under the arm and guides her away. The night nanny takes the children off to bed. Claudia is alone.

Claudia walks into her father’s study. The room is monitored but its bathroom is not. She steps into the bathroom. It is just a tiny area with one commode and a sink. But it is so much more. She presses the corner of the mirror above the vanity and the wall slides back.

It is an emergency bunker that only she and Domitian knew about. He had it built in complete secrecy years before. He had shown it to her only six months before. She was always his favorite, the only child he could trust.

Domitian told her that in the event anything should happen to him not to tell her brother. It is sealed off and has its own dedicated server and encrypted transmission channel. He gave her the password, “OmegaHasCometoRome,” to access the system, then programmed her DNA into the system’s scanner so only she could use the transmitter and the networks.

The room was Domitian’s private sanctuary, where recorded his inner thoughts and fears and, if the situation arose, where he would run the government. Claudia could retrieve any information he might have stored away that could be helpful. It was as if he planned for this day all his life, hoping it would never occur. Claudia wished she had gotten into it earlier but everything happened so fast she had not had time. She hoped she was not too late to reverse what was going on.

She enters the password. As her fingers touch the keyboard, the computer scans her genetic makeup. With her identity confirmed, the computers start up. On the monitor is a simple phrase for her to click reading “Domitian Files.” She presses the enter button and her Father appears on screen. Tears come to her eyes. He looks tired. The entry was from two days before.

“Claudia, what I have always feared has transpired. I must start from the beginning. Pompeii, Clavius and I discovered something on Mars years ago. A being named Garelle, an Martian scientist who caused an ancient war that consumed his race. Their civilization began long before ours did. Their technology grew, and they conquered many planets before settling into a benevolent existence that came through spiritual revival. Our planet had only begun to sprout life. On an expedition to Earth, part of their crew was left behind. Their genetics can still be found here. Traces remain through their descendants. They escaped to Earth to flee from the awful cataclysm which befell them. We know their descendants as bees. They are not the powerful beings they once were. Like all species, they evolved into smaller forms over the eons. We, too, may share a similar fate because of what your brother has done. Perhaps it is my fault because I recorded the events on my body camera. At first, I didn’t realize I had, but when I did, I wanted to analyze the footage. It was wrong for me to keep it. But that was not all I failed to take into consideration. When we arrived home all of us had bioexams to make sure we didn’t bring the disease back. During the exam, blood and samples were drawn and stored away. My DNA was kept on file after I had my physical. Marcus discovered the recording, how I do not understand. A break-in occurred at the medical facility where I received my examination and my records were compromised. I also found enormous sums drained from his account. I believe we were in fact infected back then. He figured this out and perhaps Garelle, on some level, is guiding him. So whatever occurred, I passed it along to my children. Marcus inherited its evil characteristics and you received the creature’s decency. I know I’m not making much sense. It was all so long ago, but I think we were programmed by an object called the bug medallion. It released a force that has been awaiting a corruptible person such as your brother to do its bidding. He is closing in on me and will act soon. If I fall victim to him and his treachery, find out what he’s done and reverse it. Remember, Crystal Blue is not a drug, it’s something more. Seek Darius. He was there but was not corrupted. And, if you can, Clavius, Pompeii, and Trajan. Trajan is the strongest and may have received his better traits from the Martians. Whatever happens, do let your sibling assume power.”

Domitian turns off the camera and the image of him fades from view. All was lost. Everyone on her father’s list is dead or missing. It is up to her now. She has some of the information, but not all the pieces fit together. The next course of action is to get in touch with her husband and seek his counsel. She rotates a dial on the console to send a communication. It was used to contact trusted leaders in the military, but long ago her father had feared higher ranking officers could be influenced by greed and power so he had deemed certain middle-level personnel more worthy and less corruptible. Achilles was one of them.

A little nervous, she typed in the password. The transmitter springs to life and accepts her DNA scan, allowing her complete access. She enters her husband’s secure channel number. On the other end, the receiver will vibrate in case he is where he cannot talk. On his screen, it would read “Claudia 1,” a code that between them signals disaster. She waits as the line connects. It takes a few seconds but it feels like eternity.

His strong kind face appears on the viewscreen, worried. Relieved that she did not have to wait for a return call, she gets right to the point.

“It’s Marcus! He’s assumed power and using drugs to control everyone.”

“I saw the coronation. I figured there was more to it. Some of my men have not been behaving as normal.”

She doesn’t want to interrupt, but she does not have much time and wants to get it out before she forgets anything.

“Don’t let yourself come in contact with that cologne that’s being circulated called Crystal Blue. There is something about it that gives Marcus complete control over people’s actions. Children are not affected and certain individuals who have a strong sense of right and wrong. The Proconsul has been implicated in the plot that killed my parents along with Clavius’s son. They believe he’s hiding out on the moon or may be going to Mars. You have to find them.”

“The Augustus docked an hour ago up here. they reported destroying a craft heading for that way,” says Achilles.

Claudia is downtrodden but quickly formulates her own plan. It is risky and she is worried for her husband, but somebody has to see how to stop this.

“Lucilla said more were coming. Can you get a crew together and go?”

He thinks for a moment, knowing this is an extreme emergency.

“I’m not sure. We’re only a security unit and not assigned to survey duty. It would be difficult to requisition a vessel unless we had a good reason.”

Claudia realizes she will have to play along and pretend that the Crystal Blue is affecting her.

“I’ve been helping out with the Moon Survivors Organization. I can use my ship and transport there. I’ll lead Marcus to believe I am under the spell of his drug and convince him to allow me to obtain another supply of whatever this is on Mars.”

“That’s too risky. Let me gather troops I know are loyal and we’ll come down there and end this thing.”

“And what, take on the combined armies of the empire? We have to do this my way, get at the source and destroy it,” says Claudia. She doesn’t give Achilles a chance to argue and switches off the transmitter mid-sentence. Now she is on her own and has to find more clues how Crystal Blue affects people and if it is reversible.

It is getting late and she cannot be gone for too long as the monitors around the palace record her being out of sight for longer than normal. An alarm would sound, showing she may be in trouble. Her protection unit, Number Three, was in for repairs, so at least she did not have it following her. She pushes the envelope and checks one more item but she has to hurry as she cannot risk Marcus discovering this room. If caught, he could extract the code from her to gain access to the system.

She punches in medical records and finds Domitian’s old files and gives them a quick once over. What she sees scares her. She knows a little about genetics as it was part of her undergraduate studies in college. She notices that certain gene sequences in her father’s DNA were interrupted and substituted with something alien! Looking at the most recent mock-up of his clinical reports, that sequence had not changed, which is unusual. Because genes are self-replicating, that strand of the molecule should have repeated itself, but instead, it just lay dormant. She switches off the machine. In the morning, she will go for a doctor’s visit and check on her own blood work and perhaps get a glimpse of Marcus’s too.

It is mid-afternoon before Marcus ever rises. Claudia is finishing up lunch in the dining hall when he walks in. At the sight of him, she rises and bows. He waves her off, not wanting to deal with formalities. Plopping down blurry eyed in his seat at the head of the table, a spot once reserved for the person who belonged there, her father, does not possess the dignity Domitian had. Marcus is in ruffled bed clothes with greasy hair and bags under his eyes. She tries not to stare at him in disgust.

“You do not approve, Sister?”

She does not but needs to go into her act as soon as possible.

“No Brother, you look fine. I’m tired too. It’s been a trying couple of days for both of us.”

“I hope you will join me in this new era of the empire. I would hate for anything to happen to you,” he says.

I bet you would.

“I tried that Crystal Blue last night. I hoped it would cover up the smell of blood from the arena.”

Marcus is intrigued. He sits up and looks her straight in the eyes.

“Yes, I understand now. All you want is the best for the Empire, and I will do as you ask,” she says.

He smiles, leaning back in his chair.

“I was going to the doctor today for my annual check-up. Should I take along a supply of the Crystal Blue? The doctors could help us with this,” she asks. It has not occurred to him to get the medical community involved. The substance is spreading fast, but why not give it some help? He nods his head. Satisfied she has convinced him, she returns to her lunch.

Claudia rides alone in the rear of her limo hover car. Two Praetorian guards sit in the front seat for her protection. It glides into the large hospital parking bay. She steps out with a guard accompanying her to the lift.

Her physician is one of the most revered and expensive female practitioners and gynecologists. The brutish guard seems a little awkward accompanying her. This is what she was hoping for.

“If you are uncomfortable, Sergeant, you can go to the cafe and get a cup of coffee after you drop me off. I know this is not the most comfortable assignment for you,” she says.

He looks relieved. “Thank you, your highness.”

“There are monitors everywhere. I won’t tell Marcus.”

The elevator stops, the door slides open and she steps into the busy waiting area. Everyone in the room bows to her as she proceeds to the reception desk. The timid young nurse keeps her head down as she gets to the counter, afraid she will do something wrong when addressing the Empress.

“Face me. Relax everybody,” says Claudia. Her physician enters and is curious at her sudden arrival. She is an older woman, stern, but thorough in her work.

“To what do we owe the honor your highness?” she asks.

Claudia puts on a good front

“I have not been feeling well.”

The doctor does not want to lose her standing with the princess.

“We will find out what is wrong immediately, your highness.”

The physicians does not wait for the nurse to assign her to a room and takes her into one herself. Closing the door behind them the physician does a curious thing and switches off the wall monitor and increases the volume on the ambient music being played throughout the facility. It is common to do so with a female patient. Hackers are always trying to be peeping toms and exam cameras are a prime target. It makes Claudia nervous until the doctor turns to her and writes on her notepad then shows it to her. It reads, “please be quiet I know why you are here.”

At last, another friend in all this madness!

The physician then speaks to Claudia in a very rehearsed and coded conversation, hoping Claudia will pick up on it.

“Yes, you look a little anemic. You haven’t been getting enough rest. Your brother is doing a wonderful job, by the way. I adore his perfume line, it makes me feel...” The physician swallowed hard. “ alive. It’s like it changes you from the inside out. All my staff loves it.” Now Claudia understands. The others have been changed by the Crystal Blue. Anything said in secret could get back to Marcus. They have to be careful.

The doctor hurries to the nearby cabinet and removes a drug analysis kit. She sticks Claudia’s finger with a sterile pin the swabs the blood onto a test strip before inserting it into a portable scanner that is not plugged into the network. The scan takes only a few seconds and the readout pops up on the screen. The doctor moves closer to whisper the findings. Claudia already knows the results, but she wants to hear it from her physician.

“It looks like you have an extra DNA sequence. I have only seen it one other place.”

“My brother.”

The doctor nods. “Yours is dormant and isn’t self-replicating, but your brother’s are. What is it?”

“It’s hard to explain, but I believe it’s some kind of manufactured narcotic.”

“Excuse me, princess, but this is far beyond any of our technology.”

“Do you think it’s rewriting the genetic code? Have you been able to obtain any samples?”

“Only from myself. I do not seem to have it despite trying the Crystal Blue. It seems to work on the personality, changing dormant feelings and bringing them to the surface. I had a young orderly, a mouse of a kid who was always afraid of his own shadow. One day he came in and he was pinching all the girls and starting fights. I told him if he didn’t straighten up I would have to fire him. He threatened my life and said if I did he would tell the emperor. Right then I knew I needed to keep quiet and play along. He still works here, so be careful what you say. Others have changed as well. It’s like someone else is in their bodies. What I have been able to figure out is that it does not affect the children, only those that are post pubescent. There was another physician on this ward who has not been affected, but I haven’t seen him in days. I fear the worst.”

Deep down Claudia is terrified, but she has to make things right, if for nobody else than her late father. They head back out into the common area. Keeping up their charade.

“Nothing to worry about. You’re just tired,” says the physician. Claudia pulls out a small sample of Crystal Blue packaged in a decorative box and places it on the counter. It is nauseating to look at knowing what it does

“This is from the emperor himself for all your loyal service.”

The staff and the rest of the patients cannot wait to grab a bottle. The change is instant. The doctor is terrified, believing she has been betrayed. The princess tries to calm her down.

“No, it’s not what you think!” Claudia shouts.

She is not buying it and backs up like a caged animal. She isn’t about to be taken and dives through the nearest window, plunging fourteen stories. Claudia almost faints. She caused this by her foolish actions.

Hearing the ruckus, the guards burst into the office, firing at the hypnotized staff. Claudia’s personal guard grabs her and whisks her away. He shoves her into the elevator and presses the express button. It shoots down the shaft. Claudia holds her stomach from the sudden acceleration and abrupt stop. The door opens and her guard wraps his arms around her, forming a human shield. He hustles her out into the car. He jumps into the driver’s seat and speeds out of the parking deck. Claudia’s hair is muffed from all the action. She sits crying, imagining the doctor’s fall.

“Royal Two is secure,” says the guard speaking into an ear mic. An acknowledgment of his signal comes over the receiver and tells him to return to base. He then turns around to her.

“Are you injured, your highness?”

She is livid, shocked at what the guards did.

“Why did you have to kill everyone? They’re sick. Those people had lives, families... Don’t you feel anything?”

He stares at her. She may have said too much. Her deep concern for her subjects could be her undoing. She is in the fire and has to act. She can’t return to the palace, she has to reach her children.

“Take me to...”

“I have my orders,” he interrupts.

“I am your princess and sister to the Caesar! Disobey me again and I will have you thrown in the arena or worse!”

He does not argue and drives the hover limo towards the youth academy.

At the academy, she gets out by herself.

“Wait here. You’ll scare the kids,” she says.

He remains quiet and follows directions. She is in a hurry but stays calm as she enters the building. The administrator walks from her office to greet her but Claudia is not the mood.

“Bring me my children at once!”

The administrator scurries back to her office to send for Claudia’s children.

Waiting in the hall, Claudia looks out at the playground at the children playing. She is taking an awful chance, but sees no other way. So far she has done nothing wrong to arouse attention, but she is going to. As her heart as beginning to race, her children appear around the corner. “Thank you,” says Claudia. The administrator and the childrens’ escort bow to her. The two young ones are confused at their mother’s sudden appearance. She takes them by their hands and leads them out. Once outside she stops and crouches so she can look into their eyes. Her youngest, Titus, a bright little boy with golden locks of hair, speaks first.

“Where are we going, Mommy?’ he asks.

“We are taking a trip to see Daddy!”

He and his sister, Augustina, are overjoyed, jumping up and down with anticipation. Their father has been away most of their young lives.

“But isn’t he on the Moon?” Augustina asks as they begin walking to the car.

“Yes, he is. You’ve always wanted to go there and stay at Wonderland. Remember how we talked about doing that?”

“There was a accident up there. You left to help,” says Augustina. Claudia wishes her children had forgotten about the Moon blast last year.

“That was a long time ago, it can’t hurt you now. We must go.”

She lifts each of the children into the car.

“Take us to the spaceport,” she commands the driver.

“But princess...”

She glares him down and he drives.

It is an hour away, but the little ones are well behaved and quiet. She is bluffing her way through this so far. Marcus is not aware of her actions or he would have already had security drones out searching. She will wait until they are on board and en route to call him. Maybe she can keep up the act. Her brother could be dense sometimes. He loved her and perhaps deep down, he would believe anything she said. She hopes that his attentions are turned elsewhere and he will not see her as a threat. It is a big gamble but she knows if she makes it sound like it is best for the children, he will go along with it.

The limo glides into the spaceport. A grand arch adorned by a 50 foot statue of the Roman eagle standard serves as the entrance. With its wings spread, it looks as if it could take off and rip out of the concrete. The massive heavy-ordnance cruisers are docked and lined up in an impressive row. Security indicates for the driver to roll down the car window.

“I’m carrying the princess.”

Claudia opens the door and steps out and the gate guard bows.

“What is your destination, your highness?” he asks in perfect technocrat fashion.

“Do not question me!” she says.

“Prepare Imperial Two for departure.” The guard is reluctant to comply.

“Your highness, readying for space travel is not like a Sunday drive. Fuel must be divided and a flight plan made up, neither of which has been even taken care of. Spur of the moment trips are unheard of. I will have to call my superiors to get authorization.”

Claudia does not want to hear excuses and steps from the vehicle.

“Don’t you think as princess I have clearance! It’s my damned ship!”

The guard gets on the radio and advises the Imperial Two to ready for departure. “What is your destination, ma’am? I need to know for fuel and other purposes,” he says.

“The Moon. I’m going on a small vacation if you don’t mind!” she barks. Relaying the instructions he bows to her as she returns to the limo in a huff.

Hovering away, the guard looks relieved that she is gone. Handling generals and admirals is one thing, but the princess? The Imperial Two is impressive in its own right. Perhaps not as imposing as the Capital-class ships, but impressively armed. Its primary function is as a diplomatic ship. It sports clean lines and a rounded, organically shaped fuselage painted in gold with the eagle standard etched on the nose plate. The Imperial Two is designed not to elicit fear, but to impart goodwill. Claudia had a hand in its appearance. She wanted her vessel to be a symbol of hope and peace while projecting control and order. It is not unlike her to go on missions without permission. In fact, her father always smiled at his daughter’s independence and willingness to take charge when these crises arose.

A ramp is deployed from the ship for her and the children. The limo glides up next to the ramp, and the pilot of the Imperial Two awaits at the bottom. After opening the door of the limo for them, the driver follows Claudia and the children. She stops mid-stride.

“I will be fine. I am relieving you of your duties. Return to the palace at once.”

He is reluctant to do so, but she is the princess. Claudia takes her kids by their hands and walks them up into the ship.

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