Once inside Claudia, buckles her children in for their journey. “Lift off now,” she commands the pilot. He is apprehensive and she senses something about him that is not like the others who are controlled by Marcus. She risks asking him a question, posing it in such a way as to give her deniability if he does not answer in the way she hopes.
“To where do your loyalties lie, sir?”
The pilot is of Centurion rank, a fine-looking man from a strong house. He is an older gentleman in his mid-fifties, every inch the perfect Roman officer who has served in a long career. The Legion Star, a sign of extraordinary bravery and courage, adorns the epaulets on his uniform. He stands to attention with the snap of his boots and addresses her formally.
“My name is Marcellus, son of Pompeii the Great. You are my princess, the rightful heir to Caesar Domitian. I will die in your service if called to, your highness.” A shockwave hits Claudia. She was unaware that Pompeii had another, much older child. She is relieved to have a loyal, unaffected person on her side. “Strap in, your highness. I’ll explain everything once we are out of the atmosphere. The other crew is on their way and we need to leave. Once we clear the normal patrols, we’ll be fine,” he says. The only real worry is Marcus. but he will not do anything with the children onboard. They are safe until the reach the moon. Once there, she could be taken into custody or killed. Somehow, she does not think that will happen. Marcellus has the confidence of someone with a plan.
Claudia double-checks that the children are secure in their seats and fastens herself in as Marcellus hurries to the cockpit and requests departure clearance. It is granted, and he fires up the engines. Acceleration to escape velocity is always nerve wracking to her, but her son and daughter love it. With her eyes closed, she grasps the arm handles so hard it almost cuts off the circulation to her hands.
She is ashamed that her offspring show no fear of flying, but they are young and the innocent have no apprehension. That’s it: emotions. Having courage and seeing the good in things has to be part of it. That might be the secret to the hold Crystal Blue has: the anxiety of the unknown. This could be the key to defeating whatever Marcus unleashed.
The ship clears the atmosphere and settles into orbit. For a brief moment, they experience weightlessness. In the cabin, objects not secured float by. A plastic cup passes in front of the children and they bat it back and forth before the gravity compressor kicks in and it falls to the floor. The view screens on the wall angled towards her seat flash a red signal light, showing an incoming message. Marcus. Thinking about what she will say, she presses the remote control on the arm handle. The image of her livid brother appears on the screen. His complexion is darker and has a green cast and his voice is a higher pitch.
“By the gods, where are you going!” he screams.
Claudia remains calm but firm. Marcus is easy to manipulate.
“The children were tired from all the excitement and wished to see their father. I saw no purpose in me remaining at your side. I did as you asked and delivered the Crystal Blue to the doctor’s office.”
“Which resulted in my men shooting up the place. It was chaos!”
“I cannot help the reaction it caused. Perhaps your troops were a little over zealous?”
He seems to back down, realizing he cannot push it.
“How long will you be gone?” Marcus asks. /“They have not seen Achilles in almost six months. They need to spend quality time with him. I’ll be checking on how the families from the disaster are doing, so we’ll be away about a week or more.”
“So sudden a departure, Sister. You didn’t even pack your things,” he says. Claudia gets her ire up.
“Your niece and nephew have lost their grandparents and now you’ve thrown them into the limelight. That’s not mentioning those horrid games. They saw people killed, Marcus.”
Her pleading eyes get to him. He could never bear to see her unhappy. The part of him that still cares for overpowers him and he relents. For a moment, he is more reasonable.
“Do what you think is right. Let us not speak any more of this. Give Achilles my best.”
With that the screen goes blank.
It is a short flight to the moon. Marcellus begins speaking as soon as Marcus signs off.
“This will be the only time we’ll be secure,” he says, stepping down from the cockpit to sit next to Claudia. The kids unfasten themselves from their seats and play in the floor of the ship. Marcellus smiles at them like a father.
“I have two myself, but they are grown. One is in the service and the other is away at academy. I have not seen them in years. My wife and I divorced when they were young. I hope they are all right and haven’t gotten caught up in all this…”
Claudia meets Marcellus’s welling eyes. He sniffs and wipes his face with a gloved hand.
“We have work to do,” he says. “To explain, I was born on Mars. My mother fell in the first wave of the Martian absorption, as Pompeii called it.”
Marcellus holds back a bitter word.
“Pompeii killed her, didn’t he?”
“It was not her. She had been taken over. It all happened so fast. There was a running battle to the ships. This is the first time…” he says, coughing violently.
Claudia takes Marcellus’s large hand.
“My father and I had an understanding that we would keep it between us. Clavius and the emperor knew, but it was an unwritten rule never to speak of it. Until, that is, what occurred with Gaius. Pompeii had been eyeing Marcus for weeks before he received a frantic call from Domitian about medical records. Long ago, we set up a signal that if anything went wrong, Caesar would leave a recording for your eyes only. When you activated it, it sent a code to me to be on standby. I monitored the base transmissions and heard you were en route and got out here just before you arrived. So where do we go from here?” says Marcellus.
“My husband knows of the situation and as we speak is trying to gather more information and troops. Our next move is to head to Mars.”
“Do not offload once we arrive at the Moon Base. Your status might arouse questions. Remain on board ’til he can join us. The ship is equipped with a luxury suite to allow couples privacy, so an extended stay with him won’t look unusual. We’ll return to orbit for a while to give the appearance of a romantic getaway then be on our way and find out how to stop this. Even without a crew, the Imperial Two is a formidable weapon,” says Marcellus.
Claudia agrees with his proposal then explains about the children.
“I’m not sure. It’s only a feeling, but I think the little ones may be the answer to all this.”
She has only her faith in the gods to see them through. Were these beings those that inspired the legend of Mars, the god of war? Had their warlike ways been passed down to Rome? Is it what her father feared? Marcellus agrees with her and returns to the cockpit. Over the intercom comes the dockmaster’s voice.
“Imperial Two, you are cleared for orbital approach. Landing in bay eight.” Claudia looks out the cabin window. The Moon fills the space ahead. How unlike the rock of her ancestors, not gray and dust covered, but deep blue with its own atmosphere. Half its surface is now home to a massive military facility. The remainder is a retreat and tourist trap. To be posted to here is a great honor and privilege. Only soldiers with great experience found themselves there. Her husband is one of the fortunate and distinguished few. Most of his time is spent negotiating patrols, overseeing various maintenance and research programs, and carrying out operational orders for different military and diplomatic functions. He is a liaison with extreme authority, flexibility, and influence. Claudia often wondered if his rise was in part due her status as princess, but his fame was already climbing before they met. With several successful campaigns under his belt, he had twice been decorated by her father, receiving the Order of The Eagle for gallantry and the Legion Star with clusters for bravery under fire. He had saved two hundred of his men from the rebels in Antarctica that threatened to set off a nuclear device to destroy the reactor there. Achilles is a man’s man. Claudia dismisses the idea that he skirted into the officer’s corp on Domitian’s coattails.
Claudia admires Marcellus’s skill in maneuvering the Imperial Two through the atmosphere of the Moon. The base is spread out over two kilometers and comprised of landing pads and service ports for the ships that were moored there. Surrounding it is a complex mix of barracks, military, and imperial attaché offices. Beyond that is the town of Nova Barcelona, the playground and recreational center of the Moon. Claudia had visited many times in her youth and had lots of half-remembered experiences there. She reminisced and pined for those carefree days with no responsibility. Now the fate of the empire rests on her shoulders. How she wished she could throw off this yoke of burden in favor of ignorance of the coming disaster like the rest of the planet. Her father is watching her, she is sure of it, from wherever souls go in the afterlife.
The Imperial Two settles on the landing pad and service personnel rush to secure a ramp to the doorway for offloading. As the engines exhale their last exhaust fumes, a fuel line is attached to refill the tanks. Achilles appears at the bay entrance awaiting the all-clear to proceed to the craft. By his side is his adjutant and personal guard, Crixus. Crixus is a tall and capable soldier who has seen little action but is well able to defend himself and others. The ground crew gives the go ahead, and Achilles and Crixus head to the ship. A hatch slides up and the kids jump into their father’s arms. Cradling and kissing them, he tries to get his arm around his wife. Handing them off to his aide, he takes Claudia and kisses her all over with a longing that neither has felt in a long time. Perhaps it is the urgency of the situation, that life and love are fleeting and even more precious when death is looming.
“I made arrangements. The children are safe here,” Achilles says.
“No, they are coming along. I do not wish to be separated.”
“You don’t understand. I isolated those infected and under Marcus’s influence. This is the military. I have complete control over this situation. With my connections, I contacted the police in Nova Barcelona and they rounded up their usual suspects. Right now, the city is on lockdown and quarantined. Its security forces have been cleared. Those that were acting unusual were arrested and placed in the detention center. Claudia, we’ve found that the substance wears off after a while. The substance causes addiction. The more you get the more you want, but...”
“What is it?” Claudia whispers.
“The who’ve been hooked the longest have changed, and there are no signs of a reversal to their condition... They’re morphing into something. I’ll show you later. There is one thing more. The Augustus just departed on patrol, so we’ll have to deal with them somehow. I’ve destroyed the radar and transponder code reading devices, so nobody can track us or any other ships. My men control the base and the operational center, so the Moon is safe,” says Achilles.
He turns to Marcellus.
“Did you disable tracking on the Imperial Two?”
“The problem is we we’ll only be able to monitor approaching vehicles by line of sight.”
“That’s what it takes. You have my full confidence.”
Claudia is proud of her husband’s quick actions, but she is not going to leave the children.
“You’ve done so well, Achilles, but Titus and Augustina must come with us. I believe they hold the key to all or salvation.”
Her husband knows better than to argue the point. When Claudia decides, not even the heavens will change her mind. Achilles retrieves his communicator and calls Central Command.
“Base One, this is Leader Alpha. Over.”
“We read you, commander.”
“Is the ship ready for departure?”
“Aye, sir. May the gods be with you,” says the operator.
“May they be with us all,” replies a grim Achilles. He goes to the back to check on the limited armory in the Imperial Two’s manifest. It is a tiny chamber adjacent to the cockpit. He punches in an access code and the door swings up. Inside the wall is lined with a dozen pulse rifles with a thousand rounds each and a pair of stinger missile launchers and a sixteen missiles. There is a box of fifty assorted thermal and sonic grenades. The weapons are for the seventy troops supposed to be at its disposal, enough firepower enough to destroy a small city. Additionally there are the cannons on the forward battery of the ship. Achilles’s confidence grows as he eyes the weaponry. He closes up the room.
With that done, he glances down the ramp as the crews unhook the fuel hoses and move back into their launch bunkers. “Ready for departure, Marcellus,” Achilles says. Crixus, still playing with the kids, sees it is time to get the children into their seats. The ship door slides shut and the engines whine as they warm. Achilles takes Claudia in his arms, not wanting to let go. They are setting off for an uncertain future. She senses his dread and tries to be strong for him.
“Do not worry. We can fix this. Something is going to help us. I sense it.”
“I wish I had more troops.”
“Our only ally is secrecy. If the creature reads Marcus’s thoughts, won’t it be aware we’re coming?”
Achilles takes her to the seat and puts on her safety harness, then sits down beside her and does likewise. With everyone in position, the Imperial Two lifts off.