Marcus sits in his personal throne room with several of the Senators surrounding him. He is a suspicious person by nature, but the Crystal Blue is exacerbating the problem. His skin has darkened and he is losing hair. Fidgeting, he gets up and paces. His appearance and actions go unnoticed by the other men. Even Lucilla looks to be unconcerned, but she is tired and cannot hold her head up. He speaks in a clicking, erratic tone.
“This, this is unusual wouldn’t you agree?” he says, darting to each Senator. Septimus offers a placation, playing on the nervous boy’s ego.
“Yes, sire, the princess is behaving strangely.”
Marcus nods his head rapidly, then turns to Lucilla.
“What do you think?”
She shudders, coming down from the Crystal Blue. Some of her senses are returning, but she feigns remaining under the spell. She will have to do so until she is stronger.
“Whatever you say is undoubtedly correct,” she says.
Marcus stomps around. He grows more more unpredictable and dangerous. He takes a seat in front of the large television and screams at it. “On!”
Fading into focus is a gladiatorial match in progress, with announcers and commentators doing voice-over analysis of the bout. The men on the screen are bloodied. Behind them is a heap of the dead. The haggard survivors vanquished all the rest, and hack at each other for survival. Marcus watches with evil glee. Lucilla tries not to, but he gets up from where he is sitting and drags her over beside him.
“Watch out, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we’re about to see, yes, here comes the kill,” the announcer says. One of the gladiators makes a mistake, overextending himself in a thrust that pushes him off balance. His opponent seizes the opportunity and drives the killing blow right into his chest.
“Oh, that’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Anthony wins again. We’ll be going to commercial, but first, a moment to honor the retirement of one of the greats, Servius.”
A picture of him is plastered over the airwaves in a posed publicity shot with the dates of his birth and death superimposed on it. “He was a superb gladiator and we will miss his performances. On to a commercial break as we bring you our sponsors,” says the commentator. An advertisement hocking a hover car, the new Jupiter 8, “the emperor of luxury.”
Lucilla has had all she can take for one evening and excuses herself. Marcus pays no mind. She leaves and he turns back to the television. The buzzing returns and Marcus stands. A vision of Garelle appears on the television. First, he is taken aback by the curious looking creature. It frightens him.
“They cannot hear you. I’ve touched their minds so they are oblivious to any danger,” Garelle says.
Marcus moves to his night stand opens the top drawer and retrieves a handgun and points it at the monitor. “All you will do is destroy your toy. I’m not here, but you knew this already. I am the voice that guides you, the dreams that woke you in the night and helped you. You were unpredictable. I didn’t want to kill your parents. You took it to the next level and programmed the device to destroy them both. I would have preferred to have you and the others, but no matter. The drug you made from the DNA has worked and I need you to bring your people to Mars.”
Marcus is dumbfounded by all this he has been used and manipulated. “This can’t be real,” he thinks.
“It is no dream. Look at yourself. You are becoming a Martian. The longer you’re exposed to Crystal Blue, the more it changes your DNA structure. Our species was a hivemind. That interconnectivity made us great. The substance allowed you to reach into the minds of people because you have part of the gene sequence from your parents, who were on Mars. But my mate, Sarelle, stopped me by changing everyone so they could not be assimilated. Domitian and a few others escaped and once again I was trapped on a dead world. My mind was doomed to wander, but then I found yours. She interrupted me with Clavius and Pompeii earlier, but not before I had sprayed them with a sample of the drug. It contaminated them and was in their bloodstream. They brought it back to earth. Their offspring are mine. There is one who was born on Mars who has returned to stop me. Two other children from those I infected ones travel to Mars. Trajan and your sister, Claudia. She cannot be turned.”
Marcus, who has been holding his head in his hands, disgusted with himself, stands in defiance. He screams at the top of his lungs.
His voice carries into the other bedroom and has stirs Lucilla. She comes running in with hope beyond words pulsing in her veins.
“Trajan is alive?”
Marcus grabs her and looks to Garelle for guidance. The creature gives him directions. “Yes, my dear, he is, but he’s still an enemy of the state. He is hiding with Darius on Mars. Perhaps if we both go with some of my legions we can persuade him to give up and avoid any more bloodshed,” he says. Lucilla’s instincts tell her Marcus is up to something more than a peaceful resolution, but getting him isolated may afford her an opportunity to take care of him.
Marcus embraces Lucilla as if to comfort her. He smiles at the image of Garelle one last time before it fades. With his marching orders and blinded by sheer lust for power, he calls for Septimus. Never too far away, Septimus joins him in the throne room.
“We are taking the fleet to Mars to hunt down Trajan and Darius,” Marcus says. “I’ll release a statement. ‘The emperor has gone to capture the conspirators who murdered his father.’ You will be hailed as a hero to the people and savior of the empire,” says Septimus.
The thrilling speech appeals to his vanity. Although he will be surrounded by troops and in no real danger, the thought of him leading men into battle sounds good. In a moment of recompense, he feels his father would be proud of him. “I could use my armies to destroy Garelle and take absolute control,” Marcus thinks. Emboldened by this notion, he instructs Septimus to take the order to the high command.
“Prepare the fleet. I want to be on the way within the hour.”
Calm and determined, Marcus’s valet helps him into his ceremonial battle armour. He has always admired its sleek black exterior, gold trimmings, and the embossed Roman eagle on the breastplate. Domitian steered him clear of the service, saying it was not for him, which Marcus did not mind. That does not matter now. He is in charge and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
A convoy of vehicles arrives at the spaceport. The Imperial One, the emperor’s personal transport, stands at the ready, being fueled and fitted for an extended journey. Technicians scurry, preparing for departure. The car carrying Marcus stops at the ramp leading to the entrance of the vessel. Paratroopers jump out and surround his vehicle. His ship is not a battleship, but like the Imperial Two, it can defend itself.
Stepping out, he is followed by Lucilla and escorted up. Men then run to their positions and the other ships rise out of their docks. Forty of the huge cruisers are deployed including the Augustus, which will lead the assault. They hover, awaiting Imperial One’s take off.
Inside, he addresses his army, assuming the character of hero of the empire. He sits down in front of a viewing screen and activates the camera. Throughout the fleet, he appears on view screens above the flight decks and on the bridge.
“My fellow citizens. Today, we embark on a righteous path, one that will lead to the capture of the traitors Darius and Trajan. Their actions have brought unrest and instability. The idea of retaking Mars for Rome has long been thought forbidden. We can reclaim it. We need to reclaim it. Our resources are dwindling, but the rigid rhetoric of the Senate has sought to keep this rich, alien planet untouchable. I wondered why, but records show that those same Senators have large stock holdings in companies that would lose profit from a decline in mineral prices. They have held our economy in the palm of their hands, able to dictate prices at will, in effect, holding us hostage because of their greed. So, I ask you, my fellow citizens, let us go forward and do our sacred duty to bring order and prosperity back to our empire.”
Throughout the fleet, the soldiers cheer Marcus. He has captured their hearts and minds, but only because of the Crystal Blue. The Imperial One zooms upward ahead of the rest of the armada. Marcus takes Lucilla’s hand. All she wants to do is pull it away, but she cannot yet resist him.
On the Moon, the loyal troops left behind watch their screens as the imperial fleet rises from the atmosphere. The base commander assumes the worst and orders general quarters. The facility goes on immediate lockdown and battle mode. He sends out a disaster beacon to Achilles, a futile warning that the empire is on his way.
Marcus appears on the view monitor above his desk.
“Commandant, I’ve noticed you have gone on alert status. Is anything the matter?”
“Then I must insist you step away from your defensive posture and allow us to pass,” he says.
The base leader tries to persuade him not to be concerned
“Your majesty, this is just a routine drill to keep the troops up to speed.”
Marcus presses him.
“Have you tried Crystal Blue yet?”
The commander stands up and addresses the monitor.
“Sir, it is my opinion that substance is a detriment to the empire and that your claim to the throne was won through deception and murder. My base remains under the command of Achilles and I will not stand down unless he so orders.”
This enrages Marcus and he stands out of frustration before a sudden spasm of pain drops him to the floor. He is alone except for Lucilla.
She does not care about his agony but is curious. Maybe she can take advantage of it. He appears sweaty and his skin is molting off like a snake. As the flesh falls away, a subdermal, green exoskeleton is exposed. From under his shoulder pads tiny wings protrude. His face twists and contorts, the forehead growing larger and the eye sockets increasing in diameter. The eyes turn into two black, multidirectional orbs.
Lucilla has to clasp her nose so as not to throw up from the horrendous stench. She reaches for his blade strapped to his side. Bending down she unsheathes the sharp gleaming instrument. It shines in the artificial fluorescent light as she kneels and holds it to his throat. Even after all he has done, she hesitates.
Marcus is fully transformed and regains enough awareness to realize what is happening. In his enhanced, insectoid state, his reflexes are quick. He grabs the blade from her. His strength has increased and lifts her with one arm off the ground. With the sword in the other hand, he whips it up to her neck. He lets it stay there while he explains what she is going to do and why.
“You are to be my consort. If you refuse, I will have my Praetorians hunt down and kill your entire family. Your mother and father, sisters, nieces, nephews, everybody.”
“Better they die than be ruled by a tyrant!”
“Do as I command and I will let your precious Trajan live. You can see him whenever you wish just so long as you return to my bed.”
“You won’t touch my family?
“They’ll be cared for the rest of their lives,” says Marcus.
She knows not to trust him but for now, she agrees to his terms. He drops the blade, smiling. The insectoid eyes stare blankly into hers.
“I’m glad we could reach this understanding.”
Showing no remorse or regret, Marcus orders the destruction of the Moon base. Lucilla is helpless to stop him. She gave him her word, but all those people... In one final act of rebellion, she slaps him then leaves the room. All the fleet opens fire and bombards the lunar facility.
The Moon command releases all the base’s artillery. Nuclear-tipped ordnance takes out three of the imperial fleet’s heavy cruisers, but it is not enough. The overwhelming firepower incinerates everything. Bodies float out into the vacuum of space. The lake and fertile land that has been terraformed over half a century is sucked out of the pressurized domes. There is no outcry from any of the imperial fleet’s forces; they followed orders to the letter, leaving nothing but silence and drifting dust and debris.
All that remains of the Moon is a subspace transmission describing the fleet’s deployment to Mars. The radio wave clicks as it travels through the void, but it will take several days to reach Achilles.