The drop ship looks lost in the sea of blackness as it approaches the large asteroid. Inside the cockpit, Trajan works the instruments. He has to align his trajectory to achieve the slingshot effect and increase the speed of the craft. If I miss we’ll spin off into the cosmos, running out of fuel and oxygen. Drifting in the vacuum of space, ten, twenty, thirty thousand years from now, our corpses will be ageless, mummified.
Trajan shudders as he thinks about time. All that has happened in the past few days has been related to eons of time. The findings on Mars long ago, ancient civilizations forgotten by history, the complexity of existence, the mysteries of the mind. We are all awash in forces beyond our control. Perhaps the whole endeavor is pointless. Decades from now, who will care what’s happening now. The struggle itself must count for something. Not doing so would doom men and the empire to dust. Hey, get ahold of yourself. I need to concentrate if we’re going to survive.
Tipping the craft to the right, he angles towards top of the asteroid and fires the retro rockets. The vessel shakes violently as it picks up speed. Trajan and the others feel the gravity pulling, increasing their momentum. The gauge reads twenty, thirty, forty thousand kilometers per second. All their faces contort as the g-forces pull at them. Trajan keeps the engines firing, creating more and more thrust. The strain of the drive is almost too much. The computer counts down to engine shut off, “...three, two, one...“, then powers down the ship. The rickety ship settles down as it whips smoothly around the other side of the asteroid. An expression of relief comes over Trajan’s face; he does not want to do that again. Rufio winks at him and Darius pats him on the shoulder.
They are on for the two-day trip to Mars, nothing but space and a tiny crimson dot in the distance. Trajan was taught that myths and legends are never born in a void, but based in part on fact. He is realizing how true that is. Had Rome’s history been preordained by some ancient culture, one that left its DNA footprint in their genes? He puts the craft on autopilot.
“You need to get some sleep. There won’t be much until we arrive,” says Darius.
Behind the ship’s communication station is a sleeping bunk recessed into the wall. It has a retractable plastic cover that can be pulled down and block out the noise coming from the cockpit. His body aches and the excitement has drained him as he crawls in and closes himself in. There is a cushion the bulges up from the bed to form a pillow. Making himself comfortable, he dims the lights. Sleep comes quickly, but he is restive.
Images of Lucilla and Marcus and his parents’ murder parade through his subconscious. A menacing, giant, winged insect that resembled a hornet buzzes around Lucilla, a long stinger protruding from its abdomen. She tries to run away but stumbles. Garelle pounces on her chest, then moves up to her face. It gazes into her eyes. Lucilla is paralyzed as it lifts the pointed appendage over her pulsating carotid artery and plunges it down into her flesh. Trajan wakes with a start, sweating.
Rufio swings up the panel.
Trajan nods his head. The gladiator appears concerned about something more than Trajan’s well being.
“What’s the matter? How long have I been out?” Trajan asks.
He slides out of the bunk. Mars fills the cockpit window. Darius sits in the copilot’s seat adjusting the monitor.
“We’re not alone,” Darius says.
He flips a switch and a royal cruiser appears on the pilot’s monitor.
“That’s not a military vessel,” Rufio says.
“Princess Claudia’s Imperial Two. I’ve been on it,” says Trajan.
“They haven’t spotted us yet,” Darius says.
“I knew the royal family had a hand in this madness,” says Rufio.
Trajan is not so sure. He is aware of Marcus’s ambitions, but Claudia? Perhaps if she is under the influence of Crystal Blue she could be entangled in this. He knows what will happen if he does not act fast. Jumping into the pilot’s seat, he fires the small thrusters on either side of the craft and angles the ship towards the north pole of Mars.
“We can hide in the magnetic center for a while, but we need to land,” says Trajan.
Suddenly, a pod launches from the Imperial Two and glides out of sight. Is it on a course to intercept us? I can’t risk turning on the tracking devices. With the shuttle gone, the Imperial Two departs, firing up its huge engines and rocketing away. Trajan feels safer with the bigger transport out of the picture. The smaller spacecraft will be much easier to handle. Odds are that it can only hold five men.
Trajan guides the drop ship in for a landing. As the drop ship draw closer to Mars, a warning light indicates that the fuel is low.
“What’s that?” Rufio asks.
“We’ll be able to land, but there’s not enough fuel to get us home,” Trajan says, scanning the sandy ground below for a place to put the ship down.
The wind is choppy as they clear the stratosphere and enter the atmosphere. The sun is coming up. How beautiful the red dunes and mountains appear. The sun’s rays intensify the deep hues of the warm crimson sand. It is intoxicating. Nothing but a sea of sand and rock, barren and desolate, but somehow majestic. Trajan has always had a romantic fascination with the bleakness of the desert. That is all about to change. Soon, they will be at the mercy of the inhospitable planet. To make matters worse, there is a force here that is loose after being bottled up for billions of years with just the three of them to combat it. Trajan is thrust into a situation he does not want to deal with, but duty calls. He has to continue if he is ever to see Lucilla again and to save Rome.
“Don’t land too close to the colony. We don’t know who or what is there,” says Darius.
Trajan presses a few buttons and a readout comes up on the pilot’s monitor.
“I hate to say this, but the ship’s running out of oxygen and our suits only have enough for half a day,” Trajan says.
Rufio slaps him on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it.”
The big gladiator may be the king of the arena, but he has no survival training. Trajan looks to Darius for guidance, but he too seems unconcerned. Trajan abides in the fact that the only thing they can do now is find out what is going on.
The drop ship slows as it nears the ground. The retro jets blast up sand into the cockpit window. He glances at the fuel gauge. It is dropping fast as the rockets slow their descent. The computer counts down to touchdown and with it, the consumption of fuel.
“Three, two, one, touchdown.”
The gauge reads empty.
“Out of fuel,” Trajan says.
“Just enough. Well done, boy!” Rufio says.
Trajan is wearied by Rufio’s lack of concern and barks back at the man he once idolized.
“I don’t know if all those fights have dulled your brain, but we are here to stay. We’re not going anywhere! I thought you were smart, but it appears I was wrong.”
Rufio rises. He does not appreciate being talked to that way. People rarely stand up to him. Trajan knows Rufio can snap him in two, but he does not flinch. He stands and faces him, staring into his eyes as if daring him to take a swing at him. Tension fills the compartment until Rufio roars in laughter and raises his hand.
“You have much to learn young one.” He slams his palm down on the airlock button.
“No!” screams Trajan.
The door slides up with a whoosh, but nothing happens. There is no giant pressure explosion. They are not sucked out into the vacuum. The wind flows in crisp, clean, and cold. Breathable. Trajan is perplexed as he inhales the fresh air.
“We had indications that the atmosphere processor had been completed and was functioning,” says Darius.
“So you knew the colonists were still alive and you left them?” asks Trajan.
“Not people, something else. They are getting Mars ready, but for what we do not know. When I first suspected, I got in touch with my covert operatives on the Moon to send a probe here. Their findings showed a thin oxygen layer, like that which would be produced by one of our processors. There are even clouds filling with rain outside the window,” says Darius.
Sure enough, dark thunderheads are rolling in. full of water.
“We’ll need our pressure suits to keep warm and our battle armor for protection if we find anything. But first, we must check the colony for inhabitants and see what condition they are in,” says Darius.
“Certainly they would be dead by now?” asks Trajan.
The men ignore him and being suiting up.
Rufio opens the weapons cabinet and arms himself with two pulse rifles and a side arm. He clips six sonic grenades on his belt next to his sword.
“Let’s send Sid first,” Trajan says. “He runs on a solar power cell and can get there in half the time it’ll take us. Then he’ll relay images back. We can see what we’re up against.”
“Most wise, Trajan,” Darius says.
Trajan activates the unit and programs in what he wants it to do. The little orb slips out the door. On the ships monitor, sand zips by underneath Sid as it speeds along, inches above the ground. It rolls and tumbles over rocks and ravines The display is dizzying to look at.
Rising from the red sand and rock are the domes of the colony. The drone slows on approach. About a hundred yards out it hides behind a small hill. The atmosphere processor belches water vapor into the sky, creating a plume of cloudy mist. The particles of moisture fog Sid’s monitor, and it tries to be funny.
“I wish I had windshield wipers.”
In the drop ship, they laugh at his little attempt at humor, but keep a keen eye on the screen, trying to detect any movement. Everything seems quiet. There is nothing but the howling wind. Sid moves closer. There is no activity as he makes his way around the perimeter of the complex scouting for signs of life. Trajan is relieved, but still curious as to where the colonists have gone.
“Come back,” Trajan tells the tiny robot.
Upon Sid’s arrival, the three men head out. Trajan feels honored. This is the first time he has worn a pressure suit and the black imperial battle armour with the Roman eagle breastplate. The suits always impressed him. Soldiers looked striking in them. It gives him a sense of power. The dark color has a psychological effect on those wearing it and instills fear in their opponents. If only he had a Centurion’s helmet with the metal gold swoop atop it, he would look truly impressive. He wants to take a picture of himself and send it to Lucilla. She would be so proud.
The Martian sand is thicker and harder to walk on than he expected. The three men sink up to their ankles with every step. It is as exhausting as walking in mud. Overhead, thunder booms and the sky grows ever darker. Perhaps for the first time in a billion years, water will fall from the heavens onto the parched desert sands. Darius looks worried as he stares at the sky.
“What’s wrong?” Trajan asks.
Darius does not answer.
Picking up the pace, they near a ravine. Trajan and Rufio watch their steps in the treacherous terrain, but Darius is oblivious. Trajan spies him treading close to the edge of the ravine and tries to warn him, but it is too late. Darius’s foot catches on a rock and he tumbles down the steep embankment, landing on a soft pile of earth covering the perimeter of the hole. The two men shuffle down the slope after him. Darius sits up with a start and gasps, spitting out the sand filling his mouth, embarrassed by his carelessness. Reaching Darius, Trajan and Rufio help him to his feet. He shakes off the fall and appears to be unharmed except for a tiny cut on his forehead.
“Are you okay?” asks Trajan.
Darius nods, then Sid beeps and whistles. The three men look around to see what is causing the alarm. They do not notice the ground is slipping out from under them. As it gives way, they disappear down into the abyss, landing in a smooth, inclined tunnel. The momentum of the fall carries them sliding downward fast. They grab at the walls, putting their hands out to slow themselves. After a few seconds, they reach the bottom with a thud, tumbling over each other before stopping.
The chamber is pitch black. They switch on flashlights attached to the right shoulder pad of their suits in turn. They are in a tunnel carved out of the red rock. It is smooth and glistens like blood in the light. As their eyes adjust, they make out a faint glow in the distance where the cavern seems to open. They proceed onward since this may be the only way to get back to the surface.
Darius touches the walls. “The engineering to create such a structure... The walls are pure diorite. Even with laser drills, the empire could not cut such clean surfaces in this hard mineral.”
“This wasn’t constructed for grown men,” Rufio says.
This place is ancient. How long has it stood in silence? It could have been eons before man was a footnote in the cosmos.
The light grows ever brighter. Trajan can make out complexes outside the opening. The three of them ready their weapons. Emerging from the tunnel, what they find takes their breath away. A city, but not any human one. Some of the structures are similar to pyramids, but they are honeycombed with openings all over the surface. They are standing on a viewing balcony with a ramp that descends to the ground. Engraved on the wall along the ramp are hieroglyphs. Images of insectoid creatures engaged in different activities are the subject of most of the hieroglyphs.
“I would assume it is some sort of writing. Maybe even their history,” says Darius.
Trajan is awestruck at the intricate work adorning the rock face as they descend. At the bottom of the ramp is a long thoroughfare leading to one of the pyramids. It is reminiscent of the ancient Appian Way that leads to the triumphal arch in Rome. Perhaps in the distant past, these beings visited Earth and influenced man.
The pyramid is an imposing sight. It is a mile in diameter and at least as high. It could be millions, if not billions of years old, but looks to be in perfect condition. It is carved from the natural rock but has a green hue.
“Could this be the machine you mentioned?” asks Trajan.
“I don’t get a sense that this is a device of any kind,” says Darius.
They continue on the vast road. The expanse is so wide that a thousand men standing abreast could fit across its breadth. Trajan gets the impression this was a parade ground. He envisions a massive army marching in review up the grand colonnade.
No, that isn’t right. This place doesn’t seem malevolent. On the contrary, it’s simply functional. The Martians were an ordered race. Everything has a purpose, like the bees of the earth. Could there be a connection? Trajan feels small walking along granite road. Ahead is an arch that leads to the interior of the pyramid. Curiosity drives them onward. Exploration is not why they are here, but this is too incredible to ignore. Science and all that makes them human demand they investigate. “The path to victory,” Aviles said, “is through knowledge.” And the more they learn, the better off they will be when they encounter their adversary.
The archway stands a hundred feet high and is open to the outside. There is no door. On either side of the arch are two huge statues of the creatures. The first is carved in red stone, the other in black. Is this significant? Do the colors represent something about their psyche? They have grasshopper legs and a bulbous tail end with a stinger. One of the statues has its appendages outstretched, preparing to fly. The other is more regal and subdued.
“The figure standing straight is the king. The other represents the queen. This society must be similar to the bees on earth. But that is just a guess. From the outside, the pyramid resembles a giant beehive,” he says.
How does he know which statue is which?
On the inside walls of the archway were more hieroglyphs. Trajan cannot resist the urge to run his fingers over them. As his hand glides across the surface it creates a buzzing noise. He stops what he is doing at the sudden reaction from his touch.
“What did you?” asks Darius.
“Nothing. I felt the carvings, that’s all,” says Trajan.
Darius tries it and gets the same response. The carved rock face emanates the sound whenever it is touched. Rufio lays his palms on the glyphs. A booming hum of a million bees reverberates through the ancient hall. He is transfixed in a catatonic state. The noise gets louder. He is glued to the surface and unable to move. It takes both Trajan’s and Darius’s strength to pull him loose. Rufio falls onto the granite path. He shakes the sensation off, trying to clear his head.
“We, the great ones, have waited millennia for you to return to us. Our days on this planet have come to an abrupt and abysmal end,” says Rufio in a high-pitched tone of voice.
“ What did you say?” asks Darius, shocked
“I don’t know, was that me? It’s as if I have a thousand different voices going off in my brain. I think they spoke through me.”
In a small experiment, Darius lays his palm on the stone. The buzzing returns, but softer than before. He closes his eyes, his head tilts back, but he’s not in pain. Lingering for just a moment, he removes hand. There are tears streaming down his cheeks and a look of understanding.
“I know what happened now. This wall is part of their technology. Not the living device that Garelle built, but a receptacle for all their knowledge. There were two factions on Mars. One, which adhered to tradition, and the other, more progressive, wanting to use their sciences to create a super mind capable of advancing their species. They disregarded natural law in favor of a leap forward in the evolutionary chain by discarding their mortal bodies. By capturing the essence of the individual and turning it into pure thought, that would last throughout time. They somehow accomplished that, removed their spirits, but with devastating results. The Martians led by Garelle had come up with the great machine to extract the life force. Once it was started it took on a life of its own, became self-aware. The machine gained the sum of each absorbed spirit’s knowledge and experiences. Garelle altered that process for his own benefit. He reprogrammed the mechanism not only to remove the spirits, but to store them in water molecules, the purest conductors of power. He could then ingest them by drinking the water and adding their essence to his own. His mind increased so much that he could actually manipulate matter. Once the queen took part in his experiment the others followed, but a few fought him. As you have suspected, Mars was once green and lush. The only way to defeat a so powerful a creature was to rip away the source of its control.”
“They destroyed themselves,” says Trajan.
“They had once been warlike, had visited and conquered many worlds, but over the eons they became more and more benevolent. The old weapons from the past were taken out and revamped into one giant, tri-cobalt bomb. Garelle’s opponents had to work fast because he was growing more powerful by the day. They managed to keep what they were doing hidden from Garelle until it was too late for him to do anything about it. They set off the device and it ripped away the oxygen, killing most of the planet. Under the polar ice caps, the Martians lie frozen, waiting until we got here and started the atmosphere processor. They are waking up gentlemen,” states Darius.
“That still doesn’t explain what is happening on Earth. How did Marcus get hold of a substance that alters people’s minds,” says Trajan.
Darius has been holding something back.
“When the survivors from Mars arrived on our planet, the world was young. They began to rebuild their lives. Invariably, they left behind some of their DNA. We know them as bees. Some of that DNA may have worked its way into us. It has long been known that all the elements to create and sustain life are on Earth except for a few keys minerals like ellram and bromide. Those are only found in one place in our solar system.”
“Mars,” says Trajan.
“Exactly. So some of our molecular makeup is from the Martians who came to Earth. When we returned here it sparked that long-buried DNA in our bodies. When the bug medallion was discovered, it acted like an amplifier and started to change us. The effect must have been concentrated in the biodomes. It only affected the adults because the children’s genes had not mutated during puberty. Your father, Pompeii and the Emperor were outside, so the effects didn’t hit them as fast. They decided to remove themselves from the planet in order to escape what they figured was a disease. They were infected, however. The trace in the blood was what Marcus found and used to create the drug,” says Darius.
“What about my father’s and Pompeii’s encounter in the bunker? why didn’t he change them then when they were at his mercy?”
“Garelle had long been dormant, so his powers were not yet full revived. You must remember that the machine is millions, perhaps billions, of years old. I don’t think this is something he planned, but an accident which we set in motion. It took him time to form a plan of what he would do. Marcus’s DNA did not become active ’til he was a teenager. Garelle has probably been trying to reach out to him for years through dreams,” says Darius.
“He used to tell me about his nightmares when we were kids, about being smothered in honey. I had the same ones on occasion,” replies Trajan.
“Your fathers and Pompeii tried to destroy the machine, but they didn’t know how. All they could do was get away. When they returned to the colony, all Tartarus was breaking loose. They had no choice but to abandon the others and flee.”
“So, what is Garelle’s plan?” says Rufio.
“I think he wants to recreate the Martians’ physical bodies by altering our DNA. Once our bodies have changed, he can free his race’s spirits from the polar ice caps and they can take our mutated bodies. Marcus is being manipulated on a massive scale. Once the population has undergone its mutation, our ships are to carry everyone here and Garelle’s insidious machine will do the rest. Our own atmosphere processor is melting the caps as we speak,” replies Darius
“He’s creating an army,” says Rufio.
Darius solemnly nods.