Forever Rome

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Chapter 1

The sun gleams off the ivory and marble towers of Romanus, the center of the Empire. Trajan, a vibrant youth, runs along the banks of the Potomac. Daylight radiates off him, sweat streaming down his forehead and cheeks. He is a proud young man, full of vigor and enthusiasm for the future. If he has ever been depressed or worried, it doesn’t show, nor would he allow it to do so. His athletic body pulses with energy, every sinew of muscle taut and firm. He is the epitome of a classical physic. His flowing blonde hair, blue eyes, and square jaw would cause artistic statues embarrassment in his presence. He is a dutiful son and thoughtful citizen. His whole self-identity revolves around duty and honor. He would prefer to fall on his sword than to disrespect authority and tradition. However, there are concerns that transcend his honorable facade. For one, like most teenagers, he has an attraction to the Glory of the Games.

The gladiators have always been a symbol of Roman power and virtue. Men and women fighting under incredible odds and pressure to survive the day, all for the entertainment of the mob, albeit for fame and fortune, since death matches are now illegal. Trajan tries to focus his attention on school so he can gain a commission in the military and have a family, in that order, but it’s hard to have everything in clear perspective. His girlfriend occupies most of his waking thoughts.

Now, on his run, he cannot wait to return to his apartment to see her. The testosterone kicks in and he races down the path at breakneck speed. His powerful lungs pumping oxygen and robust heart thumping in his chest. He breathes in the fresh air as he passes the blooming Japanese Cherry blossoms.

Their aroma awakens memories of his pilgrimage to Japan. There, he learned fights were not won through mere muscle but by the mind. Through the discipline of his old Master Hiroshomo, he gleaned the knowledge of Bushido-the Way of The Warrior. Many hours he spent using the Samurai sword that is viewed by the Orientals as a sacred religious object. The Gladius used by the Roman soldiers for millennia is still a favorite sidearm today, even with guns being standard-issue. The blade is smooth and elegant and an extension of the arm. The Orient was a lovely place. That is where he met the love of his life. She was alone, painting a watercolor in the Royal Gardens, dressed in a traditional Kimono. She sat there on the moonbeam bridge, overlooking the Koi pond. There was a slight breeze; he had been en route to a lesson when he caught the faintest whiff of delicate sweetness. At first, he thought it was from the incredible array of flowers, then guessed it was something far more enticing. He couldn’t make sense of this curious feeling. There was more to this scent. For a few moments, he wandered in search of this elusive aroma until he happened to see his teacher attending a Bonsai tree. By the odd look on Trajan’s face, his mentor could tell he was searching with his heart. He explained to him that he was exploring with his emotions, not his mind, and that the pleasant fragrance was not from a mere plant but from the heartbeat of someone that had touched his. His nose picked up on what his heart was guiding him to. “Few of us are ever connected in this way,” Master Hiroshomo said. It was a match made by the Gods: they were born for each other. He always spoke in riddles. Trajan was mesmerized.

The breeze parted the gentle wisps of wisteria dangling over the pond and there she stood. The sun peeked through a cloud, radiant beams illuminating her on the footbridge. She glowed in its radiance like an ethereal spirit. He must have been gawking at the beautiful sight, because his master related an old Japanese proverb. “An open mouth catches many flies.” Trajan was embarrassed at being caught, but he was pretty sure that it was not an ancient quote and more of a sailor’s saying. It didn’t matter. Hiroshomo was right; he’d been staring.

As if on cue, the woman glanced up. Feeling self-conscious, Trajan ducked out of sight. His teacher laughed at his shyness, reminding him he was here to become a better warrior.

“Imagine! My star pupil frightened by a mere girl,” Hiroshomo said.

“What you say is true, Master, but something about her…” Trajan said.

“She won’t bite.”

“Fighting is one thing, but her? That’s different.”

Hiroshomo chuckled while Trajan tried to explain why he couldn’t introduce himself.

“Life and romance are short-lived, so enjoy them while you can. These moments are fleeting, young one,” said his Master.

Emboldened, Trajan decided he’d rather fall on his face trying to win the prize than cower. He started over, then whispered to Hiroshomo.

“Do you know her? What is her name, Master?”

“Lucilla is my niece. She is studying art and history at the Imperial College,” Hiroshomo said.

“Master, you could have at least told me,” Trajan said, flustered.

“The pleasure of discovery is learning about something which you know nothing about. You have learned that mastering combat is controlling fear. To grasp love is to let go of that same restraint. Do not to think too much, then you will understand what true joy and happiness are.”

Hiroshomo was full of sayings and always quoting some hidden verse that Trajan suspected his Master made up. Trajan understood, however, that Hiroshomo’s wisdom was imparted from a lifetime of experience, which was after all the best teacher. From Hiroshomo’s wise words and teachings, Trajan hoped to build his own. For the moment, though, it was time to take a chance.

With his nerve up, he marched right out of the shadow of the cherry tree, Hiroshomo looking on. His legs were jelly and numerous fears crept upon him. This is ridiculous. I’ve faced many men and women in training. How is this different? Live and experience. That’s the thing to do. Onward across the gardens, Trajan proceeded to the bridge. Lucilla never left his gaze, nor him hers. She smiled as he approached. Now, just feet away, another panic attack. What do I say? Have to be something clever. The moment is upon him. It seemed an eternity ago that he first spotted her. He put on a nice smile and halfway bowed to her. She giggled at him. Crap. What did I do? Lucilla backed up a step.

“I’ve never seen a Roman bow before. It’s a Japanese way.”

Trajan breathed.

“Part of being a citizen is acknowledging and absorbing the ways of other cultures.” “Spoken like a true patriot,” she said. Trajan squinted. Is this girl mocking me? That was an honest answer. So far things, were not faring well. Leave. She’s too beautiful. Her auburn hair is cut in a fashion that frames her face. A gentle sloping nose showed considerable European descent from the Scandinavian countries, unlike the large Latin nose. It led to full round red lips, the pearl drop shape that would melt any heart. Then there were the eyes, a deep sapphire color that looked straight through Trajan’s tough exterior, the one he had trained his whole life to hone. Why did I do this to myself?

It was Lucilla that broke the tension.

“Don’t be shy. No harm will come to you,” she said tenderly. Trajan bucked up.

“Are you insinuating that I was afraid?” he said, his face ruddy. This is not going well at all.

“My apologies. The truth is, I have been hoping to meet you,” she said. Trajan tried to hide his surprise.

“My uncle told me all about you. Our meeting was arranged for us. He knew you would call on him for your lessons today in here in the gardens.”

Sly devil! This was all a setup.

Trajan didn’t know whether to shout with glee or turn around and traipse back to his mentor and berate him for putting him through such torture. Lucilla laughed at the expression of relief and anger on Trajan’s face. She had a comfortable and easy manner that suited her and made him feel at ease. Maybe what Hiroshima said was right, that sometimes two people find one another through complete chance and that fit was decided by the Gods.

Trajan noticed the amazing skill with which she handled the brush. A Samurai herself, she yielded it as an extension of her fingers. The dexterity of craft and of likeness was incredible. Her watercolor renderings of the garden were filled with subtle hues and delicate lines. The paintings reminded him of the Japanese wood blocks from centuries before.

“You paint like the Japanese masters,” Trajan said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, dismissing the compliment by embarrassment or professional pride. “How could a warrior enjoy art?” she said. Trajan was more than the sum of his parts, Hiroshomo had seen to that. He enjoyed the richness that the arts brought to one’s daily routine.

“The reason for existence is to create that is what makes life worth living,” he said. He was endeared all the more to her.

“Here is a man that isn’t afraid to appreciate the finer things,” she thought. “Someone to watch a sunset with, to see all the beauty in it and in this world and love it as much as I do.”

They laughed together like they had known each other all their lives. So it was and has been ever since he and Lucilla met in that Japanese garden, two sides to the same coin, each unable to exist without the other.

Trajan could not help grinning as he ran on the shore of the Potomac. The memory was so pleasant and brought back that first feeling they shared that day. Neither one of them wanted it to end. They spent hours talking about everything from the classics of literature to the philosophy of Cicero and Homer. When she started a subject he picked it up. They bantered on all sorts of topics until the sun went down. They were sad to leave each one another’s sides. He remembered looking over his shoulder at a smiling Hiroshomo and giving him a gentle nod of thanks. This was a gift from his old master that would define his life. Lucilla is his whole world and nothing else mattered.

He picked up the pace he had to get back to her because today was a big day. Not only did he have his first law exam, a degree he and his father longed for, but this afternoon was tryouts for the Imperial College gladiator team. There were other sports like barbarian football, where men chased each other with some oblong ball made of leather, or the pathetic game of baseball, which took more know-how . Both these games evolved from the conquered lands of Britannia and the southern continent of the Americas, where in about 800 A.D. the invading Roman Legions encountered the Aztecs and the barbaric and vicious Mayans. Their version of football had used decapitated human heads as the sporting object, kicking it then throwing it in a basket at the end of a court to score a point. The only sports that required true skill of mind and physical stamina were those of the gladiators. That is why it has endured almost unchanged for 3,000 years, but today’s matches are not fought to the death. That is illegal and has been for centuries. Even in ancient times, the gladiators had a better chance of living a long, fruitful life than the average citizen given that professional athletes are large investments. Patrons spend millions on their training and equipment, hoping to recoup and make more on sponsorships and entitlements. When a fighter steps onto the sands of battle, they are expected to perform their best, give a good show, and not get hurt so they can fight again. Today’s contenders sponsor everything from athletic footwear to cereal for kids. The big names, such as Rufio, an undefeated Thracian, are the victors of over a hundred fights. He has parlayed that into a lucrative film career and it is rumored he’ll run for Governor of a territory. Today, as in days gone by, gladiators are to the people as gods, with all the blessings of fame, money, power, women and most of all, influence. Trajan may be pursuing a law degree but in his heart, he wants to be in the arena. His skill was praised by both his trainers and Master Hiroshomo.

There are but two things Trajan considers as possible obstacles on his path to glory in the arena. First, his father, a former Pro-Consul who desires him to follow in his footsteps to public office and a lifetime of service. A meticulously planned life which Trajan didn’t have a problem with: it was a virtuous undertaking. The second and main obstacle to his dreams is Lucilla. She hated the gladiators’ sport. Trying out for the Imperial University Spartans was a sore spot with her. During many heated discussions about the topic, Trajan had always relented to her, but now he is a senior. There won’t be another opportunity to join.

He hasn’t told her his plans. If he’s selected, he’ll tell her over dinner. It will be a grand evening. First, a stop for drinks and cheese at Manila’s, a fine winery and bistro. He had already called up the sommelier to have the best of his vintage on hand when they arrived. Then, on to the Forum for a dramatic reading of Homer’s Iliad, performed in the round by the celebrated poet Diatian, said to be a descendant of Cicero himself. Finally, on to Barletta’s for the finest Latin cuisine anywhere. She won’t think anything is amiss since it is her birthday. Lucky me. She’ll kill me, but at least it’ll be a pleasant evening before that.

He runs down the trail behind the university, across the river from the center of Romanus. Trajan loves the early morning hours, a fresh beginning. The philosopher in him is coming out. How many times have I started writing then put it away as soon as something else came along? Someday he would author a book, but for now, he speaks into his watch, recording observations and reflections. He thought he’d begin with a dramatic dialog, but that sounded corny. It is better to recite pure poetry on the beauty of this world and how fleeting it is. Every breath and experience should be set down in some manner so that future generations may feel and enjoy this moment. He turns the camera towards the sunrise, relating the moment to the one he holds most dear.

“Lucilla, the sun radiates, its perfect orb in the morning sky the brilliance of it is like a new birth for it. For a million mornings, man has gazed at its perfection wondering, ‘What shall this day bring? Joy, happiness, sorrow, victory? Who knows?’ That is the beauty of it. It’s there in the heavens, always and unending. It is forever and eternal, unlike the two of us, who are a nanosecond of time. What sum of a man’s lifetime means anything compared with that celestial body? How many victories and triumphs and losses has it seen? Does it even care? I doubt it. For now, it is only a gift, a moment I want to share with you, my love.”

Trajan signs off. “Good,” he thinks to himself. There is a mechanical voice behind him. “Not bad for a human.”

He stops mid-stride and turns to see softball-sized security drones hovering in the air two feet from his face. They are programmed and assigned to specific people to serve as protectors. Only high profile officials and their families have personalized ones. They are designed with certain individuals in mind, reflecting their emotional habits and intellect. They are mini-robots with the latest in artificial intelligence and plugged into monitoring departments of the empire to make sure their assignments are protected. They have small stun devices to foil any would-be assailant, and some are capable of higher defense, with extreme prejudice to kill. They are able to go anywhere but can watch from a discreet distance.

However, they cannot be turned off and do not appreciate privacy, prompting many to assign them personalities. “If they are to be our constant companions, they need names,” the reasoning went. Trajan named his little friend and protector Sid. It is composed of titanium tough as nails, with a single, large, red laser eye in its center. Trajan had seen how the distorted way the robots view the world in engineering classes: a huge peripheral vision field where nothing could escape detection. Sid shares Trajan’s sense of humor. Trajan had it worked into his programming. Sid was constantly reminding him that he was a mortal, as if the drones could create themselves. Trajan didn’t mind it much. It made him feel safer when he was younger, but now Sid gets in the way. Trajan would often let Sid know he could take care of himself, but Sid wouldn’t hear of it. “It would be nice to be alone with my own thoughts, or Lucilla, and not have you hovering around,” Trajan said. Lucilla liked to toy with Sid by throwing towels over him or spraying hairspray on the camera. “This is not in your best interest!” Sid would say. He would sling off the towel or wash off the camera with his rotating eyelid which contained a cleaning mechanism and served as a guard against cracks if for any reason his hover fan malfunctioned and lost power. His round body is sturdy, but his lens could be damaged. His human sensor monitors can sense health issues such as an imminent heart attack or stroke. Overall the little robots were a solid safeguard, albeit an annoying one. Trajan took Sid’s nuisances in stride as much as possible, knowing they were stuck together when Trajan was outside the classroom or the safety of his parents’ home. Until a he reached twenty-one, he and Sid were anchored at the hip.

Trajan jogs on with Sid keeping pace. “Your heart rate is up, Trajan. You should stop and rest,” the little robot droned. “But that’s the point,” Trajan says. “It’s how humans maintain their health!” How could he be a veritable floating encyclopedia of human physiology and not get the simple act of daily running? Perhaps he did, but the bundle of circuits was not going to make it easy for him. Trajan can tell Sid wants to get under his skin. Robots don’t have emotions or feelings per se, but they could grow close to those they protected in a way. It was part of their programming to recognize when something is out of the ordinary and alert the proper officials, to send a warning on any emotional state that might compromise an individual, including suicidal or reckless behavior. If you’re having a bad day you could not do anything dangerous; the drones would not let you. Not that he had any thoughts like that, ever. Trajan had things to live for and soon he will prove to his family that all he did in his body and soul was for the ones he loved and the good of the Empire.

The sidewalks are filling with the everyday workers that push Romanus’ economy along. Trajan checked his watch. Oh crap! He had spent too much time daydreaming. It was almost seven o’clock and Lucilla would already be awake and taking up the bathroom. He had an eight thirty meeting with his professor then a pre-run through of his exam. He couldn’t mess this up, not if he wanted to get into graduate school. Lucilla will have to understand. I’ll pounce in and take the shower before she has a chance.

Reaching the split level apartment he calls home, Trajan vaults up the steps two at a time to the second floor. The automated scanner above his door checks his body’s heat signature and a readout of his DNA appears on a tiny screen along with his name. The door has a female personality, which was Lucilla’s doing. It greets him in a low sexy voice,

“Good morning, Trajan dear.”

He smiles and shakes his head. Sid answers for him.

“Do not address your master in in such a friendly manner.”

“You two never stop do you?” says Trajan as he enters calling out for Lucilla. She doesn’t respond and he hears the running water and her singing one of her favorite songs. Lucilla’s voice is soft, melodic and entrancing, and Trajan always loves it when she sings. He enters the bedroom. “Lucilla?” Stripping off his clothes, he waltzes into the bathroom and slings back the shower curtain, startling her.

“Do you mind?” she says.

Trajan smiles. “Not at all,” he says, climbing in with her.

She was finishing up and steps out.

“Where have you been?” she asks.

“Just my morning run. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Just in time for your birthday,” says Trajan. That struck a chord with her. “Press play on my watch, Lucilla. It’s on the sink.” Brushing her hair and still irritated at him for interrupting her bath, she hesitates before finally pressing the button.

“What is it now, some gladiator game you saw online?”

On the tiny screen the beautiful sunrise and Trajan’s voice fill the air. In an instant her grumpiness goes away. He smiles to himself as he watches her. She finishes listening to his gentle words and turns to him and puts on a catty grin then drops her towel and climbs into the shower. He didn’t expect it would cause this kind of reaction but ill-timed. It’ll soften the blow later about team tryouts. I need all the help I can get.

“You’ll be a little late, sir, ” says Lucilla pulling the shower curtain back.

Behind schedule, Trajan trots to his meeting with his adviser. Professor Aviates is a stern taskmaster for keeping appointments. It is rumored he is descended from the first century poet Aviles who killed anyone one who stood him up. He didn’t believe that would be the case today. Sid was with him for protection just in case, and was bantering on about how he shouldn’t spend so much time thinking and performing sexual acts.

“Don’t you know that they lead nowhere? All it will do is leave you tired and wanting.”

“I can’t argue, but this is love,” Trajan says. Sid couldn’t get the emotional factors of what it means to love through his programming. Maybe that separates man from machine. The Gods save us if they ever learn to love.

Trajan tries to think up an excuse for being late. The truth, that he was in bed with his girlfriend, just wouldn’t fly with the stern Aviates. Trajan hurries along the sidewalk up to the Capitoline law building.

It is an impressive structure, lined on four sides with three story tall corinthian columns and modeled after the Greek Parthenon. Lateral steps traverse the entire length of the facade. Interspersed every twenty feet are gargantuan statues in marble and granite depicting influential jurists throughout history. In the center, leading up the entrance, there are two far larger than the others. On the right, in a toga carved in red, is Abraham Lincolnitus, and to the left, in a deep turquoise, Cicero Germanicus. One founded the principles of early Rome, the other kept it from falling apart. Trajan admired the statues. They were bold, outspoken individuals who had a quality that today’s politicians do not have. The fools today are more concerned with sensationalism than the pursuit of truth, overindulging a self-bloated media circus.

Trajan hated journalists for raking his father over the coals during the past elections, but his father lost the election fair and square. Darius, the new Proconsul, is an old, trusted friend of the family who can be expected to act in the best interest of the empire and not some petty monetary gain. Neither did he pursue the trappings of power that have too often plagued the empire’s seat of government. Both men served in the military together and had helped colonize Mars.

Entering the office the secretary looks at him with a little disdain. “My apologies for being late,” Trajan says. The secretary buzzes him in. Professor Aviates stands with his back to the door, looking out over the campus from his large picture window. Trajan knows better than to speak and waits until he is spoken to. The silence is becoming unbearable. Trajan would prefer to have a thorough tongue lashing and be done with it, but that is not the professor’s way. Aviates prefers a mental waxing of the nature you don’t forget or ignore. Trajan foresees logic in his rift that would cause a Caesar cower in the corner, ashamed of his existence. The moment is drawing near. Trajan senses it and when it comes, it was like nothing he could have expected. Aviates breathes deeply then sighs and in a low almost growling tone, begins to speak.

“You are my most gifted student Trajan. Your marks are beyond excellent and you are assured of taking the legal exam and passing with distinction. That is why it is all the more disturbing that on the very morning of our conference to go over your exit test, you are late. There is no excuse. At any moment, any of us could be called to defend the Empire and that means discipline, something I thought you had learned well from your father. Evidently, I was wrong.”

Trajan’s guts becomes a sack of rocks.

“As you are aware, upon my recommendation, any of my students can receive an officer’s commission in the Imperial Service, one that leads to a good career in politics. However, your actions today have proven that you are a man of deep passions. I know of yours and Lucilla’s relationship. It is firm and it will more than likely endure the test of time and become a strong house,” says Aviates

Trajan feels the sweat beading on his neck, arms and forehead. The professor is contradicting himself, starting on one path then going down another.

“In saying so much, it is my belief you should forego military service and be posted to the Proconsul chamber committee as a Tribune after you have completed and passed the law exam.” Aviate’s smiles at him and extends his hand.

Trajan could not speak. This is beyond his wildest dreams, a fast track to political power and a secure future. What could have caused this? What has he done to deserve such an honor? He remembers a saying his father, however, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” The Gods are smiling on him. All his hard work has paid off.

“It will not be easy. The path of Tribune to Proconsul is long and difficult, and you still must pass the exam,” says Aviates.

“What about my chances for pursuing a place on the gladiator team?” asks Trajan.

“It will interfere with your posting, but if you can balance your time, it might be all right. Only as an alternate,” Aviates says, grumpy.

Trajan is disheartened. He wants so much to be a part of the action, but duty, honor, and a stable future come first. I’ll allow myself the luxury of at least trying out, just to see if I have what it takes to stand it in the arena. I owe myself that much.

Trajan leaves the room upon Aviates’ dismissal, proud and honored and a little mystified, but overall with the feeling this will make Lucilla and his parents happy. I wonder if father intervened with Aviates? Trajan’s self-confidence slips as the possibility of his father’s handiwork being to credit grows in his thoughts. Trajan would rather have a position he earned, but it was all making sense now. Of course, he had been blinded by that great moment’s bright promise and the anticipation of a brilliant career, one placed far out of harm’s way. It fills him with rage. I am not going to have my life planned for me. Trajan wants to march directly over to his father’s office, but he has the tryouts. He resolves to join the team and show them all that he has his own destiny.

Now who was being contradictory? Trajan desires both to be a prove himself as a gladiator and to be a loyal subject. There was, too, the distinct possibility that what Aviates said is true, that more than likely marriage and children are in his future. They would need a father to provide for them. Trajan remembers how sad he was when his own Dad was away on campaign, whether in the military or on diplomatic missions, how worried his mother had been in his father’s absence. Trajan cannot put Lucilla through that. What should he do? There is nothing he can do about it at the moment, so he’ll see what happens at the tryouts, then have dinner and a pleasant evening. After that, he would have to confront his parents, not an easy task.

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