Forever Rome

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Chapter 20

The shuttle is cramped and the ride is bumpy as the vehicle slogs through the quagmire of sand and rock. Only the shuttle’s long wheelbase keeps them from getting stuck. Rain continues to pour, obscuring the view out the window. The windshield wipers cannot keep up with the water. Trajan strains to see where he is going.

Then through the torrent, he sees the gates to the colony. The fence was destroyed decades before, and the paved road showed signs of cracking under neglect and disrepair. A large sign over the gate reads Nova Roma in weathered lettering.

As they peer out, a break in the downpour allows a little more visibility. The headlights illuminate a small perimeter around them. As the shuttle moves closer, it becomes clear that the perimeter is made of bodies.

“The dead colonists,” says Claudia.

“Looks like you may have been right, Darius. Not all the people changed, it was an illusion,” says Achilles.

“Why show us now?” asks Claudia.

“Something must be preventing him from hiding them,” says Trajan.

The domes over the colony are cracked and in spots have collapsed onto the buildings below. Rain gushes through the openings, making everything muddy. A fine mist from the half enclosed area creates a low-lying fog that covers the ground.

After a few minutes, they arrive at the medical facility. Darius envisions playing with his mother and father on green grass that is now only sand. The water that maintained the greenery was gone. The facility is intact, but there is no electricity.

Sid is the first out. It zips over to the front entrance. He accesses a panel near the entrance. Inside is an intricate network of relays and interfaces. It is labeled “emergency generator.” The robot reconnects the wires with a beep and whine. The building lights up and the door opens. Flood lights outside switch on, casting a dismal illumination over their surroundings.

Hundreds of dead bodies lay mummified in the open plaza of the colony. The rain turns to a trickle and everyone gets out. Claudia covers the eyes of the children as she shuffles them inside. As Darius steps out, he hears the screaming and commotion of that fateful day echoing in his head. How many times has he dreamed this nightmare? A few yards away is a corpse. He recognizes the clothing of his mother. He walks over and kneels down beside her. The lack of oxygen and low temperatures left her recognizable. He is sad to see her this way, but grateful she did not turned into a horrible mutant. Stroking her hair he cries.

“I’m back, Mama,” he whispers.

Achilles approaches him.

“Sir, we need to move on. We can bury the dead when we’re done.”

Darius agrees. They must solve this mystery.

The facility is in good shape considering the time that has passed. They follow posted signs to the lab in a rush with Sid leading the way. The doors slide up. The room looks untouched.

Darius stares at a door marked MORGUE. He runs with Achilles, Rufio, Crixus, and Trajan following. In the center of the room, still encased in the suspended animation pod, is Darius’s father, Agrippa. Darius peers through the glass at the specter frozen in time.

Sid hovers around checking the systems, then reports his findings.

“The bio readouts are in the green. He’s alive, sir.”

“After all these years, he’s still breathing,” Darius says. “Is it possible to wake him? Perhaps his blood holds the answer we seek.”

“The only way to find out is to free him, but that might kill him,” Achilles says.

“It can wait. Let’s make sure everyone is who they appear to be,” Trajan says. Crixus, being a former medic, is tasked with drawing the samples for the ancient computer to analyze. It will take time for the antiquated machine to be revived. Most of its components are obsolescent. Crixus finds a sealed medical locker and breaks the hermetic plastic encasing it, then unlocks the cabinet drawers and takes out several syringes, enough for each adult. He opens alcohol swabs in airtight packets.

“Still fresh,” he says.

He then proceeds about his task, taking samples from each person. First Claudia and Achilles, then Darius, Trajan, and Rufio. For a strong and gruff gladiator, Rufio is the only one to turn his head at the sight of the needle.

“The King of the Arena, scared of a little shot?” Crixus says.

“Just draw the blood and be done with it.”

Crixus smiles as he places all the samples into a collection tray and hurries them to the lab.

“How long will it take?”

“It depends if we can upload the DNA sequence into the main computer core may be a few minutes an hour or more,” he says.

Achilles wonders if the blood draw is an illusion. Is Garelle making them believe Crixus is really here? He dismisses his worries as paranoia and turns his attention back to finding out where the machine is and destroying it. There is another issue: he had planned to use the weapons but they are useless. However, Garelle is using illusions to trick them and he may not be that powerful after all. Then he remembers the reactor core. He and Marcellus had disassembled it and brought it with them. All he would need is a trigger device to detonate it. The problem is that it has no delay fuse. Someone will have to set it off manually. He must have information first, and the only person who can do that is the dormant patient in suspended animation. “It’s risky but we have to wake Agrippa. Might he still be dangerous?” asks Achilles.

Darius does not know but Trajan speaks up.

“If we don’t wake him we’ll never find out.”

Achilles’s shoulder transmitter-receiver beeps on. It is flashing the red emergency signal. As he switches the channel on, the frantic voice of the moonbase commander screams out.

“Sir, we’re under attack! The emperor has assumed personal control of the fleet and is on his way to Mars. Have spent all remaining ordinance with little effect. Repeat we are...”

The line goes dead. Everyone is silent. Now, they have the empire to deal with, too.

“We have to know more,” Achilles says. “It’s settled, then. Bring him out of the suspended animation,” Darius says with authority.

“After such a long hypersleep will he even revive?” asks Trajan. “It might kill him.”

“A risk we’ll have to take,” Achilles says. With Crixus busy working on the blood samples, Claudia is the only person qualified to bring Agrippa out from under hibernation. Darius is familiar with the system, but not the bio-readouts. That would be something they have to watch together.

He explains as he opens the panel to the unit.

“First, we need to raise his body temperature. That will take several minutes.”

He presses the thermostat and the digital readout ticks upwards as the heat level rises. The frost on the inner glass dissipates and drips, making long, criss-crossing streaks. Darius activates the oxygen.

“His heartbeat has gone from one beat per minute to two, no, three,” Claudia says, watching the rise. Agrippa’s chest moves up and down.

“Respiration good, reaching normal levels,” she says. “His brain is fluctuating. It’s being stimulated by something.”

A phantasmic cry of pain fills the medical bay.

“It’s Garelle! He’s here!” says Rufio, grabbing his gun.

Darius looks around.

“He doesn’t want us to awaken Agrippa.”

The suspended animation tube sparks and sputters and smoke pours from its base. Agrippa’s vital signs drop.

“He’s dying,” Claudia says. “We’ve got to get him out of there!”

“It must be dust in the unit!” says Trajan.

Darius remains calm.

“It’s a trick. Garelle wants us to think that and press the wrong buttons. We’ll wait.” The sparks vanish and everything returns to normal. Agrippa is reaching consciousness and his eyes flutter open. The readout of his body functions registers as well. The glass tube recedes and there is Darius’s father, still a young man. The group marvels at the sight of a person revived after all this time. Darius moves closer, wanting to speak to him first.

“Father, can you hear me?”

Agrippa sits straight up and speaks in an unknown language. It has a strange quality, full of long, moaning sounds interspersed with clicks and whistles, similar to that of cycadeoid on a warm June night. His vocalizations gradually become more comprehensible. Agrippa’s stony expression becomes softer. He speaks, but his voice roars as though it is in an empty chamber.

“Son,” he says.

Darius resists the urge to embrace his father after half a century, but he must first ask his questions.

“Father, who is Garelle? What is this drug called Crystal Blue? Do you know how this got started and what we can do about it? You were first infected, and we had to put you in suspended animation.”

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