Forever Rome

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Chapter 22

Crixus is unaware of the revelations in the other room and continues analyzing the blood samples. As he does he notices strange markings on the equipment. They are symbols and flags representing countries. One reads China and has a crimson flag with a star, the other Japan with a white flag and red circle in the center. The analyzer is standard and is easy to work, but the problem is getting the computer core to boot. A large panel display on the far wall with a keyboard in front is the main interface for the entire base. If he could get it to function, at least they could control the environmental systems and make the building more comfortable.

In the outer room, the situation is tense. Darius cannot be trusted, or can he? Could a double from another dimension have slipped in and caused all this?

“You have to believe me, I did not plan this,” he says.

Claudia takes hold of Achilles’s arm and looks at Darius.

“We cannot start to distrust each other. With this new information, I guess we don’t have to worry about our blood...” She stops mid-sentence and rushes to the lab. Crixus has gotten the old computer running and is putting the samples in for analysis.

“Wait!” Claudia shouts.

It is too late. The liquid tissue containing their DNA is surging through the system. Crixus drops the empty tray, startled by the sudden noise.

“What’s the matter?”

“Garelle may be able to access the computers. He requires our codes to reactivate the machine,” she says.

The others come rushing into the lab. She looks at Darius, who is upset with himself.

“We were tricked into giving it away. He only needs one more specimen to turn back time and replace his world.”

The ground trembles and the terrible voice comes booming from all around them.

“And I will have it!” shouts the sinister entity. They must get to work. Garelle cannot do anything until Marcus arrives to complete the sequence. Sid escorts the children from the playroom into the lab. Achilles takes charge.

“Trajan and Rufio, take one of the colonial surface vehicles to the ice cap along with the thermite charges. Crixus and I will go to the atmosphere processor and see if we can shut it down.”

He wonders what to do about Darius, fearing he might still be dangerous. He then remembers something.

“The detention center is nearby, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” Sid replies automatically. Achilles steps towards Darius slowly, reluctant, but the Proconsul understands and goes along.

The old security building is musty and dark. Power is at a low level and it is cold and damp. The cell is a single bed and lavatory.

“I hate to do this,” Achilles says.

“I’d do the same,” Darius says.

Achilles leaves him standing in the middle of the spartan room. The door slides shut and a red light above flickers on, indicating it is sealed tight.

Outside, Achilles instructs Sid to watch the door.

“If he tries to escape, kill him.”

The robot’s program allows command officers to give him instructions which he must follow to the letter. Now that Darius is secure, he and the rest can be on their way.

Trajan and Rufio check the armory of the colony and to their surprise, it is filled with weaponry.

“How do we know if these things work or if they are real?” Trajan says.

“We have no choice.”

Suddenly there is a clanging in the back of the room. Somebody is trying to open one of the weapon lockers. They hear the popping of a gun going off, but it does not sound like a pulse rifle. Pellets ricochet after each discharge.

“Someone else is in here,” whispers Trajan.

They go to investigate. With their weapons drawn, they keep low as they approach the source of the noise. The room is dark except for two security lights.

Up ahead, they spy a figure in the shadows. The person has long, blonde hair. Where did this woman come from? She is dressed in an orange jumpsuit. In the dim light, Trajan can make out the same rectangular patch that was on Agrippa’s suit. She is frustrated and picks up a metal bar and bangs away at a box. Trajan looks for writing on the crate. It’s the thermite charges! One wrong hit and we’ll be destroyed.

“Wait! Don’t do that!” he cries out, blowing their cover. The woman swings around with her weapon pointed straight at them. Lucilla? It can’t be. She’s with Marcus and her clothes and hair are different.

“Who the fuck are you?!” she exclaims.

Trajan lowers his weapon and motions for Rufio to do the same.

“Lucilla, what are you doing and how did you get here?” asks Rufio.

“My name is Lucy. Only my ex-boyfriend ever called me that. I hated that fucking name. I am a Captain in the United States Air Force, serial number 11026679, NASA Expeditionary Mars Mission. What has happened to my base? What kind of uniforms are those?”

She stops in the middle of her rant and cocks her head to one side. She keeps her gun at the ready and shines a flashlight in their faces. She gasps at what she sees. “Shit! Trajan, is that you? Where did you get that uniform? Last time I saw you you were strung out on meth...” She steps back. “No, no, no, you have to be one of those illusions.”

The two men exchange a look. It is impossible to know whether she is a deception. She can’t be. She’s terrified of us.

“No, it’s not a trick or a vision. This may be hard to fathom, but we’re from an alternate Earth. We want the same as you: to return where we belong.”

“This looks like my base, but isn’t. I don’t recognize any of these weapons systems. I was trying to open this crate to see if I could use anything,” says Lucy.

“If you keep beating that box we won’t have to worry about a thing, we’ll be dead. It’s full of thermite charges,” says Trajan.

“Thermite charges?”

“Like miniature nuclear devices without the radiation.”

She holsters her weapon and looks over their pressure suits. She notices the large eagle on it.

“That looks like the ancient Roman standard,” she says.

“On our Earth, Rome never fell. The entire planet is part of the empire,” says Trajan.

Lucy scoffs.

“Yeah, right. I guess you have gladiators, too?”

“You’re looking at one you fool. I’ve won two hundred matches and remain undefeated,” says an indignant Rufio. He reaches into his pocket and she grabs for her gun. Slowing down he pulls out a trading card he carries with him at all times. Rufio is pictured in the arena in full armor, an action shot.

“Wow, so...”

“Yes, really,” Trajan says.

With everyone convinced they are who they say they are, Trajan tells her what he has learned and of their plans.

He takes a gravity unit off the wall and attaches it to the top of the thermite charge crate, lifting it off the ground with ease.The technology impresses Lucy. She explains their equipment is far behind. He gives her one of the units to try and she helps with the charges.

“What are you using the thermite charges for?” Lucy asks.

“We have to vaporize the polar caps.”

Lucy stops dead.

“Are you out of your damned mind? Even if you were to carry out such a monumental task, the flooding would wipe out the base!”

“Look, I don’t have time to explain...” Trajan says.

“Well, I’m not helping you destroy my base.”

“Girl, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” Rufio says.

“Look, Hercules, I can’t be sure you two are even real, so...”

“Hercules? Who do you think you...”

“Enough! Look, Lucy, there’s an alien bug named Garelle that can hypnotize people into doing things and the souls of all the ancient Martians or all the Garelles from alternate realities that have tried to conquer the universe before are trapped under the ice caps and the only way to stop Garelle once and for all is to blow them up and stop the machine he built, okay? Is that clear enough for you?”

Lucy starts laughing at Trajan.

“Okay, okay, so I’ll help. Calm down. It really might flood the base, though.”

“So we need a plan, just in case. Rufio,” Trajan says, turning to the gladiator, “while I’m talking to Achilles, run ahead and get ahold of some transportation for us.”

Rufio dashes ahead down the long hall as Trajan radios Achilles to relay their concerns.

“Hey, we might need to rethink this plan. When we melt these things it might cause a problem,” says Trajan.

“Okay. Claudia, you and the children need to be prepared to evacuate. Wait inside the shuttle ’til we finish. At least you’ll have a chance,” replies Achilles. Rufio finds one of the many surface vehicles left behind by the colonists. Its solar battery is still functional. He pulls it up outside the armory and Lucy and Trajan load the charges into the rear. Rufio drives the vehicle towards the polar caps a short distance away. Trajan and Lucy sit with the thermite in the back making sure it does not fall out. He looks at her.

“Stop looking at me like that,” she says.

“You look so much like her, but you’re so different. She is a gentle soul and refined... Oh, sorry.”

Lucy laughs.

“You’re kidding, right? I have a good career. I graduated top of my class at flight school, did my tour in the military and flew the space shuttle. I was at the head of the line for the big flight to Mars. Our first manned mission to the red planet and this is what I find, two gladiators!”

“I’m not a gladiator,” says Trajan.

“Whatever. Tell me about your world. Do you have emperors or what?”

“The Proconsul governs the empire, and he’s elected. The Caesars are just figureheads with no real authority. Except we’ve had a recent coup and the heir to the throne, Marcus, has assumed absolute power. He was influenced and aided by this creature known as Garelle and is on his way here with the imperial fleet.” “This Martian is part of an ancient race that destroyed themselves right? We discovered traces of a long-lost civilization. We were just beginning to investigate it when I found myself outside the compound in front of this tremendous cave structure,” says Lucy.

“Rufio, stop!” Trajan calls out. Rufio halts the vehicle.

“Do you remember where it is?” Trajan asks.

“Our mission is to plant the thermite charges, Trajan,” Rufio says.

“But if we can disable the machine without hurting the dormant souls, it may be worth the risk.”

Rufio jumps from the driver’s seat and runs to the other side, grabbing Trajan and slinging him to the sand.

“I have had enough of your attitude, boy! I have held my tongue out of respect for your father and Darius. Now both are gone. We will do what Achilles instructs and destroy the ice!”

“Don’t you see? We could save the base and what is left of the ancient Martians.”

“They’re dead already!” says Rufio.

Lucy gets between them to diffuse the situation.

“Good God! I see guys are the same everywhere. Look I remember it was cold and there was snow all around. Before I could go inside and investigate, my feet slipped out from under me and before I hit the ground, I was back at the base.”

“That makes sense since the device draws its energy from the ice. When the machine was operating long ago, this was an ocean that housed the souls. It served as a conductor of electricity and functioned like an electric turbine, using the water to generate power. That it’s frozen now might explain why the machine is so much weaker. Garrelle can only conjure illusions. He didn’t want you peeking inside and finding it. If we can’t disable the mechanism we may still use the charges, okay?” he says, reaching a compromise with Rufio.

The ground shakes and a giant chasm opens in front of them.

“Get back!” Lucy shouts.

Trajan stands at the precipice, looking down into the yawning black abyss. He wants to jump over the edge and show that it’s nothing but sand. Rufio tries to grab him, but Trajan is sure it is a trick. “Garelle’s just trying to frighten us,” Trajan says. To prove his point, he jerks away and hurls himself into the trench. He disappears in the blackness. Lucy gasps, but then the chasm dissipates and Trajan stands before them.

Their relief is short lived as a bombardment begins all around them. In horror, they glance up and see the imperial ships descending into the atmosphere.

“That’s no illusion,” Rufio says.

“Troops will be dropping glider pods,” says Trajan. “Let’s get out of here.”

Lucy looks up and a strange sight catches her eye, something familiar but horrifying. On the bottom of one of the large vessels is a red rectangle. At its center there is a white oval encircling a crooked black cross.

“Nazis!” she exclaims.

Trajan takes out the electric field binoculars for a closer inspection. Sure enough, the markings on the ships are not imperial.

“What are Nazis?” Rufio asks.

“An evil, fascistic government that had to be destroyed in the Second World War on my earth.”

"World war? Impossible,” Rufio scoffs.

“The Roman empire has maintained stability for a thousand years on our earth.”

“Most of my earth’s history has been fraught with conflict. I envy the peace you have enjoyed. My people have always struggled for liberty and equality and it’s taken centuries to get where we are now. The Nazis were among the worst threats to humanity. Their regime had to be wiped out. It must be that in a different dimension, they were victorious and conquered the planet. As bad as Marcus sounds, these guys are ten times worse.”

“Then we better move,” Trajan says.

They pile into the vehicle and take off in a cloud of dust. “Veer northeast for about two kilometers. There’s a mountain range off to the left of the cave,” Lucy says. Trajan checks the coordinates on the map monitor on the front dash. On the screen, the polar ice cap is ahead. Driving onward the temperature drops and flurries of snow whip around their heads. Trajan and Rufio turn up the heat in their suits. Lucy shivers as all she has on is a simple jumpsuit that does not offer much protection from the cold. Trajan roots around in the storage compartment behind his seat and finds an additional pressure suit for her.

“Stop,” Trajan tells Rufio, “she needs to change.”

“I’ve changed in moving cars before. Turn your heads,” she says.

Rufio looks in the rear view mirror but Lucy catches him.

“Eyes ahead, Herc.”

Rufio’s cheeks flush as he directs his eyes forward. Trajan smiles. She’s a lot like Lucilla.

“You know, I love tickling that mole on the inside of your thigh up near-” he says.

Lucy stops him in mid sentence. “It almost fits like a second skin. Your technology is far ahead of anything we’ve got.”

Trajan clears his throat.

“Yeah, space travel is old news to us. We landed on the moon in nineteen hundred,” says Trajan.

“We took another seventy years to do the same thing,” replies Lucy.

The red desert gives way to white snow. The barren landscape of the Martian ice cap resembles Antarctica. The weather is deteriorating to blizzard conditions as they move inland. Lucy strains through the blinding snow to get her bearings, but they are caught in a whiteout. Trajan keeps a watchful eye on the dash monitor. A blip appears on the screen about a mile away.

“We have to clear our minds. The blizzard is an illusion. We could be on top of the cave and not know it. Garelle works on fear so, if we clear our minds it may throw him off.”

Rufio shuts off the engine and and the transport coasts to a stop. They each close their eyes and meditate for varying lengths. The wind dies down, and the snow dwindles to small flurries. Ahead of them is the cave, its ancient archway collapsed. A low, sorrowful moan howls on the breeze echoing in the distance. “That’s not Garelle,” Trajan says.

The trio gets out of the vehicle and works their way across the landscape towards the entrance. Below their feet, the ice is covered by a fine layer of fresh powder. Remembering what they learned about the souls of the Martians and others being trapped in the frozen wasteland, Trajan bends down and wipes the snowflakes away. The ice is translucent. He clears a large area of snow and peers down. There, encased below them, are hundreds of thousands of the Martian beings in various states of pose.

“Looks like they were caught off guard in the middle of the cataclysm,” Trajan says. He then sees what appears to be humans, but he cannot make out any of their features. Lucy kneels down to look. Rufio stands, watching.

“This is just an immense graveyard,” Trajan says. They are still and silent, but the moment of reverence is shattered by the beeping of the radar monitor and the sound of roaring engines.

Trajan runs back to the vehicle. Several small blips are descending upon their location fast. He looks up and spies four black drop ships designed for quick penetration behind enemy lines. They are cylindrical in shape and pointed at one end. The top opens into a helicopter-type motor to slow their decent. Each contains two men. Only tough, fanatical individuals ever volunteer for such duty. The ships are nicknamed suicide cradles. These particular suicide cradles are especially nasty, designed to drop flash grenades before impact. The three of them are blinded. The suicide cradles are red hot from their fall and slam into the ice, sticking into it like darts landing between the cave entrance and Trajan’s position. The explosive bolts pop the doors open and two troopers jump out of each pod, dressed from head to toe in black. The pods have the Nazi emblem branded on the top. The occupants assume a perimeter and fire warning shots at the three of them, then riddle the vehicle with bullets. The rapid deployment followed by a lightning assault has caught Trajan and the others off guard and put them at the mercy of the troops.

The leader calls out to them.

“Do not resist us! We have you all targeted. We will not spill your blood unless you make it necessary,” he says. His head is covered by a shiny black helmet that fits snugly around his skull. It has a large faceplate that is mirrored, obscuring his face. The Nazi body suit are similar in design to that of the Roman, but it sleeker and more form-fitting. The weapons are compact, but effectively lethal. The Nazi leader approaches and his team follows in a standard covering formation. He slings his gun over his shoulder and checks in with his mother ship.

“Eagle eins, haben wir kontaktiert und die Gegend gesichert,” he says.

The man takes off his gloves as a pair of the troopers bring a small, foldable stool for him to sit on. He makes himself comfortable and a third soldier brings a small cup full of boiling hot tea. The leader sips slowly and orders his men without looking away from his capture.

Trajan senses they’re being studied. The man takes an excruciating amount of time sipping the tea silently. Just as Trajan is about to risk lunging at the Nazi leader, the man finally speaks.

“I see I am merely a foot soldier in a different universe,” he says. The statement catches Trajan off guard. The leader rises from his stool, hands the teacup to one of his men, and unsnaps his helmet. There is quick rush of air escaping as the man lifts the helmet off. Lucy squeaks like a mouse when the man’s face becomes visible.

“What the...” Trajan says.

The Nazi leader is Trajan’s double save for a long scar that runs the length of his face, a diagonal gash that starts at the left temple and crosses downward, ending back behind the neck. His right eye is a prosthetic implant that has a red electronic pupil, an advanced cybernetic replacement for one lost in combat. There is a devilish hunger on his cruel mouth. His hair is close-cropped in a regulation crew cut.

“I assume you are called Trajan, or some variation thereof. I go by the codename Razor,” the Nazi leader says.

“Look, in that cave there’s an ancient machine of incredible complexity. If we don’t disable it, your world and mine may never exist,” says Trajan. Razor is unfazed and continues to study the group. His gaze falls on Lucy. She stares right back at him.

“You do not approve of me, Fraulein?”

“Where I come from, we had to destroy your kind. The Allies won the war and Nazi Germany was defeated,” she says.

Razor leans close to her.

“You would like what we’ve done with your capital. The Washington Monument is emblazoned with a swastika and capped by a gold German eagle.”

She spits in his face. He backhands her and knocks her to the ground.

Rufio instinctually reaches under his armor and pulls out his sword. He catches the first two men off guard and makes easy work of them. Trajan tries to stop Rufio, but it is too late. The Nazis regroup, assuming crouched positions and firing their weapons, riddling Rufio’s body with bullets. The mighty warrior lets out one final roar as he charges towards Razor, who has a blade of his own at the ready. He cuts Rufio’s throat when he’s at arm’s length. Choking and gurgling he falls to his knees, clutching his neck.

The red is stark against the snow as it seeps out. Then, curiously, the ice absorbs the blood. The wind whips up and a mournful cry comes up from the frozen wasteland. Razor whirls around as if a ghost is creeping up on him.

“That was most regrettable,” he says. Trajan is stunned at the loss of his friend and idol. He kneels down by Rufio’s body, but does not weep.

“He would have preferred to die fighting. His life was spent in combat. All you’ve done is slighten our chances. I don’t care about your world, but I want mine to survive.”

“Mein Fuhrer wants whatever is in there. As you have said, it is a source of incredible power. We have been having difficulty with maintaining order in our world. A drug has proliferated called Crystal Blue. It is causing massive riots and revolts and tearing our planet apart. We traced its signal here. A reconnaissance team brought it back somehow.”

Trajan stands to face him.

“We have the same problem, then. You could have said so from the beginning and avoided all this.”

As they speak, a giant deformed bear comes galloping from inside the cave towards them.

“Another of Garelle’s phantoms. It will pass,” Trajan says.

But this is different. The monster reaches one of the soldiers and rips him in half. The remainder of the Nazis scatter, firing haphazardly at the great beast.

This is real! Something has changed! Marcus must have given his DNA and completed the sequence. The Machine is active and producing solid manifestations. Or was it? Did Rufio’s death somehow trigger it?

Trajan grabs two pulse rifles from the back of the vehicle. He tosses one of them to Lucy, hoping she can figure out how to use it. Razor methodically fires short controlled bursts as he takes a grenade from his belt loop.

“Drop to the ground,” he says calmly. He pulls the pin and hurls it at the animal. It flashes with a bright, hot light in front of the beast then wraps it in a fireball, bursting the animal from inside. Nothing but a charred splotch remains where the bear once stood.

Trajan looks to Razor.

“What in Tartarus was that?” Trajan says.

“The incinerator grenade. It works in stages. First, the flash blinds the victim, then a pressure wave envelops and explodes the target from within.”

“Don’t you think that’s overkill? What a cruel device,” Lucy says. She knows the Nazis were known for their enjoyment of inflicting torture and pain.

“A little cruelty is merely human nature, Fraulein.”

In the skies overhead the Nazi ships suddenly vanish. Razor’s confident, wicked smile leaves.

“Your men and fleet are gone, so it’s just us now. The group from my Earth are the only constant so far, so why don’t we join forces and end this thing,” Trajan says.

“Easy for you to say. In this universe, you have a way back. I do not. And you state, Lucy, that my world is flawed and evil. That may be so, but it is my home, and I have sworn to defend it, right or wrong. I wish to return. How can helping you accomplish that?”

“If what I suspect is true, resetting Garelle’s device will return everything to normal,” says Trajan.

A pragmatic Razor agrees with him. It is the only option.

They unload the thermite charges and place them in scattered positions on the ice sheet around the opening of the cavern. Trajan arms them and keeps the trigger device, placing it in a compartment on his utility belt. With their backup plan secure, they proceed into the cave.

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