Forever Rome

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Chapter 23

The Roman imperial armada moves into a low orbit around Mars. The Imperial One leads the way with the Augustus at her side. The captain of Augustus addresses Marcus by radio.

“The fleet awaits your command, your majesty.”

Marcus, having undergone a near complete metamorphosis into the body of an ancient Martian, hovers above a console aboard Imperial One. On view screens surrounding him are his other commanders. Despite his grotesque appearance, they do not questions his commands. Crystal Blue has enslaved them.

“Have the troops deploy on my orders,” Marcus says in a slurred, guttural tone.

Behind him, Lucilla watches in the shadows, holding her tongue. She knows another opportunity may present itself and hopes Trajan can find her and take care of this mess. Marcus turns to her.

“You are to accompany me to the surface. Your beau will be more amiable if he is aware you are unharmed. I might be inclined to spare his life,” says Marcus. Lucilla cannot bear to look at his foul new form. A slimy mucus spills from his mouth and she sees her reflection in the dark, lifeless insect eyes. His legs have drawn up, the feet changed to hairy, claw-like appendages. He does not wear clothes as nothing fits on his misshapen form. His putrid odor makes her nauseous. Not even the ship’s industrial ventilators can filter out the horrible stench. Now she will be cooped up on a tiny shuttle with him.

She cups her hands over her nose and mouth as he glides from the room and she follows. The Praetorians escort them out and up the gangway of the shuttle. The ramp recedes into the shuttle behind them and the door closes. Marcus assumes his seat between the two pilots and initializes an intercraft address system that connects to the other ships. With the military under his direct order, he gives another useless speech to placate his own vanity. None of the troops will disobey his orders, he has seen to that. Crystal Blue has been piped into the airways thru the air conditioning systems, leaving everyone except Lucilla in a drug-induced dream. Lucilla swallows a lump in her throat. Asphyxiation almost feels a welcome alternative. She sits next to Marcus, but turns away from him. A few stray tears fall to the floor of the bridge as Marcus’s raspy voice gives the command.

The pilots steer the shuttle out of the hangar doors of the Imperial One. The rest of the fleet deploys its troop carriers in formation around their leader’s craft, and the mass of ships descends into the Martian atmosphere.

In the colony control center, a monitoring system that commands the facility comes to life. The outer perimeter radar tracking system picks up on the empire’s approach. On the screen, hundreds of green blips appear. Claudia grabs a radio.

“Achilles! Marcus and the fleet are here. Achilles, come in.” Static fills the air. The atmosphere processor and the rain are interfering. Achilles’s radio crackles on.

“You’re breaking up,” he says.

“Marcus is here, and he’s converging on the base!”

There are more fizzling sounds as he adjusts his receiver.

“Claudia? Can you read?”

Achilles is not getting through. There is too much interference as he and Crixus approach the processor. A fine mist produced by the machine falls in the wind-whipped open rover.

“It’s dead. We won’t be able to contact her ’til we reach the plant,” he says.

“What about your wife and Marcus?” asks Crixus.

“He won’t do anything with the children there. Besides, its Garelle who’s behind this, not him.”

Claudia releases the receiver button, frustrated she cannot get a clear signal. She watches the screen with apprehension as the fleet approaches. She hears the laughter of the kids coming from the other room. Sid has made a tiny playroom for them and reconnected the monitoring system so she can check in on them. She switches the camera feed to Darius’s cell. He looks pitiful sitting by himself. She wonders how he is doing. He did not ask for this: somewhere in these interdimensional shifts, he betrayed himself. She walks over and pokes her head into the little playroom. Sid is buzzing around, playing hide and seek with them. It is curious to see a machine doing such a good job of being a nanny. Claudia smiles, wishing the circumstances were not so dire.

“I’m going over to the detention center,” she says. “I won’t be long.”

“Yes, ma’am,” it replies.

She heads to the weapons locker and takes out a pulse pistol, then proceeds out the door. Outside, she glances up to the horizon. Beyond the outer perimeter fence, she can see the silhouettes of the shuttles coming in for a landing in the early morning light, but it will be a while yet before they touchdown.

The detention building is, like all the colonial structures, weathered with age and neglect. The entrance slides open. It is gray, with only a few security lights along the way to Darius’s cell. The whole place is littered with debris and sand. The walls, once painted a bright yellow, have faded and peeled. She rounds a corner and the hall starts to morph. The dismal, decayed facade with peeling paint becomes pristine. The red Martian dust that covers the floor disappears and the worn floor tiles are suddenly new. Claudia sees her reflection in a window. She is unchanged. But what about Darius?

She sprints to his cell door and peers through the glass portal. The room is empty and appears to have never been occupied. Stepping away from the door, something unseen passes through her body, jostling her equilibrium. Looking up, the air ripples as though it were water. The phantom figure moves down the corridor. Claudia props against the wall to keep her balance, blinking her eyes, trying to adjust and shake off the effects. She sees ghostly people appear. They walk right past her. She steps away from the wall and another woman walks straight through her. Is this a hallucination caused by Garelle or is this a time shift?

The clothes the people are wearing are of another era, more militaristic. The early colonists. The outer door opens and three soldiers enter, Domitian, Pompeii, and Clavius. They are young. She remembers old photos of her father, but to see them all in their prime, strong, virile soldiers who dared to reach without fear to the stars, is thrilling. Coming in behind them is Darius, a mere child. Domitian and the others take him away. Claudia sees the bug medallion around his neck.

Claudia finds herself in the lab. Sarelle’s soft, feminine voice speaks to her.

“Now, see what transpired before you judge. We are sorry for all the misfortune. This was what I wanted, but Garelle wouldn’t hear of it. He desires things the way they were before the disaster. I offered an alternative.”

Agrippa appears with Livia. They are at the Martian excavation site. Darius lied. Claudia sees them handling the bug medallion. They are now in the lab when something happens and they both faint. Sarelle materializes and drifts over them then fades away. Livia sits up with a start. She holds her stomach. A moment passes and Agrippa and Livia go about their daily lives.

Livia is pregnant. Her physician points to the fetus on the monitor and the rate of growth. The readout reads ninety days. That can’t be right. Showing like that she would have to be in her third trimester.

In a delivery room at the colonial medical center, Livia heaves, sweaty, crying, Agrippa by her side coaxing her. The doctor takes a healthy looking boy in his arms. Time passes and the youngster appears to be five years old. Livia is happier than ever. It is clear to Claudia this is the baby they could never have.

Suddenly, Claudia can hear what she is seeing. Livia is in her doctor’s office.

“This is irregular. I do not think we should pursue this any longer,” says the doctor.

“What do you mean?” Livia asks.

“This thing is dangerous!”

Livia puts her arms around her son.

“My son is not a thing, you monster!”

Livia turns towards the door and motions for Agrippa, who is standing just outside at the doctor’s request. He comes in and pushes the doctor away. The activates a signal using her watch. A few moments later, Domitian, Clavius, and Pompeii enter.

“What are you doing here?” Agrippa asks.

“Give us the boy. It’s for the good of all,” Pompeii says.

“Over my dead body,” says Agrippa, unsheathing his sword. Pompeii takes out his and the two men start hacking at one another.

“You’re being foolish!” Clavius shouts, drawing his own sword. Domitian grabs Darius by the arm. Unable to take both men at once, Agrippa is impaled on Pompeii’s blade. Horror smears Pompeii’s face.

“No, I never meant…”

Agrippa collapses, dying, but young Darius pulls away from Domitian and goes to help to his father. He puts his hand on the bloody wound and it heals. The doctor kneels to check him.

“He’ll need to be put into hibernation if he’s to survive,” the doctor says. She presses a button on her watch and calls for medics.

A few minutes later, the medics rush and quickly work to place Agrippa in a cryo-hibernation tube.

Claudia finds herself back in the old facility, the sickening dizziness departing her.

“That weak child’s flaws carried into manhood,” says a voice from behind her.

Claudia turns to see Darius standing at the door. He is young, cruel. His hair is black as onyx, cut in staggered bangs. He is dressed in full battle armor and holds a blade ready at his side. This is not the man she knows.

“What flaws?” Claudia says.

“Sympathy, remorse. My empire is not so benevolent as yours; we take what we want. You do not even exist in my world. I killed your father long before you were born. Why I am here is beyond me. You must die along with your brother. On my Earth, resources are dwindling. If we can master this machine, it will be a great benefit to my people.”

Claudia reaches for the plasma pistol, but Darius is quick and knocks the gun from her hand. He pushes her to the ground and holds his sword to her throat. “Farewell, your majesty.”

She closes her eyes, thinking of her children and how she will miss them. She’s not ready to die and conjures a vision of extreme hatred towards him.

“No!” she screams. Her voice booms and Darius flies as if thrown by an unseen hand. His armored body thuds against the thick, concrete walls. Claudia rises, full of anger, and strides over to him. Darius rubs his temple as he tries to stand. With her eyes locked on his, she fills with rage. He starts to convulse and bleeds from the mouth and ears. Other fluids ooze from his body. Finally, his skull explodes, slinging blood and brain matter. She comes out of her trancelike state, frightened by the realization of what she has done. As she weeps, clarity comes.

“Do you understand?”

Looking up, she sees the older, wiser, and kinder Darius standing beside her.

That conversation will have to wait. From outside, there is the roar of engines landing in the colony courtyard. Neither Claudia nor Darius fears Marcus now. They march out to meet him. The shuttles set down in front of the main building. Troops pour out and move into formation around Marcus’s shuttle. A ramp descends and the Praetorians exit ahead of their master. Claudia and Darius walk out to face him. Marcus turns to Septimus.

“Are they mad? Don’t they know I could destroy them? They didn’t even try to hide.”

“They believe that by surrendering you cannot have the men execute them. It would be bad form, sire.”

“I suppose she is my sister. The children will not be far away. She knows I won’t harm her. By surrendering my hands are tied. How would I look if I killed my own flesh and blood?” asks Marcus.

“Like a creature of Tartarus, sir.”

“She must be brought back into my power. Darius, I’ll deal with later. It’s Trajan I want.”

Marcus hovers out of the shuttle, followed by Lucilla. She has changed her attire to something more practical than a dress, wearing a pressure suit without the hood. As Marcus emerges from the doorway, Claudia gasps at his appearance.

“Marcus... Is that you?” she asks. He flies right up to, leaning in close to her face, the large black eyes staring into hers.

“Yes, Sister, it is I. There is no time will to discuss the act of treason you have committed by being in collusion with a known terrorist. Darius, you are to be placed under arrest and brought back to Earth to stand trial. Now, to attend to the affair at hand, I want to know where Trajan is.”

It begins to rain and Marcus leads the Praetorian guards, the troops, and Lucilla inside the detention center. Claudia meets Lucilla’s eyes as she passes by. Marcus is distracted, barking orders, and Claudia grabs Lucilla’s arm.

“Things are not as they seem,” Claudia says. “It’s not just a matter of Marcus manipulating the masses. This is all part of a bigger design. I can’t explain now, but you have to follow my lead. The planet is full of illusions. Be aware of your surroundings. Trust nothing. Understand?”

Lucilla does not, but nods anyway. A set of troops put their rifles to Claudia’s and Darius’s backs and lead them inside behind the rest of the regiment.

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