The Imperial line stretches back over two thousand years to Augustus, the first Emperor. Today’s monarchs possess little power but the position is still revered by the people. Emperors cannot establish policy or act upon it, but they are the voice of the government to the people. Only in a time of crisis, such as the sudden death of a Proconsul, do they assume emergency powers, and then only for a short period until a general election is held to fill the vacuum. The monarchs occupy a place of esteem. The citizens are as interested in their daily activities as they are in their own. The cameras are always nearby, recording every action, the vultures waiting for the slightest transgression of royal norms. Royals live in a bubble of attention, saturated by the media’s glaring lights.
Caesar Domitian is a puppet figurehead that has to make sure he and his family, both immediate and extended, stay out of trouble. The last thing the throne needs is a scandal. Theirs is an inherited their title and they can be ostracized and relieved of their luxuries and exalted lifestyles. It is a constant struggle within the royal household to maintain decorum without so much as a hint of wrongdoing. Domitian has executed his duties with distinction in his long reign. His daughter, Claudia, is married to an up-and-coming Senator and war hero, he has five grandchildren and a loving mate, Octavia, that adores him. The only thorn in his side is his son, Marcus, who acts with no discretion. He is self-indulgent and concerned more with having fun than fulfilling his obligations of public speaking, engagements, and rallying to build morale in the people. Marcus is charged with building up the youth of the empire, enriching them with the pride and spirit that only a fellow young person is able to conjure, but he is making a poor showing of it. Staying up all night, partying and having drunken orgies does not set a moral example. Marcus has to be watched and restrained at wasteful costs in manpower that could be used in more worthy endeavors than babysitting. Domitian fears that if Marcus does not improve, the Senate will appoint another heir apparent, possibly causing a terrible rift in an empire so reliant on traditions. When he died, Domitian’s line would cease and a different dynasty would take over the throne. His wife, daughter, grandchildren, and son would be given a stipend for the rest of their days, but nowhere near enough to continue the lifestyles were accustomed to. This worried Domitian to no end for years. He had parlayed Senators to amend the constitution to allow a female to succeed him, but that had fallen on deaf ears. It was as if they were tired of the entitlement of Domitian’s line and wished to be rid of them.
Domitian enters the grand dining hall, ready for the day. Octavia is already at the table drinking her tea, looking radiant for a woman of sixty years. His daughter is back from a trip to the moon overseeing a goodwill mission to the miners and their families after a disastrous explosion of radioactive material stored in a deep crater mine. The explosion would have been a greater catastrophe had it not been on the far side of the moon’s rotation. The radioactive material had been shuttled to the moon by unscrupulous businessmen in the early 1950s. The theory is that there was no regulation for illegal dumping because no one was living there. That was fine for nearly a century, then the miners opened a deposit of titanium and set off a charge that caused a nuclear chain reaction. Two hundred lost their lives through negligence. Claudia had been the right person for the job. The people loved her because she was a mother and empathized with their plight. Her husband was away on patrol. The grandkids were present as usual, but not Marcus. “Perhaps it is just as well,” Domitian thought. “I would lose my appetite and my temper if he were.”
Then a crash comes from the nearby kitchen. “By the Gods! You clumsy idiots!” Marcus shrieks at the top of his lungs in a high, shrill voice. Marcus stumbles from around the corner of the dining hall dressed in his finest suit. The suit is rumpled. Marcus has been up all night partying and doing who-knows-what. His eyes are glazed and he has a reddish pallor from imbibing too much alcohol and drugs. He makes his way to the table, finding a seat and plopping down. Grabbing a wine goblet, he pours until it brims over, guzzling it down and following with a loud exhale and belch.
“Good morning, family,” he says, slurring his words and rocking and reeling back and forth in his seat.
Claudia is the first to admonish him. “Really Brother, have you no pride?”
His mother lets in on him. “You have no respect for this household!”
Marcus gives them both a sarcastic drunken grin then turns to his father. “Have you nothing to say to me this morning?” he says in an irritating tone
Domitian neither glares nor raise his voice. He remains civil and to the point hoping, his words will sink in.
“Son, you are my flesh, and I love you. I would die a thousand times to keep you safe, but there will come a time when I am not here and you will have to carry on. If you continue in this behavior...You are not immune to our laws. The Senate has spoken, and if your name appears in the tabloids again they have it in their power to appoint a new regent, relieving you of the title of Caesar. Your mother and the grandchildren would no longer enjoy this house or this lifestyle. Do you understand? This has to stop.”
Marcus is sullen as he looks down into his wine. For a moment, Domitian thinks he has reached him. Maybe this time, Marcus took it to heart. Domitian’s ease is short-lived. Marcus laughs, throws the goblet cup to floor violently and stands, applauding his father’s lecture.
“Damn it all, that was the finest speech yet, Father! You almost had me feeling ashamed.”
An angry Domitian glares at him with total contempt.
“You are a blight on this household! How I wish you were more like that friend of yours, Trajan. He is the son I should have had.”
Their raised voices alert the security drones, who are programmed to remain out of sight. The argument triggers them into action. They buzz up to each of their protection targets, beeping wildly. Domitian and Marcus are covered, but the other drones wait for a signal from their lead to circle the rest of the family. They are designated by numbers in relation to the hierarchy of command. Caesar Domitian’s is Number One, Marcus’s Number Two, Claudia’s Three and so on.
The primary drone unit is larger and fiercer, a killing machine designed to keep all harm from the Caesar. It is never more than a few seconds flight from his side. It responds to the alert with its mechanical voice.
“Is everything alright, sire?”
“Yes, Number One. Merely another family discussion,” Domitian replies.
“Are you injured, sir?” Number Two asks Marcus.
“Irreparably,” Marcus sneers. “But it is fine, Number Two.”
“I was worried that individual followed you home,” Number Two continues.
“Shut up!” Marcus orders the drone.
“That’s enough. Be gone,” Domitian commands. The unemotional drones do as they’re told, returning to their alcoves.
Standing straight, watching Domitian, Marcus knows full well it is his father’s right to adopt an heir if his own offspring are deemed unworthy. For the first time, the weight of the realization that he can be replaced rests upon him. In the past, Emperors would kill off any threat to their throne, but that tradition died centuries earlier. Today, the excoriation is done in the limelight, the former heir subjected to the court of the public, made a mockery and disgraced. The pariah’s security drones would be taken away and would he get the allowance guaranteed him as Regent. Marcus’s father does not make idle threats. He may have backing from someone in the Senate or even the Proconsul himself, but Domitian would not act on this unless it has been discussed and signed off by the rest of the government. Marcus must rely upon his instincts for survival. He sits down, the wheels turning in his head. He must stop himself for now so he can play the game another day. Fidgeting in his chair he nods to his father that he understands. Behind his darkened eyes, there is a plan forming.
Domitian calms down and the redness leaves his face, and the royal family returns to docility. The servants bring in the breakfast. Caesar Domitian drinks his coffee and nobody says another word through the entire meal.
As the servants clean the plates and remnants of food from the table, Marcus wanders through a labyrinth of halls to his chambers in the imperial palace, a building so vast it is almost a city unto itself. One could get lost in its confines and never see anybody for days. The ornate door to his chambers swings opens as he enters. Number Two is right behind him. Exhausted from partying and his row with his father, Marcus plops down in the nearest chair and calls out to the large, silvery monitor on the wall opposite him.
“Play music,” he moans.
“What is your selection, sire?” the monitor asks.
Marcus cracks his knuckles and neck violently.
“Something soothing. Not too loud,” he says
From the walls, a super surround sound stereo plays a nocturne from Chopin. He rubs his hands across his face and ruffles his hair, trying to wipe away the cobwebs, but twenty-seven hours with no rest is showing. Even Marcus cannot go on forever. It is 10 a.m., late for him to get to bed. Marcus walks across the large, ornately fashioned room and enters the innermost chamber where his massive bed sits in darkness. He sweeps aside the velvety, dark purple, gold-trimmed drapes that hang from the bedposts. He sleeps most of the day while the world goes about their business.
Whether it is the music, the drugs, or simple sleep deprivation, a tangible melancholy permeates the air as he awakens. Marcus’s eyes drift around the royal room, his gaze calloused to the elaborate furniture and decorum worth millions. The mantel above the fireplace is covered with pictures of family and friends. Marcus slides off the silken bedsheets, his languid frame stumbling over to the photographs. He examines each one with a weak, tender smile until he spots his father’s photo. A scowl darkens his face. Continuing past Domitian, he settles on a picture of Trajan with Lucilla and himself, a glad trio at a party in more joyful times. Marcus takes it and smashes the frame on the corner of the mantel and rips the photo from the shards and bits of glass, cutting his fingers. He does not suck the blood away, but lets it drip onto the clean, plush carpet beneath his feat. “What is it about you that everyone loves?” he whispers. “What do I lack? Courage? Stay here with this family and I’ll show you real strength!” he screams at the image of Trajan.
Tears glisten down his cheek as his bloodied finger touches the image of Lucilla. Tenderness fill his straining voice. “Why do you love him so much? I can offer you things he couldn’t even dream of.” Shaking violently, Marcus rips the photograph and tosses the image of Trajan to the floor where the blood has begun to stain the carpet. He turns away, facing the darkness of his bedroom, staring at the image of himself and the girl with their arms around one another. Holding the photo close to his heart, he ceases to cry and a cold determination shines in his eyes.
Marcus goes to his nightstand and pulls a tiny vial from the drawer that is filled with a bright blue liquid. It glows, the particles in suspension, shimmering. It seems alive, fluctuating, as if it were breathing. He places it close to Lucilla’s image and it emits an eerie glow.
“You will be mine, and the rest of the empire, too!” Marcus says. He orders a fire lit in the fireplace and flames rise from the imitation logs. Returning to the mantel, he takes his father’s picture and tosses it into the blaze and sets the image of himself and Lucilla in its place.
Number Two hovers up to him. “Is everything alright, sire?”
Marcus turns to the small device.
“No. You have been malfunctioning all evening. Run a diagnostic!” he screams. A whirring, clicking noise comes from the machine as it obeys.
“All systems are functioning within their specified parameters, sire.”
Marcus shakes his head. “You have disobeyed my direct orders, Number Two. Shut down while I send for a technician!” Number Two ceases operation and hovers in midair.
Without missing a beat Marcus gets to work on the drone. Opening the back panel, he takes out several tiny chips and replaces them with ones hidden in his pockets. Marcus may act childish, but he knows his way around these machines. Using their capabilities to his own advantage is how he has gotten away with so much. At an early age, he tinkered with them so he could escape their watchful scrutiny. At 13, Marcus learned to program Number Two’s holographic memory to project an image of him sleeping in his room while he was in fact outside the palace looking for trouble, a trick that his family had yet discovered. His tampering had gone on for years undetected. Finished with his tinkering, Marcus closes the portal and flips on a servo. Number Two returns to life, somehow more menacing. The red optic eye is brighter and its speech is much lower, almost a growl.
“What is your command, sire?”
Marcus’s teeth glisten in the hellish red glow as he smiles a wicked smile, admiring his work. “Enact program thirty-four. Operational tomorrow at ten p.m.”
“Affirmative. Thirty-four. Ten p.m.,” replies Number Two before speeding out of the room. Marcus crashes onto his bed again and falls fast asleep.
Number Two traverses the hallway leading up to the Emperor’s Chamber. Outside, Number One is standing guard. It slows, allowing the other unit a chance to recognize it as non-threat. Number Two proceeds up to the doorway. The machines face each other and with a series of bleeps and tones they communicate through a wireless transmission. Finishing up relaying a message that only the two drones can understand, Number Two heads back down the long corridor.