Forever Rome

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Chapter 3

The domed Senate chamber rises above the capital several hundred feet, the largest of its kind in the world. Inside the rotunda, senators from all over the globe gather for a State of the Empire address. Domitian waits in the antechamber next to the great throne and monitor. He is approached by Senator Clavius, one of his advisers, who looks concerned. Domitian knows this look all too well: he won’t get any sleep for days or even weeks.

“Good morning, sire.”

“Any time you greet me so I expect trouble. What is the problem ?” Domitian says.

Clavius pulls him aside. The sudden action sends Number One into a fit with a silent alarm. Praetorian guards rush in to protect the Emperor. Domitian calms them down.

“Hovering nuisance,” Domitian mutters.

“It may save your life someday,” Clavius says.

“They cannot be trusted.”

“Who can?” The two share an uneasy laugh. They walk together making small talk until they are comfortably out of earshot of the rest of the senators in a lonely corner of the Senate chamber halls. Clavius glances around and turns to his Caesar with disturbing news.

“We have intercepted several transmissions from off world, Domitian. They seem to have come from Mars. Moon Monitor One recorded two transmissions directed into the city.”

Domitian sighs deeply. “What is it you’re not telling me?”

“They were beamed to the royal compound,” Clavius says.

Domitian is aghast. “How could that be?”

“That I cannot answer,” says Clavius.

Domitian is rattled, but pulls himself together as the call to the audience is announced and the Imperial Trumpet sounds for everyone to take their places. The security drones and Praetorian guards arrive to escort Domitian to the throne and podium.

Clavius stays behind. Senator Pompeii approaches him. Pompeii is descended from one of the last Proconsuls of the ancient republic. He has protected and served the Emperor for many years. Clavius greets him with the warm glance of years of trust. They clasp hands then embrace each other.

“What news have you?” asks Clavius, somber and deliberate. “I wish to the Gods that our suspicions were not warranted.” These two men share a terrible secret between themselves.

“I fear the discovery we made so long ago has returned to haunt us,” Pompeii says quickly.

The blood drains from Clavius’s face. He and Pompeii were new recruits, out on their first survey for the colonization of Mars. His memories carry him back almost fifty years.

In the red sands of the Martian desert, the silhouettes of two lone figures walk along a deep crevasse. Their heavy, armored exploration suits are black with a gold eagle on the front breastplate. Matching helmets with gold reflection visors cover their heads. Their oxygen tanks are small, not intended for extended journeys outside the colonial bio domes visible in the hazy distance. Clavius is much younger, sharing many features with his son, Trajan. Pompeii too is young and virile and has a chiseled jaw. Both men sweat as they approach a large cave at the terminus of the crevasse. They flip a switch on their armored suits nearly in unison, allowing them to see one another’s faces. The opening is enormous. The maw of the cave is large enough to hold the ancient Roman Colosseum three times over.

“We should have just set up the colony in here,” says Pompeii.

“That would be too easy. Besides the industrialists, would complain that this is a joint civilian and military venture. Common sense goes out the window when money is involved.”

Clavius is a straightforward man and takes things for what they are. Pompeii shakes his head and takes out one of the many devices on his belt and scans the area. It beeps loudly as it makes a reading. Clavius leads the way further into the cave, ignoring the sensor’s reaction. Pompeii pats him on the shoulder and shows him the tiny digital display. Anxiety grows in both their chests.

“There’s an enormous amount of residual radiation, but of a variety I’ve never seen before,” says Clavius.

“It’s been around a while. The half-life is almost 300 million years. Whatever caused it happened a long time ago. There’s definitely something unusual in there,” says Pompeii pointing into the darkening passage.

Intrigued, they proceed further down. It turns pitch black only a few meters in and their automatic visor lights and the illumination lamps on their suits switch on. The sensor continues to beep in Pompeii’s hand as they close in on the source of the radiation. Undeterred, they continue until the grand opening has turned into a tunnel just big enough for the two men to walk upright. The rocky ground is becoming smoother. There is still a thin layer of red Martian sand, but there is a hard surface underneath. Pompeii bends down to brush some of the sand away.

“Odd. It looks to be concrete,” he says to Clavius. Pompeii scans the surface but the readout is inconclusive.

“It doesn’t appear to be of natural origins. It can’t be,” Clavius says.

Intrigued, they move on, Pompeii keeping the scanner pointed ahead of them. On the screen, a deep blue image swirls, forming a reading of an organic compound. This stuns the both of them.

“Alive?” says Clavius.

“I don’t think so. Inert, a bacterium or a…” He pauses, adjusting the settings. “No, it’s primarily synthetic. It looks to be a narcotic.”

Clavius glances at Pompeii like he has lost his mind. They walk deeper down the long tunnel and it widens into a larger chamber. The walls are completely smooth. Pompeii runs his hand down them as he takes more readings.

“The residual radiation is older by another hundred million years!” he says.

“You’re telling me this room is over half a billion years old?” Clavius says.

The room appears to have been fashioned by intelligent beings. Neither of them has the guts to speak what they are thinking. Moving along they come to a sliding doorway that is built into the natural rock. The sensor is beeping more rapidly. Whatever it has honed in on is behind the door.

“What do you think this is?” Pompeii says.

No sooner than the words are out of his mouth, the entrance swings up. Both men’s jaws drop in wonder and fear. With trepidation, they proceed inside.

The memory fades. Clavius and Pompeii stand, grayed and wisened by the years, in the halls of the the Senate chamber.

“We sealed that room tight and covered all our tracks,” says Clavius.

“I erased all sensor logs. The thermite charges destroyed any trace of the cave.”

Clavius is frantic. “I don’t know how, but we’ve got to find out what has happened. If that substance is loosed, all life will be finished. Look what happened to Mars!”

Pompeii nods his head in agreement “I have my suspicions and have a plan to monitor the situation.”

“What do you have in mind?” asks Clavius

“I cannot tell you right now, but trust me.”

If there is anyone that Clavius can rely on, it is Pompeii. Mars holds awful memories for them. Their terrible secret has remained hidden for fifty years, yet their fear is fresh as the day it first came upon them. Their faces calm, they head back into the Senate chamber, the decades-old anxiety clawing their chests.

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