The ambulance speeds into the emergency entrance on the fifth floor of Imperial Medical Center, a towering building with over twenty bays on ten different levels. Only the finest physicians are posted to this prestigious facility.
Hovering into the oval opening of one of the bays, the ambulance pod comes to rest on the landing pad. The pod door opens upwards and Trajan is the first out, followed by Sid. Gaius is maneuvered on the floating gurney attended by the medical drones and two human technicians. Senator Pompeii and Gaius’s mother, Antonia, are waiting, alerted by the Empire’s security forces of their son’s peril. An armed contingent of Praetorian secret personnel stand by as well. Dressed in their black, double breasted suits and dark sunglasses, the secret personnel are unusually conspicuous.
Both Pompeii and Antonia are wan, their worry for Gaius creasing their faces. Gaius lies dying, inches from oblivion. His parents attempt to rush to their son’s side, but doctors and emergency staff converge around the gurney, blocking him from their reach. Gaius releases Trajan’s hand as the nurses push him down a long, brightly lit hallway. Trajan turns to Pompeii and Antonia.
“What happened?” asks Pompeii, his voice shaking. Tears stream down Antonia’s cheeks, waiting for Trajan’s answer. Trajan fumbles, unable to find a satisfying answer. How can there be? He tries to relate the events and Gaius’s actions leading up to their battle.
“He was all pumped up for the tryouts, we all were,” Trajan says.
“He was very excited when he left this morning,” says Pompeii, choking back the tears.
“As we geared up...Did he have any eye trouble?”
Pompeii looks at Antonia for an answer. She ponders for a moment before remembering.
“Yes, he said he had difficulty focusing, and he’d gone to the doctor for something to take. Why?”
“Right after we got our gear on, he put a few eyedrops in and said they were to help him focus. Almost immediately I noticed a change in him. He was more confident than I’ve ever seen him...it was never his strong point,” says Trajan.
Pompeii nods his head. “Go on, Trajan.”
“Right before coach blew the whistle for practice to begin, Gaius’s demeanor completely changed. He looked possessed, demonic, like he was on a quest to kill me or anyone he could. Bloodlust glowed in his eyes, and seconds later he screamed and ripped off his helmet and shouted ‘Get out of my head!’”
Trajan is about to continue, but one of the doctors interrupts him. The doctor carries a thin, silver-edged computer pad. It projects a hologram of Gaius’s body above its surface.
“Senator, your son has had a massive embolism caused by a blood clot. If he regains consciousness, I’m afraid that not much of his memory will be left,” the doctor says.
“But is he going to be okay otherwise?” asks Antonia.
“Time will tell. There is a lot of damage. Even with the most advanced medical technology, some things are just unfixable. I’m sorry.” The doctor excuses himself to get back to work, when Pompeii calls out after him.
“Any drugs in his system?”
The doctor examines the chart on the computer pad studying it. “None that I saw on the toxicology report. Had he been taking anything?”
“Only eye drops,” Antonia says.
“Well, those are simple saline solutions, they wouldn’t cause this. This could be a congenital condition that was missed. Tiny clots are almost undetectable. Gaius’s participating in sports... it was like a time bomb waiting to go off,” says the Doctor
The answer satisfies Antonia, but not Pompeii, who is silent, stoic in thought. He breathes slowly, resigned to the problem, transformed from his usual bombastic, in-charge self.
Trajan has known Gaius all their lives. As a child, he often played at Pompeii’s and Antonia’s house. There were many sleepovers and cookouts all the while Clavius and Pompeii discussed politics and drank wine, close as brothers, closer than even Trajan and Gaius. Trajan looks at Pompeii as an of uncle, and has asked him things he wouldn’t dare ask Clavius. The man before him now, however, is a stranger.
“Sir, I’m sorry. I wish I knew more. Is there anything that I can help with? Something else seems to be bothering you,” Trajan says.
Pompeii jerks back to reality and glares at him. “You’ve quite done enough! You and your high, honorable ways. Gaius followed you into tryouts. He never had such ambitions on his own. ‘Oh, Trajan is going, I think I will too.’ If you had been any friend at all, you would have steered him away. You knew he was not up to it!”
Trajan bends backward as Pompeii gets in his face. Antonia tries to pull Pompeii back. She looks at Trajan and mouths the words, “Don’t worry.” She consoles her bitter husband. Behind them, a hospital administrator brings one of the silver-edged computer pads over.
“Senator, we will need you and your wife to look over these forms and sign them.”
Antonia takes the computer pad. “Thank you,” she says.
“I’m sorry for what’s happened. Please let us know if there is anything you need,” the administrator says, smiling before she turns to walk away.
Pompeii’s phone rings, and he answers quickly. “Yes. Oh, well, no, then. I’m not sure. They suspect it’s something he’s had since birth. No, I don’t think it was what we talked about this morning. Do you believe that’s best? Okay, I will tell them.”
By his tone, Trajan somehow knows he’s talking to Clavius.
Pompeii hangs up and barks orders at some nearby hospital staff. His old self is surging back to life.
“I want my Praetorian guards posted outside and inside my son’s room, not those metallic drone monstrosities.”
“Right away, sir,” the staff say, some rushing down the hall towards the ward where Gaius will be roomed, another grabbing a phone to call and let the administrative staff about the Senator’s demand.
At that moment, in walks Marcus, accompanied by his small contingent of security. Number Two hovers at his side. Everyone on the floor stops what they are doing and bows. The Praetorians give the imperial salute as Marcus approaches Trajan, Pompeii, and Antonia. Marcus offers his hand to Gaius’s wearied parents. Marcus is completely distraught. Gaius is his good friend, too. He regards Pompeii as an uncle in the same way that Trajan does. Tears stream from his eyes.
“I came as soon as I heard, how is he?”
“Stable, sire. You honor us with your presence,” says Pompeii.
Marcus motions everyone to get back to business. The chaos of the emergency bay returns. He guides the family to a waiting area where it is quieter; they step inside with the Marcus’s guards remaining posted outside. Number Two tries to follow. “Stay out. There is no need for you here,” Marcus commands the drone.
Marcus closes the door as they all sit down. Through a wall-sized glass partition, they see Gaius taken by on a floating gurney, gliding by then disappearing into an elevator with a host of doctors and nurses trailing.
Marcus trembles, his friend’s condition swelling the anxiety in his chest. Trajan has seen this side of Marcus before. He has always been emotional and high strung, used to getting his way and having a certain order to his life. When anything gets out of Marcus’s control, it sends him into a spiral. Pompeii has never trusted Marcus. He did not let his mistrust show, but Trajan sensed Pompeii’s ill will. Trajan doesn’t think Marcus picks up on it, as he can be dense when it comes to other people’s feelings. Heir to the throne. Marcus was doted upon by those hoping to be rewarded from the royal riches or with a lucrative posting. Most of his associates are good time acquaintances that would abandon him at the first sign of trouble. Maybe that is why he’s so distraught. Gaius, I and Lucilla are the only ones who are not hangers-on. They stood by him when others left, usually following one of his tantrums. Gaius and Trajan once found Marcus sick in an opium den and whisked him away before the paparazzi could get inside.
Old Pompeii looks at Trajan with wavering eyes as he speaks.
“Tell me again what happened, Trajan.”
Trajan swallows hard.
“He had a seizure of some sort and went berserk, then pulled a sword hidden in the sand and came at me with it,” says Trajan.
A measure of shock passes through the room. During the harried emergency, Trajan failed to mention the sword.
“How could that be?” asks Pompeii.
“A steel blade?” asks Marcus.
Antonia wept silently, staring into the blank, sterile floor.
“Perhaps you was mistaken?” Marcus says. “In the turmoil of battle, you were convinced a practice sword was real.”
Trajan gives Marcus a sideways glance. Like I don’t know the difference between titanium and wood.
“Surely it was left over from a previous match. It was merely covered up by the synth-sand over the course of the season,” Marcus continued.
“That isn’t possible. The sensors that sweep the arena for weapons would have found it. The surface was replaced the day before to prepare for tryouts and preseason contests. Someone placed it there for him to find, or...”
Or somehow Gaius himself smuggled the blade into the arena. But for what purpose? We’re practically brothers. There has been nothing but love and true friendship between them. Pompeii and Antonia see what Trajan is considering and quickly dismiss the idea, although worry again creases Pompeii’s face. The concrete air is broken as the doctor from earlier comes in to make a new report.
“What do you have?” asks Marcus.
The doctor has a more cautious air about him in Marcus’s presence as he brings up his medical computer pad and relates the findings.
“The Senator’s son is stable and resting. As I reported earlier, Senator, I don’t think he will have any memory recall from the past thirty days, but he’s strong and I believe that eventually, he’ll make a near-complete recovery.”
Antonia breathes a sigh of relief. “A premature death has been averted,” the doctor says, “but I have never seen such a massive cerebral event in a person as young as Gaius. There might be unforeseen complications, so he is not yet out of the woods.” There is a look in the doctor’s eye that catches Pompeii’s attention.
“What more do you have to tell us, doctor?” says Pompeii.
The doctor clears his throat, nervously searching for what to say.
“Go on,” Marcus says, a dark fire in his eyes.
“We found something...unusual during the DNA scan.”
The scans had been around for twenty years. They find out more about a patient’s prognosis than mere blood work. Small traces of materials such as drugs can be absorbed into bodily fluids but minute changes in behavior and mannerisms, cannot not hide from a such a procedure. It is the source of all life, the code that makes people who they are. If it is changed, then...
“There was a slight increase in the Y strand of Gaius’s DNA. It’s such a insignificant fluctuation that I don’t see how it could possibly affect him in such a radical way. I stand by our original conclusion that it is in all likelihood a congenital condition.” Trajan watched the doctor closely. Why did he bring up the Y strand if it was of no consequence? There has to be more to what he’s saying. Searching for more clues, I bet.
Pompeii excuses himself and leaves the room. Marcus becomes irritated at the doctor and screams at him.
“Idiot! First you say one thing, then another! I will bring in my own physicians. They’ll sort this out.”
The doctor stammers. “Sire, whatever you wish. I am trying to be thorough in my observations. We are doing the best we can.”
Trajan takes Marcus by the arm to calm him down, but he jerks away.
“Don’t take liberties with me!”
Hospitals have always made Marcus nervous, but this is strange even for him. “Gaius is in good hands, Marcus. There’s no need to worry,” Trajan says. Red-faced, Marcus glares at Trajan before storming out of the room. Pompeii is on the phone outside in the hallway, and watches as Marcus sweeps by with his guards and Number Two. Though he is still under the gloom, Pompeii appears relieved to see Marcus leaving.
As Trajan walks out of the waiting area, Pompeii glances at him. For a moment, Trajan feels that Pompeii is looking at him with suspicion. Pompeii returns to his conversation. It is heated and he makes rapid, violent gestures with his arms. That can’t be his security forces he’s talking to.
Trajan watches down the long hallway as Marcus and his guards march out of the emergency room. Number Two hovers just out of sight near Pompeii, listening. Trajan calls out to the machine.
“What are you waiting for? Your master has left.”
Number Two turns, the ominous red eye transfixed upon him. For a moment, Trajan remembers the rage in Gaius’s eyes. Sid zips right up to Number Two.
“You have been given a command. Obey.”
Alerted to the machine, Pompeii hangs up, nervous, almost scared. Trajan has never before seen fear in the battle-hardened Senator.