Forever Rome

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Chapter 8

Trajan and Lucilla ride along in her new, bright yellow hover car. She maneuvers the vehicle in and out of the traffic like the modern chariot racers in their high-speed vehicles. As the car hover car zips in and out, Trajan keeps his eyes closed and braces himself. Lucilla smiles. He has never approved of her driving. She rides the bumper of a large utility truck, then gets pissed off that it is going slow. She blares her horn. Hemmed in on either side she thrusts under it causing him to grasp his stomach.

“By the Gods, watch out! I avoided getting killed once and I don’t want to wind up as a piece of the pavement!” he says.

She does it again and again he looks like he is about to lose it, so she backs off.

“You need to relax,” she says.

Trajan is pale and his eyes are dark. She apologizes and he eases into his seat, trying to let go of everything that has happened. An endless loop of Gaius’s going berserk and his father’s revelations plays in his head. He wondered about the mission to Mars. His father would not talk about it before now. He deployed to the planet only once as part of the general survey team for colonization. It was as if one man had gone and another returned. The once gregarious, outspoken individual turned sullen, introverted. Trajan was not born when the survey took place and only heard the tale from his deceased uncle.

“I could tell something was off about Clavius. Your mother would retreat into her room crying when he’d get home. Government work was stressful, and he had been in charge of appropriations for the vast imperial army. No matter how much the Senate voted for bigger and better armaments it never was enough for Clavius. When they vetoed his new drone system for being unnecessary and far too costly too, he was belligerent for a week. Your mother asked him why it was needed and he blew up. ‘If you only knew, you would hide yourself in the depths of the mountains forever. There are things out there that can chill the soul,’ he said, pointing to the sky. He disappeared for several days before returning and begging forgiveness. She vowed not to bring it up again.”

When Trajan was young he could remember his father rising in the middle of the night to go to the family altar. He would make a small sacrifice to the gods and pray to his ancestors for guidance. Trajan once snuck out to watch. Hiding in the laurel bushes, Trajan saw Clavius undress, spread his arms wide and gaze with his mouth open at the stars. He remembered the smell of honey and hearing a low hum. He had thought there was a beehive nearby and did not pay much attention to it. Clavius broke down in tears and fell to his knees repeating. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he said over and over again.

It is all making sense now. When they returned the incident was covered up as a colonial uprising so nobody would ask questions about the missing or why Rome’s armies, who were invincible for thousands of years, had so easily been defeated by a small band of rebels? In the past when a rebellion could not be squashed, Rome waited for the correct moment to strike back, probing and prodding for weaknesses before exploiting them. Not this time. When the military left they did so for good. In a televised event Clavius had walked into the Senate accompanied by the soon-to-be Caesar Domitian, both of them still in their battle armor, looking like they had just come from the battlefield, bloodied and dirty. It had been a spectacular sight to see the two marching in together and stepping to the podium. Despite the trepidation in their eyes, both remained resolute and steady. They argued that this was a useless fight and needed to be abandoned because of the sheer cost involved in maintaining a campaign. Their case was sound, predicated on the rebel colonists dying off for lack of supplies. Domitian issued an off-limits order on Mars and a no-fly zone anywhere within a hundred million miles of the planet’s surface. The government agreed and the paperwork was immediately drawn up, making it official that Mars was a closed world.

After several years it was forgotten and went unmentioned by all but historians. Maybe it was the power of the young prince of the realm who had defied his father’s orders and joined the military that swayed the people to so unanimously approve. Domitian’s willingness to face certain death as a common soldier, to share their struggles and triumphs, demonstrated his understanding that to be a true Roman is to serve. His powerful oratory was only matched by his skill and courage under fire. This was a man who could inspire and lead, and the Senators knew that whatever he said, the people would follow without question. As the Fates would have it, Domitian’s father passed the day the survey mission returned. It was rumored that the months of his son’s deployment had troubled him and he had gone into a fit of depression over the idea that they would never meet again. Caesar had been in poor health for years and this put a heavy burden on his weakened condition. His heart had given up.

After Domitian finished his speech and Mars was secured, a senator took him aside to tell him the Emperor was dead. He took it well and remained stolid. “This is no time for the empire to be without a leader,” he said. The ten days of traditional ceremonial mourning would begin after his ascension, but Domitian was not one for fanfare, and the representatives were already assembled plus his second, Clavius, was at his side. “No is as proper an occasion as any to proceed with the coronation,” Domitian said. All the media networks were also present. It had been a grand and fitting spectacle, worthy of a tale from Homer or Euclid. Heir to the throne just returned from battle on Mars and now to be coronated Emperor. It would have been better if it had been a victory, but a secured peace was as good.

The Senate Pro Tem began by reciting the oath of allegiance and asking Domitian to repeat it. “I, Caesar Domitian, acknowledge my ancestors and swear loyalty to Rome forever. I will reign with dignity and honor and uphold the laws of the land. I understand that to be Emperor is to practice good judgment, seek wise counsel in difficult decisions, and provide a safe and secure future for all Rome’s citizens today and for those yet unborn. This is to be my charge and sacred duty. May the gods bless me. Long live the Empire.”

With that, the Senate and all present stepped back and saluted with an open hand in the air, “Hail Caesar!”

Seventy words handed down for four millennia, unchanged, a proud tradition that sent chills up Trajan’s spine. He had only seen it in recordings, but it was just as real to him as if he’d been there. Clavius looked relieved that their ordeal on Mars was over, and a prideful feeling filled the room as both men embraced, a symbol of hopes for the future. They walked outside to the steps of the Senate Chamber. Enthusiastic crowds had begun to fill the mall between the Chamber hill and the Washingtonian Monument. A day of dismal failure had become a tumultuous celebration of epic proportions. No one had even announced that they were back. The networks showed up out of lack of another newsworthy story. In the pandemonium, the retreat from Mars was forgotten; the people had a new Caesar to celebrate.

Word reached to the fleet of the event so they staged an impressive flyover. The empire carriers flew into the atmosphere, an unthinkable feat because of their sheer size and bulk. The massive, winged Eagle Class ships displaced a lot of gravitational force. Ten of them droned low over the city, capping out at twenty-five thousand feet and passing over the Senate Chamber. The crowds went wild as paratroopers dropped from the cargo holds in full battle gear with colored smoke trailers streaming red, gold and white from their backpacks. They formed a perfect formation of the imperial crest then broke apart and landed, ready for action at the foot of the giant monument, letting everyone know they were prepared to take on all enemies. Cheers swelled, hailing Caesar. Commentators from every news channel scrambled among the throngs of people, gathering reactions to the day’s events. The disappointing Mars failure was eclipsed by this sudden outpouring and overwhelming joy for the new, strong, young leader. It was a glorious day.

When he was a child, Trajan wanted his father to recount what had led to the decision to leave Mars and why they had left the issue unresolved. He wished to know what it was like in combat; had they been scared? What drove the colonists to such reckless action? A million questions, but he was forbidden to bring up the matter. Over time it had become a moot subject, forgotten over the years. Trajan reminisced on this moment. It had taken on a deeper, hidden meaning that had almost cost his and Gaius’s lives.

He had to get to the bottom of it. Making it his charge to seek a truth buried in other men’s memories for fifty years. It needed to be brought into the open, but tonight he would relax and enjoy the evening. Tomorrow he will confront his father and see if they might avert the looming disaster he felt coming.

Trajan sits back and puts those thoughts out of his head. Sid is relegated to the rear seat, his gears and mechanics humming while he goes through a self-diagnostic mode. Lucilla tries to put on some lipstick looking into the rearview mirror. “Keep your eyes on the glide path,” Trajan says. “I can drive with them closed thank you.” It was a futile argument, so Trajan attempts to enjoy the ride.

The Ray Club is jumping at two in the morning. Sitting three floors above the street surface, its terraced hoverport offers a sleek, inviting entrance to the establishment. The hoverport juts out a hundred yards from the front of the building and has a curved, translucent orange canopy to keep off the rain. Glowing with neon computer graphics, it displays advertisements for everything from the latest energy drinks to upcoming pay-per-view gladiator games. The advertisement for the games catches Trajan’s attention. His idol, Rufio, stands in the classic gladiator stance, holding a Gladius and sporting a Galea Helmet painted in his signature metallic black with a clear visor over his face. “Man versus machine! Which will win? Order your tickets now for the ‘Match of the Century.’” A clock countdown for the date ticks down to the time of the event. Only seven days, six hours and forty minutes to go. Trajan can feel Lucilla’s eyes burning a hole in the back of his head as he gazes at the images. She decelerates the hover car and glides into the valet lane. The gull wing doors of the vehicle arch open and a parking attendant runs up in a lighted suit to help Lucilla out. The rhythmic beats of the music thumping from inside cause the hoverport pad to vibrate. It is unnerving being so high in the air on a slab of reinforced Plexiglas. Trajan understands it is secure, but to see through to the street below turns his stomach. He had never been comfortable with heights.

Walking around to the other side the car he takes Lucilla’s arm to walk her through the crowds outside the club. There is a sudden fanfare as someone important approaches. Turning, Trajan sees a black stretch limo hovercraft. It bears the imperial crest. The girls go wild, buzzing with anticipation. In an instant, Trajan knows it is Marcus arriving. He always liked a grand entrance. One perk of being an heir to the throne: it got you into anyplace at anytime. He didn’t own the Ray Club, but you’d think he did the way everyone cleared a path for him to land. Valets shout to approaching craft to veer off. Praetorian Police Protection Units on Siren Hoverbikes escort the vehicle in. Stopping just ahead of the limo, the guards jump out to hold the public back and make sure it is safe for him to get out. With the all clear, a guard whispers into his ear microphone and the head of the Ray Club strolls out to greet Marcus. The heavyset man is giddy and beside himself, as if Marcus did not visit regularly. With the crowds pushed aside, an automatic “red carpet” of laser lights illuminates the pad, leading straight to the front door. Then, with all the fanfare of a movie, rock star, and gladiator spectacle, Marcus steps from the rear door of the car. The people go wild as Paparazzi click away on their digital cameras catching his every move. Number Two keeps a discreet distance. Marcus catches Trajan’s eye and smiles effervescently. Trajan and Lucilla are caught in the middle of the maddening crowd. Security pushes their way through, wedging out a path for Marcus. Once again, the three friends are together for a night on the town. Marcus looks to have a buzz but is still in control of his faculties. Slurring his words, he wraps his arms around them both and leads them into the bustling nightclub.

“How is Gaius?” he says in a sad and concerned tone.

“He was asleep when I left,” replies Trajan.

Though one of their comrades is ill and they are helpless, Marcus is undeterred from having fun. He raises his voice to a boisterous crescendo and shouts.

“Drinks for everybody!”

The patrons jump up and down; to get a drink from the Prince is an honor.

The club is loud and dark. Laser lights keep up with the beat of the music and the place exudes energy. Young people in the best part of their existence soak up every precious sensation their mortal bodies offer. For them, death is nothing more than a distant rumor.

Trajan ruminates on this as they take a seat in Marcus’s favorite corner booth. Scantily clad girls vie for Marcus’s attention, rubbing their hips against his shoulder as they pass. Lucilla turns from their rudeness, glaring at Trajan.

“It is disgusting the way they act. You would think you’re the only man in the world,” she says.

Nobody besides Trajan or Marcus’s immediate family would dare take that kind of tone with him, but that is the reason he enjoys their company: honesty. Maybe that is why he is so enamored with her. Hangers-on gasp at Lucilla’s boldness, but Marcus cares not a whit what they think. Lucilla is the only person he wants to be a part of his world. Trajan is who he is most jealous of. Marcus’s is scheming to have her for himself, but his mad affection is unrequited. Not only is she a classical beauty, but she possesses great discernment. Marcus feels that she senses his longing but is too much of a friend to hurt him. Being near her is intoxicating but frustrating, knowing he can never have her. He has tried to woo her away with money, jewels, power, promising that someday he would be Caesar and all the Empire would be her playground. She let him down easy, saying that sincere devotion doesn’t need all these things. She could be happy in a cardboard box if all she had was true love. Trajan gave her that; she felt complete with him, and together they made each other whole. Marcus had blown up. No one had ever turned him down. “That was the problem,” she said. “Everything was given to you. You’ve never earned anything for yourself.”

As they sit in the booth at the Ray Club, Marcus seethes, resentful towards Trajan, scheming. He understands one thing: ambition. Marcus has that old Roman trait in abundance. He waits for something or someone to offer him an opportunity into her heart. She will love him, even if she does not know it yet.

The waitress, a ditzy woman in a skimpy, tight fitting uniform, stops at their table with a large, under lit tray of drinks. She bends in front of Marcus, exposing her cleavage. If the neckline was any lower her breasts would have popped out in his face.

“See anything you like?” she asks.

Lucilla rolls her eyes. Trajan takes a drink from the tray, laughing.

“I bet he does,” he says.

With a cat like grin, Marcus motions her to come closer so he can whisper in her ear. Doing so, she smiles. Marcus pulls out a small vial. It is a perfume bottle, a minute, oval-shaped bottle with hexagonal-patterned glass. It has a round, ivory stopper. The label reads “Blue.” The girl bounces up and down with glee at a gift from the Prince. “Thank you, your highness!” she squeals before giving him an amorous kiss. If her tongue reached down any further into his throat he would choke. “Get a room if you’re going to do that,” says Lucilla. The waitress smiles at Marcus before scampering away with the bottle.

“What was that bottle?” Trajan asked.

“You both always say I need to do something on my own. Well, this is it. Women love me, so why not reciprocate? I have ventured into the world of cosmetics. I appreciate seeing all the women of Rome looking and smelling their best. So I thought to myself, why not make it happen? This is only the first step of my New Empire. I will win their hearts and minds through fragrance. Everyone wants to smell nice,” Marcus says, producing another of the oval bottles. “This is a perfume line I call ‘Blue.’”

“So simple. Why not ‘All Night With Marcus’?” says Trajan. The alcohol hits his tired body fast.

Marcus is put off and doesn’t like being made a mockery of. “Trajan, the perfect son who can do no wrong. The ideal Roman citizen, loyal to the core. Trajan has all the virtues father admires, and I none of them. The older I gets, the more I revile Trajan. Not only does he possess the woman I love and should have, but he commands the affection of my family. How dare he ridicule me?” Marcus thinks. He controls his anger, playing the waiting game. “This is not the time, but soon he will understand respect.” For now, Marcus keeps his tongue and explains his new venture.

“No, my dear friend,” Marcus says, “it is named ‘Blue’ because it reflects my devotion to a woman we both love. I made it the color of Lucilla’s eyes. A reminder of what I cannot have.”

Trajan bolts up, offended. Lucilla senses the tension and clasps Trajan’s hand. Trajan sits and returns to sipping his drink.

“Marcus, that’s nice of you. I hope this works out for you. It’s good to see you trying,” she says.

Leaning over to kiss her droopy-eyed boyfriend, Lucilla whispers in Trajan’s ear, “Relax. You know how he is.” As a reward to Marcus, she invites him to dance with her, proud of his making an effort. She admonishes Trajan to be quiet and not say a word. He realizes she is just being kind, and he needs to unwind. He could not get up now even if he wanted too. The drinks are all he wants. Marcus orders another round for Trajan before he and Lucilla ascend to the dance floor. He stops another waitress. “Try this. It will give you a scent all your own,” says Marcus. She spritzes it behind each ear the aroma that emanates from her is similar to honey. It wafts over to Trajan and reminds him of long ago, when his father was in the garden. The power of the smell brings back many memories. It was intoxicating. The girl’s demeanor changes from just another blonde bimbo to an almost regal manner. Her voice is more controlled, articulate and respectful. It was as if another person stepped into her body. Her eyes showed that there was more behind them than the empty space that was there before. Lucilla notices the change.

“That’s weird,” she says.

Marcus is quick not missing a beat.

“Not at all. My researchers discovered that this formula reacts off of each individual’s pheromones, giving them their own scent. the sensation can be overwhelming. It gives you more of what you’ve already got.”

“Sounds like a drug,” says Lucilla.

“It’s all psychological, similar to changing outfits for different occasions. When you go to a gladiator match, you wear sports and casual attire, act rowdier. When you attend a formal dinner in evening attire, you behave differently. That’s all ‘Blue’ does, albeit in a more intense and extensive manner,” says Marcus. The waitress remains there, her expressionless face waiting. “Hurry on and get Trajan’s drink,” Marcus says. She complies as if she were a robot.

“Lucilla?” Marcus says, extending his hand to her. As they stand to leave the booth, the scent of the perfume lingers. Lucilla breathes it as she and Marcus walk down the stairs to the dance floor and her head begins to spin. She grabs for Marcus. As he catches her, he pulls her close.

“Easy, darling. You’ve had a busy day. Perhaps we should skip the dance,” he says.

She shakes off the dizziness and puts her arms around him. The music fades from a heavy industrial beat to a softer, more refined melody, more suited for couples at the end of the evening. It is awkward at first as Marcus pulls Lucilla close, but she cannot resist. He is a dear friend, but this seems to step beyond the boundaries of normal friendship.

In her mind, there is a struggle between desire and restraint. This should not be happening. She has never felt this way before towards him, but the atmosphere is conspiring against her better judgment. Marcus grasps her tightly. His hand reaches down to the small of her back then further. She blushes as she looks up into his black eyes, then down at his lips. Her breathing becomes shallow as they begin to kiss.

Then, bam! Trajan decks him out of nowhere. Marcus goes reeling across the dance floor. The other merrymakers gasp. Number Two springs into action, flies over, and shoots a stun device that catches Trajan in the chest. He goes down. Now it is Sid’s turn. He zips over and hovers over to protect him from any other attack. The Praetorian security personnel push through the crowd to secure Marcus. He has a bloody lip and is pissed off. Lucilla, still a little out of it, stands paralyzed by indecision.

“By the Gods, why did you do that?” screams Marcus.

Guards grab Trajan and place him in cuffs.

“You know why! You can’t just take liberties with my fiancée, even if you are heir to the throne,” shouts Trajan.

It falls on deaf ears. Marcus does not care what Trajan thinks. Trajan always knew Marcus had hidden desires for Lucilla, but had never acted on them.

“Lucilla? What’s going on? This isn’t like you!” Trajan says.

She does not answer. Her mouth tries to form words, but her mind won’t allow it.

“She’s in shock. You blew everything out of proportion!” shouts Marcus.

Lucilla’s eyes tell a different story. There is no more tenderness for Trajan; another person has taken over. He does do not recognize her anymore. The same cloud that descended upon Gaius and the waitress has now covered Lucilla.

The guards ask Marcus if he wishes to press charges. He shakes his head. Her faculties taken over, Lucilla positions herself next to Marcus. Trajan flies into another fit of rage, but Sid stops him.

“Sir, I think it is time we went home.” “Listen to you little drone friend. If you persist I will have you arrested on the charge of treason,” says Marcus.

It is one of the worst charges in the empire, comparable to murder. In Rome’s long history two things have never been tolerated, taking another’s life outside normal combat and treasonous actions against the state. Death awaited anyone convicted of either. While hitting a prince is not traitorous, Trajan could be cited for an assassination attempt, which would be deemed an act of subversion. Thinking better of it and calming down, he holds out his hand for Lucilla.“Come on. Let’s go home,” he says. She does not flinch as Marcus puts his arm around her. In a sly way, he tries to place the blame of the day’s events on Trajan’s shoulders. “I think it might be better if she stayed in the palace tonight. You are not yourself today. I don’t know what you did to provoke Gaius, but I do not wish to see her harmed. Something strange is going on and I will get to the bottom of it. Guards! Take my friend here home. For now, Lucilla is under my protection. I’ll send a physician by tomorrow to check on you.”

It is not him who needs checking on. That honey smell... Could this have to do with Mars and what his father and Pompeii had found so long ago? Marcus was cunning, but not vicious, and not that smart. He had skipped through school. Teachers gave him passing grades just to move him on and please the Emperor.

The guards take Trajan away. Marcus looks them in the eye, giving an unspoken order. Trajan makes a mental note of this, but perhaps he is being paranoid. He is exhausted.

Outside the club, a police van has pulled up. Escorting him from the building, Trajan glances back at Lucilla. They shuffle him into the vehicle and Sid follows close behind them.

“We must shut down your protection unit. We can take him along, but he needs to be deactivated,” a policeman says.

“What for?” Trajan asks.

“He could hack into our systems. You may reactivate him once we drop you off,” says one of the policemen.

“Sir, that is not a good idea,” says Sid.

“It’ll be okay, Sid. It’s a short ride home. He then issues the voice command, “Alpha 2, shut down.” Sid’s lights go dim as he settles into a seat in the van.

The door slides closed and the two men and position themselves on either side of him. They both seem friendly enough, just regular guys doing a job. One of them asks him where they would like them to take him. He thinks, then tells them to drive him to his parent’s house. “The home of the legendary Clavius? If it isn’t too much trouble, could we get an autograph?” asks one of the policemen.

“I’ll try, but it is late. Maybe you could come back later in the day?” says Trajan. They agree and one of them taps on the window for the driver to move on.

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