Pompeii 79 A.D.
As his massive Liburnian warship approached the dock, a north wind carrying the sulfurous scent of distant Mt Vesuvius skimmed over Pompeii’s slave quarter. It blew a lock of Flavius Reginitis’s salt and pepper hair off his face and over the shoulder of his leather surcoat.
“Captain,” Marcellus said, “the Gods seem to be unsettled.”
They could see Small wisps of vapor emanating from the crest of the mountain as they stood on the deck of the Massive Liburnia Warship. It was the pride of the fleet that could carry eight hundred soldiers. An entire cohort of Rome’s finest military might. But only half that complement manned this ship. The rest of it carried supplies for a lengthy journey. A voyage its master Flavius Quintano Reginitas believed held the future for the Empire. He stood there and watched as the smoke rose ever higher and turned black. His brow furrowed as his cape fluttered in the sea breeze. Marcellus his second in command strode up next to him and also cast an eye skyward. The dread that crossed Flavius's features spread to his.
“The Gods are unsettled, sire,” said Marcellus
“It would appear so. Let us hope we can secure sanctioning from the Governor and sail before they unleash their wrath,” said Flavius.
Governor Seneca Vitas was more an administrator and banker for the wealthy of the port city and did little that did not help his own financial situation. He leaned across his desk with his palms flat on the surface, going over scrolls of paperwork. His eye looked for numbers and profit and nothing else.
Beside him stood a blind old man who had lived long past any point of usefulness to Vitas except for the information he possessed. An ancient tale that promised riches from a fabled place that no one in the Empire believed existed. Vitas was skeptical too, but if it could fill his coffers, he would take it.
Flavius marched in with Marcellus by his side. They saluted with a fist across their chests.
Vitas dismissed the formality, wanting to get right to business.
“Yes, yes, Hail Caesar back, no disrespect to Rome, but they are not here. Tell me, can you find this place?”
“Yes, if what the old man says is true, I’ll uncover it.”
“We have never explored the sea beyond the Pillars, weeks perhaps months.”
“And what if you sail off the edge of the world?” asked Vitas
The prospect upset Marcellus that Vitas had even mentioned it.
“You know those are myths and fairytales the Old man has been there,” said Flavius.
“Yes, my Lord, it is there, and a place of wonders and gold it is. But -” the Old man hesitated, a little fear crept into his voice.
“Go on, what?” said Vitas
“The land is home to people of a redskin, barbarians, savages who would force even a Gladiator cower,” said the Old Man.
“Sire I have over four hundred men, the finest Legionnaires in the Empire we can defeat any of these savages,” said Flavius with confidence.
“When can you set sail?” said Vitas.
“Within the hour.”
“Good, make it so bring me back gold Flavius I need to recoup my investment,” said Vitas
The Luburnia pulled out of port and unfurled her sails. Flavius walked the deck with Marcellus trailing behind him. They stopped at the railing and looked out over the beautiful city of Pompeii. The jewel of the Empire with grand villas that sprawled along the edge of the impressive mountain. Summer homes for Senators and rich proprietors. A pleasure palace of brothels, fine eating, and luxury accommodations. All the decadence any man could desire or want. Except for Vitas, who wanted more.
“Will we ever see it again?” said Marcellus. The question seemed prophetic. Deep down Flavius knew the answer.
A rumble reverberated through the air and the sea beneath them became unsettled. The ship rolled with the waves. Flavius and Marcellus rocked with the deck as it listed from side to side. The two men looked at one another. Then a loud crack shattered the air, and the mountain blew off its crown of earth and stone and hurled it into the air. Flames belched from deep within the mountain’s belly and roared up, vomiting molten lava that rained down on the metropolis.
The sight terrified Flavius and Marcellus. Sounds of screams came up from the city as cannonballs of fire fell from the sky and destroyed buildings. The dock filled up with people as they fled the inferno. Many jumped into the water and tried to swim to the Luburnia. But the ship was already out of reach.
“We must go back for them, sire,” pleaded Marcellus.
“No, it’s too late they’ll swamp the ship.”
The soldiers and other crew gathered on deck and bore witness to the horror of their world being destroyed. Flavius stiffened his necks and turned to his men.
“We cannot help them, all we can do is accomplish our mission.”
The cries grew distant. Blackness filled the heavens as ash floated down and landed on the deck, the remnants of the people and the city of Pompeii.
The Luburnia’s full red sail with the gold Roman Eagle crest fluttered in the breeze. The wind pushed the vessel along at a steady pace. It cut through the white-crested waves and left a small wake.
The men looked haggard and worn out from weeks at sea. Some lazed around on the sun-warmed deck. Others tended their duties and maintained the ship.
Flavius kept watching the horizon with the blind old man next to him.
“By the Gods, nothing for five weeks now, you said only four.”
“I said depending on the current -” the old man turned his nose to the wind and took a deep whiff. Flavius noted the curious action.
“What is it?”
“Land.” said the Old man.
Flavius whirled and scanned the horizon. Marcellus stood up on the railing and held on to the rigging rope. He cupped a hand over his eyes to shield the sun.
“Land, I see land,” said Marcellus he pointed in its direction. The men rose in a cheer.
It did not take long for the Lubernia to reach the distant shoreline. The ship had to anchor offshore so it would not run aground and get stuck in the sand. Flavius, Marcellus, and a small, well-armed landing party took a smaller boat inland.
The waves lapped on the beach as Flavius stepped off onto an alien land. He wore the traditional Roman armor of a legionnaire but did not wear his helmet because of the heat. His feet sunk into the wet sand and his red cloak dangled in the water.
He waded ashore with his hand on his sheathed sword, ready to pull it out at the first sign of danger. His primal warrior eyes peered into the dark jungle ahead of him. He’d seen palm trees along the Nile, but they covered this place. Tall spiny leafed plants protruded up from the sand, and grayish string moss hung down from the branches. It was an assault on all senses. Heat and humidity pressed on his skin. Sounds of the insects, birds, and other animals created an unnerving backdrop to the environment. The other men crouched as they disembarked the boat. They pulled out their swords, holding them close for comfort.
Flavius eased out of the water as the leaves in the undergrowth rustled. He stopped in his tracks. What emerged from the natural cave appeared human, but unlike any, he had ever seen before. Tall with a fierce presence and skin as red as the inside of a melon.
Four children, Trajan, Marcus, Lucilla, and Gaius sat on the grass and stared wide eyed. Gripped in wonder by the tale from Trajan’s father, Clavius Avila, a junior captain. He wore the causal day uniform of the Imperial Army. A gray short-sleeved shirt with a button-up collar and shoulder epaulets with the Roman eagle crest and the badge of rank. On his breast a bright gold eagle with its wings spread, signifying he was a pilot. His pants were black with a red stripe down either leg and shiny black shoes. His hair brown and trimmed short and shaved up the back of the neck. He is fit and his shirt is tight around his chest. Two other captains with beers in their hands stood by the barbecue pit and listened to him finish his story. Domitian Cordius heir to the imperial throne. A very tall individual with jet black hair and piercing black eyes. The other captain, Pompeii Compinitus, shorter than the other two men, but stocky and aggressive. They were all healthy, thoughtless young animals, sleek, graceful, high-spirited.
The kids’ mouths gawked, speechless, as Clavius finished his story.
“And that is how the Empire became divided. The early settlers believed the volcano destroyed the old world, but it was only one city. They soon forgot about their ancient home. For a long time, the two halves didn’t know the other existed. Only rumors and myths of distant cousins across the great ocean. Until one day another ship arrived on our shores. They recounted the glorious past and how the barbarians had sacked our birthplace. So we returned with armies and reclaimed the forgotten homeland, reuniting the empire.” said Clavius.
Pompeii took a swig of beer and clapped his hands.
“Don’t fill them up with stories tonight they’ll never get to sleep. We have a big day tomorrow.”
“Yes, the launch is at zero six hundred,” said Domitian.
“You two are party poopers, this is the last time we will see them for six months. Mars is a long way from home,” said Clavius.
All the children except for Marcus applaud. Trajan jumped up and ran into his father’s arms. Clavius rose, lifting Trajan high over his head. A father’s loving embrace.
Domitian scowled at Marcus and reprimanded him in a harsh tone.
“Son, what do you say to Clavius?”
The boy kept his head down, then looked over at Trajan and Clavius with eyes that could not understand the difference.
“Someday you will be a superb warrior,” said Clavius.
Gaius and Lucilla hopped up and ran to Pompeii. He dropped his beer and grabbed both of them under each arm and swirled them around.
“And you two better stay out of trouble while I am away,” said Pompeii
“You gonna shoot the Martians, Dad?” said Gaius
“There ain’t no Martians sport, nothing but red sand and rocks,” said Pompeii.
“Are you scared, Daddy?” asked Lucilla.
“Lucilla honey, you are getting prettier every day,” said Pompeii, avoiding the answer.
Clavius held his son close.
“Papa, why do you have to go?”
Clavius set his son on the ground and knelt to face him.
“Because it’s my job and necessary. Like Flavius, we are going to another world. To colonize it for the glory of the Empire and to make room for people to live.”
“But people can live here,”
“He’s got you on that one,” said Pompeii
Clavius stood and rubbed Trajan’s head.
“Because I said so, that’s why.”
Domitian took another drink of his beer and stepped over to Marcus. The boy sat on the ground and fiddled with the grass. Domitian towered over him. Marcus looked weak compared to his friends. Premature at birth, he suffered from many immune issues. He did not resemble his father except for the jet black hair.
“Marcus,” said Domitian
The youngster did not lookup.
“Son, I demand you look at me,”
Domitian did not know how to show affection. He had tried, but it never seemed natural.
“Give him some time,” said Clavius.
“His mother dotes on him too much.” Said Domitian, he turned and left. Clavius and Pompeii understood. Parenting wasn’t easy, but it seemed harder for Domitian.
Trajan put his arm around Marcus.
“It’s okay,” said Trajan. Marcus looked up with wet eyes and laid his head on Trajan’s shoulder. The two little boys sat there with Gaius and Lucilla playing around them.
Clavius got ready for bed and pulled off his shirt. Livia sat up in bed with the covers pulled up around her waist. She watched her man as he stripped down to his shorts. His dog tags dangled around his chest as he climbed into bed. Livia frowned, not mad but worried and sad that he would be away so long.
“Tell me again why you have to go again,” she said, making a point not to hide her feeling on the matter.
Clavius curled up beside her and snuggled. He angled his head under her long red hair and kissed her neck. She tried to pull away, but he persisted.
“Would you be serious?” she said
“Oh baby, I am serious, it’s going to be a long time.”
“Stop, I mean it,” said Livia. She crossed her arms and scooted away.
Clavius thwarted in his attempted lovemaking gave up and went down an elbow and propped his head in his hand.
“What is all this fuss about?”
“Damn you Clavius, you know why - I mean can’t the Empire find somebody else?”
“Sure, but nobody with experience.”
Livia huffed and tucked and drew into herself.
“You and Pompeii, you’re cut from the same tunic. Macho men no fear, glory to the Empire and all that crap.”
Clavius rolled over and laid his arm across her waist and pulled her close.
“This could mean a seat on the senate for me. The only man to lead a mission to Mars twice! That’s guaranteed votes right there.”
“So this all political you’re gambling your life just for a seat on the senate. What about me and your son Clavius?”
“I’m doing this for you, for our future. Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen.”
Livia relaxed and unfolded her arms.
“You’d better come back to me.” Livia rolled on top of him and a seductive expression came over her face. They gazed into each other’s eyes. Their breathing hastened, her heartbeat rose and so did his till they were both beating in unison husband and wife. A passion not born from lust but togetherness and love. They entwined in an embrace and kissed with a fever, hoping this would not be their last.
Pompeii and Gaius lounged on the bedroom floor together, playing with a toy rocket ship. Antonia sat at her dresser with Lucilla brushing her hair. She looked at his reflection in the mirror.
“How long will it take?” asked Antonia
Gaius made a blastoff sound and lifted the rocket into the air.
“Vroom, whish, Zoom!”
“That’s it, buddy,” said Pompeii
“Pompeii, are you listening to me?” said Antonia.
“I heard you, about six months if it all goes to plan, but you know missions they never for the way you want em.”
“So what a -”
Pompeii shot her a look.
“Shush baby, the kids.”
Antona turned to Lucilla and took the brush from her.
“That’s good honey, you and Gaius need to get to bed.”
Lucilla nodded and stepped over to Gaius and reached for his hand.
“I don’t want to go to sleep,” said Gaius
Pompeii leaning on one arm took a firmer tone.
“Mind your mother, now you too scoot.”
Gaius rose, took Lucilla’s, and they trotted out of the bedroom. Pompeii watched as they left, then turned to Antonia.
“Well, how long?”
Pompeii frowned “It could take a year.”
“Saturn watch over us, a whole year with two little ones. Pompeii, I swear why is it every time you have to volunteer for a new mission.”
Pompeii sat up “It’s Mars baby.”
“Yeah, and you’ve been there before, I bet Livia is giving Clavius the same treatment. Sometimes I think you’re with him more than your family.”
“Now that’s not true.”
“You said the last time was it.”
Pompeii got on his knees and crawled over to her with a funny expression. Antonia couldn’t help but laugh at his antics.
“Tell ya what sweetheart, when I get back I’ll ask for a new posting how about the Bahamas or Hawaii. If this is a success Imperial Command will give me any place I want.”
Antonia smiled “Well don’t mess it up big boy I want a beach for a backyard.”
“You got it dude” Pompeii kissed her feet then started tickling her. Antonia laughed he stood and grabbed her up in his arms cuddling and kissing her neck as they both fell on the bed together.
The gates to the walled Imperial compound in the center of the city opened to allow a car to enter. The vehicle wheeled up to the front of a smaller home next to the palace. Domitian exited the driver’s side and walked around to open the door for Octavia.
She stepped out and Marcus climbed from the back seat and took her hand. Domitian gave her a small kiss on the cheek.
“I must go check on father, I won’t be long,”
He looked down at Marcus.
“You disappointed me tonight in front of the others.”
Marcus kept his head down. Octavia consoled him.
“That’s alright, come dear.”
Domitian turned and headed to the palace.
The two guards posted at the front door wore traditional Roman Legion armor with shields and swords. But underneath the cloaks, they had automatic weapons. Either side of the entrance was lit by torches as an homage to ancient traditions.
The doors swung open and Domitian strode in. The long hall contained busts of all the Caesars stretching back to Augustus. Domitian did not pay much attention to them, but he knew each one by name, the length of their rule, and histories.
At the end of the corridor were two gigantic oak double doors with guards in front of them, but dressed in modern-day suits. Domitian did not speak to them as he opened the door and entered.
Caesar Tarquin Cordius a man of ninety-plus years lay covered up in the bed asleep. His gray hair was a tousled unkempt mess on the pillow. Death hung close to him. Doctors hovered around their patient with incense burning on the nightstand. The room was dim and lit only by torches.
Domitian walked straight up to the bed with sad eyes.
“Hail Caesar,” said Domitian.
Tarquin’s eyes fluttered open.
“It is I, father.”
The old man nodded, he understood. Domitian knelt by the bed and took his father’s hand. A Doctor on the other side of the bed took a quick reading of Tarquin’s vitals. Domitian looked up at him.
“How long does he have Doctor?”
“Hard to say days, weeks, maybe months he is a tough old nut,” said the Doctor. Domitian smiled with pride as he squeezed his father’s hand.
“That he is.”
Domitian turned to his father.
Tarquin forced a smile through his pain.
“I wanted to tell you I’ll be leaving for Mars tomorrow to begin colonization.”
“No, you mustn’t go,” said Tarquin in a faint voice. He became agitated and gripped his son’s hand.
“Don’t worry father I will be back to take my place if the worst should happen.”
“No, there is much danger there.” Tarquin grew agitated and his blood pressure shot up. The Doctor intervened.
“He needs his rest you must go.”
But Tarquin forced the issue, regaining his willpower to go on.
“I Must speak to my son alone, I am still Caesar,”
The Doctor bowed away. Tarquin opened his eyes wide. For a moment he appeared the powerful man Domitian admired.
“You mustn't go to Mars” Tarquin grew agitated.
“No, the last message - Insanire -” said Tarquin in a whisper. Domitian translated.
“Madness?” it stunned him at the revelation.
“By God's father, we can’t stop the launch now.”
Tarquin shook his head no, reached up, and grabbed his son by the shoulder.
“You must not go. Remember the Honoratus - insane.” his vital monitor beeped. Tarquin wasn’t making any sense and had worked himself into a frenzy.
“Honoratus, the water something bad. Don’t go don’t.” he then passed out. The Doctor rushed in and took over.
“Sire, you must leave.” said the Doctor.
“But what he said -”
“Just the ravings of the sickness I would not put any stock in them. He doesn’t know what he is saying.”
Domitian looked at Tarquin, then leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.
“Perhaps your right, Take care of him,” said Domitian.
Domitian returned to his residence. Octavia sat on the couch in the small living room, flipping through a magazine. She glanced up as he entered.
“How is he?” she asked
“Not much change.”
“You look worried.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t go.”
Domitian gave her a look.
“It is my duty as heir to the throne. I must be there to found the new colony. If I am to be Caesar, I must be strong enough to lead otherwise I am nothing but a puppet.”
“But dear, the Proconsul and Senate run the Empire. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. The history books tell us that all that power corrupts a single individual remember the early Caesars and their disastrous rule.”
“No need to give me a history lesson, but the Caesars must prove their worth and I will carry on the way my father did and his father before him.”
“Well, if you must please be careful.”
Domitian sat down beside her and took her hand.
“I will, I am so honored to have a strong and loving wife like you. Whatever did you see in me?”
Octavia put her hand on his cheek and squeezed his hand.
“I saw a strong and proud man who loves his people. Why else would you risk your life on this mission?”
Domitian looked into her eyes with tenderness and conviction.
“I promise when I return I will be a better father to Marcus and may the Gods strike me dead if I ever let you down.”
He leaned over and kissed her. She responded, and they embraced.
“Now go tell your son good night,” said Octavia.
Domitian smiled and rose with his father’s warning still echoing in his head