Alternate History

The Setting Sun: Chapter 1 (Superpowers)

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The Third Hour AM, Kalends of Martius, 2754 Ab Urbe Condita

My first view of Italy as the plane landed on the runway was the rising sun across the Eternal City. It was always to see exactly this that I book morning flights. Out of the window the sun glowed in the sky, a golden, red sphere looming over the vast canyons of the white cityscape, covered only slightly by the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral. It seemed as if the Heavens themselves were radiating out of the building. Such a view of Rome was so moving that, for that one minute, I forgot that I was late.

This wasn’t the everyday sort of late; it was of the sort that could ruin my career, or in this case, my entire reputation with the Senate. As I worked my way down the exit stairs, the only thought that could comfort me was that He would understand why I was late. His messenger only reached me a few hours ago, so how was I expected to make a meeting at three hours to noon when the earliest plane across the Atlanticus only arrived at that time. Every stride spurred onward by my anger, I quickly made my way to the boat that ferries passengers east from the senatorial airport.

As I waited for the boat to depart, my mind raced from one worried thought to the next. My senatorship in Upper Manhatta was over and not a single new position had been offered to me. The Emperor could just as easily end my political career here as he could reassign me elsewhere. If the former happens I will lose any of the dignitas that I have left. The embarrassment of failing to get reelected for a second lustrum in office would then be compounded by being snubbed by the most powerful man in the world. Those few minutes of contemplation made me feel like I was waiting for the carnifex to strangle me over a pit.

Luckily, it wasn’t long before my anxious mood was cleared away by a familiar, rasping old voice.

‘Atticus!’ At my name I immediately turned around and saw the sky blue eyes, faded with age, of my old friend, and distant relative, Rabirius, who – as he often does – kept talking before I could respond, ‘What are you in Rome for? The Senate doesn’t meet until Saturdies. I thought you would be in your villa enjoying the beaches of Halorium.’

‘That chapter of my life is over, Rabirius.’ I dramatically looked away. ‘The people there want a new senator.’

‘Nonsense! I already told you; those popular assemblies are not about what the people want. They reflect the will of the mob, a mysterious yet tameable beast living within every citizen. This is the same thing that I have been saying in my campaign for reform, that feels like it's been going on for a lifetime. The concept those thickheads in the Senate don’t understand is that the mob is moved more by passion than by reason, by charm rather than good policies. Someone as timid – though might I add as intelligent – as you, Atticus, has trouble gaining the favor of such an impetuous creature. But you shouldn’t worry about that now. Now that you're free of senatorial responsabilities, you can finally request a censorship from the Senate. As thick as they are, the senators recognize competence when they see it and competence is what you have. You know, I think you’ll find senatorial politics to be more…reasonable. Popular politics are too cut-throat for you, my boy.’ The thought of the executioner came to my mind again. ‘You know, old friend, there is a censorial spot open right now and you are of age since this year, correct?’

‘Right, but…’

‘Precisely,’ Out of respect I let Rabirius keep going, even after his interruption, ‘If you become a Censor then you and I can work together to get more political attention for my reform bill. Perhaps you can even mention it to our Lord, Caesar again when you speak with Him today.’

'Rabirius,’ I began slowly, ‘you know as well as anyone that I can’t take an unpopular position like you have, especially this early in my cursus honorum. I don't have the popularity you do. It would be political suicide for me. Right now I just want to survive the day with my career intact. You know what though; I heard from Quintus Sarenus in Spain that the Hispanic Consul, one of the Solenarii, will be attending my meeting today in the Palatia. If I make a good impression on him then I’ll tell him about your bill. Sarenus tells me he’s a reasonable enough fellow, maybe I can convince him to promulgate the bill in Congress. This might just be your lucky day!'

He seemed unmoved, ‘And what about the censorship?’

‘It’s a tempting idea to be honest, but I can’t risk being too ambitious right now. I’ll accept whatever our Lord, Caesar offers me.’

‘Really? You wouldn't want to disappoint an old friend, would you?’

‘Sorry Rabirius…this time I have to… You still have hope in Consul Solenarius. We can talk about it tonight. Ok? In fact, I invite you and your supporters over to my villa in the Valentissima District for dinner. I’ll be expecting you just before dark. Let’s say, 6 pm. What do you say to that?’ By now he was visibly disappointed and I could tell that he didn’t have much faith in the idea. Nevertheless, I think he understood that it was all that I could realistically offer him right now. Besides, what respectful patrician could refuse such an offer when it came with a dinner invitation?

‘Thank you, old friend. I’ll go straight to the Senate House and extend your invitation to my friends.’ Rabirius replied as the boat carefully maneuvered to its spot in the ports of Ostia. He suddenly looked grim, ‘That is…As soon as I finish this one little errand.’

‘Oh, what’s that?’

‘I have a message from the governor of Numidia. It’s too important for the lines. It concerns…Galacius.’ Though Rabirius’ expression was serious, I couldn’t help but laugh when he mentioned Mettius. I'm starting to regret having done so. Mettius Aemilius Galacius was well known within the Senate for his “disappearances”. Despite being our illustrious Minister of War, he often pursued the middle-class habit of visiting brothels on his own. His importance to the imperial government, and the dubious attitude of his wife, have ensured that he is constantly protected, and watched, by five lictors and several bodyguards from the Order of Knights. For this reason, he always uses shrewd methods to satisfy his sordid desires. In his last escapade, he went missing for six days and didn’t return until there was a meeting of the Council of Generals. Now it seemed that he has disappeared once again. (I later learned that he had been missing for 13 days at my encounter with Rabirius.)

My laughter was cut short by the swoosh of the boat’s doors as they opened. Rabirius gave me a rather serious glance before slowly turning his elderly frame around and stepping out to the exit ramp. Although I was at the time concerned by his sudden mood swing, it didn’t dawn on me until the time of my writing that he was feeling anything more than embarrassment at the thought of such a disgraceful specimen of the same bureaucracy we both worked for. Well, in my case that employment seemed questionable. Although I was somewhat stunned by his rushed departure, I eventually picked myself and followed suit. To my surprise Rabirius was not anywhere to be seen on the docks.

The port town of Ostia around me was already bustling with people in preparation for Saturdies, the busiest mercantile day of the week. Besides the small number of cruise ships and ferries there were also merchant vessels in the thousands. It seemed as if the entire merchant fleet of Rome was coming into the ports. On my walk to the Porta Marina, the primary entrance into the City from Ostia, I passed dock workers carrying all manner of goods to their respective destinations: there was an ivory statue of the crucifixion; some large boxes, filled with grain bags or, maybe, the latest wireless devices; barrel after barrel of wine; and, to my interest, one worker carrying crystals for large holographic displays.

The Porta Marina looked particularly radiant under the red morning rays as the painted blood on the friezes above the archway was strongly emphasized. I remember how my father used to tell me when I was young that those images depicted the battles against the Phoenicians from Africa during the First Republic. It is amusing to think that, in some long departed age, the Phoenicians, and even the Greeks and Spaniards, were once our enemies. To now know them on equal footing amongst ourselves is a change that I am in awe of. Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to consider such intrigues because my only concern at the time was to reach Africanus Station and board the first train that I could to the imperial Center.

When I reached the Palatine Forum, now thirty minutes later than I was expected, I immediately changed my jog into a brisk walk; I at least wanted to project the illusion of confidence. From the plaza there was only a small section of the Imperial Public Gardens between me and the Palatia. The illustrious gardens were bordered on each side by reflecting pools of, supposedly, the clearest water in the world – I saw no reason to dispute this claim. They sparkled in such a way that it seemed diamonds were dissolved therein. The entire display of aesthetic features made me certain that there was no better home for an emperor. The inner walls were built of ivory and marble, with gold friezes running along their length. The windows – made of crystal – were so delicate and finely crafted that they were almost ethereal. Caesar must have no qualms about keeping his home life public; I could see quite clearly into his rooms, one of his servants (slaves weren’t permitted in Italy) carefully making a bed in one of them. Perhaps it was Caesar’s bed. What a life that must be, to constantly stand in the presence of such majesty and beauty. I could never have bear the kind of pressure that must accompany his life, but at that moment, I would have rather bore the skies with Atlas than face the predicament I was in.

Arriving at the palace gates, I saw that they were shut; the meeting had already started. However, as my eyes wandered the façade of the entrance way, I noticed a skeletal figure standing firmly at its center. Expecting it to be a servant meant to either guide me in or send me away, neither prospect being particularly pleasant for me, I drew nearer and realized it was Sextus Claudius Levus, the imperial Dictor and Caesar’s primary attendant.

‘Good morning, Levus!’ I said as deceptively cheerfully as I could.

‘Good morning, Senator. Oh. My apologies, former Senator,’ he corrected smugly. ‘I have a message for you from our Lord, Caesar. Given the circumstances, he knew you would be unable to make it on time and so you are to be informed that you are summarily assigned to be representative of the Imperium to the Shogunate of East Asia. Your flight to Kyushu leaves at noon and an aid has already been dispatched to your home in District 5 to inform you on the finer details of your new position.’ He made a sweeping gesture with his hand over his toga, as if trying to make a little speck go away, before continuing, ‘Our Lord, Caesar wishes you a felicitous journey to the Isles of Japan. Have a good day, ambassador.’ His duty finished, Levus carefully turned around, put one spindly arm forward and opened the palm towards the colossal palace gates. On cue, its doors slowly opened themselves, the almost inaudible panting of the motors drowned out by the yawning of its metallic hinges. Levus, pleased with his theatrics, rolled his shoulders and disappeared like a spirit into the shadows of the atrium.

Meanwhile, I stood in place, as if paralyzed by an electric shock, at what he had just told me. The message came with the highest imperium, that of a Caesar, so it was impossible for me to object to it. In spite of my dinner plans, which I have just canceled, and any intentions I had to spend some time in Rome, tomorrow I will be landing in the far-off and mysterious land of Japan.

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