The Fall of Empire

by George Steele © 2003

The radium showers were falling when news came that Startacus would return. A seed of pure hatred shone in my soul. I turned my back on the Senate and watched the stars falling like a fountain of electric pearls. Then I went to dine, reminding myself it was past time for such petty recriminations.

Calcius and Angromitia were there. The mensa was decked with the most luxurious foodstuffs. Angromitia took a bunch of Rangia's black grapes, harvested from the sub-gravity vineyards, and let them drop into her round lips. The high-density nectar burst inside her mouth. She savoured the taste and reclined back.

"Do you think there is time for one last pheasant before our guest arrives?" Calcius asked.

I ran my fingers across the white tides running through the pink marble. It was warm due to its altered atomic structure. Here a simple toga was all I needed, even though the atmosphere had burned away long ago.

Beyond the veranda, the city flickered beneath the dome like a thousand glow-bugs in a thicket. The city my father had built. I put my hand to my face and wept.

"Find out how long we have," Angromitia called to Calcius. "I can't stand this waiting."

Calcius hovered to his studium and asked his scrinium for news of Startacus's progress. An electric voice said it had been sighted beyond Callisto. They would be here in thirty minutes.

"It's the end of everything," he lamented. "The whole Empire, taken over by a bunch of barbarians. The populi forget that without us there would be no starships or palaces. We would all be sleeping outside in the radium showers."

"They have us to thank for the radium showers in the first place," Angromitia replied. "We have grown incompetent and lazy."

Calcius's treble chins trembled with rage. "Don't say such things!" he roared. "It's blasphemy!"

"No. She's right," I said. "We've failed."

Twenty years ago, the rocket galleys had set off to find new worlds, driven by immense fusion drives, colonizing the stars for the glory of Rome. But those titanic ships left a wake of destruction. Radium, untraceable until it had already eaten away our atmosphere. It fell to the earth in deadly showers. Slowly, the world began to die.

The slaves lay without the city, while the populi sheltered behind the praesidium dome. Inside we grew fatter and ever more wealthy, trading shelter for slave labour.

In Startacus I saw something to admire. He had a fire, an indomitable will. I saw it in the amphitheatre where he bathed in the blood of his victims. I brought him to the palace and exhibited by royal command. He never spoke, and would accept no command except to fight. He was the greatest gladiator in Rome.

The Senate said it showed weakness, that the populi loved him more than myself. So I sent him away, to a radium mine near Orion.

Then the rioting began. In the outer systems first, then closer. Startacus was leading the revolt. The first victory was on the outskirts of Rigel. Less than a hundred rebel ships against an entire legion. Still they had won. Every day, news came of his inexorable advance, defeating legion after legion in a tide of flame that swept across the galaxy towards Earth.

The Senate suggested I give in to his demands. I dismissed them. Others begged me to reconsider. I threw them all out, cohorts, courtiers, servants; all were exiled from the palace. Only myself, Calcius and Angromitia remained. And I had forbidden Calcius to even mention his name.

"The populi are fickle," Calcius said. "When he arrives they will beg you for forgiveness."

I took out my ceremonial blade and pressed it into his hand. "Strike," I said. "Kill me, and all I have will be yours. The Empire lies at your feet. Will you not pick it up?"

His fist shook with the dagger. For a moment a glimpse of wildfire entered his eyes. Then it was gone. "You are the personification of Empire," his voice quaked. "Without you it is nothing. I could never aspire to that."

"You snivelling wretch, Calcius," Angromitia interrupted. "He was tempting you, and you can judge for yourself whether you were wise or foolish to refuse. He feels the Empire like a chain around his neck, and seeks to cast it off."

She stormed out. Angromitia did that often. Her speeches were rarely conclusive; more vitriolic satires that finally gave way to barren introspection.

I sent Calcius away and sat by the lacuna pool, staring at my reflection.

"Do you like what you see?" a voice asked.

Angromitia looked more beautiful than ever.

"We - we have never spoken," I stammered. "Not as man and wife should."

"We were married because the Senate chose me for your wife," she said. "My own needs were vanquished long ago. What else is there to discuss?"

She walked to the Imperial bridal chambers we had never used. The doors slid open, revealing a white, circular room, an oval bed and silken sheets that had never been disturbed by passion.

Finally, I called out. "I wanted to have an heir with you."

"Children?" she asked. "Well, yes, that would at least be something." She turned around and smiled a broken smile. "I'm barren," she said. "Not always. Two months ago."

I looked back to my reflection. The doors locked shut behind her, and I heard what had never really been come to an end.

"Your highness," Calcius appeared in the doorway. He appeared breathless. "He is here. He demands to see you. What shall I say?"

With my hand I disturbed the pool, destroying my reflection forever. I felt like a madman who suddenly discovers he has been deluded, and for the first time, sees the world as it is. It was time to issue my last order.

"Tell him, I am not to be disturbed," I said, and smiled.

x x x

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