Authors: K.D. Wentworth
paused in the doorway
of the Interface Room. Even though it was a good hour before their shift began, his partner Giles Wilson was already in place before the long control console, his perpetually youthful face reduced to a sickly pallor by the screens’ blue light. The room was filled with a soft hum as the security monitors flicked through their preset patterns at three-second intervals—the Forum, the Market District, the Arena, the Baths.
Kerickson leaned against the doorjamb and yawned. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
Wilson motioned him in without looking up. A deep worry line creased his forehead as he peered intently at a set of statistics. “Minerva is down again.”
“Well, don’t look at me. I have to order the Saturnalia supplies. I can’t possibly get to her until later.” Kerickson slid into his swivel chair before the right console. “There are too many gods in this game anyway. Leave her off-line for a while.”
“But she’s in charge of the city!” Wilson punched in a string of instructions, then ran his fingers back through his thinning brown hair. “The city won’t run without her.”
“And whose fault is that?” Kerickson turned back to his screen as the statistics on the following week’s Saturnalia came up. “ ‘Throw the element of chance in,’ you said—‘let people interact with the gods, give them the genuine feel of what old Rome could have been like if the gods were real.’ ” He checked the totals column for the end-of-the-week feast and scowled. “Next you’ll be wanting to build outhouses!”
Wilson’s soft round face fell into shocked folds. “I’ll have you know the ancient Romans had excellent indoor plumbing!”
Kerickson’s eyes rolled upward. Scratch an ex-professor, he thought, and you’ll get a lecture every time. “That takes a lot off my mind. Why don’t you just switch Minerva’s functions over to Mars until she’s up and running again?”
“Are you kidding?” Wilson’s fingers twisted into anxious knots. “Last month, when I asked him not to manifest during the stockholders’ tour and make faces like he did last year, he not only ordered his priests to barbecue Jupiter’s sacred chickens, he told the Gladiatorial School they were giving out free beer down at the Brothers Julian Restaurant. Ten minutes later, they were rioting in the amusement sector. HabiTek’s stock went down twenty points in the next two days!”
“That’s the whole problem. The old boy needs something to keep him busy.” He saved his statistics for later, then keyed in the code for Mars.
The center screen’s muted blue glow coalesced into an untidy vulture which seemed to be molting. “I AM MARS, GOD OF WAR, DISCORD, AND BATTLE—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Kerickson knew the litany by heart. “Wilson and I have a little proposition for you.”
“WILSON?” The vulture snapped its savagely hooked beak and stared out with gleaming red eyes. “I KNOW OF NO PLAYER BY THAT DESIGNATION.”
“Give me a break.” Kerickson leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “Are you interested or shall I buzz Apollo instead?”
“THAT POMPOUS ASS?” The vulture dissolved into a pudgy, hook-nosed man with a thick red beard and a handful of gleaming, metal-tipped spears. “HE’S NOTHING BUT MUSIC AND POETRY, AND YOU KNOW IT.”
Kerickson glanced over at Wilson, then turned back to the screen. “Here’s the deal. Her divineness, Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, is down for a few days, and the Imperium needs looking after. So, do you want to be God of the City and Protector of Civilized Life for a little while, or should we get someone else?”
The image on the screen threw out its chest. “BLOODY HELL! WHO NEEDS CITIES ANYWAY? YOU GUYS PLAY THIS GAME LIKE A BUNCH OF GODDAMNED PANSIES. WE NEED SOME REAL BLOODSHED AROUND HERE TO LNEN THINGS UP!”
you so, Wilson mouthed.
“Never mind.” Kerickson punched in the release code. “Just go on back to whatever mayhem you were planning.” The image dissolved back into an even blue glow.
“I knew it!” Wilson fumbled in his pocket for the pink Stomak-Eaze can, then sprayed a dose into his mouth. “The entire system is going down right before the Saturnalia, and you know how the players feel about gaining their quarterly experience point. Census reported yesterday that over fifty families have already renewed their Game licenses in advance of the festival so they will be guaranteed a juicy role next week.” He shuddered. “There go our raises.”
Kerickson kneaded his forehead; Wilson’s theatrics always gave him a headache. “No, no, I’ll take care of everything. Why don’t you just go over and check out the Gladiatorial School? There’s a nasty rumor going around that Marcinius Flatus is selling extra hit points.”
“But that’s ridiculous!” Wilson heaved himself out of the chair. “He’d have to be able to tie into the Game computer to do that!”
Kerickson shook his head. “Maybe so, but that’s what I heard down in the Forum.”
“All right.” Wilson paused. “Are you sure you don’t need me down here?”
Just like a hole in the old cranium, Kerickson thought. He stretched his face into a smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll get someone to watch over the city next week, even if I have to do it myself.”
Wilson was already out the door as Kerickson turned back to the screen. “Okay,” he muttered to himself, “which one . . . Juno, Venus, Diana, Ceres, Vesta?” Anyone of the goddesses ought to be able to take Minerva’s place for a few days without disturbing current Game scenarios too much. Finally he decided on Juno as being the most settled of the lot and punched in her call code.
The screen on the right faded into a peacock plumaged in glorious blues and greens and golds. It gave him a piercing look out of its tiny eyes. “I AM JUNO, PROTECTRESS OF MARRIAGE AND MARRIED WOMEN, INSPIRER OF GREAT POEMS, HEROIC DEEDS, AND STUFF LIKE THAT.”
Kerickson leaned back and nodded at the screen. “So, Juno, how’ve you been?”
“DON’T YOU ‘SO, JUNO’ ME, YOU SHRIVELED-UP SON OF A TOAD!” The peacock reformed itself into a middle-aged woman with angry blue-green eyes and golden hair. “I STILL HAVEN’T FORGOITEN WHAT YOU DID TO THAT LOVELY GIRL, DEMEA.”
“Not this crap again,” Kerickson mumbled to himself.
“WHAT WAS THAT?” Juno drew her tall body up proudly.
her name is Alline and it’s been five years since she saw her chance to become Empress and left me. Can we talk about something else?”
“YOU’D LIKE THAT, WOULDN’T YOU?” Juno sniffed, then conjured up a long divan and draped her full-figured form over it. “THERE ISN’T A MAN IN THIS WHOLE GAME WORTH DEMEA’S LITTLE FINGER.”
Kerickson leaned back in his chair. “Look, Minerva is down for a few days, and since you’re already doing such a great job watching after the married women enrolled in the Game, how would you like to protect the rest of the city while she’s incapacitated?”
Juno twitched her spotless white tunic so that it fell into perfect folds. “WELL, OF COURSE, I COULD REPLACE THAT LITTLE SNIPPET WITHOUT EVEN TRYING.”
Kerickson forced a smile across his face. “Great. Just keep an eye out for Mars and Jupiter and the rest so they don’t start anything funny.”
“NOT SO FAST.” She gave him a steely look. “I WON’T HAVE TO APPEAR AS ONE OF HER STUPID OWLS, WILL I?”
“Perish the thought.”
“IN THAT CASE—” Juno flung her arms into the air. “THIS AUDIENCE IS ENDED!” The screen dissolved into blueness.
Kerickson turned back to his Saturnalia plans, but then word came through on the left status screen about some sort of disturbance involving sixteen teenage boys and the Game’s only remaining Vestal Virgin down at the Public Baths.
Switching statistics to the back of his mind, he punched for the City Guard.
* * *
“How could you let this happen?” Wilson ran his fingers through the remnants of his graying brown hair as he paced moodily around the Interface Room.
“So, I’ll go out onto the playing field and find us another virgin.”
“Does Vesta know about this yet?” Wilson wiped at a trickle of sweat on his forehead.
“Probably.” Kerickson paused as the door opened. “Keep an eye on things until I get back.”
Wilson muttered something in reply, but Kerickson couldn’t make it out. He stopped at Costuming and picked up a linen tunic and a long gray woolen cloak, nothing snazzy, but enough to keep out the currently programmed winter chill. Then he presented his Game bracelet to the monitor.
“Identity confirmed,” the computer’s monotone said. “Kerickson, Arvid G. Game status: Management.”
The gate slid open. Kerickson walked to the front door of the bakery used to disguise the Management Gate from the general public and stepped out into the bustling streets of ancient Rome. Cold air flowed against his face, carefully conditioned to simulate the atmospheric composition of over two thousand years ago—at the moment redolent of wood smoke and rotting vegetables and manure.
Dodging a steaming pile of donkey dung in the middle of the street, he pulled his cloak around his shoulders against a chill drizzle that was programmed to fall for the next two hours and set off for the Forum.
No matter how many times he saw it, he never failed to appreciate what HabiTek had built here: an entire city where, for an exorbitant fee, the population of three thousand or so players lived out the identities of ancient Romans, trying to gain enough points to become Emperor or Empress before their time ran out and they returned to the outside world.
Of course, the experience of living in the Imperium was more important to most people than actually winning. And if you didn’t have a lot of money, you could take on one of the roles that actually produced an income, like merchant or craftsman, or work part-time in one of the concessions. He himself had lived on the playing field for three months as a captain in the Emperor’s personal guard when he’d first signed on to the Game staff, sneaking off to the Interface occasionally to make subtle adjustments in programming. As it stood now, current scenarios were going fairly well—except for the gods. If they had actually wreaked as much havoc in ancient Rome as they did here in the Imperium, Rome would have fallen a thousand years sooner.
In spite of the wet and the cold, the walk was pleasant enough. He saw a couple of day-trippers, outfitted, like all visitors, as German barbarians—a classification no one actually played in the Game. They passed him, oohing and ahhing over the fountains and the arches and the dazzling mosaics. He turned down the Via Nova, one of the Game’s more popular streets, since most of the courtesans lived in this district. Several top-heavy ladies in various states of undress hung out of windows on the second floor and waved to him as he passed. He waved back, wondering why it seemed to be the dream of elderly society matrons to play a lady of ill repute here in the Game. Why couldn’t they get a few of the younger and more lovely specimens interested in these roles?
Turning right at the Via Sacra, then left at the Via Latina, Kerickson made his way through the Market District, with its bustling shops, both authentic and tourist, to the Forum and its impressive array of temples. He could see the columns of Vesta’s round temple a long way off. Not overlarge, it was still impressive, its white marble and golden roof easy to pick out, even in the rain.
Avoiding an old woman with a cage of sacrificial doves, he trudged up the sixteen broad steps to the outer court and waited. No one came out to greet him, but he could hear the faint sounds of someone weeping.
Without warning, a twenty-foot-tall holographic image materialized in front of him: Vesta with her hair of flames. “SO?” Her hair crackled as she tapped a yard-long foot at him. “I SUPPOSE YOU’RE GOING TO TELL ME THAT SHE’S STILL ‘PURE OF HEART.’ ”
“Greetings, Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth and Home.” Kerickson knelt on the broad stones and bowed his head in the frigid rain. The tips of his ears and nose already felt numb. “Are we speaking of the lady Amaelia?”
“THE LITTLE TART!” The sound of weeping grew louder as Vesta’s size increased again. Her foot, now the size of a rowboat, thudded against the stone.
Even though she was just a holo, Kerickson squirmed. Because of Wilson’s alterations—approved by the HabiTek board, who thought they would make the Game more exciting—the gods now had certain physical powers within the city. Vesta could access enough power to make things uncomfortable for him, within certain parameters. “Girls will be girls.”
“DON’T GIVE ME ANY OF THAT HOLIER-THAN-THOU CRAP. YOU KNOW AS WELL AS I DO THAT SINCE SHE LET THE SACRED FIRE GO OUT, THE ENTIRE CITY IS IN SERIOUS JEOPARDY!”
“Forget those hoary old prophecies and let’s get down to basics.” Kerickson shivered as the wind began to gust. “You hold off on the funny stuff until after the Saturnalia, and I’ll find you some new girls.”
“I’M SUPPOSED TO HAVE SIX.” Vesta bent over and stared into his face. At this angle. her nose reminded him of an anchor he’d once seen on an ocean liner. “AND I WANT THEM YOUNG THIS TIME, NOT LONG IN THE TOOTH LIKE THIS ONE.”
“Well, I’d hardly call twenty long in the tooth, but I’ll do my best.” A trickle of sweat ran down the back of his tunic. Six more girls—he wasn’t even sure he could find one. Virginity and celibacy were not popular topics in the Imperium. Maybe if he offered free Game licenses this time—