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Panem et Circensus

By Wayne Austin


“I advise you not to imbibe any more of that toxic substance. You may do something that you live to regret.”

Waltar Bransom wheeled round to regard PRANDARX, his robot advisor, and nearly lost his balance. The amber liquid in his brandy balloon sloshed back and forth and some of his “medicine for the soul” spilt over the lip. He licked the precious spirit from his hand and savored its dull comfort.

“I have every right to drown my sorrows. It’s not every day one loses an election by such a landslide. It’s not every day one is forced to realize that one is the most hated person on this planet.” Bransom cocked his head back over his shoulder at the celebration on the wall screen behind him. “See?”

PRANDARX’s pastel-yellow cube, twice the size of Bransom’s head, pulsed to a soothing beat. “All I see are people reveling in their candidate’s victory.”

“Are you blind?” Bransom turned to the screen and scowled at the sea of singing and dancing chaos that swamped Aldavar’s campaign headquarters. Although the sound was low, cheerful voices belted out the melody of a popular tune, the lyrics twisted for Bransom’s benefit.

“Look at that!” He turned and pointed a trembling finger at a holo-movie playing above the Mardi Gras crowd.

There he stood, naked — or rather an emasculated caricature did — in the middle of a street lined with gleaming apartment buildings. Behind him, a long line of Norms queued up. One after the other, they approached and mounted him from behind. It was just one of the many hard-core insults he had been forced to endure throughout the bitter campaign. Politics was one thing, but this ... this was so personal.

He watched his caricature grunt and groan and thrust back against a particularly fat, piggish Norm, aiding and abetting its climax. With a greedy smile, it — even he couldn’t think of the Norm as human, as a he — it climbed off and waited, drool seeping from its gargoyle mouth. Bransom shook his head. It hadn’t been like that, quite. His caricature lowered his head and kowtowed, so low his chin scraped the road, before digging a hand into a bulging bag of goodies to pull out a magnificent gift as a reward for its effort. And all the while, in the distance, the angel-kissed spires of the capital crumpled and collapsed, bit by bit. And the stupid true voters had bought it.

Bransom took a fierce swig and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Damn those Norms,” he muttered. “And damn Aldavar!”

“I can understand your bitterness. Your protégé has defeated you, and after you sacked him as your advisor.”

“Some advisor! He never advised me, he told me what to do, like he was in charge. ‘Let me do the thinking.’ That’s what he always said. ‘You are the mouthpiece, I am the brains.’” Bransom grunted.

“But his ideas did get you elected in the first place.”

“True....” Bransom stared at the rapture on the screen and his shoulders drooped under the weight of his one hundred and eighty years. “But I had to fire him,” he said in a low voice. “No president can have an adviser who outshines him in the public eye. He might have thought up the policies, but I was the one who had to fight tooth and nail to sell them to the true voters, and get them through both houses of a hostile world council — don’t forget that!”

“I have not—”

“I’m the front guy. I take the blame when things go wrong and I get the accolades when things go right. That’s how it works. But Aldavar got off on being a celebrity. I tried to rein him in, but he refused to listen.” Branson whirled round to confront PRANDARX and almost lost his balance. “Can you believe it? He actually hogged the limelight. Made me look like I was a passenger riding on his coat-tails.”

He turned back to stare at the screen. Any minute now and his ex-protégé would emerge to bask in the rapture that should have been his. “Anyone would’ve thought he was the president, not me. And then to publicly criticize me. How dare he! Just because I had my own ideas. He—”

Aldavar pranced out onto a balcony and Bransom gawked at the screen. “Will you look at that!” His ex-protégé towered a head over his mundane advisors and above him a neon hologram fractured the air as it played out the party’s slogan: “Taking back the future”.

Bransom snorted a laugh. What vanity! Aldavar had spared no expense to pander to his demographic.

From his torso, he sported three brand new pairs of insect-like limbs just for the celebration. It was typical brash arrogance. He hadn’t bothered to vote and instead had broadcast the operation live to show how sure he was of the outcome. Now they whipped about, conducting the crowd as it roared out the party’s theme song, while overhead, a virtual dance troupe, numbering in the hundreds, gyrated and kicked out.

Bransom sucked his lips into a forlorn scowl. As much as he didn’t want to, he had to admit that Aldavar was the ultimate showman. His body sparkled in reaction to the swell of adulation, much as it had twenty years before when he had stood shoulder to shoulder with Bransom, like they were equal partners.

“I should have known then. God! Will you look at him?”

Aldavar’s baby-face features were plastered on the front of a chrome skull-dome larger than Bransom’s, and it gleamed in the last of the setting sun’s light. It gave him a garish, cartoon-like quality that was almost on par for bad taste with Bransom’s caricature in the holo-movie. But that was the latest fashion. As were the button-like nodules that circled his head in a coal-black halo to corral the spiky, violet hair, carpeting the top of his head. They were all statements denying their ancestry. In the past, Aldavar had liked to brag that his brain had been enhanced so much it was sometimes hard to know if he was still human.

And he wasn’t the only one.

Who wanted to be human? There were plenty of Norms wasting precious resources just being human. Norms and old-timers like Bransom.

With a rueful smile, Bransom shook his head. That was the trouble with today’s youth, they thought they had all the answers, thought only they had new ideas, thought they knew everything and refused to listen.

But he had proved them wrong.

He brushed his left hand over the smooth contour of his skull and caressed the peach-colored bulge that extended from behind his forehead. His hand followed the swelling as it curved over and down to merge into the nape of his neck, not once touching any bumps or appendages, only old-fashioned smooth. There was nothing wrong with being old-fashioned. Nor with acknowledging one’s roots. And that was one thing that even Aldavar couldn’t deny: at their core they were all still human.

“The jerk is a freak,” Bransom murmured, hearing the defeat in his voice.

“That jerk ran a brilliant campaign.”

“Ha! What’s so brilliant about slinging mud? Anyone can promise to scrap unpopular policies, but he has nothing new to replace them with. And he knows what will happen. That shows all he ever wanted was power.”

Bransom turned to PRANDARX and let his gaze roam over his presidential suite. He had decorated it to emphasize his campaign theme — bitter past and hopeful present merging into a bright future.

Aldavar would never understand why the Willem de Kooning Marilyn Monroe or the David Hockney A Bigger Splash were more than mere antiques worth a ransom, valuable to collectors and museums only. And with his blinkered view, he was incapable of seeing how these two two-dimensional and simplistic works represented the sprouting of numerous, diverse styles, which led inexorably to Marriah Vestnay’s Death of a Lover and onto Nubing’s most recent work, his renowned Horsehead Nebula light sculpture. Sure they clashed with the lush glitz of the iridescent red and blue zigzags and evolving geometric motifs of the late-twenty-second century, revivalist d├ęcor that represented the present. But that was the point. Even though they clashed, they could still be made to fit.

A whiff of neuroleptic incense teased his nostrils and he sucked in a deep breath, but it failed to calm his soul. Somewhere along the way, the room’s feng shui had gone terribly wrong. He saw that now. His gaze came to rest back on the wall screen. So much for his dream.

“I don’t deserve this,” said Bransom. “I’ve been a successful president. I brought peace and stability.”

“But at what cost? Seventy percent of Gross National Product and ninety percent taxation? And with the latest projections that it’s going to rise — ”

“I know, I know. But how soon they forget.”

Bransom sighed. If only the Norms had voted again, he wouldn’t be in this predicament. But what did he expect? Another miracle?

He walked over to a large, wall-to-ceiling window and stared with a bemused smile at the muted city lights far below. They were down there — the Norms, the unadulterated — and in all the city complexes that carpeted all the continents. Ten billion of them. He had capped that smoldering volcano. Bransom sipped some brandy and teased it with his tongue, its exquisite age burning his taste buds.

His eyes adjusted for the low-light conditions and he zoomed in until small figures resolved out of the gloom. Some lolled about on street corners with nothing better to do while others clustered in small groups, deep in animated discussion. Then, in twos and threes, they began to dissipate. Within minutes the streets were deserted. He should have been happy. The Norm’s were all safely off the streets in their new apartments, trapped in their favorite audience-participation experience. Super-addictive, so the academic designers said. The bigger the risk the greater the prize, and the Norms kept upping the ante, like they couldn’t help it. And it was Bransom’s creation, his final solution.

“Down there.” Bransom waved his brandy balloon at the window and the sweep of his arm took in the sprawling lights below. “That’s where I lost. I counted on them ... and they let me down; every last one of them!”

“What did you expect? You promised them a life beyond their wildest dreams at the previous election. ‘No Norm shall live in poverty.’ Such a touching slogan.”

“And I delivered.”

“Too much, too soon. You had nothing to entice them with to come out and vote a second time.”

“Yes ... I see that now.” Bransom turned to regard PRANDARX with an even stare. “I know we can’t go on like this, but when Aldavar cancels my programs, they will explode.” He closed his eyes and swayed back and forth. “I know it hurts. I pay taxes as well! Oh those stupid ... short-sighted fools.” He looked up and jabbed a finger at the window to make a point. “They’re greedy. But what’s the alternative? Genocide? Ethnic cleansing? It’s been tried and it failed. There are just too many of them. We were on the brink of collapse before I saved us. Me! Not Aldavar. His policies only postponed the inevitable. I saw that and I acted. And what do I get for it?”

For a moment Bransom held the brandy balloon up, his face twisted in anger, and contemplated smashing it against the window. Then, with a gentle reverence, he placed the glass on a table and buried his face in his hands. A soft groan escaped his lips as he massaged his eyes and cheeks.

When he spoke, his hands muffled his tired voice. “If Aldavar has his way....” He stretched to release the tension in his shoulders. “All I need is another thirty or forty years. Is that too much to ask? Their birthrate has already dropped over eighty percent.” He looked away and rubbed his moist eyes. “What are we to do?” he asked himself.

“Nothing, it’s out of your hands.” After a few seconds, PRANDARX spoke in a conciliatory tone. “You weren’t the first to try this approach.”

Bransom jerked his head up. “What do you mean?”

“During my creation, my tutor program, Advanced Historical Analysis, taught me that to understand humanity’s future, I should look to its past. Have you studied history?”

Bransom coughed to clear his throat. “Of course I have, it’s required for anyone entering politics.”

“Not recent history, I’m talking about ancient history.”

“I studied ancient history! All the way back to Washington’s time, even to old England and Europe.”

“Back to the Romans?”

“A little. They had an empire — weren’t they overrun by Huns and Goths?”

“Have you ever heard of ‘Panem et Circensus’?”

Bransom creased his brow and looked up, searching his memory, eyes half closed. “No ... I don’t think so.” He directed a thought to the web. What is Panem et Circensus? It’s something to do with ancient Rome.

The answer flashed back as a thought: Latin for Bread and Circuses. He cocked an eyebrow at PRANDARX.

“Bread and Circuses was a policy introduced by the emperors to appease Rome’s growing population. There was high unemployment, which led to unrest, social upheaval, crime—”

“All the problems we had?”

“Yes, I’ll send you a link so you can see for yourself.”

Bransom closed his eyes and waited for the connection. Memories flooded in, reality blurred....

He was a bureaucrat, trying to cover the loss of a shipment of wheat from Palestine that was overdue by a week and he had a million people to feed. Then he was a poor shopkeeper, hurrying down a narrow alley, ducking and dodging itinerant dawdlers and doing his best to ignore the stench of fresh shit and piss dumped from the ramshackle apartment buildings crowding in on both sides, his stomach cramping with the hunger pangs. But thoughts of the day’s races at the Circus Maximus filled his mind with delicious anticipation as he plunged into a crowd surrounding a slave and fought for a small loaf of free bread.

And then he was a senator, a poor thief, slave, barbarian mercenary and emperor. Each facet of Roman life enveloped him as it flashed past, giving the pros and cons of living in ancient Rome — the insatiable needs of the rabble drowning a city mired in debt.

Then....

I circle to the right of the Nubian — small, sideways steps — shuffling my sandal across the sand and twisting my foot back and forth to dig in for a better grip.

My god, I’m a gladiator, a Secutor. Oh! This arena stinks. And I ... I’m bleeding, I’ve been stabbed!

The Nubian shifts his weight to stay face on to me. Steady, wait for him.

He’s a Retarius. I just know that!

For an hour we have battled. I have slashed at him, stabbed at him, chased, parried, ducked and weaved as best my armor will allow and twice he has almost bested me, darting left and right, wrong-footing me and almost ensnaring me in his net. But five years of experience doesn’t count for nothing. The Gods are on my side. Concentrate!

This is ... I can’t believe it. I am so tired. And this helmet, it’s so restrictive and so hot. The sweat, it tickles my nose and stings my eyes, but I can’t wipe them. Everything is blurry. How can anyone be expected to fight with such a limited view through these two small holes?

I can smell his fear, mixed with the offal stink of his blood and sweat. My heart pounds at my rib cage, and my breath is so loud it threatens to deafen me. His eyes are white-rimmed agates. He glares back at me to hide his fear. Do not be over-confident! A lion is at its most dangerous when wounded.

What is that? Soft music. Slow and funereal. There’s a tubicen. What a strange sound. And underneath it ... that swirling wail is an organum. It makes my skin crawl.

It is time. Ah, my young friend gives himself away. He twists on his weaker leg and that trace of a wince on his face tells me all I need to know. The crimson still weeps from his thigh and bleeds his strength. He prods at me with his trident, a weary gesture that I bat away with my shield.

“Thrax!” a woman calls.

I know her! I slept with her last night. Now more call out. Like an avalanche, my name rebounds around the arena.

That’s who I am. Thrax, the Thracian — once a prisoner of war, slave, and now champion gladiator and champion lover of Rome’s finest mistresses. Incredible! I know my ... his life story, his memories as if they were my own, as if I’m not ... Bransom. This is my — his last fight. After all these years, it must be!

The music begins to build — its tempo more urgent.

The Nubian flicks his net out to the side. I hold my shield close to my body and lunge left, to make room, and slash! He takes the bait and pivots back on his weak leg and then swings his net at me. The music soars to herald his victory.

Look out!

But I sway back and twist to the left. I thrust up my shield to block his net before it has a chance to gather momentum and entangle me.

He jabs with his trident, but I step inside and pirouette. My sword arcs over and down through the air toward his unprotected head.

Missed him.

He is quick and ducks, but he cannot parry my blow. Instead, my sword carves through his shoulder and a torrent of red streams down his arm. He betrays a sharp hiss through his lips.

I have him now. Don’t stop.

“He’s had it,” someone close by yells. Senators and wealthy merchants lean over the edge of the arena, close to me, and their faces twist with lust. They demand blood.

I twist back to straighten up and swing around to stab at his bare midriff.

He lurches back. Then he screams. The cut to his leg has torn open.

My god, look at that, I can see the muscle. And is that bone?

His eyes flicker and he gasps and collapses to one knee.

Quick! He’s dropped his net. Slash at his head.

He ducks. My sword clangs off his galerus and he flinches.

Finish him.

I step in and jab my shield forward in a short-arm jolt. It smacks into the side of his face.

Ha-ha! Take that, you jerk!

He collapses forward onto his hands and knees and I shove him onto his back to straddle him. The tip of my sword presses into his sternum, ready to plunge into his heart should he try to resist. The music shrieks to a crescendo, drowning out the crowd. He stares up at me in defeat.

I won! I won! I beat the young jerk.

I look up at Titus, my emperor, and wait for his verdict.

The crowd roars and their hoots and screams overpower the music. A chant breaks through. “Thrax, Thrax, Thrax....”

They love me. I am Thrax, Champion of Rome — no! I am, I am....

The memories fled and Bransom blinked. The pot pouri history of Rome — three centuries worth — left him dazed. The room swam. He leant against the wall to steady himself. The memories were so real, especially when he was Thrax ... when I was Thrax.

“What ... was that?”

“Virtual Existence — it’s a new product, developed from the research you initiated. It’s the latest fad. You can be whomever you want. Those are from a Classical History course given at Columbia University. They claim over seventy percent authenticity.”

“I must be getting old, but that seems dangerous ... you could lose yourself in there.” Bransom flexed his arm and held up an imaginary sword, imagined the Nubian before him, and took a swipe.

“So I have heard, but do you see my point?”

“About Bread and Circuses? I don’t recall the Roman Empire being overthrown by a disgruntled population. The Romans kept up their bread and circuses for what, two ... three hundred years?” Bransom glanced at the window. “All I want is forty. What’s the link?”

“They didn’t overthrow the empire, but there was always that threat. The emperors had to keep the population placated. As demand grew, they spent money they never had. The empire was weakened until it could no longer defend itself.”

“So who is going to overrun us? The Earth is united, there are no external threats — unless you’re expecting aliens to arrive from outer space.” Bransom snorted at the idea.

“No, the difference here is that our civilization will be overrun from within.”

“By who? The Norms?”

“They are our barbarians.”

Bransom pursed his lips and nodded to himself as saw the future in the past. “So history is repeating itself.”

“It is a common theme. In hindsight, perhaps Aldavar’s policies were right.”

Bransom snorted. “No. If I had stuck to those, there would still be crime on the streets. Chaos. The rate of change was too slow. The Norms had outstripped our capacity to handle them. Everyone forgets so quickly, we were on the brink of collapse....”

“As we are now.” PRANDARX rolled toward the door. “Our supporters are waiting, we should get this over with.”

Bransom shrugged and turned to the screen. “Mirror!” The display switched to show his reflection. He studied his face and dared a loser to look back. But Thrax looked back. He wasn’t a loser. I am champion — Champion of Rome. Bransom squeezed his eyes closed and concentrated. Thoughts that he was someone else and memories of a life in ancient Rome kept surfacing. He flushed his brain with an anti-intoxicant to clear his head. Then, with one last brush of his skull-dome and a tug here and there on his tuxedo, he felt ready.

“Yes.” He turned to follow PRANDARX. “Let’s get this over with.” He owed it to his small band of loyal supporters, still waiting in the ballroom, to lift their spirits.

But like any good politician, he would not appear as a loser. Thrax isn’t a loser! He would thank them and congratulate Aldavar. And radiate confidence. He may have lost this battle, but.... No, I am not a loser! I am Thrax, Champion of

“No!” Bransom doubled up and shook his head from side to side to throw off the overwhelming images in his mind. “I am Bransom, Waltar Bransom.” Still, the memories persisted, so real ... so real.

He straightened and forced the thoughts away. “I am Bransom,” he growled and raised his sword arm to parry an imaginary blow. Pity that the Norms would never experience—

But they could! Bransom froze in mid-stroke, a snarl captured on his face. Why not give them the ultimate Bread and Circuses?

“Eureka!” Bransom blinked and a triumphant grin split his face. “PRANDARX! Get me a car.” He danced out into the corridor. “I have to see Aldavar.”

“Why? Do you wish to congratulate him in person?”

Bransom barked a laugh. “No! But I have the solution to our problem and I want to put across my argument in person and make sure he gets the point.”

PRANDARX stopped at the lift. “Even if Aldavar will hear you out, what makes you think he will change his policies?”

The lift chimed and the doors opened. PRANDARX rolled in.

“Oh, don’t worry.” Bransom stepped in and swiped at an imaginary Aldavar. “I can handle him. Say, do you know where I can get a sword?”


The End