by Joseph Cusumano
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Mamma... Mamma, wake up. I’m hungry.” This made no sense to Angelica; she was half-asleep and no one’s mother. She found herself mere centimeters from a pair of big brown eyes, causing her to bolt upright in bed.
“What...?” was all she could say. Standing at the left edge of her bed was a beautiful little boy, staring up at her. She looked past him and didn’t recognize the bedroom, then heard a soft snore to her right. What she saw propelled her to her feet quickly. A hairy, almost naked man was sharing her bed, lying flat on his back.
“Mamma, I’m hungry.”
Angelica took the boy, whoever he was, by the hand and led him out of the bedroom before he could awaken the sleeping man.
“Where am I?” she asked the little boy.
“We’re at home,” he answered, staring up at her with confusion in his voice and face. She let him lead her down a flight of stairs into what looked like an exhibit of an antique kitchen at a museum.
“Buongiorno, Signora Donati.” Angelica turned quickly toward a tall, blonde woman in late middle age, who asked, “Did little Carlo get you up? I told him not to wake you.” Bending almost to eye level with the child, she said, “Carlo, it’s my job to get you breakfast. You know that. Now what would you like?”
“Oatmeal,” he answered.
“One nourishing, tasty bowl of oatmeal coming up. Is orange juice okay?” Carlo nodded. Angelica, wondering why she had been called Signora Donati, simply stood and watched as the woman who, she assumed, was a nanny turned on an antique gas stove and began filling a pot with water and oatmeal.
Just as the woman placed it on the ring of blue flame, she turned to Angelica and said, “The usual, Signora?”
Angelica simply nodded, wondering what “the usual” was.
It turned out to be two poached eggs, a small piece of ham, a freshly cut slice of bread, dark purple fruit preserves, and cappuccino. Angelica thanked the nanny, wondering what this woman’s name was but not daring to ask. She reached for the pepper and began to sprinkle it liberally on her eggs.
“Three months here, and I’ve never seen you use pepper. On anything,” the nanny said. Angelica stopped abruptly and set the pepper shaker down. “Don’t let me stop you. That’s how I eat them,” the nanny assured her.
“Gretchen, can I have more orange juice?” Carlo asked. Then Angelica asked herself, Why does Gretchen call me Signora Donati? All her life, she had been called Angelica, Angelica Brivio. And why is it so warm in here? Why don’t they close the windows and let the climate control do its job? Am I still in Rome?
* * *
It was Rome, but not Angelica’s Rome. Everywhere she explored, she found a much older city. There were cars in the streets, but not the silent electric vehicles she was used to. They were big, heavy-looking steel machines with running boards. Their large exterior radiators up front were crowned with a small animal or human figure, and they were noisy, smelly and smoky. Angelica’s Rome of 2035 had sweet clean air, but this Rome smelled of exhaust and other offensive odors.
And it wasn’t just an older version of Rome; it was a different Rome. The Catholic churches, including the Basilica of St. Peter, were missing. In their place were temples, each dedicated to a Roman god, and in the spacious and beautiful home where she awoke each morning was a small shrine dedicated to Jupiter. On the bright side, she loved the 1930s style of clothing she discovered in her wardrobe, especially the long dresses with low-cut necklines.
Strangest of all for Angelica was her own reflection. Staring back from her bedroom mirror with a look of amazement was the tall and beautiful Fia, who in no way resembled Angelica. She raised her right arm above her head and twirled like a ballerina to prove that what she saw in the mirror was really hers to command.
The effortless graceful movements were amazing, but would be easy to get used to. In her Rome of 2035, she had been dangerously overweight and trying to decide between mechanical knee replacement and the stem-cell variety. At that size, she could no longer take a really deep breath, and she became winded with mild exertion. Stairs had been anathema.
In Angelica’s Rome of 2035, marriage was considered quaint by some, romantic by a few, and risky by all. Most of the population didn’t marry, including those who wanted children. The main exceptions were members of the gay and lesbian communities, who married in great numbers. Angelica had been raised by a single mother and, at age forty-two, was single and childless. She cherished a group of caring and reliable female friends, but was no man’s inamorata.
Now she was Fia, the wife of Arturo Donati, her have-it-all fantasy of a man, and Angelica began compensating herself for decades of celibacy. Arturo was puzzled by his wife’s sudden ardor but had no complaints. For Angelica, it was pleasurable just to see male clothing in the bedroom closet.
Angelica’s profession as a particle physicist had been her major source of satisfaction and challenge in her previous incarnation. Fearing that an American team would beat them to the finish line, she and her colleagues at the Instituto di Fisica had been working furiously to complete the final phase of their research on the magnetic monopole, first proposed by Paul Dirac in 1931. Angelica explained her research to her friends by asking them to imagine a bar magnet so small that, if cut in two, would yield a separate north pole and a separate south pole, instead of the usual result of two smaller dipolar magnets.
Angelica suspected that she must have overturned a quantum applecart by rushing and botching a high-energy attempt to split off a magnetic monopole and had been flung into this new reality, one that ran alongside her Rome of 2035. She remembered a sudden bizarre sensation in her lab, as if she had been turned inside out, at the moment when the particle accelerator topped its nominal maximum output.
A terror like nothing she’d ever experienced gripped her, then her world went mercifully dark. As if adhering to a conservation law of physics, she awakened as an Italian woman who also was a physicist, although working at a level similar to the 1930s in her world of origin.
Though not particularly interested in volatile twenty-first century Italian politics where parliament was dissolved and reconstituted every year or two, Angelica was fascinated by the power structure of Fia’s world. In place of a parliament was the Roman Senate, in continuous operation for two thousand, seven hundred years. Rome ruled all the world’s continents except Australia and Antarctica, and Benito Caesar ruled all of Rome. Idealized statues and paintings of the short, bald, stocky dictator were everywhere, and although he usually wore a conventional business suit and tie each day, he was always portrayed by artists either in ancient Roman armor or in the white toga he donned when addressing the Roman Senate.
As in the distant past, only full citizens could vote or hold public office, and women were not invited. Angelica concluded this was the primary reason that almost the entire adult female population here was married. How else could they share in some of the privileges and wealth afforded to men? She found that women could train for and work in the various professions, but were greatly under-represented. In almost every situation, women seemed to defer to men, even to those in lower social strata.
In Fia’s world, Carthage and other similar threats had long since been eliminated as the Roman military conquered and then assimilated entire continents, making wars between sovereign states a thing of the past. Throughout the empire, the Pax Romana prevailed. There was only one currency, one set of laws, and one official language. Italian, the language of the common people, had replaced Latin.
Although the horrendous wars of the twentieth century that Angelica had studied in school had never occurred, the Roman military was still needed not only for policing but to snuff out the incipient rebellions that arose unpredictably in a colossal empire. Unpredictably except in two regions: Germania and Judea.
In these two regions, Pugno — the Fist — Rome’s worldwide counterterrorism force, fought a nearly constant battle with violent underground organizations determined to win independence from the empire. When one of these groups was infiltrated and then eradicated by Pugno, another would quickly arise.
Rome considered all these secret groups to be comprised of terrorists and zealots who would eventually be enslaved, crucified or thrown to the lions in one of the arenas, but one such group aroused particular alarm. New Carthage was a small underground coalition of Germans and Judeans who chose to hide in Rome itself, a group that Pugno had only recently infiltrated through the patient effort and guile of Arturo Donati.
* * *
Near the end of her first fortnight in the empire, on a Saturn’s Day, Angelica’s husband said to her at breakfast, “Fia, we’re going to the market today. I might buy another slave.” This puzzled Angelica. They already had three domestic German slaves, including the ever-helpful Gretchen, but she deferred to Arturo and asked Gretchen to help her select appropriate dress, footwear, and make-up.
After donning the black dress and the sandals chosen by Gretchen, Angelica was surprised to see how sparingly Gretchen applied cosmetics. Fia was attractive without make-up, but shouldn’t she look her best when Arturo and she ventured out?
When asked about this, Gretchen said, “Signora Donati, we’ve talked about this before. We both know that married women who use more than a little are thought to be contemplating adultery, and I’ll not have anyone think that of you.”
Angelica wanted to reply, “Not to worry! Until very recently, I hadn’t been intimate with a man in nearly twenty years.” But that response wouldn’t do, coming from a mother in her early thirties. Still, she was immensely grateful to have Gretchen guiding her in this bewildering new life.
Opening Fia’s jewelry armoire to select a necklace, Angelica came across an odd piece. Made of gold, T-shaped, and about the size of her hand, the top horizontal part was actually comprised of two separate pieces, each of which could be folded down alongside the center vertical piece. The lower half of the center piece was covered with rubber, as if it were a handle. She twirled it between her fingers and asked herself, Is this some type of pagan religious symbol? Hearing Arturo call her, she returned it to the drawer and selected a jeweled pendant on a chain.
In the car, Angelica hand-cranked her window lower as Arturo drove through the narrow, winding streets of Fia’s Rome on a warm, humid morning. She knew she had no way of getting back to her Rome of 2035; she told herself, Cheer up, you’ll only have to wait another thirty years for air conditioning.
After they had been driving for several minutes, she said, “Arturo, aren’t we driving away from the market?”
“Yes. It’s time for you to meet them.”
“Oh,” was all she could say, having no idea what Arturo meant.
“Usually, there are four New Carthaginians at the meeting,” Arturo said. “All scientists: two Germans and two Judeans. I’ll introduce you. Be careful of the Judean who goes by the name Emilio. He’s the most suspicious and paranoid of the group.”
“Okay,” she replied. “What do you want me to do?”
“They’ve examined your design for your part of the weapon,” Arturo answered, “and they’ll have questions. I brought your original drawings, if you want to review them. They’re in a large envelope under your seat.”
Angelica found the envelope, opened it, and began unfolding the diagram. In moments, she recognized the device and its specific use. It was a bridgewire detonator for a fission bomb. Fia created this? What was she thinking? Why is Arturo helping these men?
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Joseph Cusumano