Authors: Michael G. Thomas
“Each of these elevators is white-noise shielded to prevent your conversations from being heard or recorded. Even the assistants are mutes and as well as deaf. They are completely incapable of hearing you speak or able to repeat what you say. You will notice that once you speak, they will turn away until we arrive. They are chosen from the most trustworthy families in the Empire.
Xenophon nodded politely, but deep down he had little faith in either the security of the building or the ability of these people to keep secrets. One thing that was common knowledge about the Medes was their political savvy and cunning. Gossip, rumour and intelligence were major parts of state policy, just as much were the art of war. Glaucon, on the other hand, seemed interested only in looking at the naked woman who stood silently and facing outwards, away from them all. He reached out to touch her shoulder to get her attention, but Lady Artemas grabbed his arm and pushed it aside.
“No, they are officials of the Imperial Bureaucracy. They are not to be touched, interfered with or harmed in any way. It is Imperial law that touching one is punishable in the old ways.”
“Old ways?” asked Roxana, who until now had been silent. In many ways, she was the most mature of those present, and the wonders of this world never ceased to amaze her.
Lady Artemas smiled.
“Oh, yes. As in, ‘you touch a hand maiden, and you will lose your hand’- very old and very permanent. It is harsh but rarely carried out.”
Glaucon snorted in derision.
“This is why these people are so soft. They are slaves, subservient to a small Medes master class that rules with violence and cruelty.”
The elevator started to slow and came to a gentle halt. The door opened, and the two naked assistants beckoned for them to leave. As they exited the spotless compartment, Lady Artemas waited for Glaucon to come nearer.
“Your home world of Attica, the great democratic hope for the Terrans. How fair, safe and well run is it when answering to the mob? Is a people’s democracy any better than the rule of the public mob? Do they operate as individuals or work in groups on the advice and say so of powerful figures in public office and the media?”
She laughed gently.
“Don’t be so proud of your little democratic state. You’ve started more wars, killed more Terrans and butchered more of your own people than any other Terran world in the last three hundred years.”
She then turned and walked into an open floor area rich with water features, plants and sculptures. It looked more like a great garden than an apartment. She pointed into the distance where a waterfall cascaded down a marble archway and into a great green pool.
“That is the entrance to the apartment complex, and this is the meditation area.”
She walked ahead of their small group and made directly for the arched entrance. Her four guards were overwhelmed by the beauty and extravagance of the meditation area. There were no people about, not even cleaners or workers, and the only sounds to be heard were the falling water.
“This is weird,” Glaucon said, to the surprise of the rest.
They continued walking, but Xenophon slowed slightly to move alongside his friend. Glaucon pointed to the water features and the trees.
“This looks like a park, it even smells like one, but what can you hear? Water. There are no birds, no animals and no people. This place would drive me mad!”
Xenophon nodded, but he quite liked the idea of the peace and serenity offered by such a place of calm. Though they had grown up together and shared a love of martial training, and even political argument, there was no doubt that Xenophon was the traditional academic. He had a fond love of the arts and of great literature. Glaucon was far more the liberal, and when not spouting his belief for social change and democratic idealism, he could be found drinking himself to a stupor at one of his many parties back on Attica.
They continued a short distance further until reaching the entrance. They all stopped, gazing at the array of marble columns that led inside. Lady Artemas was the only one not to stand and looked on in awe. Instead, she marched forward and between the first two columns. The others chased after her and walked down the short colonnade. It eventually led into a communal area filled with lavish recliners and seating, as well as space for all manner of activities that any of them could think of. Xenophon stopped and looked up at a marble gallery that ran around the entire interior of this part of the apartments. Anyone in those raised areas would have a perfect view of the ground below, including the seating areas and the empty circular region in the middle. He pointed directly at it.
“What is that for?”
Lady Artemas stopped and glanced at the spot, beckoning them to follow her through thick glass door at the far end. There were similar doors spaced out every twenty to thirty metres around the outer rim, presumably leading to each of three apartments.
“The space is for any physical activity deemed to be of interested to the visiting dignity.”
“Huh?” said Glaucon in a confused tone.
Artemas stopped and sighed, waving her hand at the open area.
“Some use it for dancing, others for theatre or poetry recitals. There have even been occasions where martial displays have been run here.”
“What about you?” Xenophon asked.
Lady Artemas looked at him and tilted her head ever so slightly. She stared directly into his eyes.
“Well, I prefer to have people in that space doing something I find amusing.”
“Such as?” he continued, now eager to understand what she was talking about. But she turned and stepped up to the glass doors. They opened automatically, revealing an opulent interior filled with marble walls, columns, gleaming tables and scores of great art works. Xenophon spotted a particular painting and rushed inside to just a few metres away.
“This is the painting of the Battle of Marathon. I heard it had been lost centuries ago. Now it hangs as just one of many paintings in a random apartment?”
Lady Artemas approached a beautifully carved wooden throne and settled down.
“No, this is no random room. This is the accommodation reserved for use by royalty in the Empire. This is where the greatest and most powerful of our people come to relax and enjoy the pleasures of this place, usually when the fleet is preparing for manoeuvres. It is actually rarely used. The Emperor, after all, has over a hundred similar spires and those in the Core Worlds make this one look, well, primitive.”
“What? How is this primitive?”
Lady Artemas pointed back to the door.
“Most of the people you have seen here have come from worlds that are scattered through the Empire. You will find few Medes women offering their services here. They can command ten times the rewards in the other Core Worlds and service the more privileged of our society. Working in these industrial or military areas tend to favour a more, well, primitive sort of clientele.”
She looked at Glaucon, and he could easily tell it was a jibe at his expense. She then walked up to the painting and turned to Xenophon.
If you like the art here, then try to imagine what you would find on worlds like Babylon Prime.”
Xenophon was still enamoured with the lost painting on the wall. He’d heard about it so many times that he could barely conceal his pleasure at seeing it with his own eyes. On Attica, there were no known copies in existence.
“This painting was featured with three others inside the ancient Painted Arch, what we call the Stoa Poikile, back home in the capital. Panaenus, brother of Pheidias, produced it. At its height, it held many great paintings, most concerned with military victories. I don’t suppose you have those relating to the victories of the Terrans over the Medes?”
Lady Artemas shook her head. She knew that all those works of art had been burned in a public ceremony just a few years ago. There would be little benefit in telling them about their destruction.
That is for another day and another place,
she thought to herself.
Roxana approached the painting and examined it for a moment.
“Yes, I’ve heard of him. Isn’t this the painting with the dog?”
Artemas looked confused at her comment, but only Tamara seemed to share her confusion at the mention of the dog.
“A dog? As in a small four-legged animal?”
Xenophon pointed at the centre of the battle where the warriors from Attica were engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat at the spaceport of Marathon. Some of the Median warriors fought, but most were retreating in rout to their ships to escape the ferocity of the Terrans. In the middle of the fight was a Terran soldier who faced off against three separate enemy warriors. They were much bigger than the others.
“They are the Taochi, the foul conquered tribes of the destroyed Taochi Empire. The Empire has used them as shock troops for centuries. Now, look here.”
He pointed to the foot of the Terran soldier. It showed a medium sized dog with his jaw around one of the warrior’s arms, pulling his weapon from the soldier.
“This dog had travelled with the Terran soldier to the camp. He rushed out and fought the Medes army alongside his master and saved him from a spear strike in the middle of the great rout. He is one of the most celebrated animals in Attica.”
“A dog?” laughed Lady Artemas.
Glaucon, Xenophon and Roxana all cast her a look that told her it was not a subject to make jokes over. Instead, she reclined back into the great throne and tapped a button. A small hatch opened to reveal a glowing metal orb. She placed it on the arm of the chair, tapping it three times. A blue haze burst forth like an energy shield and filled the room.
“This is a suppression screen. It will ensure we have utmost privacy while activated.”
Glaucon looked to Xenophon with a raised eyebrow. The others might be unsure as to what he was thinking, but Xenophon new too well that Glaucon probably thought it was time to tear off his clothes and find the nearest of the ‘givers’ as they were called.
“What? You thought we were here for amorous activities? No, we are here on the business of my uncle, Lord Cyrus.”
This immediately grabbed the attention of Xenophon. He turned from the painting and approached the regal looking figure of Lady Artemas.
“What? You tricked us!” he said angrily.
“I’m sorry, Xenophon. I had no idea you were so keen to find a nubile wench to waste a few days with. No, I have a friend already on his way. He will be here in less than a few minutes. I suggest we present a united front upon his arrival.”
“Who is it?” demanded Tamara, now equally as annoyed as the others.
The sound of dulled footsteps was now audible as the door opened, and in walked a Medes man of some high status. He looked similar to Cyrus though perhaps a little shorter. He wore the lavish finery of a senior member of the Median nobility and a small, highly detailed breastplate over which hung a number of adornments. His head was bare but his hair long and braided.
“Positions,” muttered Xenophon under his breath.
The four quickly positioned themselves around their Lady, with one at each flank and two at her front. Although they were unarmoured, they all carried Terran issue carbines on their flanks in case of trouble on the planet. The system might be under Terran control, but that hardly meant it was guaranteed to be safe for Terrans. Xenophon slid down his right hand and flicked off the safety of his own weapon. They were modified versions of the trusty Doru Mk II high velocity rifle but cut down to make them suitable for close quarter work and escort duty. They were squat and accurate only at short ranges but still incredibly more powerful.
The Medes man knelt down in the excessively over the top fashion so detested by the Terrans, before standing and nodding to the guards.
“My Lady Artemas. I bring news and reports from home, as requested.”
Artemas lifted herself from the throne and approached him slowly. Xenophon and Roxana watched carefully, looking for any sign of movement that would betray an attempt on the life of their charge. When close enough, she stopped. The man reached forward, kissed her gently on each cheek and stepped back. He reverted to his own language but managed just a few words before being interrupted by her.
“Please, not in front of our guests. These are my handpicked Terran bodyguards, as decreed by Lord Cyrus himself. They have already proven themselves in battle with both their own kind and ours.”
“He looked at them in turn, sighed and looked back to Lady Artemas.