Saturday, July 6, 2013

INCEPTIO (Roma Nova) by Alison Morton

    Hand clamped on bag against purse snatchers, I wound my way through the mass of people hurrying to work next morning. I was still processing everything Conrad had said. If any of it was true, how could all that have been hidden from me for so long?
    About a hundred yards before my station, I sensed something was wrong. Out on the edges of my consciousness, I knew somebody was watching me. Acting like James Bond, but feeling ten times more foolish, I stopped to look in a shop window, so I could glimpse back. Thankfully, it was full of shoes, so it was a reasonable thing to do. Up the street was the same man with the cell phone whose stare had pierced the glass of my window the previous Sunday.
    When I looked again, he’d vanished; I didn’t see him for the rest of my journey. At the office, I shut my mind, pushing it away. I settled down to my work, talking through a couple of points with Hayden. Now I had caught the attention of the boss, I was determined to stay in his sights.
    After putting it off a few times, I eventually grasped the telephone and called the commercial section at the Roma Nova legation on the pretext of getting biographical details for Sextilius Gavro. When I slipped in some questions about Conrad, I knew I sounded ditzy, but he checked out as Gavro’s interpreter. As I replaced the handset, it struck me that the commercial officer had stonewalled me, giving me nothing else about Conrad but that one fact.
    I buckled down and produced outlines, plans and graphs, irritating a bored Amanda by grunting in reply to her needling. But, by late afternoon, I’d finished most of it and sat back, sipping a well-earned coffee. My browser was still open and I couldn’t resist searching the Internet about Roma Nova; meeting Conrad had thrown some type of switch inside me.
    The images showed mountains and forests, a lot like the Helvetian Confederation, and a big river, cute stone buildings with curled tile roofs, and old monuments. On one site, the writer conceded Roma Nova’s high-tech and financial services economy gave them a standard of living exceeding most Western economies, but criticised them as ‘hidden and discreet’. He didn’t think much of them staying neutral during the Great War.
    I leaned back in my chair. Who wouldn’t have sat out that ten-year savagery if they could have? Although it ended in 1935, it had taken most countries until the sixties to recover. But the writer admitted the civil war twenty-three years ago in Roma Nova had torn the country apart. I counted that through in my head: that horror happened after my mom had come to the States.
    I scrolled down, fascinated, not sensing the time sneak up on me. Interpedia gave the usual historical stuff: the Western Roman Empire had fallen, and Roma Novans had retreated to cold, fortified villages in the mountains north of Italy. Protected by political truces and economic links with their Byzantine cousins, they had fought to recover the lower-lying parts of Roma Nova, holding against all comers, even after the Eastern Empire was overcome by the Ottomans. The key had been knowing more secrets, having more money and striking back hard when attacked. Now they sat on the precarious frontier between the eastern Reds and the free West.
    I sat back and stared at the screen. Who were these tough people? Could I really be related to them?
    As they traded their silver, financial acumen and knowledge across Europe and the rest of the world, they spread their philosophy of female leadership. I knew foreign countries like Louisiane and Québec had elected female presidents and, I thought, some European ones. Our own president was on her second term; now she was supporting her husband’s campaign to get into the Presidential Mansion. Would it have been any different, then, without Roma Nova?
    A little before six, I stepped out of the elevator into the lobby and found Conrad waiting for me. Before I could stop him, he’d bent down and kissed my cheek casually, like a friend. He took my arm and pulled me out into the noise of Connaught Avenue. I looked both ways to gauge the traffic. I couldn’t believe it but twenty yards to my left was the same man as this morning, seeming to get a paper. This was becoming creepy.
    ‘You’ve spotted yours, have you?’ Conrad said. ‘I know it’s very tempting, but please don’t turn round again and look at him.’
    In movies, the character who turned around when told not to instantly regretted it. But we weren’t in a movie. Surely they weren’t spending that many tax dollars tailing me? We found a booth in a bar peopled by suits of both sexes. It was noisy but clean, and the food smelled good.
    ‘Okay, explain, please. Just what the hell is going on?’
    ‘Irritating, aren’t they? Ignore them.’
    ‘I can’t ignore being stalked. There’s a law against it.’
    ‘Yes, but what if it’s the law that’s stalking you?’ He fixed me with those strange copper-green eyes. ‘It’s me they’re targeting. They think I’m up to something. Now I’ve contacted you, they’re sure I am.’
    My head whirled, and not with the din. I raised an eyebrow and looked straight at Conrad, challenging him to come up with something logical.
    ‘I work for the Roma Nova government,’ he said, his face bare of any emotion. ‘But I’m on leave, and my visit is for private reasons: to help Sextilius and to find you. I have a diplomatic passport – it makes things easier.’ He flicked some crumbs off the table. ‘Unfortunately, Americans get a bit paranoid about Roma Nova. They don’t understand who and what we are. They’re frightened of our technology, but they can’t buy us and we don’t toe their line. The politicos on both sides smile at each other but conceal their bared teeth behind closed lips.’ He shrugged. ‘That’s what my uncle says, anyway.’
    The waitress approached. Conrad touched my hand and narrowed his eyes. After getting some beers, I ordered a salad and, like a tourist, he went for the cardiac-arrest-inducing house special burger and fries. He saw my look of disapproval and laughed.
    Half-slouching in his seat and relaxed as if we were discussing the latest gossip, he explained. ‘Your father’s company is of immense strategic importance to America. A lot of their specialist technology is designed and manufactured at Brown Industries. All the time it’s owned by a loyal American, even a naturalised one like your father, they only keep a watching brief. But the smallest whiff of “foreign influence” would set alarms ringing. I’d refuse the bet that didn’t say you were in the diary for a security interview in the next few weeks.’
    The normal clinking of crockery and cutlery, the swish of drinks filling glasses, and the laughter and talking in the busy bar acted like a reality barrier. Listening to Conrad, I wondered if I’d crossed into a parallel dimension. This was getting worse by the day. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was already under scrutiny.
    ‘Why…why would I be interviewed?’
    ‘Your twenty-fifth birthday is in a few weeks’ time. You’ll get complete control of BI on that day. They’ll want to press on you the necessity of keeping the company one hundred per cent American. Basically, they’re going to put the frighteners on you.’ His smile was so cynical, I was repelled.
    Fortunately, the waitress brought our food at that point.
    ‘They can’t do that!’ I hissed at him. He might come from some tinpot little country, but this was the land of the free. I was a good American; Uncle Brown had insisted we took part in every national event, Franklin Day, Memorial Day, everything.
    ‘Look, I don’t know about Roma Nova but that type of thing doesn’t happen here. Every citizen is free to do as they please, as long as it’s not illegal. That includes businesses. The government can’t force them into anything.’
    Then I realised what I’d said. God, it was ironic. When I floored Junior Hartenwyck, I’d become a victim of that same government. But I wasn’t going to back down now, not in front of a foreigner and certainly not in front of Conrad.
    ‘Okay, Karen, have it your way.’ He looked at me with a long stare, almost like a teacher working out how to explain a complex point to an ignorant child. I found it unnerving.
    ‘Humour me about the watchers, though.’ His eyes narrowed and seemed to tilt up at the outside edges. ‘Keep a note of when they’re near. If you get worried, you contact me immediately, okay?’
    He handed me a card with his name and cell phone number – and nothing else.
    This was getting too deep. Maybe it was true, maybe it was a scam. I didn’t want to get into any more trouble. Taking my time, I drew my knife and fork together on my plate, pushed it away and stood up.
    ‘I’m going to leave now and go home. What you’ve told me, it’s like something out of a bad movie.’ I looked straight at him. ‘I need time to think.’
    I weighed up what he’d told me as I rode back in the cab. I reassured myself I’d done the right thing. I’d had one run-in with the establishment and lost. Badly. I shivered when I thought about that. Now I’d begun to succeed in my normal job, I wanted to hold on to it, to keep my life regular and safe.

    The first in a series of exciting alternate history thrillers set in mysterious Roma Nova.
    New York, present day. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.
    Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus, who rescued her in America, isolates her.
    Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it…
    I held the pen a few inches above the form. Scarcely seventy-two hours after being terrorised by government thugs, I was signing away something that other people desperately sought from that same government. Naïvely, they thought it gave them protection, rights and status. But I’d discovered the hard way what an illusion it was.
    I duly signed K Brown. Would I ever use that signature again?
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    Genre – Thriller (Alternate History)
    Rating – PG13
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