The second she heard the news, Janie pushed him off, jumped up, and raced out the door. Activities in the ship’s recreational space were in full swing. She sprinted by tennis, squash, rock climbing, intramural soccer, the wave pool, and aquarium snorkeling. Two tiki bars rumbled with chatter.
The front of the four-story, clear-domed starship auditorium was a grand ballroom, its dance floor occupied by rows of chairs facing a giant screen on the other side of an elevated stage. Two hundred of the two hundred and forty crew members—everyone not on duty—were expecting to view images transmitted to their stationary orbit high above ancient Egypt.
“Let me guess,” said Karen, ship’s commander, with an upturned grin that was half a giggle, “You and Brad were in the Grotto again?”
That’s when Janie realized she had completed the four-hundred-meter dash wearing nothing but her pajama socks. Friend Michael, standing beside English butler-robot Dudley, handed Janie a robe from the naked Jacuzzi.
Janie never once took her eyes off the blank screen. “Where is she? Did you find her?” she asked.
“Bits of audio are coming in,” said Cindy, Andre’s personal robot, also a dead ringer for historical Cher.
Michael stood beside chief engineer Andre. One look at Janie stuck juicy smiles on both their faces, one of many effects Janie had on the world, and the one she hoped would never go away.
Janie walked up the stairs to the stage and then bounced on tiptoe as close as she could get to the screen. She had waited two years. She was no longer the pattern of patience.
“Yes, it’s the real thing—the ultimate reality show,” said her lover, Brad, who had reluctantly disengaged himself from the Grotto at Janie’s request. He had dressed before leaving, if you count one speedo and two slippers, Janie’s favorite outfit.
Michael had expected as much. He had a robe for Brad too.
The screen remained lifeless, but there was a crackle. From a voice that was firm and definitely female, broken words almost made a sentence.
“That’s it! That must be her!” Janie said, unable to control vocal overtones. “Andre hit the mark! Our time jump is perfect! That’s Cleopatra! The real Cleopatra! The only woman, hell, the only person who ever ruled the world!”
As Janie waited restlessly, Andre moved offstage to join Sarah, the love of his life. Both viewed the control panel Cindy was monitoring. Andre and Sarah held hands the moment they were within reach. They did that a lot.
“And it gets better,” Andre announced from the corner. “Our time slot is solid and the ship’s orbit stable. We can hang around for as long as we like.”
Janie ran over to join them. She gave Andre a fat kiss on the cheek.
“How soon can we put her consciousness to sleep for me to jump into her body?” she asked. “When do I become the most powerful woman on earth?”
“Now, just hold on there, gorgeous,” Andre said, waiting for Cindy to run the numbers through the central computer. “We haven’t worked out the details. And if simulations do hand us the green light, your body jump will be limited.”
The girl gang—Janie, Sarah, and Karen, crowded the screen while their fellas—Adonis profile Brad, towering adventurer Michael, and red-headed Andre, short, quiet, and soft as a baby’s bottom—sat front and center.
“Rule the world,” Michael said. “Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah … from every despot and deluded fundamentalist since sunlight woke our species.”
Andre pulled out his pad to track Cindy’s progress offstage. His look sobered Michael. Brad peeked over Andre’s shoulder for the body count of the day.
“‘Conquer the world. It will all be mine,’” Andre mimicked sarcastically. “At the rate warfare is killing people, there won’t be much world left. Totalitarians overdose on themselves to ride their dreams into nightmares, which sends friends, Romans, and countrymen to early graves.”
Michael tipped sideways to nudge shoulders with Andre. “There you go again, Andre, always magnifying defects. All the bad down there doesn’t diminish the good that betters civilization one step at a time.”
“A millimeter a century is more like it,” Andre replied. “Look at the violence.”
Brad pouted, shook his head, and then smiled, satisfied. “Both you guys are missing the point.”
“Which is?” quizzed Michael.
“The more fun we have, the more humanity adds up to. For example, Janie and I get to observe, and perhaps even make love to, the most famous, most powerful, most alluring couple in all of human history. That’s what I call getting lucky.”
“Oh, really,” Michael said, tipping over to Brad. “And what exactly were you and Janie doing with Beth, and Elmo, and Trish, and Sven, an hour ago?”
“That’s an easy one. Getting lucky … and lucky … and lucky.”
As soon as Explorer Seven had established a stable orbit, robot Cindy had sent twenty cloaked gravity-supported micro-drones to the surface to snoop around. A series of flashes showed up on screen. Each one was too rapid for the human brain to focus on, but each was evaluated by Cindy and Dudley in microseconds.
“Hold on,” Cindy announced loud enough for the ladies to hear, which started them backing up to take in the full view. “I found her.”
The girl gang stood center stage facing the screen. The guys sat center-chaired, looking back and forth between the screen and three perfect backsides.
“I’m in heaven,” Michael swooned. “I could take in this show every night.”
“Thank you, God.”
“Shh!” was all they got out of Janie.
No one spoke. No one moved.
There are moments in life that transcend existence itself, when the bonds of mortal form are left behind, when a single breath completes eternity, when one is no longer one—when all are in a state of perfect love. Such enlightenment ignited the moment.
Sarah—long hair straight, face untouched by the mysteries of self-adornment, and all the more beautiful for it—felt the moment, and turned, knowing Andre’s gaze was there waiting. They were in love and they knew it.
Michael and Karen shared a delicacy of spirit their controlled countenances never betrayed. Their souls caressed tenderness for one another that neither believed was possible until the night when, years after they strained to deny it, love swept the last obstacle aside and surrounded both with joy to last a lifetime.
Karen turned around just after Sarah did. There was no need to watch a screen; she had Michael. There was, and never would be found in the furthest heavens, a treasure more dear than their bond. The second Karen surrendered to happiness, she knew Michael would always be there.
Michael was there looking back at her. He didn’t need to watch a copy of someone else’s life. His every dream was standing on stage. Their hearts would never let go. They were in love, and they knew it.
Cupid had saved a special arrow for Brad and Janie. No one quite understood them. They barely understood themselves. Side by side they were a carnival of joy, bouncing from tilt-a-whirl to roller coaster, cotton candy to the tunnel of love. They never stopped, rarely sat, found no reason to wait, but, more importantly, never stewed.
Janie and Brad did stir life in ways that left others dizzy. It was magic. They side-stepped every obstacle between containment and freedom, regret and consummation. They danced life unconventional. For them, every moment was exuberant. They were in love, and everyone knew it.
They were also the only couple onboard—perhaps the only couple that ever lived—whose expectations resembled those Cleopatra shared with Mark Antony, or so they thought.
Antony was an aristocrat spoiled from birth, just like Brad. Cleopatra had beauty crediting radiance equal to Janie’s. The Roman who fell for the goddess of Egypt was in love, and the whole world heard about it.
What the couple didn’t know was that being entitled and pampered wasn’t enough, and in fact was about to bring them down.
Janie turned to throw Brad a kiss and a low-down hip swing. Both hit the target. Dudley interrupted their air sex by walking on stage. He was waiting for the full assembly to find seats before giving Cindy the nod. He intended to begin the day with his usual erudite introduction, dripping with attitude and upper-crust low-key snobbery.
Dudley stopped short. No one wanted to listen to him. They wanted Cleopatra. How did he know? The room drowned him out.
“Cleopatra …! Cleopatra …!”
Then there she was.
The ballroom audience gasped, astonished. Cleopatra herself—the real person, the individual whom twenty-five hundred years of civilization knew personally, the most charismatic vixen of all time—was right there in front of them, living, breathing, naked, her brown cheeks flushed with passion, her alluring hips tilted toward Mark Antony as he gifted kisses from her navel to the nectar of her lips. He was also naked and, like his lover, paid no attention to the slaves who, facing away, gently fanned the air.
The drone camera, out of sight in the corner, widened the view. Antony and Cleopatra were in their open-air bedroom on the top deck of her royal barge, silently sailing the Nile. It was a day of passion. They were in love, and they expected the entire world to abide by their wishes.
Rome had other ideas. The land of treachery, murder, and exploitation coveted every inch of the soil they stole from others, right before they buried them in it. Antony so loved Cleopatra that he gifted her first child, son of almighty Julius Caesar, and his own twins with her, parcels of land from the Eastern Front.
Rome was not pleased. Their gods were Greed, Power, and Subjugation. There was no love in Rome. There never was. There wouldn’t be for two thousand years. The greatest tragedy in life is not what’s missed—it’s not giving a damn about it.
And yes, of course, there was one among them, a self-absorbed sociopath, who found no lie beyond reason, no betrayal out of reach, no evil so menacing that it couldn’t be inflamed to be even more cruel. His name was Octavian, who with Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus had risen to power after consenting to the murder of his maternal great-uncle, Julius Caesar. His obsession was to take Egypt and have his way with Cleopatra. Mark Antony was in the way.
Three years after Mark Antony’s death in 30 BCE, Octavian would become Emperor Caesar Augustus. Then, forty-four years later, Octavian was to die on the day his wife poisoned him.
Back to the show. What Cleopatra wanted, Cleopatra got. She rolled her naked body. She lay flat looking straight at Antony, who wasn’t seeing anything straight, thanks to his second flask.
Too much of a good thing never kept Mark down. He rose to his feet, kind of, if you don’t count the canopy pole he never let go of. They had gone straight to bed after boarding hours earlier. The day was a giant success. Walking—or wobbling on the deck—seemed like a good idea to Mark.
Cleopatra had another plan. She ordered two naked handmaidens on their knees to please Antony. Then a second pair of lovely young women, bare-skinned and luscious, took up positions on either side of Cleopatra. When she lay back, four arms lifted her hips to offer her wares, temptation no man had ever resisted.
Cleopatra’s wide welcome was just the start. She positioned herself for assistant number three to lean in and fill her love chamber with sweet nectar, what Mark had his eyes on.
Antony sprung forward. He paused directly over her. The wine came first. It was in the way. Following a slurp and countless licks, he raised his head to use his tongue to talk:
“My lady … my love …” he began, stumbling over syllables, “you are the goddess of all that is, was, and ever shall be. Your love makes life worth living.”
After a pause, Antony finished his climb over the beckoning Cleopatra. The connection was complete.
“Cleopatra,” Antony whispered in her ear, “I pledge to you everything the world has to offer. Say the word and all will be yours.”
The explosion of sensuality on screen reached all the way to Explorer Seven in orbit. Couples reached for their partner’s hand before walking out the stern bulkhead to a bedroom. There would always be reruns, and highlights of the day.
“Oh, my God!” is what Janie sang out when Cleopatra split like an inverted ballerina. “I so want to do that! Cleopatra can order sex anytime she wants, with anyone she wants, anywhere she wants to do it! And Brad … you can flip into Antony!”
Cleopatra had Brad at the first boob. Dogs in August pant less, but at least Brad wasn’t drooling, on the outside anyway.
A thrilling day was had by all, which left Antony and Cleopatra all in. They fell asleep in each other’s arms for a long afternoon’s nap. By prior decree, those in attendance closed the canopy curtains and left their queen to her dreams.
Hours later, Antony awoke more sober than he liked, which was sober at all, something he had been able to avoid for months as the army of Octavian marched closer.
“Are you awake, my dearest?”
“I am, Mark. And don’t start drinking again like yesterday. You’ll just pass out.”
“Yes … right … I want to be alert. And I was thinking about what we talked about at dinner.”
“And settled, as you no doubt recall.”
“Yes, of course. It’s just that I keep thinking about the ultimate nature of reality, how we don’t determine who we are, and should not prefer our false selves to truth. In all things, those funny old Greeks said, reason must prevail.”
“What will prevail is the house of Isis, the ruler of all that is. I am the daughter of Isis. I am a goddess. I am immortal. The power of the gods will rescue us. All that is belongs to me. It is the eternal way. And I am not a vase for men to flower their bedroom, or trophy shelf. I am Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt. No one dare stand before me who does not kneel first.”
Antony was swaying with the wind, but overall coming to his senses. He took advantage of Cleopatra’s outburst to kneel at her feet, the advance he was looking for to taste her all over again. She tilted her head back and made the sounds he loved to hear.
By the time the couple finished round two (actually, three) neither had tasted wine for hours. On the foredeck, clear heads turned back into politicians.
“My lovely,” Antony began, soft voice polite, “we both know human nature can be vicious, and that holding on to old habits adds risk and stills the force of reason. We are, in the end, but man and woman, lovers and friends. And we are parents, who share responsibility for the dearest children on earth.”
“Who deserve the kingdom of their birthright,” she replied. “Amun, the Sun God, says it must be so. Our family dates back further than we have calendars. We rule by divine right. I am Cleopatra. This is my country. I refuse to leave.”
Antony faced away from Cleopatra and stepped to the corner before turning around, at military attention. “Then, my queen, take the advice of your advisors. I have a boat, supplies, and a crew to take us to a secret island off the coast of Africa. It is at the edge of the world, so far away that no one ever goes there. We can live out our lives doing whatever we want, and take all the gold, slaves, and sacred statues with us. The tide is high at midnight. Let’s be onboard.”
Cleopatra took time to measure her response. She also needed to change her image, for Antony and for herself. After gowning herself in golden threads and a diamond crown, Cleopatra sat at the edge of the bed with one hand on each knee, like she did in high court—her high court.
“I will let no man take from me what is rightfully mine, and I do not give freely. We have driven the Romans away in the past. We will do it again.”
“The color of the battlefield begs to differ,” replied Mark Antony.
“Enough! You know you can do this. You command half of the Roman army, and you have my soldiers as well.”
“My half has been whittled away. I try my best, but the days keep turning against us.”
“Nonsense. You will be victorious. Your great-uncle, the immortal Julius Caesar, fought off my sister’s army, which had four swords for every one of his. Julius did it. So can you.”
“Oh, yes … of course … the great Julius Caesar, who could do anything except stay alive. Well, there was that ambush I was thinking about, but we’d have to leave the fortifications of the city.”
Antony went muddle-headed blank halfway through, trying to come up with a plan. The headache didn’t help.
“No, wait,” he said, “You changed the subject. Sailing away gives us an absolute chance of survival. Everything else is risky.”
“It’s all right, Antony. You can do it. Sober up and we’ll talk in the morning.”
“Fine, but not here. This bed is too tempting.”
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