The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, November 9, 2014


"Custodes" was originally published in the Sept. 2013 issue of The Fifth Dimension:


Sergius rubbed his chin as he read the placard on the exterior of the Roma Locomotive Terminus.  It was blatant but effective.
     “Do You Have a Hot Tip?
     “CHRIST-STOPPERS offers a reward for information leading to the arrest and execution of ANY CHRISTIAN
     “30 pieces of silver!
     “You will remain anonymous.
     “Telephone today I-DCCC-DLV-MCCXII”
     The businessman smiled.  “Someone must have a sly sense of humor,” he thought, “using hot tip on a poster printed after the Great Fire.”
     As he rubbed his chin, he realized he needed a shave. “Damn, it is a long train ride from Mediolanum,” he thought.
     He snapped his fingers as he got into the taxi.  “The Coliseum Plaza, and quickly.”


     Advotius grabbed a herring.  “You told Chiesus he could come over?”
     “Yes, pater.  He hasn’t seen the rainbow teleceptor yet.”
     Berenice slid a small cup of garum in front of her husband.  “We don’t mind, do we, Advo?”
     Advotius plopped a herring in the bowl.  “Why doesn’t his family get their own rainbow teleceptor?”
     The teenager shrugged and picked up a quail drumstick. “I guess they’re poor.  His father only runs a little votive shop in the Forum.”
     Advotius wagged the sloppy herring at the boy.  “Just so long as he’s quiet. I want both of you to stifle while we watch ‘Custodes’”
     “I understand, pate!”
     The doorbell rang.  Amnius jumped up to let his friend in.
     “Good evening, Master and Mistress Alverarium.”
     “Evening, Chiesus.”  Advotius turned to his wife.  “Honey, how close is ‘Custodes’ to starting?”
     Berenice looked at her wristwatch.  “Just two or three minutes.”
     “Damn, I got home late tonight.  The Via Hades was running especially slow.”
     He wiped his fingers on a linen cloth.  “Let’s all retire to the grotto.”
     The Alverariums and Chiesus went into the large dark room where the teleceptor sat. “Amni, turn it on before you sit down,” said Advotius. “So it can warm up.”
     In a little over a minute, the color picture appeared. Chiesus squirmed in his seat as Advotius smiled.
     “You haven’t seen one of these yet, have you?”
The teenager smiled nervously. “No, sir.  You have the first one on the block.”
     In a moment, the Eagle and Fasces insignia of the Imperial Broadcasting Service appeared as the drums and bagpipes of regimental music swelled.  Then the theme song began:
     “Custodes! Custodes!  What would you do?  When the magisterium comes for you!”
     A very official-sounding voice declaimed, “All miscreants are guilty once detained and will be appropriately executed.”
      Chiesus turned to Amnius. “Zeus, I wish they’d show the executions, too!”
     Advotius gave the pair a stern look. The boys clammed up and sat back in their seats.
     The picture tube showed a pair of custodes in a large autochariot patrolling the Tarpian District.  The one at the wheel spoke to the camera.
     “We’ve received a Christ-stoppers tip that there were Christians meeting in a grove atop the Tarpian Rock. They’ve broken up, but we hope to catch some of them as they head home. Here we go!”
     The shrill bagpipe-like drone of the siren began as the chariot pulled to the curb behind two men dressed in simple cloaks.
     Both custodes jumped from the chariot.  “Halt!  Don’t attempt to flee!”
     Rather than run, the two men stopped and turned towards the lawmen, hands together in supplication.
     “Good evening, officers,” said the foremost, a white-haired men.  “What seems to be the problem?”
     “We have a report of a secret Christian meeting this evening,” said one. “Do you know anything about that?”
     The camera was now behind the two men.  “No sir, I don’t know anything about a secret Christian meeting.”
     “Well, forget about secret,” said a custodes.  “Are you Christians?”
     “No, I can’t say we’re Christians,” said the younger man.
     “Enough of your double-talk,” said the second custodes.  “Put your hands on your head,”
     He began to aggressively pat down the older man.  In a moment, he pulled something shiny out and held it up for the camera.
     “A chalice.  Christians use these in their rituals to drink blood!”
     The other custodes stabbed a finger at the unseen side of the cup.  “Look, the pisces symbol!”
     The custodes holding the chalice turned it around and held it up again for the camera.  “The secret Christian symbol!”
     The other custodes brought a heavy mace down on the head of the younger man, who crumpled without a sound.
     The camera tilted as the older man fell to his knees and started praying.  The chalice was thrown into the street, and the custodes began kicking the man with their heavy boots.
     “This is going to be good,” piped Amnius.
     “Not another sound out of either of you!” snarled Advotius.


     The teleceptor programming director steepled his fingers.
     “Honestly, Sergius, did you expect to buy another season of ‘Custodes’ at the same price?  With ratings so high?”
     The Northerner sighed.  “No, Tamianius, but I didn’t expect a 200 per centum hike!”
     Tamianius spun around in his chair and looked across the Roman skyline. “I admire your persistence, though, taking the red eye locomotive from Mediolanum.”
     Sergius lowered his voice. “I didn’t come here to kiss your ass, you know.  I had something I wanted to tell you, in person.”
     He rose from his chair.  “But as long as we’re not even talking…”
     Tamianius spun around again.  “Who said we’re not talking?”
     He laid his forearms on his desk.  “What could be so important you would not want to risk Nero’s Praetorians overhearing it on the telephone?”
     Sergius closed the office door and sat down again.  “I have learned something that might be a reason for the Imperium not to renew your license.”
     Tamianius laughed.  “That’s ridiculous.  ‘Custodes’ not only enforces respect for Imperial Law, it’s been one of the most useful tools in the Christian crackdown.”
     “Well, yes, insofar as the Christians have been framed for the Great Fire,” spat Sergius. “Don’t look at me that way. Come on! Everyone knows it was really set by developers who wanted to clear out the central city for urban renewal.”
     “You had better watch your tongue.  You’re far from Mediolanum.”
     “That may be so, but what if I told you that I recently had a local businessman renew his very large advertising contract--he’s a used autochariot salesman--on condition that ‘Custodes’ be picked up for another year by my station--a man who I know is secretly a Christian?”
     “That’s ridiculous.  Why would a Christian support ‘Custodes’”?
     “Have you ever watched how the Christians behave when they’re caught?  Do you ever feel a glimmer of sympathy?”
     “No.  Not in the least.”
     “Yes, well we know you’re not normal.  After I received this unusual request, I asked some people whose opinions I trust what they thought of the brutality on ‘Custodes’ against Christians. You know what they said?”
     Tamianius shook his head.
     “They said seeing this kind of bloodshed in the arena is one thing, but having it brought into your home at night is too much”
     “Do you mean that ‘Custodes’ may be creating sympathy for the Christians?”
     “Why would a crypto-Christian pledge thousands of denari on its renewal?”
     “I don’t know. You tell me.”
     “Thirty-five years ago, when their ‘god’ the Galilean roamed Palestine, there was no teleceptor, but we had sound newskinos.  Have you ever seen the speech he made on that hill outside Jerusalem?”
   “Of course not.  I’ve heard of it, though.  Silly shit.  ‘Blessed are you, and blessed are they, and blessed are every-fucking-body!”
     “I saw it years ago when I was at the Academy, before it was banned.  It’s very effective.  The fact remains, though, that few people have seen an admitted Christian up close and personal--until you put them on the picture tube,” said Sergius. “Have you ever seen a Christian fight back?”
     “No.  Not even in outtakes.”
     “Sounds like an effective strategy to get sympathy, to me.”


     “That’s wonderful.  Does Chiesus know?”
     “Not at all. It will be a big surprise.”
     The teenager ran in the front door and skidded to a halt in front of his parents.
     “Mate! Pate!  Is it true?  Arbrogastus said the man at the shop said they’re delivering a rainbow teleceptor to our house!”
     Mistress Narbonesium smiled at her husband.  “Big secret, eh?”
     Juventus Narbonesium nodded to his son.  “It’s true.  A Senator who was cured at the Vestal Temple came to my shop and bought the entire stock, in gratitude,” he said. “So I ordered the rainbow teleceptor. In fact, the delivery men are right behind you.”
     Outside a delivery chariot with the familiar insignia of the Emperor and Stag had pulled into the driveway
     Chiesus turned and quickly grabbed the door for the two men carrying the large wooden crate.  He let the door slam and followed then into the grotto.  “Hot hades!”
     The men from the Caesar & Roebuck emporium quickly installed the set and turned it on.  In a minute, the color picture appeared
     “That’s wonderful,” said Juventus as he slipped the men a tip. “Let’s all sit down.”
     “Not me, not yet,” said Chiesus.  “I’m going to tell Amnius!”
     That night, Amnius sat down with the Narbonesiums to watch what was billed as a “Custodes Special”.
     After the intro, that same authoritative voice declaimed, “Tonight on Custodes, justice for a Christian ringleader!”  The highlights indicated what the upcoming show promised.
     Chiesus turned to Amnius. “Great! They’re finally going to show a crucifixion!”
     Mistress Narbonesium grimaced.  “Wonderful.  Right here in our living room.”


     Sergius snapped the suitcase shut.  He grabbed the handle as the hotel telephone rang.
     “Sergius?  It’s Tamianius.  Did you see the episode last night?”
     “Yes, of course. They crucified that Hebrew live on the air.  Upside down, too.  Nice piece of business.”
     “Hey, that was the producer’s idea--it was decided weeks ago. That Simon Peter fellow was picked up almost a month ago.”
     “So I guess they’ll nail that Paul fellow next week? The other guy who was picked up at the same time?”
     “That’s why I’m calling.  Yes, that’s what they planned, and then he pulled a legal tablet out of his sleeve.  He was born a citizen in Tarsus--and he’s demanding a trial.”
     “Yes, I found that out when I called the producer after the broadcast to congratulate him.  But he said ‘no problem’--they’ll give him a fair trial, and then crucify him.”
     “All of this live, huh?”
     “It should be great for ratings, but from what you said yesterday--do you think it could backfire?”
     “Possibly, but who cares?  You finally cut me a good deal, so we’ll still be on the air in Mediolanum.  I got what I wanted.  I’m sure your ratings will skyrocket.”
     After he hung up, Sergius lifted the suitcase and smiled to himself as he looked across to the blank teleceptor tube.  “I’d wager that if Archimedes was alive today, he’d be cursing all that came from his elektrik motor.”


     The trial of Paul--the magistrate used his legal Roman name, Saul, throughout the trial--dragged out for a full month.  The cleverness, honesty and openness of the Christian failed to save him from the death sentence, but his example aroused a great deal of sympathy--which erupted into action when the slaves and freemen stormed the Mamertine Prison.
     Sergius was correct--the trial was a ratings triumph, in more ways than one.
     The coronation of Emperor Saul following the insurrection remained the most-viewed broadcast for decades, until the presentation of that epic rainbow kino of the Civil War itself, “By Aeolus Tossed”.

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