The plane came in from the sea side, low enough that Terawatt could almost see the individual houses on the ground, spread out before her like a great train set. She looked at the land with interest. Already before, in France, she had seen the difference with an American landscape: the fields were not large and geometric, with visible plough lines and few, widely scattered farmhouses. Rather, they were irregular and dense, and with little toy farmhouses so close together that she could imagine people walking from one to the other just to talk or to do business. And here the land was much hillier than the plains around Paris, and fields and roads were placed in a strange patchwork that seemed to have grown in place like the hills themselves. Of course, not all those buildings would be houses.... The land nearest the sea was different again, flat and with regular shaped fields and roads. She surmised that it must have been reclaimed.
Then suddenly they were over city. Terawatt realized that Rome must be rather smaller than other great cities she had seen. She remembered flying over the suburbs of Paris for minutes before her plane reached its destination; and as for Los Angeles and New York City, lord! - they spread over counties. But here she barely seemed to have seen the urban area start from the farmland beyond, when she was seeing the centre. And that – surely! That had to be St.Peter's and its square; small as a lego brick at this distance, but recognizable. And she could see the river, and the round castle on it, and parks and old buildings, and there was the Colosseum...
She saw that Rome was not like Paris. She saw a thick and somehow beautiful herding of ochre-coloured tile roofs, some with roof gardens, and marble churches with tall bell towers, and small green spaces and streets and squares. Everything was closer together, and less orderly,less clear; she had the sense of something that had grown in place over and over again, and things piled up – like a chest full of piled-up treasures and junk. Then the plane was leaving the city centre behind, flying lower and lower – she had to swallow a couple of times to relieve the pressure in her ears – as it followed the path of a main road and a railroad track, surrounded by old and new buildings, and – for some reason this stopped her heart, and made it all seem somehow more real – the long, huge, broken remains of ancient aqueducts. And then the airplane was low over the houses, so low she felt she could touch them, and then..
Touchdown. She felt the stresses as the great machine slowed itself down to a crawl, and then those long boring minutes when it taxied as it was searching for its own assigned berth.
The plane stopped. Ciampino Airport. She looked out the window.
Here they were; two short lines of Air Force troops standing at attention with weapons shouldered and ready to present in the universal ritual of welcome for a high-ranking guest; and, standing near the last of them, a small cluster of people, some in uniform, some in civilian dress, around a man in red standing at parade rest. Terawatt got up and walked towards the front exit.
“Don't bother waiting for a stair,” she said to the flight attendant. “I can fly out.”
“Yes, ma'am,” answered the flight attendant, unlocking the hatch. Terawatt shook hands with the attendant, the captain, and his co-pilot. She had already stood for photos with all three; even the best of manners did not call for more. As the door opened, she heard an order shouted from the line of airmen.
They saw her appear, white uniform outlined against the plane's open door, and then just move out and float downwards without anything to hold her. They had all seen it on TV or on Youtube, but this was different; and more than one airman was in danger of losing his composure, had it not been for the fierce eye of the NCO in charge. Terawatt came to a halt in front of Camicia Rossa; they saluted, and the airmen presented arms.
Terawatt looked curiously at the man in the red tunic. She could tell, even from there, that he was as physically fit as any hero she had met; a bit shorter and squarer than the Batman, an inch or so short of six feet – with her heels, she was slightly taller – but with shoulders like a brick wall and that general sense of alertness that she had learned to recognise and that could not be counterfeited. The hand that shook her was hard and calloused; the eyes, over that red cloth that covered his face, held something that looked like a smile. “Terawatt. It is a great honour to meet you.” His English was correct, if accented – and at any rate she found Italian accents sexy.
“Camicia Rossa, from what I hear, the honour is mine. And I hope I haven't mispronounced your name too badly?”
“Don't worry, it sounded fine. Shall we inspect the guard of honour?”
The honour guard was properly saluted, and Terawatt and Camicia Rossa made the usual show inspecting their weapons. Then Camicia Rossa led Terawatt towards the airport buildings, in what she guessed was the military half of the airport. The small group of men around them moved silently with them, and Terawatt noticed that they were forming a kind of circle around the two superheroes.
Shortly after entering the building, Camicia Rossa placed a hand on Terawatt's elbow and silently steered her to one side, towards an anonymous office. Their companions just kept walking down the corridor, as if they had noticed nothing. Camicia Rossa walked her swiftly through a door at the other end of the office and closed it behind it, and then through what looked like a service corridor, to an open area where a small car was parked.
“I'm sorry for this,” he said, “but we had no time to warn you. I'm afraid we've had some bad news in the last couple of days.”
The car – a Fiat 126, she found out later – looked hardly bigger than a toy, but when she got in she felt that the door was a lot heavier than she would have expected. And the glass was tinted, and something more than tinted – it seemed to have a one-way distortion, blurring what could be seen inside the car, while being perfectly clear from the inside out. And the engine made almost no noise; only a soft, dangerous purr, like a Rolls or a Bentley.
“Is this car armored?” asked Terawatt.
“It certainly is,” answered Camicia Rossa, “beneath as well. I have other machines with different capacities, but this one is designed to get you from A to B safely.” He pointed to a helicopter taking off from the roof of a building. “That is where you and I are supposed to be – for the benefit of anyone who did not love either of us.”
As Camicia Rossa engaged the gear and moved the car out of the parking space, Terawatt asked: “Wouldn't that be dangerous for whoever is flying the copter?”
“A trick I've learned from Fantomas – an old enemy. The two human forms in the chopper are dummies, and it is remote directed from the ground. At worst, I'd write off a chopper.” And then she sensed a grin behind the kerchief. “It's mine anyway, so the police can't complain. I tend to get grief if I end up writing off expensive gear.”
They passed the airfield gates, with the sentinel ignoring them altogether. “The only problem is that you will have to make acquaintance with the Rome traffic... definitely a side of Italy nobody should meet.”
“Can't be worse than New York City, can it?”
“In half an hour, you'll be telling me.”
Indeed, the traffic proved to be grim. At times they seemed to be just parked among hundreds of other cars and just passing the time of day. It was hot, too, as hot as a summer day at home in California, and without air conditioning it would have been grim in the car.
The city had closed in around them. The buildings were not as tall as in an American city centre, but they were there, one after the other, mile after mile, almost like a wall over the street. And this, at any rate, was decidedly not the centre. Italians, like the French she had seen in Paris, seemed to prefer living in flats; she had not yet seen any detached houses standing in their own grounds, as she was used to. On the other hand, most of these buildings seemed to have their own internal gardens.
She had plenty of time to observe. It was a large road – Via Appia Nuova, Camicia Rossa told her – but it was clogged with cars. With the instinct of fighters, they had both been checking for tails; and they had laughed when they had caught each other doing it. And they had agreed that there was no sign of a tail, and that Camicia Rossa's little stratagem at Ciampino seemed to have succeded.
Then an inconspicuous device on the dashboard beeped a few times. Camicia Rossa touched it with a finger, and an Italian voice started talking. Camicia Rossa answered twice, in monosyllables, the first time sounding surprised, the second grimly delighted.
“It went better than we thought,” he said. “My friends in the police had a number of spotters along the chopper's route – not really hoping for anything, because you can hardly patrol the whole route from Ciampino to the Palace – but in fact someone shot at it. He was trying to kill the passengers rather than bring the machine down, and as the passengers were dummies he did not do a lot of damage. But he gave our people the time to spot him, and now they are following him. They even have actual photographs of him on a roof, shooting. It's not often we get so lucky.”
And then, after a pause: “But I've still lost a friend.”
“It all began a couple of years ago, when the body of a black African turned up in a township in the Naples area. We had no idea who he was and what had been done to him, because his head and hands had been cut off. We think it was done deliberately, to prevent identification, and also to terrify other people.
“But that was a stupid mistake. This was a young and stupid mob, who thought violence was the answer to everything. What they did was to scare and anger their other slaves – and one of them came to the police and told everything. They had been importing illegal immigrants and forcing them to do slave labour or go on the streets. The case went to a very fine investigating judge called Rino Pentacascio, who was a friend of mine, and we ended up putting two dozen camorra scum in jail, most of them for life, for murder, enslavement, and a bunch of other charges. But evidently we did not get them all, because the word has gone around that there is a price on our heads... Rino, the policemen involved, and me... and two days ago Rino was murdered.”
“Oh my God, I'm sorry.”
“I do apologize, I won't be able to be with you tomorrow. I have to attend Rino's funeral.”
There was a short silence.
“Could I come along as well?” And then, inconsequently: “Whoof, you weren't joking about traffic. We must have been stuck here five minutes. This place could teach Manhattan lessons.”
“Oh yes, today it's really bad. What did you say about coming along?”
“Well... I want to see things as they are. I want to see what you do, not just play tourist. But above all... I've got all this fame, which I don't really want, but if my presence can help honor... and draw attention... to a good man who paid with his life for being a good man, then I want to do it. From what you say, this judge Rino deserved to be remembered.”
After a silence, Camicia Rossa said, “Yes, he did.” He sounded like he was trying to control his voice.
As they spoke, the interminable stop-and-go crawl had finally brought them to the traffic lights, and they had turned green. Together with dozens of other cars, they moved across a broad space where three roads converged towards – Terawatt suddenly felt her heart stopping – great city gates of stone and marble, opening in a vast, long, massive wall with crenellations and towers – that had to be the ancient city wall of Rome. And when they had gone through the gate...
“Oh, WO-O-OW! Sorry to sound like a silly tourist... well, I am... but is that..?”
“It's the Cathedral of St.John Lateran. To explain, this is the church of the Pope as bishop of the city of Rome. St. Peter's, which you will not see today, is not a Cathedral but a Basilica, and it is the church of the Pope as Pope, head of the Catholic Church.
“And no, you don't sound silly. Everyone who is not dead from the neck up feels like that sooner or later. You can't get used to it. In fact, you know you're an Italian when you find yourself saying: 'Most of the time, this country drives me crazy, but from time to time it just stops my heart how beautiful she is.'”
“I can understand that. I can certainly understand that.”
“And quite frankly, you ain't seen nuttin' yet” - and she could feel him grinning beneath his face-cover. The combination of attempted American accent and Italian accent was really quite funny.
“That church on our left, for instance,” he said as they turned left at a major intersection, “is St. Clement's – and what you see is just the top of three layers. It's already quite old, even for Rome – twelfth century – but below that there is another church that goes back to the fifth century, to the Roman empire, and below that in turn there are the remains of a large Roman house and the alley around it.” Alex was unable to think of anything to say.
“And then there is THIS...”
“Oh, my God, it's real!” And Terawatt blushed at what she'd just said. It was all very well Camicia Rossa being polite and reassuring, but she still felt she'd made a touristy dork of herself again. “I mean, I'd already seen it from the plane, but coming close like this...” Camicia Rossa just nodded.
Many roads met in that place, and traffic, while not as brutal as it had been on Via Appia, was pretty slow. Alex was glad, because this gave her time to look at it with care and sort out her feelings. Why, she wondered, did it have such an impact. Speaking of it as it was, after all, it was really just a sports stadium. And by all accounts built for really very nasty sports. And she had seen sports stadiums much bigger than that. But... there was something about the design. The proportions – the detail – all those arches and pillars, all in order and so clean and graceful. It made the stadiums she had seen look somehow gimcrack and temporary. Permanent... that's what it was. Even though it was effectively a ruin, the Coliseum would always look as though it was built to last for ever.
The road proceeded through a whole field of ruins, that should have looked sad and abandoned, and yet managed to look harmonious and beautiful. “These are the city squares of ancient Rome, the forums, or rather fora. They were the beating heart of ancient Rome. On your left, that height is the Capitol.” It looked nothing like the Capitol in Washington DC, which she knew both as Terawatt and as a Corcoran College student. “And that thing ahead of us... well...”
“It is that, I guess. Lots of people – including me – think it's a bit of an eyesore. Anyway, it was built as a monument to King Victor Emmanuel, the man who presided over the unification of Italy, and it is also the grave of our Unknown Soldier. That's what those soldiers are guarding.”
The car turned around Piazza Venezia, together with hundreds of others, and turned right into a rising road dominated by some pretty impressive buildings. They passed a couple of marble churches and a fountain, then turned left into another road, and almost immediately – there it was. A spacious square sitting over a steep slope, and on the other side a large brick building with a ceremonial entrance guarded by soldiers in elaborate uniform. “Here we are, Terawatt... the Quirinal Palace.”
“And while I still have the opportunity... thank you on behalf of my friend Rino. We will talk later about arrangements to attend his funeral.” His eyes, above the cloth, looked straight into hers, and he shook her hand, short but firmly.