As befitting its function, the meeting chamber of the Imperial High Council was the epitome of opulence, with walls and floors of white gold marble and circular lights dotted around its circumference, the detailed likenesses of the Great Ones carved between each, the warrior gods of the Imperium. Standing tall with swords and shields in hand, they were the leaders of the Ancient Dranastonic Empire, the empire of the Haelqen that ruled over half of Karasen many thousands of years ago, and upon which the Imperium was modelled. At the head of the room stood the image of the Original Nero, the chieftain who united eighty-seven tribes to form the people known as the Dranast, the precursor to both the Dranastonic Empire and the Imperium itself, and to whom the Imperator owed his name. Tall and indomitable, he surveyed the chamber with stern eyes, hands rested upon the pommel of his greatsword. Along the curved walls, other figures from ancient Imperial history accompanied their forefather, exalted warriors and emperors all, and whom the Imperium worshipped as its gods. The chamber rested above the main atrium of the Grand Forum, the meeting place of the Manus Ad Populem, the Imperial Parliament. The forum was the centre of Imperial politics, situated in the middle of the Imperial City’s political district. This was the place where decisions that affected the entire galaxy and the lives of those within were made.
The centre of the Imperium’s power and dominance, the Imperial City sat atop the upper disk of the Castellum Di Stellis, the colossal space station orbiting the star Vichis, one of the largest and brightest in the known universe. A magnificent feat of astroengineering, the megastructure known as the Castellum Di Stellis was one of the few surviving relics of the mysterious creatures known to the Sea of Spirits as the Relb’qur, handed down between the empires that followed theirs. The disk that held the Imperial City rested atop a vertical tube, the bulbous structure at the other end housing the maintenance works and power stations that kept the Castellum running and from crashing into its host star. Eight rings were fixed around the central stalk, one above the other, each colossal in their own right and containing an entire city of their own. The cities of the unworthy, referred to as the sectors, were little more than slums meant for the Castellum’s non-Haelqen citizens who weren’t permitted entrance to the Imperial City. That’s the way it was in the Imperium; all those considered inferior were expected to remain unseen and accept their oppression as they kept the wheels of the Castellum, and the Imperium, turning.
The Imperial City, on the other hand, was the jewel of the Imperium. Atop the upper disk, silver skyscrapers gleamed in artificial sunlight, casting long black fingers over the streets of white marble and granite. A network of canals cut their way between them like veins carrying the city’s lifeblood. Verdant parkways sprawled over huge clearings in the metal and marble forest, rolling hills, lakes, gardens, some of the lushest in the galaxy. Statues and archways dotted the streets and plazas, around the amphitheatres and vaulted temples and rotundas. There was no escape from the propaganda that ensured its citizens knew where to place their loyalty. Everywhere you looked, the image of the Imperator looked back, be it a poster, statue, or holo-screen. The Imperator was everywhere, always watching. The image of the eagle, wings unfurled atop Mount Domum danced in the wind, a symbol of everlasting dominance. It was all encased within a glass dome to protect it from the heat and radiation from Vichis, like living inside a giant snow globe.
The Imperial High Council sat around the gold table at the centre of the chamber, the fifteen elderly and decrepit men who represented the fifteen domains into which the Imperium was divided, all in the same blood-red togas with gold borders to denote their positions as High Councillors. Their function, or so the public was led to believe, was to advise the Imperator on political issues and bring matters of concern in their domains to his attention. The reality was much different. Along with the rest of the Imperial government, the council existed mainly to perpetuate the illusion to their citizens that they possessed the power to shape the Imperium’s political landscape. In truth, the decisions made on behalf of the Imperium and its people rested solely in the hands of the Imperator. Everyone else was there just to follow his orders.
Domition wasn’t a member of the council, his toga light blue as opposed to the dark red of his employer, High Councillor Lucius to his left. He’d been in service to Lucius for quite some time although he still wasn’t sure what to call himself. Junior Politician? Aide? Bodyguard? Or all of the above? He also acted as something of an apprentice, the hope being that someday he himself would hold a position on the council and have the chance to bring about some much-needed change in the Imperium. If only mother and father could see him now, their only child so far from home and sitting in a room with just some of the men they hated most, working for the government they’d despised with every fibre in their bodies. They were probably spinning in their graves back on Kiyrol, father especially. Domition certainly didn’t expect the turn his life seemed to have taken.
One other individual occupied the chamber, one whose presence cast a shadow of fear and tension over the council, both figuratively and literally. Tacitus, the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Military, stood by the archway at the chamber’s entrance, like a mountain in his black suit of armour, face hidden behind his helmet with menacing red eyes. The hulking giant’s presence was made all the more terrifying by the double-bladed battle axe that was almost as tall as he was, on which he leaned with his big hands rested atop the hooks. He presided over the council in silence, thoughts and feelings obscured behind his helmet.
They’d been sitting for a while, waiting quietly for the Imperator to grace them with his presence for their twice-weekly meeting. It was a habit of his to force them to wait long periods for him, his way of reminding them how little they truly mattered. Most were used to the long waits and did their best to get comfortable. Nobody moved or complained. It was well known what fate befell those who irritated the Imperator, and Tacitus.
No one was happy with being made to wait in silence but they all managed to keep their displeasure hidden, except for one. Councillor Regulis had just been appointed to the high council, and was looking more frustrated by the second. He shuffled in his seat and sighed, and gave annoyed looks to the others who did their best to ignore him, not wishing to incur the wrath of the Supreme Commander.
Finally, the old man seemed to have had enough. “This is ridiculous! How much longer are we to wait? I have other matters to attend to”. The others stayed quiet and avoided his gaze.
“You will wait as long as the Imperator says you will”, growled the Supreme Commander.
“Well when will the Imperator be here”? Regulus’ question went unanswered, by both Tacitus and his fellow councillors. He looked from one nervous face to the next but received no acknowledgment. “This is ridiculous. I won’t have my time wasted like this. Not by anyone”.
Domition lowered his eyes as Regulus got up and began his way to the exit, grumbling all the way. The council did the same, not wishing to see what would happen next. Very bad things happened to those who defied the Imperator. As he reached the exit, Regulus found his way blocked by a black mass that filled the archway, then looked up to find himself staring into the red eyes of the Supreme Commander.
He trembled. “Step aside”.
The metal giant remained where he stood, axe clutched in both hands. “Sit down”. Domition prayed Regulus would do as he was told.
“You can’t keep us here”, the Councillor quivered.
Tacitus leant closer and repeated his order, fists clenching tighter around the haft of his axe. Domition felt like there were a pair of hands wrapped around his heart and squeezing hard, certain that in a few moments the High Council would be in need of a new member. A few torturous moments passed before Regulus seemed to come to his senses. He turned and moped his way back to his seat, neither speaking nor looking to the others. Tacitus returned to his original spot and resumed his watching over of the council.
With no end to the already painfully long wait in sight, Domition’s mind started to wander. There were about a million places he’d rather be right now. Of all of them, it was his bed he desired most, with his darling Hera by his side. He left the council chamber entirely and journeyed across the cosmos faster than any ray of light, back to his kind’s homeworld, to the white beaches of Genanius on the south-eastern shores of Halaq. He could almost feel the warm sand pressed between his toes like beads of hot coal as he watched his wife run along the beach in her white summer dress, brown hair fluttering along behind. They spent three weeks there after marrying in her hometown of Maebella. The council chamber vanished as he listened to the symphony of bird songs accompanied by the soft percussion of the waves in the distance. Hera came skipping over and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, smiling that smile of hers that beamed brighter than any galaxy. He stared into her brown eyes, losing himself in them before she planted a soft kiss upon his lips.
The distant sounds of coughing and tapping of cane on marble ripped Domition from his wife’s embrace and returned him to his seat in the high council chamber. Around him, the council were preparing themselves, drawing in breaths and wringing their wrinkled hands as the coughing grew louder, until the Imperator came limping in. Demetria and his Praetorians followed. She stood at his side, ever the faithful servant, as he slumped into the empty seat at the head of the table. The Praetorians went to their usual spots in the shadows by the archway. The Imperator sat hunched, coughing away. The council waited for him to finish. No one spoke out of turn in front of the Imperator.
Finally, he stopped. “Speak”.
Nobody did, everyone waiting for someone else to be the first to open their mouth. “There have been reports of ships belonging to the Sikillian Blood Band in the Molutian System, My Imperator”, Councillor Plautius finally said. Domition noted the relief on the faces of the other councillors. No matter how many they attended, meetings with the Imperator never got any easier.
“A squadron will go to investigate”. The Imperator scratched at the skin around his mask. “Make sure they take as many of the crews alive as possible. From them I will learn what stone their leaders hide under, and then I will see them nailed to crosses. Blasted slavers”.
“As you command, My Imperator”.
Councillor Trajan was next to speak. “The Dredgjan Chachen requests a private audience to discuss writing off some of the Khuykrallic’s debt to the treasury, My Imperator”.
The Imperator answered with a growl. “I have better things to do with my time than waste it arguing with some foul-smelling, hirsute beast. The debt stands. If his kind do not wish to pay for the aid we provide them, they can make their argument to the navy”.
“As you wish, my Imperator”.
The chamber went quiet again. The Imperator slumped back in his seat, already bored. These matters were trivial compared to the question everyone wanted to know the answer to but were too afraid to ask. The Imperator hated questions, to the point asking him anything could be the last thing you ever did. The galaxy had seen more than its fair share of unhinged psychopaths in positions of power, but Domition doubted few matched the Imperator’s insanity. He looked about with his tired eyes, briefly fixing on Domition and giving him a piercing stare. He hated him, though that was hardly surprising given he’d made no effort to conceal his distaste for the Imperium and its policies. With the number of times he’d questioned and openly criticized the demented acts the Imperator pressured the council into agreeing to, Domition was amazed he was still alive. Those who questioned the Imperator tended not to last very long. His eyes lingered on him for a moments more before moving on.
“Perhaps, My Imperator”, Lucius began, cautiously. “You could inform us of the outcome of your meeting with Chancellor Calsen”?
The Imperator glared, rage smouldering behind his eyes. Evidently, it hadn’t gone the way he’d wanted. “The Confederacy refuses to hand over Cemma and Sevanota”, he admitted, looking down at the table. It was times like this that the Imperator’s true nature was most apparent, a vicious and bloodthirsty lunatic but also a small and frightened man easily hurt by his failures. “They will pay for this insult. I shall teach this pathetic group the consequences of trifling with the Imperium and the Confederacy too will suffer for continuing to protect them”.
Domition knew what he was thinking, and didn’t like it one bit. “What is your will, My Imperator”? Lucius asked.
The Imperator ignored him. Instead he looked to the Supreme Commander. “Tacitus, my friend”.
The brute stepped forward. “Yes, My Imperator”?
“Send word to the generals and admirals at once. Mobilize our armies and fleets and send them to the Confederacy. We are going to war”.
“Of course, My Imperator”, Tacitus replied before beginning the walk to the exit, ready to give the order that would destroy countless lives and bring destruction to the galaxy not seen in millennia. Domition certainly didn’t have the authority to question the Imperator, but he couldn’t let such a thing happen, and it didn’t look like anyone else was going to do anything.
“No”! he blurted, the only thing he could think to say. Tacitus stopped and the council turned to him, all with the same look of shock. Domition caught his mentor’s eye and received a searing glare. He then looked to the Imperator, staring with his usual impassive gaze.
“You dare to deny the will of the Imperator”? Demetria demanded
Domition hesitated. He needed to be careful. “You can’t sentence trillions of innocent people to death over something like this”. He’d stood in defiance of the Imperator before but never on something so great. He could very easily find himself on a cross though the welfare of trillions (and probably far more) trumped his own.
The Imperator leaned forward, growled. “It is my will, and it will be done”.
“This is insane. Those people have done nothing to harm the Imperium”.
“They denounce our beliefs”, Demetria snapped. “They speak ill of our doctrines and values. They are heathens and heretics and they cannot be allowed to spread their lies any longer”. Heathens: anyone who didn’t blindly follow the word of the Imperator, anyone who wasn’t a sheep.
“You can’t murder innocent people because they don’t believe in the same thing as you”.
Tacitus returned to the table and slammed his big hands upon its surface. “Those who dispense with our doctrines threaten our way of life and the destiny of our race. They must be destroyed”!
“The Confederacy and the Free States are of no threat to us”. Domition was quickly running out of things to say.
“They are an affront to all that we stand for”. He heard not a hint of emotion in the Imperator’s voice. “I have tolerated their existence for too long. Our race will never achieve its destiny as long as they stand in our way. My word is final. There will be war and I will wipe both the Confederacy and the Free States from the face of the galaxy. And you will do well to remember your place, boy. Believe me when I say that you tread on very thin ice”.
Domition had nothing left though he wasn’t sure what exactly he could have achieved. No way would the Imperator change his mind because some aide to a high councillor made a noise. The thought of how powerless he was left him sick to his stomach. He could only watch as Tacitus headed for the archway once more.
“Perhaps, My Imperator, we could consider the ramifications of this move before we do anything drastic”, said Councillor Trajan, much to Domition’s surprise. It wasn’t usual for a member of the council to question the will of the Imperator, albeit in a veiled and coy manner.
“I too think there should be some discussion on the consequences before any action is taken”, Councillor Licinius added. Apparently, Trajan’s speaking up had instilled some small amount of courage in the rest of the council though Domition wanted to believe his outburst might have helped as well.
Tacitus returned to the table once again, annoyance made clear by his body language. “There is nothing to discuss. The Confederacy has spat in the face of the Imperium and our Imperator. Such an insult cannot be allowed to go unpunished”.
“With respect, My Imperator”, Plautius said, avoiding Tacitus’ eyes. “But this course carries many far-reaching consequences for our Imperium. While it’s true that we command significant military superiority over the Confederacy, war will very likely be devastating for us”.
“And how do you suppose that, Plautius”? Any knock against the military was always met with fierce hostility from Tacitus.
The councillor quivered. “If we go to war with the Confederacy and the Free States, it may encourage the Non-Haelqen to rise up against us. We could face a rebellion unlike anything seen since the Insurrectionist War”.
Tacitus gave a dismissive wave of the hand. “Our military can put down any rebellion, no matter how big”.
“Not if they’re busy fighting a war with the Confederacy and the Free States at the same time. Even a military as large and capable as ours would find it difficult to fight a war of this scale on two fronts”. The old councillor was right though it hardly took an expert tactician to know it. Even an empire the size of the Imperium would quickly find itself overwhelmed if it were to end up fighting both the Confederacy and its own people at the same time.
“No matter how well we fare against the Confederacy, any conflict would be disastrous for us”, Councillor Horatius added. “It would disrupt our entire society, destabilize the economy. The navy would be too busy to protect the fringe worlds from pirates and slavers. It could make us a target for invasion from the combined forces of the FPR or even the Aq Quhn Ran Asten”. No one else opened their mouths, neither the council nor the Imperator’s inner circle. He wasn’t one to get his hopes up, but Domition couldn’t help but notice that the Imperator hadn’t spoken since Trajan suggested they discuss his insane course of action. Could he actually be listening?
Tacitus turned to his master. “My Imperator, do not listen to these cowards. They do not know what they are talking about. Our armies will wipe the floor with the Confederacy and anyone else foolish enough to stand against us”. He sounded worried that the Imperator might actually change his mind. The Supreme Commander had always longed for the destruction of the Confederacy, the complete fanatic he was. The Imperator didn’t answer, gears turning in his head. He was under no obligation to listen to the council but, every once in a while, he did.
“My Imperator, a war of this magnitude would undoubtedly…” Trajan stopped at the raising of the Imperator’s hand.
“Enough. I am convinced. It would be rash to declare war on the Confederacy at this time”. Domition struggled not to breathe a sigh of relief. He saw the storm of rage brewing within the Supreme Commander. The disappointment was apparent in the eyes of the Imperator also. No doubt backing down to the council dealt a severe wound to his pride. “But we cannot allow ourselves to appear weak in the eyes of our enemies”, he added. “Take the prisoners from Freedom for All to the Grand Amphitheatre. Crucify them for the galaxy to see, so that our enemies may know the swift retribution of the Imperium”.
Domition’s heart sunk. No one deserved such a cruel fate, especially for the “crime” of trying to rescue people from a life of subjugation and oppression. He had to say something, despite the Imperator’s warning. He just couldn’t help himself. “You can’t do this”. It wasn’t great but it was the best he had.
The Imperator fixed him with another stare that pierced like needles of ice. “You are making a habit of trying my patience, Domition”.
Domition made his best effort to conceal his nervousness “I won’t stand by and let men and women suffer like that”.
“And I won’t stand by and allow the will of the Imperator to be questioned by a whelp such as you”, Tacitus growled. Domition tried not to let the Supreme Commander intimidate him, and failed. It was no easy thing to stay calm and collected when a psychotic maniac in a giant suit of armour stood poised to tear you apart with his bare hands.
“This is not the way this should be handled. There has to be something else, not that”.
“They are heretics who spit on everything we stand for”, Demetria hissed. “This is how we deal with heretics. It is what they deserve”.
Anger shot through Domition. “Nobody deserves to suffer like that. It isn’t right”.
“Who are you to say what is right”? the voice of the High Inquisitor had an effect akin to fingernails on a chalkboard.
“The High Council serves to provide counsel to the Imperator in all matters”.
Tacitus slammed his fists upon the table. “You are not a member of the council”!
As the Supreme Commander lost his patience, so too did Domition. “Who are you people to condemn men and woman to such a fate? Who are you to say what’s right”? The rage was a forest fire blazing inside him. He was far past pushing his luck, but nobody else was going to say anything.
Heavy footsteps shook the chamber. Domition had barely finished his sentence before Tacitus had rounded the table and was advancing upon him, axe in hand. He could only sit back and watch as the titan bore down on him, heart feeling like it might explode.
“That is enough, Tacitus”, the Imperator said, and the metal giant came to a halt not much more than an inch from where Domition sat, looming like a great oak.
Tacitus turned to his master. “He insults you and our Imperium, My Imperator. He deserves to die”.
“I know, my friend. But this is my will”.
Tacitus looked back to Domition. For a moment, he seemed to seriously consider disobeying his master. But then he did as he was told, and returned to his original spot. Even with his life saved, Domition’s heart felt like it could give out at any moment. His hands felt like there were snakes wriggling beneath the skin, the light blue material of his toga stained dark with sweat. The council looked as terrified he felt. He wouldn’t have been surprised if a few had pissed themselves.
The Imperator leaned in his direction again. “I am the vessel through which our people shall achieve their destiny. My will is the will of the Haelqen, and they demand that those who stand against them suffer. I am their instrument, and that is why I may say what is right… and who will die”. Arguing with the Imperator would get Domition nowhere, except almost dead. Everything he said was only countered with more delusional dogma. Whether or not the Imperator believed what he said was unclear but, as long as the rest of the Imperium believed it, nothing would change. “And as I already said, you will do well to remember your place. I am the law of the Imperium, not you and not this council. You are nothing here. Your word means nothing. You will be silent in all future meetings, and if I so much as hear your voice again, I shall see that you share the same fate as the heathens you try in vain to protect. They will suffer the ultimate punishment for their crimes against my Imperium, and there is nothing anyone can say to make me reconsider. See that my will is carried out. This meeting is over”.
The Imperator launched into another fit of coughing as he dragged himself to his feet and stormed from the chamber, Praetorians following. Domition received a malignant glare from Demetria who left also, along with Tacitus. The council remained where they sat, even once they were all out of earshot. Domition looked about the chamber, receiving some black looks in return. He then looked to his hands in his lap, thinking the same thing over and over. What am I doing here? Politics wasn’t his forte. He was a soldier, not a politician. Of course, in the Imperium, the game was rigged for everyone but Nero and his cronies to lose though that couldn’t stop him from feeling dejected by his failure. He left the council chamber again, and returned to the white beaches of Genanius where he stood in the sun’s warmth with his beautiful Hera in his arms. He’d give anything to be anywhere with her, anywhere but there. She was all he could think about as he walked out of the chamber: the feeling of her skin, the smell of her hair, and the taste of her lips. Everything would be better when he got home. She always knew how to take his mind off the things that bothered him, even if just for a little while.
As he turned the corner, Domition felt a cold hand take him by the elbow and was spun around to find Lucius’ face an inch from his own, a picture of white-hot rage. “Have you gone completely insane”? A stream of spit launched from his mouth like a cobra spitting venom.
“Somebody had to say something”. Domition wiped some droplets from his cheek.
“I brought you here so you could learn how politics in the Imperium work. So you could learn how to make a difference, not get yourself and the rest of the council killed”.
“I think I have a pretty good idea about how politics in the Imperium work. You all just bury your heads in the sand and let him get away with whatever he wants, right”?
“Those people were dead from the moment they decided to do what they did. No amount of arguing is going to change that. But look at the positives. We just prevented the worst crisis to hit the galaxy in over a thousand years. We saved who knows how many lives today, but you can’t save everyone”. He was right. Sometimes you can’t save everyone, but the thought nevertheless angered Domition, reminded again of how powerless he was. Lucius then seemed to calm down. “You want to change things, I understand. You think we’re happy with the way things are? You think we asked for Nero? No one on the council wants anything to do with him”.
“Then why don’t you stop him”?
“What can we do? He has the support of the military, and more importantly, he has the support of the people. He’s got the Haelqen convinced they’re destined to be the masters of the universe”.
“The people are idiots for wanting any part in this madness. Who in their right mind could believe in any of this shit”?
“Can you blame them? You weren’t alive when Nero came along. You don’t know what it was like. Everything was falling apart: war, corruption, strife. The people needed someone to lead them out of the dark and he was the only one willing and able to. He gave the Haelqen everything and they repaid him with their everlasting devotion. How can you stand up against something like that”?
Domition had no answer. He almost couldn’t blame the Haelqen for standing by Nero. He gave them everything, then spent decades hammering blind adoration into them. In a way, they were as much victims of the Imperium as the people it oppressed, blind to its true nature and the truth of the man they worshipped. As long as Nero had their support, nothing would ever change.
Lucius stepped closer. “You want to change things? Then you’re in the right place. But you can’t change everything at once. The only way things in the Imperium are going to get better is with time, a lot of time. You need to learn to pick your battles and accept that there are some that you won’t be able to win. And try not to get yourself killed as well. That also helps”. He was right again. It was easy for one with the power of the Imperator to make change happen practically overnight, but for one man alone against the great snarling beast that was the Imperium, it was a much longer haul.
From there on, Domition spent the day how he spent most days: following Lucius around while handling his messages, sitting in on meetings, and making sure he had plenty of wine and bread. He wasn’t sure how half the stuff his employer had him doing was meant to prepare him for a career in politics. He felt like a glorified servant more than anything else. Every chance he got, Domition dreamed about his Hera and their honeymoon in Maebella, longing for the white beaches of Genanius more than ever.