“Now remember what I told you”, the voice said. “Push the chisel up under the exo-dermis, give it a few hits, and then pull it away, but not too hard. We don’t want to take it off just yet. Just give it a few pulls so he knows we’re not fucking around”.
Domition did as the voice said, albeit reluctantly. He couldn’t see a thing; the owner of the voice was nowhere to be seen despite sounding so close. All around him was like the inside of a rain cloud, a dark stony grey that dominated his vision. Domition knew what it meant. He was dreaming again, a dream he’d dreamt many times before. Despite knowing where he was and what he was doing, he was powerless to stop himself. He couldn’t see, but he felt and heard everything, the fingers of his left hand wrapping around what felt like the handle of a tool. He felt its weight as it left the table. The handle was quite heavy, but the weight lessened further along its length, like something protruded from it, something not quite as heavy but all the more sharp. He took another tool in his right hand. This one felt different. The handle wasn’t all that heavy, but he felt a strong weight at the end. Then he was walking; his feet were moving but it seemed like he was going nowhere. He stopped and leaned forward, raising the tools in his shaking hands. The only noise was of his heavy breathing, and that of another. It sounded nothing like him; didn’t even sound human: deep, nasally, and gravelled. The chisel met something solid and what seemed like a groove where two surfaces intersected; one both hard and soft, like really tough leather, the other just hard, like rock. A strong shake forced him to grip the handle tighter, seemingly reacting to his touch and accompanied by a frightened moan that set him on edge.
Domition brought the hammer to the chisel and gave the end a few taps, not strong enough to penetrate either material but enough to produce more frantic shakes and moans, louder now.
“No, no. That won’t do”. The voice sounded irritated. “We’ve been over this. It’s not a cake you’re carving into. Give it some force. Make him feel it”.
Domition took a long, deep breath, then raised the hammer again. He hit the chisel, harder this time, and the moans became cries. Sickness welled in the pit of his stomach, especially when he felt the end break through the soft surface and go up under the hard one, each strike sending the chisel travelling a little further. He felt something else now, having broken through the tough leathery material and reached something that seemed soft and fleshy. More strikes pushed the edge further, a lot easier now. The fleshy material offered far less resistance. With every strike, the cries got louder and more chilling.
“Good. That’ll do”, the voice said without a hint of praise. “Now, begin lifting the exo-dermis. But not too fast. Take it slow”.
Domition set the hammer down. He had no idea where to put his right hand now. He needed something to steady himself on, and the only thing close enough was the shoulder. With his hand rested upon hard stone, Domition took another breath and then started to pull, and the cries turned into screams. He couldn’t help but cringe as he felt the stone come away from skin, the sounds of snapping flesh cutting into him like his chisel. The screams filled his ears and pierced his mind, but they wouldn’t stop. The sickness inside reached its apex.
“Domition”? Another voice said. This one was different, quieter and softer, a woman’s voice. “Domition”?
Domition opened his eyes; he was somewhere else now. The stone grey was gone, along with the tools in his hands. The screaming and shaking had ceased, replaced with nothing. He was staring at a white ceiling and lying on something soft. Cold sweat glazed his forehead. For a moment, he had no idea where he was.
“Domition”? Domition looked to his left and was then staring into his wife’s eyes.
“What is it”? he asked, groggy and half-asleep.
“Are you OK? You were tossing”.
Domition thought for a moment. Inside his head was all fuzzy. “I think I was having a nightmare”.
Hera put on a frown that was both sympathetic and playful, and placed a soft hand on his stubbled cheek. “It’s all better now”, she whispered. Domition then noticed the rays streaming through the drapes; the sun was almost fully risen. He needed to get up and ready. Lucius would kill him if he was late for work. He went to leave the bed, but his wife’s hand held him where he lay. “You don’t have to get up yet, do you”? Her tone was mischievous. There was an inescapable innocence in her brown eyes. She hadn’t known the coldness and brutality the Sea of Spirits was capable of.
“I do. I’m going to be late”.
Hera smiled, and Domition melted inside. She had such a beautiful smile. “You’ve got a little time, and we can’t have you going to work feeling bad from your nightmare, can we”? Her hand left his cheek and travelled down his chest, and then beneath the covers. That killed him. He needed to get out of there, but the tender caress of his wife’s fingers had already set his blood rushing. Before he could say anything, she’d pulled herself across and was laying atop him, skin brushing against his. They almost always slept naked. Most nights, they made love before they went to sleep and neither could ever be bothered to put on some pyjamas once they’d finished. That never mattered; their bed was warm, and the room never got particularly cool.
Domition’s hands glided up and down his wife’s skin as she pressed her lips to his. It was hopeless to resist; he was already within her thrall. The sweet taste of her mouth and scent of her brown hair were like electricity to his heart. She bit his lip and pulled back, not hard enough to hurt . . . much. She then disappeared beneath the covers, planting kisses on his chest and abdomen before arriving at his crotch. Domition closed his eyes, and let her do what she wanted with him. He made out he felt much better when she was finished, even though he didn’t in the least, He remembered his dream now, every detail. Only it wasn’t a dream, but something much worse.
Domition got ready the same way he did every morning. First a shower and a shave before putting on his blue toga and sandals. “I forgot to mention”, Hera said, lounging in bed as he laced up his second sandal. “We’re having dinner with my parents tomorrow night”.
That was just the thing Domition needed to hear as he prepared for yet another day of boredom at the Grand Forum. It practically made his day. At least, that’s the impression he gave his wife, all the while fighting not to punch the nearest wall. He’d never gotten along with his in-laws. Every single gathering he’d been forced to attend at their estate was an exercise in pain and tedium. Hera’s mother and father were two of the most boring people he’d ever encountered, and that was before you got to their ignorance and bigotry. Every shred of pro-Imperial sentiment within his wife was inherited from her parents. Her father, Aelius, was a high lord of the House of Legislation, the body responsible for making the word of the Imperator law. Domition had never been shy about expressing his distaste for the Imperium, including in front of his in-laws, which made for some very uncomfortable family gatherings.
He took his breakfast in the kitchen, the same as most mornings: moist oatmeal topped with fresh cream and strawberries with some side helpings of grapes, blueberries, and apricots, and a glass of orange juice. Hera emerged from the bedroom as he was loading the dishwasher, now in a satin dressing grown that still left little to the imagination. She wrapped her arms around his middle and gave him a final kiss goodbye as well as some cheeky words whispered in his ear to get him through the day. Domition then embarked on his daily trip to the Grand Forum. It wouldn’t be a long journey. The apartment he shared with his wife lay within the heart of the Imperial City’s Elite District, which itself was close to the centre. The Grand Forum was located in the Political District, the next over.
The lift opened, and Domition stepped into the vehicle lot beneath their building. With its walls and pillars of dull concrete and floor of dark asphalt, it would have looked positively unremarkable were it not for its contents. This, like those of most the buildings around it, was where the Imperium’s wealthiest kept just some of their prides and joys, the dreary grey of the vehicle lot offset by the striking reds and vivid blues and yellows of the hi-powered skycars sitting in their private berths; the latest models, all beyond the means of the “normal” citizen of the Imperium, Domition included. His was the deep red Zephyius Superwind, a gorgeous machine with its thick curves and glossy finish, beautiful and majestic and well out of his price range. Almost everything in the Imperial City was out of his price range. It, like the apartment he called home, was a wedding present from Hera’s parents.
There were a few means of travel available to the citizens of the Imperial City, the main of which were the skyways cutting between its skyscrapers and over its rolling parklands, like most cities across not only the Imperium but the galaxy itself. Flying cars were all well and good but impractical when there was nothing in place to keep them from coming crashing from the sky when there was a fault. The skyways were the solution to that problem, roads in the sky made of anti-grav waves. Anti-grav was the solution to just about every problem you could think of in the Sea of Spirits, another application of the precious Spiritum. All you had to do was fly your car up into one of the translucent blue fields, and the skyway did the rest. You didn’t even have to steer.
Domition rose earlier than most, which meant he usually avoided waiting in the traffic that clogged up the skyways every morning and evening. Today was no different. Even with his and Hera’s early morning fling, he found the skyways mostly empty. That was some small mercy. At least he wouldn’t die of boredom on the way. It was only a few minutes before the Grand Forum was in full view, sitting at the centre of its plaza and surrounded by what looked like miles of verdant gardens. The complex consisted of several buildings with the central court of the Imperial Senate at the centre. The rest was mostly devoted to the offices and meeting chambers for the politicians that made up the Imperial government, all part of the lie spun by the man at the top: that it was necessary. Domition left the skyway and touched down in the staff’s lot among all the other flashy and incredibly expensive vehicles. Of course, the most senior politicians didn’t drive themselves anywhere, nor were they expected to park alongside the “common rabble”. The likes of Councillor Lucius and his colleagues had their own lot well away from that of their subordinates.
The lobby of the Grand Forum was every bit as grandiose as outside. Fat pillars of red stone carved with leaves and vines held up the vaulted ceiling through which the morning sun beamed. You couldn’t walk anywhere without the eyes of the Great Ones following you, their carmine marble effigies looming large and judging your every step. The tinkling of the water from the fountains filled the air and massaged the nerves.
As the day dragged by, Domition recalled more of his nightmare. If only it was just that and not one of the many painful memories that had remained with him for years and likely would for the remainder of his days. The voice was that of Marcus Amillus Gracia, his former commander and mentor. The day he joined the infiltrators, Domition was put in the care of Centurion Gracia who wasted no time teaching him the skills he would need to be successful in his vocation, including extracting information from those unwilling to give it up. He remembered it as if it were just yesterday gone. Vizedea; that was the camp they shipped him to fresh out of basic training, on the planet Lynevia; sixteen years old, the age all young men in the Imperium were forced to join the military, shipped away from home and trained to be a killer. Not even those born in the most remote reaches of Fringe Space were safe. Kiyrol was hardly anywhere of note, just an insignificant mining colony in the middle of nowhere. But, nevertheless, the Imperium still came calling when the young men born there were deemed old enough to hold a weapon and march to war against the enemies of the Imperator. They woke him earlier than usual and led him to a building at the very back of the camp. He wasn’t told anything on the way. The walk came to an end in a dark room that looked like the inside of a warehouse, all dirty and dingy. There Domition was met by Marcus, along with Optio Megellus and Duplicarius Primus Platina, their superiors. He didn’t get any answers from them either, but he would never forget the looks in their eyes as they stepped from the darkness. The moment theirs met his, Domition knew he wasn’t going to like what would happen next. Then he noticed the chair bolted to the floor, and the tables near it, and the tools on top of them. Then things started to become clear. There came a screech as the metal door swung open, followed by the footsteps of the two base staff who entered, and scrapes of the third person dragged between them by the underarms. They were dressed in a prisoner’s jumpsuit, hands and feet bound with gravity binders, and a black sack over their head. Domition could only watch as they were bound to the chair. Then the sack was removed and the alien face beneath was revealed; Iringroat. They never told him who he was or what’d done, but they did tell him what they wanted him to do. He should have refused. He should have walked out of there and never looked back. But he was so young and frightened, worried what would happen if he said no. Domition did everything he was told, despite all the screaming and thrashing and foul-smelling blood spurting onto the floor and his clothes and face, only allowed to stop once the screams had ceased and the prisoner’s body had fallen still, by which point he was covered almost head to foot. Marcus then appeared at his side and patted him on the shoulder. “Well done”, he’d told him. It was all Domition could do not to vomit all over…
Once again, he found himself somewhere else. Lucius was staring at him from behind his desk, mouth open slightly. Only then Domition realized he was sitting behind his own desk in his mentor’s office. “I’m sorry, Councillor. I was miles away. What were you saying”?
His mentor didn’t look very impressed by that. “I was saying, I need you to deliver these reports to Inquisitor Cassius”. He tapped the pile of papers to his right.
“Oh… yes, of course, Councillor. At once”. Domition got up and went to the take the papers only for Lucius to press down on them with his wrinkled hand.
“What’s with you, Domition? You don’t seem yourself”.
Domition froze. “It’s nothing, Councillor”. He would only get another earful if he told him.
“Don’t lie to me, boy. I haven’t lost my marbles yet. Not all of them, at least”.
Clearly he wasn’t going anywhere until he answered. “It’s just this business with the prisoners from Freedom for All. Nobody deserves to die like that”.
Lucius gave an irritated sigh. “We’ve been over this, Domition. I told you; you can’t save everyone. They knew the risks that came with what they were doing and they did it anyway. I hate that it had to end that way for them too. But they made their choice and suffered the consequences for it”.
Domition was well aware of that though it did nothing to temper his disgust. “But it’s just, how can people watch that and cheer? How can they follow a regime that does that to people just for fighting against injustice”?
“We’ve been over that as well. The galaxy was desperate. We were losing a war with the Iringroat. Nero saved us and the people were grateful. They welcomed him with open arms and then he spent decades winding them around his finger until they accepted anything he put in front of them. A people will accept almost anything if they’re desperate enough”.
Domition expected such an answer, though was exasperated nonetheless. “Where did he even come from”?!
Lucius shrugged. “No one knows. The galaxy was falling apart and then one day he turned up out of the blue with the biggest fleet it had ever seen. Before anyone knew what was happening, he’d surrounded about two dozen capital worlds, captured the leaders of every state and then they agreed to surrender. The Executive Council stood down and that was that”.
“But how? How could he overthrow something as big as the Collective so quickly”?
“Because it was a mess. We were too busy fighting among ourselves to realize there was a threat from outside until it was too late, and we were too disorganized to do anything once it was underway. Of course, the quickness with which he was able to consolidate his hold over the Collective suggests that he and his followers had been manipulating things from the inside for years”.
“You know this”?
“No. But let’s just say some people high up in the Collective, Haelqen of course, made out very well after Nero took over. It had to have been going on for decades, maybe’s even centuries”.
Lucius nodded. “Going back hundreds of years, there’d been whispers of groups operating in Fringe Space who were seeking to overthrow the Collective and build a new civilization in its place but they were always dismissed as the ramblings of paranoid fantasists. To think, if only we’d listened. How different things could be right now”.
“All that time they’d been orchestrating all this”?
“It would seem so. How else could they have built a fleet that size? Nobody could build that many ships that fast. Of course, our glorious Imperator couldn’t have been the one who started it. He was probably just the one in charge when the time finally came to strike. It just goes to show how big a place the galaxy truly is. It was happening right under our noses and no one knew a thing”.
Thinking of such a scheme almost made Domition’s head spin. The planning and complexity. No one man could have done all that on his own. It must have been huge, and yet no one knew about it. “I think I’m ready to take those files to Cassius now”.
Lucius took his hand from the pile. “Good. Just drop them off and leave this time. No scene making”.
“Of course, Councillor”. Domition scooped up the files. Inquisitor Cassius wasn’t going to be happy to see his face again, not after last time. The last time Domition was tasked with delivering some documents to him, he’d taken issues with some of the Inquisitor’s words regarding Haelqen dominance over the “filthy alien beasts” as he called them, and a full-blown argument had ensued in front of who knows how many staff. Not a good idea given the man is a member of the office responsible for rooting out and punishing those who harbour anti-Imperial sentiments. Likely the only reason he avoided being forced into re-education himself was through Lucius’ intervention though he was so furious afterwards he seemed on course to nail him to a cross himself.
“And Domition”, Lucius said as he reached the doors, files in his arms.
Domition turned back. “Yes Councillor”?
“I know you’re probably not going to listen, but you would do well not to mention anything we just discussed, especially within the walls of the forum”,
Domition nodded. “Of course, Councillor”.
He then went to leave only for the old councillor him back once more. “I need some more wine also”.
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