“That didn’t even happen. I know what happened. I was there. You can’t trick me. You always thought you were smarter than me. No, you’re not. No, you are not. You are not smarter than me. You are not smarter than me. I don’t have to listen to these lies. You’re nothing but a liar. I see your evil fucking lies. I know the truth. I know…”
The Imperator doubled over, clutching at his chest as he was gripped by yet another fit of frenzied coughing. Fires raged within his lungs. They felt like they were about to be forced up his throat and out his mouth. Sometimes he wished that would happen.
“That’s not true! I remember. It was so long ago but I remember. You’re a liar, a liar and a whore. I’ve got nothing more to say to you”. They never let him be; every day and night they plagued him with their nagging. They thought they were smarter than him, but they weren’t. He saw the truth, and nothing they could say would ever shroud it from him.
“Why would you talk about that? It was such a long time ago. No, that’s not true. I didn’t do that and you know it. You’re a lying whore, and so is he. He was the coward, not me. I fought while he ran. I suffered while he…”
He couldn’t finish his thought, the need to clear his throat of fluid too great to ignore. Pain resonated through him with every cough, each one a boot stamping on his chest. His cheeks stung as the tears poured from his red eyes. Every bone ached as if drills were cutting into them. Curse the shameless bastards that made him into this. Every pained moment was another he longed to have them in his hands. Forget the crosses and nails, he would tear them limb from limb all by himself.
Another day had come to an end. Finally, he was free of the frustration and ignorance that dogged him at every turn. There would be no more second-guessing, arguing, or insults. The night was his, and he would spend it as he spent every other, alone at the top of the Magnam Aream, his tower at the centre of his city. From his home atop its tallest spire, the Imperator of the Imperium Siderum Et Caeli was afforded an unobstructed view of the crown jewel of his empire, a view that never failed to captivate and enchant.
The lift fell silent and the doors parted. The strokes and plucks of cello and harp strings fluttered in the air like the wings of butterflies but the Imperator could barely hear the music over his coughing. The day had left him drained and with little desire to do anything but rest. His belly ached. He’d eaten nothing since midday. He hobbled into the dining room and slumped into the seat at the head of the table. He would eat alone, as always, no guests to keep him company, no servants, not even his Praetorians. Nobody watched him eat.
The Imperator reached under the table and pushed a button. The hardwood top opened to reveal the dispenser concealed beneath. With the press of another button, a flask containing an unappetizing-looking paste popped out of the dispenser’s tube. The Imperator took it and unscrewed the top, then pressed a button on the side of his mask. The front opened and he brought the flask to the hole and locked it in place with a twist. Then he was left with no choice but to suck in the nutrient-rich but foul-tasting paste and swallow it down as fast as he could. It tasted like how he imagined polystyrene mixed with wood shavings and potash to taste. Even with no one watching, he was humiliated, forced to eat like an infant suckling at a bottle or its mother’s teat. He’d done it for decades but it was no less painful, having to hide away and partake in such a ridiculous ritual, the damage to his throat having all but destroyed his ability to consume solid food, just one of the pleasures cruelly taken from him.
The Imperator unscrewed the empty flask and set it on the tabletop, then reached under and pressed another button. A second flask popped out of the tube, this filled with red liquid. He may not be able to eat anything but disgusting mush, but he still had his wine to wash away its sickly aftertaste. In no time, the flask was empty. No point savouring it. He had no one to drink with.
Supper over, The Imperator unscrewed the wine flask and closed up his mask before departing the dining room. He wandered his home, conversing with the unwanted house guests who existed only within his mind. He hobbled from room to room, unable to find any activity to occupy him for more than a few moments. He went to the music room and sat down at the grand piano, only to leave after playing a few notes. Then he went to the library where he paced between the packed shelves before selecting a book though he would return it to its place after a few lines. The stresses of the day continued to plague him. He’d finally heard from Demetria, but she didn’t bring good news. Those ignorant monkeys had managed to let the artefact slip through their fingers and into the hands of the Trassani, filthy savages. That idiot of a general secretary promised the situation was under control. The Ebol were meant to be intelligent. He should have him nailed to a cross for his incompetence. Demetria promised she would soon wrest the artefact from the hands of those of beasts and he had every faith in her; but it still meant more waiting. He much longer would he be forced to wait to get what he wanted? The only thing he ever truly wanted. Then there was this business with the Confederacy. They just had to push him further. They had only to hand over those two cocksuckers and that would be the end of it, but no. Now they were on the cusp of war, all for a group of whiners who didn’t deserve the life within them. That was the last thing he needed. But how could he stand by and let them get away with what they’d done? Did they not understand how weak that would make him look? How did they expect him to react? What would he be worth to his people if he let them insult him like that? One thing was for certain; the destruction he would rain upon them would be of their own doing, not his.
The Imperator arrived at his office. He dropped into the leather armchair behind the big oak desk. The day had extracted every ounce of energy from him. All he could do now was slouch and sigh. It was a feeling he was very much familiar with, tired almost to the point of exhaustion but unable to find the rest he craved. His mind raced like a running cheetah, bursting with desires but with no way to satisfy them. The desktop was bare save for his black book and fountain pen. He’d often record his thoughts and feelings in its pages. There was so much he had to write about, so much anger and frustration, but he lacked the will to even open the cover, let alone put pen to paper.
The voices kept up their chattering. As he walked the streets of his city and the halls of the Grand Forum, they were always following. Even when he listened to the drivel and pandering from the old bastards on the council, they would be with him: talking, laughing, mocking, judging, insulting. Not even in his own home was he free. They never let him be, a dozen corpses all sharing the same grave.
He tried to ignore them but that worked only for so long. “No, that’s not true. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I know the truth. Me. Only I have seen it. I will not return to the silence alone. You can’t make me… no, you can’t. I’m stronger than you, smarter than you. Through me, the Great Ones speak. I am the Imperator. I am Nero, uniter of tribes and forger of empires”. He knew the more he argued the more they taunted but he couldn’t help himself. They knew exactly what to say to get under his skin. Of course they did, they were him.
He stormed from the office but they only followed. Before long, he was in the bathroom. The glare of the lights on the white tile walls stung his eyes. He dragged himself to the sink and stared into the drain, hunched over with hands rested on the worktop. Slowly, he lifted his head to stare at the reflection in the gold-framed mirror. Wrinkled, scarred, and blistered cheeks, sunken red eyes, yellow irises, the bottom half-hidden beneath an ugly mask, once so handsome and beautiful, now grotesque and ruined.
An urge then came over him that he was powerless to resist. With the push of another button, the pressure at his cheeks and jaw melted as the mask released its grip. He pushed his aching fingers under its upper edges and pulled and then everything was laid bare. A gnarled mess of deformed flesh, skin reddened and cracked like dry soil, missing lips, and a flat stump where a nose used to be. Even after multiple grafts, it was no less unsightly, the transplanted skin pulled taut by the rictus grin he couldn’t help but make. There was a time when tears would leak from his ravaged eyes, but that time was long passed. He recalled the pain as he stared, the searing of his flesh and the scorching of his eyes and throat. He could still feel the gas burning away the inner layers of his lungs. Screaming only deepened the agony, but he couldn’t help it. They used Axanhias. That was typical; rather than face him like men, his would-be assassins sent him a flask containing one of the deadliest substances ever developed. No one bothered to check it before they handed it over to him. He’d never have thought anyone would be so brazen, until he was bleeding out of every orifice and clawing at the floor as his face and insides melted. His killers never factored in his panic-button, or they didn’t think the Praetorians would reach him as quickly as they did. Had they not, he wouldn’t have made it into his third year as Imperator. They could have made him as if it had never happened, but then what would he be? They wore their scars with pride in the Imperium, as an everlasting mark of strength and endurance. What would he be to his people if he went back on his teachings? There was only one choice: to wear his scars as an everlasting mark of strength and endurance.
It was only a few seconds before his lungs began to fail, the familiar tightness developing across his chest as the image in the mirror began to blur. A few seconds more and he would be unconscious. There was no one to help him here, no one to save him. He would drift away peacefully on the bathroom floor, provided he didn’t crack his temple on the way down. The idea appealed. Just letting himself fade away and, with him, all his pain. No more voices, stress, or memories. Finally free. But, like every other time, he would press the mask back to his jaw and fasten it in place, lungs filling with air before he succumbed to more coughing.
The mask didn’t just hide the scars beneath; it kept its wearer alive. A few seconds without it was all it took to bring an end to his existence. The neurotoxin did more than destroy his looks. The paralysis of his lungs and diaphragm made it impossible to draw breath without it. It had become a habit of his to take it off despite knowing he risked his life every time. He liked to see how long he could withstand without its aid though, no matter how many times he tried, it didn’t seem to make a difference. The thought of taking it off and never putting it back on crossed his mind often and he was usually powerless to do anything but embrace it. The end of his suffering was only the touch of a button away but, no matter how much he wished he could, he couldn’t. He liked to think that it wasn’t his time, that he still had work to do first. But he knew the real reason.
In the moments of relief between coughs, all he could do was yawn. The Imperator limped to the bedroom. He took care not to let his gaze wander to any of the mirrors as he stripped. The scars weren’t confined to his face and, even without them, his skinny, wrinkled frame was nothing to behold. He grabbed the closest nightshirt and pulled it over his head. It was thin and light and did nothing to warm his body. That was a good thing. The slightest hint of heat was enough to make sleep impossible. But despite the air conditioning keeping the room chilly, sleep wouldn’t come easily. The voices remained with him long after he laid his head on the pillow and pulled the blanket to his chin, chattering away inside his skull.
“You don’t know anything. You’re nothing but a lying whore. And you’re a coward. I know it all. You know nothing”.
Their activity seemed to increase after he lay down for the night, like they’d made it their mission to see he didn’t get the rest he needed. Many nights, all he could do was stare at the ceiling, listening to the voices and trying to figure out exactly how many there were. He usually discerned around a dozen though the exact number varied from night to night. They spoke so fast and often at the same time, as if trying to trick him. The only thing worse was the coughing. That only seemed to worsen when he lay down too, the weight of the boot stamping on his chest multiplied. Then there was the itching of the mask that also refused to relent. For the Imperator, the mere act of sleep was an uphill battle in which the odds were stacked against him. It was almost comical, so much power and wealth and yet something as simple as sleep was beyond his reach.
Eventually, he began to drift off. He imagined falling backward into a bottomless pit, watching unblinking as the light at the top shrank to the size of a pin before disappearing. It was a tactic he often used and it usually worked though he was never sure why. Perhaps he wished for a dark pit to swallow him up and return him to the darkness once more. But after taking so long to doze off, it would take only an instant to be ripped back into the world of the living. The Imperator’s eyes flew open when he heard the sound. He recognized it, for he’d heard it many times before.
He took his cane and dragged himself onto the balcony as fast as his legs would take him but, when he got there, he found his city as it usually was by night. All there was to greet him was the evening breeze. He almost convinced himself he’d imagined the sound that roused him from his bed, until he saw the glow rising from the Commerce District. He didn’t see the source but he didn’t need to. As he stared at the point where the world seemed to open and spew its molten guts skyward, the Imperator gripped the pommel of his cane so tight his hand might have bled. The Imperial City, his city, the jewel of the Imperium aflame before his eyes.
Another blast rocked the city and a second glow filled the sky not far from the first. It took every ounce of restraint not to slam his fist into the railing. He would have screamed as loud as he could were it not for the fear of the coughing that would surely result. His body shook as the fury overwhelmed him. He knew not who, or what, or where, but he knew why. An attack on the Imperial City and its people, an attack on the Imperium itself, an attack on him. Just as it seemed volcanoes were erupting in the middle of his city, so too it seemed a volcano was erupting within him. Through his veins, lava coursed. He would slaughter those responsible with only his hands. If only he had them in front of him, the pain he would make them feel. Another sound rang out. This wasn’t an explosion but a sound he recognized nonetheless. The pops and cracks of ballistic weapons echoed, answered by the whistling of energy weapon fire. They almost brought tears to his eyes, the loyal warriors of the Imperium rushing to the defence of their city from its barbaric invaders. Were he a young man, he would have been down there himself, leading the charge against the savages.
The fighting raged for several minutes, then the Imperial City was silent once more. It could only mean one thing. He hoped they’d taken some alive. He returned to the bedroom and threw on the toga he wore that day and then stormed to the grav-lift. At the bottom of the Magnam Aream, he was greeted by the sight of Tacitus approaching with a dozen Praetorians.
“My Imperator. Our city is under attack. We have come to ensure your safety”.
“I care not for my own safety! Take me to the Commerce District at once”!
“With respect, My Imperator. There may be more attackers at large in the city. I recommend you remain in your home until it is certain the threat has been dealt with”.
“I will not hide away while my city burns! I want to see with my own eyes. Take me there at once”!
Tacitus hesitated, quite uncharacteristically. “Very well, my Imperator”.
It didn’t take long to reach their destination. The streets were mostly silent, the skyways empty save for emergency vehicles and military gunships. The inhabitants of the Imperial City were keeping themselves indoors. Were it not for the previous commotion and the ensuing sirens, you might have thought it a peaceful night. Tacitus filled him on the way. There’d been two targets: the Imperial Treasury, and the Central Bank of the Imperium. The news left an ache in the Imperator’s heart. Two fine examples of Imperial architecture devastated by creatures infinitely inferior to those who constructed them, the images of the Great Ones desecrated. Were he not in the presence of so many strong men, he might have allowed himself to weep.
The transport’s passenger door slid open and in washed the glow and heat from the blaze. As he stepped out, the Imperator looked up to see the front of the treasury torn asunder. Flames and smoke were spewing into the sky like lava from a volcano, The statues that once stood tall and proud now littered the street. Emergency vehicles floated above, red lights pulsating as their crews sprayed water and dropped foam onto the hellfire. There were more Praetorians too. Their armour blazed as if they were clothed in flames.
The heat caressed his skin and made it seem like he was standing before a two hundred storey bonfire. Those responsible lay on the pavement opposite. Rylukans; filthy beasts. There were five, arms by their sides and a pool of dark blood around each head. The figure presiding over them seemed like a statue of molten glass, black armour, bald head and pale skin tinged orange.
“My Imperator”, replied the leader of the Praetorians. “They each took their own lives. Cowards”.
“Are these all of them”? He’d hoped to take some alive, so they could learn the identity of the masterminds of this atrocity, or, if nothing else, hear their screams as the nails were driven through their palms.
“There are six more at the Ripam Imperium. They too turned their weapons on themselves before they could be apprehended. Men are searching the streets for any more that may be lurking”. The Imperator doubted the search would yield any results. They all died the same way, he noticed. They never intended to be captured, or survive. “This tragedy fills my heart with grief, My Imperator. I feel no shame in admitting that”.
“Nor should you, for I feel it too. This is a most harrowing day for the Imperium. But have no fear, my friend. We will seek vengeance upon those responsible and they will suffer horribly for what they have wrought here”.
“I look forward to it greatly, My Imperator”.
“As do I, Marcus. As do I”.
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