Domition was already awake when the first blast rocked the city. He’d been staring at the bedroom ceiling for hours, terrified of where he might end up if he let himself slip away. Hera lay sound asleep beside him, not even stirring as he sat up and stared out the window. She’d always been a remarkably heavy sleeper.
He recognized the sound in the distance. It was one he’d hoped never to hear again. Something was happening. Domition let his wife sleep, quietly slipping out of bed and creeping to the balcony outside their bedroom. The glass door slid aside and the cool breeze caressed his skin. He found the night peaceful as always, but he wasn’t fooled. He knew what he heard. He didn’t imagine it, nor was he dreaming. When he spotted the orange glow rising over the tops of the buildings not so far away, his suspicions were confirmed.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what was happening. The blast came from the Commerce District. So many feelings gripped him at once. Domition was unsure which to embrace: shock, apprehension, fear, contentment, delight, exhilaration. Even in the face of such destruction so close to him, it was difficult not to be excited. All he could think about was the Imperator’s glorified vanity projects going up in flames. He hoped no civilians had been injured, but he wouldn’t pretend the Imperium wasn’t getting what it deserved. He was just surprised it hadn’t happened much sooner.
Domition heard the door open and looked over his shoulder to see Hera stepping through the drapes, yawning and rubbing her eyes. “What are you doing out here”? Domition only nodded in the direction of the light and smoke billowing from the Commerce District. Hera’s eyes widened as she approached the railing. “What’s happened”?
“The oppressed are fighting back”. Domition couldn’t help but betray the satisfaction flowing through him. Finally, the “infallible” and “invincible” Imperium was being unmasked for how fragile it truly was. They’d probably treat it as some earth-shattering tragedy but, to him, it was a wonderful day. He only wished he could have seen the Imperator’s face when he found out, if he hadn’t already.
Hera didn’t share his enthusiasm. The devotion to the Imperium was so thoroughly ingrained within her that any attack on it was like losing a loved one. Domition wished he could comfort her but he wasn’t sure how. He felt no sympathy for anyone who sympathized with the Imperium, but he loved his wife and couldn’t bear to see her in pain. It wasn’t her fault she loved and worshipped a racist, murderous dictatorship.
He was about to take her in his arms when the second blast made them jump. Domition felt the urge to throw himself upon his wife, despite knowing they were well out of harm’s way. He couldn’t help it, reminded of memories he’d tried hard to suppress and transported back to times and places he’d long wished to forget. Explosions in the distance, bombs falling from the sky, fire and smoke rising from the horizon. Domition almost felt like he was back there, and no longer felt excited.
He returned to the present to find the city quiet again. The inhabitants of the neighbouring buildings were now venturing onto their balconies. Most were probably awoken by the first blast. They’d likely thought it was their imaginations until they heard the second. Domition was all of a sudden conscious of his and his wife’s nakedness, only to realize nobody was paying attention to them. They were all too busy staring off at the fires. Most had never experienced anything like it in their lives. Domition could only envy them.
Then came the gunfire, another sound he was very much familiar with. Domition could even make out the unique sounds of the different weapons being used, the high-pitched hissing of the superheated Spiritum weapons carried by the soldiers of the Imperium followed by the shorts bursts and cracks of the ballistic-based weapons of whoever they were battling. They conjured images of bullets and energy bolts whizzing through the air, soldiers in suits of armour and revolutionaries in raggy clothes ducked behind walls and parked vehicles, marble and stone being blasted apart amd people screaming and writhing in agony as blood gushed from gaping wounds. The racket was momentarily blocked out by a whoosh from above. They looked up to see several military transports go shooting by, reinforcements for the soldiers on the streets. Domition didn’t hold much hope for the perpetrators.
He listened carefully as the fighting raged. The sounds of the attackers’ weapons were getting thinner and more disparate. They were losing numbers fast. It wouldn’t last much longer. Then, with a final gunshot, the night was quiet again. The Imperial City was silent save for the breeze and the distant echoes of sirens. They stayed still for a little while longer, listening intently but hearing nothing. No more shooting and no more explosions. It was over.
Domition looked to Hera to see the tears making their way down her cheeks. The idea of her beloved Imperium coming under attack had left her distraught. The only sadness Domition felt was for the attackers. He hoped they’d already met a quick death rather than fall into the hands of the military. A harrowing fate awaited them otherwise. Hera turned to him, hoping to see even a hint of the sorrow she felt. He was forced to disappoint her. She came to him and wrapped her arms around his middle, hair brushing against his chest. Domition just stood there, not sure what to do. He didn’t sympathize one bit, but it would be cruel not to comfort her. It was difficult, but he managed to put his arms around her and rest his head on top of hers.
“How could this happen”?
Domition said nothing. He had the answer, but she wouldn’t like it. She was in enough pain as it was, no need to add to it. They remained there for some time, even after the other residents of their district had gone back inside. Finally, they returned to the bedroom and Domition sat his wife down on the bed and held her some more. That was all he could think to do.
“Why would anyone do this”? Hera sniffed. Again, Domition didn’t answer.
They just sat there in each other’s arms. No point trying to get any sleep, not now. All Domition could think about was what awaited him at the Grand Forum in a few hours. What was that council meeting going to be like? Hera laid back down to try and get some sleep but he stayed up: thinking, imagining, and worrying. Nero wasn’t going to let this go, an insult to him and his precious little Imperium. He would be out for vengeance. Heads would roll.
The call came about a half-hour later. The high-pitched jingle fluttered in from the living room. Domition left Hera to answer it, the face of his mentor appearing before his eyes on the wall screen “No doubt, you are aware of what has happened”. Lucius rubbed his eyes. He looked like he too was missing sleep.
“I need you to get dressed and meet me at the Forum right now”.
“What’s going on”?
“The Imperator has called an emergency meeting of the High Council. He asked for you as well”.
That was a surprise. “What does he want me for”?
Lucius shrugged. “I don’t know. But you better get over there now, unless you want to make him even angrier with you than he already is”.
The call ended before Domition could ask anything else. Lucius was right about one thing: he didn’t want to piss off the Imperator any more than he certainly already was. Domition did as his mentor said. He returned to the bedroom and put on the toga he’d worn the day before.
Hera sat up, knees and covers pulled to her chest. “What are you doing”?
Domition sat down and took her head in his hands. “I have to go to the Forum. The Imperator has called for me”.
“The Imperator? Why would he be calling for you”?
“I don’t know but I have to go now. I’ll be back as soon as I can”.
Domition gave Hera a kiss on the forehead and left her to try and get back to sleep though he didn’t hold much hope for her. The journey to the Grand Forum was much shorter than usual. Save for the odd gunship and emergency vehicle, the skyways were deserted. Soon enough, his destination was coming into view, lighting up the night’s sky like the Grand Amphitheatre at the height of one of its sold-out extravaganzas. Domition touched down in the staff’s vehicle lot and made the rest of the way on foot.
The gardens around the forum were as serene by night as during the day. The tinkling of the fountains was a light percussion to accompany the occasional chirp or tweet. But the peace didn’t last long. During the day, the gardens swarmed with birds and butterflies but by night they swarmed with metal men with guns, more than Domition had ever seen in the city at any one time. Some stood guard along the edges of the paths while others patrolled in small squads. He guessed the Imperator was already inside.
Domition’s nerves danced as he neared the entrance, the red eyes following him as if belonging to living statues. The soldiers lining the path ahead stood motionless like empty suits of armour in an old castle but, when he approached, their heads would turn in his direction and his eyes would meet theirs. A sinister feeling festered inside, a chill travelling up Domition’s spine every time one of them looked upon him. He couldn’t help but feel they might turn their weapons on him at any moment. Some whispered as he passed, their electronic-tinged voices too low to catch any words. Domition looked over his shoulder only to make eye contact with one and quickly avert his gaze. That was when he noticed the group approaching from the opposite direction and when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He counted six. Their weapons were aimed to the ground but he no less felt threatened. It was never a good sign to be advanced upon by a group of Imperial soldiers. Domition’s heart pounded as the distance between them narrowed but he kept his head held high. He wouldn’t let his fear show in front of these brutes.
“Let him pass”! Lucius appeared out from behind them, much to Domition’s relief. “He’s with me. The Imperator has asked for him personally”. With that, the soldiers backed off. No one wanted to risk upsetting the Imperator, especially now. “Come on. Everyone else is waiting”.
There was little said on the way to the council chamber. Domition asked again about his purpose for being there but received only the same answer as before. There were even more soldiers inside; the main foyer was teeming with them. The Imperator wasn’t taking any chances. Domition did his best to avoid their eyes though that was easier said than done. In almost every direction, there was a pair of red eyes looking back. Domition didn’t see anyone else, none of the usual staff members or politicians.
They heard the Imperator long before they saw him. His coughing sounded even worse than usual. Everyone was already in their seats when they arrived, the Imperator hunched at the head of the table. He was joined by Tacitus and his Praetorians and a face Domition had never seen at any previous meeting but recognized all the same. Marcus Hecidius Metellus stood at the other end of the table, flanked by four of his highest-ranking warriors, dressed in the armour of a Praetorian but with no helmet or mask to hide his face. Domition wasn’t sure if he preferred him with his mask on or off. The leader of the Praetorians fixed him with a menacing stare as he found his seat.
Now that he was sitting, Domition was doing his best to avoid Marcus’ gaze. He could almost feel his eyes cutting into him. Few men legitimately frightened him but the Praetorian leader was one of them. Tacitus was terrifying, but Marcus was something else entirely. There was just something about him that chilled Domition to the bone. The chamber was dead. The Imperator had finished coughing but said nothing. The circumstances that had brought them here had affected him deeply, Domition could see. He looked practically heartbroken.
Slowly, the Imperator raised his head. “I am sure you are all aware of why you have been summoned here at this hour”. He sounded like he’d just gotten out of bed. “A little over an hour ago, our glorious Imperium came under attack from a group of spineless cowards”.
“I assure you, My Imperator, we are all shocked and deeply saddened by this terrible tragedy”, Trajan said. The Imperator regarded him with an expressionless glance before continuing.
“A small group of attackers, Rylukans, gained entrance to the city and set off explosives within the treasury and the central bank, both of which suffered significant damage and will most likely have to be demolished”. He paused, as if having trouble finding the words. “The perpetrators cowardly took their own lives before they could be apprehended, although I am sure we all know who is responsible for this shameless act”. Many groups cried for the blood of the Imperium, but Freedom for All seemed the most likely suspect.
“Are we to discuss what action is to be taken in the face of this tragedy, My Imperator”? Lutatinius asked though Domition was certain he’d made up his mind long before arriving here.
“There will be no discussion. I have summoned you here to tell you what will happen now so that you may put my will into motion. Freedom for All has crossed the line, and this insult shall not go unpunished. Their leaders and anyone else involved in this attack will be handed over to me personally by the Confederacy, and they will suffer the full retribution of the Imperium. To this end, I am ordering a full and immediate invasion of the Neutral Expanse”. Domition was surprised; he was expecting to hear the order to invade the Confederacy instead.
“The Neutral Expanse, My Imperator”? Lucius sounded just as puzzled. “The leaders of Freedom for All are in the Confederacy”.
“You sound like you take me for a fool, Lucius”!
“Not at all, My Imperator. I was merely wondering what you mean to achieve with an invasion of the Expanse”.
The Imperator snarled. “The Confederacy is sworn to protect the Neutral Expanse from all outside aggression and will respond to our invasion in one of two ways. Either they will declare war, in which case we will crush them, or they will agree to anything to end the occupation. In exchange for the withdrawal of our troops, they will give me Cemma and Sevanota”.
“And if they don’t, My Imperator”? Councillor Vitellius asked nervously.
The Imperator’s eyes narrowed. “Then we will take the Expanse and burn world after world until they submit. And if they still do not, they will be next. Send word to the generals and admirals. Tell them to mobilize their forces at once. The invasion begins immediately”.
“It will be done, My Imperator”, Tacitus replied. The meeting was just another waste of time, the Imperator once again lauding his power over the council and reminding them how worthless their words were, and Domition still didn’t know why he was here.
“I take it that is the meeting at an end, My Imperator”? Regulus asked.
“Not quite. There is still one issue that remains”. The Imperator looked to Domition. “You, boy”. All eyes were then on him.
Finally, Domition thought. “Yes… My Imperator”?
“Councillor Lucius has told us much of your previous service to the Imperium. You have served us very well, and you seem to have quite the reputation within the Intelligentia Corpus. Is that correct, Tacitus”?
The Supreme Commander stepped up to the table. “It is, My Imperator. Decanus Magnus is one of the finest and most capable infiltrators the military has ever seen. He has served the Imperium with great distinction”.
“Hmm, we require someone of your skills in these troubled times”. The Imperator seemed to be enjoying himself now, a sharp contrast to barely a minute ago. Domition didn’t like the way this was going. Much of his work with the infiltrators was shady at best and many times downright unethical. There were no such things as ethical or moral boundaries in the intelligence corps, or anywhere else in the military for that matter.
He needed to be careful now. “How might I serve you, My Imperator”? The words almost made him choke.
“As I am sure everyone here is aware, there are many systems in place to prevent undesirables like the scum responsible for this attack from entering our city. There is no possible way these filthy beasts could have breached our defences by themselves. Clearly, they had aid from within”.
“You believe that one of our own aided in this attack, my Imperator”? Councillor Plautius didn’t sound all that convinced.
“Are you feeling guilty, Councillor”? It was the first time Domition heard Marcus speak, possessing a voice to more than match his chilling exterior.
“No, of course not. I just…”
“I do not believe someone from within the city itself is responsible”, the Imperator interrupted. “I believe someone with access to the maintenance tunnels is to blame”. Beneath the Imperial City, and throughout the rest of the Castellum, ran the vast network of tunnels that formed an integral part of the systems that kept the station’s many wheels turning. So sprawling and far-reaching they were that patrolling them all at the same time was practically impossible but, if you knew your way around, it wouldn’t be too hard to sneak into the city without drawing attention. That’s how Domition would have done it. “Freedom for All’s message is widespread and they have no shortage of sympathizers throughout our space, including aboard the Castellum itself. They must have enlisted the help of one or more of the maintenance workers to gain information and access. This scum is just as guilty as those who carried out the attack. They must face justice. That is my task for you, Domition. You will use all of your skills and expertise to find them and see that they are brought to justice. This is a matter of great importance. I trust you will not fail us”.
Domition hesitated, using the time to choose his word carefully. “I am honoured that you would personally entrust this task to me, My Imperator”. He tried not to make his feigned humbleness too obvious. “But I must ask, why choose me for this? This task seems more suited for the City Watch, and I’m not an infiltrator anymore”. His refusal to carry out the orders of his superiors saw to that.
The Imperator leant forward. “Because thanks to your contributions to these meetings, I have come to question your loyalty to my Imperium. I offer you this task as a means to prove me wrong”.
“You’re offering”? He couldn’t stop himself. “So I can refuse”? Domition thought he heard Lucius grumble something in his direction.
“You may, but I doubt you will like what will happen if you do”. The choice most people in the Imperium faced: do as you’re told, or end up on a cross.
Domition paused again, making clear his unenthusiasm. “Very well, My Imperator. It will be done”. What would father say if he could hear him now? He was probably spinning.
“I know it will, because you will not be leading the investigation alone. You will be working alongside Marcus here. He will keep me informed of your progress and you will report to him before you do anything”. Domition’s heart sank like a weight in the ocean. In an instant, any hope of his investigation being remotely moral or ethical was thrown out the window. Marcus was like every other member of Nero’s inner circle: fanatically loyal, overzealous, and off his rocker.
“We will find the ones responsible for this, My Imperator”, Marcus said. “I give you my word”.
“I know you will not fail me, the both of you”. Domition was certain the Imperator was smiling beneath his mask. “And now, I call this meeting to an end, for I should like to rest”.
The walk from the council chamber was even more haunting than the walk to it. He’d entered wanting so badly to know what the Imperator wanted with him but now Domition wanted nothing more than to forget all about it. “I don’t believe this”, he muttered to Lucius, the last to leave the chamber.
“I’m sorry, Domition”. The old man placed a hand on his shoulder. “Had I known, I would have warned you”.
“You could have said something back there”.
“Like what? Once the Imperator’s mind is made up, there’s no changing it. You know that”.
Domition looked to the ground and sighed. “What am I gonna do”?
“What you are told. You know how things are here. You do, or you die, and, to be honest, maybe this is what you need”.
The grip at Domition’s shoulder tightened. “You need to be concentrating on proving your loyalty to the Imperium, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so. You are treading on very thin ice and, to be completely frank, I’m surprised you’re still alive”.
“I guess it’s my endearing personality”.
“Whatever it is, it isn’t going to save you forever. I don’t know why the Imperator has tolerated you for this long but I guarantee it won’t last much longer, and, when his patience finally reaches its end, he will kill you, and probably your wife as well”. That last part was like a blade to his gut. Lucius brought them to a halt. He took his hand away. “I just need to try. No matter how much you hate it and disagree with it, you have to push through somehow. You’re a good man, Domition. I don’t want to see you on a cross. Do you understand me”?
Domition hesitated, then nodded. “Yes”.
“Good”. Lucius took him by both arms. “I know you probably sympathize with the people who did this and, yes, in the face of tyranny, the answer is to rise up and resist, but resisting and blowing up buildings are not the same thing. Good luck, my friend. You will need it”.
The old councillor gave him a gentle pat on both arms before he left him. Domition stayed, leaning against the wall with his head rested on the cold stone. He needed some time alone. The soldiers were gone; the hallway was deserted except for him. Lucius was right. He did need this, though not for himself. He didn’t particularly care what Nero did with him. He’d happily accept a place on a cross rather than help punish those with whom he felt solidarity. But he couldn’t let the same fate befall Hera. The thought of her sharing such a fate left Domition sick to his stomach. Why couldn’t he have kept his mouth shut? Lucius didn’t say it, but he was thinking it all the same. He brought this on himself. If only he’d just sat quietly and not questioned any of the Imperator’s insane decisions. Then he wouldn’t be in this mess. Even worse was the fact he knew all too well the Imperator’s true motives. So did Lucius. This had nothing to do with loyalty. Nero was mad but he wasn’t blind, or naïve. He knew it didn’t exist. This wasn’t a test of loyalty; this was to be his punishment for his defiance. There would be no crosses or nails for him. The Imperator was too smart for that. He knew killing him would be doing him a favour, regardless of the method. No, instead, he would crush him, the attack on his city having given him the perfect opportunity to do so. And no matter how many times he told himself he wouldn’t give in, that he wouldn’t give the Imperator the satisfaction he sought, Domition knew it was only a matter of time before the Imperium broke him.