Spiritum – Chapter Thirty-five

35.

Domition rose much earlier than usual and wasted no time getting himself ready for the day ahead. It was still dark outside; by the time he’d finished his shower, the artificial sun was just beginning to peek from behind the horizon. Hera was sound asleep beneath the covers. Most mornings, they’d wake at about the same time and make love before he got up. This morning, Domition made do with watching her slumber. He loved watching his wife sleep, so sweet and innocent. Marcus’ message didn’t specify what he should wear, so he put on his usual blue toga and sandals before leaving quietly, dreading the day that awaited.

The skyways were mostly empty. Most of the Imperial City was still sleeping. Marcus had insisted they begin the “operation” as he called it while the Castellum slept. Despite it being their investigation, Domition didn’t know what the leader of the Praetorians was planning though he had a few ideas. None of them were good. All he knew was where he needed to be and when: The House of Repentance by the beginning of the sixth hour. It would be Domition’s first visit to the House of Repentance though he was very much aware of its reputation. The Imperial City’s central hub of law enforcement, doubling as a prison and interrogation centre, and the setting of some of the Imperium’s most cruel and brutal treatment of its non-Haelqen citizens, along with anyone who dared defy its laws. The place itself bore no resemblance to how Domition had pictured it. It was no different to any of the other pantheons and temples dotted about the Imperial capital with its terracotta roofs, marble pillars and verdant gardens complete with fountains, waterways, flowerbeds, and nests for the birds that called them home. You’d scarcely believe this was one of the most feared places in the galaxy, a place many entered but never left. 

Domition ignored the visitor’s vehicle lot and headed around to the building’s southwest side where the staff’s lot was located along with the bay for the City Watch’s patrol vehicles. As he approached the ground, he spied the rows of gunships and troop transports and what looked like hundreds of soldiers and watch officers massing around them, no doubt a part of Marcus’ operation too.

A threatening voice snapped through the vehicle’s communicator, demanding Domition back off or be shot down though he was cleared to land when he informed the person on the other end of his identity. Apparently (and thankfully), they’d been told to expect him. Immediately after leaving the car, Domition found himself advanced upon by a pair of red-armoured Praetorians who told him their leader was waiting. They led him across the vehicle lot to the centre of the crowd where a familiar voice filled the morning air.

“Today, we begin our search for the filth that placed our city and its citizens in peril”. Were it not for his voice, Domition wouldn’t have realized it was Marcus speaking, his face now obscured behind the gurning mask of a Praetorian. “Our first port of call will be Sector One, which is mostly populated by Rylukans.” A collective groan resonated through the crowd. “Most likely, the coward we seek hides there, and we will find him. Our goal today is simple. We will canvas the sector, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, district by district, searching every home for the perpetrator and evidence that proves his guilt. Any suspicious individuals are to be taken into custody, along with anybody who resists. Deadly force is authorized in the face of violent resistance. Make no mistake, these creatures are savages who do not understand their place in the Imperium or the galaxy at large. They will not be forthcoming with information, but we cannot allow that to deter us. Do not forget that we are the law and we carry with us the will of the Great Ones. They look down upon us and wish us nothing but success in our endeavour and, with their blessing, we cannot fail. Let us make our Imperator proud this day. Make yourselves ready for we leave immediately”.

The soldiers and officers gave an enthusiastic cheer before falling out and making their way to the transports. Domition headed for Marcus. He had a few words of his own for him.

“I was beginning to wonder whether or not you’d show up”.

“I’m sure you were hoping for the latter”.

Marcus tilted his head slightly. “Not at all. It pleases me to see you here. Today is an important day. You’ll see that soon enough”.

“So important you didn’t bother telling me about it until yesterday”?

“You know now. Now let us get this done as quickly as possible”.

Before Domition could say anything else, the Praetorian Leader was on his way to his transport with his colleagues. Domition followed, a decision he would soon regret when he found himself sitting in a cramped passenger compartment surrounded by psychotic killers. The door slammed shut. Were it not for the red light, he wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. Sandwiched between two of Marcus’ most high-ranking soldiers, Domition listened as the engines fired up and the thrusters engaged but felt nothing as the transport took flight. The journey would last only several minutes, but they were by far the most awkward of his life. Everywhere he looked, there was a black figure in a sinister mask looking back. He couldn’t see their eyes, but he felt their gazes upon him, as if staring not at him but into him. Of all the grim and terrible aspects of the Imperium, few chilled Domition more than the Praetorians. They were the ultimate killers: fearless, merciless, and remorseless, no ambitions or drives other than to carry out the will of the Imperator and kill or destroy anything considered an enemy of the Imperium. Domition wondered if there was anything at all behind those masks, a creature capable of free will, or a mindless husk broken by years of indoctrination? Were they capable of thoughts and feelings, or had it all been stripped away until there was nothing left? He should have hated them as much as everything else, but instead, Domition felt pity, for truly, they were some of the Imperium’s most tragic victims, and theirs were some of the most heartbreaking stories of all.

The short journey took them into the space outside the Castellum itself, not that Domition could see; the compartment had no windows. They travelled down the main stalk until they reached the first ring beneath the disk that held the capital. Sector One, one of eight where the Castellum Di Stellis forced its non-Haelqen to live in poverty and squalor, well out of sight of those who truly mattered. As Marcus stated, Sector One was home mostly to Rylukans and, most likely, where their perpetrator resided. But it was huge, a mega-city in its own right. It would take an army to search its innumerable streets and buildings. Domition was in for a very long and difficult day and, likely, the first of many.

Domition had never set foot in one of the Castellum’s lower sectors before. He’d only ever seen them in pictures. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw as he left the darkness of the passenger compartment. The Imperial City might be the crown jewel of the Imperium, but the cities below it were more reminiscent of some of the darkest and dirtiest corners of the FPR. There were no opulent temples or pantheons here, no white marble or verdant gardens. Everything looked the same; from the buildings to the roads to the walkways that crisscrossed above, all Domition saw was the same soulless metal. Like those below it, the megacity that was Sector One consisted of nothing but rows of grey hi-rise blocks, densely packed and separated by the streets and skyways that snaked around the ring. They were bleak places, lacking the artificial weather and day/night systems of the Imperial City and kept in perpetual light by the white street lights, many of which didn’t even work. It was a far cry from the complex systems that kept the Imperial City running smoothly. No sun, wind, or rain, no day and night, everything the same, never changing. It was the smell that hit Domition the hardest, so hard he might have thrown up in front of Marcus and his men. He’d never inhaled anything so ghastly, a mixture of the rotting garbage strewn across the street and piled up the sides of the buildings and the stench of the waste that flowed freely from the clogged drains and backed-up sewer systems. He should have been shocked to find intelligent creatures living in such conditions, but nothing shocked Domition anymore, at least not where the Imperium was concerned.

Despite the early hour, the sector was very much alive. The air was filled with the whooshing of the skycars and transports zooming overhead like metal hornets. The primary purpose of the sectors’ populations was to keep the station’s systems in good working order, a job that needed personnel working around the clock. The lower cities of the Castellum never slept. In contrast to the activity above, the street was devoid of inhabitants, deserted apart from Domition and the soldiers. His guess was everybody had made themselves scarce when they saw the transports approaching, knowing only too well what it meant. He didn’t blame them. The arrival of Imperial troops in any Non-Haelqen neighbourhood could only mean bad news.

Domition looked to the sky and saw even more transports descending, a lot more than had been in the vehicle bay at the House of Repentance. Marcus’ operation was much bigger than he’d thought. The soldiers and watch officers wasted no time carrying out their orders. They swept through the neighbourhood like a plague of locusts, barging into homes and dragging their occupants into the street, kicking and screaming with the barrels of guns pressed against their bodies. Whole families, men, women and children alike, were lined up on their knees, hands clasped on top of their heads. Some clutched babies and infants at their chests while others tried to calm their terrified children. Domition could barely hear the traffic overhead, the zipping and whooshing drowned out by the mess of screams, cries and shouts. He saw the terror in their alien eyes as they cowered from the soldiers barking orders and threats at them, menacing them and their loved ones with their weapons. Some tried to resist, only to be beaten with armoured hands and feet and the butts of rifles, in many cases with their friends and family looking on. Domition felt his blood boil but could only stand and watch. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever been forced to do, requiring every ounce of willpower not to snatch a rifle from the nearest soldier and beat his head in with it.

A shrill scream filled the street. Domition turned to see a pair of soldiers dragging an older-looking female, half-dressed, from a nearby building. She kept screaming and waving her four arms only to be answered with a slap across the face that sent her to the ground. She stopped trying to fight after that. The sight of such treatment left Domition sicker than the smell ever could. Then he heard the sniggering of Marcus, surrounded by his lackeys, joking and laughing like schoolboys. It was risky and ill-advised, but he couldn’t stay silent. “You think this is funny”?

Marcus turned casually “What’s not to be laughed at? They are acting like dumb animals. The fact they think they can resist us is… amusing”.

Domition glared as Marcus went back to watching the spectacle. “You know this is my investigation as well”.

“So”?

So, I’m in charge of how it is handled and I don’t approve of what we’re doing here”. He thought he heard the Praetorians sniggering.

Marcus snorted, looking to his men before Domition. “Then why don’t you go and tell them to stop”?

Domition’s boldness melted like an ice cube on lava. The soldiers would never listen to him, even if he was (technically) their leader. They followed Marcus, and their loyalty to the Imperium was unbreakable. On top of that, they probably knew who he was and why he was there, likely under orders to ignore anything he told them. He didn’t move, despite knowing how that made him look to Marcus and his men.

“I thought so. Let me explain something to you since you clearly weren’t paying attention when the Imperator did. Your part in this has nothing to do with finding the piece of filth that helped defile our city. You’re here to prove that you can be trusted, which so far you’ve done a poor job at, and you’re not going make things any easier for yourself by continuing to sympathize with these beasts. This is what must be done. The only thing their small brains are capable of understanding is force”. Domition seethed with rage but he had nothing to come back with. It killed him to feel so powerless in the face of everything he hated. Marcus looked to the soldiers dragging more frightened innocents from their homes. “You want to change things, but you can’t. This is the way things are and the way they always will be. The Imperium is the law, and we are its tools. Whatever crusade you are on, let it go, or it will be your undoing”.

Marcus and his Praetorians took their leave, most likely to get in on the brutality a few metres away. Domition could only stand and watch them go. Then he looked over the road to where a green-skinned Rylukan lay curled up on his side with half a dozen soldiers beating him with their rifles. Every instinct compelled Domition to run to his aid but every sense stayed him. It wouldn’t make a difference, and, in all likelihood, get him killed. Marcus was right, despite how little he wanted to believe it. This is the way things are, and nothing he could do would change that. Every day sitting at his mentor’s side in the council chamber was another spent hiding from the truth and kidding himself into thinking he could make a difference. The Imperator was probably laughing right now, all of this his little joke. He’d never felt so defeated.

But, despite being broken and unfulfilled, he still had a job to do. With a heart so heavy it might as well be made of lead, Domition abandoned the man to his treatment and joined the “investigation”. The next half-day was spent following soldiers around as they barged into homes and dragged their owners out as every cupboard and container was opened, their contents thrown onto the floor to be picked through in search of evidence. Beatings were happily given out to any who protested, or so much as looked at a soldier in a way he didn’t like. Entering their homes provided Domition with a closer look at how the Imperium forced the majority of its citizens to live. They were just as bleak as the streets outside. Every one he entered was the same, the same metal walls and floors, dimly lit to the point, in many, it was difficult to see where you were walking. The majority of the power produced aboard the Castellum was gobbled up by the Imperial City, everything below left with barely enough to keep them functioning. They were tiny also. Domition could scarcely imagine how a family could live in such places, individual members having little in terms of personal space or privacy. Whole families were forced to share one bedroom and packed into living rooms smaller than his and Hera’s bathroom. He estimated their living room alone would fit at least half a dozen of the units meant to house a family of Rylukans. It only made him even guiltier than he already was to know how these people were forced to live while they enjoyed such luxuries.

It was the same from there: barging into apartment after apartment, forcing their occupants into the street to join their frightened brethren. With every home, they found their owners huddled together in a corner, having realized what was happening and resolved to hold each other close and wait for their turn. They offered no resistance when grabbed and hauled away. Domition couldn’t help but muse on the futility of what they were doing. There were millions of homes in Sector One alone. Even with every soldier on the Castellum, it would take weeks to ransack all of them and even longer to sift through all the “evidence” seized. He didn’t hold much confidence that anything would come of it and was sure Marcus didn’t either. He couldn’t be that boneheaded. Finding whoever helped the attackers enter the city was likely a secondary concern for the Praetorian Leader, the primary to get revenge for what happened by lashing out at anything within reach.

It was one of the longest and slowest days of Domition’s life. Every minute felt like an hour. He spent it doing very little. Fully aware of how inconsequential he was, he latched onto a random group of soldiers and spent the day following them around. While they busied themselves raiding homes and dragging people away, Domition found a corner to watch quietly from, thinking of nothing other than snatching one of their weapons and turning it on all of them. They eventually received an order through their communicators, telling them to finish up wherever they were and prepare to return home. More time had passed than Domition realized. The soldiers did as they were told though neglected to say anything to him. If he were on his own, he may well have been left stranded there.

Domition returned to the street to find it how he left it: crowded with terrified civilians on their knees and soldiers and Praetorians looming over them. Many had been kneeling for hours. Marcus and his Praetorians were standing about a hundred yards away, chatting. The discussion came to an end and, with a nod from their leader, the Praetorians gave the signal to the soldiers who began grabbing civilians and leading them to the transports. They were taking random people from what Domition could tell. He battled his way through the crowds who only became more anxious when they saw their friends and loved ones being carted away. They had every right to be worried. Whatever awaited those being taken, it wasn’t good. He had to force his way past the Praetorians to get to their leader who didn’t acknowledge his arrival, staring off at the debacle of his own making.

“What are you doing now”?

“Preparing to go home”.

“And I suppose everyone we’re bringing with us was involved in the attack”?

“The culprit hides among them. We either have them or someone who knows them. We’ll find out who they are soon enough”.

“And if you don’t”?

“Then we shall return and take more, and we’ll keep taking more until we have the one we seek. Now, if you’ve no more questions, it is time that we prepared to leave, unless you’d rather remain here, of course”. They left Domition where he stood. One gave him a hard shoulder as he passed, armour impacting on flesh and bone and leaving him with a nasty ache. Domition followed them to the transport that delivered them there and took the same seat as before, once again sandwiched between a pair of armour-clad brutes. He was sure the one to his left was the one who shouldered him.

The journey home was every bit as uncomfortable as the journey there. Marcus sat directly opposite. He couldn’t see his eyes, but Domition knew he was watching him the whole way. The only sounds were of the engines and the incessant tapping of the praetorian leader’s fingers upon his armoured thigh. He rested his right hand on his leg and tapped the same three fingers over and over in rhythm. It didn’t take long to get on Domition’s nerves. The tapping combined with Marcus’ endless staring only unnerved him further, which was likely the intention.

Domition was out of there as quickly as he could, eager to return to Hera and put the day behind him. But there was still plenty of work to be done. The transports carrying the prisoners landed soon after. The doors opened and they were led towards the house’s back entrance. The glowing shackles held their hands behind their backs and limited how far they could move with a single step. The same look occupied each face. They were divided between the house’s many cellblocks before being forced into their individual cells. More than a thousand detainees were brought to the house that day but there were plenty of cells to accommodate them, albeit without any thought for comfort or hygiene. Each was about the same size as an apartment in Sector One, and just as welcoming. The white marble and pink tiles of the House of Repentance’s exterior gave way to cold concrete where its cell blocks were concerned. At least the prisoners were afforded some space to move around, if only due to the lack of furniture save for a bucket. The more troublesome prisoners, or any that showed a hint of defiance, had their bodies affixed with gravity binders, left standing rigid and barely able to move a muscle. Some screamed, swore, and threatened as they were locked away. Others wept. Some showed no emotion whatsoever, having already accepted what was happening to them. The doors were slammed shut and then there was silence. The lights were left on with no means for the occupants to turn them off, so bright they were almost blinding.

Once the last of the detainees were locked away, Domition’s day was finally at an end. He needed to get out of there; he needed to leave the galaxy altogether. He walked the cellblock, knowing that behind every door was a creature suffering in pain and fear. He didn’t want to think what awaited them next. It wouldn’t be long before Marcus and his friends began dispensing their own brand of justice. Where he fit into that, he had no idea. No way would he be taking part, which left him with very little to do. Not that he was complaining.

It was the early evening by the time he made it home. Activity throughout the Imperial City had died down, the sky blazing. Domition could hardly believe how two places could be so close together yet so different, The Imperial City with its vistas and opulence and Sector One with its dingy streets and air of fear and oppression. Moving from one to the other seemed like travelling between worlds. Sector One was a world he’d hoped never to see, wanted never to return to, and wished never existed.

Past the front door, he felt he like he could collapse and go to sleep in the middle of the hallway. It would soon be time for supper, but all Domition wanted was to sleep. He wouldn’t have minded if he never woke up. Only a few steps in, he found his way blocked by Hera who emerged from around the corner, wearing only a cheeky smile upon her face. Normally, the sight of his wife like that would set his pulse racing. But this time, he felt nothing. He just wanted to sleep. Domition stared at his wife, probably resembling a zombie more than anything else. Under normal circumstances, he would have picked her up and carried her straight to the bedroom. But all he could think about was laying his head on his pillow and closing his eyes.

She noticed something was wrong. “Are you alright”?

“I’m fine. Just tired”. He couldn’t tell her the truth. She wouldn’t understand, nor would she believe him if he told her of the things he’d witnessed that day.

Hera went to him and wrapped her arms around his middle. “You’ve had a long and tiring day. But I know you’re not too tired for this”. She planted a kiss on his lips. “I can make it all better, like I always do”.

Before Domition could say anything else, his back was against the wall with his wife’s body pressed to his. On her tiptoes, she whispered in his ear all the things she wanted him to do to her and everything she wanted to do to him. But all Domition could think about was sleep. It didn’t matter how hard she pressed herself against him or how many times she kissed him, he could only stare at the wall, longing to leave this galaxy behind.

Hera let go and stepped back. “What’s the matter with you”?

“I can’t. . . I just can’t”.

“Did something happen at work today”? He hadn’t told her about his new assignment. Hera stepped closer again. She put her hands on his shoulders. “I’m your wife, Domition. If there’s something wrong, you can tell me. I love you. I love you so much”.

Domition looked her in the eye but the words wouldn’t come. She said he could tell her, but if she knew the truth, she wouldn’t hear a word of it. He often wondered which she loved more, but wouldn’t be surprised if he already knew the answer. “I’m sorry. I just need to go to sleep”.

Hera stepped back. She looked frustrated though Domition couldn’t tell if it was because she wouldn’t be getting any sex that night or because he wouldn’t tell her what troubled him, probably a bit of both. “Suit yourself”. She left him where he stood, head rested on the wall as he watched her disappear into the bedroom. He followed, entering in time to see the bathroom door close and hear the lock engage.

Domition lay down on his and his wife’s bed but, instead of closing his eyes and drifting away as he had planned, he stared at the ceiling and replayed the day over and over: stepping out of the transport, seeing the sector for the first time with his own eyes, watching helpless innocents being dragged into the street, listening to Marcus’ bullshit, the old man cowering on the ground, the soldiers beating him like an animal. He clenched his fists, the rage flowing thicker and faster every time he pictured it. But by far, the thing that angered him most was how powerless he felt.

You want to change things, but you can’t. This is the way things are and the way they always will be. Marcus was whispering to him inside his head, again and again. 

He’d never felt so worthless. It seemed like the Imperium was taking everything it could from him. It took his innocence and honour. It took his faith in his own race, his belief in himself, his drive to make a difference… and now it had taken his ability to please his wife.

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