Domition had overslept. He knew it the moment he opened his eyes. Usually when he awoke, the first bars of orange were just starting to beam between the skyscrapers outside the apartment, but this time the fake sun was already fully risen. He checked the time. Fifty-three minutes; that’s how much he’d missed his usual wakeup time by. Lucius was going to kill him.
He left Hera to sleep and rushed to the bathroom for a quick shower. He usually spent five minutes showering but Domition only allowed himself two this morning. Then he stood in front of the mirror, drying himself with a towel in one hand while cleaning his teeth with the other before moving onto shaving. He was in such a rush he ended up cutting himself twice. Domition could have kicked himself as he watched the little red streams trickle down his chin. They’d bleed for ages and Lucius would be even more annoyed if he walked into the forum in that state. He couldn’t leave it like that, and he was late enough as it was.
Domition wiped his chin with a paper towel from the dispenser, only for more blood to leak out. Paper pressed to his mouth, he took the cauterizer from its holder and touched the end to the first cut, tensing as the open wound burned. He’d worked himself into such a state he almost didn’t notice Hera slip in behind him. He caught movement in the mirror and turned to find her in the doorway in her nightdress. The sheer material provided a clear view of her body beneath. Seeing her like that would usually make him forget about getting ready altogether. Judging by her expression, that was what she was hoping for. It seemed she’d forgiven him for yesterday’s sharpness.
Hera padded across the bathroom and brushed his chin with her fingertips. “You’ve cut yourself”. Domition said nothing. He needed to get out of there. “Come here”. She took a paper towel, pressed it to his chin. Once the blood was wiped away, she took the cauterizer and sealed the second cut. “All better now”. She rested her arms on his shoulders and gave him a kiss. “You don’t have to go just yet, do you”?
“I’m late. Lucius will have my head”.
Hera smiled. “If you’re already late, what does a few minutes more matter”? Domition’s heart fluttered when he felt her fingers brush between his legs. “If he’s going to have your head, there’s not much worse he can do to you, is there”? Crucifixion came to mind. Domition had no trouble getting aroused this time, especially when he felt his wife’s fingers travel further. Lucius was just going to have to wait.
It was almost another hour before he met his mentor in the lobby of the Grand Forum and, as expected, the first thing he saw when he looked upon him was the rage in his eyes. What Domition didn’t expect was the sharp slap across the face he received before being forced against the nearest wall.
“Are you completely braindead”? The old councillor’s eyes looked like they were about to pop out of his skull.
Domition was still reeling from the slap. “I’m sorry. I overslept”.
“You think this is about the meeting? I don’t care about the fucking meeting. I care about my aide and bodyguard going around assaulting officers at the House of Repentance, that’s what I fucking care about. Do you have any idea how serious this is”?
Anger sparked inside Domition. “You’re weren’t there. You didn’t see what they were doing. I couldn’t just stand by and let it happen”.
Lucius didn’t seem to care much for his excuses. “You have no idea how close you are to ending up on a cross”, he said, eerily mirroring the words of Marcus. “The Imperator is already out for your blood and he’s not going to tolerate you much longer. You’re supposed to be proving your loyalty to him, not giving him even more reason to want to see you dead. Start using your brain. Do you understand me”?
Domition didn’t answer. Lucius repeated himself. “Yes”.
“Good”. Lucius stepped back, giving him room to breathe. “And for the record, I don’t pay you to lie around on the job. I don’t want to see an empty seat next to me at a meeting again. You need to start taking your career seriously. Now I suggest you go and find a way to make the Imperator like you, fast”.
Lucius left Domition there. The whole lobby was staring at him. He didn’t care, far too focused on more pressing matters. The thought of setting foot in the House of Repentance again made Domition shudder. He never wanted to so much as look at the place again. The Imperator probably wanted an update on the investigation though he wasn’t even sure how he’d go about that, no idea where the leader of the Imperium went after meeting with the high council. Domition had his course decided for him when a big hand took him by the upper arm and dragged him away. The hand in question belonged to one of the Imperator’s Praetorians. His “escort” was silent as they led him deeper into the Forum but it soon became apparent he was being taken to the high council chamber. Domition guessed that was where the Imperator was waiting. He realised he’d guessed correctly when he heard the laboured coughing echoing up the hall. He was waiting in his usual place, joined by Tacitus. With a swing of the Praetorian’s arm, Domition found himself on the floor at the Imperator’s feet.
“I must admit I had been looking forward to hearing of your progress”. The Imperator seemed to take great pleasure at the sight of him on his knees. “So, imagine my frustration when I heard of your incident at the House of Repentance”.
Domition got to his feet. “What of it”?
Tacitus stepped closer. “You will start showing the Imperator some respect before I personally cave your skull in, boy”.
“That will not be necessary, my friend”. The Imperator fixed Domition with an icy stare. “Tell me, did it make you feel powerful to hurt that man the way you did”?
“He needed to be stopped. I would do it again if it had to”.
“You did not answer my question”.
Domition wasn’t going anywhere until he did. “Yes. It did make me feel powerful. The only thing I regret is the cunt still breathes”. Tacitus started moving toward him again. He stopped at the throwing out of the Imperator’s arm.
The Imperator sighed, then coughed. “You are doing a poor job of convincing me of your loyalties. I wonder if perhaps it is your goal to find yourself nailed to a cross. Tell me, Domition, do you want me to kill you”?
Domition said nothing. The idea did appeal in some screwed up way. It seemed like the ultimate defiance against everything he hated.
“Answer the Imperator when he asks you a question”, Tacitus growled.
“No, My Imperator, I don’t”.
The Imperator leaned forward. “Marcus has already delivered his report on the investigation. He is very much displeased with your performance, and your attitude. Are you pleased with how it is going”?
“You think brutalizing innocent people and tearing their homes apart will convince them to cooperate”?
“They are animals”. Tacitus waved his hand dismissively. “It is all they understand”.
“All you’re doing is encouraging them to resist you even more. If you keep treating people like this then what happened last week will happen again, and someday they’ll decide they don’t want to put up with it any longer and when that day comes they will rise up and destroy you”.
The Imperator’s eyes betrayed his amusement. “That will never happen. They lack the strength, the will, and the intellect to do away with us and, despite what you might think, they do not desire to be free of our rule. As Tacitus said, they are animals. They are not capable of maintaining order in their own lives let alone in an entire galaxy. They need us to provide order and balance and security. If they did not have the Imperium to guide them, everything would fall apart. There would be chaos, just like in the time of the Collective. You have never lived in a galaxy without the Imperium, have you? You never saw that rat’s nest, that orgy of greed and excess and disorder. War, death and destruction? If you think it is bad now, just imagine being alive back then. The Imperium brought peace and order to the galaxy. I brought peace and order to that scum heap the people you feel so much solidarity toward wallowed in, a scum heap of their own making. Without us, it would all go back to the way it was. And they are not my people. They are savages that, given the chance, would slaughter every last Haelqen man, woman and child. They do not deserve pity, nor mercy”.
“I won’t let you hurt innocent people”.
The Imperator seemed to smile beneath his mask. With a nod from his master, Tacitus was advancing again. He seized Domition by the shoulder and forced him headfirst onto the gold tabletop. Domition could barely move. The weight of the Supreme Commander pinned him in place. Had he pushed any harder, he was confident the contents of his skull would be smeared over the table. He saw the satisfaction in the eyes of the Imperator, plain as day as he put his face close to his.
“It is only a matter of time before Marcus finds the waste of life responsible for this atrocity. In truth, your role in this is negligible. I trust in Marcus and his methods and so shall you. I am giving you one final chance to prove your allegiance to the Imperium. If I hear that you have set one more toe out of line, I will put both you and your wife on crosses”. Even more threats against Hera. Domition wanted nothing more than to tear the eyes from the Imperator’s skull. Another nod and he was on the floor again. “Now get out of here and do not let me see your face again until you have something of worth to tell me”.
Domition was left alone on the floor. It took a couple moments to find the willpower to get up, hurt and humiliated, but not broken. Anger coursed through him, the will to rebel renewed and stronger than ever. He wanted to stick it to the Imperium, and he knew just how to do it.
Domition went to the House of Repentance where Marcus and his men were no doubt hard at work torturing innocent people, but, rather than join them, he found himself a transport and a pilot and set off for the lower sectors. He told no one where he was going or what he was doing. The pilot was a little difficult at first but a lot more accommodating when told the excursion had been ordered by Marcus who would be very annoyed if it wasn’t carried out as quickly as possible. Everyone knew what happened to those who annoyed Marcus.
Sector One was a ghost town. They touched down in a quiet vehicle lot and Domition continued on foot though not without telling the pilot to stay put until he returned. He was still wearing the clothes he wore to the Forum, but now with his service pistol hidden beneath. He prayed he wouldn’t have to use it. The streets beyond the lot were mostly deserted. The fog of fear and resentment remained. The pain and anger in the air was palpable as he kicked his way through the sea of garbage and stepped over streams of raw sewage. The only sounds were the eerie ambience of industrial fans and the occasional whooshing of a skycar overhead. He walked a few blocks but everything looked the same. The smell only seemed to get worse the further he went.
It wasn’t long before Domition started questioning what exactly he was hoping to accomplish. Surely, he hadn’t been naïve enough to think they’d want to talk to someone from the Imperial government, not after the other day. But he had to try. He pressed on a few blocks more but barely saw a living soul. Everyone was (understandably) keeping themselves indoors. Every once in a while, he would come across someone only for them to quickly make themselves scarce when they saw him approaching, pretending not to hear his requests to talk. It was becoming frustrating but he couldn’t blame them for not trusting a Haelqen in their territory. Most likely, the only reason they didn’t kill him where he stood was for fear of what the Imperium would do.
He’d been there over an hour and gotten nowhere. Everybody he found wanted nothing to do with him. It had long become clear he would get no answers on the street. He’d hoped it wouldn’t come to it but he needed to start knocking on doors. Apprehension took hold of Domition as he stared up at the metal monoliths. All that was needed was to knock on the wrong door and that would be the end of him. He was alone; only one other person knew he was there. No one to help him. If anything went wrong he would just disappear. The Imperium probably wouldn’t even bother finding out what happened to him.
Domition made his choice and crossed the street, kicking rubbish aside as he went. The interior was just as bleak as outside. The lights barely did a thing. More than half didn’t even work. The walls and corners were piled high with garbage, reaching the ceiling in some places. The graffiti was layered so thick the grey of the walls was practically invisible, much of it expressing the residents’ attitudes towards their overlords. Fuck the Imperium, read one article in big black letters. Imperial pigs, read another. Domition couldn’t believe people were forced to live in such places. At least the smell wasn’t quite as bad in here.
He made as much progress inside as out. Pressing the buzzers for apartment doors yielded no results. No one answered but Domition heard the occupants scurrying around inside, probably preparing for the door to be kicked in. The few he encountered in the hallways were just as helpful, either pretending to be mad or deaf, ignoring him, or straight-up telling him to go away. He was getting frustrated though he wasn’t sure what else he could have expected. Of course they didn’t trust him. They saw him with Marcus and the others. He moved onto another building, then another, and another. Every one was the same, and offered the same results. After dozens of attempts, Domition finally managed to get someone to open their door for him, a middle-aged female with skin bluer than the sky in the city above. Apparently having forgotten to look through her spyhole before answering, she ignored his questions and did everything in her power short of manhandling him away to get rid of him. He’d had enough. This was a waste of time. He needed to get back before anyone started wondering where he was.
Dejected, Domition began making his way out of the fourth or fifth building he’d tried, staring at the floor the whole way. He felt so stupid. Could he really have expected anything more? He went there to show the Imperator there were better ways to handle the situation than his own short-sighted brutality, only to come away with more evidence to convince him otherwise. He and Marcus probably wouldn’t even be angry when they found out what he’d been doing. They’d probably find the whole thing hilarious. Domition stopped when the pair of huge, hoof-like feet came into view, looking up to find his way blocked by a green-skinned Rylukan. The hulking creature looked down on him with a glare that it made very clear his presence wasn’t appreciated.
The alien didn’t move “Come to see the pain you’ve brought here, have you”?
“I’m sorry for what happened here. I didn’t mean for this to happen, I-”
“You’re all the same, you Haelqen. You come here, thinking you’re so high and mighty, that you own us. But soon you’ll all learn. Your time is coming”.
A door opened behind Domition and he looked over his shoulder to see a smaller, purple-skinned Rylukan step into the hallway. She took one look at him and his aggressor, then retreated back inside. Apparently, the one looming over him was someone to be feared. “Listen, I’m not here looking for trouble. You know about the attack on the Imperial City and what happened after, right? I want to make sure that never happens again, I’m trying to find a solution that will help everyone”.
The Rylukan made a sinister smirk. “You’re not looking for trouble, you say? I think you’ve already found it”. He rose to his full height and looked to the other end of the corridor. Domition turned to see two more approaching, one with dark blue skin, the other lime green. He was soon surrounded. With every second, it seemed less likely he would get away through peaceful means.
“You’ve made a big mistake coming here alone, human”, said the one in front, clearly the leader. “We’re not gonna let you push our people around any longer”.
“The Imperium will only hurt your people even more when they find out you’ve done anything to me. But if you let me go, I swear I’ll forget this ever happened”.
The leader wrapped a massive hand around Domition’s neck and lifted him effortlessly onto his tiptoes. Domition’s attempts to reason were reduced to an unintelligible mess as the grip tightened. “No one will know what happened to you”, the leader growled before sending him into the wall. Domition slumped to the floor as pain shot through his skull. Everything was blurry. Blood dribbled down his forehead. He tried getting to his feet but found his way blocked by the three aliens gathered around him.
“Please. Don’t do this”. Domition’s pleas were answered with a swift punch to the side of the head that sent it bouncing off the floor. His cheek and jaw felt like they’d been shattered like glass. Rylukans were far stronger than humans. He hoped nothing was broken.
“We’re going to enjoy killing you, Human”.
He didn’t go there to fight, but Domition had no intention of dying there either. Choices exhausted, he reached into his toga and grabbed his pistol with his good hand. As the leader moved to deliver another blow, Domition whipped the weapon from its holster and pulled the trigger. The flash almost blinded him; the shrill hiss penetrated his eardrum. Then came the screams. The bolt of molten Spiritum met its mark and the gang’s leader backed away, clutching at his hand that was now a mess of melted flesh and protruding bone. Domition scrambled to his feet, weapon trained on the other two. Their leader had gone to the floor, howling as he held his ruined hand.
“I’m sorry”, Domition moaned, dazed and bleeding. He kept his pistol aimed at the gang as he backed away. They remained still until he was near the end of the corridor before tending to their leader.
Domition raced back to the transport, screamed to the pilot to get them out of there, and then they were in the air. The danger was long passed but his heart strained regardless. He hadn’t expected a warm welcome but that was a lot more than he’d bargained for. Domition didn’t want to think what Marcus would say if he saw him with his dirty toga and bloody forehead. He should have been heading home to recover but he didn’t want Hera to see him like that either. He needed to find somewhere that would provide medical attention but not ask too many questions. The House of Repentance’s medical bay was the only place he could think of. He hoped not to be seen by too many people on the way, looking to the ground whenever someone approached from the opposite direction. The leader of the Praetorians was nowhere to be found and Domition was quickly seen to by one of the medics on hand. A quick procedure saw the gash on his forehead closed and made to seem as if it never existed. He was relieved to learn nothing was broken, and provided with some strong painkillers.
The rest of the day was uneventful and, like his ill-fated trip to Sector One, yielded no results. As Marcus and his men tortured more innocents, Domition attempted to question some of the prisoners in a more constructive manner. He had no more information to go on by the end of the day than the beginning. Everyone he spoke with fed him the same bullshit: they love the Imperium and everything it does for them and would never dream of hurting it. While he doubted any of them had any involvement in the attack, he was confident none shed a tear when they heard of it.
Domition had lost count of the number of people he’d questioned and gotten nowhere with. He sat alone at a metal desk in an empty interrogation room, wondering about the Rylukan whose hand he blew off earlier. He hoped he was able to find some help. The guy seemed to have been a dangerous individual, possibly even a criminal, but Domition couldn’t blame him for being angry about the way his people were being treated. He would have felt the same way were he in his position. Most of the house’s nonessential staff had left for the evening, its halls and rooms deserted save for the prisoners and the guards minding them. Domition should have been getting himself away too. Hera would be wondering where he was. After what seemed like the millionth sigh of the day, he stood up, about to make his way to the door when it opened and a purple-skinned Rylukan was shoved through.
“I didn’t send for any more prisoners”.
“This one says it wants to talk to you”. The guard left without another word.
It was difficult to tell the difference between most members of any alien race, as Domition was sure it was difficult for them to tell the difference between most Haelqen, but he didn’t recognize the woman from any of the prisoners he’d seen, and yet was sure he’d seen her before, recently. He noticed some bruising around her left eye.
“What can I do for you”? It was most unusual for any non-Haelqen to willingly speak with anyone from the Imperial government.
“You’re the man who came to our sector today”. Domition realized where he’d seen her: in the building earlier, the woman who tried to leave her home when he was confronted by the green-skinned Rylukan.
“Yes. Please sit”. He gestured to the seat opposite. The woman hesitated before crossing the room and sitting down. “How did you get here”?
“I know some people who helped me sneak into your city. Then I let your City Watch arrest me and bring me here”. That explained the bruising. The City Watch weren’t known for being gentle.
“I see. I’m sorry you had to go through that. How might I help you”?
She took a breath. “My name is Varlehn. I saw you outside my home today, with Ferbussa”.
“He’s feared throughout our community. He and his people are responsible for most of the crime in the area. You shouldn’t come back alone again, especially after what you did to him. They’ll kill you if they see you”.
“I’ll keep that in mind”. Domition wished it hadn’t come to that, but he supposed not all of the oppressed could be decent people
.“I asked around after you left. People said you were investigating the attack here, that you think one of our own was involved”.
“Yes. If you have any information, it would be greatly appreciated”. Varlehn went quiet, wringing her four hands in her lap. “You know who we’re looking for, don’t you”?
Varlehn nodded as tears began to flow down her sloped face. “His name is Parnett. He is a maintenance engineer. He helped the attackers get into the city”.
“How do you know this”?
“He’s been acting strangely for the past couple weeks. Ever since the attack, he hasn’t been himself and, after the soldiers came to the district the other day, he’s been very suspicious. I sensed something was wrong but he refused to talk about it. Every time I asked if something had happened he would become aggressive. I’ve never seen him so angry. He told me everything was fine but I knew he was lying, so I sent him to the market for food and then checked his tablet. I found messages from someone who said they were from the Confederacy. They were giving him instructions, telling him when to meet them so he could help them get into the city. It was the night of the attack. He went out that night and was acting suspiciously when he came back. I’m sure he had something to do with it. I looked at his older messages to this person. He would tell them how much he hated the Imperium and how he wanted to watch it burn for what it has done to our kind”.
It was all becoming clear. “You say your son is a maintenance engineer”?
“Yes. He works in the tunnels. He would know how to use them to get into the city, how to get past the defences”.
“But how could he have gotten involved with the people responsible? Everything from the Confederacy is blocked”.
“The messages weren’t sent through the network we usually use. He was using a different program that let him access a secret network that isn’t blocked. He’d been talking to people from that Freedom for All group for months. I think they convinced him to get involved with their plan”.
“Did your son speak with them after the attack? Do you know if they are planning any more”?
“No. After the attack the messages stopped. They wouldn’t answer him. It’s like they abandoned him once they got what they needed”.
Domition paused. “Why are you coming to me with this? You know what will happen to your son if he’s caught”.
“I know. But our people are suffering because of what he did, and I can’t let it continue. I love my son, but I have to think of my people as well”.
Domition couldn’t imagine being given such a choice. Protect a son who aided in a horrible crime while others suffered as a result, or give him up to face one of the worst fates imaginable. No one should have to make a choice like that. “Where is your son now”? There had to be a way to help everyone, a way for him to face justice without enduring such a harsh and unfair punishment.
“I don’t know. He vanished the day I found the messages. I think he knows I found them and thought I was going to turn him in”.
“Do you have any idea where he may have gone? Anywhere he could be hiding? Anyone who could be protecting him”?
“My friend’s bondmate is a technician in the power works. He thinks he saw Parnett down there the day before last”. That made sense. A maintenance worker would have a great deal of knowledge about the Castellum’s infrastructure, and know all kinds of places to lie low.
Domition had found himself at a crossroad. Arresting the culprit and bringing him back to face “justice” would get the Imperator off his back and ensure both his and Hera’s safety, for the moment at least. But how could he allow a young man to suffer such a terrible fate?
“I’ll find your son. I’ll bring him in”.
“Please, I beg you to show him mercy. He’s only a young man, not much more than a boy. I’m not sure he even fully understands what he has done. He doesn’t deserve to suffer”.
“I know, and you have my word. I will show mercy and I will do everything in my power to help him”. It pained Domition to make a promise he was fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to keep, but he had to provide the woman some small amount of solace. He couldn’t imagine what she was going through.
Once he had all the information she was able to provide, Domition escorted Varlehn to the House’s hanger and arranged a transport to return her home, making sure to remind the pilot and the accompanying soldiers that he would have their heads if anything happened to her on the way. As soon as the craft had disappeared from view, he set to work figuring out what he was going to do. He couldn’t go to Marcus, or anyone else for that matter. If the Imperium got their hands on the boy before he did he would know a world of pain like nothing he’d ever felt. He couldn’t let that happen. That left only one option. He’d have to arrest him himself.