Spiritum – Chapter Forty-nine

49.

It was still dark when Domition awoke, as was his intention. He’d made sure to wake much earlier than usual in order to give himself plenty time to prepare. Usually, if he awoke this early, he would snuggle closer to Hera and relax in the warmth of their bodies. But not this morning. This morning, he got straight up, taking care not to disturb Hera. She’d have plenty questions if she caught him, and there was already little time.

He didn’t bother with the usual shower or shave, and instead headed straight to the wardrobe. It was split down the middle; the left side was Hera’s, the right was his. Domition opened the bottom drawer of his main dresser. There was nothing of any consequence inside. Just some old garments he didn’t wear anymore, or so he’d led his wife to believe. Beneath the top layer of cotton lay the drawer’s true contents, locked away in the footlocker that had been with him for the best part of ten years. He’d long since left the infiltrators but had managed to hold onto much of his equipment, never knowing if there would come a time when he would need it again. It had remained hidden at the bottom of his wardrobe where he guessed Hera would never look. He wasn’t supposed to have it and, given his wife’s slavish devotion to the Imperium, could never be sure whether or not she’d report him were she to discover it.

The lid rose with the touch of his thumb to the scanner. Despite hating his work as an infiltrator, Domition felt oddly nostalgic as he looked upon his equipment. It was almost like meeting an old friend. Everything was as he left it: two pistols with spare batteries and spiritum cores, combat knife, stun stick, stun grenades, distraction tools, his hacking and lockpicking tools, sniper rifle with batteries and cores, and, finally, his stealth suit. Togas are no good for creeping around dark filthy tunnels and the rest would come in handy for catching up with Varlehn’s son, especially if he proved uncooperative. Domition prayed it wouldn’t come to that, remembering his promise to the poor woman. He packed everything he needed into a black duffel bag; only the essentials. Hera was sound asleep when he left the wardrobe with the bag slung over his shoulder. She looked so peaceful. How he wished he could climb back into bed with her and forget about all of this. Domition thought to give her a kiss on the forehead before he set off, but reconsidered. He couldn’t risk waking her.

The House of Repentance was his first destination. As much as he wanted to avoid it, it was the only place Domition could think of where he’d be able to get a transport to the Power Works at such short notice. It would take hours by any other means. The skyways were empty. Domition had almost forgotten how relaxing it was to travel the Imperial City in the early hours. He yawned the whole way. It had been a while since he needed to be up this early. He couldn’t imagine Marcus being at the house at that hour though he certainly couldn’t be sure either. The man was unpredictable. Domition could only hope he wouldn’t run into him. His plan would get a lot more difficult if he knew what he was up to. He headed straight for the House’s hangar bay where there were pilots on standby twenty-four hours a day. The house was almost deserted. Marcus and his Praetorians were nowhere to be seen. The hanger was deserted also. It didn’t take long to find a pilot, not the one who took him to Sector One. This guy was incessant with his questions, constantly wanting to know what was going on and whether or not Marcus had sanctioned the operation. Domition told him he was on official business and, if he didn’t want to piss off Marcus, he would quit asking questions and do as he was told. That seemed to work. The pilot wasn’t intimidated by him but the prospect of getting on Marcus’ bad side was all the encouragement he needed.

The journey to the Power Works took just over an hour. Domition used the time to suit up. Getting ready took longer than anticipated. The stealth suit wasn’t easy to slide over his skin. It seemed he’d put on more weight since leaving the military than he’d realized.

The array of power plants that provided energy to the entire station was housed in the bulbous structure at the bottom of the Castellum’s central stalk. Even with an army, it would take months to search the seemingly endless network of tunnels and shafts that snaked through it. Luckily, Varlehn was able to provide a rough location of where her friend’s bondmate had spotted her son. Domition still had no idea what he would do once he had him. No doubt when Marcus found out he had their culprit he would take him and then Nero would have the boy up on a cross before he could say a word. He couldn’t let that happen. But he couldn’t let the boy escape justice either. There had to be a middle point, a way for him to pay for what he’d done while not suffering such an unnecessarily cruel fate. Perhaps that was the difference he could bring to the Imperium. By helping it find new ways of dealing with its problems rather than answer every situation with overzealous brutality.

The pilot shouted that they were approaching the location. The blast of cold air as the door opened made it seem like Domition was about to step into a blizzard. He approached the edge, making sure the pilot knew to return for him when signalled before stepping onto the walkway. The transport shot off. Domition watched it disappear. He took a few moments to take in his surroundings, what little he could see. He was in one of the huge shafts that cut their way through the bottom of the Castellum. Above was just darkness and, when he looked over the railing, Domition saw only the same. The walls lights bathed everything ominous red. Machines whirred and clunked in the distance. Steam hissed as it shot from the vents above and below. That’s where he was. Not one of the power stations, but one of the shafts used to dispose of the waste. That was probably the best place to hide. Domition doubted people came here very often.

He started along the walkway. It felt strange to be doing this again. He couldn’t help but feel at home. He’d always felt out of place walking the halls of the Grand Forum and sitting in meetings of the High Council. He knew he didn’t belong there, nor would he ever. His place was in the shadows, observing every detail of his environment and the people within, waiting for the moment to strike. He still did, everywhere he went and with everyone he met. After only a couple meetings, he had every detail down, from the way Councillor Antonious pulls at the first knuckle on his left index finger when he’s anxious, to the slight quiver in Licinius’ voice whenever the Imperator’s eyes are on him. Domition saw and heard everything, and it only reminded him of where he belonged. He’d never agreed with the ethics behind the missions he took part in, but he never failed to experience a certain exhilaration in their execution. It was a thrill like no other: sneaking by unsuspecting guards, entering areas where danger loomed at every turn, where a single mistake could mean disaster. It was almost addicting. Many a time he’d found himself craving the rush. People do all kinds of things in the hope of experiencing the ultimate thrill, but nothing compared to his drug.

But despite feeling like his old self, he seemed to be getting no further here than in Sector One. The walkway went on and on with no signs of life. The tides of black receded only to reveal more of the same. The next step was to head into the smaller passages that branched from the main tunnel. But there were so many and they too stretched for miles. Parnett could be hiding in any of them, and it could take hours to search one. Domition was fast regretting coming here by himself. Had he taken the matter to Marcus, they could have had an army down there searching. It would still takes ages but they’d cover a lot more ground. Of course, they’d probably murder the boy the second they got their hands on him.

He continued further, struggling to choose which passage to look in first. They all looked the same and had an equal chance of being the one. This is insane. What was he thinking coming down here by himself? Domition was close to choosing one at random when something caught his eye. It was lying by one of the openings: small, thin, and white. He couldn’t afford to pass by without taking a closer look. It looked like a plastic wrapper, and, upon picking it up, Domition found it to be just that. It looked like a candy bar wrapper, discarded recently no less, the colouring not yet faded. Domition looked closer and his hopes were renewed.

Warning. Intended for Rylukan consumption only. May be toxic to other species.

This had to be it. Domition entered the passageway, heart sinking at the dozens of doors along each wall. He’d have to check every one. Worse, he had no choice but to move slowly. Millennia of evolution had moulded the Rylukans into apex hunters and, although the modern Sea of Spirits had no great need for hunting, all of their senses were finely tuned for detecting both prey and predators. Even doing his best to stay quiet, Domition estimated his chances of sneaking up on his target to be close to nil. He pressed his palm to the scanner by the first door. Inside was what looked like a small supply room, metal shelves stacked with containers but little else. The door opposite revealed the same, empty except a few packed shelving units. The next along was the same, as was the one opposite, then the one along from that, then the opposite. Two dozen rooms later and still no sign of Parnett. Domition’s hope was dying again. He hadn’t travelled far from where the transport left him but he felt his energy draining. The thought of looking behind dozens, perhaps hundreds more doors to find nothing did wonders for his motivation. The last thing he wanted was to give up on the boy, but there had to be a point where enough was enough. That point was approaching fast.

It was as he was contemplating sending the signal that Domition caught another break. More discarded rubbish. He had to be close. He almost walked right by the wall vent left suspiciously ajar. It may well have been innocuous, left like that in error, but he couldn’t continue without checking it out. Domition took the torch from his belt and slipped inside. The stream of white only reached so far before the dark swallowed it. Then something else caught his eye. A few sinews of wiring protruded from a wall cable, with some material hanging from it. Domition found it light and soft to the touch, probably from clothing but not the type suited for the Power Works. He pictured a young Rylukan creeping up the tunnel and snagging himself on the wires, tearing off a few pieces of fabric in the process. Domition drew his pistol. This had to be the place.

His foot met something that produced a loud ting as it bounced along the floor. Domition aimed his light to the point from which the sound came. The floor ahead was invisible for the chaos of used food dishes, torn wrappers and empty drinks cans. Further up lay a sleeping bag and pillow. It saddened Domition that someone was forced to live in such conditions. A dingy ventilation tunnel was no fit place for any living thing to call home. There was no sign of the boy himself though that was no bother. He’d be back. There couldn’t be much to see and do in the Power Works.

Domition spied what looked like a holo-tablet peeking from the sleeping bag. Nothing else to do, he waded through the rubbish, pulled the device from under the covers, and swiped his finger over the scanner to activate it. It would probably contain evidence to back up Varlehn’s suspicions, if the running away and hiding in a dark tunnel wasn’t enough. Domition opened the messages page and scrolled through the list of conversations. There were exchanges between Parnett and his mother as well as friends and other family members, but nothing that seemed to have anything to do with the attack. Then Domition remembered what Varlehn said about the secret network, and began scrolling through the list of installed programs. Hacking computers and data retrieval were both vital parts of an infilitrator’s work. He was familiar with just about every program used for secret communications. One caught his eye: NeXer. Domition knew it well, a favourite among groups operating outside the laws of the Imperium. There had to be weeks’ worth of conversations between Parnett and people claiming to represent Freedom for All, too much to sift through by himself but he got the general gist. Angry and disgusted at the treatment of his kind, the young man found people who shared his feelings and bonded with them until they convinced him to help in their plot. He was hesitant at first, but the promise of him and his family being smuggled out of the Imperium afterwards was enough to sway him. Then the communications stop, the last just before the attack. Afterwards, all of Parnett’s messages went unanswered although it was clear what was going through his mind. First he was confused by the lack of answers, then his confusion turned to anger as he realized the truth.

Domition closed the application and set about looking for anything else of note. Another document caught his attention: The Thoughts and Feelings of Parnett Hadarahn.

Inside Domition found a diary stretching back over a year, a detailed account of an angry young man frustrated by life in the Imperium, and life in general. The entries he skimmed over made mention of a female name Retahla whom had rebuffed his affections and a few violent run-ins with Ferbussa and his gang, but, soon enough, the sole focus became the author’s hatred for the Imperium and his determination to bring an end to it. There was talk of watching the Imperial City burn and nailing the Imperator to a cross, and entries detailing his communications with Freedom for All as well as his happiness at finding people who shared his desire to fight back.

But then things started to change. The gravity of what he had done became all too clear. Paranoia began to eat away at him. Soon, everybody had become an enemy, even those with whom he’d felt solidarity. Every disturbing look and sharp word conjured feelings of impending doom and it only got worse when his “friends” stopped talking to him. He realized then he’d been used. Then came the decision to run away. It seemed he’d already been planning to run, the realization that his mother had learned the truth only spurring him to leave sooner than intended. Domition had to feel sorry for him, not blind to the parallels between them. A young man blinded by rage and idealism only to have his delusion shattered. Like him, he’d experienced the hard reality of how powerless he was in the face of the juggernaut that was the Imperium.

The hairs on the back of Domition’s neck stood up as a feeling came over him he’d felt many times before. He put down the tablet and looked over his shoulder. The silhouette was like a looming giant in the viridian glow. Domition couldn’t see a face, but he saw the four muscular arms, the long neck, and the sloping head.

“Parnett”?

In the blink of an eye, the figure was gone with only the echoes of frantic footsteps left in its wake. Domition gave chase. He’d come too far to let his objective slip through his fingers so easily.

“Wait! I’m not here to hurt you”!

Domition stumbled through the vent just in time to catch a glimpse of an inhuman figure disappearing into the dark. He thought to fire a shot, but stayed his hand. That was the Imperial thing to do. The clanking of his boots on the grate stabbed his ears. It didn’t take long for him to start gasping for breathe. He was nowhere near as fit as he once was. Domition ignored the pains in his chest and abdomen as he passed door after door, all closed.

Soon enough, he was back where he started, eyes widening at the sight of Parnett atop the railing and staring into the chasm.

“Parnett. Don’t do this. Come over here”.

“So you can put me on a cross”?

Domition edged closer. “No. I’m here to help you”.

“You’re lying! I won’t let you take me! I won’t let you put me on a cross”!

“I’m not here for that. I won’t let them do that to you, I swear. I want to find a better solution. But I can’t do that if you don’t let me help you”.

Parnett looked over his shoulder, tears glistening. “How can I trust you? You’re one of them. I saw you in our district with the soldiers, taking people away, hurting people”.

“I didn’t want any of that to happen. It wasn’t my choice. You’re right, I am part of the Imperium, but I’m not like the others. I’ve seen what they’ve done to you and your people and it disgusts me. I hate the Imperium and everything it stands for. I want to destroy it just as much as you”.

Parnett stared, then shook his head. “No. I can’t trust you. You’ll just betray me, like the others. They got what they wanted from me and left me to die. I won’t be fooled again”.

“Your mother came to me, Parnett. She asked me to find you. She’s worried about you”.

“Then she betrayed me as well. She knows what I’ve done. She wants me to die as well”.

“No she doesn’t. I promised her I would protect you. I’m not like the other people either. Freedom for All? I keep my promises. I will protect you”.

Parnett looked to him again. “How can you protect me”?

Domition hesitated. “I don’t know just yet. But I will find a way, I swear to you. Just come down from there so we can talk properly”.

The boy was quiet. His expression filled Domition with hope, but then he frowned and shook his head once more. “No. You can’t help me. No one can”.

“No”! Domition rushed to the edge just in time to see Parnett disappear. He looked over the railing, and was stunned by what he saw. The young man was floating motionless a few feet below.

Domition could barely believe his eyes as he watched Parnett rise back over the railing. He’d never seen anything like it, but he knew there was only one explanation. The boy slowly descended before touching down at Marcus’ feet, frozen under the influence of his arcane power. Half a dozen of his comrades emerged from the darkness, followed by a dozen City Watch officers. A military transport rose from the chasm. Domition guessed it was the one that brought him there.

“Excellent work, Domition. The Imperator will be most pleased with what we have achieved here. Take him”.

Parnett squirmed as he regained control of his body. The officers set upon him like a pack of wolves. Half a dozen held him down as two more applied the restraints to his wrists. His eyes met Domition’s.

“You… you said you would help”.

Domition said nothing. With a nod from Marcus, Parnett was dragged away. Then it was just the two of them. The leader of the Praetorians approached, no doubt intent on rubbing salt into his wounds. “Did you really think I wouldn’t be keeping an eye on you”? Domition was still in shock, not at what just happened, but his own naivety. Of course Marcus had been watching him, and now he’d given him everything he needed. “I know this is not the way you envisioned this would unfold, but today is a great victory for the Imperium, and it was because of you. You should be proud of yourself”.

“You let me go through all this? What for”?

“Why should we get our hands dirty when you were so happy to do it yourself? I will pretend that your withholding of evidence and dispensing of protocol was merely a vain attempt at stealing glory for yourself, as am I sure everything you said back there was intended to get the perpetrator to trust you. It will all be mentioned in my report to the Imperator”.

Marcus gave Domition a pat on the shoulder before taking his leave. Domition remained where he stood. Right now, the darkness appealed far more than anything awaiting him above, except for Hera. If he didn’t have her, he surely would have jumped. He couldn’t win. Whenever it seemed victory was near, the Imperium moved the finish line a million miles in the opposite direction. How could he have been naïve enough to think this would go as planned? He promised that woman he would protect her son from harm, and failed. How could he go on with that weighing on him? The journey home was a lot different to how Domition imagined. Instead of speaking with Parnett and figuring out what he was going to do with him, he spent it thinking about throwing himself into the darkness.

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