Ever taste copper? That cloying metal viscosity that tells you pain will soon follow? Or maybe that charcoal burn taste of ash on your food when you’ve grilled it? I despise that taste. I crave it.
I co-lead the Caeruleum now on the south end of Urbs Aquarum in what we affectionately call Imperium. It’s been years since my childhood swamped my thoughts so entirely. Regret and anger tend to make me miss the calm times in that tiny apartment. Maybe I’m turning into a maudling old fool.
Infiltrating another gang’s territory is an easy way to get yourself offed. Thing is, I was never much of one for heeding useless warnings. So, there I was, standing in a backend alley smelling of piss and garbage, the clouds causing shadows to flicker against the clapboard walls. Maybe I was trying to toss out this life and was looking for the most destructive ways to do it.
I had been having a rather nice day, honest. Amazingly enough, I had actually had a bath and washed my hair. A rare treat because pulling forty gallons of water into the warehouse and heating it was something that took up energy. Wrench had set up a fire for melting down scrap metal, and I decided to take advantage, along with Archimagirus, who thought to use it for slow roasting and canning. I despise cold baths something fierce. Enough of that from my militia days. If I’m going near water, it better be hot. Maria Mater had lent me an oil she had made of orange peel and cinnamon. It was potent enough to wash the smells of the other living souls in the warehouse out of my sinuses for a bit.
So, there I was, in the middle of my bath, in the privacy of my own room, when I got a knock on my door. Most of the crew knows that if my door is closed, that it had better be a good reason to disturb me. Everyone needs brain-space time. This was mine. So I told off whoever was on the other side of the door. The lock popped. That’s enough to tell me it’s one of my right-hand men or my co-leader. No one else would dare throw that lock. Petrol and iron filings. Pine sap and bread. There goes my orange and cinnamon. In barreled my two men, one Nympha blond, the other a ruddy Imperium brunet.
“Tempestatis, Cortex. How may I be of service?” I asked, not making a move to leave the tub. Like infernus was I wasting hot water.
“Warm enough, boss?” Tempestatis, the blond, his Nemphium accent heavy on his Imperian, raised an eyebrow at the water. Cortex was already rolling up his sleeves.
“Wrench has a fire outback going.” I deflected. “No need, Cortex.”
“Good. I’ve got something that you might want to see.” Tempestatis handed me a dossier.
Tempestatis had brought me this rather outlandish tale about a pair of Accendium that had been found by the Aurantiaco. Now, usually, I don’t interfere with Orange business, even if I despise them and their leader Mercury. However, I do make some exceptions. Accendium taken in by the Aurantiaco gets turned into child soldiers or toys, whatever their aptitude or his appetite. When possible, I get them out. I have my connections. It was a rare occasion that they sent me faulty info.
That led me to standing in that back alley with my fangs sunk deep into this Orange’s neck, trying to figure out if I should drop the bastard before or after he dies. He sure as infernus was not getting my coagulant, that much I was certain of. The two girls sitting across from the mess I was making were not making my thought process any calmer. I was probably not making it easy on them either. Something about watching a bulky thug sucking the life juice out of another person does that to people.
One of them was for sure Accendium, the smaller sister. Her black hair was matted and filthy, and her clothes were threadbare hand-me-downs. Her tears were burning on her face. I don’t often see people who can make fire out of tears. The other one holding on to her was glaring death threats at the man in my arms. She could not be more than nine, maybe? Skinny, underweight, a sickly pale shade of brown that told me she had not seen the sun often.
The guy stopped gurgling, which was a relief. I dropped him to bleed out on the ground at my feet. Call it a calling card to the Aurantiaco. The girls scuffled back from the body. This part was going to be annoying. I tossed my trench coat over them, effectively capturing them. Mainly, I just didn’t want them hitting me in the face when I picked them up. Which they tried to do. There’s a reason I keep the dang trench coat around. That and it doesn’t burn.
“Oye, oye, oye, calm down. Not gonna hurt you. Then again, you’ve probably had too many people say that to you already. Still! Quid dicam aut Angelus Nemphium?” I needed to find out what Purgatorium they got dumped out of. I suck at Nemphium Pidgeon for all of Tempestatis’s schooling. Imperian was difficult at times as it stood. Particular off days kept me thankful that I had Cortex and Tempestatis at hand.
I prayed the Accendium would say Angelus. That one I’m fluent in. The older of the two shook her head. What does she mean no? “Where?” I pointed to the dome, just visible along the edge of the smoking chimney stacks. It’s a long shot. Most Accendium from the Pergatorians can’t speak Imperium.
“Inferis,” the girl whispered in Angelus with a hiccup as I started walking.
Inferis? Inferis’s a burned-out crumbled myth. An operational tunnel that ran under the labyrinth of the three domes. It had been destroyed in the Cardinal wars when a fleet of Angelus drillers punctured a rift and flooded the thing in contaminated black gold, salt, and water. My grandmother had worked that lost rig. The puncture affected the aqueduct and canal system for all the domes, though more so for the dome I now called home.
That rig was why 23% of the population was nixed in a pandemic, and 30% were afflicted. That pandemic triggered something in a per cent of those who had survived. It happened every grand once in a while in the Purgatoriums. It was to be expected in Imperium. Ustor. Flames that gave the Plebes, the Electi nightmares. Can’t vax it, can’t squash it. Wanna see a dome turn on itself? You can only kill so many people in broad daylight before the people revolt. Wounded dogs in corners bite. I should know. I was the one who held the gun to too many Ustors’ heads in the Hades Purge.
Now, six years after the Hades Purge, when an Ustor crops up in a Purgatorium, the military in Angelus or Nemphium will open up a panel onto an armoured walk-way and drop the offending being into Imperium instead of instigating more riots. At least dumping Ustors in this infernus ditch is considered humane by the Nympha and Angelus people, even if the corporate states would still have them massacred. What the population does to them here is our own problem.
“Easy Inferisia.” They did not make my efforts at moving them to a safer location any easy job. Wiggling mass of chaos. “Hush, hush. Oh, for the love of first fire! I’m taking you to Maria Mater. She’s nice. She’ll get you some food and new clothes,” I persuade. They settle at the mention of food. Always does the trick. Hopefully, she would forgive me for dropping a pair of Accendium on her suddenly.
Getting to the South end took longer than I’d liked. The girls were heavier than I bargained for, but shoeless, I was not putting them on the ground.
“You’re Vampire, aren’t you?” the smaller of the two girls asked, her voice soft and, I must admit, ridiculously creepy. My heart threatened to escape my chest at that question.
“Where’d you hear that name?” I asked, not wanting to admit to it. I mean, they did just watch me down about half a man’s lifeblood in front of them. Kind of hard to ignore that right in your face.
“Mommy said to trust the Vampire,” the little one cheeped. “You’re Vampire, right?”
“Who is Mommy? Do you know her name?” I turned a corner to put myself deeper into the alley labyrinth that led away from the main thoroughfare. Why would a supposed Inferiser know about me?
The little girl shook her head. “I don’t know. Mommy is mommy.”
“Can you describe her?” I asked as I rounded a corner in the South end. Tempestatis and Cortex stood guard at the corner. They nodded their heads my way. “Com’s busted. Can you go tell Maria Mater I’m coming up, Cortex?” I asked. He turned and dashed in the direction I was heading.
“Mommy’s pretty. Tall and pretty,” the girl answered, shoving her thumb in her mouth.
“She’s light like Abby,” the older girl supplied.
“Is that your name, Abby?” I asked the little one.
“Abigail, but Sam calls me Abby,” she explained.
“I take it you’re Sam?” I turned my question to the older girl. She nodded mutely. “Do you know how to get back to mommy?” I pressed. They shook their heads. So much for finding the entrance to the Inferis. “What about your daddy?” Can you describe him?” I pursued a new avenue of conversation as Maria Mater’s door came into view. Several flights of stairs would put me at her apartment.
I turned into the stairwell as Sam replied, “shorter than mommy. Dark like me. Has a number on his cheek like yours.” She traced my face.
My whole body went cold at that description. I drew in a steadying breath as I tried not to trip on the stairs. “Do you remember what number he had?” I asked with as much false bravado as I could pump into the question. It could be any garrison. Angelus task force was extensive. Accendium can smell fear. That’s the saying, and damn I hoped it was not accurate.
“Seven twenty-two. Dad’s number is higher than yours.” Sam traced the man’s number over mine. I think my heart took a bath in stomach acid. I can only thank the canals of Imperium that I had arrived at Maria Mater’s door at the same time Sam admitted that.
The door opened to a short brunette woman with a curvy frame and hair to match. Her smile could melt plaster. “Hey, Maria Mater,” I greeted with a broken smile. My composure was going to be gone in minutes if I couldn’t free myself from the tykes. “Abby, Sam, this is Maria Mater. She’ll help get you settled,” I reassured her as she let me into her apartment. A thin soup of cabbage and carrots was already coming to a boil on her stove. I spotted a pile of mended clothes on the end of the ragged sofa. I picked the clothes up and deposited the girls, trench coat and all, in her bathroom and left them to dress.
“Lunam.” The little woman turned me to her. Her eyes searched mine.
“Molly, they know me,” my voice wobbled under a whisper. My anchor. My faith. She patted my arm in understanding. I tried not to use her given name often. In here, in Imperium, given names are secret, sacred things, only trusted between close confidants, not something you use out in the open.
“Are they the Accendium that Tempestatis was going on about?” Molly asked me.
“Beats me. Kids are saying they’re from Inferis. They speak Angelus fluently.” I flopped on Molly’s sofa. Flopping was always a bad idea, I reminded myself as I jarred my spine. Thing lost its springs years ago and was now reinforced with a slab of plywood.
“Why do you look like you ate something that didn’t agree with you?” she asked. She was always too good at catching my moods.
“Not hungry. Honestly, sort of just lost my appetite at the doorstep. Aurantiaco provided me with lunch today anyway,” I reassured. “They’re Sherlton twenty-two’s kids, at least Abby is. If their description of a tall, pretty black-haired woman holds, he somehow got Velma to finally bed him.” I counted missing patches in the carpet.
“That can’t be, Lunam. Your garrison. They…” She struggled with how to say what she was alluding to delicately. My garrison died because of my commanding officer’s ineptitude and my sudden burnout.
A kid drifted into my memory uninvited. Like he did every time my thoughts drifted to that fateful day. Startled, large cognac-coloured eyes that penetrated my very soul looked over the shine of my barrel. He was maybe five or six years younger than me at the time. Late-teens. Shorter by a head and a half. Gaunt, his cheeks hollow. Smelled of sage and rosemary. Two children, a couple years younger, clung to him, supported him. Others, faceless and dark in my memory, clung to his arms and hands, using him as a shield. Fire snapped and roared around them. “Shoot!” was the command by the captain in my ear.
“Please. I’ll give you anything. Don’t kill them.” Tears tracked through the mud on his cheeks, revealing black bruises. I could taste the salt. Something snapped inside of me. Caught everyone by surprise.
Now I was in Imperium, discharged from the Angelus task force after serving them from the age of seven. Fifteen years of service before learning I had flames. The court told me all of my garrisons burned, all 124 of them along with three miles of company camps. I gorged myself on my own captain. I ended the Hades Purge. At least, that’s what I was told happened when I woke up to being court-martialed and dropped in Imperium. I was lucky not to be executed. The fact so many Ustors went up and cleared the camps was the only reason the court gave me for not cutting my innards out and displaying them to the world. I had made their jobs easier.
The court kept calling me Vampire. It was on every news broadcast in the Purgatoriums that a late blooming Ustor had a Repercussion like mine. Stupid strong impact like explosion. Court compared it to an eighteen-ton bomb. Repercussion – blood sustenance. Fangs and all. If I dealt with fire for any length of time, next thing I knew, I’d crowd someone into a dark corner and get all up in their business drinking out of their artery. Out of everyone I had ever met in the Imperium, I understood why I was there.
Some Ustors have safe catalysts. Some Repercussions are hilarious. This one guy leaves burning fingerprints on frozen glass. That’s it. That’s all he can do. Harmless and rare. Makes gorgeous artwork. His Repercussion: he sings lullabies for an hour. Has a great singing voice.
Mine? I can blow apart a city if the right conditions are met. At a minimum, I can superheat a person’s internal core temperature until they fry. Then I have to go suck someone’s neck. If I don’t, my control is gone, and I wake up in a puddle of blood, looking like an axe murderer with bodies piling up. Hard work and stubbornness means now I can push it longer than most before I have to saite my Repercussion. Some people have to perform immediately. With a lot of work and time, I’ve been able to push time between Catalyst and Repercussion so that I can eat safely. I try to avoid getting to the point where I lose all control. Hence, my momentary ignition of one of the Orange patrols led me to lunch on the other bloke. Copper and ash. Hate the stuff. Need it to end the madness in my DNA. Ustors always taste like ash. Every once in a while, I’ll run into a Plebe. Pure metal tastes awful, like drinking distilled water.
Imperium was where Purgatorians dumped Ustors like us after the Hades Purge. Mutant freaks. That’s what we are. People went and poisoned the planet, which led to the creation of LIFE, Living in Free Environment, funded through the Joiner Petroleum company and investors. Three massive domes spread across most of the face of Throni et Inferni. Underground aquifers supplied Angelus and Nympha with fresh water that irrigated most of the vegetation in the domes. As long as the panels were maintained, the water from the aquifers provided enough moisture that we were provided with variable weather patterns.
We call our home Imperium, though really it was Biochamber Three, built over a volcanic region of Inferni called Stagnum Ignis and a fertile delta region Flumen Griseo. Urbs Aquarum is one of the largest cities in Dome. I run the Southside with my gang, the Caeruleum. Three gangs run this city. A fourth, Thalassium, operates the Hanging Gardens, large gangways suspended from the dome’s roof. They maintain the ceiling panels in our area. I have a decent working relationship with Praetemptura. I send her crew tar from our scrap waste for her panels. She sends us food that can only grow in the high, damp altitudes. Her wife, Ambulatio, is Maria Mater’s sister.
Gemma ran the Rubrum, Mercurius ran the Aurantiaco. We’re named after the colour of a burning flame. Purpura had once been a thing, but Rubrum swallowed them up to take the west and north ends of the city.
“Looks like some of the men survived.” The door was looking awfully inviting. Lunch wasn’t sitting well. I don’t want to be dwelling on this topic. Some people would be curious. I don’t want to know what I really did. Officially, I was responsible for some 48,000 Plebes and Ustors either dead or unaccounted for by the investigator’s figures. 16,000 people per square mile. Three miles. Vaporized to charcoal. I was dead centre of the ring, gone to the call of blood. Feral and rabid. I have no memory of it. Hades, I hope I never remembered it. There were liable to be miscalculations.
“Can you see to them, Molly? See if anyone can foster? Maybe place them with Pinna and Luto. They said they’d be willing to foster any kids we pull out of the Aurantiaco.” I stood up to leave. Molly regarded me with a look of understanding and more questions. She was holding her tongue, though. Some days, I just wished she’d come out and say what was on her mind. Some days I wanted the fight. To validate my reasoning. To hear my ideas from the other side. She never rose to it; instead, she always sidestepped it, deflected me, diverted me onto better, more productive things. I might be the boss of the Caeruleum, but she was Maria Mater, the leader to the crew for a good reason.
“I’ll send Coriarius to Luto and have them come meet me here. Cortex left a note with me,” she cautioned before I could touch the door handle. I stared at the brass knob in my hand as I waited for her. We’ve all got feelings bubbling under the river of our minds, and some days we can’t handle the voices that call out from that unyielding darkness. Her hand drew me from my musings. “Here.” She pressed a scrap in my hand.
Treasure box at Requies’s.
“Really? We have a meeting of the heads at lunch.” I stuffed the note in my trench pocket.
“And you’re leaving Accendium with me before this?” she demanded of me.
“You just said you’d send Coriarius.” I paced the tiny space.
She sighed, flicking a glance back at the door where the girls were getting dressed. “Yeah, Luto will probably come pick them up before the meeting.”
“It’ll be fine then,” I reassured.
“First time we’re meeting with Gemma and Mercurius in a year. Not like the lines have changed.” She turned to her pot and turned the heat down.
“Gemma keeps up with dealing petrol to Angelus; she’s going to have to deal with the water shortage to their canals. We can’t have backfill coming in with oil. She’s never sealed her waterways. I won’t have our water reservoirs contaminated. Mercurius can jump off a cliff. Lay off the Accendium, and I won’t go killing off his men. At least you get to see your sister and Praetemptura.” I opened the door to the apartment.
“Wash out the taste of the other two at least.
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