“You knew him?” Medicus asked as he held pen to paper. He didn’t sound surprised. I had no idea what he was thinking, but man if I could have peeled Medicus’s brain open and got a dig at what was turning in it, I would have paid my right ball for the opportunity.
“Before Gemma.” Sanctus’s voice travelled down my arms like spiders. I sat there, wondering if I could somehow walk out of the building without either of the two noticing me. Hard to do when both their chairs were facing me, and I had to walk past them to get to the door. I unhooked my fang and rubbed at the itch in my cheek. I cleared my throat. Sanctus looked up at me, his expression having gone flat.
“Do you want me to leave? Might make this easier?” I offered, thumbing toward the door.
“No, sit, Lunam. You’re getting through the vials anyway. This is just an introductory day for Sanctus,” Medicus reassured with charismatic ease. I swear, I was intimately aware of just how far Sanctus’s Adam’s apple rose and fell every time he swallowed. Medicus returned to Sanctus when I shoved my other fang onto a vial and waited uncomfortably. I had never told Medicus where I’d come from. Good guy, but I never felt like I needed to sit in his chair.
“We both are from Angelus,” Sanctus explained.
“You respond better to Angelus than Imperian,” Medicus jotted a note. How about a leg? Could I saw off a leg to pay him to let me see what was on those lines?
“I was born in Lubbock Five, raised in New Albuquerque,” Sanctus explained. Medicus let the silence hang. “I don’t speak Imperian well when I get nervous.”
“Do you understand it when it’s spoken to you when you’re nervous?” Medicus asked. Sanctus shook his head and fingered his shoulder under his vest. Medicus watched the movement. “Gemma makes you nervous?”
“She doesn’t like that I’m slow at understanding,” he whispered.
“Who taught you Imperian?”
“I listened. I watched for what people did when they said things. Some words are Angelus, which helps sometimes,” he explained.
“Have you had much opportunity to talk to anyone in Angelus?”
“My half-siblings, when we first arrived. That wasn’t more than half an hour while Gemma and Mercurius figured out how to split us up. We lived together in Angelus. They got dumped in here with me.” He fidgeted, rubbing at his thumb. “I don’t know if I was scared, or relieved when Nigrae Lunam first talked to me. Well, no. I was terrified,” he laughed a derisive note of self-mockery. I switched vials.
“Do you want to talk about that?” Medicus asked.
“He told his captain no. He told him in more vulgar words than that, but he told his captain no, in front of all of us.” Sanctus’s smile couldn’t be missed. I gagged on the dry cotton under my tongue. Medicus sent me a quelling glance before I was able to put up a fuss. I spat out the cotton I had and packed in another set as I turned to my tongue. Keep that thing tied down before I put my foot in my mouth.
“We had gone out to the square. There were lots of people gathered. Mom had taken up sick, and work wasn’t letting us in in case we were contagious, and we hadn’t eaten in a couple days. Figured if there were people out, that maybe there was a festival of some kind going on.” He pulled his knees up to his chest and rocked slowly. He laid his head on his knee, his hair tumbling down in a cascade.
“Didn’t know it was a roundup. Mom had kept us away from people when we weren’t working. Said they would use us if we were found out. I didn’t understand it. I was seventeen. You’d think I’d get it at that point. I was supposed to protect them, be the man of the house, right?” he sniffled.
“Round up?” Medicus asked.
“The Hades Purge.” The name dropped like a broken gong on the clinic floor. Bless Medicus, or damn him. He kept his mouth shut and let Sanctus relive that level of infernus.
“Aurelia, she found a stand that was taking advantage of the crowd. She nabbed a handful of roasted chiles. Got caught by this big buster. Ustor. He ignited just by touching her,” he whispered. Memories flashed behind my eyes.
I had been standing with my troops. We were to create a ring in the market and herd everyone into a bottleneck. Trucks at the other end were there to take Ustor off to the chambers. We had pushed the mob halfway down the street when an Ustor went up. A scream echoed in my head. Where had this memory been?
“Told the guy to let go of her. He called his buddies in and got a hold of Paul and me when we went to protect Aurelia. That’s when it finally clicked. Something was different about us. Mom was right. On top of this, I saw guys in flackjackets descending from the opposite direction. The crowd started sweeping us to the other end, away from the ally back to our home.” He rubbed at his arms and unfolded himself to sit cross-legged in his chair, and leaned over his knees. He picked at the soles of his shoes for a minute as the only sound in the clinic was Medicus’s pencil and the squee of my suction bulb. I couldn’t take my eyes off Sanctus to save my life.
“We ended up in this big plaza at the other end. I don’t think I’d ever been down on that side of the street. Massive cargo trucks circled one side of it, blocking us in. The other side kept compressing us closer and closer. There were Angelus task force grabbing people. Someone would touch them and then motion for someone to either be shoved in the truck or sent out to the other side of a barricade they’d erected. I think, looking back, that they were also Providentia, or something like it. We can tell Ustor. They leach our power. We can feel it running out of us wherever they touch, like when you bleed really bad,” he explained.
“Does that hurt?” I coughed around all the gunk in my mouth. He looked up at me, startled. He had forgotten where he was. The annoyed glance I got from Medicus told me that I should have kept my yap shut.
“Not really? It just feels weird. Like water running on your skin, but out?” He frowned.
“Aurelia and Paul?” Medicus redirected the memory back on topic. I’m glad he switched back. I remembered the inspectors. I never asked questions, and no one ever told me. There were those, though, that were better equipped to handle Ustor than the rest of us.
“They got dragged away from me by the other men. I tried to follow, but was pulled in the other direction. At a certain point, I know I got back to them. The other guys had lost hold of them, and Aurelia had gotten herself caught up with a flock of kids. Paul was trying to help them. Then these troops descended, splitting the circle into halves, one side pushing the group to the other side of the plaza and our group to the opposite. Getting us into smaller and smaller spaces. Fires started breaking out on both sides, and the whole place glowed this unholy orange color. The walls lit up, and smoke started coming out of some of the buildings.
“There’s this big uproar as the crowd got louder. Someone threw teargas. I remember this massive blinding light and a bang that left me rattled. Aurelia and Paul are clinging to me.” Sanctus picked at the paint on the arm of the chair he was in. He shifted his legs once again, letting them rest against one of the supports under the arm. A tick of Medicus’s clock slipped by. Four. Five. “Then in the midst of this terror I look up. This huge guy with pitch-black hair and vibrant green eyes in an all black uniform is standing in front of me. He had a gun pointed to my head and this weasley guy in a grey uniform behind him. There was a line of the black suits, but this one I saw. I couldn’t miss him. He was looking at us in the most puzzled way.
“I don’t know what made me do it. Maybe I thought I could get the gun away from him. No one can get a gun away from an Angelus soldier. I should have known that. I reached up and grabbed his hand anyway. Maybe I wanted him to kill me so he wouldn’t shoot Paul or Aurelia. I get his hand and pull it down, and this other guy is screaming in his ear for him to shoot. And,” he chuckled, “he goes ‘fuck off you presumptive twat!’ The look on this guy’s face when his soldier said that. I figured I could die amused at the very least.
“The rest of these guys in uniform are just staring at him like he’s lost it. He turned and grabbed this guy who was telling him to shoot, letting go of the gun. The next thing I know, I wake up in an Angelus truck. I had a burn, a pretty bad one, going up my leg. Aurelia and Paul are with me at least, and as far as I knew, outside of Paul ending up with a busted eardrum, they were fine. He’s deaf in one ear now because of it.
“We were taken to a detention center. Everyone with Ustor powers were at this point. Staff there patched up the burn on my leg, not exactly pleasantly. I think they would have rather watched me die. I spent a couple nights there before the whole camp was dismantled. We were dosed with something. The next thing, I woke up lying on the ground with a pile of other people. We had been thrown into Urbs Aquarum. This lady’s looking over the bodies with a short bald guy. That was when I met Gemma and Mercurius. Let’s go with life sucked after that.
“Then, out of nowhere, I end up at that hotel. Several years later, now, but still. I end up being sent out by Gemma with her general, and in walk’s this guy who told his captain to shove it and contributed to ending the Hades Purge. He had gone supernova from what I learned from Gemma.” Sanctus looked up at me, admiration in his eyes. Gears clicked and churned in my head. I didn’t have any memory of him touching me. I remember cognac eyes, though.
“Medicus?” I asked, finally taking the suction off my tongue.
“Lunam?” he asked as he continued with his notes.
“Is it possible?” I started as I set the vials away in their box.
“Is it possible for a Providentia to activate an Ustor if they aren’t ready to bloom?” I put the question out to the universe. He furrowed his brow as his pencil stopped midway to his next letter. He looked up at me, confused for a minute. I studied Sanctus, who had paled at the question.
“There hasn’t been much research performed on Providentia, Lunam. We only know of the three in all the Imperium,” Medicus set his pencil down.
“There were people in the Angelus military,” I started.
“Go on,” he urged.
“There were men in it that we called the Sweepers. When we cleared camps of Ustor, the Sweepers would separate them from the rest. They were brought in as a separate branch, part of the Medical division. Sweepers would decide who left and who stayed. Sometimes people would go up and protest that they had no idea they were Ustor, they would deny they had powers when their very skin was sizzling. We’d systematically go through camps. We’d take over house by house. They’d touch them. Sometimes it wasn’t the parents, just the kids. Maybe just one sibling. So many moms blamed for sleeping around, getting called sluts. Babies. The docile Ustor were taken away somewhere. Rebels were shot on sight.
“We’d go back to base. We’d eat. We’d act like everything was fine. Like we weren’t breaking up families, communities. They weren’t real. Weren’t human. Less than dogs, less than pigs. Dogs and pigs could be leashed and caged, could be trained and defanged.
Ustors. Burners.” I spat the last word, racist slang that people often tried to avoid saying in polite conversation, especially in Imperium. Medicus flinched at the venom. I had worked hard to avoid saying it for years, but memories were bubbling out, and I slipped.
“Burners are a threat to the oil rigs. Can’t have a hole burn. If one catches and there’s a line close by, or a tunnel too deep, it can end bad. Smoke out the biodome, overrun the ventilation. It’d gas us all.” I stared at Sanctus’s fidgeting fingers as the propaganda swamped my brain. “Old documentaries they’d run in the halls on Fridays to show what could happen if Ustor got close to tanks and wells. Genetic anarchists. Violent creatures driven by instinct and greed. Explosions would cost Joiner Petroleum, which would break down the government. Lead to rebellion. Lead to instability and revolt. That could end with lots of people dying like when the Pandemic hit. We have to protect the Electi and Plebe. The ones that don’t threaten the existence of Angelus.”
I didn’t realize how much of that bullshit tumbled out of my mouth, but I sure unpacked a lot of it. Eventually, Medicus stopped me. “Back up a bit there, Lunam. I missed half of what you said. You switched in Angelus.” He halted my progression. I blinked, bringing Sanctus’s eyes into focus. Horror. That was the best description of his expression.
“Could it be that these Sweepers, possibly what we call Providentia, were activating Ustor, finding them in the midst of everyone else?” I asked.
“There’s a probability of it, but I couldn’t answer that,” Medicus told me.
“I know now that Ustor aren’t like that. They aren’t malicious. They don’t go around starting fires for the infernus of it. That there’s always a disadvantage to using it. It took it happening to me for me to realize it, though,” I apologized to Sanctus.
“Sometimes, one has to walk in another man’s shoes to understand their life,” Medicus gave me some wise wisdom crap.
“I’ve been walking in them for a while now.” I shuffled off the gurney and returned the vials to the shelf next to the ones I had filled yesterday. “I’m…I’m going to go talk to Scriba. She’s got a pair of Accendium she’s watching and probably would like to be relieved of duty. I sort of dumped them on Maria Mater, and…yeah,” I swallowed against the knot in my throat that was threatening to suffocate me.
“Why don’t you go talk to Scriba. I’d like for Sanctus to have a journal to document his emotions and his days. It’ll give us something to work on.” Medicus rose to slip his notebook onto his shelf with the long line of matching notebooks. Sanctus got up from the chair to stand next to me. I looked down at him and blinked. I couldn’t believe he would stand next to me after all of that. His hand went to the back of my arm as was his nervous twitch. Medicus turned back to us after messing with his shelf and looking over his vials. “And you know?” he asked. I pricked at his tone. “Grab one for yourself, too, Nigrae Lunam. I won’t charge sessions, but I think you need to also work through some of your past.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied hollowly as I turned us out of the clinic.
Outside, with the door closed, I studied the cloudy sky above me. “I’m sorry,” I apologized to Sanctus and willed myself to keep the tears behind my eyes buried.
“It’s okay, Lunam,” Sanctus mumbled.
“I didn’t mean to put you here.” Oh man, my emotions really wanted to make for the waterworks.
“I know you didn’t,” he reassured.
“I’m sorry Gemma got hold of you.” Tears slipped. Damn it.
“I’m sorry I made you an Ustor,” he whispered.
“We don’t know if you did. Probably not. It was just a random thought.” I finally stifled those stupid tears.
“Probable and actually may be a fine line or a massive canyon. Come on. Let’s get down to Scriba’s. She’d probably like the relief. Abby and Sam only speak Angelus, and she’s not exactly fluent.” I turned from the sky to the building.
“Okay.” Sanctus’s hand drifted down to touch my fingers before they went to the button on my cuff.
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