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Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Long War. A 40K fanfic

THE LONG WAR

by Peter Halfpenny


There is screaming. Fire and interminable screaming.
Part of me registers the screaming as an alarm, but human terror is adding to that cacophony. I see an old man with one leg, sprawled on the ground. Frantic runners are grinding him into the dirt while feeble arms probe desperately for a missing crutch.
Two Arbites in beetle-black armour power through the throng toward the sound of gunfire. They have boxy looking shotguns and grim, intent faces. They are soon lost to sight. Here, a mother looking for her child, there, a doll trampled into the mud. The sight makes me want to wretch even amongst so much more obvious carnage.
A high-pitched whine cuts through the tumult as the turbines of a nearby Valkyrie spin up. Bodies are clinging to the outside hull as it lifts off. They reappear moments later as human rain.
Gaven Kurat is standing nearby screaming and waving a fist at a pdf administrator. He has been with my master for seventeen years working in various capacities; most of which involve a hideous level of violence.  Gaven is an intimidating figure. He is ex-guard with a hulking physique and scarred, slab-like face. He radiates capability and menace. The administrator is outwardly unmoved until Gaven gestures toward me. The poor fellow blanches and leads us to a waiting Valkyrie. To my horror and shame, he orders a family be disembarked to make room for us.
 The man of the family is large and broad, his wife small and vulnerable looking. They have three young sons. All wear expressions of confusion. The man finally understands what is happening and tries to push his family back on board. The Arbites step in and drag him roughly away while the woman screams and two of the boys cry. The oldest just stares at me. Somehow that is worse.
One of my staff, Frater Pavon will not board the craft, offering the space to one of the family. Gaven Kurat just sneers. He has no intention of letting a woman or child die for him, although I can see that the decision is costing him. My scribe, Belvin is shifting nervously from foot to foot. I will leave the choice to his conscience. Adept Servassin appears unmoved, although it is difficult to tell. He will probably be more upset about leaving his precious servitors behind in favour of these poor terrified wretches.
“My lord?” asks the pdf official, eyes shifting uncomfortably toward the waiting Valkyrie. I look at the faces of the dispossessed family, etching them forever on my memory, then make my decision.

*             *             *
It has been one month since the official cessation of hostilities on Adjipura Proxima. One month since the enemy overlord was put to death in the throne room of the high spire. One month and Imperial forces are still fishing bodies from the muddy quagmire surrounding Adjipur Primus.

From the safety of my hab-tent, the capital hive is little more than a smoke-wreathed shell poisoning the horizon with its broken, skeletal ugliness. It squats amid a sea of churned earth and war-ravaged desolation that even the continent’s incorrigible jungles are loath to encroach upon with their ever-questing tendrils and omnipresent sail-spore.
The same invasive spore has formed a gauzy curtain against my window filter. It seems like minutes since I last sent my domestic servitor scuttling forward to unclog it, but I stop myself from complaining. The remaining Vandrayan Janissaries outside are not afforded the luxury of working tent seals and personal servitors. The sail-spore finds its way into hair, mouths, eyes, cook-pots, drinking vessels and in the case of an unlucky minority, the lining of hearts and lungs. As though the poor bastards didn’t have enough enemies in the followers of Lascivar Abjuran, throne curse his name.
Sirroc-8 lumbers past me on his way to the window filter. I hear raised voices and laughter from outside, signifying the evening repast. I wouldn’t join them even if my workload allowed me to do so. I am Interrogator Jhord Krayle of his holy majesty’s Inquisition. My presence would be as welcome as that of the sail-spore.
It seems that I blinked and dawn broke without warning. Rays from the black sun shine through a clear window and the unusual star is revealed in all its hideous beauty. Sirroc-8 must have continued his relentless vigil all night after I passed out at my desk. It was a necessary evil. I have work to do today. I am an interrogator and I have questions to ask.
*             *             *
Adjipur Primus civilian relocation camp. Forward command Sigma; Dog sector
Lieutenant Bruma Shasvaari of the Adjipur Primus Planetary Defence Force looks tired. As one of the few surviving Pdf officers, he acts as an intermediary between the displaced refugees of his hive and the Imperial relief force. I first met him two months ago when I arrived with the 3rd and final wave of the Imperial assault. At the time, he was a captain, but the besiegers’ slow, grinding war of attrition ensured his rapid – albeit unwanted – promotion. We are sitting in the somewhat bare confines of the forward command position; a sparse, prefab structure that is slowly being disassembled as Imperial operations wind down. He is a young, slim man whose dark, narrow face would be handsome were it not so drawn and tired looking.
What you have to understand, Interrogator is that to us, the Imperium was always a distant parent figure. I don’t mean the physical distance, I mean the social one. Adjipur is so far out in the Pacificus that the Halo Stars are closer to us than the Astronomican. I had never even seen an off-worlder before the troubles started. I assumed they would look just like us, talk like us, think like us... but these Vandrayans... don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to them and all, but it’s just...
Tell me about the troubles. He bows his head for a moment before continuing.
I was fifteen when the food riots began. I was actually on my way to the commissary quadrangle when the rush hour massacres... occurred. I lived with my Father and two smaller brothers in the vestibule of a workshop two floors above. We had a hab unit once, but lost it after mother died. We didn’t mind much. The workshop was warm and Father’s co-workers helped look after us between shifts. It was a common living arrangement before the insurrection. You have to understand that only in hindsight do I realise just how cramped and confined our massive city truly was. Dear God Emperor on Terra just look at the bloody thing!
He chuckles, but without mirth. He waves expansively at the view through the post’s main, clear-plas window. There is a constant, gentle buzz as the window’s field incinerates sail-spore and other airborne fungi on contact. He continues to stare at the ruin of his home as he resumes talking. He seems far away; staring at a scene from memory rather than the ruin of his birthplace. Sirroc-8’s autoquill clicks as it registers Shasvaari’s intention to continue.
I was on my way to the commissary for morning errands. It was common for junior labourers to fetch morning repast for journeymen and other skilled workers. I was on the throughway; using my small size to best advantage. There is an art to moving through the press of bodies in a hive thoroughfare. We had a man in my unit during the last emancipation drive, (was it the last? Maybe the drive before. So many.) Tollen. He was originally a down-hiver like me, but a private scribe, leased to a small excise company that traded between cities. I only remember Tollen because he told me about a curious phenomena that simply does not exist below the main spire: rush-hour.
He said that there were certain periods of the day where foot, road and air traffic were incredibly dense, but other than that, it was often possible to cross from one side of the road to another without being trampled, beaten, or even killed. Have you ever been down-hive Interrogator?
No Bruma, I have not.
There’s no rush hour, trust me. Traffic of every kind is constant. Somebody’s always travelling to their next shift, or a shrine, or some shit. Then you have the street preachers and general crazies. Then you have the gangers.
He smiles wistfully here, but I don’t wish to derail his train of thought. My silence encourages him to continue.
Sorry, it just feels strange to suddenly remember... everything! I haven’t spoken about this aspect of my life with anybody before. Anybody.
He looks at me pointedly, but not unkindly. The gesture is not lost on me. His candour is only out of fear and respect for the holy Ordos; not kinship, or any kind of trust in me.



 So they sent me out as usual. I had managed to get through the press with relatively few bumps, or scratches for once. I was almost at the booth for our level’s mass-transit funicular when I noticed that the foot traffic was even thicker than usual. The massive gates were sealed and a line of grim looking Custodes were standing before it in their tan fatigues and headscarves. The crowd were becoming restless and I heard one man in the uniform of a mechanicum overseer saying there was a food riot going on in the commissary, (I have no idea how he knew. Probably some freaky cogboy shit, like a comm-link where part of his brain should have been). That was nothing unusual in and of itself, there was a dustup in there on a daily basis.
Why do Imperial forces and survivors refer to that that particular incident as the food riots then?
I was coming to that. Food riots were usually contained in the commissary. They weren’t organised and if they were, then it was a damn sloppy job! Food was scarce and so were jobs. People got pissed off. You figure it out. You mind?
Not at all. He draws a cigarette from a stained box with a munitorum stamp on it. I decline his offer of one and wait for him to light up and continue the recollection. Taking the proffered cigarette would place him at his ease and that can dull detail in responses. I can’t have that.
There had been deaths before. It’s only natural. As huge as a hive is, there’s only a limited amount of space. The Custodes had never been forced to fire live rounds into the crowd to any great extent before, but there was stumm-gas and those shock-maul things, so sure, people got killed now and then. Something was different this time. Even two floors above, you could hear gunshots echoing, reverberating up the funicular tunnel. I had heard gunfire before, what hab-boy hasn’t? This wasn’t a bunch of spaced-up gangers; war had broken out in the commissary. People were dying.
Living in that environment, you develop a kind of sixth sense for danger. I was already making my way slowly back through the crowd when the first shots rang out on our level. I would love to say that I saw the shooter, or even that I saw the Custodes reply, but the truth is that I pissed myself and ran all the way back to the workshop.
The captain looks down again, smiling ruefully and shaking his head before continuing.
The rest is a blur. We were the lucky ones, at first. The Mechanicus evacuated their personnel immediately and offered any remaining shuttle space to skilled Imperial employees like my Father. We settled in Viranu camp near the main equatorial jungle. I signed up for the Pdf two years later.
And the hive? The retaking of Adjipur?
I know what you’re going to ask already and the answer’s yes. I saw your Inquisitor Tyran in the Commercia, but I never spoke with him, never had anything to do with him directly. I was just a captain remember? We were in the middle of one of the bitterest firefights of our war and I saw him race across the open ground of the commercial with his team like a fugging maniac.
Yes, that sounds like him. Bruma laughs bitterly, shaking his head once more.
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t get your hopes up! That was the 2nd push.
The 2nd push?
Yep. The one where we were repulsed. The Skitarii had secured us an entrance through the city’s damaged curtain wall at a staggering cost in lives. Most of our remaining materiel and manpower was being channelled into this assault. High command had planned the operation in conjunction with Absur, our last Colonel in the Adjipur Pdf. Useless up-hive bastard. Any urchin could have told him the commercia was a deathtrap; a massive... um... atrium?  Atrium. All Those open balconies and empty ground. Fields of fire? Shit, I’m almost convinced he was working for the enemy that day.
Could I talk with Absur?
Can you conduct a séance? He ate his own laspistol after the 2nd round of casualty reports came in. I suppose it saved anybody else the bother. Ironic really.
How so?
Well, the mission was a tactical disaster; ending in a slow, grinding stalemate. Who would have thought that tenuous beachhead could win us the war?
And Inquisitor Tyran?
Sorry. After the failed Commercia assault, I never saw Inquisitor Tyran again. The last time was when he was whispering to Captain Jural of the Jannisaries. Then – like I said before – he ran across the commercia like a mad bastard.
Captain Jural. I must speak with him. Is he still alive? He laughs and shakes his head.
In a manner of speaking my lord. You’ll find him in the officer’s mess, or the stockade. I don’t know how helpful he’ll be.
Let me worry about that Bruma. You’ve been very...
The Space Marine!
He takes me by surprise with that. Brother Castion? What about him?
Throne, if anybody was with the Inquisitor at the end it must have been him! The Space Marine was already way ahead of them and into the uphive stairwell causing hell when the Inquisitor made up his mind to run the gauntlet. You could try talking to him.
That’s very useful Bruma. Thank you. I manage to hide my disappointment well. Brother-Sergeant Castion of the Bright Lords is sequestered within the confines of a void-shielded pavilion under the constant supervision of his equerries and novitiates. Nobody has seen him since he was pulled half-dead from the ruined hive. Technically my rosette would give me access, but the Astartes are a law unto themselves. If they refuse me entry, then my authority will be tested. Suddenly my scars ache with a phantom pain and I stand to leave. Bruma is laughing to himself quietly. I raise a speculative eyebrow and he stops, smiling again.
Sorry, I’m sorry, really. It’s just here I am saying that I’d never even seen an off-worlder before the uprising. Now I’m talking to an Inquisitor and telling war stories about Space Marines. Life is funny, is it not Inquisitor?
Interrogator, Bruma. I have yet to take on the full role, but yes, life is funny. I’m sorry to have taken so much of your time. I stand up to take my leave. Before I go, may I ask? Your Father and Brothers? I am unsure of why I ask this question. It doesn’t pertain in any way to the furtherance of my investigation, although I feel a sudden need to know.
We were the lucky ones. To a point. The Mechanicum shifted them to Khurdai outpost near the equatorial sea. It was during the 2nd push.
I’m sorry for your loss Captain. Please don’t allow me to detain you any further. You have served your Emperor and your hive with distinction. My report will say as much and more. He blinks uncertainly, then smiles. It is a limpid, uncertain thing on that gaunt face.  I leave Lieutenant Shasvaari alone with his thoughts and flee the building as quickly as decorum will allow.
*             *             *
My attempts to gain an interview with the Brother-Sergeant meet with stony, indomitable silence. His novitiates stare disinterestedly at my rosette and tell me that Equerry Helacanth is ministering to their lord’s needs and cannot be disturbed. I am left in no doubt as to their willingness to do me violence should I attempt to press the issue and settle for leaving them with a curt, but ultimately empty demand that the equerry admit me the following day.
I decide to walk through the camp and try my luck with Jural. Tyran would have done things differently. He would have glared the stony novitiates into submission and bullied them aside.  Then again, my master was 6 foot tall, power armoured and genetically enhanced. I am a capable, but reluctant warrior at best. I try to put it from my mind and focus on a strategy, but my interview with Lieutenant Shasvaari yesterday intrudes on my thoughts.
Sometimes Khurdai seems a distant nightmare; something that I read about or heard from an old warhorse like my master Tyran, or poor Kurat rather than a memory of my own. Why do I persist in asking about loved ones and family? Is it survivor guilt? I tell myself that I am beyond recrimination now, but each time I do my wounds react with a surge of pain. Some hateful part of me enjoys that pain, taking pleasure and satisfaction in well-deserved punishment. Maybe I do deserve it.
Inquisitor Lord Malmod has already advised that I have earned my full Inquisitorial rank and can leave whenever I wish to take up my duties.  I respectfully advised him that my duty was to resolve the disappearance of Inquisitor Tyran to the best of my abilities. He appeared to like my response very much, but told me not to take too long. To that end, I must talk with Captain Jural at the stockade. I still don’t know what to do about the Space Marine. There’s always tomorrow.
*             *             *            
The once lauded and valorous captain of the Vandrayan Janissaries 207th regiment ‘Lightning company’ has fallen on hard times. He is still whipcord lean with broad shoulders and a strong, chiselled face, but there are ruptured capillaries lining his cheeks and threading through the whites of his eyes. He is unkempt for a soldier of his rank. His long fair hair and dark stubble are an indication of that. He reeks of stale alcohol and sweat. No doubt his combat record and the winding down of the Imperial war effort here have protected him from demotion, or worse. We meet in his cell. The captain sits on a metal chair; his hands manacled behind him. One of the guards on duty tells me that the Captain is almost sober this morning, but his behaviour can still be unpredictable. Better to leave him trussed, he says. The guard smiles conspiratorially when I tell him that my invisible assassin will protect me.
Good morning Captain Jural. Do you know who I am? He clears his throat loudly and spits near my shiny black boot.
You’re a fugging spook. I saw you walking around the camp like you own the fugging place; you and your throne-damned fugging cogboy zombies...
The Captain possibly alludes to my team of servitors. This reaction is not uncommon among the unaugmented and superstitious.
...askin’ all your stupid questions. You want to ask me a question you fug-pig? Go ahead. I’m not scared o’ you. Fug’ve I got to lose now?
The captain’s voice breaks at this moment. I watch impassively as he chokes in gasps of air between racking sobs. Tears are running freely down his cheeks, but he has no way of wiping them. A metaphor for his life, perhaps?
Captain, it is not my desire to upset, or victimise you in any way, but I have to... I am interrupted by laughter at this point. It is high and shrill with an unpleasant edge reminiscent of mania. He looks straight at me.
You weren’t here, were you? At the hive? No, you were at Khurdai. Probably screening the applicants for offworld transit; trying to catch heretics?
His face is reddening dangerously. I hear Sirroc 8 shift uncomfortably, it’s simple brain registering my disquiet. I was...
Shut the fug up you simpering little bastard. Your master would be ashamed of you. He fought and bled with us and what did you do? You let my fugging family die at Khurai!
Ahh... now I see. The camp followers. They were at Khurai.
“Khurai, khurai where the children die!” He says it in a mocking, singsong voice that soon descends into hysterical tittering. It isn’t long before he starts crying again. I have had enough.
Wha... what are you doing?
I stand up, pulling open my shirt to reveal four puckered wounds on my chest. Each is a livid purple welt like a new aureole. The skin surrounding them is fresh and raw. You’re right. I was at Khurai. He looks at me for a moment, then bows his head. Tears are dripping in a steady stream onto the tile below.
M sorry. I... I’m really...
Will you tell me about my Lord Tyran? I have to know what happened to him.
Yeah. Yeah, I can do that. You know, you’re different from him. He was a warrior. You’re more like some kind of fugging priest. Total bastard that one.
He laughs without bitterness. I have come to understand that among the Vandrayan Janissaries, being referred to as a ’total bastard’ is a sign of respect for martial prowess. I understand that you and the Inquisitor were close?
Close? I wouldn’t know about that. Big fugger liked a drink, that I know. I was with him from planetfall when this shitstorm started 5 years ago. We were at Dog 1 together where I earned my battlefield promotion. Old Kurnal drove his Salamander into an Imperial minefield. Didn’t even look at the fugging charts. I just felt sorry for his adjutant. “Bloody fool.” That’s what Tyran said. Then he said, “Brevet Captain Jural? Never drive your own Salamander. Here endeth the lesson.”
The captain laughs and I find it hard not to join in. He does a more than passable impersonation of my master. I can almost picture him saying it.He had a dark, cathartic sense of humour. I can see why Tyran took to the bleak Jural. You were with him at the 2nd push. He nods.
I was with him at the end. I would have run the gauntlet with him at the commercia if he had asked, but he never. Maybe it was because he knew my... my family were at Khurai. He ordered covering fire, then winked and took off after the Astartes with his retinue. I never saw him again.
My master always had a talent with people. He knew when to bully and when to charm. No doubt he did know about Jural’s family, but my master was still an Inquisitor. Had it served his needs, he would have spent Jural and his family without qualm if it meant running his quarry to ground. I decide to keep this to myself. What did he whisper to you?
Wha...? Whisper?
Before he set off. He whispered to you.
Bruma, right? I know he saw. Fugging Adjipurans can’t keep their mouth shut at the best of times. Always fugging smiling too. Assholes.
He whispered to you captain.
Yeah, yeah, sorry. He was trying to tell me something. Something about the Astartes. There was too much gunfire to hear him properly. I was asking him to repeat it, but he set off just then and I lost it.
About the Astartes? You mean Brother-Sergeant Castion.
Yeah, that’s the one. Hells, they only sent us one! Not that I’m complaining. Ever seen a Space Marine fighting?
No, I have not.
Good. I never want to see it again. I remember that stupid bastard Kurnal complaining when the gunship landed and Castion was the only Astartes aboard. “Just one?” fugging Space Marine was twenty feet away, easily. He didn’t just hear him, his boltgun was drawn and aimed before I even remembered that I had a holster, let alone a laspistol. Nobody else complained after that.
He crossed the Commercia first. Correct?
Yeah. He went out with his novitiates. Bruma and the pdf were covering them, but the Space Marine was like a bullet magnet. I have no idea how he survived the run, but he did.
You saw him?
Through my field glasses, yeah. His novitiates were right behind him. Tyran and his crew weren’t far behind. I could see heretics on the moving stair running for their lives, but only for a moment. We had our own problems soon enough. It’s a pity you can’t talk with the Astartes. I hear he didn’t come out of the affair well at all.
Yes. I would dearly like to know what damaged him to such an extent.
Shit, I wouldn’t! I don’t even want to know that something like that exists!
When will you be out of here captain? He frowns and shakes his head.
Shit, I don’t know. Definite demotion, or discharge this time though.
What did you do?
Pissed in Colonel Orvani’s combat helmet. Son of a bitch wasn’t using it, so I thought a real solider should.
I see. Let’s see what we can do about that demotion captain. No promises. You’re free to leave here whenever you want. I can do that much for you.
No thanks sir. I kind of like it here. Nothing much left for me outside anyhow.
I’ll speak to the Colonel anyway. Leave whenever you want captain. Emperor protect you.
And you.
I stand to leave.
Krayl.
Yes captain?
He liked you you know. He liked you because you were different from him.
Thank you.  I take my leave, quietly grateful to the ruined Jural for his comforting lie.
                                                                                *             *             *
The legend goes that Lascivar Abjuran was a low level peon, a nobody in even the small scheme of things. Apparently his wife was crushed to death in a food riot and this unknown somehow managed to foment a global insurrection against the rule of the holy throne. My master Tyran didn’t buy the story either, but no matter how hard he tried, he could find no trace of the man’s true origins.
The rebel group appeared small at the time of my master’s personal intervention. He only became involved when one of my peers, Interrogator Krusov disappeared into the bowels of Adjipur Primus never to return. I was elsewhere running down leads on the group’s supply lines when Tyran began transit with the 1st wave of Vandrayan Janissaries. Poor Krusov. Andrei was always headstrong, like our master.
Something in Kruzov’s final astropathic transmission had made my lord uncharacteristically wary, hence his involvement of the nearest available Guard regiment for what appeared to be a small domestic dispute. By the time Tyran made planetfall, the pdf were engaged in a desperate fighting retreat into the hinterlands of what is now called ‘Dog Sector’ being pursued by many of their own number turned to the great powers.  Adjipur Primus and Tertia had fallen along with the Northern refinery confabs. The Mechanicum manufactorum colony in the Northern hemisphere was under siege by an army of wastelanders, former pdf armoured companies and battalion strength infantry assets. The planetary governor was missing presumed dead.
Tyran optimised targets, but left operational command of Imperial forces under the purview of Colonel Orvani. A daring raid by lightning company broke the siege at the Mechanicum colony and added their Skitarii legions to the liberation force. Tertia was quickly retaken by a combined Vandrayan and Adjupuran pdf offensive when Brother Sergeant Castion literally decapitated the rebel leadership in yet another shock raid on the hive spire.
Thinking of the Brother Sergeant leaping fearlessly from a burning Thunderhawk gives me a vertiginous thrill of fear. To do that willingly is... inhuman. I almost fear the possibility that he will grant me an audience. I am lost in my own reverie when a harsh voice draws me back to reality.
“Interrogator!” I turn to see a young man of enormously muscular build and stern features approach from between 2 tent rows. He wears a close-fitting armoured bodyglove with the Bright Lords’ bleeding star motif impressed on one pectoral plate. I place my feet apart and take comfort in the presence of my concealed autopistol.
“Novitiate. Does your master now recognise the authority of the most Holy Ordos?” he frowns.
“You misunderstand. My lord hovers between life and death. He cannot speak with you at this time.”
“Then what is the purpose of...” he interrupts me with a curt wave of his hand.
“Equerry Helacanth would talk with you in the command post. Now.”
“ I have refused more politely worded invitations in the past, but beggars can’t be choosers. Lay on MacDuff!” He glares at me suspiciously.
“MacDuff? That is not my assigned nomenclature.”
I sigh. “Please take me to the Equerry.” He nods, apparently satisfied with a clear instruction and heads off. That settles it. Definitely inhuman.
*             *             *
The equerry is a surprisingly diminutive man. What little I can see of his face is careworn and lined with the tribulations of a hard life. I suppose looking after a Space Marine will do that to a person. Tending to an inhuman killing machine with an undeniable deathwish is bound to leave a few grey hairs in its wake. The lower half of his face is hidden behind a grilled breathing mask.
“Equerry. Thank you for your... invitation. Tell me, is it common for Sergeants to have an equerry? It was my understanding that only Captains had that privilege.” He smiles, or at least the top half of his face shifts slightly.
“You are correct Interrogator, but ours is now a small chapter. We have less than three full companies. As such, we devolve much of the responsibility to our lower ranks. My lord Castion is a Brother-Sergeant, but has won accolades commensurate if not exceeding the efforts of Captains in other chapters.” The pride with which he speaks of Castion is undeniable, but I sense a defensiveness in him. A wariness that I want to attribute to his master’s current condition.
“How is your master?”
“Near death.” He replies, flatly. “We have few apothecaries and so equerries are given considerable training in battlefield triage. The Astartes constitution is... different... from ours. He is presently engaged in a restful slumber. What you might refer to as a ‘coma’ of sorts. Interrogator, it is only fair to advise you that my master’s condition is a matter of the utmost secrecy.”
“I dislike the intimation of threat in your tone equerry. Need I remind you of my affiliations?”
“Not at all. I refer to the effect on morale for the Janisarries and native Adjiupurans. My master has become something of an icon to them. No doubt you saw the many votive offerings outside his lodgings when you visited?” I had. They were piled up like jetsam against the walls of the pavilion.
“You make a good point, but I have questions about the fate of my master. Can he be wakened?” He shakes his head and frowns, but not unkindly.
“Then can you answer them?”
“How?” he asks, spreading his hands wide and shrugging his shoulders. “I never went into battle with him. I fix and clean his armour, pour his wine and sew up the wounds that he can’t ignore. No, I can’t help you there. I’m sorry Interrogator.” He stands and brushes down his robes.
“Then why did you ask to see me?” I ask, chiding myself for the petulance I hear in my own voice.
“I want you to leave us alone. My master has done enough for the Adjipurans. More than enough. He needs to rest now. Goodnight Interrogator.” He is gone in a swish of robes leaving me alone in the dingy prefab.
 *            *             *
The walk back to my tent is long and I purposely take a more circuitous route. I have things on my mind and they require resolution before I bed down. Like me, the Emperor’s attention is elsewhere tonight. I don’t sense my assailant’s approach until the muzzle of his pistol touches the nape of my neck.
“Step into the tentrow.” Says a calm, quiet voice. Professional. I daren’t turn around, but don’t need to. I smell a faint, tantalising hint of musk that plucks the chords of memory. I have smelled it before somewhere.
“No. I’m more than happy here thank you. You’ll just have to kill me in plain sight.” No sense making it easy for them.  I hear a muffled curse in low Gothic ; an Adjipuran profanity suggesting that my new friend is – or at least appears to be – local pdf.
“What’s going on? Get that corpse lover in here now!” hisses a voice from behind and to my left.
“He. Won’t. Move.” Growls the first voice, steadily.
“Stab the bastard then, but hurry the warp up damn you!”
“Wait. Not yet.” I say more loudly than I had intended.
“What? What’ the hell’s he think we’re going to take orders from him?” laughs the 2nd voice.
“Hey, what the Throne’s going on here?” says a voice to my right. I risk a glance and see the glint of starlight on scuffed carapace armour. Black fatigues. Khaki forage cap. Vandrayan picket. My host reacts quickly. He switches his aim to the Janissary and fires. The bang echoes terribly in the otherwise quiet camp and my would-be saviour falls to the ground with a startled scream. I waste little time.
I reach out and take his pistol hand by the wrist. I yank it down hard, bringing my knee up to meet his elbow. He grunts in pain and drops the pistol. I let go, snap an elbow into his face and follow with a driving left jab into his solar-plexus. He roars and barrels into me, driving us both into the ground with his momentum. He’s big and stronger than me, but beyond basic training he doesn’t know much about fighting. He’s on top of me; close enough to smell the sweet, decaying musk of his breath. I sink my teeth into the flesh of a bulbous nose and bite down until I taste the hot, iron tang of blood. He screams and pulls back, leaving most of his nose behind. He is still straddling me where I lie.
“By dooooosseeee...” he yells, piteously; crazed with pain. His companion appears to have conquered his indecision and enters the fray, kicking me savagely in the right cheek. I see stars, then feel another jarring, smashing impact as he stamps on my forehead. I begin to black out when the sharp ‘crack-whine’ of lasfire barks to my left.
A strong hand takes my left bicep and pulls me into a sitting position.
“You ok Inquisitor?” asks the wounded picket.
“Interrogator. No, I’m concussed. Maybe some whiplash. You?”
“Shit sir, I’m shot. Pegged me in the fugging shoulder. Gets me off the picket, right?”
“The attackers?” I ask, already knowing and dreading the answer. He shakes his head.
“Sorry sir. I was in no shape to restrain them effectively and the little bastard was aiming to kick you to death. Did I do okay?”
“You did very well soldier. Very well.” I hate lying, but imagine that I would hate being killed even more.  I lie back in the mud and close my eyes while my saviour goes to raise the alarm. “I wanted one of them alive.” There is no answer. I pass out.
                                                                        *           *             *
“Krayle, get down, now!” yells Gaven Kurat. He is already on one knee, autorifle at his right shoulder and squeezing off shots at an assailant that I cannot even see. Such is his tone of authority that I am on the ground before I realise what’s happening.
The pdf administrator’s face is tragically comic. Like the refugees in the open Valkyrie, his mouth is an ‘o’ of horror and surprise. Less comic are the bloody flowers suddenly blooming in his cheek and eyebrow. He slumps against the Valkyrie like a broken doll.
One of the children from the misplaced family, more alert than his siblings takes off into the smoke. His mother screams and runs off after him. The two remaining children are crying in terror while their manacled father bellows impotently, tearing at his restraints until blood runs freely down his wrists and hands. One of his gaolers is dead, the other taking cover behind a crate; exchanging fire with our unseen assailants.
Frater Pavon leapt on my back the moment I hit the ground. The gunfire from which he shielded me has left his lifeblood soaking into my back and the sand underneath us.
Servassin stands in the middle of the makeshift landing field, roaring something in binary and firing a massive rotary cannon, the existence of which I was entirely unaware of until this moment. Treacly black fluid is running down the smooth curves of his armoured legs, but he shows no sign of discomfort. His servitors have bounded off into the smoke; targeting arrays tracking back and forth. My heart sinks as I see Belvin.
My master’s scribe was never what one might refer to as valorous. In his crazed state, he tries desperately to embark onto the Valkyrie without us. The passengers are screaming, shoving at his skinny frame. They throw him back off to take on the two boys. Belvin screams a wordless cry of rage. 
I watch in horror as he scoops up the fallen Arbites’ shotgun and fires into the open hold again and again and again.
*             *             *
The smell of counterseptic  is what wakens me. For a moment I fear it is the musky scent from Khurai and fight down a surge of panic. I am lying on a cot with gauze pressed to my forehead. I try to sit up, but the room swims and I lay my head back down very carefully. Within moments I am asleep.
“You know how to make friends and influence people.” Says a dour voice to my right. I open my eyes and look into the strong, clean-shaven face of Captain Jural.
“Captain...”
“Heard you were in here. Thought I’d see how you were doing.”
“Thank you.” I manage to sit up, very slowly. “Who were they?”
“Pair of active pdf troopers from the tertia inclusion. The rest of that intake are confined to quarters. I suppose you asked someone the wrong kind of questions.” I stare at him sharply, unable to hide my alarm. He squints and snorts at me.
“Not me you fugging idiot. Who else did you speak to?”
“Bruma and the Bright Lords equerry, Helacanth.”
“Throne!” he exclaims, whistling loudly. “Let’s hope it’s not the fugging Astartes. I mean you’re an ok guy and everything, but you’re on your own there!”
“And if it’s Bruma?” He shakes his head.
“I don’t rate pdf in general, but Bruma Shasvaari ‘s a fine soldier who hates the Lascivar as much as me. No, you’re barking up the wrong tree there.”
“Then that means...”
“Shit. Why the Throne couldn’t you have just left me in jail?”

*             *             *

My legs are jelly. My vision is fuzzed at the edges and I want to sit down, but still I press on. It isn’t far to the Bright Lords’ garish pavilion. It is a blocky, angular affair of cloud gray with sombre yellow trim. Starlight is shimmering on the void shields giving it a sickly, oily sheen.
My first warning is the absence of a guard detail.
The door flaps are down, but unshielded. I can smell unguent and incense from inside the structure as well as the underlying hint of something else. I step over the threshold and into the darkness. The pavilion seems much larger from outside, but that could be the darkness playing tricks on my already frayed senses. I feel canvas walls on either side of me and follow a narrow corridor until I reach a room much taller than the vestibule.
This one is well lit. Arcane machinery lines the square perimeter and purple smoke from two glowing braziers drifts off into the lost confines of the darkened ceiling. These features are of secondary interest when compared with the huge slab dominating the room’s centre. The giant lying supine upon its surface would top out at over two metres in height were he to stand upright. His hugely muscled body is covered in horrific burns and scars from injuries that – any one of which – would no doubt kill a normal man outright. Half of the comically large face is burnt into a swollen lump, the other is achingly beautiful, like a portrait in marble. The lower half of his body is clad in the trouser section of a bodyglove.
I step cautiously past the slab and into a smaller room behind. I believe this is what is referred to as an ‘arming chamber’. Pieces of power armour lie around the room in various states of repair. A breastplate with a huge hole in its centre catches my attention. As I walk toward it, I trip on something and go sprawling, noisily. I curse in pain as my head reels once more. When I come to my full senses, I muster the wit to draw back the sheet. What I see fills me with disgust.
The three surviving Bright Lord novitiates lie in a row, head to foot and it is the heads which capture my attention most closely. Each has been twisted to face in entirely the opposite direction. Their faces are twisted in expressions of agony and surprise. I recognise one of them as Helacanth’s intercessory from the night before. They are actually very young. I stand up and prepare to leave the tent while I still can. There is no sign of Helacanth. My combead is set to Jural’s frequency. One command and he will storm the tent with a platoon of Janissaries, (or most likely just set fire to it and start shooting until he’s sure nothing is moving).
I step back into the main chamber and stop short. The slab is now painfully, obviously vacant. 
I draw my autopistol – wishing that I had lifted something less subtle from my master’s personal effects – and step out. I’m aiming at the corridor to the vestibule when a vice-grip crushes my shin and ankle. I scream and fire my pistol wildly. Another monstrous hand reaches out and encompasses my own. It squeezes gently, almost tenderly, but firmly. I feel bones grind and turn to jelly. The pistol fragments and slices into the ruin of my palm and fingers. The pain is impossible and I have no idea why I don’t pass out. 
Blinking through tears. 
A moment later and I am sailing over the slab to land in a crumpled heap on the other side of the room.
“My master likes you Interrogator Krayle.” The voice is familiar in essence, but now insouciant and oily. The air is thick with sweet, sweet musk.
“Helacanth?” I gasp through ragged, heaving breaths. I think one of my lungs is punctured. My chest is burning. I can see him now. He shakes his head sadly.
“That’s not my name now Jhord. My name is lost. “but don’t worry. She will give me a new one, a reward for my service. ” He smiles, again he looks sad and that’s when I notice the difference in his appearance. Perhaps it is the light from the braziers, but his eyes have a yellow tinge, his skin a violet one.
“Who? Who is she?” I ask without any real conviction. If I keep him talking I may live a little longer. My arm won’t work to reach the combead at my ear.
“You’ll find out soon enough. Plans change. We’re taking you with us.”
“I’ll be missed. Jural will come looking for me!” He laughs; a hideous bark made worse by the obscuring mask.
“That pissbag doesn’t have the balls, or the authority to search a chapter’s stowage. You made a poor choice of ally Interrogator. No, we’ll be on the troopship and underway in less than a week.”
“All I wanted was to know what happened to Tyran. All this... all this ‘subterfuge?’ All this murder and kidnapping to hide the fact that your master is injured? Throne, just how fragging vain are you people?” He stares at me, blinking slowly, then shares a toothy smile with the looming Castion. They begin to laugh. Helacanth’s mirth is thin and reedy. The superhuman’s is like a boulder rolling over broken glass.
“Jhord, what exactly do you think is going on here? Who do you think we are?” asks the equerry. 
Ice takes hold of my broken guts, snuffing my brief moment of spirited resistance. 
“You... oh this is too rich! You haven’t a clue, have you?” I look from him to his master, uncertainty gnawing at me all the while.
“Interrogator Jhord Krayle, may I present to you his lordship, Lascivar Abjuran, Lord of Harmony, planter of woes and reaper of pleasure; keeper of the secret secrets!” he bows ostentatiously in the direction of the brooding giant. The Space Marine’s one good eye bores into me intently and somehow I know that Brother-Sergeant Castion of the Bright Lords chapter is not looking back. I want to turn away, but can’t. The creature’s gaze is both repellent and captivating. My blood sings for a moment. The pain of my crushed hand begins to ebb, then comes racing back in a torrent that tears a ragged scream from my throat. I spasm and feel grinding, shifting movements inside my body that should not be there. Warmth and wetness fill the inside of my trousers and despite my shame, I feel relief that I am not without sensation.
“Daemon. It... it’s a D...Daemon...” I gasp, trying desperately to look away from that hideously disfigured face.
 “Aren’t you clever!” He crows, cheeks rising above his mask in a hideous, exultant leer. “Your master realised it too. Isn’t it appropriate that you, too, should discover it too late.” For a moment I fear that my heart will stop. I try not to show my eagerness. It shouldn’t be hard to hide amongst the agony and stark terror. I practically will him to continue and for a moment – even in this dismal situation – the God-Emperor shines on me.
“What did you... d...do to him?” He squats just out of arms length and sighs, loudly; like the Arbites officer who told me of my mother’s death before I left for the schola progenium.
“Your Inquisitor and his little band charged into the throne room like a herd of rampaging Grox. By that time poor Abjuran was dead on his throne, his followers little more than stains and grisly heaps of sundered flesh. Only my master remained standing. His dull gray armour was painted in such vivid hues of gore and carnage...” the equerry’s eyes are closed. A sickly shudder wracks him until his master growls impatiently. The little man winces and continues. “You have to understand, it takes a long time to turn a Space Marine. A very long time. My lord Castion first tasted the kiss on a shrineworld fallen to chaos before even I was born...”
“G...get to f...fugging... point!” He giggles disturbingly, but carries on.
“My point is, this is bigger than you or I. Bigger than your precious Tyran and even this muckball toilet world you’re all so desperate to save. The events transpiring here were set in motion when the universe was young. Your master threatened those plans and was removed.” I laugh. It begins as a low chuckle, quickly gathering pace until I am lost in the throes of a full-on fit. I don’t know where the strength comes from, but I let it take me over.
“What’s so funny?” asks Helacanth, levelly.
“You expect me to believe... that a cleansing... on some arse-end shrine world... eighty or so years a...ago and this... this FARCE war... were... machinated? By some... intellect... s... so it could swap b...bodies?” I laugh again until something pierces me inside and blood mists my lips. “You’re... you’re both... full... of shit...” I manage, spitting blood onto the pavillion’s groundsheet. I expected anger, but Helacanth’s expression is one of pity. Why is that worse?
 “Poor Jhord. You could have left your vile master’s memory behind and taken up your office. We would have shipped out toward the fringe-worlds and our new brothers end everybody would have been happy. Instead you become another cautionary tale for initiates at the schola progenium; the boy who wouldn’t let it be. Pathetic really, at least your master put up a fight.” The giant grunts, the first sound he has made in some minutes. He rubs delicately, tenderly at his wounded face and licks pointed teeth with a probing, snake-like tongue. I feel bile rising, but am horrified to see blood come forth instead. Stars dance before my vision. My limbs feel tingly and heavy. Sweet God Emperor on Terra, I don’t want to die!
 “N... not yet. W... w... wait...” I croak through a dry tongue. Something inside is definitely ruptured, but I am too terrified to pass out.
“Of course not yet you poor sweet thing you!” croons the creature before me. “You came alone  and the tent is sound proof. We have all the time in the world!” He steps carefully on my crushed hand eliciting a shriek of pain. Somehow - once my ravaged throat has settled to a dull throb - I manage to whisper.
“Wait... moment more...” The thing that was Castion is now staring at me curiously. He begins to lumber around the slab, coming closer.
“What? What the hell do you keep saying that for?” snaps Helacanth.
“M... m’not talking... to you...” I gasp. He looks at me for a moment, then turns to his master, eyes wide in horror. To his credit, the fallen marine reacts with terrifying speed, despite his injuries. Rama has materialised from the shadows to his left and swings her monofilament blade directly at the monster’s throat. 
He steps back out of reach and returns with a left hook that could pierce a mainline battle tank. Rama has already reacted. She dances away, flipping backwards and hand-planting. She lands in a low fighting stance. The monster follows up, but she slashes out, stitching red patterns on his barrel chest. Despite his great bulk, he is too fast for her to land a decisive blow. The fallen Astartes bellows with such force and volume that I almost black out. Rama flinches, but the moment passes quickly and their deadly dance is resumes once more.
 Helacanth is screaming obscenities, waving a laspistol uncertainly between the two combatants. Nobody is paying attention to me, but that affords me little comfort. My body is like a bag of broken glass. The comm-bead is in my right ear, ostensibly very useful if I could feel my gun hand. I can’t even bring myself to look at it. Crawling is out of the question. Internal trauma will kill me long before I reach the corridor. I grit my teeth, pray silently to the Emperor and reach up to the comm-bead with my left arm; hoping all the while that Helacanth will not turn round.  I think my collar bone may be broken. The pain is intense, but not as bad as that of my ribs, or hand. I push through it and tap the comm-bead once, twice. Our prearranged signal for trouble. Ironically, it is at this moment that Helacanth turns back around. 
“Bastard...” he hisses. “You’re ruining everything!” He raises his laspistol, pointing it at my face. I shut my eyes. It takes all of my willpower not to cringe and beg.  I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die...
A bright flash leaves idiot sparks dancing across my vision, even with my eyes close. I open them in time to see smoke rising from a point on the floor just to my right. The omnipresent bouquet of musk, incense and blood is now overpowered by the cloying odour of super-heated flesh. Smoking, macerated scraps of flesh coat my boots and trousers. I notice that my left leg is pointing in the wrong direction below the knee, but all of this is a background to the Space Marine.
Rama is retreating across the tent, running out of room with each desperate manoeuvre when her opponent notices the small explosion behind him. He only turns his head back for a second, but in that moment I see something else looking out of that one good eye. The moment is lost when his skull is bisected laterally across the cheeks. It stands for a moment, blinking in surprise before slumping uncertainly to the ground like a falling tree. Someone is standing next to me. A lone guardsman toting a wheezing plasma pistol. He is shaking; staring in bewildered disbelief at Rama, the Space Marine, everything. He finally looks down at me; face contorting in disgust.
“Fug me, you look fugging terrible!” I pass out, but not before smiling.

*             *             *

Again there is the smell of countersceptic to wake me. Jural and Bruma are sitting on either side of me, watching intently. Bruma is smiling as usual. There is a brief, uncomfortable silence.
“Your gun hand’s gone.” says Bruma. Jural scowls at him, but the younger Lieutenant carries on unperturbed. “But they managed to save your left ankle and knee! You’ve got some pins in there now holding the bones together. You won’t need a crutch, or anything!” Uncomfortable silence resumes for long seconds.
“So, you really did have an invisible killer assassin. I thought that was just a joke.” says Jural.
“A joke? What kind of person would joke about something like that?” I reply, horrified.
“Yeah, fair enough. That’s how come you’re such a cocky little bastard, huh?” sneers Jural. Bruma’s eyes widen and he looks around the ward suspiciously.
“Relax, she only kills when I’m in danger. Tyran left her behind when he went into the hive.” I never understood the reason before, but the more I think on it, the clearer it becomes. My master knew what he was doing all along. Bruma looks visibly relieved, but still throws a furtive glance over his shoulder in any case.
 “If she kills physical threats, how come those gunmen got so close?” asks Bruma.
“I wanted to know why they were after me.”
“Ok. That makes sense, I suppose. If you’re fugging crazy.” interrupts Jural.  “But how’d you know about the Space Marine and more importantly, why’d you go in alone?”
“For one thing, I didn’t know that the Space Marine was Lascivar Abjuran. If I had, then I’d have called an evac and had the place blasted with a lance battery from orbit.” They smile until they realise that I do not. “As far as I knew, Helacanth only wanted to protect the secret of his master’s infirmity and the morale of Imperial forces. I could almost have forgiven that. Almost. Why did I go in alone? Do you realise the ramifications of openly accusing a Space Marine chapter of Heresy? What if you’re wrong? Best case scenario: you alienate the chapter and withdraw their service from the Imperium for centuries if not permanently. Worst case scenario: they turn out to be heretics after all. Now that I think about it, I’m not really sure how this one worked out. My head really hurts...”
They get up to leave and I call out to them just as they reach the door.
“If you want, I’ll need a retinue; seeing as I’m an Inquisitor. I’m looking for good people, but in the absence of those, I suppose a pair of proper bastards will do nicely.”
“What the hell.” Shrugs Jural. “You’re literally going to need a right-hand man. Might as well bring skippy here for when you lose the other. Try not to die before we pension out, or then we’ll really be screwed.” They leave and I stare at the ceiling feeling something close to contentment despite my shattered body and weary spirit. I look round at the dead features of the omnipresent Sirroc 8. It stares back at me sightlessly, its dead brain registering only the strongest of sensations, the clearest of commands.
“Do you remember Khurai?” I ask. “I hope that you do...” It stares back at me and I close my eyes, praying that I will not dream.
*             *             *
 I stare at the spectacle of bookish little Belvin murdering the refugees while the Frater’s crushing weight presses down on me. Then reality intrudes. I yell and scream, but am powerless to move. In a surge of effort, I manage to push poor Pavon’s heavy corpse aside and make a run for the Valkyrie. Belvin turns in time to see me bearing down on him. He screeches in terror and brings up the shotgun’s barrel. I slap it up and ram it back into his face. The force of my charge carries us both into the open door of the Valkyrie and onto the blood-slicked deck. I can hear Sirroc Servassin shouting something from behind me in his tinny, artificial voice as I strangle Belvin into unconsciousness, beating his head against the metal decking again and again and again. I turn in time to see a hellish host emerge en masse from the smoke.
Where jaws should be are dangling tentacles. Pincers replace hands. Ridges of razor sharp bone protrude skyward from cheeks and foreheads. Everywhere, like a cloying, smoking wave heralding their arrival comes the sickly sweet scent of musk. An impact in my chest hurls me backwards onto the blood-slicked floor of the Valkyrie. I stare at the ceiling for a moment, then feel a sickening lurch in my stomach. 
We have taken off. 
We have taken off and left everyone else to die.
I look round into the slack, dead features of scribe Belvin and swear that I will find a way to punish him further, knowing that it is a hollow gesture.
Over the whine of the engines, over the roar of battle I swear that I hear the plaintive wail of a mother looking for her lost child. The Valkyrie goes up and up and up...  

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