BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim, dark future there is only war.

BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Thu Jun 21, 2012 4:56 am

Here is the concluding part of Black Shields: Incognitus. Again, this can well be read as a stand-alone novella, but if you wish to begin with part 1, this is posted on the forum here: viewtopic.php?f=17&t=1901. As always, any comments and suggestions are welcome...


Part Three: Venator

= XVI =

‘YOU CAN’T JUST leave them!’ said Athena, struggling to remain calm, ‘There is no worse fate in the galaxy!’

The brass-plated door behind Captain Markius closed with a hiss of pneumatic gases, and he narrowed his eyes, scrutinising the scene on the vaulted, cathedral-like bridge of the starship Arcis Indicium. The gigantic clerestory windows that adorned the arched ceiling were sealed with blast shields to protect against the insanity-inducing miasma of warp space that seethed outside, just beyond the Gellar field. His occulobe implants adjusting to filter the low-light, Markius observed Athena across the shadowy command dais, her slender form clad in a black bodyglove, glaring at Magos Xavier Gaius. The cyborg tech-priest returned her burning stare with his glowing red artificial eyes, no emotion showing on the skeletal human half of his cranium.

‘Bah! It’s the Law of the Void,’ added Burrin Grazgsten, the stocky man standing just beside Athena. He jabbed a stubby finger at the tech-priest. ‘Any Emperor-loving craft must come to the aid of a fellow Imperial vessel in distress!’

‘Cogitation: I imagine that it is the Law of the Pirates that any salvage can be claimed by the first lucky chancer on the scene, too,’ Gaius’s metallic voice rattled from his throat-mounted synthesiser, apparently unmoved, ‘but the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Holy Priesthood of Mars, subscribes to neither law.’

Burrin harrumphed, scratching at his wire-brush whiskers.

‘I am here, Athena,’ Markius announced his presence on the bridge. ‘What is your emergency?’

‘Oh, Captain,’ Athena turned towards Markius, her oval eyes glinting violet in the gloom. Markius frowned; she never usually addressed him as captain. ‘We have a signal. There is a human ship under attack, and this fraggin’ machine won’t do anything!’

‘Memorandum: You do not presume to give orders on this bridge,’ Gaius rattled at her, the artificial augmetics of his body whirring beneath the flowing rust-red robes that hid them from view.

‘Play the transmission for me,’ said Markius, quietly but demanding. The pulse of his twin hearts accelerated. He could sense the opportunity of combat coming.

‘Actuality: Our mission is to Kar Duniash. We cannot delay here,’ said the Magos. ‘This request is irrelevant and inefficient.’

‘Nevertheless, I urge you strongly to comply,’ said Markius, a hint of a threatening growl tightening his throat. His hand subconsciously strayed towards the ancient powersword, Salvator, sheathed at his belt. Gaius paused while a few clicks echoed inside his metal cranium, and decided to acquiesce to the request. A burst of machine-code crackled from his vox-unit towards a cowled tech-priest skulking near to a cogitator unit. Soon a recording heavy with static disruption was fizzing from speakers hidden around the bridge.

‘This is the Xiphias, calling any Imperial vessel within range,’ said a man’s voice. It was a gruff timbre and Markius imagined a seasoned spacer behind it, but the undertone of desperation was clear. ‘We cannot repel them. Xenos pirate ships even now are closing to board us. We know what these scum will do, and by the Holy Throne we won’t let them take us alive!’

Markius glanced toward Athena and Burrin, the prospect of smashing some disgusting xenos pirates naturally and instantly arousing the warrior’s instinct encoded into him during his psycho-conditioning as a space marine. They looked similarly eager. The transmission continued.

‘Our coordinates are included. Please, may the almighty Emperor have mercy on our souls. If anyone is in range, we beg for your aid. We cannot repel them, but we will not let them take us alive…’

‘How close to their real-space coordinates are we?’ Markius asked Gaius, but before the tech-priest could compute his answer, Athena interjected.

‘Throne! We are right on top of them!’ she said. ‘If we dropped out of warp-space now…’

‘Actuality: We will soon pass their position,’ interrupted Gaius, gesturing with a robotic limb towards a chronometer-like device beside one of the cogitator stations on the dais. It was counting backwards, with a flickering vermilion sine-wave displayed on a lower screen. Markius surmised this showed the relative real-space position of the transmission. The counter passed 100,000 at close to 1000 clicks per second.

‘All the more reason to take action quickly, frag it!’ said Athena, her voice rising.

‘Memorandum: We are already behind scheduled arrival time at Kar Duniash,’ said Gaius. ‘If the commander of the Xiphias decided to make a voyage without Imperial protection, that is his own error.’

‘Flushing Throne!’ said Athena. ‘Have you no emotion? Do you know what xenos pirates do to prisoners?’

Markius peered at her again. His own instinct was to attack whenever a chance to strike at the hated alien arose, but he did not understand her passion, nor indeed why little Burrin was also arguing for an intervention. The counter passed 70,000.

‘Actuality: I have reams of files on the subject in the Arcis libraries,’ Gaius replied. He did not seem to think this mattered to the question at hand.

The counter passed 60,000 and Markius knew that soon they would pass by aliens killing and capturing humans loyal to the Holy God-Emperor, without firing a shot or doing a thing to intervene.

‘Magos Gaius,’ said Markius, straightening and making his decision. ‘Take us out of warp space. The Emperor’s Talons are sworn to strike at the xenos wherever we find them.’

The tech-priest turned where he stood, either rolling or gliding on some means of locomotion hidden beneath his robes, and fixed Markius with the glowing eye-orbs.

‘Negative: You are not in command of this ship.’

‘No,’ said a rich voice, and all eyes turned to see Inquisitor William Zharn stride onto the bridge. ‘I am.’

* * *

INQUISITOR ZHARN CUPPED his clean-shaven chin in one velvet-gloved hand as the transmission recording ended.

‘We should help them, right boss?’ Burrin said to his charcoal-suited employer.

‘If they are eldar pirates, they will torture any prisoners into insanity,’ added Athena.

‘Inquisitor,’ said Markius. ‘This is what my men are trained for: This is our purpose!’

Zharn nodded to the three of them, but waved a hand to discourage any further exhortations. He didn’t reply to Markius. Instead he said to Magos Gaius, ‘Are we clear of Callasia?’

‘It’s fraggin’ light years away,’ interrupted Athena. ‘Thousands of light years!’

‘That is not what I meant,’ Zharn cut her off, still waiting for an answer from Gaius. The tech-priest hesitated some moments before answering.

‘Cogitation: It would appear Navigator Ludon’s maneuvers have been successful,’ said Gaius. ‘On current indicators, there is negligible probability of tracking.’

‘Please, Inquisitor, there is not much time to act,’ said Markius. ‘I need to scramble my units if we are going to catch them!’

‘Captain Markius,’ Zharn finally turned to face him. ‘Need I remind you that unforeseen consequences may be caused if we rush in without proper consideration?’

‘No, Inquisitor. You do not,’ Markius gritted his teeth. The reminder of his disobeying orders on Callasia 9 – and the repercussions – had been made.

‘Throne! Gaius has just confirmed we are clear,’ Athena could not seem to help interrupting. ‘What more do you want?’

Zharn regarded both Markius and Athena with hooded eyes.

‘I should have known putting you two together would cause me problems,’ he muttered.

Markius realised with a little confusion that Athena must have called him to the bridge without first consulting the inquisitor. Before he could think further on this, Markius caught a whiff of the cloying stink he had come to associate with the warp and noticed Aul Vespasius, the chief astropath aboard the Arcis Indicium, shuffling into view from one of the shadowed sub-decks that led away from the main dais. The skeletal psyker’s face was not visible beneath the hood of his deep green robes, but suddenly Markius could hear Aul’s rasping voice in his head.

+This is an opportunity, William. There are those out there in the galaxy that rumour you have turned your back on your vows. What better chance to come out of Special Condition and prove them wrong?+

Markius caught his breath, surprised at the sudden intrusion of the ancient mystic’s powerful mind into his head. The telepathic message had been for Zharn, presumably confidential. But he had overheard it. Had Aul intended that? Markius looked at Zharn. Did the inquisitor know that he had heard? If so, he showed no sign of it, facing the astropath. The lines around the debonair streaks of white hair at the inquisitor’s temple deepened, and Markius guessed he was concentrating on replying to the astropath’s provocation.

Markius could not overhear whatever Zharn was thinking back to the psyker, and with a glance of raised eyebrows, Athena silently told him she had no idea what was going on. The damp stench returned an instant later, though, and Markius braced his mind for another assault.

+If we are delayed to Kar Duniash, what better reason to give them than pursuing your Blessed Work? This will show the Ordo Spartus you are not running and hiding! It would banish many doubts.+

Markius remained very quiet and completely still as the inquisitor seemed to take an age to think matters over. The counter was passing 20,000 now. Finally, Zharn turned back to face Athena, Burrin and Markius.

‘Alright, Xavier,’ he said aloud. ‘Prepare the ship for immediate translation to real-space.’

The Magos did not argue, deeming it inefficient, but immediately began speaking into a brass speaking cup that ended a snaking tube of interlinking steel scales. Markius knew this led directly to the cocoon-like pod from which Navigator Ludon guided the Arcis through the tumultuous storms of warp space. Zharn addressed Markius.

‘Captain,’ he said. ‘Prepare your men for battle.’

* * *

‘GELLAR FIELD DOWN, blast doors open: Launch!’ Burrin announced in his gravelly voice.

In the cockpit, riding shotgun beside the squat pilot, Captain Markius braced against his harness as the shadowhawk gunship roared out from the launch hangar of the Arcis Indicium. The oily pitch of the void stretched away in all directions, a billion frozen particles of ectoplasmic matter sucked into real-space along with the Arcis’s translation glittering like a cloud of dispersing salt crystals around them. The cloud cleared and Markius spied the distant Xiphias, wallowing in deep space like a distressed Prismish hornwhale, her rear engines sputtering and kicking out plasma fire as she tried to escape. The dagger-like silhouette of the xenos craft hovered above her like a bird of prey claiming its catch, blacker even than the void.

‘Keep the Xiphias between us and the xenos ship as we approach. Even cloaked, we don’t want them to know we are coming,’ Markius said. Burrin grunted an acknowledgement, his stubby fingers dancing over the bewildering switches, dials and levers of the gunship controls, and the shadowhawk dropped its trajectory as it arrowed through space towards the target. The xenos vessel slid out of sight behind the freighter. Just before it did so, Markius noticed the snaking black boarding tubes that chained the Xiphias to the xenos ship, a twisted parody of umbilical cords.

The void was illuminated by blinding tracers of fire: The mighty cannons of the Arcis were firing. The trains of eye-searing light screamed beyond the blunt nose of the Xiphias; leading shots intended to seize the attention of the aliens. Markius then saw a swarm of silver darts racing on a different trajectory towards the target and knew the servitor-piloted Mechanicus ships would also offer his attack diversionary protection, spewing out electro-magnetic interference to thwart the xenos scanners, and engaging any fighters the aliens had stalking nearby. Winged silhouettes swooped amongst the spoiler fleet, collisions and tracers of missiles almost too dark to see ending with sudden bright flowers of explosions.

The shadowhawk bucked and lurched as near-space became filled with waves of energised particles and spinning debris from the explosions. Markius felt his adrenalin surging. Ship-to-ship space combat: This was what he had once heard the old Storm Eagle veterans laud as the pinnacle of glorious and decisive warfare; some even favouring it over the low-altitude grav-wing insertion that was the preferred combat doctrine of his former chapter. He scanned the bulbous freighter, his enhanced eyes focused on distant details.

‘There,’ Burrin growled, pointing. ‘Starboard dock ‘bout half way along the hull, but ya’ll need to blast in.’

‘Good eye, Burrin,’ said Markius, surprised. ‘Amidships is perfect.’

Markius recalled the Codex Astartes, the blessed tome penned thousands of years ago by the mighty Roboute Guilliman – Primarch and greatest of the Ultramarines, the father chapter to the Storm Eagles. The Codex dictated that the two key locations in any mission to secure control of a spacecraft were always the bridge and the engine chambers. Amidships would place them equidistant and hopefully away from any enemy fighters while they entered, assuming the xenos followed similar logic.

Markius clicked his harness and struggled out of his seat. The gunship was built to bear marines, but Burrin had personalised the pilot-side seat for his shorter build, as well as numerous additional modifications. Markius watched the stocky man deftly handling what seemed like a hundred controls at once and shook his head with admiration. He said, ‘I’ll prepare my men. Keep us briefed on ETA.’

Burrin grunted as Markius left the cockpit. He passed through the medical bay, and then swung through the pneumatic, brass-plated door into the passenger deck. The marines all looked up as he entered, the door wheezing shut behind him. Like Markius, they were clad in carapace-reinforced pressure suits, painted matt-black: Not as good as full power armour, but protection enough against the ever-hungry void. Full-face transpariflex visors were still open on their helmets. Weapons were clutched ready, activation rites whispered to the machine-spirits.

‘All Talons, listen to me,’ he said. ‘This is our first boarding mission, but we all know the Codex, chapter and verse.’

‘And we’ve practiced it a hundred times through the Arcis, eh?’ added Sergeant Rasmus, grinning and clutching his power-axe eagerly. The marines all nodded.

‘We don’t have plans of the Xiphias,’ said Markius, ‘but we can expect it follows standard Imperium freighter constructs. Lambda squad, you will stay close to the ‘hawk and secure the perimeter.’

Lieutenant Tobias nodded, running a gauntleted hand through his finger-length sandy hair one last time before the need to seal his helmet. His squad had exchanged their usual sniper rifles for Godwyns – regular 0.75-calibre Godwyn-pattern bolt guns. The long range of their usual high-powered sniper rifles was less use in the confines of a starship. Brother Patreus, however, retained his One-oh; the 1.0-calibre heavy bolter, in case the terrible firepower of the heavy weapon would be needed. One side of his face was still horribly scarred from the plasma explosion on Callasia 9, but his skill with the weapon was undiminished. Markius turned to Brother Lars of Omega squad and crouched down before his grav-seat.

Lars had needed many augmetics after Callasia: both his legs, hips, half of his chest, including a lung, and one full arm (the other below the elbow), were now bionic replacements. Even half of his skull was now a dull metal plate. Markius winced inside to see Lars like this. He was a member of Omega squad, of whom Markius had once been sergeant. Lars had been like a brother to him during initiation. Markius hoped he hadn’t shown his emotion on his face as he leaned close to whisper.

‘Brother Lars, I want you to stay with Lambda squad, with Lieutenant Tobias.’

‘What?’ Lars hissed back, leaning forward, his augmetic hips whirring, ‘Captain, I don’t want…’

‘Listen,’ Markius cut him off. The other marines were deliberately not looking. ‘Omega squad are going to need to move fast once we get inside.’

‘I’ll keep up!’ said Lars, and Markius heard the pain in his voice, ‘You can count on me! Rasmus has a bionic leg…’

‘What if you don’t? What if it costs one of us our life?’ said Markius. He didn’t want to point out that Lars had also lost his hips, making him much slower even than Rasmus.

‘So why not just finish me and put me in a sarcophagus?’ Lars threw his hands up; metal hands at the ends of metal arms. ‘Captain: I’m an assault marine! Always have been…’

‘I know,’ said Markius, ‘Just this time, stick with the Lieutenant. He may need you if it comes to close-combat near the ‘hawk.’

‘Not much chance of that with Tobias’s record,’ Lars snapped. Markius glared at him, and perhaps realising what he had just said, Lars gave no further argument, sighing as he sealed his visor. Markius sensed an uncomfortable silence had just spread through the chamber, despite the scream of the engines and the crump-crump-crump of explosions in near-space. He turned to Sergeant Andreus.

‘Zeta squad, find your way to the stern and secure the engine rooms; we may need to either shut down the plasma drives or, if it comes to it…’

He didn’t finish the thought. He didn’t need to. Sending the engines into overload was a last resort that none of them expected to need. Andreus beamed, a boyish grin spreading above his bristly beard of shocking albino hair, and slammed his fist into his armoured chest-plate. He said, ‘Invictus, Captain!’

‘Omega squad, with me: We will take the bridge,’ said Markius. Sergeant Rasmus gave him a crooked grin. Markius realised that without Brother Lars, Omega was down to three: Olaf, Borias and Sergeant Rasmus. Four including me, Markius reminded himself.

‘And what about Epsilon squad?’ said Sergeant Goran, his lip curling. The other marines tensed, by now used to the arguments over who would be assigned the objective with most glory.

Markius met Goran’s green eyes, noticing how the jet-black hair he had once worn at shoulder length back on their homeworld was re-growing into a fuzzy stubble, except where the old bio-acid scars left white claw-marks across his scalp and angular face. Markius smiled. All the marines remained silent, and Markius knew they prayed that there would not be another confrontation between them. Markius glanced at Sergeant Rasmus, his old friend with the crooked nose broken too many times in close combat practice rites. Even Rasmus looked worried.

‘Coming in!’ Burrin’s voice crunched over the vox. ‘Prepare to disembark!’

Markius said to Goran, ‘Epsilon squad and Omega squad will strike the bridge.’

He paused and enjoyed the surprise on Goran’s face.

‘We’ll split up after entry and take different trunk tunnels,’ Markius said.

‘And if the bridge is under the control of the xenos, who storms it?’ said Goran, still a tone of suspicion in his voice.

‘Whoever gets there first, Sergeant,’ replied Markius. Goran overcame his surprise and flashed him a wolfish grin before the rest of the marines closed and sealed the visors on their helmets. There was a meaningful look between Markius and Goran: Their rivalry was still not resolved, but after Callasia 9, Markius was learning how to utilise it for their benefit. So much had changed after Callasia.

‘The hunt is on,’ he spoke through the vox-link built into his helmet.

‘Invictus,’ Goran voxed back.

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Mon Jun 25, 2012 9:20 am

= XVII =

‘GRENADES!’ MARKIUS ORDERED through his helmet-vox as the las-cutters finished their incisions and a marine-sized discus of outer hull fell back into the interior of the Xiphias. The marines waited, poised to pounce, boots mag-locked to the outside of the freighter craft. The clang of the falling metal was lost in the vacuum of space, but the crumps of the detonating frag grenades that Omega squad tossed after it thumped distantly through Markius’s helmet audio pick-ups.

Markius drew Salvator, and the machine spirits within the ancient powersword ignited into life, wreathing its broad blade in a crackling corona of energy. He charged through the breach, Rasmus and Omega squad right behind him.

In the darkness Markius swept his boltpistol left and right, the beam of its luminator sights added to Salvator’s electric aura revealing metal paneled tunnels to his enhanced eyes. Smoke from the grenades dispersed, instantly sucked back out into the void. More beams knifed into the darkness as marines piled in through the breach and spread out. Markius could hear his breathing with exaggerated loudness inside the helmet of the void-suit, but little else.

‘Talon-Actual to all Talon call-signs,’ voxed Markius, ‘No sign of xenos yet. Outer hull already decompressed. Assault pattern primus unchanged. Split up and find your way in deeper!’

A round of acknowledgements came over the vox as Rasmus led Omega squad to the left, in the direction of the bridge. Markius noticed that Rasmus now favoured his left, good leg. He leaned into the steps with his bionic leg one shoulder forwards, barging rather than walking. Glancing back to confirm Sergeant Goran and Epsilon squad were taking a different route, Markius also spotted the black-armoured forms of Andreus’s Zeta squad now entering through the breach behind them.

Several air-lock transitions later and Markius caught the echoing booms of distant weapons’ discharge through his helmet pick-ups, now tuned to maximum amplification. He checked his wrist-mounted auspex and noted the green runes that represented near-normal atmospheric levels. He decided to deactivate Salvator, returning it to its holster, now fixed snugly next to his rebreather backpack for ease of movement. Then he opened his helmet visor and inhaled the familiar stale, metallic air of a starship. The other marines did likewise. Distantly, reverberating through the tunnels, weapons cracked.

‘The crew are still fighting, eh?’ said Rasmus.

‘Oho! So let’s join in before we’re too late,’ said Borias, guarding the squad’s rear.

The next airlock opening, Markius caught his first sight of the crew, and his hearts juddered.

‘Throne!’ said Rasmus as the marines dashed to the bodies.

Something had… sucked the humans dry, from the inside out judging from their state. Pools of blood slicked the greasy deck plates, oily black in the darkness, and the shriveled corpses were twisted and arched – as if the final moments of the stricken humans had been in utter agony. Their ship-issue lasguns were still clutched in clawing hands. Eyes had burst in their heads, leaving gory wet holes in their sockets.

Markius immediately resealed his helmet visor and the marines of Omega squad followed without needing the order. Markius tasted the fraction of ship air he had sealed into his helmet again, this time more carefully tensing the neuroglottis implant at the back of his throat. He couldn’t identify any poison through the recycled tang, but couldn’t be sure. He looked at his wrist-mounted auspex, and while he couldn’t understand the archaic data-text, the green all-clear runes were still lit.

‘Talon-Actual to Caduceus,’ he voxed to Apothecary Sören, who was with Lambda squad back at the entry point, ‘can you see this atmosphere reading?’

‘Affirmative, Actual,’ Sören voxed back, monitoring the equipment that linked him to all of the marines’ life-support signals, ‘It’s not gas, Actual.’

Markius kept his helmet sealed just in case. He knelt alongside Rasmus as the big man stared at the bodies.

‘Like something squeezed their blood out, eh?’ said Rasmus, his breathing heavy through the helmet vox-grate. ‘What kind of weapon does that?’

‘A xenos weapon,’ Markius said, standing again, ‘And we’re losing time.’

‘Talon-Actual to Talon-Lambda,’ Markius voxed. ‘Status?’

‘Lambda to Actual: Breach and perimeter secure,’ replied Lieutenant Tobias. ‘No contact here. Caduceus is monitoring ship’s atmos…’

‘Clear, clear!’ Sergeant Andreus suddenly shouted into the vox, using the signal to clear the channel for an emergency transmission. ‘Zeta to Actual; we have contact stern-ward. Receiving fire! Engaging!’

‘Invictus, Zeta,’ a grin of satisfaction twisted Markius’s features. ‘Give them the Emperor’s wrath!’

The vox crackled with snatches of marine voices and explosions of boltguns.

‘Brother Jorgen! To your left!’ came Andreus’s shout over the vox. ‘Olson, watch that door…’

There was a distinctive but unfamiliar snap-fizz in the snatches of background hiss. Markius tensed, frustrated at not being at the heart of the action.

‘Actual to Zeta,’ Markius voxed, ‘Report. Do you need back up?’

‘Zeta here…’ Andreus replied. There was a pause and several more bolt shells exploded in the background. ‘Sorry, Actual: Confirmed xenos. Err, roughly humanoid, but tall, and… sticky.’

‘Sticky?’ Rasmus exchanged a look with Markius.

‘Like insects – I think it’s the armour. Red, but dark. Throne, they move fast! Jorgen! Watch your left!’

‘Actual to Zeta: How many?’ said Markius.

‘Can’t see properly, Actual… too quick. Two dozen? Heavy enemy fire… I think we have them pinned. Good shot Brother Krieger!’

‘Epsilon to Actual,’ it was Goran’s sour voice, ‘In sight of bridge: Contact. Receiving fire.’

‘All Talons: Watch yourselves, xenos weapons look nasty if they hit,’ said Markius, glancing again at the twisted corpse.

He waved to Omega squad and they set off, now at a run, Rasmus’s bionic leg clomping on the metal deck. The doorway at the tunnel’s end led into the main cargo hold.

They burst through the opening pneumatic door into the gloom of a cavernous chamber, assault weapons ready, and yet another sight confronted Markius: One that he knew he would never forget. More of the desiccated crewmen lay scattered between corrugated transport containers as big as thunderhawk gunships and stacked dozens high. The hold was so vast the stacks of containers faded out of sight into the darkness.

But it was the thing hovering above the nearest human corpse that took Markius’s breath away.

A ghost-like apparition hunched over the withered corpse; a spiky spectre with a shriveled white face contorted into a rictus grin. Its body was indeed insect-like, waspishly skinny at the waist, but with flaring skirts of heavy black material. Arms, too many arms, splayed about the freak, multi-jointed and not all ending in hands. The grimacing maw of its hairless, ovoid head seemed to be inhaling something, a black serpentine tongue licking the thin edges of its gaping mouth where its lips should have been. Markius was stunned for a moment as he thought his occulobe-enhanced eyes spotted the remnants of a faint cloud of something… some kind of miasma… retreating from the victim and into the alien’s maw. Its jaws distended like those of a serpent that swallows its prey whole.

The moment passed and the spectral alien flicked its glittering eyes to witness Markius. It croaked in a startling, hacking voice, needle-sharp teeth flashing in its black maw. It snapped upright, its curved spine cracking like whipcord. Then Markius spied numerous protrusions like antlers sprouting from its shoulders to frame its hideous visage.

Markius had witnessed terrible things before: The mutated wretches on Callasia 9, the half-human abominations that worshipped the genestealers, bodies ripped apart and tortured. He was inured to mortal human emotions like fear or shock by years of psycho-conditioning. But a bone-chilling scream cut through all that training to clamp Markius’s spine and twist his nerves. It was not vocal, rather it was like some sort of psychic death-scream, echoing inside his skull, and Markius knew it was coming from the human lying below the horrific alien. The scream along with the twisted, sinewy thing with its freakish visage that faced him now conjured an icy chill deep down in Markius’s marrow, like a nightmare made real. The sensation of pure evil gripped him for a shocking moment.

Then movements around the cargo hold broke the spell.

Things lurched out of the shadows; big, muscled things, twice the height of the marines. Boltpistols barked in response, the marines of Omega squad overcoming their shock. Tongues of flame from the pistol barrels lit the darkness in flashes and Markius saw in the flickering strobe-light that their monstrous attackers were some of kind of constructs, all muscle fibres and osseous ridges stitched together. Shrunken heads were hidden behind blank iron masks that had been hammered into their skulls. The constructed beasts roared and charged in reply to the ghost-thing’s commands.

Pallid flesh ruptured where the marines’ explosive bolts struck the monsters at close range, grievous wounds tearing open. But an inhuman resilience to pain and sheer inertia carried the monsters onwards without pause. They charged like mammoths on the warpath, lumbering straight for the marines.

Markius ducked a swinging branch-thick limb, noticing as it sliced past that it did not end in a hand, or even a claw. A crude but monomolecular-sharp cleaver as wide as his armoured chest had been welded into the flesh. The thing before him was unbalanced, the vast bulk of its mass packed into its shoulders and upper torso. Markius thrust back with Salvator, the powersword just out of reach of its featureless mask.

With his backswing, Markius tore his powersword through the belly of the construct, rapider than the monster’s own clumsy strikes. Black blood dribbled from the deep wound, but not the expected organs and gore. It seemed the grotesque thing was made entirely of steroid-grown muscle and gristle. Nor did it slow down, moaning as it sought to land one of its bone-breaking blows, reacting wildly as if its metabolism was pumped full of adrenalin. What kind of chemicals power through its blood? Markius wondered.

He stepped back as the grotesque advanced, swinging wildly. Around him, the marines fought. The xenos monsters attacked like blind animals, heedless of danger, sensing rather than seeing their enemies and thrashing with mighty but unskilled limbs. Whatever these monsters were, Markius decided, they were not the true foe. These were like the savage attack dogs he had seen used by the southern tribes of Prism; living weapons unleashed. Dodging blows that twisted the deck panels where they landed with thunderous clangs, Markius searched beyond the grotesque for the ghost-thing he had first seen in the hold.

It disappeared around the corner of a stack of transporter containers, gliding imperiously a metre above the deck plates, shadows swathing it like cloaks. Markius grimaced. It’s getting away!

The grotesque barreled at him again, heavy footsteps denting the metal deck plates. Markius side-stepped, swaying away from the scything blow of its cleaver-arm. When it passed, Markius spotted the apparatus embedded into the flesh of its back. A rack of arcane xenos machinery rattled and spewed smoke, canisters shuddering as pistons pumped something into the cardiovascular system of the constructed creature.

Markius took his chance, and Salvator dived. The powersword scorched through the machinery in a shower of sparks and grinding metal. Foul-smelling ichor and bilious chemicals spurted from ruptured canisters. The monster moaned, spinning, disorientated, before finally slumping into a pile of pallid, quivering flesh.

‘Brother Borias, get behind it!’ Markius called, glancing to his side. Borias and Olaf took turns to lunge at a whirling grotesque before leaping away from unstoppable blows from its swinging, bladed arms.

Borias nodded understanding as Olaf thrust his gladius into its belly. The grotesque moaned but shrugged off the blow as if it were no more than an insect sting, its hyperactive bio-systems maintaining its berserk rage. Borias spotted the machinery welded into the monster’s spine and attacked. A bolt round roared point-blank from his assault pistol and smashed apart the apparatus, and then the second grotesque toppled.

Beyond Borias and Olaf, Sergeant Rasmus stood toe-to-toe with the last of the grotesques, bellowing and exchanging blows. Rasmus stood rooted to his position, pinioning around his bionic-leg as solid as a giant blackwood tree, refusing to retreat even before the might of the monster. Parts of the grotesque lay strewn around the pair, lopped off by Rasmus’s heavy power-axe.

The three marines dashed to aid Rasmus and a round of pistol bolts shattered the machinery that powered the berserk rage of the monster.

‘What the Throne are they?’ growled Rasmus, stamping his bionic leg down on the iron-encased head of the collapsed grotesque to make sure.

‘Weapons,’ said Markius, ‘Living, xenos weapons. And the handler is escaping. Come on!’

As the marines loped along the corridors of the cargo hold, searching the stacks of containers for any sign of the ghost-thing, Markius voxed his squads.

‘Actual to Zeta; status?’

‘Zeta to Actual,’ said Andreus. ‘Brother Olson hit but standing. Enemy seem to be pulling out!’

‘Epsilon to Actual,’ came Goran’s voice on the vox, ‘Affirmative on that: They have given up the bridge, too. Pursuing.’

Markius remembered the boarding tubes that chained the Xiphias to the pirate ship.

‘Invictus. They are trying to escape,’ Markius voxed, then addressed Omega squad, ‘Go right: Find a way to the upper level!’

* * *

‘CADUCEUS TO EPSILON,’ Apothecary Sören’s solemn voice spoke on the company channel as Markius clambered out from the vertical ladder-tube onto a new deck, ‘What is Brother Ballach’s status?’

Markius scanned the dim tunnels leading away in all directions from the exit point of the ladder. The distant booms of exploding bolter rounds echoed along the metal walls, along with that snap-fizz he had heard through the vox earlier. Borias, Olaf and Rasmus emerged behind their captain, assault pistols scanning the tunnels for prey. They waited for Markius’s order. He paused, listening for a response from Epsilon squad on the company channel.

‘I’m fine,’ Brother Ballach of Goran’s team growled into the vox, ‘Just some shrapnel in the gut.’

Sören tried to vox something, clearly seeing something on his monitoring equipment, but the words were drowned by static as too many marines tried to broadcast at once on the channel.

From the tunnel to Markius’s right, shadows flitted.

‘Watch out, Borias!’ Markius shouted, and the marine ducked as a hail of fire crashed into the wall above his head. Markius and Rasmus returned fire, their boltpistols jerking in their hands. The shocking roar of mass-reactive ammunition detonating in the confined space echoed back to them a moment later.

Peering down the tunnel, Markius spotted more of the xenos. Tall and spindly, like humanoid insects encased in segmented armour the colour of congealed blood and festooned with lethal blades, the aliens poured streams of projectiles at the marines from rapier-like rifles. The alien weapons cracked as they fired, followed by the fizzing of the ordnance, and Markius could now identify the distinctive sound. The marines hugged the sides of the tunnel, pumping bolt rounds right back at them.

The streams of enemy projectiles were void-black, invisible in the darkness, but around Markius and his men impacts from the weapons shattered against the walls, chewing through the metal or showering them with splinters of what looked like black crystals.

In a moment the aliens had moved on, disappearing down another tunnel entrance in the maze of passages on the upper level. They moved with a startling grace in their long, brittle limbs, like scuttling spiders. Markius knew they must be heading back towards the boarding tubes, retreating to their own craft.

‘They didn’t expect the wrath of the Talons, eh?’ Rasmus chuckled.

Markius did not share his old friend’s humour. The shock of their freakish appearance had passed now, suppressed by the adrenalin of combat. But the razor-thin aliens were inhumanly quick, and they had moved with a military precision, calmly exchanging fire with even the Emperor’s Adeptus Astartes. Either these things were foolhardy or supremely confident in their ability. Their ammunition, however, seemed laughably ineffective – making the sight of the dead human crewmen a deeper mystery to Markius.

‘Zeta to Actual,’ the vox crackled before Markius could reply to Rasmus, ‘I think we see you.’

Through curling wisps of cordite smoke Markius spotted the outlines of approaching marines along the dark tunnel, beyond the turning the aliens had escaped down, advancing from the direction of the engine rooms.

‘Invictus, Zeta,’ Markius voxed and held up a fist to signal Andreus and his men. ‘Keep on them!’

Andreus and Zeta squad advanced, taking the turning, and immediately a fresh firefight erupted.

‘Epsilon to Actual,’ voxed Goran, ‘More coming your way!’

The booms of bolters and crack of xenos rifles now echoed from all directions. Markius gestured to Rasmus and Olaf, using hand signals to order them to take point and advance down a tunnel parallel to the one Zeta squad were attacking.

Rasmus stomped along, his bionic leg thudding with each step, but Olaf was quicker, scampering ahead to another closed air-lock. Following ten metres behind, Markius and Borias were forced to halt as more enemy fire spat out from a side tunnel they were passing. The freakish aliens were leaping out of shadows everywhere.

Markius and Borias unleashed return fire, and the aliens slipped away, melting back into the shadows before the vengeful explosions of the bolt rounds could find them. Markius noticed Rasmus and Olaf had got too far ahead of them.

‘Olaf, wait!’ Markius shouted, but it was too late. Brother Olaf had activated the air-lock and it groaned aside with a hiss of gases.

Stepping out of the grey cloud, one of the xenos surged at Brother Olaf. This one had a tall, ornate helm with a pair of curling bronze horns, and bore a six-foot long, square-ended broadsword. Olaf slashed with his combat blade, but the xenos slipped aside with a sinewy grace. The huge sword flashed in the half-light, spinning fast in the alien’s two-handed grip.

‘Olaf!’ Rasmus roared, stomping as fast as he could to catch up.

Then, as time seemed to slow down, the alien pounced. With a sweeping diagonal strike from the crackling blade, executed with a martial precision even Markius had to respect, the alien carved the marine in half.

Bisected from shoulder to groin, the two halves of Brother Olaf slithered to the ground, the edges of the wounds still glowing with molten heat. The xenos straightened to its full height, its perfect balance never once disturbed during the maneuver, and glowing eye-slots in the horned helm coldly regarded the marines.

‘Rasmus, down!’ Markius shouted. The big man barely obeyed the order in time, diving to the deck as Borias and Markius opened up on full auto with their boltpistols. The alien span away as if dancing, disappearing into the air-lock entrance as the blasts exploded all around.

Markius and Borias caught up with Rasmus and they approached the air-lock entrance, replacing spent magazines in their assault weapons.

‘Throne!’ Rasmus growled, kneeling next to the two halves of the fallen marine, ‘Brother Olaf, he’s… dead.’

Markius knew the shock of what he had just witnessed would catch up with him in time. Olaf had been a brother to them all, but not just that. The salt-and-pepper haired marine had always been a quiet but dependable warrior, a solid tower of reliability. Markius could not quite believe that he had gone, just like that, with a single strike, even though he had witnessed it with his own eyes.

‘Grenades,’ Markius ordered, shoving the emotion aside as he focused on the mission. They would have to grieve for Olaf later. The fragmentation charges exploded moments after the marines lobbed them through the cloud of gas obscuring the air-lock, and Omega squad charged in after them, boltpistols blazing.

They entered what Markius quickly surmised must have been the crew’s mess deck; a long chamber strewn with the blasted debris of metal benches and chairs, a canteen bar at one end. More human corpses littered the ground.

Markius peered through the clouds of smoke from bolt and grenade explosions and spotted the gore-red forms of insectoid xenos steadily retreating.

‘Caduceus to Actual,’ came Apothecary Sören’s urgent vox, ‘Check all life-sign monitors! Brothers Olson and Ballach are…’

‘Clear, clear! Not now, Caduceus,’ Markius cut him off, ‘Mission at critical point!’

The arched ceiling of the mess room was inlaid with viewing windows, the star-studded void stretching beyond. But at the far end the boarding tube from the xenos ship had punched through the armourcrys like a massive dagger, its end opened up with triangular petals like some monstrous mechanical flower. Pouring streams of jet black splinters from their rifles, the aliens backed away towards the portal, gracefully swaying and dodging the blasts from the marines.

Sergeant Goran and Epsilon squad entered from a doorway to the left, while Zeta squad emerged from the right. Markius grinned: They had the filthy xenos corralled into a corner now.

The intensity of the alien fire increased and Markius jerked back behind an upturned, twisted table as black shards skittered across his transpariflex visor. One of the shards stuck fast, cracking his visor and halting an inch from his face. For a moment Markius peered at the jagged crystalline sliver. It oozed viscous oil, but hardly seemed deadly. He flipped up the cracked visor.

Markius peeped over the table, squeezing off several shots from his assault pistol. With a jolt he recognised the white-faced freak from the hold. Its many-armed silhouette stood beneath the opened mouth of the boarding tube before shooting up into it, sucked in by some powerful gravity beam.

‘They are getting away!’ Markius growled.

The marines steadily advanced, moving from cover to cover, executing disciplined fire-and-move procedure. The aliens held their ground now, attempting to stave off the pursuing Adeptus Astartes with blistering streams from their rifles.

‘There!’ Sergeant Goran called across to Markius from behind a pile of mangled chairs, ‘The leader: It was at the bridge.’

Markius followed his gesture and saw within the defensive cordon of red-armoured xenos a different group of aliens. These were black-armoured, with the same horned helms and giant swords as the one that had killed Brother Olaf. And in their midst Markius spotted the one: Taller even than the black-armoured killers, it sported a plumed helm, sculpted into the likeness of a leering daemon. It posed, almost calm, regarding the advancing marines with detached interest, a chilling contrast to the screaming face-sculpture of its mask. Its outline was obscured by some shadowy miasma, like a mist but more liquid, so black it seemed to absorb the light around it.

Goran opened fire and Markius added his own shots, aiming directly for the xenos leader. But the bolts flared away from it, as if diverted by an unseen hand at the last moment. Markius cursed as his boltpistol clicked empty again, and reached for a new magazine. What xenos sorcery could deflect bolts like that?

The xenos leader whirled, a long cloak swirling from within the shadow-field, and the change in pose told Markius this thing was not so cool and calm afterall; it looked incandescently angry now.

‘Don’t let it get away!’ Markius yelled, the burning urge to avenge Brother Olaf filling his gut. The marines responded, leaping out of cover and charging, bolt-weapons blazing.

But in a moment the xenos leader was gone, sucked up the boarding tube back towards its own spacecraft. It was followed by the black-armoured bodyguards, each disappearing in a moment. Markius snarled, unleashing his fury with each bolt blast, smashing aside benches and chairs to get at them.

The last aliens, the red-armoured ones, fought resolutely, standing and vomiting concentrated streams of black splinters as their comrades escaped one by one up into the boarding tube aperture. But the explosive power of the Astartes bolt weapons soon blew the last defenders apart. All three marine squads reached the aperture of the boarding tube at the same time. Markius looked up into the hissing hole, hesitating to step directly beneath it.

The petals of the tube irised closed into a neat conical point. Then with a tortuous groan of twisting metal, it was wrenched out of the Xiphias’s hull.

The marines were beset by a howling storm as the boarding tube left a gaping wound in the armourcrys hull. Detritus and dead bodies streaked past them, sucked towards the voracious vacuum of the void.

‘Throne damn you!’ Markius yelled at the departing boarding tube, watching it retract into the xenos spaceship above. He was buffeted by flying benches and food trays, spinning out of the wound into space. Markius remembered with a grunt that his void-suit visor had been cracked. He could not linger here. Mag-locking their boots, the marines struggled out of the canteen and sealed the air-locks.

In the dim quiet of the tunnel, Markius struggled to maintain his anger. Beside him, Rasmus roared, ‘The bastards killed Olaf! They got away!’

The rage of the big man reminded Markius that he was captain and had to take control of his own emotions. Markius said, ‘They’ve gone. Mission is complete. The ship is secure.’ His tone was flat, and he took deep breaths as his adrenalin rush subsided. He looked at Goran and said, ‘Any crew survivors?’

‘On the bridge,’ Goran said between deep breaths, also fighting to control his anger, ‘captain and command crew.’

Markius noticed that his vox-bead had been knocked loose during the fighting and inserted it back into his ear. Immediately he heard Apothecary’s Sören voice, ‘…to Actual! Brothers Ballach and Olson…’

With a growl he remembered Sören’s untimely concerns from before and grunted, ‘Where are Ballach and Olson?’

‘Here, Captain,’ said Brother Kholar, one of Goran’s Epsilon squad. He stood next to another marine who was bent over double, leaning against the tunnel wall. Goran joined Markius and they strode over to Brother Ballach.

‘Brother Olson?’ Markius heard Sergeant Andreus call, and glanced over to where Zeta squad had regrouped. Brother Olson of Zeta squad was also doubled over, hacking and coughing. They reached Ballach and Brother Kholar hauled him upright by the shoulders.

‘What the…?’ said Goran.

Brother Ballach had both arms clasped about his belly, but it was his face that shocked Markius. It was a mask of blood. Ballach was bleeding from his eyes, nose and the corners of his mouth. Bright red rivulets dripped from his chin.

‘Can’t… breathe…’ Ballach spat, blood gurgling in his throat.

Markius glanced back to Olson. Sergeant Andreus and Brother Jorgen were also trying to keep him standing upright: His face was even worse. The implications suddenly jolted Markius like an electric shock. The genetically-enhanced physiology of marines was not supposed to do this.

‘Caduceus to Actual,’ Sören called in Markius’s vox-bead, ‘Get those casualties here now!

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jul 03, 2012 2:33 am


MARKIUS HESITATED. THE aliens had escaped, but procedure now was to make a sweep and fully secure the ship. He was also supposed to meet the freighter’s captain now, to accept their plaudits for a glorious victory. But something was happening to his men. His men. Markius’s hesitation vanished, the anger of the enemy escape dulled. In its place a claw of worry clamped around his guts.

‘Rasmus, get Olaf. The rest of you, back to the shadowhawk now!’ he shouted.

Ballach and Olson were both so weak they had to be carried by their battle brothers as they hustled along the corridors of the ship. The battle now over, previously unnoticed emergency alarms screeched through the ship, grating on Markius’s nerves. Ballach jerked with spasms even as the other marines carried him.

‘Brother Mattheus, you are hit too!’ said Sergeant Goran. Markius turned and peered at the marine from Epsilon squad who was helping to carry Ballach.

‘Just shrapnel from the canteen fight,’ grunted the warrior, reaching up and ripping out several black shards embedded into his cheek. But as his hand came away blood, bright and bubbling, spurted from the wound.

‘Throne! What the…?’ said Mattheus, before he too bent over and started coughing. He dropped Brother Ballach’s leg and Markius moved in to take it up.

‘Keep moving!’ he shouted to the scouts, ‘We’re nearly there!’

A terrible premonition flitted across his mind: He remembered the shriveled, bloodless corpses of the ship’s crew.

By the time they reached the extraction point even Brother Mattheus, who had seemed fine moments earlier, needed assistance; his feet dragging as he was carried under the shoulders by two other marines. Markius cringed.

Brother Olson was screaming. Adeptus Astartes were psycho-indoctrinated to deal with pain, yet the sound coming from Olson’s lips froze Markius’s blood in his veins. What in the galaxy was happening to his men?

‘Into the ‘hawk, quick!’ Apothecary Sören took one look at Olson and Ballach and his face turned ashen. Mattheus started jerking now too, horror writ wide in his eyes as he stared at the other wounded marines.

‘Emperor preserve me,’ he said, knowing he would be just like them in minutes.

The marines hauled Olson, Ballach and Mattheus into the shadowhawk, now helped by members of Lambda squad. Markius held on as Ballach started convulsing so violently he threatened to damage himself or his battle brothers. Blood splashed everywhere.

‘Why are the Larraman’s not clotting?’ Markius shouted at Sören as the Apothecary rushed ahead to prepare the medical bay.

‘I don’t know…’ said Sören, ‘Something is counteracting the implants!’

Counteracting? Markius was no Apothecary, but knew something terrible was wrong. Adeptus Astartes were bio-enhanced to sustain almost all known toxins in the galaxy, with robust multiple organs to filter out poisons. He remembered the oily crystal shard embedded into his visor and wondered how close he had come to becoming a casualty, too.

The marines hauled Olson and Ballach into the bunks either side of the medical deck, still kicking and screaming.

‘Activate stasis!’ Markius said, but Sören shook his head as the marines strapped down the jerking wounded.

‘It will just lock in the toxins. Their organs are trying to fight it! We need to get back to the Arcis now!’ Sören shouted. Ahead in the cockpit, Burrin needed no further encouragement, and the engines of the gunship roared into full throttle. The shadowhawk screamed away from the Xiphias.

Their faces stony, the marines strapped themselves into grav-seats in the passenger deck, Goran and Kholar clutching Brother Mattheus as he wrestled with his seat-harness between them, blood frothing at his mouth. The screams of all three wounded marines ripped through Markius’s tattered nerves, and he tried not to imagine what they were going through.

* * *

‘TO THE MEDICAE, quick!’ Sören shouted. The marines needed no order. As soon as the gunship touched down on the hangar of the Arcis Indicium, the rear exit ramp clanged open and they dashed across the deck. They pulled suspensor-lifted gurneys, kicking and barging servitors out of the way, while the casualties convulsed and shrieked.

Sören had set up his medicae centre just off the main hangar for precisely such an emergency, and in moments the gurneys were locked onto surgery slabs. Markius and the other marines backed away, staring at the bleeding, jerking wrecks of their battle brothers.

‘5000 drams of plasma; immediate!’ Sören yelled at a voice-activated medical servitor and it turned and reached metallic arms to the cabinets on the walls. Sören ran an enhanced auspex scanner over Brother Olson and cursed. He turned to another servitor and said, ‘Triple-dose antitoxin beta-nine, now!’

The servitor trundled forwards and extended an arm ending with a syringe connected to canisters of various liquids hanging above its robotic head. Markius and his men exchanged useless looks: This was the Apothecary’s domain. Brother Ballach shrieked again, the nerve-shattering sound ending in a gurgle as his esophagus filled with bubbling blood.

‘Be careful,’ said Sören as two marines stepped up to aid Ballach. The blood was spraying from his lips. ‘Do not ingest that blood whatever you do, it could be infected!’

‘What’s happening to them?’ Markius demanded. ‘We are Adeptus Astartes!’

‘Some kind of hypertoxins,’ said Sören, more to himself than in reply, feverishly working the auspex, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it before.’

He barged Sergeant Goran out of the way as he raced around one of the slabs, trying to get a reading from Ballach’s chest. Goran stepped back, surprised. Sören cursed again. He said, ‘Warp take them! The Oolitic kidney is gone! He’s melting from the inside out!’

‘Stop this!’ said Markius, ‘Give them something for the pain!’

Sören stopped and looked Markius in the eye. He said, ‘I… I can’t stop the organs liquefying…and I have no replacements.’

Markius said, ‘Let us help! What can we do?’

Sören pushed him aside as he crossed to Brother Mattheus. Mattheus was now still and quiet, but his eyes were haunted by what was happening to Olson and Ballach.

‘Holy Emperor of Terra, guide me as I smite the foul xenos, shield me as I walk in the shadow of the unknown…’

Suddenly, Olson’s eyes burst open with wet splats. The marine moaned.

‘Not like this… this is no death for a warrior…’ Rasmus was almost sobbing as he stared at the casualties. Sören had to go around the big man to get back to Olson.

‘Enough!’ the Apothecary shouted, ‘Everyone out!’

The men looked to Markius, stunned by Sören’s order. Markius didn’t know what to do. He looked back at Sören.

‘You are captain,’ Sören faced Markius, fuming, ‘But I am in command here. Get everyone out and let me work!’

Markius nodded, understanding. He jerked his head once and announced, ‘To the basilica. We must pray to the Emperor now.’

The men reluctantly filed out as Sören pumped various injections into the casualties. Markius saw that it was not having any effect. Goran hesitated, staying beside Ballach. He looked at Markius when Sören confronted him.

‘He is one of mine,’ Goran pleaded. Markius closed his eyes then shook his head and Goran retreated out of the medicae. Sören started feeding tubes into what was left of Ballach’s mouth. He barked over his shoulder, ‘And you, Captain.’

Markius nodded. As he moved away and the medicae doors opened automatically, he heard Sören say to a servitor, ‘Prepare for geneseed extraction.’

Markius whirled at the entrance to the medicae and said, ‘You cannot let them go yet! They are still fighting!’

Sören confronted him, but not to argue. His shoulders slumped. He said, ‘I will do everything I can… but we have to be prepared. I have to recoup the progenoids before they, too, are corrupted by the hypertoxins.’

Markius stared beyond the Apothecary, saw the casualties and their jerking spasms slowly becoming still. He realised this was not his place. There was nothing he could do here. He nodded mutely, then turned to leave.

‘Make sure we avenge them, Captain,’ Sören said to his back.

Outside the medicae, the pneumatic doors wheezed closed. Markius noticed another gurney covered with a black plastic sheet and realised the two parts of Brother Olaf would be beneath it. He grimaced. That made four men he had lost. He dimly noted that it was the most deadly mission his company had ever completed.

Not just deadly. The manner of the deaths weighed heavily on Markius. Those xenos weapons had hardly seemed threatening at first, just curious. But they had taken their toll long after the fighting had ended. Markius clenched and unclenched his fists, opened and closed his mouth, unsure whether he wanted to shout, or strike something. He saw the faces of the lost battle brothers, remembered their smiles at induction, their growls and roars during training rites, their jibes and laughs. He felt hot emotion on his cheeks, and his head span. He did not know how to deal with the feelings tearing at his stomach. He could not bring himself to think of their ignoble, painful ends. It was no end for warriors – no end for his men; his brothers. He glanced at the gurney, and tried to think of what he should say to Olaf. Moisture gathered at the corners of his eyes, before he blinked it away.

Markius looked up, dragging his eyes away from the gurney, and paused. Goran was there, sitting on the lower forewing of the shadowhawk. Servitors scuttled around the gunship, seeing to refueling lines and other duties. Markius quickly wiped an armoured sleeve across his eyes, then looked at his old green-eyed rival, and Goran looked back. Markius trudged over to him.

‘They’re gone, aren’t they?’ Goran said.

Markius nodded. He realised Goran had lost two of his squad, a crushing blow for the sergeant, and sympathised. To his amazement, Goran reached inside his void suit and brought out a thick cigar. He chewed off the end, spat it out, then lit the cigar with an igniter from another internal pocket.

‘We were going to share these, after the first successful boarding mission,’ said Goran, puffing purple smoke from his nostrils. Markius stared.

‘Where… who?’ he said.

‘Burrin,’ Goran said. ‘He can get you anything, and seems happy to give out little presents all the time. Remember Rasmus’s power-axe?’

Markius remembered the insane drinking challenge the small man had made against the space marine: It was as if he had wanted to gift the axe to Rasmus, now that he thought about it.

‘Want one?’ Goran said, offering another brown tube.

For some reason, Markius nodded. He knew the tobacco would have little effect on his enhanced metabolism, but somehow the moment seemed right. The basilica forgotten, he wanted a time of reflection after the adrenalin-powered frenzy they had just endured. And they smelled good. A faint childhood memory flitted across his mind, of the tribal elders sitting around a fire and passing a pipe. The smell of tobacco stimulated a long-lost sense of calmness and… home.

Goran lit up another and handed it to Markius. Markius breathed in and out. It tasted good, too. He leant against the shadowhawk next to Goran, looking back at the medicae doors. They puffed silently, side by side, for some moments. The clamour of the hangar rattled all around them.

‘We lost Brother Olaf, too,’ Markius said, nodding towards the covered gurney.

Goran looked at him, eyes widening.

‘One of the freaks got him with some kind of power sword – one strike, went right through.’

‘Throne,’ Goran whistled. ‘I was starting to think Olaf was invulnerable.’

Markius snorted, smoke catching in his throat. He said, ‘No-one’s invulnerable.’

He realised the xenos had proven that statement all too true.

‘Except Rasmus, maybe,’ said Goran, puffing a stream of smoke through pursed lips. Markius sniffed, his mouth almost forming a half-smile. He was coming down from his heightened combat-state from the frenetic fighting, then the desperate dash back with the casualties. The cigar was working. The frenzy was replaced by resentment at the loss of his men, gnawing like a dull pain in his gut.

‘Except Rasmus,’ Markius agreed.

‘I want another chance at them, Captain,’ Goran said, turning to face Markius, ‘For Ballach and Olson.’

‘For Mattheus and Olaf, too, I will make it happen,’ Markius said, wondering how he could keep such a promise. He faintly recognised that it was highly unusual to have a normal conversation like this with Goran, in which they actually agreed with one another. A thought came to him and he turned away.

‘I am going to have to reorganise Epsilon and Omega squads,’ Markius said. Both squads were down to two men now, too small for tactical purposes on a battlefield.

‘Yup,’ said Goran, puffing.

‘But that gives me a problem,’ said Markius.

Goran did not answer, exhaling smoke and waiting for Markius to continue.

‘Rasmus is sergeant, and so are you…’ said Markius.

‘So demote Rasmus,’ said Goran, ‘He won’t mind.’

Markius felt a familiar sensation tightening in his guts, like a disturbed snake uncoiling. He growled, ‘I mind.’

‘Look,’ said Goran, turning to face him. His green eyes glinted. ‘Rasmus is as tough as an ice bear, we all know that, but he’s not a leader. He needs someone to tell him what to do.’

Markius opened his mouth to argue, but Goran continued, ‘You know this: Why do you always stay with Omega squad? You should have let Rasmus talk to Brother Lars – that reassignment should have come from the sergeant, within the squad.’

Markius paused, caught by surprise by the insight. He had completely forgotten about Lars. Something stirred inside. He knew Goran was right, but the voice at the back of his mind rebelled against accepting this, hissing.

‘Don’t challenge my command again,’ he said. ‘Rasmus stays as sergeant.’

‘So make me lieutenant,’ said Goran, not blinking.

‘Tobias is lieutenant.’

‘First-Sergeant, whatever!’ said Goran. ‘Don’t you see it? It doesn’t matter any more!’

‘What doesn’t matter?’ said Markius, his adrenalin threatening to pulse again.

‘All of this… ranks, glory, honour. You have to let it go,’ said Goran.

‘Let it go?’ said Markius, deflated by confusion.

‘We’re not Storm Eagles any more,’ explained Goran, ‘and what does being the Emperor’s Talons really mean? I don’t know what the old man has in store for us, but you can bet things won’t change when we get to Kar Duniash.’

Markius frowned, trying to understand.

Captain,’ said Goran, lacing the title with his old sarcasm, ‘your rank doesn’t mean anything when we are incognitus… when we have no identity. There is no glory left to us now. We made our honour the first casualty when we turned our back on our old chapter.’

‘That’s not true…’ Markius started, but faltered.

‘All the men know it, Captain,’ said Goran, pointing to the plain black shield of his shoulder pouldron. ‘We left it behind when we abandoned the Storm Eagles. Honour and glory: Not for us any more.’

‘Then what have we got?’ said Markius.

‘We’ve got each other, and we’ve got His Holy work. Forget the parades and sagas, medals and titles and ranks. All we do now, we do for each other: For Olson and Ballach, for Mattheus and Olaf. For Gunnar, Bhurgsson and Jenner.’

Markius could not decide how to answer. He wrestled with the words Goran had said, refusing to accept their truth. Goran exhaled then pushed himself away from the shadowhawk. He began to walk away.

‘Where are you going?’ Markius said.

‘To pray with the others,’ Goran said, turning back. ‘Look, Captain, you do what you have to do. Epsilon will merge with Omega. Fine. One day you will understand what I mean.’

And with that Goran stomped off towards the basilica, leaving Markius alone with his thoughts. After some time Markius was about to head towards the basilica too.

The basilica. He wanted to go to the basilica. Sister Miriam had become the keeper of the Astartes’ simple chapel, the two children that had been rescued with her from Callasia 9 now serving as wide-eyed altar boys. Markius needed to hear her soothing words, to see the innocent faces of the cherub-like children. But then a klaxon announced another shuttle coming to land in the hangar of the Arcis.

* * *

THE SHUTTLE WAS from the Xiphias. It touched down in the cavernous hangar of the Arcis Indicium in a cleared space not far from the shadowhawk. Pneumatic gases exhaled from its landing pistons as the huge blast doors of the hangar closed behind it.

Markius wondered whether he should meet it. As captain of the boarding mission, it seemed right that he meet the commander of the freighter and accept the accolades and gratitude of those his marines had saved. Indeed, he had been ready to do just that on board the Xiphias until the emergency of his wounded battle brothers. But he held back, Goran’s words still hissing in the back of his mind. The tech-priest commander of the Arcis, Magos Gaius, was not present, and there was no sign of Inquisitor Zharn.

As if on cue, his vox crackled, ‘Captain Markius?’

It was Zharn’s deep voice. He said, ‘We are holding a debriefing meeting.’

‘Understood, Inquisitor,’ Markius voxed, ‘I have wounded to see to, but will come as soon as possible.’

‘I understand,’ said Zharn, ‘We will wait. I will send a servo-skull to guide you to the strategium room when you are ready.’

Zharn said nothing of the shuttle. Markius acknowledged then decided to watch, secreting himself behind the blunt nose of the shadowhawk. The entry ramp of the shuttle extended like a tongue from beneath the crew ports, an air-lock opening in the square nose. Markius was surprised to see the welcome committee for the shuttle consisted of one person… Burrin Grazgsten. Markius focused his enhanced hearing towards the shuttle, filtering out the mechanical background noises of the hangar.

‘Burrin Grazgsten! I should have known!’

A figure strode down the ramp from the shuttle. Markius recognised the seasoned voice from the emergency transmission. He was tall, for a human, about the same height and age as Zharn, Markius judged. His bearded face cracked into a toothy grin at the sight of little Burrin and he offered a gauntleted hand in greeting. Markius rocked. They knew each other.

‘Bah! Balth Kessiandas,’ Burrin growled and clasped hands with the man. Balth was clad in the standard utility overalls of the spacer, as were several ship hands that emerged after him.

‘Or should I say Captain Balth Kessiandas?’ said Burrin. The men shared a chuckle. Balth also sported a cloak of some predator-beast fur, making him distinct from his crewmen. He swept this aside as he gestured to one of them.

‘You remember Alain?’ said Balth. The gruff crewman nodded at Burrin and said, ‘Aye Burrin, ya old pirate. We were in a spot there…’

Burrin nodded back, then faced Balth. The freighter captain said, ‘Yes, thank the almighty God-Emperor, I am in debt to your commander…’

Balth scanned the hangar with calculating sea-blue eyes, and Markius shrank back into the shadow of the gunship.

‘Aye, lad. Ya can thank me,’ said Burrin. ‘When I heard it was the Xiphias, I thought it’d be ya. How’re the lads?’

Balth nodded and said, ‘We lost many. Horrible, those damned xenos. But the survivors are most grateful. We will make it, thank the Emperor.’

While he talked, Balth continued to search the hangar with his eyes.

Burrin said, ‘Commander here is one of them tech-priests, not one for social niceties. I handle the diplomatic stuff.’

Balth accepted this with a disappointed shrug.

‘Burrin, Burrin… on an Adeptus Mechanicus ship and…’ Balth glanced at the shadowhawk, ‘I was right when I thought I saw space marines on my bridge…’

Burrin did not reply. Markius noticed he had not mentioned the inquisitor.

Balth looked back at him and said, ‘Riding with Mechanicus and Astartes, Burrin? What have you got into? The last I heard you were wanted in three sectors!’

Burrin still did not reply. Balth seemed to notice this and continued, ‘Well, however you did it, it seems you have a sweet thing going here. And good for you! You were the best engineer I ever flew with. So, any chance of a tour?’

Burrin shook his head, ‘Bah! Tech-priests insist on their privacy. Sorry, lad.’

‘Well then,’ sighed Balth, ‘It seems I must offer my full gratitude to them via your good self.’

‘Aye,’ said Burrin, now peering past Balth into the shuttle and rubbing his hands, ‘So what’ve ya got for me?’

Balth shifted on the spot, then said, ‘I wasn’t sure what would be appropriate, but somehow now I think I got it right: Flaxian amasec, vintage. Tobacc. Some grox steaks, stasis-locked… How’s that?’

‘Bah! That’ll do for starters,’ said Burrin, his voice brightening. Markius shook his head and smiled. The people Burrin knew… and the things he could get.

‘Anything else?’

‘I’m sorry to say the rest of my cargo is all bought and paid for. These were just some extra goods I was hoping to sell on the side after planetfall. It seems a small price to pay for our lives now…’ said Balth.

‘Bought ‘n paid for? Legit?’ said Burrin.

‘What can I say?’ said Balth, shrugging, ‘Times change.’

‘Aye, times change,’ said Burrin. The men behind Balth began unloading crates. Balth took one more long look around the hangar.

‘Then I suppose it is time for me to move on, though it is a shame I cannot properly deliver my gratitude – and that of my men. My deepest thanks once more for intervening. I owe you a big one. Perhaps we will meet again soon?’

‘Aye, perraps.’

Markius was disturbed as a servo-skull hovered next to him. The small servitor-machine, floating on suspensors and fashioned from the skull of a long-dead servant, warbled as it recognised Markius in its glowing optical sensor. Markius scowled; it was his summons to the strategium. He glanced past it to the closed doors of the medicae centre. Sören was still in there, though surely the final rites and Emperor’s Mercy had been delivered to their battle brothers. Markius decided to let Sören brood in his sanctum.

Burrin and Balth had completed their business, so Markius turned and followed the servo-skull, conflicting emotions churning in his stomach.

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby Mauthos » Tue Jul 03, 2012 8:02 am

More things for me to ponder on, really enjoying this story and you keep leaving me wanting more. Great :)!!!
Simplicity is the key to brilliance.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jul 03, 2012 9:14 am

Hey Mauthos! Thanks again for checking in. Although I might be biased, I personally feel the story gets really interesting from now on. 8-)
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jul 03, 2012 9:37 am

= XIX =

CAPTAIN MARKIUS FOLLOWED the servo-skull that bobbed ahead of him along the observatorium. He ignored the breathtaking sight of the cosmos visible through the armourcrys windows that formed the roof of the colonnaded chamber. Still scowling with a simmering anger at the loss of his battle brothers, he remembered that it was here, in this corridor leading from the bridge, that he had once made the life-changing decision to turn his back on his former chapter and join the inquisitor: A decision that had set him on the path to become captain of the incognitus Emperor’s Talons. Goran’s words played across the back of his mind again as he strode. No glory for us. We have no identity.

The servo-skull stopped at the solid brass doors at the end of the tunnel and warbled, signaling its assigned mission to lead him to this appointed place was complete. Markius stepped up to the doors and they hissed open automatically, and the robotic construct zipped away on its anti-grav motors, presumably back to whatever holding area it stayed awaiting its next programming.

‘Ah, Captain,’ came Inquisitor Zharn’s rich voice from within. ‘Thank you for coming so quickly.’

Markius peered inside and saw a long oval chamber dominated by a table of polished black marble, surrounded by plush leather seats. In the dim light thrown by the ceiling-mounted luminators he saw that the seats were filled. Zharn sat at one end of the table, furthest from the door, with the tech-priest Xavier Gaius to his left. The corpse-like astropath, Aul Vespasius, was seated next to him. On the other side of the table, Athena lounged in another seat. Markius was surprised to see the pale head of Navigator Philippe Ludon next to her, too. It seemed everyone was here at the strategium for the debriefing session and he was the last.

‘I answered the summons as quickly as possible,’ Markius said, ‘but I had wounded to see to first.’

‘Yes, we understand, Captain,’ said Zharn. ‘Your brave men performed excellently on the Xiphias.’

Markius shot an angry glance at Zharn, who had so reluctantly authorised the mission in the first place. After the horrific deaths of his brothers, he wanted none of the inquisitor’s false platitudes now. He shrugged and stomped to the near end of the table, where a seat was awaiting him directly opposite the inquisitor, manufactured to withstand the extra weight of a space marine. He eased his bio-enhanced bulk into the seat and it creaked, but did not collapse.

‘Now then,’ said Zharn, ‘before we begin, I have an announcement to make.’

Markius watched as Zharn turned in his seat to look at everyone in turn around the strategium table.

‘We are no longer under Special Condition. I have been in contact with the headquarters of my conclave at Kar Duniash, and it seems we have stumbled upon a long-time headache for the authorities there,’ said Zharn. ‘We have been given full dispensation to proceed with a mission to cleanse the xenos pirates here. You will have another chance at them, Captain.’

A grim smile spread across Markius’s face, the frustration of losing the leader of the xenos evaporating in the light of this news.

‘To that end,’ continued the inquisitor, ‘perhaps you should start, Xavier. Where exactly is here?

The Magos stirred in his seat, the augmetics concealed beneath his rust-red robes whirring quietly, and began punching at some rune keys hidden on his side of the table with a serpent-like mechadendrite. Luminators dimmed further as a hololithic display appeared hovering above the centre of the table. It showed a swirling group of pinpoint lights that meant nothing to Markius.

‘Exposition: As the Lord Inquisitor has alluded to,’ Gaius’s metallic voice rattled, ‘this is not the first time the alien pirates have been active in this area. It transpires that we exited the warp in close proximity to a region of deep space known as the Vistro Corridor, although the records shared with Kar Duniash also refer to it as Spartus Sector Re-Orientation Point Alpha-Nineteen. Navigator Ludon has further information on this…’

Markius realised the pinpoints projected over the table must represent stars in a galactic map. The spindly navigator placed his velvet-gloved hands on the table and steepled his long fingers. Ludon gave a small cough to clear his throat and then began, ‘The Vistro Corridor, as Magos Gaius calls it, was in fact discovered by my great-great-great uncle, over five hundred years ago, and so should more properly be called the ‘Ludon Transfer’. I am rather disappointed that this original title seems to have erroneously fallen out of use…’

‘Why don’t you explain to us what it is, Philippe?’ Zharn gently but firmly suggested.

‘I see. Right,’ Ludon harrumphed, ‘As you wish, My Lord.’

Markius was already losing patience with the proceedings, but noticed Athena suppress a giggle. The navigator eventually continued.

‘This area of deep space is a key transition point for vessels moving through the warp, from Terra-ward on towards the rest of the Spartus Sector. It corresponds to a particularly unfavourable area of warp space, which can delay or hamper travel out-spiral by weeks or even years. Imperial vessels exit at this point,’ Ludon jabbed vaguely at some point on the star-map, ‘and spend approximately three days moving through deep space, re-orientating themselves and confirming real-time coordinates and dates. Then they re-enter the warp here.’

This time Markius was sure the navigator had just gestured to exactly the same point, even with his enhanced vision.

‘What for?’ asked Athena, voicing what Markius was thinking.

The navigator sighed before replying, ‘I do not expect anyone here to fully understand the metaphysical mathematics at work in this, but a short hop through real space at this point corresponds to a vast leap in warp space, allowing re-entering vessels to avoid a long delay and catch a relatively stable warp-stream direct to the Vistro system, and thereafter the Spartus Sector beyond. Hence the end of this transition point is known as the Vistro Gate.’

‘So, were we not going to translate from the warp here anyway?’ said Markius, wondering why the inquisitor had taken so long to decide to respond the distress call in that case.

‘No,’ replied Ludon, glancing towards Zharn with his glittering black eyes. ‘My instructions were to take the… roundabout route, as it were…’

‘Indeed. The point is,’ Zharn interrupted, ‘the Vistro Corridor has been plagued for several centuries by xenos pirates, and it turns out that this is linked to the nearby system where the Xiphias was heading. Xavier?’

At the inquisitor’s prompting, the tech-priest fiddled with some more keys, and the map zoomed into closer focus. Now Markius could discern some details. Two bright lights floated at the centre of the table, with a plethora of smaller lights circling one, and a broad oval band of orange haze surrounding the whole pattern.

‘Actuality: The Coplin System is the closest system to the corridor,’ Gaius intoned. ‘We are currently heading there.’

‘It’s a binary star system,’ Athena commented, leaning in closer. Markius was not an expert in such things but decided to keep quiet rather than advertise this.

‘Confirmative,’ said Gaius, ‘to be exact, a barycentric elliptical orbit binary – and quite a stable one at that, with virtually no mass-transfer between the companions – both with planets in S-Type orbits.’

Markius stared at the display, unable to comprehend what the tech-priest was saying, but slowly understanding as Gaius tweaked the display controls to activate the simulated paths of orbits. The lights performed a miniature dance, representing the complex pattern that occurred on a massively larger scale of reality. He saw that the two larger lights were two suns, each moving in an overlapping elliptical path; first away from each other then circling and rapidly closing before swinging around each other at close range. He noticed a faint green crosshairs at the centre of the dance.

Magos Gaius hit a control that highlighted the crosshairs and said, ‘Actuality: This is the barycentric point – the centre of gravity around which the whole system moves.’

‘The larger star has only one planet,’ whispered Athena, and Markius saw that she was right. A single glimmering satellite clung to it as it moved.

‘Confirmative,’ said Gaius. ‘Alpha-Coplin Primus is located between the corona and CHZ; far too hot and unstable to be habitable. This larger star is Alpha-Coplin and it is possible that most of its planets have been captured by the smaller companion, indicating a considerably greater gravity signature…’

‘Interesting as this is,’ cut in Zharn, ‘we are not concerned with Alpha-Coplin.’

As if reprimanded, Gaius seemed to remember this. He said, ‘Confirmative: Our destination orbits Beta-Coplin.’

Markius switched his attention to the smaller star and saw that in contrast it had a circling clutch of lights.

‘It has so many planets!’ said Athena.

‘Qualification: Beta-Coplin hosts twenty-eight planets, and the majority – twenty – are inner system within the flare zone. Beta-Coplin twenty-one to twenty-five are the only planets within tolerable limits for habitation, though they will still be hot compared to Terra, as Beta-Coplin burns approximately two-point-seventeen times brighter than Sol,’ said Gaius. ‘And only one planet, as far as Imperial files record, is so far colonised: Beta-Coplin Twenty-One.’

‘It looks crowded in there,’ Markius commented.

A rasping sound came from Magos Gaius’s vox grate that Markius identified as a metallic chuckle. The tech-priest said, ‘Memorandum: This representation is not to true scale. The orbits may appear close to organic eyes, but they are thousands of kilometres apart and move in concert with one another. The only effect of so many planets will be an exceptionally high number of unusual total and partial eclipses.’

Markius sat back in his padded chair as Gaius zoomed the hololithic onto the planet in question, now a muddy yellow ball revolving above the table.

‘Beta-Coplin Twenty-One,’ Markius repeated. ‘And that’s where the Xiphias was headed when it was attacked?’

‘Confirmative,’ said Gaius. He zoomed out again so that the entire binary system shrank to a tiny fraction of its size, the planets no longer visible, and again Markius saw the dull orange ring of lights circling the entire system.

‘What’s that?’ said Athena.

‘Actuality: The Coplin Halo,’ said Gaius, ‘An enormous ring of billions of rocks, asteroids and clouds of dust that drift just at the edge of the zones of gravity of the binary stars. The halo is roughly equidistant from Beta-Coplin and the Vistro Corridor in deep space. It would appear the xenos pirates disappeared into this zone when they escaped from our attack.’

Markius’s lip curled at the reminder of this, but he suppressed a growl.

‘Conclusion: It can be surmised that the same xenos pirates have been raiding targets dropping out of warp space to head to the Vistro Gate and those going in-system towards Beta-Coplin XXI, basing their operations from this halo,’ finished the Magos.

It seemed to Markius that their concern was then the halo rather than this planet, but at this point, Zharn leaned forward in his seat as Gaius ended his presentation. The inquisitor said, ‘The files I have had transferred from Kar Duniash make interesting reading. Beta-Coplin XXI was only recently embraced by the Imperium – six hundred years ago – when the population was discovered to have degraded to feudal-age technology. It was relatively simple to integrate into Imperial culture and planetary governorship was established, based on the existing ruling clan. Thereafter a short influx of sanctioned tech occurred, along with the usual purge of rogue psykers – though these thankfully were not found to have irreparably infiltrated the population – and it was hoped the planet would become an important trade and political hub. It has abundant natural sulfur-ore deposits, and despite being remote from the nearest concentrations of Imperial worlds, its proximity to the Vistro Gate made it perfectly placed as a stopover point.’

‘So, what happened?’ said Athena.

‘An unfortunate series of events,’ Zharn shrugged. ‘Four hundred years ago the planetary government of Beta-Coplin XXI transmitted a request for aid against xenos attack – and this roughly corresponds to the first reports of raids along the corridor – but before a suitable taskforce could be assembled, the Maelstrom troubles broke out in the neighbouring sector. All resources were diverted to stopping the Corsairs.’

‘And after that?’ said Markius, still wondering why they were going there.

‘Well,’ Zharn hesitated, almost as if embarrassed, ‘it was sort of forgotten. The Ordo Xenos at Kar Duniash had filed the case as pending, but no active mission was ever authorised, and strangely, no more petitions were received from Beta-Coplin XXI itself. It has been overlooked for a long time.’

Four hundred years, thought Markius; a long time is an understatement!

‘Until now,’ Athena finished for him.

‘Until now,’ Zharn said.

‘Because we fraggin’ persuaded you to answer that distress call!’ Athena said, with just a little triumph in her voice.

Zharn favoured her with an acknowledging nod and smile. He said, ‘Indeed. We are here now to finally cleanse the system of the xenos, after four hundred years. Now, let us deal with formally identifying the xenos in question.’

Next, the Magos started fiddling with buttons again and his rattling voice started up once more.

‘Cogitation: We know the xenos are eldar, but there are several very diverse castes within this race.’

The hololithic star-map disappeared and in its place fleeting 2D images of various eldar aliens in outlandish clothes and suits of amour flashed up and faded away.

‘On initial information, I calculate we can discount both the Harlequin and Exodite sub-castes, and based on the observed modus operandi and ship capabilities during the attack on the Xiphias, I hypothesise that our enemies are the so-called dark eldar pirates.’

The images stilled on the familiar spindly creatures, with armour of interlocking plates, insect-like and festooned with cruel blades.

‘Yes,’ said Markius. ‘That’s them.’

‘Gratification: I had approximated an insignificant margin of error on that assumption and have pre-downloaded all available data from the banks of the Arcis.’

Pict-captures from previous encounters with the dark eldar, presumably from right across the galaxy, began to flash up on the hololithic display: Weapons, vehicles, armour variants, all surrounded with data and estimated strengths, tolerances and velocities in tiny digital script.

‘Exposition: This caste favour what has been classified as ‘splinter weapon’ technology by our xenoarchivists, along with a wide variety of poisons, monomolecular blades and these curious dark matter projectiles…’

‘Ugh,’ Athena shuddered, ‘They look just like Ghuls.’

When Markius glanced at her, she said, ‘An old myth to scare children from my homeworld.’

Markius watched as Gaius spouted reams of information about the various capabilities of the xenos technology. He had not had time to prepare notes on the observed abilities of the xenos forces, but everything he saw seemed to be verified by his experience on the Xiphias. Especially the poisons. The huge grotesque constructs flashed up and went away amongst a long procession of nightmarish creatures known to be deployed by the xenos in battle. Markius saw images of normal humans exposed to the hypertoxins and winced as he saw them instantly incapacitated and dying, like a sped-up version of what had happened to his marines. The enhanced biology of the Astartes had slowed down the effects, but not by much.

‘Conclusion: As we can see, the dark eldar are equipped with exotic yet highly effective weapons…’ continued Gaius.

Finally Markius interrupted.

‘Whatever they have, we can beat them. We proved that on the Xiphias. We do not fear these xenos scum – they flee from us!’ he said, banging a fist on the table. ‘Let us find their base in this halo, and destroy them.’

‘Commendably confident,’ Zharn smiled. ‘Indeed, as I would expect of an Astartes. But we have a problem there.’ He nodded to Gaius to continue.

‘Confirmative: Previous contact with dark eldar has shown that they are the consummate raiders: They do not engage in conventional battle if at all possible. They are equipped with extremely fast vehicles, both planetary and void-capable, and specialise in appearing suddenly and unexpectedly, striking undefended targets, and fleeing before righteous retribution can be exacted,’ said Gaius. The glowing red orbs of his bionic eyes focused on Markius for a moment, flickering through the hololithic display. ‘I would concur with the captain’s assessment: On a man-for-man basis, the Astartes can defeat them. The problem is catching them.’

‘We know where they went,’ said Markius. ‘We can find them in the halo.’

‘Ah,’ said Zharn. ‘Perhaps you do not appreciate the scale of the representation, Captain. This circle of asteroids is literally astronomically huge. Even if we were to focus on one tenth of it – that part closest to the corridor – it would be like searching for a single firebug in a volcano.’

‘Confirmative: Additional,’ rattled Gaius, ‘records show that the dark eldar rarely operate permanently out of real space. They have been observed to escape into some warp-based sanctuary, using hidden gates. We can be confident that such a gate exists somewhere in that halo, and will be undetectable when it is closed.’

‘Then we wait,’ said Markius. ‘Catch them when they come out.’

‘Indefinitely?’ said Athena, looking at him with one eyebrow raised. ‘That’s your plan?’

Markius opened his mouth to respond, but Gaius said, “Negative: The halo is too large for the Arcis to effectively patrol, even if we focus on the corridor.’

Markius exhaled in annoyance. He said, ‘So how do we catch them if we cannot find them?’

Zharn cut in and said, ‘It may be our only way is to catch them on the ground, as it were.’

‘You mean at Beta-Coplin XXI?’ said Markius, now finally understanding why they were heading for the planet.

‘Indeed,’ said Zharn, ‘and that brings me to the other matter.’

Markius exchanged a glance with Athena. What other matter? He noted that the astropath, Aul Vespasius, had remained silent throughout the entire session.

‘When we queried the Beta-Coplin case at Kar Duniash, another cross-file flag was activated. It seems the system was never fully audited for the Administratum tithes.’

Markius narrowed his gaze. Zharn continued, ‘When initially brought into the fold of our most blessed Imperium, it was temporarily assessed as grade Exactus Nillus, until trade volume could be built up. Six hundred years later, despite what we think to be very little development of the planetary economy, there apparently have been some anomalous transactions, most troubling to the Adeptus Terra.’

‘Anomalous?’ said Athena.

‘Indeed. Despite no record of any sizable exports, a number of import orders have been financed,’ said Zharn, ‘The planetary government is getting Imperial currency from somewhere, and it appears to highly aggravate the taxmen when they feel they are not getting their cut.’

‘Can’t they trace the flow of credits?’ asked Athena, showing far more interest than Markius felt. What had tithes and credit transactions to do with his mission?

‘The orders never seem to be completed, and yet there are no outstanding debt flags, either,’ said Zharn, ‘It is very strange.’

‘Why don’t they just send someone to fraggin’ audit it, then?’ said Athena.

Zharn gave everyone around the table a significant look before answering.

‘They did. Three times. None have ever completed an assessment.’

Markius’s interest was finally captured.

‘What happened to them?’ said Athena.

‘Disappeared, lost contact in various ways,’ said Zharn, then paused. ‘To lose one Imperial auditor can happen any time in this dangerous galaxy. Two may be seen as a coincidence, but three will attract the attention of the Inquisition.’

‘You suspect treachery in the planetary governorship?’ asked Markius, a slight twitch in his hand making him reflexively want to reach for his holstered boltpistol.

‘That remains to be seen,’ said Zharn. ‘It cannot be in the government’s long-term interest to try and avoid Imperial taxation. The Administratum is understandably vexed, and as ever under-resourced. My Ordo has therefore asked me to look into the matter as we are here. It will be viewed as a great favour by the Administratum.’

‘And we need all the favours we can get,’ murmured Aul, finally breaking his silence.

Zharn shot the astropath a look, but ignored the comment and continued.

‘We are therefore to be engaged on two distinct missions,’ he said. ‘The task of destroying the xenos menace is code-named Operation Venator. Captain Markius, I am placing you in operational command of this.’

Markius jerked in his seat and stared at the inquisitor.

‘It will be up to you to find a way to defeat the aliens, and implement it,’ said Zharn. ‘I will lead Operation Oculus: To discover the fate of the Imperial Auditors and implement any action I see fit upon my conclusions.’

Markius felt a strange surge of emotion he had not experienced in a while, perhaps not since he had been made acting-captain of the scout company back in his old chapter. He felt proud to have been given the honour of strategic command, but also a little surprised and worried. He decided to banish such doubts. He was of course the best choice for the job.

‘Captain, you will have your company at your disposal, and Xavier will advise on strategy,’ said Zharn.

‘Confirmative: As you wish, My Lord,’ Gaius intoned without emotion.

‘Aul, you’re with me. The Psiren unit will also be deployed under my command of Operation Oculus,’ continued Zharn. ‘We will operate incognitus: The planetary government must have absolutely no knowledge of our existence.’

Athena shifted in her seat, looking excited. This would be her first full mission under the inquisitor, Markius realised, and knew she would be eager to prove herself.

‘Except you, Athena,’ Zharn turned to her. ‘You will report to Captain Markius.’

‘What?’ she said, the shock and displeasure obvious in her tone.

A brief flicker of a smile twitched at the corner of Zharn’s mouth. He said, ‘He may need your unique services in pursuit of Venator’s objective.’

‘But I will be under his command?’ she said. Markius tried not to smile at her incredulity.

‘I believe it was you who so passionately persuaded me of the need to foil the xenos?’ said Zharn.

Athena said nothing, but stared venomously at a point in the middle of the table.

‘Good,’ said Zharn. ‘All is settled then. I suggest we be about our preparations. Planetfall is in fourteen hours.’

The session over, seats turned on their pivot-stands and everyone made their way out of the door.

‘Captain Markius, may I have a word?’ said Zharn, just as Markius left the strategium and entered the observatorium tunnel. Markius turned as the others left and found himself alone with the inquisitor in the corridor. Zharn waited for a long time before speaking.

‘We have a problem with the Ordo Hereticus,’ Zharn finally announced, looking out at the stars, both hands clutching the rail. Markius shot him a glance as he paused.

Zharn said, ‘Your… actions… at Callasia 9 have hatched some suspicions.’

‘I have already apologised if that caused you inconvenience,’ Markius said through gritted teeth, ‘but I still stand by my decision, Inquisitor.’

‘I’m not going to argue with you again, Captain. What is done is done,’ said Zharn, still looking out, ‘but this is more than mere inconvenience. Your friends the Crimson Paladins are looking for you.’

Markius grimaced; the Paladins were no friends, even if they were also Adeptus Astartes loyal to the Imperium. Zharn sighed and continued, ‘You must understand, Markius, that if the Ordo Hereticus discovers your previous identity, they may well destroy you.’

‘But you said it yourself: We are innocent!’ said Markius.

‘This is the inquisition, Markius,’ said Zharn, ‘Innocence proves nothing.’

He finally turned and looked Markius in the eye. He said, ‘The Paladins are fanatics: You remember what happened on your moon? They will destroy you simply for who you are, not anything you have done.’

Markius considered this and turned out to the look at the stars too, as the unwelcome memory of his former home – the burning, destroyed remains of the fortress-monastery on Ornisgard – came into his mind’s eye. Then Markius remembered the strange partial telepathic conversation he had overheard on the bridge with the astropath, Aul.

‘And what about you? What is Special Condition?’ said Markius.

‘Special Condition is an operational status, invoked when I must conduct missions with the utmost secrecy. My masters have been somewhat concerned by my lack of contact recently. It appears I may have over-used the status of Special Condition, and there is talk of an investigation into me,’ Zharn said. Again Markius gave him a sharp look. Zharn added, ‘After Callasia, I wish this time to give you full disclosure.’

‘Go on,’ said Markius.

‘This mission to Beta-Coplin XXI has been given full sanction by the Ordo Xenos of the Spartus sector: That is good for us, for there were rumours starting to circulate, and this puts us back on the scanner of legitimacy,’ said Zharn. ‘However, we can expect some unwelcome attention in time now that we have… broken cover, as it were. The Ordo Hereticus also has a bastion at Kar Duniash.’

‘But, they did not pursue us from Callasia. They cannot connect us to it, can they?’ said Markius.

‘Indeed, thanks to some clever navigation from Philippe we lost them in the warp,’ said Zharn. ‘But it will only be a matter of time before the Ordo Hereticus hears that we have resurfaced.’

Markius raised an eyebrow and Zharn chuckled.

‘Oh, come now Captain. Having been around an inquisitor for long enough you must by now know they will have sources amongst us, just as I have contacts amongst them,’ said Zharn.

‘You all spy on each other?’

‘It is the way of the Inquisition. Vigilance is next to Holiness, and that means even the most vigilant must watch each other,’ said Zharn. ‘We will be on a time limit. We must move swiftly on Beta-Coplin, and you must make sure no clues are left behind of who you once were. I’m sorry, but you will have to keep the incognitus black shields on your uniforms.’

Markius nodded in understanding. Zharn continued, ‘Your new name – the Emperor’s Talons, isn’t it? – will be good enough for now. But things have changed, and so my long-term plans must change also. I will have you officially inducted into the Deathwatch when we get to Kar Duniash. That will end the matter of your past.’

The Deathwatch. Markius considered this with a shocked thrill. He had only heard rumours about them from the veterans of the Storm Eagles: A specialist alien-hunting chapter maintained by the Ordo Xenos, recruiting only the most elite marines from all other chapters. A true honour. It was not what the inquisitor had first promised him, but the change was welcome. A spark of hope ignited in Markius. Could this be the way his men could finally reclaim their honour, completing his last orders from the Father-Chaplain? Goran was wrong. There was still a hope of glory.

‘You can do that?’ said Markius.

‘Only providing all goes well here, but yes,’ the inquisitor replied, ‘and when you are officially in the Deathwatch, that will bring the matter to an end. It seems I will have to share you with the Watch Commander and other inquisitors of my Ordo, after all.’

Zharn smiled at Markius, understanding the thrill this news would be eliciting in the young marine, but Markius sensed something behind the smile. The inquisitor was not telling him everything.

Zharn said, ‘But I cannot be associated with you just yet. I want my name excluded from any conversations with anyone on Beta-Coplin XXI. As far as the planetary government is concerned, I do not exist. Understood?’

‘Yes, Inquisitor,’ said Markius. He thought for a moment, then added, ‘Do the Hereticus threaten you, too?’

‘Inquisitor Kristatos Kielman and I know each other very well,’ sighed Zharn, ‘and we do not agree on many things. He would be delighted to connect us.’

Zharn turned to face Markius again, his face grave, and the marine realised the old man was about to confide something very important. Zharn said, ‘If it can be proved that I somehow… interfered… with a Hereticus operation – the operation to expunge your previous chapter – my seniors have made it clear to me that they will distance themselves from us. I… we… will be on our own. This is how things work. We are set against one another privately but officially all the Ordos are working for the same ends and no scandal is tolerated.’

‘This is…’ said Markius, ‘…disturbing news.’

‘Indeed,’ said Zharn, ‘and it makes what we do on Beta-Coplin so important. Once we finish here and get full legitimacy, you will be Deathwatch and no-one can touch you. I, too, will then be free to operate under my own mandate.’

‘Then I shall make sure our mission is a success,’ said Markius, turning to leave.

‘I hope you do…’ Zharn said, more to himself, once again regarding the stars, as if watching for a distant predator.

* * *

‘I WILL NOT soil myself. I will not soil myself. I will not soil myself,’ the traitor repeated the mantra under his breath. He took another gulp of amasec and grimaced at the foul taste. Why had he run out of the good stuff? He returned the flask to his hip-pocket and held his trembling hands out before his face, hating himself. The stimm shot had settled him at first, but the warm, glowing feeling was rapidly evaporating as he waited in the gloomy, cave-like chamber.

He briefly wondered, again, whether this shadowy, freezing place was a recreation of whatever extra-dimensional hell the freaks considered a natural habitat, and quickly dismissed it, again, knowing it was just another way for them to make him feel uncomfortable. The strange sucking sound rippled through the dank air, heralding their arrival from somewhere beyond the veil of darkness at the far end of the chamber: The end he was forbidden to approach any closer.

The traitor attempted to steel himself for the encounter, shivering yet sweating at the same time. Shapes emerged from the darkness. There were only four, he noted. Did that mean they didn’t feel the need to threaten him so much this time, or was it a show of vanity, knowing that any single one of them could kill him in a heartbeat? He briefly wondered if the lord himself had been killed in the surprise boarding action by the marines, the hope dashed as he spotted the familiar imposing, cloaked silhouette at the centre of the group.

The daemon-faced mask of the lord leered from the shadows, and the traitor’s shivers increased in their violence. The hulking, four-armed serpent-thing slithered alongside the lord; its ever-present bodyguard hunching below the low roof of the cave. Wicked, double-headed axes heavy enough to cleave tanks rested in clawed hands, and a forked tongue flickered in and out with a hiss, tasting his fear.

‘I will not soil myself!’ he silently mouthed.

The traitor’s juddering heart skipped another beat as he heard the familiar snuffling of the dog-thing before he saw it emerge at the end of a leash of iron chain clutched by the lord. The whippet-thin terror revealed rows of needle-sharp fangs from its elongated head and its gore-red flanks glistened as if it had just had its skin ripped off. The hound-thing did not make much noise, but it terrified the traitor just as much as the looming, serpent-bodied bodyguard, those rows of quivering scent pits along its snout recognising his smell instantly. The dog-thing strained at its leash, bloody tongue licking its fangs, and the traitor prayed that the lord would not unleash it.

There was another, unusual one this time; one black-armoured like the lord himself, but with an ornate, brass-horned helm and a massive sword strapped across his back. The traitor dimly wondered if this was to be his executioner, and almost welcomed the idea after all the years of worrying about it. Again, the brief hope was dashed as he realised a quick, clean end would be the last thing granted to him. He had seen what the xenos did to others that provoked their wrath.

Finally the white-faced, bloodless freak showed himself, completing the group that emerged from the darkness, like unspeakable horrors creeping out of a nightmare. The lord’s Haemonculus carried the usual mechanical box and caster, and the traitor tried to decide what to do.

It was always a fifty-fifty guess. Sometimes the aliens required that he herald them first, at others this would be punished and he would be told never to speak unless spoken to first. The traitor knew, inside, that whatever choice he made the malicious xenos would use it against him, as just one more way to torment him. He glanced at the towering lord, careful not to meet eyes with the leering helm, gulped again, and made his choice.

‘My Lord Baron Vorlxrath!’ he cried, trying to keep his voice from cracking and throwing himself to his knees.

‘How dare you insult us with your words after what you have orchestrated?’ the Haemonculus bellowed, his startling, rasping voice crowing metallically through the translation device he carried. ‘You dare to speak to us after your betrayal? You are a piece of treacherous stinking filth!’

The traitor felt his bodily fluids spreading from his groin and down his trouser legs, and cursed his weakness once more, truly sure that this time it would be the end for him. Yet somewhere, deep down, the instinct for self-preservation that had seen him through so much surged within again, and his brain started working, his mouth a fraction of a second behind it.

‘I swear to you, Master Cyleich, I had no knowledge of it! The marines… they just came out of nowhere… right out of the warp!’

‘Falsehood!’ screamed Haemonculus Cyleich, the hysterical pitch filtering through the translation box. ‘You dare to try and trick us! You mon-keigh dog! You are worthless vermin! The Baron should rip your heart out right now!’

‘I swear it, I had no hand in it…’ the traitor pleaded, hot tears springing down his cheeks, ‘I am worthless! Why would I attempt so foolhardy a task as defying the most magnificent Lord Baron Vorlxrath?’

The new one moved silently behind the traitor, and he heard the huge sword sliding from its sheath and then humming with crackling energy. The dog-thing edged closer, its leash lengthened a chain-link at a time, until it could almost lick the traitor’s face. The traitor dared not move a muscle. The Haemonculus prepared to deliver another barrage of accusations and abuse, but the lord muttered something in their own harsh language and Cyleich paused.

The traitor caught his breath and listened. In their arrogance, the aliens assumed that he – a worthless animal as they saw it – had no intelligence at all. The truth was that, over time, he had carefully noted certain words in their rasping, hacking language and remembered how the Haemonculus translated them. He knew more of what they said than they gave him credit for. Eyes fixed on the stone ground, he listened.

That the lord was enraged was evident in his tone, though he moved and spoke with a smooth calmness that, if such was possible, terrified the traitor even more. The Baron and Haemonculus exchanged words that he did not understand, except the name ‘Vect’ and ‘tribute lost’. The traitor had formed his own ideas about who this ‘Vect’ was over time, changing from a deity that the xenos worshipped to some overlord that they performed their evil deeds for. Suddenly the Haemonculus barked at the traitor again.

‘The marines are come to Coplin?’

It was imperfect translation but the traitor nodded his head, understanding and far too terrified to point out the mistake.

‘What are their numbers?’

Now he shook his head, sobbing once more, knowing that not having this information might cost him dearly. The Haemonculus conversed with the baron, and the traitor caught the words ‘worthless’, ‘change’ and ‘execute’. His terror-spasms deepened and he blurted, ‘Wait! My Lord Baron; I can bring you information. I can spy on them for you.’

Baron Vorlxrath’s daemon mask peered at the traitor and he trembled before its gaze. Then the alien barked and the Haemonculus translated, ‘Get rid of them.’

‘Get… get rid of them?’ stammered the traitor. ‘They… they are Astartes… I can’t just… I mean… can’t you deal with them, like… like the others?

The traitor clamped his mouth shut, realising his question could be taken as a challenge, or worse; an insult. He closed his eyes as the hound-thing snuffled and the stench of its blood-slicked breath wafted over him. Heart hammering, he realised the question had caught the aliens off-guard. They had paused. More words passed in their harsh tongue. The traitor fought to control his shivers then decided to try and show his worth to them.

‘They may just be passing through,’ he said. ‘If you were to… suspend activities here for now… let them think you have gone, then they will surely leave after time.’

The Haemonculus translated and the traitor quailed as the deep voice of the Baron boomed back.

‘We are not let the mon-keigh scum think they beat us!’ translated the Haemonculus. ‘You try to inspire the people of Coplin? Nothing are change. Nothing! Coplin belongs to us!’

Despite everything, the traitor’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. The xenos were as impossible to understand as they were terrifying.

‘You watch them. You tell us everything,’ said the Haemonculus, and the traitor nodded dumbly, realising he had stayed his execution one more time, finding a way to make the aliens need him alive.

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Thu Jul 05, 2012 7:16 am

= XX =

‘THIS PLACE STINKS!’ growled Rasmus, stomping down the exit ramp of the shadowhawk.

Markius followed him, his nostrils flaring as he took his first breaths on Beta-Coplin XXI. The stench was like rotten galau bird eggs. A bilious yellow landscape glared at him, stretching away across rocky plains towards jagged rubicund mountains that frowned in the distance. Plumes of foul-coloured smoke steadily chugged from the mountains, indicating volcanic activity and poisoning the thin, pale atmosphere. Winds shifted, hissing at the strangers.

‘It’s sulphur,’ said Apothecary Sören, cupping a hand over his brow while his eyes adjusted to the actinic glow of the system’s dense sun. The other marines looked at him. Sören explained, ‘Most of this planet’s crust is formed of sulphur-iron compounds and sulphides. It spews out of the volcanoes and makes that smell.’

‘Oho! Thank you, Brother Scholar!’ said Borias with a wicked smile.

Scholar. That was a new nickname the men had come up with for Sören and his increasing bookishness. The Apothecary let the taunt go with a knowing wink and inside, Markius grinned.

The mood amongst his men had lightened considerably, the rumour of their induction into the Deathwatch spreading like wildfire. The surprising bounty was welcomed, and they were as eager as tundra wolves in mating season. Not just to avenge their fallen brothers, but for a newly promised future of honour and glory, too. The blazing sun of this alien planet now illuminated a new path for them.

Inquisitor Zharn exited the ramp and joined his Psiren agents, gathered nearby. The slender women had donned ponchos over their black bodygloves and wrapped head-scarves so that only their goggled eyes were visible, their pale skin vulnerable to the star’s high level of radiation. Nyx, the one with the green eyes, checked scanning equipment in her backpack, while Maia hefted a long sniper-rifle over her shoulder. Selena, the one with the cropped hair, carried medical testing equipment and Markius wondered to what purpose little Yuri had a backpack full of demolition ordnance.

The inquisitor briefed his agents in whispers, clad in a close-fitting suit of black carapace armour beneath a long desert coat. The Psiren agents were, as ever, quietly efficient. Markius hardly ever heard them speak, unlike Athena. She leant against a nearby boulder, arms crossed, scowling and staring across the yellow plains towards the huddled collection of dark blocks that were the planet’s capital city and principle settlement, Kharthan.

‘Why don’t we walk it, eh?’ Rasmus stepped beside Markius.

‘Good idea,’ said Lieutenant Tobias, tightening the strap of his slung rifle, ‘We can get a feel for the place.’

‘I agree,’ Inquisitor Zharn now joined them. ‘It will also cover the reason for this drop-off, as I’m sure they will be tracking the gunship’s flight with interest.’

The inquisitor took Markius to one side for a moment. He said in a lowered voice, ‘You will have to be very careful with the planetary governor. You will need his cooperation.’

Markius raised his eyebrows, ‘We are here to help him!’

‘Indeed,’ said Zharn. ‘But in my experience, planetary governors facing xenos persecution are rather like glitterstimm addicts: They find it very hard to admit that they have a problem. You are Astartes, and you will assert the Emperor’s will, but you will scare him, and you may find it impossible to complete your mission while battling indigenous forces, too.’

Markius grimaced. Politics were not his domain, and he was sure Athena would be a hindrance rather than a help, too, whatever the old man felt.

‘He would set the planetary defence forces against us?’ said Markius.

‘One hopes he is not that insane, but when men in power are threatened they can become unpredictable. Bear that in mind. We are about to upset the status quo that has persisted here for four hundred years.’

Markius nodded understanding as Zharn moved out with his Psiren agents, disappearing into the sulphur desert on their own mission. He turned to his gathered scouts. With their enhanced biology, marines did not need protection against the harsh environment, but they had changed to desert-pattern camouflage fatigues, reinforced by the usual scout-pattern, carapace armour plates.

‘What d’ya want to do?’ Burrin voxed from the flight deck of the shadowhawk.

‘Take the ‘hawk on ahead,’ Markius voxed back. ‘I want to see this capital city for myself.’

* * *

‘WHY DID YOU argue so hard for a boarding mission?’ Markius asked Athena as they marched across the ochre plain. Athena had discarded her poncho in the heat, her slender form clad in her usual black bodyglove, hellpistol and combat blade holstered in the wide utility belt slung from her hips.

She shrugged and said, ‘They were friends of Burrin. He asked for help.’

Markius shook his head. Athena could be infuriatingly complex sometimes, but at others she would make starkly simple decisions and then hold to them with uncompromising passion. They were coming to the outskirts of Kharthan now, and Markius saw it was not much of a city afterall. He checked on his men; marching in step, not attempting to hide their approach.

The members of Omega squad were together, and Markius could not detect any animosity between Goran and Rasmus. Markius had finally taken Goran’s advice and made him First-Sergeant, in command of the squad. But the merged unit was to be called Omega: A compromise. In the thrill of the news about induction into the Deathwatch, petty arguments like this seemed irrelevant now. Even Lars had not protested too strongly about riding ahead with Burrin and Magos Gaius in the shadowhawk, though he had not taken too well to the idea of learning to co-pilot the gunship. Markius shrugged off worries about his company as they passed the first structures of Kharthan.

‘That is a waste,’ announced Apothecary Sören, indicating a low, flat structure of black metal resembling an artificial crop field on raised struts. Its top was transpariflex and Markius saw rows and rows of plants within, growing in a sludge lifted a metre clear of the yellow, dusty soil of Beta-Coplin XXI.

‘This planet is clearly short of moisture, and trying to cultivate hydroponics is like fighting against the environment. If extracted properly, sulphides make excellent fertilizer.’

‘Oho! The Scholar speaks again,’ jibed Brother Borias. Sören glanced at Markius and said, ‘Well, it is a waste…’

Markius shook his head and said, ‘I hope you have been studying those hypertoxins as hard as you have been reading up on this planet!’

Passing several more artificial fields of the hydroponic plants, they came to what seemed like habitation units. Markius retained dim memories of his childhood, his people struggling for survival in ice storms under feral-age mammoth-skin tents, but even to his eyes these buildings looked unfit. Sheets of dust-scoured corrugated metal were smashed together in leaning, slipshod shacks. Detritus was everywhere, vehicle doors recycled as entry portals, battered metal buckets with holes patched up.

‘Where is everyone, eh?’ said Rasmus, stepping beside his captain. The sprawling slum-city was silent but for the hissing winds curling through wide, dusty streets. Markius had a sudden fear that they were too late; everyone was long dead. But as they advanced, the marines gradually saw more and more signs of life. Cables shuddered, indicating power remained here and there; more of the hydroponic fields, the malnourished plants clinging onto life within.

Then they spotted the first of the residents. Corrugated panels over glassless windows slammed shut. Markius glimpsed a skinny human before it disappeared behind a shutter, clad in tattered grey cloaks and a hood. He thought he saw yellow eyes with tiny, pinpoint pupils in a weather-beaten face.

‘They are scared of us,’ said Goran, now coming to walk abreast with Markius and Rasmus at the head of the column. Markius could guess why. With Goran’s over-sized powerfist and his newly-shaved Mohican of black hair, alongside Rasmus with his sabretooth necklace and stomping bionic leg, they were even more imposing than marines would normally have been to frightened humans.

‘Let them be,’ Markius said, ‘we make for the main building, there.’

It was unmistakable, a squat fortress towering over the ramshackle town and dominating the skyline. That could only be the seat of the planetary government. Turning more corners and marching down unmade streets of yellow dust, Markius noticed the buildings become gradually more substantial the closer they came to the fortress. Some rose two or three stories, built with proper reinforced columns, but still the dilapidated, thrown-together nature of the city was everywhere.

They spotted more humans, quietly hurrying to and fro before disappearing into the shadows of maze-like alleyways between the leaning buildings. They were clad in tattered robes, often hooded, scant defense against the harsh environment. Markius sensed news of the approach of his company was quietly spreading through the city, and more and more pairs of pinpoint pupils spied on them from shadows.

They turned a corner and came upon a group of children skipping across circles they had scratched in the stinking sulphur dirt. The children froze, faced by towering space marines. But they did not run, instead staring, innocent fascination writ across their scabby features. The white parts of their eyes were stained a deep yellow, as if suffused with the sulphur of their environment, while the irises were non-existent, only tiny black pupils peering. Where their faces were not protected by rags, Markius saw pale skin, peeling and scabby from the background radiation. Hair, universally black, fell in limp, straggly clumps.

Athena stepped forwards and bent to one knee before the nearest child; a girl, Markius guessed. Athena’s usual scowl softened into a kind smile.

The child said something in her local language, and when Athena frowned, she said, ‘Here… save us?’

‘From the xenos?’ Athena said, but the child looked away and pointed at something, before saying more words they did not understand. Athena followed her tiny pointing finger and straightened. Then Markius saw it too.

Plastered across the wall of a tall building, peeling at its edges and bleached by the intense heat and winds, a huge poster of a man glared down at them. He was pale-skinned and black haired, but the portrait gave him a much more healthy bearing than that of the skinny children. A thick moustache bristled under a full nose and heavy-browed, dominating eyes glared. Markius noticed they had proper irises, a dark brown hue. He was clad in an olive uniform, medals pinned across his wide chest. A peaked officer’s cap settled imperiously on his head. One word was written in tall block letters across the bottom of the poster: KARIM.

‘That looks like our planetary governor, eh?’ said Rasmus.

Athena said, ‘These people are impoverished and lack basic tech for survival. I can’t wait to meet this man…’

Markius glanced at Athena, noticing her scowl return, and a small warning bell chimed in the back of his head.

‘We will need to work with the government, not against it,’ Markius reminded her. She shrugged and turned away.

Another turn and they marched down an avenue that looked like the main commercial area of the city, such as it was in this run-down place. Shop fronts and warehouses leaned against one another, seemingly deserted as the day reached its zenith and the white heat of the sun scorched everything. The air shimmered with the haze of actinic heat, and the rotten stench intensified. Another corner and another sight greeted the marines.

Squatting beneath temporary awnings of thick cloth pitched over metal poles driven into the ground, cloak-swathed humans huddled. Signs were scrawled in the curling local script, alongside numerals in Gothic. Markius peered at them, trying to work out what they were peddling to the sparse crowds that visited them. One of the vendors seemed to be reading an outstretched palm and writing down numbers.

Apothecary Sören consulted a data-slate. He said, ‘Foresee… destiny… lucky numbers?’

The other marines realised he was translating from data-files on the local language. Markius looked again at the signs. He recognised one word in Gothic. It read, ‘Exodus.’

‘What’s the Exodus, eh?’ said Rasmus.

‘I will read your future and tell you your numbers!’ one of the peddlers crowed to passing humans in confident Gothic. Markius noticed the customers clutched to their breasts plastek wafers that looked like tickets. The humans that spotted the marines fell quiet and stared. The silence gradually spread through the small groups, but still many continued their business, unaware of the Astartes in their midst.

‘Is this witchcraft?’ Markius said, a growl tightening his throat.

The marines stomped over towards one of the tents, locals scattering in terror at their approach. Markius peered into the shadow beneath the cover, its darkness stark against the bright glare of the sun. The cowled human within whimpered. Markius spotted scattered bones and amulets.

‘I thought psykers had been purged from this Emperor-forsaken place!’ he said, reaching for his boltpistol. He felt Athena’s slight hand touch his arm and turned to her.

‘Not witches,’ she said, observing the peddlers. ‘Just fakes, offering some kind of mystical numbers.’

‘Fakes?’ said Markius, noticing coins changing hands amongst the stalls. ‘Then why do the people buy it?’

‘They are desperate for whatever this Exodus is,’ Athena said. ‘The numbers mean something.’

Markius was prevented from considering this further as Rasmus pointed and said, ‘There: That must be the main entrance to the fortress, eh?’

Markius followed his gesture and saw, at the end of the street, the towering walls of the planetary government building. Two huge doors, twice as high as a thunderhawk, glowered from within a recessed arch. They were shut. An Imperial Aquila was carved across them. The rest of the fortress walls were bare, black metal, rising to crenellations and heavy-weapon gun points that glared down at the ramshackle city. More huge portraits of Karim were plastered at regular intervals along the walls.

The marines gathered again and Markius led them towards the gates. Striding nearer, Markius noticed two more gun-nests at ground level constructed from military-grade plasteel squatting either side of the gates, with low-roofed guard houses behind. Instincts kicking in, he began sizing up the soldiers that manned them.

The soldiers straightened as the marines approached, languid poses of confidence replaced by surprise at the sight of the towering Astartes warriors. They clutched their standard-issue lasguns a little more tightly. Markius noted the simple, hardy and cheap to manufacture rifles that were the staple of defence forces across the Imperium were ready and loaded. The soldiers wore fatigues of a deep olive-green, hardly of use in the yellow-bleached landscape. Markius quickly concluded that these uniforms were designed to be noticed, not for camouflage. Proper anti-glare goggles were pushed back over the peaks of stiff cylindrical caps, unneeded in the cool shadows that the soldiers occupied beneath the gates. Rebreather masks were unfastened and dangled around necks.

Each step that the marines took towards the soldiers seemed to increase their alarm, Markius noting their nervous shifting. Though they stood taller and straighter than the other humans of this world, their confidence was quickly draining. Markius recognised heavy bolters of a similar pattern to that carried by Brother Patreus in the gun-nests, mounted on tripods for no normal human could lift and fire such a weapon. One of the men, a sergeant perhaps, barked orders to the others. More emerged from the guard houses, buttoning jackets and hefting lasguns. There was a full unit of them now, over thirty by a quick count.

‘They didn’t expect us to show up like this, eh?’ growled Rasmus, stomping along on his bionic leg next to Markius. The big marine chuckled, enjoying the rising tension, but Markius wondered if he had made a mistake by not arriving on the shadowhawk as had been planned. He remembered the inquisitor’s words of advice and did not want a confrontation with the planetary defence forces so soon.

The marines halted twenty paces before the gates, the guards now all at full alert and facing them. The sergeant shouted something at them that sounded like a challenge. Like all of his men, he sported a bushy moustache of the same black hair, and stared at the marines with the sharp, focused pupils in the centre of sulphur-yellow eyes. Though they were pale-skinned, the soldiers looked far healthier than the other residents of Kharthan.

‘What now?’ Goran whispered at Markius’s ear. The marines had quietly brought their bolters to ready position, but following their captain’s lead did not overtly threaten the guards. Markius was thankful for that. The Astartes exuded a confident superiority compared to the nervous humans, despite being outnumbered, but he was wary of the firepower of those heavy bolters.

‘Ho there!’ shouted Markius, ‘We are expected by your Governor Karim. We are Adeptus Astartes of the Holy God-Emperor. Let us pass.’

Several of the guards chatted to one another in their own language, and the sergeant gestured at the marines and shouted back at them. Markius caught the word ‘Astartes’ amongst their exchange, as well as fingers pointed at the Imperial Aquila symbol engraved on the doors above them. The sergeant seemed the most belligerent, his men obviously wanting to be anywhere but facing down a dozen elite space marines.

Markius took another step and shouted again, ‘Open these doors!’

The guards responded by training their rifles on Markius, though he noticed their hands trembling as they continued to argue with one another. The marines tensed, shifting their own weapons, but Markius called to them, ‘Hold!’

‘Is it really necessary for us to put up with this nonsense?’ Goran said in his sardonic tone. He flexed his powerfist, deliberately staring at the nearest guardsman. The human gulped.

‘No, it is not,’ growled Rasmus, hefting his power-axe into an attack grip. Markius glared at his old friend, slightly annoyed that he had followed the lead of Goran so quickly. The stand-off endured for what seemed like a long time to Markius as he tried to decide what to do. Athena had sauntered away somewhere.

Finally, another human emerged in a hurry from some hidden side-door in the recess before the mighty gates. He was uniformed in the same drab olive-green, but wore an officer’s cap and gold-embroidered red flashes across his shoulders. He also had the thick moustache that almost seemed part of the uniform for these soldiers, and this bristled as he reprimanded the sergeant in charge of the gate guards. Markius sighed with relief as the humans stood down, lowering their weapons and happily retreating back into their guard houses.

‘Ah well. That would have been a bit of fun, eh?’ Rasmus growled.

‘No, it would not,’ Markius said. ‘We are here to help these men, remember?’

Rasmus and Goran exchanged disappointed shrugs, and again Markius felt a hot stab of annoyance towards his old friend. Then the officer approached them. With a groan of metal and rarely-used machinery, the huge doors began to open inwards beyond him.

‘I am apologising,’ said the officer. He was slightly breathless, too old for front-line command, Markius decided, but with a soft, almost likeable tone to his voice. His spoke Gothic with only a trace of an accent. ‘We thought you are arriving in your gunship, and I only just am understanding that you are here at the gates. These guards… they knew not about your coming.’

‘Then it is I who must apologise. We must have been quite a surprise for them,’ said Markius, smiling back at the officer, trying to release the last of the tension of the confrontation. The soldiers peeped from firing slits within the guard houses. The officer jumped at Markius’s voice at first, but seemed to relax a little as he processed the marine’s words in his mind, pinpoint eyes darting and scanning the Astartes. Markius checked and was happy to see them also stand down without needing the order.

The officer gulped and then bowed, saying, ‘I am General Djamal Saifi of the Beta-Coplin XXI Defence Force. It is being my task to welcome you to our planet, but… I seem to have been failed… isn’t it?’

Markius imagined the general’s terror when he had been given this thankless task and suppressed a chuckle. After the stand-off he was happy that their first encounter with government forces had not ended in a misunderstanding.

‘No matter,’ said Markius. ‘I am Captain Markius of the Emperor’s Talons. Now we will meet with your planetary governor.’

* * *

ATHENA APPEARED AGAIN, trotting beside Markius as they approached the recess beneath the mighty gates.

‘Where did you run off to?’ Markius said.

‘I had you covered,’ she spat back. ‘My first shot would have been between that sergeant’s eyes if he had dared to order an attack.’

Markius looked at her with raised eyebrows.

She said, ‘Just because I don’t stand out in the open like a fool waiting for his fraggin’ head to be blown off doesn’t mean I am not ready to fight.’

Markius shook his head but Athena continued, ‘Besides, while you were playing your little staring game I noticed something. Look at that.’

They had not passed under the arch yet, and Athena pointed to a spot further along and outside the walls. Civilians were arguing with more of the soldiers. Three rag-swathed women looked like they were begging two laughing soldiers, hands outstretched. The women carried buckets and Markius noticed the soldiers were guarding an industrial sized spigot. The men also had their hands out, but when the women did not give them anything, they waved them away.

‘The water supply is controlled by the government fortress, too,’ said Athena, ‘and these soldiers are milking the civilians for everything they can get. These are supposed to be a defence force, to guard the population!’

‘Alright, Athena,’ sighed Markius, turning away from the scene. ‘We have a mission here, and it is not to put right every single injustice we might find. Remember the inquisitor placed you under my command.’

Athena scowled as they entered the fortress.

Inside, it became clear that the outer fortress walls formed battlements forty metres thick, guarding a wide rockcrete courtyard almost as big as the city outside. Markius counted over fifty battle tanks of the ubiquitous Leman Russ design, lined up and painted in the same drab green. Though neatly parked, they looked dusty, as if they had not been deployed in a long time. More squads of green-uniformed soldiers marched to and fro, and Markius surmised the fortress was also a barracks.

To the right, a squadron of fighter planes squatted, and beyond them Markius saw circular landing areas marked with flashing luminators buried into the rockcrete. The shadowhawk was landed here, Burrin lounging against its forewing. The stocky man gave Markius a salute, but there was no sign of Brother Lars or Magos Gaius. Markius frowned as he also recognised Balth’s shuttle from the Xiphias on a neighbouring landing pad.

Ahead, a brutal cube of a mansion dominated the courtyard, reinforced with military-grade plasteel shielding and more gun-nests glowering down from towers at every corner. General Saifi led them towards it, hurrying to keep ahead of the long strides of the marines. As they passed, all heads turned to stare at them with the distinctive Beta-Coplin eyes.

Entering the main building, Markius felt the temperature instantly drop and air moisture similarly rise. His neuroglottis tasted carefully conditioned air circulating within the building, and the sudden absence of the sulphur stink that permeated everything on Coplin.

Saifi led them down wide corridors of cool grey rockrete, passing double-sets of doorways leading into bustling administrative offices. The administrators, too, wore the olive-green uniforms of the military. The marines also passed more portraits mounted on the walls within golden frames, and all seemed to be of the same man: Karim. Markius noted small differences in details between them; hairstyles or thickness of moustache, and each seemed to capture the man’s face at a different age.

‘Are they all of the same man or a line of relatives?’ Athena wondered out loud. If General Saifi heard her question, he did not answer, hurrying ahead and exchanging curt salutes with anyone who came across their path. After saluting their general, the humans stopped and stared open-mouthed at the gigantic marines that made even the grand corridors of their government building seem small.

Saifi paused before grilled doors to elevators, but glanced at the marines and seemed to decide against using them. Instead he led them up a grand staircase, this time thickly carpeted in what must have been off-world fabrics. The marines stomped up the stairs, aware of the gathering of staring faces behind them.

When Saifi paused in an antechamber containing an elaborate set of gilded doors twice as high as even the Astartes, Markius finally saw Brother Lars. The heavily augmented marine was pacing before the doors like a sabretooth in a pit-trap, his anger almost palpable. Standing guard before the doors, ten more of the green-uniformed soldiers stood to a nervous attention. Set atop black-veined marble pillars, two identical busts of smooth white stone, again of Governor Karim, flanked the doors. Magos Gaius waited silently and as still as the statues in the shadow beside one pillar.

‘Captain!’ said Lars, his voice metallic through his augmetic throat replacement, ‘I did not want to act without your order…’

‘What is going on here?’ snarled Goran, and even Markius was getting tired of the theatrical delays to their audience with the governor. Saifi exchanged some hurried words with one of the guards, then turned back to Markius. His pale face drained an even paler shade.

‘I am sorry, Captain… but it seems in your delaying, the governor has had must tend to other matters. He is currently in session. I am only apologising again…’

‘No need to apologise, just get out of our way,’ said Markius. He knew he needed to cooperate with the governor, but they were Astartes, warriors of the Holy God Emperor, and it was time to assert themselves.

‘Talons, with me,’ said Markius, and together they stomped towards the doors. The guards exchanged looks of panic with General Saifi and then froze, midway through the action of bringing up their rifles.

‘Captain, please! This is against protocols…’ said Saifi, hurrying beside Markius but not daring to step in front of him.

The guards thankfully suffered a fit of common sense and scattered before the space marines, leaving the doors clear. Goran shoved one open with his bionic arm to reveal a lavishly decorated chamber of state within. Chandeliers glittered from the high, fresco-painted ceiling and a score of plush burgundy leather chairs set in a semicircle surrounded a central dais. Atop this, before a huge table of off-world mahogany wood and what must have been Karim’s throne, the governor himself argued angrily with none other than… Balth Kessiandas.

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby Mauthos » Thu Jul 05, 2012 8:45 am

Intriguing chapter, nice scene setting and yet more well thought out character development. The only gripes I have are a slight editing error:

but it seems in your delaying, the governor has had must tend to other matters

As this sentence doesn't quite make sense and the fact that Athena regularly scowls when you had previously stated that the Psiren's had all covered their pale skin in protection against the radiation and only their eye goggles were visible. If Athena hasn't covered her face, then all is fine, it just might be pertinent to mention it as it did stand out to me.

Although, as I have come to expect from your good self, great stuff as usual, roll on the next chapter. :)
Simplicity is the key to brilliance.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Thu Jul 05, 2012 9:02 am

Mauthos wrote:Intriguing chapter, nice scene setting and yet more well thought out character development. The only gripes I have are a slight editing error:

but it seems in your delaying, the governor has had must tend to other matters

As this sentence doesn't quite make sense and the fact that Athena regularly scowls when you had previously stated that the Psiren's had all covered their pale skin in protection against the radiation and only their eye goggles were visible. If Athena hasn't covered her face, then all is fine, it just might be pertinent to mention it as it did stand out to me.

Although, as I have come to expect from your good self, great stuff as usual, roll on the next chapter. :)

Thanks as always for keeping on with this story, Mauthos. I should explain that Saifi (as well as other people on this planet) will make errors like this as they speak. Gothic is not their first language.

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Fri Jul 06, 2012 6:53 am

= XXI =

‘HOW DARE YOU address an Imperial Governor in such a way?’ rumbled Karim, his moustache bristling. He puffed up his considerable bulk – the posters were flattering, Markius decided – into his wide chest, beneath the rows of medals across his military dress suit.

‘We made a contract!’ said Balth. ‘How dare you act surprised when I now ask for payment?’

‘This order was supposed to have been cancelled,’ said Karim, jabbing a fat finger towards a trio of nervous-looking aides in olive uniforms standing nearby.

‘Your internal mistakes are not my concern,’ said Balth. ‘Do you know how many men I lost to deliver this order? I swear by the Holy Throne I will make sure every merchant captain in the sector will hear of this! No wonder the Coplin run is so shunned!’

‘What is going on here?’ bellowed Markius, and was impressed by the power of his own voice reverberating around the circular chamber. It appeared to have been designed to produce just such an effect. Both men paused in their remonstrations and saw the marines for the first time.

Karim instantly quailed, his thick moustache quivering beneath the bulbous nose, but Balth brightened at the sight of them.

‘It is thanks to your bravery that I am here,’ said Balth. Karim quickly recovered, summoning the courage to rumble in a deep voice, ‘I left orders not to be disturbed.’

He peered beyond the marines, his deep-set eyes noticing the sheepish figure of Saifi and his soldiers loitering at the doorway to the chamber, and angrily motioned for his troops to enter.

‘I am Captain Markius of the Emperor’s Talons Adeptus Astartes and I demand your attention right now.’

Balth took a step towards the marines, hand outstretched, and said, ‘Captain, my sincere thanks for your deliverance of the Xiphias. Now this… contract-breaker is trying to get out of paying for his order!’

‘Captain Markius,’ said Karim, now calmer and attempting to assert his own authority despite the imposing presence of the towering marines, ‘I am Salhan Karim, appointed Governor of Beta-Coplin XXI by divine authority of our Holy Emperor, and I am busy right at this moment.’

Booted feet drummed on the polished floor as more Beta-Coplin troopers marched into the chamber.

‘Then let us settle this,’ said Athena, appearing beside Markius. He blinked at her as she continued. ‘I am Athena, Imperial Liaison-Officer with the Astartes. Let us view this contract and decide its authenticity.’

‘That would be absolutely fine by me, my dear,’ said Balth, offering Athena a charming smile. Markius winced, knowing how Athena would resent the condescending form of address, but before she could deliver an angry retort, Karim threw up his hands.

He said, ‘Now, now… I’m sure that will not be necessary. This is but a misunderstanding, no?’

Balth turned and raised his eyebrows at the governor and Markius was impressed with Athena’s timely suggestion. Karim continued, ‘Yes, just a misunderstanding. You must appreciate my position means I must deal with many things at once. You,’ he said, jabbing a finger at one of the aides, ‘please take Master Kessiandas and arrange transfer of funds.’

‘But, My Lord,’ said the aide. ‘We don’t have…’

‘Do not worry me about details for now. Just get on with it! Master Kessiandas, if you please…’ Karim suddenly seemed very keen for Balth to leave the chamber, giving him a gentle shove towards the aide. The merchant captain shrugged, nodded his thanks to the marines once more and then slowly made his way after the scurrying aide. He passed Magos Gaius, who had glided into the chamber upon his gently whirring locomotive augmetics.

‘Now then, Captain Markius, what can I do for you?’ Karim straightened and again attempted to regain some measure of assertiveness. His soldiers seemed to be heading for pre-arranged ceremonial positions around the circumference of the chamber.

‘We are here to deal with your xenos problem.’

‘Then I am so sorry to say you have had a wasted journey. They no longer bother us,’ said Karim.

‘That’s not true!’ said Balth, pausing before the doors to the chamber. ‘I heard there was an attack planetside just three days ago!’

‘Why are you still here?’ Karim shot him an angry look and gestured to the soldiers to hurry the merchant captain out. They reluctantly obeyed, eyeing the marines nervously.

‘He lies,’ said Karim, when Balth had finally left the chamber. Around forty of his soldiers had now turned up and taken positions around the circumference of the hall, and Karim seemed to have recovered his confidence from this, pacing pompously before his throne. Markius ignored the soldiers and stared at the governor, scrutinising his face. He had denied the problem, just as the inquisitor had said he would.

‘Negative; the merchant tells the truth,’ said a familiar metallic voice. Magos Gaius quietly slid into position alongside Athena, his ocular lenses focusing on the governor. ‘I observed two sites of recent xenos-inflicted destruction on the surface of Beta-Coplin XXI from orbit.’

The governor stopped and turned, thinking about how to reply. Markius glared at Karim again, daring him to defy the logic of the tech-priest. Karim finally slumped into his padded throne behind the mahogany table and sighed.

‘Alright, alright: Tell me what you need,’ said the governor.

* * *

‘WE WILL USE this as our central strategium,’ said Markius, indicating the cubic bunker. A whole wing of the barracks housed within the fortress walls had been assigned to the marines, and his men were busily organising and billeting down.

A broad metal table, simple and functional in the military style, stood at the centre of the dingy chamber, with three cogitator units cabled to power supplies through a hole in the rockcrete floor beneath. Stark shadows were thrown from the harsh luminator tubes fixed behind grills to the low ceiling, increasing the sense of being in a battle-bunker. General Djamal Saifi nodded understanding. Beside him, more aides tapped notes onto datapads.

‘Confirmative,’ said Magos Gaius. ‘These cogitators will link to my units without problem. Interrogation: When can you arrange the data transfer?’

General Saifi looked at one of his aides, who said something in their local language.

‘We are working on your request now. How far back do you want the records?’

‘Qualification: As far as they go. Every single recorded incident of xenos attack on Beta-Coplin XXI. I will merge this information with our data regarding the attacks at the Vistro Corridor.’

The aide disappeared at Saifi’s command. Markius regarded the general. It seemed a menial and inglorious task for the commander of indigenous forces to be assigned as their liaison, and Markius briefly wondered whether the governor had imposed this upon him, or he had volunteered. He seemed to desire to be helpful, though, and indeed his aides rushed to comply with all their requests. But despite his soft tone and eager words, Markius did not quite trust General Saifi. Many things seemed to be going on in his head behind those constantly darting, pinpoint pupils.

‘My thanks, General,’ said Markius. ‘We do not require you any further for the moment. Is there a way we can communicate when the records are ready?’

‘Yes, Captain,’ Saifi indicated a vox unit mounted in the rockrete wall. ‘Channel One.’

Markius waited until Saifi got the hint and exited the chamber, leaving the marines alone.

‘Rasmus,’ said Markius, ‘call together the command staff. I want a meeting now in the strategium.’

* * *

‘SO, WHAT DO you think?’ Markius asked the gathered personnel. The squad leaders of the Emperor’s Talons, including Lieutenant Tobias and Apothecary Sören, had squeezed into the bunker. Magos Gaius was already working at the cogitator terminals at the desk, while Athena had propped herself against a wall in the corner, beyond the pool of white light thrown by the luminator tubes.

‘Wait,’ she said, and all eyes turned to her. Athena took something from her utility belt, a fist-sized circular device, paced to the table, and placed it on the metal surface. She touched several runes in a sequence and a red light blinked on in its centre. Just at the high end of his enhanced hearing range, Markius sensed an electronic hum emanate from the device.

‘We are now damped. No eavesdropping device will penetrate this room,’ she declared. Markius nodded approval, then looked to his men.

‘I think this is a poor excuse for an Imperial world, and it is a waste of time us being here!’ said Goran. The sullen tone had returned ever since their talk outside the medicae. Markius wondered what was wrong with his old rival. Was it the merged squad? His loss of men on the Xiphias? With a hiss, the serpent in the back of his mind reared up, He resents your success. He hates that under your command they will achieve induction into the glorious Deathwatch at such a young age. Markius’s stomach twisted and he barked back at Goran.

‘We are here on a mission, and if we succeed we will finally reclaim our glory as warriors of our Holy Emperor! Do not forget it.’

Goran made a face offering submission, but still those green eyes glinted. The serpent glared back through Markius’s eyes, hissing. Then Markius turned to Tobias.

‘Indigenous capability, Lieutenant?’

Tobias said, ‘I’d say about four thousand within this barracks. Training looks rudimentary at best – all marching and saluting. You saw the armour and air force, though they look poorly maintained. I’m not sure we can count on them if it came to a strike outside Kharthan. They don’t have the means to move quickly.’

‘They don’t have the desire, either,’ Sergeant Andreus added. The other marines nodded agreement.

‘Agreed,’ said Tobias. ‘The xenos don’t look inclined to attack this fortress, and so the army doesn’t want to leave its safety.’

‘They are a bunch of fraggin’ parasites!’ Athena spoke up. Markius sighed as she continued. ‘They sacrifice defence of the planet for an easy life dominating the civilians.’

‘Aye. Thugs with guns, eh?’ Rasmus said.

Goran nodded, ‘Right. They are happy enough to intimidate the locals, but you saw them jump out of the way when we faced them.’

‘And that Karim is right in on it,’ said Athena. ‘You saw how he flaunts his power in that mansion while they live outside in squalor!’

‘Alright,’ said Markius, feeling that he was losing direction of the meeting. ‘So we form strategy without them. Apothecary Sören, any progress?’

‘I have been running tests on the hypertoxin samples,’ said Sören, cupping his prominent chin in a thoughtful posture. ‘They display similar qualities to records provided by the Arcis databanks.’

‘So you can design countermeasures?’ said Markius.

Sören shifted uncomfortably on the spot. He said, ‘No. Not yet. Everything I have tried seems to stimulate the substances. It’s not bacteria, but it behaves almost as if alive…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The toxins… mutate… in response to outside stimuli. It is beyond the technology of the Imperium, I fear…’

Markius exhaled, then said, ‘So, we will need to be careful when we face them again.’

‘What we need, Captain, is power armour,’ said Goran. An uncomfortable silence spread through the strategium chamber.

‘He’s right, eh?’ growled Rasmus, and Markius saw from their stances that the others agreed. Rasmus continued, ‘We are not just scouts any more. We have proved ourselves as full battle brothers, yet we still wear the carapace armour. When do we get full battle plate, eh?’

All eyes turned to Magos Gaius. He paused for several moments.

‘Exposition: While we can manufacture the simpler physical components on the Arcis, and also perform the black-carapace implants, we cannot create the machine-spirits required to drive full Astartes power-armour.’

‘Why not, eh?’

‘Exposition: While we can produce approximates, the giving of blessed life to the complex machine-spirits in ancient battle plate suits is an art lost in the Dark Age of Technology. It is also forbidden by the ancient Treaty of Mars.’

The marines silently digested this. Markius frowned, wondering how he would feel upon induction into the glorious Deathwatch while still wearing the carapace armour of a neophyte.

‘On the other hand,’ Lieutenant Tobias broke the silence, ‘we still have two shadowhawks, plenty of firepower and orbital support from the Arcis. These are the tools at our disposal. Now we just have to catch the ghouls.’

Markius silently thanked his lieutenant for once again taking the practical view and focusing them all on the mission, also noting that he had used the word ghouls. He briefly wondered if the nickname had come from Athena, but dismissed it as unimportant. He turned to Magos Gaius.

‘Yes. What do you have for us, Magos?’

The tech-priest straightened at being addressed again, and tiny engines whirred inside his metallic cranium.

‘Proposition: Using the data supplied by the planetary government, married with the files from Kar Duniash, I will produce a predictive simulation programme and project the next site and timing of xenos attack. With this, you will prepare and execute an ambush.’

Markius nodded, but Athena cut in.

‘You can’t catch them with a fraggin’ computer programme! These are eldar! They do not conform to human logic.’

‘Negative,’ said Gaius, his tone curt even through his vox-unit. ‘Despite common perceptions to the contrary, the activities even of the xenos eldar can be mapped: The randomness is a façade. With enough data, variables can be built in to account for this.’

The marines exchanged glances with Markius as the argument heated up between Athena and the Magos.

‘You can’t produce fraggin’ calculations for living, fickle ghouls!’ she said. ‘I bet I could get better information from the civilians living in terror across this planet. Human intelligence right here in Kharthan would be better!’

‘Cogitation: The human population of this planet is not sufficiently educated in xeno-lore or military strategy to offer any meaningful advice to Adeptus Astartes.’

‘That’s not what I meant and you know it, you fraggin’ machine!’

‘Athena, enough,’ said Markius. ‘Karim has submitted to our mission and provided everything we requested. I will not have you going off and inciting a rebellion.’

Athena folded her arms and glowered at him.

‘We will go with the Magos’s plan. All sergeants, have your squads on standby to deploy.’

At that point, Burrin strolled into the room.

‘Now then lads! There ya are!’ he said. He carried a bag of what looked like strips of dried meat. Munching on one of the odorous snacks, he offered this around the room. Markius knew the marines found it likable, if somewhat amusing, that the stocky man referred to them as ‘lads’. Burrin was senior to them in age if not stature, but it still always made them smile. But Markius frowned, unhappy with the interruption.

‘What are they, eh?’ Rasmus barely paused to sniff one of the strips before chewing off its end.

‘Goat jerkies!’ smiled Burrin, ‘Got ‘em off one of the soldiers.’

‘They have goats here?’ said Goran, also snatching one of the strips.

‘Aye, big sturdy things up in the mountain settlements, so they say,’ said Burrin.

‘Who is with the ‘hawk?’ Markius snapped.

‘Bah! Locked down safe enough. I’ll know if anyone tries to get in,’ said Burrin, tapping a device in a chest pocket of his overalls. Markius tutted at the stocky man, his thoughts going in too many directions at once.

‘I haven’t designated a guard schedule yet…’ Markius said to himself.

‘Let me do it, Captain,’ said Andreus, and Markius looked at the boyish grin above his albino-white beard.

‘Come on Markius, you have to delegate things now, eh?’ Rasmus gently encouraged. ‘We need you focused on strategic command.’

‘Aye,’ said Goran. ‘We need you to act like a captain.’

* * *

‘COGITATION: I WILL need to reconcile the local dating system with Imperial standard before the process begins,’ said Magos Gaius. ‘It is very complex, with the barycentric cycle lasting one hundred seventy one point nine two three Terran years, and over fifteen semi-distinct seasons.’

Athena skulked in the corner of the room as the tech-priest tapped away at the rune keys of the input console, a dozen chrome digits extended from each of his serpent-like mechadendrites.

‘Over one hundred and seventy years! I’ll bet the people here have little concept of a cycle of time beyond night and day. There will be few who have lived long enough to see all of the seasons,’ commented Athena.

‘How long before the predictive programme can be ready?’ said Markius, ignoring her.

Magos Gaius paused, computing. Then he said, ‘Cogitation: Much depends upon how quickly a recognizable pattern is detected… I shall be using a random blanket-bombardment of the data to find the match… but on previous applications of this process I would say seventeen point eight zero hours with a variance of fifteen point three hours.’

Markius scowled. The answer was precise but told him nothing.

‘Well, just make it as quick as possible. We cannot delay.’

‘Confirmative: Additional: I can exclude certain factors if…’

‘As quick as possible,’ Markius grunted.

Lingering near the open doorway to the strategium, General Saifi affected a small cough. Markius turned and understood he wanted to speak alone.

‘If you are having time…’ Saifi said quietly when Markius marched up next to him, ‘I like to show you something and… talk.’

Markius glanced back into the strategium. Magos Gaius was set on his task, while Burrin and Athena talked in whispers in the corner. His marines were busy setting up their duty rotas and checking munitions.

‘Alright, General,’ said Markius. ‘Let’s talk.’

Markius was surprised when Saifi led him back out into the streets of Kharthan. The boiling day had faded into night, but the sky was still dimly lit by the distant Alpha star, giving an early evening feel to the hot, sulphur-tainted atmosphere. In the dusk-like greyness, the city had come alive.

Shop-fronts were opened, vendors proclaiming their meager wares. Crowds of cloaked, malnourished people bustled. Carts, only half-loaded, were tugged along by hand by teams of people. Markius even spotted one of the mountain goats, a solidly built brute stubbornly refusing to move while over ten men yanked at its tethers.

‘Your… liaison officer is being right,’ said Saifi. ‘Time is slow here. They are saying we are now in the forfir, or before-fire season, while Alpha is staying in the night and far away. I myself only know dim childhood memories of lonndar, and as for nillnacht – well I am only heard stories. For us life is only the searing heat, and then the star-rise. Things move as the Emperor wills, isn’t it?’

Where Markius passed, people stopped their conversations and averted their eyes, though Markius sensed pinpoint pupils staring at his back. They seemed to recognise Saifi, too, and kept well out of his way.

‘Where are we going?’ said Markius.

‘Here,’ said the general, halting before a two-storey building that looked like a rudimentary bar. Markius could not read the sign painted in local script, but Saifi informed him the place was called, ‘Dassan’s.’

‘We are having one local delicacy I want you try,’ said Saifi, motioning the marine inside the establishment.

‘I am not here for social pleasures,’ growled Markius.

‘No, no… I understand,’ said Saifi, still trying to encourage Markius to enter, ‘but this is the way here on Coplin, yes? When men are talking, we drink qishr.’

Markius sighed and ducked his head to pass through the doorway into the establishment. A spindly, bald local in a threadbare apron tended a dented metal bar. Mismatched chairs and battered tables littered the room, dimly lit by failing luminators. What few patrons lurked within soon scattered at the sight of the mighty space marine. Mounted on the far wall, a large pict-screen chattered. The face of a pretty woman with dark hair filled the screen, pronouncing numbers in Gothic in what Markius took to be some sort of ceremony.

‘Dassan!’ Saifi said, stepping in after Markius. The tender’s already drooping face sagged further when he witnessed his newest customers. Unperturbed, and speaking in Gothic, Saifi called out with false cheeriness, ‘Two mugs of qishr!’

Dassan quickly and silently hurried to obey while Saifi made a show of deciding which table to sit at – they were all now deserted. Saifi glanced again at Markius’s bio-enhanced bulk and opted for a booth near the pict-screen. Markius nodded and carefully lowered his weight onto the groaning bench while Saifi took the seat opposite.

‘It is the only thing Beta-Coplin XXI is producing from native plants,’ Saifi explained as Dassan appeared with two cracked ceramic cups of a steaming black liquid. Markius’s neuroglottis informed him it was some sort of caffeine drink.

‘And it only is growing up on the high slopes. We must to have it brought in to Kharthan… terrible place for a capital city, this. But… as the Emperor wills, isn’t it?’

Markius narrowed his eyes at Saifi. The man was wasting his time. Saifi gestured to the drink and said, ‘At least try it.’

Markius tipped the hot, tar-like substance down his throat. He paused. It was actually quite good. He could taste the caffeine, but there was an exotic spice and sweet aftertaste unusual to such brews. Saifi smiled, registering the marine’s surprise.

‘You see? Good qishr!’

‘Yes, it is unusual,’ said Markius. ‘But I am no culinary expert. What is it you want from me, General?’

Saifi was about to answer when a man appeared at the door to the bar and called, ‘Alwalid!’

Markius turned in his seat and groaned. It was another of the green-uniformed soldiers; a junior officer judging from the scarlet flashes on his shoulders. Markius did not recognise the address he had used, and had already ascertained that the military on Beta-Coplin XXI used the Imperial term, General, for Saifi’s rank. He wondered if the newcomer had used some sort of unofficial form of address when he noted his face. It was very similar to the general’s, only younger, Markius decided.

‘Ah, Rafik!’ Saifi’s face brightened as he jumped to his feet. The general said to Markius, ‘My son…’

Saifi moved to greet Rafik and the two men met in the middle of the empty bar, exchanging a stiff, ceremonial kind of hug. Markius stood and nodded as Saifi introduced the younger man in Gothic.

‘Captain Markius of the Adeptus Astartes, this is Rafik Saifi, Lieutenant Second Class of the Coplin Armoured Regiment.’

The similarity was now obvious, Markius thought, as Rafik bowed his head. The son seemed excited about something, so much so that he quickly ignored Markius and began chattering with his father in their own language. Markius spotted one of the plastek tickets in the son’s hand, and Rafik gestured to the pict-screen as he explained something to his father.

At first the conversation had seemed happy enough, but Markius watched as General Saifi’s tone of voice became angry, and the father gestured with his hands in angry motions. Markius caught the word, Exodus, several times amongst their exchange. Both men spoke harshly to one another, gesturing vociferously, in what Markius took to be the custom on Beta-Coplin XXI.

The conversation did not seem to end well, Rafik stomping out of the bar while the father shouted after his son. Saifi finally retook his seat opposite Markius and fumed. After several moments Markius decided to break the silence.

‘What was that all about?’

‘Tashk! Rafik,’ said the general, ‘He is gone and having a winning set for the Exodus. He understands not!’

‘General,’ said Markius, ‘What is the Exodus?

‘Ah, of course, you could not be knowing… It’s a ship, Captain: A once by a lifetime voyage, sponsored by the merchant lines and sanctioned by Governor Karim.’

‘A ship, here on Coplin? Where does it go?’

‘To a new life, so the pict-screen shows would be having us believe…’ sighed Saifi. ‘Passage is the hiveworld, Vistro.’

Markius had learned from Magos Gaius that Vistro was an important trade and shipping centre, next only to the Imperial capital of Kar Duniash in significance to the Spartus Sector. It made sense that the destitute people of this terrorised world would be desperate to make this voyage. Everything fell into place in his understanding, the fake mystics promising to ‘read’ their desperate clients’ numbers.

‘The demand is being high, yet we have little of Imperial currency here, so tickets are being allocated on lottery basis – it is what this tashk is all about,’ continued Saifi, gesturing to the pict-screen.

Markius glanced at it. The pretty woman reading the numbers was now replaced by images of a choir in dark robes howling out some ear-scratching dirge. The ceremonial numbers now announced, Markius surmised this was the end of the lottery. And Saifi’s son had won a precious place on the ship.

‘You are not happy about his leaving?’ Markius said.

‘He plans taking his wife and his son… My… how do you say? Grandson?’

Markius nodded. He said, ‘Surely it is a blessing to escape to Vistro?’

‘Tashk,’ said Saifi. ‘Our youngest are being attracted by the stories of jobs and proper habitation. We must think the hive cities are built of gold there.’

Markius was still confused by Saifi’s anger. He said, ‘But it is safe… or safer than this place, at least. Do you not wish for such a future for your grandson? Once they are settled there, perhaps they can send currency to you – or even pay for you to join them.’

Saifi gave Markius a significant look with hooded eyes, the pinpoint pupils for once ceasing their nervous darting. The general said, ‘No-one is ever making contact again, once they are gone.’

‘You know this?’

‘I was not alive when the last Exodus left Coplin, but I am knowing the rumours, isn’t it?’

‘Still…’ said Markius, ‘you would try to stop them?’

‘I made life for us here, Captain,’ said Saifi. ‘I worked hard and found way for my family to prosper in this place. There are being… advantages to my rank, Captain.’

Markius watched Saifi as he wrestled to find the right words to say next. Eventually Saifi continued, ‘It is not perfect life, but what I have done I have done for my family, yes? Now… Now he is wanting to throw it all away.’

Markius allowed the silence to linger after this. He had learned some unexpected things, but was still not sure what the general had called him out to the bar for. Just what was it he wanted to say to the space marine? Markius was about to ask again, when Saifi abruptly changed his mood, straightened in his seat and forced a smile.

‘Dassan!’ Saifi called again to the tender. Markius noticed the man jolt at the sound of the general’s voice. ‘Let us get some of the firqishr! And the proper stuff – not that tashk you are giving your regular customers.’

‘General… I can’t… I mean… we ran out of the off-world amasec…’ Markius noticed Dassan spoke Gothic passably well, probably in deference to his presence, but was still nervous.

‘Talk not tashk to me, Dassan,’ smiled Saifi. ‘I sold you two bottles only four dusks ago – and we only drank one the before night!’

Dassan crept to the table and bowed his head, twisting a dirty towel in his hands.

‘I apologise, General, but it is all gone…’

‘I am knowing none of my men are here last night,’ said Saifi, his smile fading. His eyes narrowed. The kind tone of voice was still there, but Markius sensed a menace behind it now.

‘The slummers can afford not, so lie not to me, Dassan. You are daring to embarrass me in front our honoured guest? Perhaps I am too lenient when I spotted your young Djamal painted those slogans of insult against the governor the before night?’

‘No, General, please… you know Djamal is a good boy… I am not lying to you… I swear it!’

Markius watched this exchange quietly.

‘Then who drank it? Hmmm? Tell me that Dassan – for I put those bottles in your hands myself, yes?’

He did!’ hissed Dassan, jerking a thumb towards the bar. Markius turned in his bench seat and saw one of the patrons had not left. He remained sitting slumped at the bar. Markius recognised a fur cloak and grey overalls. As if prodded by the attention, Balth Kessiandas shoved himself into a sitting position. A grin broke across his bearded face.

‘Ah, Captain!’ he waved, swaying on his stool. ‘Ish nice to shee you again.’

‘You are having the last bottle of amasec?’ Saifi coldly demanded.

Balth looked from side to side for a few moments, and then remembered. Nearly falling from his stool, he brought his other hand up, an almost empty bottle of liquor grasped in it.

‘Yesh! Good shtuff! Flackshian, I shink? Better than the shtuff I gave to little Burrin I shink!’

‘Why are you here?’ said Markius. ‘I thought Karim settled with you.’

Balth’s face instantly darkened.

‘That blaggard? Ha! Tried to pay me in local currency! Not shtanding for it, am I? A deal ish a deal!’

‘I am warning you, sir,’ said Saifi, ‘that insult against the governor is a punishable offence…’

‘Yesh. But I shtill don’t have my money. Wait he shays! Sho I wait, and shpend the kak coins he givesh me in the meantime.’

Saifi approached Balth and pointed, ‘I’ll pay you for the rest of that bottle. And I am warning you again to be of care what you say on Beta-Coplin XXI.’

‘Thish?’ said Balth, squinting at the sloshing remnants, almost falling off his stool again. ‘I shink you can have it. Yesh. I shink I need to walk thish off for a while, ash itsh not sho hot now. Good day shirsh!’

Saifi procured the bottle from Balth before he lurched out of the bar into the grey night of Kharthan.

‘Now we drink firqishr,’ said Saifi, reclaiming his seat opposite Markius. ‘Dassan!’

The tender appeared with fresh mugs of the hot black liquid, and Saifi winked at Markius, waggling the bottle to slosh its remaining contents, before adding a generous measure to each mug and finishing off the amasec. Markius sighed. Saifi seemed not to notice the marine’s reluctance and instead took a long, measured sip from his mug, before smacking his lips.

‘Here on Coplin, when men are talking business, it is spoken over a good mug of firqishr.’

Markius shrugged and took a sip. He paused. Again he was surprised. The alcohol was harmless to his enhanced biology, but the amasec added a sharp tang to the spicy caffeine. It really was good. Again Saifi smiled as he registered the marine’s reaction.

‘You see? Good, yes?’

‘General, please, why have you brought me here? We are wasting time!’

A pink glow had come to Saifi’s pale cheeks, and he played with his mug for a few moments before taking another sip. Finally, he met eyes with Markius and a frown creased his features. And now it finally comes, Markius thought.

‘Just what is it you are intending to achieve here, Captain?’ said Saifi.

‘As I informed your governor, we are here to destroy the xenos.’

‘With what?’ said Saifi. His tone had become more confident even as his voice rose in volume. The alcohol seemed to have given him the confidence to speak frankly. Still those busy, beady eyes darted to and fro.

‘Forgive me, Captain,’ he continued, ‘for I doubt not as to the lethality of the famous Adeptus Astartes, but you are having what… twenty marines?’

‘We are the Emperor’s Talons, and we will defeat them.’

‘It can be done not,’ Saifi sighed. Markius stiffened at the comment. Saifi threw up his hands, gesturing to the bar, the city outside, perhaps to the galaxy, and said, ‘You can beat not them. They are the devils that stalk men. They fight not like normal men, or even normal aliens. They appear and disappear as they are wishing… and they take any who speak out against them.’

‘You concede defeat too quickly, General,’ Markius growled. ‘They have yet to face the full fury of the Astartes.’

‘I have five thousand men!’ said Saifi, ‘a hundred tanks… an air-force… never can we catch them. Always the devils are striking where they will and then disappearing back to the hell of spawned them.’

‘And so you skulk in your fortress in fear?’ Markius felt his anger rising with the man. ‘That is how you serve the Emperor’s subjects?’

‘The Emperor has forsaken this place…’ said Saifi, sadly. ‘It is as He wills it. You understand not. For four hundred years we faced this terror.’

Saifi leaned in closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. Though he could hear him perfectly well, Markius matched his posture.

‘You should leave this place,’ said the general.


‘You can do no good here. You will only make things worse.’

Markius blinked, not quite believing what he had just heard.

‘We are here to liberate you from these xenos scum!’

‘Ah… liberate… that is being a dangerous word here on Coplin…’

‘General,’ Markius now also dropped his voice, ‘We offer no threat to you or your governor. It is the aliens we seek to destroy.’

‘Captain,’ returned Saifi, ‘as I said, you will do harm more than good. You will provoke them! You will make life worse for us here!’

‘What can be worse than living under the tyranny of these… what did you call them… devils?

‘You Adeptus Astartes,’ Saifi sighed, ‘you no idea know what it is like. You know no fear. For four hundred years… lifetimes… we existed in the shadow of terror. And we are surviving. With nothing from your beloved Imperium we have must to find our own way…’

Markius did not want to argue the comment about the Holy Imperium; he knew the general had a point on that. But he said, ‘And so you give up? You hide in your fortress here in the capital and let them do as they please? You won’t fight?’

‘They… are… devils…’ Saifi repeated. ‘You will see. You can beat not them. As the Emperor wills it, we continue to exist in the only way we can.’

Frustrated by the man’s defeatist attitude, Markius composed himself ready for a fresh attack, when a change in the pict-screen’s broadcast interrupted the conversation. A blizzard of static washed over the screen and a piercing warble spouted from the speakers. Saifi leapt to his feet, eyes wide. Markius turned and peered at the screen, and gaped as a new image appeared out of the static.

Now Markius stood. The face of the eldar leader emerged from a dark background, flanked by sinister silhouettes.

‘What by the Throne…?’ Markius whispered, instinctively reaching for his holstered boltpistol.

Beside the daemon-masked leader, the white-faced freak also appeared. He clutched a box-like device in his bony claws, with what looked like a vox-caster held close to his mouth. The leader began speaking in the hacking, startling tongue of the aliens, and then the freak murmured into the vox-caster.

‘Humanity of Coplin!’ announced the voice from the vox-caster, ‘The Baron Vorlxrath is… unhappy with you!’

‘You see?’ Saifi screeched at Markius, a trembling finger pointing to the pict-screen.

‘Shut it off!’ said Markius, ‘How are they doing this?’

‘We can not,’ said Saifi, ‘the devils hack in as they please…’

Markius resisted the urge to unleash a missile from his pistol as he returned his gaze to the hateful figures on the screen.

‘You dare to resist us?’ said the freak, translating the snarls of the leader, ‘You think you can overthrow the rule of your glorious leader? This world, and every soul within it, belongs to the mighty Baron Vorlxrath! Agony and death await any who defy us! Any who offer support to the foreigners in your midst are face our wrath! Know this, humanity scum, Baron Vorlxrath is eternal and he is omnipotent. You are belong to us! For this outrage… the Baron are seek his vengeance. Know this, and do not dare to sleep while the outsiders are with you.’

Then, as quickly as it occurred, the transmission disappeared into a haze of static. Dassan shuffled over and quietly switched off the pict-screen, offering a defeated frown towards Markius. Saifi sank into his seat once more, held his head in his hands, and groaned.

‘I know this would happen. Now things are being worse.’

‘General, pull yourself together,’ said Markius. ‘You have a security breach. Where is the pict-show broadcast station? We must get there as soon as possible.’

Saifi looked up and said, ‘Still you understand not?’

Markius felt his anger rising. His ancient powersword, Salvator, was almost trembling at his side, reflecting Markius’s impotent desire to strike at the xenos.

Saifi said, ‘The broadcast station is being inside the fortress, but you will find no devils there, Captain. As I told you, they appear and disappear, they take over our broadcasts remotely – I know not where from – and leave no trace as how they do it.’

‘Then when will the governor broadcast a refutation? The Imperial sovereignty of this planet is being challenged!’

Saifi laughed; a mirthless snort. He stared at Markius and said, ‘It will only make things worse. The devils are right. Coplin belongs to them…’

* * *


Markius halted his angry march back to the fortress and glared at the alley between the merchant buildings. Athena sashayed out of the shadows, smiling. Markius grunted and stomped on his way along the main street. Athena scampered to keep up.

‘An odd turn of phrase, devils that stalk men, don’t you think?’ she said.


Devils,’ she said, ‘supernatural beings from our own nightmares. It’s like they don’t think it possible to fight them.’

‘I’m not in the mood,’ sighed Markius, still intent on checking the broadcasting centre within the fortress.

‘Do you think the governor put him up to trying to convince us to leave, or was it his own idea?’

Markius paused, turning to her. ‘How did you…?’

Athena reached towards his carapace shoulder plastron and removed a fingernail-sized metal object that had been maglocked beneath its rim. Grinning, she produced a vox-bead from her ear with her other hand.

‘Listening mite. Worked perfectly.’

Markius sighed again, ‘Athena, I don’t appreciate…’

‘I know, I know,’ she cut him off, ‘but I’m an Agent of the Throne – a spy. I need the practice, and that conversation was very revealing.’

Markius glowered at her.

‘At least we know what the Exodus is now, right? Another scam against the people run by that Karim, I don’t doubt,’ she continued, defying his anger.

‘Did you hear the broadcast from the ghouls?’ Markius said, changing the subject.

‘Yup,’ nodded Athena. ‘It gives us one important piece of information, right? They have a weakness.’

‘A weakness?’

‘Something you should know all about,’ said Athena.

Markius growled again, and she quickly continued, ‘The top ghoul, that Baron is a megalomaniac. They are too proud to just run away. You can use that against them.’

‘And why should I know all about that?’ said Markius. Athena shrugged in reply. Scowling, Markius said, ‘Did you find out anything of use in your snooping?’

Athena nodded, this time with a serious expression. She said, ‘I found some strange equipment in Karim’s mansion. I’m pretty sure he has a juvenat suite locked away somewhere.’

Markius grunted again and marched back towards the fortress.

‘That’s seriously rare and expensive tech!’ she said, once again scampering to catch up. ‘Where did he get it from?’

‘Why is this important?’ Markius did not break his stride.

‘I think the same man has been in power here for four hundred years. Those portraits, all of them, are of the same man – not a family line.’

Markius still kept his pace.

‘It could be Karim that sent the original call for aid against the ghouls, four hundred years ago!’

Markius finally halted. He turned over the idea in his mind. Karim could be as old as Inquisitor Zharn, or even older, if he regularly used juvenat treatments.

‘Possible. So what?’

Athena did not answer, falling into step beside him.

‘As I thought,’ said Markius, preparing to resume his journey once again. ‘Do you know anything useful at all?’

‘Yes,’ said Athena. ‘The machine, Gaius, reckons he has found a target for you.’

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Sun Jul 08, 2012 3:29 am

= XXII =

‘THERE SHE IS,’ said Burrin in his gravelly voice. ‘Want to hail her?’

Markius peered out into deep space from behind Burrin’s pilot seat in the shadowhawk. Both the pilot and co-pilot seats were filled, but the shadowhawk’s cockpit was equipped with two additional stations behind. Exactly on schedule, the Flax Mycenaean had exited the now closing rip in reality, torn open by its transition from the warp. Even from distance, it was an impressive vessel, twice the length of the Xiphias, with globe-shaped nodules at each end of its long, cylindrical cargo hold.

‘No,’ said Markius. ‘I don’t want them to jump before the attack comes. We stay incognitus.’

‘You are using them as bait?’ said Brother Lars, sitting in the co-pilot seat beside Burrin.

‘Exactly,’ said Markius. ‘But this time we will be able to react more quickly, when the ghouls show up.’

He turned to Burrin and said, ‘Is the Arcis well clear?’

Burrin nodded, ‘Bah! Be almost back to orbit over Coplin by now.’

‘Then all is set. We shadow the Mycenaean at a safe distance. Stay in her wake.’

‘Aye, Captain,’ said Burrin. ‘We can stay cloaked for four days. Should be long enough ‘fore they exit at the Vistro Gate, but I’ll need to power down life-support in the passenger deck.’

‘We are marines. We can handle it. Stay as close to silent running as you can,’ said Markius.

‘Aye. Time to have a go, lad?’ said Burrin. Lars exhaled, a tinny sound through his throat-implanted vox grate, leant forwards, and took the controls of the shadowhawk.

‘Ready,’ he said.

‘Passing control now,’ growled Burrin, flipping a sequence of switches.

‘Taking control now. Control accepted,’ said Lars. Markius felt the slightest of lurches as the gunship slipped through the void.

‘How is the training going?’ Markius said.

‘I have the basics,’ grunted Lars. ‘Void-flying in a straight line is simple enough.’

‘Good,’ said Markius. ‘I want you two to take shifts, and if anything happens to Burrin, you will be our only hope.’

Burrin turned in his seat and gave Markius a wide-eyed look. Markius quickly added, ‘Emperor banish the thought.’

Burrin chuckled and turned back again, watching speed and attitude monitors on the gunship’s extensive control panel. He nodded as if satisfied.

‘Bah! Ain’t got planetside control quite yet though, eh?’ Burrin said.

Markius observed Lars and perhaps the marine sensed his captain’s scrutiny.

Lars shifted in his seat. He said, ‘It’s so hard – there are too many controls to think about at the one time.’

Burrin chuckled again, then said, ‘Now then, lad! Ya just over-compensate for gravity too much. Need to treat her like a choice grox steak; it’s in the slight touches.’

‘You are annoying,’ said Lars. ‘Speak plainly.’

Burrin exchanged a grin with Markius.

‘It will come with practice,’ Markius put a hand on Lars’ shoulder plastron. ‘It is important. We cannot rely on Burrin indefinitely. I want you to land her back on the Arcis when this is over and she comes back to pick us up.’

‘Captain?’ said Lars, a note of alarm in his voice.

‘Bah! I’ll run ya through it,’ Burrin reassured him.

‘The machine spirits are programmed for docking protocols,’ said Lars. ‘This is not necessary.’

‘Aye, but ya got to learn how to feel ya way in,’ said Burrin. ‘Learn how she reacts. Can’t always rely on machine spirits to make things easy!’

‘Why do you make this training harder than it needs to be?’ Lars shot back at the stocky man.

Deciding to leave them to their conversation, Markius slipped out through the airlock, through the medical deck, and entered the passenger deck where his men waited. Once again, they were armoured in carapace-reinforced void-suits.

‘She’s got escorts, did you see?’ Lieutenant Tobias immediately addressed his captain. Markius peered out of one of the port windows and saw that Tobias was right. Two harpoon-shaped Cobra-class destroyers had emerged after the Mycenaean. The sleek warships were shifting into convoy formation, one fore and one aft of the freighter. The leading escort sank below the nose of the Mycenaean, while the aft Cobra rose above it, and Markius appreciated the three-dimensional convoy formation. Both escorts were torpedo ships, and hence needed clear forward fields of fire.

‘What if they blow the ghouls out of the void before we can get them, eh?’ said Rasmus.

‘Then it will make our mission much easier,’ Markius said, observing the escorts. ‘If not, this time we will get the jump on them.’

He straightened and addressed all the men.

‘We are down to three squads now, but I do not want to let the ghouls get away. Omega and Zeta will head straight for those boarding tubes – Lambda as back up: Classic two-one unit deployment.’

The men nodded. They were all alert, sitting straight, clutching their Godywns and assault weapons. Markius knew they eager for this hunt.

‘You’re not following the Codex protocols?’ asked Tobias.

‘The Codex is not inflexible,’ replied Markius.

Sergeant Andreus backed him up, saying, ‘We’re not trying to take control of the Mycenaean, we are trying to kill the ghouls.’

‘Then why not board the ghoul ship, eh?’ growled Rasmus.

Markius had thought about this already. He said, ‘We don’t know what kind of environment they will have. Besides, I’m not sure this shadowhawk will be able to get close enough – even with Burrin at the controls, and particularly with those escorts blasting away.’

Rasmus nodded in understanding. The marines all looked satisfied.

‘Are we really sure about this target?’ said a sardonic voice.

The men turned. Goran was staring out of a port window at the far end of the passenger deck. Markius took a breath and stared at him.

Goran turned to meet Markius’s glare with his glinting green eyes, and continued, ‘I mean, she’s carrying textiles of all things.’

‘Gaius has calculated both time and location,’ said Markius, controlling his voice, ‘and she has a consignment of harvesters to drop off at Flax on her way to Plenusia, don’t forget.’

‘Farming equipment and textiles?’ said Goran, raising his eyebrows. ‘It doesn’t feel right.’

‘Now you sound like Athena,’ Markius said, frowning. ‘Do you have an alternative plan? Better data?’

Goran said nothing, sulking.

‘As I thought,’ said Markius. ‘According to the Magos, this is the next hit. This is our chance to finish off these ghouls.’

‘If you say so…’ started Goran.

‘I do say so,’ Markius interrupted. ‘So everyone get ready. Burrin is going to shut down non-essential life-support, but we will have oxygen. I want everyone on Catalepsean Node half-sleep. Keep your weapons primed. We may need to get active in a hurry. Does everyone understand?’

‘Invictus!’ the chorused reply echoed through the passenger deck.

* * *

‘ANOTHER FLASE ALARM,’ sighed Brother Lars, scrutinising the sensorium display screen. Markius exhaled, his breath frosting in the sub-zero temperature, and leant back in his seat. From his position behind Lars in the cockpit, Markius glared out into the void, trying to see the cause of the anomalous reading.

‘Probably a particle shower left over from the battle of the Xiphias,’ suggested Lars. Still Markius searched for any sign of the xenos; any ripple of blackness against the pitch of the void. He stared until his eyes watered.

Next to Lars, Burrin Grazgsten snored. Markius shook his head. The stocky pilot’s grey overalls had inflated like a life-raft and he snoozed within a hood that almost entirely covered his face.

‘Is he alright in this cold?’ said Markius.

Lars nodded, ‘Amongst all his little pocket devices is a personal life-support system. He’s as warm as a snow fox in its den.’

Another tiny beep and winking light from the cockpit control board and Markius tensed once more. Lars quickly said, ‘Just an energy level check. We’ve just passed sixty percent.’

Markius rubbed his eyes and sighed. Though conditioned to withstand constant fighting for far longer periods, his head felt like a muscle tendon stretched to snapping point for too long.

‘Where in the galaxy are they? Gaius said this would be the time and place.’

‘Captain,’ said Lars, ‘I know you keep refusing, but why don’t you switch with the lieutenant? You don’t need to personally keep this vigil every moment. We all need to be at maximum efficiency when they come. Tobias will sound the alarm immediately.’

Markius nodded reluctantly then heaved himself out of his seat. Passing through the medical bay and on into the passenger deck, he felt the doubts gnawing in his guts. He could not help stopping to wipe frost rime from a porthole and checking, just one more time, for signs of the xenos pirates. The vast, star-studded void twinkled silently back, the glittering plasma trail of the Mycenaean and her escorts painting a silver streak for them to follow through the trackless darkness.

In the passenger deck the marines sat in their grav-seats lining each side of the narrow chamber, clutching their weapons, each staring straight ahead with eyes wide open and blank expressions; their Catalepsean Node half-sleep a disconcerting sight for any non-Astartes to witness. Markius carefully made his way down the centre of the deck, his own breathing the only sound he could hear over the gentle, almost soothing hum of the minimal support systems on board the shadowhawk. Then another sound. Markius paused on his way to Lieutenant Tobias, sitting opposite Goran at the far end of the deck. The sound came again and Markius grimaced.

Markius kicked Rasmus.

‘What? Eh? Ghouls…?’ spluttered Rasmus.

‘Is there something wrong with your Catalepsean Node?’ Markius crouched beside him and hissed.

‘No, eh? I was…’

‘You were snoring, again,’ said Markius. ‘Your growling will disturb the others.’

‘Sorry,’ mumbled Rasmus.

‘Take your time and properly embrace the meditative trance,’ said Markius, before turning away and completing his journey.

Markius laid a hand on the shoulder plastron of Lieutenant Tobias. The sandy-haired marine was instantly alert, his bolter gripped in gloved hands. Markius nodded towards the internal doorway to the medical deck, and Tobias acknowledged.

When the pneumatic door to the medical bay had closed behind them, Tobias said, ‘Forty nine hours, and not one sign of them.’

Nodding, Markius said, ‘We have passed the optimum range if they were going to come out from the halo.’

‘Perhaps they are waiting until just before warp-translation, when the escorts break formation?’

‘Perhaps,’ sighed Markius.

‘You are having second thoughts, Captain?’ said Tobias.

‘Gaius said all the calculations pointed to this,’ said Markius. ‘But where are they?’

‘We must maintain the vigil until she translates at the Vistro Gate. Only then will we know for sure,’ said Tobias, once more remaining practical. Markius nodded to his lieutenant. Tobias continued, ‘Let me take over this time. I keep telling you that you need to be alert when the attack comes.’

Markius smiled at Tobias’s repeating of Brother Lars’ advice and nodded. Then both men turned as the pneumatic door to the passenger deck opened again. Rasmus barged in, his bionic leg clomping.

‘Rasmus? What do you want?’ said Markius.

‘Markius, I need to speak to you about something, eh?’

‘Maybe not right now, Sergeant,’ said Tobias quickly, stepping towards Rasmus. Markius saw a look pass between them and a hot stab of anger burned in his gut as he realised his old friend had been discussing things behind his back.

‘No,’ said Markius, ‘Right now is fine. What’s on your mind?’

Another look passed, then Tobias stepped back and Rasmus gathered himself. Markius frowned. What was going on?

‘Captain,’ Rasmus addressed him formerly and Markius’s frown deepened, ‘What do you know about the heraldry we will wear in the Deathwatch?’

That caught him by surprise, and Markius had to think about it for a few moments.

‘I… I don’t know… I never had the engram patch. It would be a device of the Inquisition Ordo Xenos, I should think.’

‘Well, Goran says each Deathwatch marine wears the heraldry of his parent chapter as well as the Inquisition sigil.’

Markius exhaled, his breath a cloud in the cold air. Goran. Again.

‘What does Goran know about anything?’

‘Just listen, eh? If this is true, what heraldry will we wear? Our chapter is expunged, right? What will our symbol of honour be, eh?’

‘Does this really matter now?’ Markius growled.

‘Goran says that if we cannot reveal our origin, there is a special kind of Deathwatch marine called a Black Shield,’ said Rasmus, gesturing to the plain black shoulder plastron of his carapace armour.

‘Goran says? Goran says! None of us know about it. He is just trying to make trouble in the unit because he resents my command. He’s spreading lies, and I’m surprised at you, my old friend.’

Rasmus winced at the sarcasm Markius had heaped onto his last words, then looked to Tobias, an appeal for help in his eyes. Tobias shrugged back, an ‘I told you so,’ look in his own eyes. Markius felt his anger bristling again.

‘Markius, just listen, eh?’ Rasmus tried again, ‘Goran heard it from the Magos. He does know, because he’s been there. He’s been to the Vault, eh?’

‘The what?’

‘The Vault – the Duniash Watch Fortress – that’s what they call it, unofficially, eh?’

Markius threw up his hands and said, ‘Well, it seems you have it all worked out without me, Brother Rasmus.’

Rasmus silently appealed to Tobias a second time. Tobias shifted on the spot, cleared his throat, then said, ‘Captain, I believe the Sergeant is expressing concern for the morale of the unit.’

Markius glowered at his lieutenant. Undaunted but avoiding eye-contact, Tobias continued, ‘The Sergeant is worried that confidence will be lost in the Captain’s command if the men do not know what honour they will be fighting for; if the Captain has perhaps made a false promise, through no fault of his own, regarding their future lives. The Sergeant is trying to aid the Captain.’

‘The morale? Confidence? Goran is trying to destroy this, and you are helping him! Is this because I made him leader of Omega Squad?’ hissed Markius, now switching his glare to Rasmus. Not one to avoid a fight, Rasmus glared right back.

The big marine said, ‘Goran said that Gaius said that Black Shields were shunned by the others… that they were like outcasts, eh? Like… disgraced. They have no identity. Is that what we get, eh?’

‘What do you want from me, Rasmus? I know as much as you do. How can I know how it will go with the induction?’

Tobias and Rasmus exchanged a third look and Markius took a breath to try and keep calm. Tobias quickly spoke up.

‘Captain, maybe you can find out? Ask the inquisitor, next time you get a chance?’

‘Aye, take it up with the old man. He’ll know for sure, eh?’ Rasmus nodded.

Markius sighed and nodded, but still his anger prevented him from agreeing outright. He said, ‘I thought you were both on my side. This kind of talk will not help the morale of the unit. Stop them listening to Goran!’

Tobias nodded quickly and said, ‘Yes, Captain. Clarification is all we ask. I’ll take over in the cockpit now.’

The lieutenant activated the door to the cockpit and disappeared. Rasmus and Markius looked at one another for a few moments, then Markius said, ‘I need to settle down to get my half-sleep node working.’

He made to brush past Rasmus, but the big marine put a heavy hand on his shoulder. Markius stopped and stared at him. Rasmus said, ‘You’re wrong about Goran: He said it didn’t even matter anymore.’

* * *

‘ALL TALONS: STANDBY,’ Markius voxed through the gunship’s internal comm system. Both Burrin and Lars were both awake now and trading data reports. Burrin had taken over the controls once more, but Markius sensed that Lars was becoming more confident, even if he still did not show much enthusiasm about piloting.

Peering through the frontal ports, Markius witnessed the Imperial starships heaving into a new formation.

‘Bah! They’ll be translating in the next hour,’ said Burrin, munching on a goat snack and seemingly unaffected by the three-day-long, tense waiting period of inaction.

‘If the ghouls are going to show up, this will be their last chance,’ Markius commented. Then he said to Burrin, ‘Take us to the flank, out of the plasma stream, maybe it is hampering visual.’

‘Aye, Captain,’ Burrin acknowledged, but Markius was already making his way back to the passenger deck.

The marines were all fully alert now, double-checking firing mechanisms and re-iterating mantras to the machine spirits of their weapons. There was a sense of anticipation warming the freezing air. Just by the way they sat, Markius was reminded of sabretooths poised to pounce.

He went to the nearest port window and wiped away the frost rime. They could now witness the freighter from the flank, its kilometers-long splendour on display: A perfect target. The military escorts were dropping back, ready for translation.

‘Everyone, take up visual checks; the ghouls may have their own cloaking systems, and our eyes may spot them before the sensors,’ said Markius. Marines all turned and peered through the port windows in different directions.

If they are coming,’ said a sarcastic voice.

‘Just watch your quarter, First-Sergeant,’ Markius barked back.

His pulse began to quicken. They had to come. That baron, or whatever he had called himself in that broadcast, had as good as vowed they would not run away from this fight. He had a feeling in his gut it was imminent. Markius began to pace up and down the passenger deck between the two lines of searching marines. He stopped and punched a wall-mounted caster for the internal vox.

‘Burrin, keep us briefed on the Mycenaean’s status.’

‘Aye, Captain.’

‘Everyone, it will be in the next hour.’

* * *

‘AND… THAT’S TRANSLATION,’ Burrin’s voice growled through the vox, confirming what Markius could see from the portal on the passenger deck. The shimmering rip in reality gradually sealed itself behind the disappearing outline of the Flax Mycenaean. Soon there was nothing but empty space, black and cold and silent.

Markius punched the vox control again and said, ‘The escorts?’

‘Bah! They’ve gone too. Gate’s stable enough to allow all three ships to pass simultaneously.’

Markius paused, thinking. The marines were all silent. Though they made a show of maintaining watch at their ports, eyes glanced towards him. He hit the vox control again.

‘Remain cloaked. They may have mistimed and still be lurking.’

Markius turned his attention to his men.

‘Andreus, anything?’

‘Nothing this side, Captain.’


‘I would have said so, eh?’

Markius exhaled. Lieutenant Tobias approached him and said quietly, ‘The predictive programme failed, not you. It’s time to contact the Arcis.’

Markius sighed as Tobias passed him by to get to the cockpit. Markius checked port windows on both sides, then slammed the wall in frustration.

‘Andreus, check again,’ he said.

‘They’re not coming!’ said Goran in his sour, annoying voice. ‘We have to accept that now.’

The silence in the passenger deck suddenly seemed even colder.

‘Just don’t start,’ Markius said, ‘This is bad enough without your gloating to make it worse…’

Goran opened his mouth to respond, but they were interrupted by the pneumatic door leading to the cockpit opening again. Tobias rushed back through.

‘It’s worse!’ he said, breathless. ‘There’s been an attack on Coplin.’

* * *

‘COGITATION: IT’S POSSIBLE that the xenos have altered their pattern of attacks,’ Magos Xavier Gaius droned in his metallic voice. ‘Confirmatively, this is most fascinating. They may actually be reacting to our interference. The presence of Imperial forces may alter the logarithm.’

The tech-priest extended eel-like mechadendrites and began punching at rune keys on his cogitator station within the gloomy strategium bunker. Markius exhaled, trying to keep calm.

‘We just spent five days chasing nothing? You assured me this would be the next site of attack!’

‘Memorandum: There is always a margin for error, in this case the qualification was at 91.7%. I could have imputed additional variables, but you assured me this was a delay-sensitive mission.’

‘I wanted certainty!’

‘Negative: In your emotionally-ruled state, you commanded expediency rather than thoroughness in the computations.’

Markius growled, knowing that the logic of the tech-priest was annoyingly correct.

‘Repetition: 91.7%. It was an assumption within standard acceptable margins for error based on previous data, but if my suspicion is correct, the xenos have shifted their mode of operations.’

The Magos turned in his seat at the metal table, the mysterious locomotive engines hidden beneath his rust-red robes whirring softly. Glowing red artificial eye-orbs fixed Markius.

‘Stimulation: If we can gather enough data, this shift in tactics can be mapped and used in future engagements with the dark eldar. Confirmatively, this is most fascinating.’

‘Future engagements?’ Markius said. ‘We have a mission right here, right now, and we are on a time limit! My men are not here to gather data.’

Athena stormed into the conversation and said, ‘You Emperor-damned, emotionally stunted machine! How can you be fascinated by this? The people in that village have suffered because of your failure to account for our presence in your damned logarithms!’

‘Interrogation: Are you aware that attacking me with emotional, personal insults is highly improbable to increase efficiency?’

‘Why you Throne damned machine…’

Markius folded his arms and watched Athena verbally assault the tech-priest, thankful that she for once agreed with him, if for different reasons. The tech-priest continued his calculations, seemingly unconcerned by her anger. Markius noticed the general lingering at the doorway to the chamber, pinpoint eyes hooded and darting, and remembered that Saifi had assured him the presence of the marines would make the people of Beta-Coplin XXI suffer.

Markius laid a hand on Athena’s arm to halt her tirade and said, ‘How bad was the attack on the village?’

‘Bad,’ she shot back at him, then glared over her shoulder at the shifty general. ‘They were completely undefended.’

‘Perhaps we should go and see,’ said Markius.

* * *

‘THEY CAME AT fulnacht,’ said General Saifi, gesturing to the sky. ‘There was being a partial eclipse before night; two planets and a moon obscured most of distant Alpha, throwing everything into darkness except… how do you say? The corona?’

Markius glanced at the bleached-white sky, hot and shimmering with the actinic glare of the dense Beta-Coplin sun, vainly searching for a distant black spot that would give away the ghouls still lurking. Unsuccessful, he returned his stare to the smoking remains of Godhahn Colony. Shattered shells of metal sheds added puny ribbons of noxious gas to the stinking clouds emitted by the distant scarlet mountains.

Godhahn Colony had not been much of a place to live in beforehand, Markius surmised; an Emperor-forsaken collection of shacks surrounding a rare shallow lake of turquoise water in the foothills. Bodies of humans and beasts littered the ochre sands.

‘The devils lined everyone up, the white-faced fiend to give the orders,’ Saifi continued, translating. One of the locals, a shriveled man that looked ancient like an astropath, yacked in their local language, gesturing too energetically for someone so old.

‘The baron is demanding vows of allegiance from everyone, threatened things…’ said Saifi, his pupils darting between the local elder and Markius. ‘And… and the people gave them, they screaming for mercy. Then they… Then they…’

Markius watched as the old man beat his chest and wept and Saifi faltered for a few moments as he tried to translate.

‘They took people… at… how do you say? Random? And told them to run… run to their marine saviours, and then… Then they hunted down them on their flying bikes.’

Markius glanced at the collection of metal poles driven into the ground, the now limp corpses impaled upon them long ended in their agonized struggles. It was a gruesome monument to the ghouls’ attack: And a message directly for him.

‘They are being the lucky ones,’ continued Saifi, working hard to control his voice. A group of rag-swathed women gathered nearby, wailing. ‘Others the devils… They tortured them… they used… devices… tools. The screams are like…’

‘I understand, General,’ Markius grimaced. The wails of the women and the hysterical screeching of the old man, though he could not understand their words, grated on his nerves. It seemed a lifetime ago since Markius was a young brave of the Wind-spear tribe on Prism, and most of the emotions of that time – the normal, human emotions – seemed alien to him now. But the sound of grieving mothers he recognised, whatever the language, and it touched something deep down, long buried below his psycho-indoctrination and intensive training.

‘Captain!’ Lieutenant Tobias approached with his Lambda Squad marines, and Markius turned towards them. The squat silhouette of the shadowhawk crouched nearby where it had landed. Lieutenant Tobias reached Markius and lowered his voice.

He said, ‘There are bodies over there that were killed with las-blasts.’

‘Lasguns?’ said Markius.

‘They bear the marks of torture, but it looks to me like…’ Tobias glanced at Saifi, ‘… like they were executed. Las-burns right in the chest.’

Markius turned to Saifi and the general said, ‘Yes! We shot them!’

‘There were survivors… and you killed them?’

‘It is being better this way, please believe me,’ said Saifi, and Markius registered the genuine pain in his voice. ‘The devils… they always are leaving some behind, or returning them later, but they are infect with whatever dark magic those devils make. It is no life… just constant agony and madness… and the things they are saying; it is being better for everyone that they die quickly, isn’t it?’

Markius exhaled and shook his head.

‘They took the children, too,’ Saifi whispered. ‘They always are taking the children.’

Now the old man was shouting and pointing at Markius and the marines. The women seemed to be joining him, their discordant wails scratching at his ears.

‘We should leave this place,’ said Saifi, turning to walk back to the shadowhawk.

‘What are they saying?’ said Markius, though he sensed he did not want to know the answer.

‘The devils are blaming you for the attack. They say that they were forced to do… how do you say… retribution for your interference. This is a message for you.’

Markius glanced at Apothecary Sören, who had returned with Lambda Squad and the blonde marine nodded confirmation. Sören had steadily been acquiring knowledge in the local language alongside his medical studies. Saifi stopped abruptly when they were sufficient distance from the old man and hissed at Markius, ‘I told you this would happen. Now things are being worse! News of this attack is spread right across Coplin. They are wanting to know who will protect them.’

‘Did you know the attack would be here?’ Markius shot back at him. ‘Tell me where I can catch the Throne-damned ghouls and I will do so!’

Saifi shook his head, looked at the ground, then trudged back towards the shadowhawk.

Markius cursed. Sören moved beside him and said, ‘One of the old women says there were about fifty of the xenos. Another that there were hundreds. None of it makes sense.’

‘They were half-crazed by terror,’ said Markius. ‘This is exactly what they wanted to achieve. I have failed.’

The marines remained still and quiet, exchanging looks while the villagers mourned noisily. Tobias took a breath and said, ‘Not yet. We just need to re-evaluate our strategy.’

Athena joined them, her face grave, and said, ‘Who will rebuild these shelters? Who will bury their dead? These people need help.’

‘That is for the governor to determine,’ Markius said, his tone flat, unwilling to get into another argument. ‘We can help these people by catching the monsters that did this. This planet is losing hope.’

Back on board the shadowhawk, Brother Lars took control for a jerking, nervous take-off. The marines sat in the passenger chamber, and no howls of complaint or good-natured jibes came from them. Even Burrin did not comment while Lars hissed and wrestled with the controls, seeming to need four more hands. Saifi sat silently beside Markius in the other cockpit station as Lars gradually steadied the gunship and then powered up the lateral jets for their return to Kharthan.

Almost half an hour after take-off, Lars unplugged a cord that linked him to the gunship’s vox array and said to Burrin, ‘What is that?’

‘What is what?’ said Markius, leaning forwards. Burrin turned in his seat and growled, ‘Bah! Signal from the ghouls.’

‘Captain, you don’t want to hear…’ started Saifi, but Markius interrupted.

‘Put it on the caster.’

‘The others will hear it, too,’ objected Lars, but Markius gave him an adamant look. Burrin flipped some switches and soon a familiar nerve-jangling voice was hissing from vox-speakers in the cockpit.

You are die humanity scum, you are die humanity scum, no escape humanity scum, you are die humanity scum…

On and on the alien voice droned, the translation of its meaning imperfect, but its mocking tone and message clear. Markius glanced at Saifi, who said, ‘Like before… a hacking signal… I know not how they do it.’

You are die humanity scum, you are die humanity scum, no escape humanity scum, you are die humanity scum…

Markius listened for a minute longer in silence. Then he said, ‘Shut it off.’

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Mon Jul 09, 2012 6:44 am


‘ESTIMATION: WHAT YOU propose is theoretically possible,’ said Magos Xavier Gaius, the augmetics within his robotic skull whirring. ‘Additionally, all data points to the next attack being planetside. The maximum response time would be around seven-point-nine-three hours, depending on where on Beta-Coplin XXI the attack came, and further assuming you are not landed for re-fueling at the time.’

‘That’s too long,’ said Markius, placing his fists and leaning on the metal table at the centre of the strategium.

‘We could use a second shadowhawk, bring it down from the Arcis?’ said Lieutenant Tobias, rubbing his hawkish nose.

‘Aye, Brother Lars could pilot it, eh?’ said Sergeant Rasmus.

Markius considered the idea. It would mean splitting the unit, but perhaps it would be worth it.

‘Magos Gaius, can you compute an optimum patrol pattern with two ‘hawks, create a rapid-response web around the planet?’ he said.

‘Confirmative,’ said the tech-priest, sitting straight and extending silver tendrils from the ends of his mechadendrites. He started jabbing at rune keys on the cogitator input panel.

Just outside the strategium room, Athena argued with General Saifi.

‘If you deploy your companies across the southern continent, at least, we can patrol the north,’ she said.

‘You come here, ignore our protocols, offend my men and our governor, and now you are wanting our help?’ he snorted back at her.

‘This is for the sake of your people! We are trying to prevent another Godhahn for frag’s sake!’

‘It is being our policy to defend the capital, Liaison Officer. Do you know how many settlements are scattered across the globe? Over three hundred, isn’t it? Each is living less than a thousand citizens. Beta-Coplin XXI is being sparsely populated, it is true, but those who are choosing not to seek safety in the capital are all the place over.’

‘Kharthan cannot sustain any more fraggin’ refugees, and this planet is dry as a desert,’ said Athena. ‘The people have no choice but to seek what little water they can, and your men make the situation even worse!’

‘Neverless,’ Saifi tried hard not to get dragged into that argument. ‘I am having only five thousand men; that’s less than twenty men for each colony, isn’t it? They would to be slaughtered and achieve nothing.’

‘Coward!’ said Athena.

Saifi did not reply, scowling at her. Markius decided to intercede.

‘How about the settlements nearest to Kharthan? Any way you could give us less area to patrol would improve our chances,’ he said.

‘The tanks are must stay in the capital. You may think us cowardly,’ he shot an angry glance again at Athena, ‘but this is being the governor’s command and it preserved us for four hundred years. Your methods are working not, surely you are seeing this at Godhahn?’

Athena tutted and opened her mouth for another attack on the general. Markius turned away with a grunt. Then stocky Burrin strolled into the strategium, giving a wide berth to the confrontation between Athena and the general. He stopped before Markius, chewing a goat snack.

‘Shadowhawk ready for next mission, lad,’ he said. ‘Aye, and the tech-priest will take a while to develop a new programme. Think you messed up his calculations.’

Markius nodded as the little man chuckled. Burrin glanced at Saifi, who was still busy fighting with Athena, then lowered his voice and said, ‘Fancy a walk outside?’

‘You mean out in Kharthan?’ said Markius.

‘Aye, nice night for it an’ all that.’

‘I don’t think so, Burrin, I need to re-think our strategy. This is no time for random tours.’

‘Bah! Might be good for ya, never know who ya might bump into. Ya not just a bit inquisitive?

Markius finally noticed that Burrin was speaking in a slightly strange way and watching Saifi too carefully while he did so.

‘Oh,’ said Markius, realisation in his eyes.

‘Aye, lad. Come on then.’

* * *

MARKIUS MARCHED DOWN the alleyway that Burrin had pointed out to him before the little man had disappeared into Dassan’s. He scanned for some clue as to his summons here, wondering if he had read Burrin’s intentions correctly. In the shadows between recycled barrels, a native swathed in hooded rags stirred.

‘Sparing some change for old man?’ rasped the figure, holding out a bandaged hand.

Markius ignored him with a grunt. He had a feeling his time was being wasted again.

‘You should show more charity, Captain Markius,’ said the man. The change in voice was startling. Markius peered through the gloom, trying to see his face beneath the hood.


‘Forgive the subterfuge,’ said Inquisitor Zharn, ‘I needed to speak to you outside the fortress.’

Markius crouched before the stooped figure. He never would have guessed it was Zharn beneath the rags, the difference in posture and movement was masterful. Two soldiers ambled past the end of the alleyway, chatting. They paused, noticing the bulky outline of the marine.

‘Quick, give me some money,’ said Zharn.

‘But I don’t have any currency…’

‘Anything! Quick!’

Markius straightened and checked his fatigues. He dropped something into the inquisitor’s hand and Zharn froze, peering at the object. It was a small, metal cylinder. A frag grenade.

‘Well, thank you for not priming it,’ Zharn hissed. The soldiers lingered a moment longer, but then moved on with their patrol. Zharn and Markius waited several seconds longer before speaking again.

‘Why are you here?’ said Markius.

‘I have tried telepathic contact, but Karim has some sort of shielding around the fortress, hence this little charade.’

‘Shielding?’ commented Markius, raising his eyebrows.

‘Indeed. Psycho-resistant matrix metals are extremely rare… and expensive. I will need to look into possible disappearances in the Spartus Sector. But I digress,’ said Zharn. ‘How goes the xenos hunting?’

‘Not well,’ Markius said. ‘They are as slippery as eels, and Magos Gaius’s predictive logarithms are not working.’

Zharn hummed and nodded, then said, ‘Keep your faith in the Emperor, Captain. We knew this wouldn’t be easy. His divine will is sure to come to you. Look out for the break.’

‘The break?’

‘Indeed. I have often found in investigations that through hard, dogged work, it eventually takes that one piece of good fortune – a lucky break – to blow open the cases.’

Markius harrumphed, sparing a look at the dusky sky above the alleyway. He said, ‘Is there something else you wanted, other than a status report?’

‘Indeed, I have been making steady progress in Operation Oculus.’

Markius fixed his attention back on the inquisitor.

‘After an autoséance with Aul, we have discovered what seems to be the crash site of the second of our missing Tithe Assessors.’

Markius wrinkled his brow at the mention of the mystic’s warp sorcery, but his attention was caught.

‘Crash site? You think the governor’s forces shot it down?’

‘That remains to be seen. I still can’t fathom the motive. It may have been arriving or leaving at the time, and we cannot yet determine the cause of the crash. I have need of Magos Gaius and his unique skills.’

‘Take him,’ Markius waved a hand. ‘It is time we changed tactics in Operation Venator anyway.’

‘Good. Send him out to our original drop-point in the sulphur desert, tonight if possible.’

Markius nodded. Zharn said, ‘Did you see that broadcast by the xenos?’

‘Yes. They do it with radio signals, too. It’s an effective form of psychological operations; the indigenous military are spooked. Everyone here is terrified into a state of inaction.’

‘Indeed,’ said Zharn, ‘but it is still a good thing for us.’

Markius raised his eyebrows again. Zharn continued, ‘They have a weakness: pride. They won’t run away from this fight. Pride; Markius, you know it all too well, and you can use it against them.’

Markius grimaced and said, ‘Athena said the same thing…’

He thought for a moment then said, ‘Athena is making things very difficult with the locals.’

Zharn chuckled, ‘Indeed. She does have her infuriating ways.’

‘Then why do you employ her?’ snapped Markius, not seeing the humour in the situation.

‘Athena has…’ Zharn paused, ‘…good instincts. You can trust her; she can read people. That’s why I wanted her close to the governor, to observe him as well as help you.’

‘She’s not helping me!’ Markius objected. Zharn held up a placating hand.

The inquisitor said, ‘Look, Athena can be a pain in the neck, I know, but… she has very stark ideas about right and wrong. In my… our business, the difference can sometimes be somewhat… murky. She can be a good moral compass sometimes.’

Markius looked at Zharn. The old man showed his face now, and Markius read a reluctant acceptance in his shrug.

‘Like on Callasia 9?’ Markius challenged him.

‘Well, not always…’ Zharn replied, ‘But it is worth at least weighing up her ideas.’

Markius grunted and prepared to return to the fortress, then remembered he had another question to ask the inquisitor.

Zharn sensed his pause and said, ‘Is there something else, Captain? We really should not linger, and that patrol will be back.’

Markius thought for several moments, then decided against asking the question Rasmus and Tobias had put to him.

‘No. I must be back soon, too.’

‘Then, until next time good hunting, Captain,’ said Zharn, before lurching away and hobbling along like a crippled old man into the night.

Watching him go, Markius tried to decide why he hadn’t asked about the Deathwatch. Did he not want to know the answer? Was he afraid Goran would be proven right? No, he decided, it was just the wrong timing. His men needed no further blows to morale while they were still on this mission. Yes, that was it. The problem would keep until later.

* * *

‘THE BROADCAST STATION,’ said Markius, marching back into to the strategium, ‘Do you know where it is?’

Leaning against a wall in the corner, Athena raised a quizzical eyebrow and nodded.

‘Take me there.’

He dismissed the marines, who lugged their equipment back to their cells within the fortress barracks, while Athena took him outside once again and directed him towards Karim’s fortified mansion in the centre of the courtyard. Soldiers stopped and stared, and Markius now sensed distrust in their darting eyes. General Saifi scampered over as they passed the rows of parked tanks on one side and the rockrete landing pads on the other.

Saifi said, ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Yes,’ said Athena. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘I have an idea,’ said Markius, not slowing his stride.

Once through the main entranceway to the fortified mansion, where they were not challenged by the green-uniformed guards, Athena led Markius through several long corridors on the ground floor, past administrative offices and staring military aides. Saifi exchanged salutes and trailed them, repeating his queries.

At last, there was an open kind of corridor; more a sheltered walkway between the mansion and an annex building at the rear. Once again the cool, conditioned air of the mansion changed to the parched sulphur-stink of Beta-Coplin XXI’s atmosphere. The smaller annex building was cube-shaped, windowless and built of the same reinforced plasteel walls, unremarkable except for the array of dishes and antenna sprouting from its roof that revealed its purpose.

‘The broadcast station,’ Athena announced as they approached.

‘Captain Markius,’ Saifi bleated. ‘You can not just barge in here; they are being in the middle of a live broadcast!’

‘Good,’ growled Markius.

‘What’s going on?’ Athena whispered out of the corner of her mouth to him.

‘I am going to do what the governor should have done a long time ago,’ he replied.

They burst through the double doors to the building and Athena lead Markius along a narrow corridor, brightly lit by ceiling-mounted luminator tubes, passing store rooms and racks of equipment.

‘Captain, please!’ said Saifi as they came to another set of double doors. ‘You are ignoring all protocols, again.’

Markius ignored the general as well as the flashing red warning lights set above the doorway to the next room and shouldered through the doors. There were two sets, a simple soundproofing barrier. Then a rudimentary studio hall greeted him, with half a dozen workers sat at cogitator stations and wearing headphones. Most of the large space was dark, except a set with false walls erected in one corner of the studio, bathed in stark light from large luminators peering down from a scaffolding rig fixed to the ceiling. A thickset military man with heavy-lidded eyes sat at a table on the set, reading notes from a prepared plastek pad. Behind him, charts were fixed to the walls showing what looked like harvest projections and ration rates to Markius.

The workers all gasped and looked at Markius, and the thickset man on the set stopped reading and glanced up. Even the two men manning a bulky, inefficient-looking pict-capturer mounted on a wheeled trolley stopped what they were doing and turned to gape.

‘You know how to work that?’ Markius asked Athena, pointing to the pict-capturer. Athena finally understood what he intended and grinned back, nodding.

‘Stop! Wait! This will good not do!’ Saifi pleaded as Markius marched towards the set. The thickset man, surprisingly calmly, gathered up his notes and ambled away. Saifi made to grab Markius by the shoulder, but Athena stepped between them.

She said, ‘As liaison officer to the Adeptus Astartes, I strongly suggest you keep out of his way.’

Saifi finally fell silent when Markius entered the set and stood before the lens of the capturer. The two crewmen backed away and let Athena study it for a moment. Everyone looked at Markius, waiting. His eyes adjusting in the glare as he stared out into the darkness beyond the set, Markius spotted a pict-screen mounted beyond the capturer, suspended from the ceiling rig. He could see his own face in the centre of the screen, and gestured to Athena that it did not need adjusting.

‘This is going out live?’ he directed the question at Saifi, who nodded dumbly.

‘Across the whole planet?'

Another nod.

Markius glanced up at his own face in the screen again, then unlocked the helmet from his black void-suit, unscrewed it from the gorget, turned and placed it on the table behind him. He turned back and glared into the lens again. Then he gathered himself and started speaking.

‘I am Captain Markius, representative of the Holy God-Emperor’s divine will, and I have a message for the one that calls himself Baron Vorlxrath. Listen carefully to me. I say you are no baron, and you are no lord; not of Coplin, not of any place in the galaxy. I call you coward. I call you weak. Here I am, coward! I am Markius and I defy you! The people of Coplin defy you, and you hide and cower in the shadows. Where are you, coward? I am right here, laughing at you. I dare you to face me, and then I will show your severed head to everyone here, and we will all laugh at you.’

Throughout his speech, the workers gaped and stared at him. Even Athena looked impressed, watching through a sub-lens attached to the side of the capturer. Saifi’s pinpoint eyes darted, his mouth open. Then Markius noticed a flicker of change come over the pict-screen showing his face. It wavered for a few moments, then gradually faded into a blizzard of static. He grimaced with satisfaction: A response!

Markius glanced at Saifi, who exchanged quick words with the workers at the cogitator stations and confirmed, ‘They are hacking in again.’

Markius watched. No face appeared on the pict-screen, only the hiss of static. He realised he must have caught them unprepared. Finally the sinister voice started reciting again, though the fizzing non-image remained on the screen.

You are die humanity scum, you are die humanity scum, no escape humanity scum, you are die humanity scum…

Markius strode away from the glare of the set and passed Athena beside the pict-capturer. She said in a low voice, ‘That was well said.’

‘What are you doing?’ General Saifi came before him, trembling. ‘Are you deliberately trying to bring them down upon us?’

‘Upon me, General,’ Markius replied, halting. ‘And, yes, that is the idea.’

He glanced at Athena and said, ‘Do you think it will work?’

She shrugged back.

‘No idea, but it made me fraggin’ feel better.’

Posts: 352
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Thu Jul 12, 2012 5:25 am

= XXIV =

BROTHER LARS GRIPPED the gunship controls in the pilot seat, beside Markius. Far below, the ruddy purple mountains reared out of the landscape like rotten teeth in diseased yellow gums, the ever-present plumes of volcanic smoke staining the sky. Markius could spot one or two settlements huddled on the drab, green-hued foothills beneath the mountains.

‘Talon Shadow One to Talon Shadow Two,’ Markius voxed. ‘Do you receive?’

‘Invictus, Talon Shadow One, this is Talon Shadow Two. We receive you loud and clear,’ came the voice of Goran, thankfully less the sarcastic tone. ‘We are settled into global patrol pattern now.’

‘Invictus,’ Markius voxed, and sat back into the co-pilot seat.

The shadowhawk lurched, rising unexpectedly, and the scream of the engines took on a plaintive tone. From the passenger deck, growls of complaint were faintly heard, though not without an undertone of joviality.

‘Throne,’ Lars cursed. He turned and met Markius’s eyes. He said, ‘Thermals from the mountains, hard to predict.’

Markius nodded, not wanting to vilify him just at that moment, recognising he was not comfortable with sole command over the gunship.

‘Burrin said not to overcompensate, not to try to over-steer,’ Markius offered, a faint sickness in his stomach. He clenched his teeth, wondering if he would ever get fully past his vertigo.

‘Burrin does nothing by the book,’ Lars hissed back, watching the control monitors carefully.

‘What do you mean?’ said Markius.

‘Here,’ Lars said, gesturing to a complicated array of levers. ‘There are three flight modes; void attitude thrusters, wing directors for atmosphere flying, like now, and these maneuver jets for hovering, like an anti-grav.’

It was a dizzying number of controls, Markius had to admit.

‘Yet Burrin uses the attitude thrusters even after atmospheric entry, like improvised maneuver jets. He never lets the machine spirits take over, not even for landing – says he doesn’t trust them.’

Markius widened his eyes. Lars shook his head.

‘For someone so effective at flying machines he has an unhealthy disdain for the Omnissiah.’

‘Better not let the Magos hear you say that,’ Markius could only suggest.

‘Aye, he argues with Gaius nearly as much as Athena. It is quite distracting while I am learning,’ complained Lars. Markius could not think of a reply.

‘This is Kharthan to Talon Shadow One,’ crackled the vox. It was General Saifi’s voice. ‘We have you plotted on our augers now.’

‘Received, Kharthan,’ Markius voxed back. ‘We will hold on this ellipse until appointed re-fueling time.’

‘You do realise we have limited fuel dumps here, Talon Shadow One?’ Saifi voxed.

‘This is Kharthan to Talon Shadow One,’ came a different voice – Athena’s severe tone. ‘Disregard that last. Replenishment is being organised from the Arcis Indicium.’

Markius smiled as he imagined Athena sitting right next to Saifi at the other end of the vox, back in the capital, exchanging glares with the general.

‘Just how long do you intend to keep this up anyway, Talon Shadow One?’ voxed Saifi.

‘As long as it takes,’ Markius barked back. ‘Just keep the channel open: We are counting on you to give us the alert when the attack comes.’

If it comes, he could almost imagine Goran mouthing to the marines in the other shadowhawk. The gunship lurched again, this time plummeting alarmingly while Lars wrestled with the controls. Markius gritted his teeth. There were more jeers from the passenger deck.

‘Sorry, Captain,’ said Lars, ‘just came out of the thermal pocket.’

‘You are doing well,’ Markius said. ‘Keep to the course as best you can.’

He pushed himself out of the seat and was on his way to the passenger deck when he heard Lars comment to himself, ‘Damned machine spirits can do it more easily.’

On the passenger deck, Markius was reminded of how decimated his company had become, now that he had split it into two units. Only five marines stared back him.

‘Oho, I’m not sure we will keep down our suppers if this kind of flying continues!’ said Brother Borias, the usual wicked smile plastered across his face.

‘Knock it off, Brother Borias,’ Markius said. ‘The pilot needs our support now.’

Beside him, Apothecary Sören was reading – a medical text or a language book or some other tome, Markius could not tell which. He wondered idly if by absorbing himself in the words Sören could shut out the queasiness of being on the lurching gunship at high altitude. On the other side of the narrow chamber sat Brother Milan and Brother Klinns, both from Lambda Squad. Beyond them their squad leader, Lieutenant Tobias, frowned.

A look passed between them. Markius knew this plan could leave either or both of their units undermanned if – no, when! he told himself – the xenos attacked. And that assumed they could respond in time. Yet despite Tobias’s misgivings, the marines were obviously energised by the feeling that they were actually doing something, taking action, not sitting idly or following cogitator programmes on blind faith. Markius took a breath and prayed to the Emperor that they would get a chance at the filthy aliens this time.

* * *

‘NOTHING AT ALL?’ he asked Athena as monotask servitors as big as rhino APCs pumped fuel into the shadowhawk on the rockcrete landing platform. Three times around the planet, and four days later, he was still doggedly holding on to that hope.

‘Nothing to report,’ Athena shrugged, while Saifi paced unhappily a short distance away. Then she remembered something, ‘Oh.’

Markius looked sharply at her. She continued, ‘The governor has been in the vox-station several times, taking quite an interest, finally, in the protection of his people. That was three days ago, though.’

Markius sighed, ‘Maybe the ghouls really have taken flight this time.’

‘Not fraggin’ likely. You broadcast a direct challenge and insult at the almighty baron ghoul. I may not know much about fraggin’ eldar, but from what I’ve seen so far…’

‘You think so?’ said Markius, encouraged.

‘Yup,’ smiled Athena. ‘You should know. How would you react if that broadcast had been directed at you?’

Markius growled, unhappy with her implication of his own weakness. Near to the landed shadowhawk, Markius noted Balth’s shuttle from the Xiphias was also squatting on a neighbouring pad. Dozens of the huge transport containers from the freighter were stacked across the courtyard. Goods in crates were being unloaded, and so Markius surmised the merchant captain and the governor had come to some sort of agreement at last. He also spotted crewmen from the Xiphias negotiating with local soldiers, presumably haggling over prices for additional cargo. The humans threw the marines wary looks.

The servitors finished their refueling and the marines re-embarked, carrying their weapons and ammunition. Lieutenant Tobias approached him.

‘Ready to go,’ he said.

Once airbourne and clear of Kharthan once more, Markius voxed to the other shadowhawk, ‘Talon Shadow One to Talon Shadow Two, we are back on pattern. Report.’

‘Shadow Two to Shadow One,’ came Goran’s voice. ‘Invictus on that. We are good for two more days. Burrin is holding pattern over northern pole while you catch up.’


The vox crackled for several more moments, then Goran said, ‘Shadow One, you know this might not work?’

Markius breathed in and out before answering.

‘We have to do something, Shadow Two, so unless you have a better idea, perhaps you should keep an eye on your men instead of doubting me.’

He shrugged out of the co-pilot seat and lurched towards the air-lock door that lead to the medical bay between the cockpit and the passenger deck, deliberately not listening to the reply.

To his surprise, Tobias met him in the medical bay, arriving from the passenger deck.

‘Lieutenant?’ Markius said.

‘I don’t want to undermine you,’ Tobias started, holding his hands up in a gesture of placation, ‘but we should consider how long we can keep up this constant patrolling.’

Markius exhaled and nodded, ‘Perhaps you are right.’

‘We are marines, and we can keep a potential combat-ready stance indefinitely, but the waiting is wearing them down. Even Borias isn’t joking any more.’

Tobias waited, obviously wary, then said, ‘I worry about the others under Goran’s command.’

Again, Markius nodded. He had thought it better to split up Omega squad and deploy Goran and Brother Kholar with the three marines from Zeta squad, but a hissing little voice in the back of his head accused him of also putting Rasmus on the other shadowhawk as an act of meanness born of his frustration with his so-called friend. He could tell Tobias was wary of discussing things with him now, too, and a mild anger wrestled with a disappointment in himself for primacy amongst his feelings.

After a few moments he said, ‘Brother Tobias, am I too proud?’

Tobias shifted on the spot. He hefted his bolter on its strap across his back and rubbed the distinctive hawk-like nose.

‘You’re asking me?’

‘I made you lieutenant because I trust your advice. So advise me.’

‘The men are loyal to you…’ said Tobias, ‘we all want the induction into the Deathwatch.’

‘That’s not what I asked,’ interrupted Markius, ‘and you know it.’

Tobias hesitated. Markius said, ‘Look, I know you always tell it straight, and I respect that.’

Finally Tobias said, ‘I would say that you don’t always listen to advice when it is given, yes.’

Markius bit his lip, then nodded. Tobias continued, ‘and perhaps you can be reckless – too eager to prove something. I don’t understand why you have to be better than Goran all the time.’

Markius glared at him, ‘You think Goran is right? He is just trying to undermine the morale of the company!’

‘Goran has an opinion, Captain,’ said Tobias. ‘You don’t need to dismiss it just because it is Goran’s.’

Markius took a deep breath, looking out at the rapidly darkening landscape visible from the porthole. They were approaching the terminator line between scorching day and semi-lit dusk.

‘Captain,’ said Tobias, ‘no-one expects you to change who you are; no-one can do that.’

Markius returned his gaze to Tobias, and the sandy-haired lieutenant sighed, ‘Neither can I. I must accept that, too.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Markius.

‘I know men like Rasmus and Goran don’t particularly… like me. They think me too analytical, too cautious, too hesitant when it comes to danger. I can accept that.’

‘The men respect you, too,’ said Markius, surprised.

Tobias held up a hand to show that he did not need consolation. He said, ‘But not in the same way as you, or Rasmus. As I said, I can accept that, and know my weaknesses as well as my strengths. Perhaps you can too?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Markius.

‘Look, Captain, we’ve had what? Three combat missions, four including the evacuation from Ornisgard, and we are on the cusp of induction into the Deathwatch! If we pull this off it will be pretty miraculous, and it will be because of you. You can be proud of that. I still think you made the wrong choice to go back in at Callasia, though.’

Markius saw a rare twitch tug the corner of his mouth. They exchanged a grin. Markius said, ‘In a roundabout way it’s because of Callasia that we may join the Deathwatch now.’

‘But not without its problems,’ Tobias countered. ‘It may have felt like the right thing to do at that moment, but… I don’t know… it could have turned out much worse.’

‘And we’re not in yet. We still have a mission to complete here,’ agreed Markius. He offered his gauntleted hand and they clasped hands.

‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’

The vox control on the wall of the medical bay fizzed, then Brother Lars said, ‘Captain, they are here!’

* * *

‘MAXIMUM SPEED!’ SAID Markius, back in the co-pilot seat beside Brother Lars. The ochre glare of sulphur-stained plains streaked by beneath the square nose of the shadowhawk.

‘We are at maximum speed,’ Lars hissed back, wrestling with the controls. He gestured to a different control array in the cockpit. ‘Here, weapons: Nose-mounted autocannons and wing-mounted hellstrike missiles.’

Markius re-familiarised himself with the weapons array as the gunship lurched and bucked, his twin hearts pulsing. In the distance, wispy ribbons of smoke signaled another colony settlement in distress. Though back on the bright side of the terminator line, the harsh glare of the Beta star was dimming, and Markius noted no less than four of the Beta Coplin system’s inner planets were aligning in pattern to form a partial eclipse – one at each corner of an invisible square, partially occluding the baleful white eye of the sun.

‘Shadow Two to Shadow One,’ voxed Goran from the other gunship, ‘We are almost there!’

Markius knew the second shadowhawk would be charging down from the north, just as they were arriving from the south.

‘Kharthan to Shadow One,’ came Athena’s voice on the vox. ‘The Arcis will never get into geosynchronous position in time. They say there’s no sign of xenos starships, either.’

‘Invictus,’ Markius voxed. So, they would have to catch them in the shadowhawks. At least the ghouls had no orbital support either.

The isolated settlement – Tobrusk Colony Saifi had called it in his signal from Kharthan – was another tiny collection of hovels and sheds, this time situated on the rolling sulphur plains of the eastern hemisphere. He spotted the dagger-like skiffs of the xenos, darting and wheeling around the settlement like the carnivorous hunter-pack fish of Prism’s freezing rivers.

The alien ships were razor sleek and obviously very advanced anti-gravity vehicles, parading black solar sails like sharp triangular shark fins. But their superstructures were open, with platforms suspended between masts and struts for the sails. Tubular engine sections at the aft of the vessels mounted what looked like a cockpit above them, while the sharp prow shieldplates bristled with rapier-like weapons.

‘We are going to be too late,’ Lieutenant Tobias predicted from his seat behind Markius in the cockpit, narrowing his hawkish eyes. Markius gritted his teeth and took hold of the autocannon triggers.

‘Do not fire the cannons until we slow to combat speed,’ Lars warned him. ‘Use the hellstrikes.’

Markius nodded then hit the internal vox control, ‘Get ready!’ he ordered the marines strapped into their grav-harnesses in the passenger deck.

Lars kept the gunship low as it devoured the distance towards the settlement, and now Markius could see corpses littered around the black metal sheds. Xenos warriors were leaping like agile humanoid spiders onto their hovering vessels. Markius understood the open nature of the anti-grav skiffs now; they were raiders, perfect for instant embarkation and disembarkation. Perfect for pirates to hit and run before righteous retribution could be exacted. And now they were pulling out. Already two of the anti-gravs were swooping away across the plains.

‘Throne!’ cursed Markius, ‘They knew exactly where to strike; the furthest corner from our patrol patterns.’

‘Shadow One to Shadow Two,’ Markius voxed. ‘Ghoul raiders escaping northwestwards.’

‘Invictus, Shadow One,’ Goran voxed back, unable to disguise his excitement, ‘Changing vector now.’

Smaller, bike-sized anti-grav vehicles shaped like serrated darts flocked together and chased the escaping raider skiffs. Markius flicked two switches and said, ‘Missiles armed. Get us into combat range, Lars!’

‘Invictus,’ Lars grunted. They were barely ten kilometres from the colony now.

‘There,’ gestured the heavily augmented marine. The last of the raiders was still hovering, taking on xenos warriors.

‘That’s our target,’ said Markius and Lars nodded, slightly altering the gunship’s trajectory.

‘Wait,’ Apothecary Sören leant forward in the seat behind Lars. ‘They’ve got civilians.’

Markius peered through the glare of the actinic sun, dappled by the partial eclipse, and knew Sören was right. Humans were trapped in spiked oval cages set under the pectoral fins at the fore of the raider. Though he could not hear them at that distance, Markius could see their mouths open in screams of terror.

‘Emperor damn them,’ Lars hissed, the engines of the shadowhawk howling as he pushed them to their limit.

‘Do we open fire?’ said Sören.

Markius’s finger paused over the trigger.

‘Shadow Two to Shadow One,’ Goran’s voice hissed on the vox, ‘They’re running for it, but I can’t see where to.’

‘Kharthan to Shadows,’ said Athena, ‘Saifi says they don’t get here on starships!’

‘What the Throne does that mean?’ Goran growled over the vox.

Markius shut out the chatter from the vox and concentrated on the xenos skiff in his sights, the bright yellow landscape screaming past underneath.

‘In NEZ range!’ said Brother Lars. Green runes lit up on the missile control array.

Markius glared at the raider ship. There were almost a dozen of the ghouls clinging onto its masts and struts, in armour the colour of blood and with outlandish, spiked hairstyles. The raider turned and flattened its aft foils, ready to make its escape. Markius saw the human captives begging and pleading with the insectoid aliens.

‘In NEZ range!’ repeated Lars. Markius sensed Tobias and Sören holding their breaths behind him. Still he hesitated. He was supposed to protect these people. Then he remembered what the xenos did to their captives, what Saifi had said of those that were returned, and his brow furrowed.

Markius squeezed the trigger.

‘Hellstrikes away!’

Two corkscrewing contrails of white smoke fizzed ahead of the gunship as the blistering jet-fires of the missiles arrowed towards the raider. Belatedly, the xenos skiff began to accelerate. Though it was impressively quick, the contrails of the missiles turned with it, and two moments later they smashed into the raider.

The explosion was brief but spectacular. The raider disappeared in a ball of flames and black smoke. Behind him, Tobias and Sören shouted – a feral whoop of released frustration that betrayed their tribal origins. Even Lars added his augmented voice, but Markius grimaced.

‘Got the warp-suckers!’ Tobias said.

Markius shook his head, knowing he had doomed human civilians by his decision, the very people he had vowed to save from the xenos.

‘The warp take them,’ he growled, ‘Even when we kill them they find a way to sour our triumph!’

The marines were thrown forwards against their grav-harnesses as Lars next heaved back the throttle controls and turned the gunship. They banked hard, almost at right angle to the ground, as the gunship thundered over Tobrusk Colony. G-forces crushed against his body as Lars wrestled with the controls, hissing.

Finally the steep curve brought them to a northwestern heading and Lars leveled out and slammed the throttle controls forward. Markius was now thrust back into his seat again.

‘There’s Shadow Two,’ Tobias pointed. The other gunship charged across the bilious landscape, kicking up sulphur dust from the surface as Burrin flew it dangerously low. Markius spotted the sleek raiders scattering before the gunship like dartfish before a titanshark. He narrowed his eyes against the glare as the partial eclipse passed, trying to see where they were heading. The purple mountains were many kilometres away across the yellow plains. The gap was not closing.

Hellstrike missiles burst from under the wings of Shadowhawk Two, but they were not close enough, and the hunter weapons could not lock onto their prey, corkscrewing away before exploding.

‘Shadow One to Shadow Two,’ Markius voxed, ‘We are coming from the south. Can you turn them towards us?’

‘Negative, Shadow One,’ Goran voxed back. ‘Too quick and they turn too tightly. Where in the hells are they going?’

‘Look!’ said Sören. He pointed to an area that Markius had initially taken to be shadows cast by the mountains, but now he looked again he saw the peaks were too far away. He stared harder, focusing his occulobe through the glare. A black shape resolved in the shimmering heat; a floating octagon, almost as tall as Kharthan Fortress’s walls. Its darkness was unnatural, unreflective of the sun’s glare, like an illusion.

‘What the Throne is that?’ said Tobias.

Markius could not discern the shape’s depth; it was like looking at a flat, two-dimensional octagon suspended low above the planet surface. Shimmering haze from the planet’s surface made the whole scene seem insubstantial, like an optical effect.

‘A portal,’ Markius breathed. ‘Gaius mentioned this in the briefing; a warp portal back to whatever extra-dimensional hell they come from.’

‘We’re closing,’ Lars hissed, the scream of the shadowhawk’s engines intensifying. Markius gripped the missile controls.

Shadowhawk Two launched another pair of missiles, but the fleeing raiders weaved almost elegantly, like Prismish eagles wheeling in aerial combat. The hellstrikes smashed into the yellow desert and blazes erupted in the highly flammable sulphur dust.

Cursing, knowing they were still beyond effective range, Markius squeezed the triggers again anyway. Two more hellstrike missiles screamed from their perches beneath the wings of Shadowhawk One. Markius counted the moments as they closed with the xenos raiders, holding his breath. They were not ducking or avoiding this time.

At the last moment, the eldar skiffs darted into the black octagon. In that split second they disappeared, not emerging beyond it.

‘What the…?’ said Tobias.

One after another, the xenos raiders sailed into the portal and suddenly ceased to be. The flock of dart-like jetbikes flashed away in perfect formation, passing through the portal. The chasing hellstrike missiles zoomed right past the portal as if were not there, and Markius cursed again as they lost their tentative target locks and screwed away out of control. More fires ignited in the sulphur desert after the missiles crashed and boomed.

Lars hauled back on the throttle controls and the screaming of the shadowhawk jets intensified, this time in deceleration. Markius prepared to deliver a volley from the nose-mounted autocannons at the portal, but right before his eyes the octagon began to close. In a moment it had folded in upon itself. There was no sound, no smoke, no visual indicator. Like an eye blinking, it disappeared, leaving no trace of its existence.

‘Shadow Two to Shadow One,’ came Goran’s voice on the vox, ‘Did you see that?’

‘Invictus, Shadow Two,’ Markius voxed, grimacing. ‘They are gone.’

Markius took in a deep breath and exhaled. They had missed the xenos, again.

‘We got one, at least,’ Tobias offered, but Markius did not reply.

Instead he said to Lars, ‘Take us back to Tobrusk.’

The two marine gunships landed close together, on the outskirts of the settlement. Shadowhawk One bounced twice on its landing skis before Lars could properly settle it, hissing. Markius glanced at him and the augmented marine sighed.

‘I’ve been flying non-stop for five days. I’m tired.’

Markius scrambled out of his grav-harness and joined the other marines as they disembarked. Goran and the others met them on the dusty sulphur plains as the jets of the gunship engines gradually wound down. The partial eclipse had passed and the settlement, along with the twisted remains of hovels and corpses, were bathed in a harsh, accusing glare. The rotten-egg stench of the sulphur was as intensive as ever.

‘Lambda squad,’ Markius said, ‘set up a perimeter. Zeta squad; check the settlement for xenos survivors, go building-to-building, and be careful.’

‘Invictus, Captain,’ said Sergeant Andreus. There was a commotion of wailing voices rising from the human survivors of Tobrusk Colony. Some of the men were running towards the downed xenos skiff.

‘First-Sergeant Goran,’ Markius turned to his green-eyed rival, ‘re-group Omega squad and go and recon that wrecked raider.’

He gestured to the mangled remains of the xenos skiff, half a kilometre away, noting that the fires from the explosion were spreading across the sulphur desert around it. The stench from the sickly columns of smoke scratched at his olfactory senses.

Goran nodded grimly and dashed to address his squad. Markius turned back to the settlement. Rag-swathed humans had gathered into a crowd and were hurling angry shouts at the marines, the women wailing and scratching at their own eyes. Markius was astonished when several of the younger, skinny boys began throwing stones at the shadowhawks.

‘What by the Throne?’ he growled, and began stomping towards the crowd.

A stone struck the chest-plate of his carapace armour and rebounded harmlessly away. Lieutenant Tobias and Apothecary Sören joined Markius, one on each flank, as he confronted the crowd.

‘What is the matter with you people?’ Markius bellowed, and for a moment the crowd was cowed. ‘We are trying to protect you! Save your anger for the damned ghouls!’

Markius jabbed an angry pointing finger toward the wrecked eldar skiff. He saw some of the men drag out a twisted alien corpse from the wreck and begin stamping on it.

‘Captain,’ Tobias said, a note of urgency in his voice, ‘they have suffered a terrible attack, they are angry for their lost relatives...’

The humans regained their earlier voice and began howling in their local language again.

‘If they showed this kind of spine and stood up to the Throne-cursed xenos…’ said Markius.

‘I know, I know…’ said Tobias, placing a hand on Markius’s shoulder, ‘But we just shot down a raider with civilians on it.’

Markius glanced at him. He said, ‘I had to make a choice… they were as good as dead already…’

‘I know,’ said Tobias. ‘But these are humans. They can’t face that sort of choice. They are too terrified… too weak.’

Markius glared at the crowd again, hating them, hating his failure once more to destroy the xenos. He took a deep breath and controlled his emotions.

‘Let Sören deal with them,’ Tobias urged. Markius grunted and turned away.

Apothecary Sören stepped forward and pointed his boltpistol into the sky. Three blasts in succession echoed across the plain as he pulled the trigger.

‘Alik Tobrusk bin nehti!’ Sören shouted. The shouting instantly ceased as the humans quailed and moaned. Sören continued speaking to them in their own language while Markius stomped back towards the shadowhawk.

There, Sergeant Andreus returned with his squad.

‘No sign of any xenos in or around the settlement. I think that raider you shot down was the last one; they didn’t leave any of their own behind,’ he reported.

Markius scowled at the corpses of humans littered around the fire-blackened metal shacks.

‘The ghouls didn’t waste their time,’ Andreus continued, following his stare. ‘It looks like they went on a rampage, just chasing and slaughtering the colonists.’

‘They must have known we were coming,’ commented Tobias, and he and Markius exchanged a significant look.

‘How?’ said Markius.

‘No survivors from the raider,’ Goran jogged back to the group and reported, ‘xenos or human.’

‘What about that one?’ Markius pointed at the humans frenziedly stamping on the xenos warrior. ‘If it’s alive we need to interrogate it!’

‘If it was alive before, it isn’t now,’ Goran said.

‘Why didn’t you stop them?’

Captain, it’s dead…’ Goran flashed a dangerous green-eyed glance at Markius.

‘Captain, the people need this retribution. We have no right to stop them, not after we shot down that skiff,’ Apothecary Sören rejoined them.

Markius sighed again. Rasmus came beside him and said, ‘It was the right choice, and at least we got some of the fraggin’ ghouls, eh?’

‘Aye,’ said Goran. ‘We gave that baron a bloody nose, and he ran away like a galau bird once more.’

Markius looked sharply at the First-Sergeant, but saw no sign of sarcasm in his face. He nodded slowly, reluctantly accepting the result of the mission.

‘We got damn close, eh?’ Rasmus said.

‘But not close enough to finish this,’ said Markius, as the keening mourn-song of the old women began to filter through the smoke-stained, sulphur-stinking air. Then Brother Lars arrived, hurrying from his shadowhawk.

‘Captain,’ he said, ‘Athena is on the ‘hawk’s vox. There’s some kind of problem at Kharthan.’

* * *

MARKIUS SULKED BESIDE Brother Lars as the shadowhawk flew back to Kharthan. The violet sky deepened into shades of purple as the searing sun set beyond the mountains. The cockpit was silent but for the steady rumble of the gunship engines, Lars’ augmetics hissing as he worked the controls. There was no sound from the marines in the passenger deck. Markius tried to get the images of the eviscerated civilians out of his head, but then the shouts of the grieving mothers replaced them.

Brother Borias stumbled into the cockpit, leaning against the swing of the gunship. Markius looked up at the marine, who still kept his head bullet-smooth with regular shaves with a naked razor.

‘Er, Captain,’ started Borias, his usual humour absent from the aerodynamic face, ‘Can we get channel eighty-one on the speaker?’

Markius blinked, then looked to Lars and nodded, too numb to deny the request. The heavily augmented marine flipped a few switches on the vox-control board, and a singing voice rattled from the speakers. It was a local radio signal, heavy with the distortion of sub-standard broadcasting equipment. The local woman was rasping away in a husky voice, accompanied by some sort of twanging string instrument. Markius had never heard anything like it, but something in his gut stirred in response. She was singing in the local dialect, so he could not understand the words, but the mournful melody touched him.

Seated behind Markius, Apothecary Sören leaned forward. Of them all, only he had devoted any time to learning the language. Borias waited in the open doorway, and he had left the next door to the passenger deck open too. From the passenger deck, Markius heard someone make a comment that sounded like, ‘Sounds like Rasmus after ten ales!’ The laughter that followed was half-hearted and forced.

Cupping his chin in a gesture that had almost become his trademark, Sören said, ‘Where is my son? Where… no when: Return? Will I see him again?’ He was trying to translate. For several wonderful moments Markius let the dirge wash over him and cleanse him of the frustration and anger, soaking in the desperate sadness of the singer.

Then there was a squelch of static on the radio, and a harsh, guttural voice cut in over the signal. There were jeers from the passenger deck. The alien voice whispered in the unnerving xenos language, then the recognisable words came through. Markius realised the aliens were hacking into the signal, just as they had before, and they were using their translating device. Murmuring like a demented astropath, the hissing syllables formed words.

You are die humanity scum, you are die humanity scum, no escape humanity scum, you are die humanity scum…’ Over and over again.

Cursing, Lars reached to cut the signal, but Markius said, ‘No, wait. Can you analyse this?’

Brother Lars turned his metal-plated head towards Markius and said, ‘I’m not a cogitator, Captain.’

‘Come on,’ said Markius, ‘Just try and use one of those augmetics Gaius put in for you, for me.’ He didn’t want to have to order Lars. Lars sighed then fiddled with several controls on his chestplate. A green sine wave began flickering across the display circle.

‘Turn it off!’ someone yelled from the passenger chamber.

‘What do you think?’ said Markius, the droning alien threats crawling at his ears.

‘I can’t track it,’ said Lars, ‘not like this, but…’

Lars paused and Markius held his breath. Lars continued, ‘It is not a repeating loop; he’s modulating the voice slightly differently every time: Listen.’

Markius could not detect it, but he leaned closer to the vox speaker. On and on the voice continued, ‘You are die humanity scum, you no escape, you are die humanity…

‘I wonder if it’s live?’ Markius thought out loud. Borias, still standing at the threshold of the cockpit, took a step in and said, ‘Brother Lars, can we transmit on this frequency?’

‘If you want,’ growled the pilot, handing the voxcaster to the marine. Borias looked at Markius and said, ‘Let’s find out.’ Markius nodded slowly and Borias clicked the vox-caster.

‘Oho! This is Humanity to ghoul: Please repeat that, we didn’t quite copy,’ said Borias into the vox. There was a snort of laughter from Lieutenant Tobias, sat next to Sören. Markius listened intently to the signal. There! It paused a few beats, then again, ‘You are die humanity! You no escape!

Markius exchanged looks with Borias and Lars. The xenos had reacted! Now Sören leaned forward again and said to Borias, ‘Give that to me.’

He pulled the caster to his mouth and voxed, ‘Humanity to ghoul, Humanity to ghoul: Please shoot your translator. You are not forming the future tense correctly.’

Markius grinned. There was a cheer from the marines on the passenger deck. Suddenly the vox barked on a different channel, ‘Who’s broadcasting to the devils? Are you insane?’

It was Saifi. He was monitoring. Markius grabbed at another caster and clicked, ‘Hold on, General, we’re getting somewhere here.’

You are death humanity! You are death humanity!’ the alien voice rose to a new level of hysteria.

‘You are going to provoke them! Stop immediately,’ bleated Saifi on the other channel. Markius ignored him.

Brother Borias grabbed the caster back from Sören, the old wicked smile back again. He voxed, ‘Oho! It’s you will die, you dumb warp-suckers! Now get it right!’

There were full belly laughs from the other marines now. Markius could not help grinning, but he still listened to the xenos. He knew they were listening, too. The voice changed, ‘You will die humanity, you will die humanity, you will die humanity…

It continued for perhaps thirty more seconds then abruptly cut off. With another squelch of static the woeful song of the native woman was back. Ironic cheers filled the interior of the shadowhawk. Brother Borias turned to return to the passenger chamber.

‘Well done Brother Borias,’ Markius commented after him, folding his arms.

They had missed the xenos this time, but he had a feeling they were still in the hunt.

Last edited by kurisawa on Fri Jul 13, 2012 8:17 am, edited 1 time in total.
Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby Mauthos » Thu Jul 12, 2012 7:59 am

As normal I am still enjoying this, more character building and relationship forming which is creating good empathy for your characters and a good short action scene that had a lot of punch.

Also, I don't know why, but I really loved this line:

ruddy purple mountains reared out of the landscape like rotten teeth in diseased yellow gums
Simplicity is the key to brilliance.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Fri Jul 13, 2012 3:30 am

Hi again Mauthos! As usual my thanks for reading and commenting. I liked that line, too, as it reflects that there is something quite rotten at the heart of Beta Coplin XXI. :)

BTW I saw that you submitted to the BL this year. Good luck to you!

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Fri Jul 13, 2012 3:46 am

= XXV =

‘YOU CAN’T JUST ignore this!’ said Athena, glaring over the metal table in the strategium bunker. Reflections from the harsh ceiling luminators blazed in her violet eyes. Markius sighed and turned from the dataslates and planetary maps he was studying with his sergeants.

‘Look, if Balth has got himself arrested, he probably had it coming,’ he said, remembering the merchant captain’s ravings while drunk in Dassan’s. ‘Balth has a big mouth, and there are strict laws on Coplin about denigrating the governor. I’m sorry, Burrin. I know he’s your friend.’

‘Bah!’ said Burrin, rubbing his bushy sideburns.

‘Something is going on!’ insisted Athena, double checking the damper device she had activated on the table.

‘This is not relevant to our mission,’ said Markius, gesturing to the files he and his command staff were studying. ‘It is a local matter.’

‘No. This is not a simple political imprisonment. They’ve charged Balth with trafficking in forbidden tech.’

That caught Markius’s attention and he narrowed his eyes. Throwing a glance over her shoulder to make sure General Saifi was not lurking at the bunker’s entrance, Athena continued, ‘This could be important. And besides, these are Imperial charges. It’s the jurisdiction of the inquisition.’

‘There is no inquisition here, remember?’ Markius shot back, meeting her stare. ‘How can this be important to Operation: Venator?’

Athena folded her arms. She said, ‘I don’t know… I just know something is going on.’

She sighed, angry at her own inability to explain, and Markius was about to dismiss her again. But he remembered Inquisitor Zharn’s comment about trusting her instincts. He looked again at his marines, at the maps and dataslates. They were getting nowhere in improving the rapid-response patrol net, and he sensed they were coming to the end of the options they could try to catch the xenos.

‘Alright,’ he said to Athena, ‘what can we do?’

‘Let’s just fraggin’ try and talk to Balth, see what he has to say.’

‘Aye,’ said Burrin beside her, nodding furiously.

‘Where is he being held?’

Athena looked at Burrin.

‘Bah! Complex below ground, on the eastern wing of the fortress walls.’

‘So it will be guarded. You want us to kill Saifi’s soldiers? Blast in, just like that?’ said Markius.

‘No,’ said Athena, ‘I have an idea.’

* * *

‘WAIT HERE,’ SAID Athena, as they came to the corner of the corridor. Entering the eastern wing of the fortress had confirmed to Markius that it was used as the main barracks housing the indigenous forces. Their passing had drawn stares from pinpoint pupils in yellow eyes, and surprised salutes from the gaping soldiers they passed in the low corridors between hab-rooms. None had dared challenge them on their purpose.

But now they had come to the end of the descending staircase into the complex beneath the barracks. Flickering luminators lit the gloom, and the air was cooler down here, away from the harsh sunlight. The walls were grey and smooth and unadorned ceramite. It was a dungeon.

Markius spied around the corner and saw two soldiers guarding the barred gate at the far end of the corridor. A metal table with a cogitator and dataslates was set to one side, with chairs for the guards. They smoked lho sticks, trading banter. Markius looked at Athena and Burrin, beside him.

‘What now?’

‘Leave this to me,’ said Athena, a wicked smile splitting her lips.

She sashayed along the corridor while Burrin and Markius hid out of sight.

‘Hey boys,’ she called ahead to the guards.

They instantly straightened and extinguished their tobacc sticks, then grabbed their lasrifles.

One of the guards – one with a thick bush of a moustache – called to her, palm held up, ‘You lady, no here! Restricted!’

‘I know, I know,’ smiled Athena, sauntering closer, swinging her hips. ‘Are you busy?’

The guards exchanged looks.

‘Busy!’ said the moustache, jerking a thumb to indicate the barred gate and a sign above it written in local script.

‘Come on,’ said Athena, stopping a pace away from the nervous guards. ‘There’s nothing happening here. How long have you two been on shift?’

They exchanged another glance, but did not answer. Twirling a lock of her fine, silky hair, Athena smiled again.

‘I have no duty now and… you must understand it’s hard for a lady surrounded by marines all the time. I still have needs and… well, if we can find an empty room.’

This time the moustache smiled back at her, understanding, and Markius’s brow furrowed. But the two guards next exchanged yet another look and laughed.

‘Lady,’ said the moustache, ‘you read too much bad adventure book. We not stupid.’

The two men guffawed at Athena’s stunned look.

‘I see,’ she said.

Athena sprang into a flurry of movement. A spinning high kick to the face crumpled the younger guard in an instant. The other tried to bring round his lasgun but Athena pirouetted around the weapon, appearing beside the moustache in a blur of speed. A vicious elbow to the ribs folded him, then a blow to the back of the neck sent him crashing to the ceramite floor.

Markius and Burrin dashed from their hiding place.

‘Sorry, plan-B,’ said Athena, hefting the unconscious bodies to one side of the corridor, away from the table. She checked the cogitator screen as Markius and Burrin caught up with her.

‘He’s in Beta-Fourteen, on the left side,’ she said.

Markius switched his glare from the unconscious soldiers to the barred gate, growling. Why had he allowed himself to be sidetracked by Athena like this? He could smell trouble coming.

Burrin studied the gate for several moments, then produced a multi-tool from one of his overall pockets.

‘Can you get in?’ said Athena as Burrin quickly removed a plate from the lock mechanism from the gate and started poking about the wires within.

‘Bah! Simple circuit-breaker alarms, just give me a mo’.’

Markius stood back and watched, his arms folded. It was the first time he had witnessed Burrin and Athena doing what the inquisitor employed them to do, and he had to admit, they were efficient. He looked again at the soldiers and tried to guess how much time they would have until they were discovered.

‘Aye, that be it,’ said Burrin, giving a concluding twist of his tool.

The gate swung open, but instantly alarms began screeching all along the corridor. Two red lume-globes flashed on each side of the gate.

‘Oh,’ said Burrin.

‘That’s just great,’ growled Markius, reconsidering his earlier appraisal of the stocky engineer’s skills.

‘Come on!’ said Athena, ‘we don’t have much time!’

They loped along the prison block corridor beyond the gate, passing solid steel doors set within deep alcoves on either side.

‘Beta-Fourteen,’ said Athena, gesturing to the left.

‘Right then, this time I’ll get it right,’ said Burrin, bending to apply his tool to the lock mechanism again.

‘Stand back, Burrin,’ said Markius. ‘We don’t have time for this.’

He had been preparing as they searched for the cell, and now his mucus was suitably ready. Amongst the implants given to a space marine, the Betcher’s Gland allowed Markius to synthesise an acidic metal-eating poison, and he now spat a globule of this at the weakest point in the steel oblong of the cell door; the lock mechanism Burrin had just opened.

Wisps of noxious white smoke rose from the lock for a moment, Burrin and Athena watching wide-eyed. Then Markius aimed a kick at the key point on the cell-door. It crashed open with a screech of tearing metal.

Inside the cell they confronted Balth Kessiandas, bruised and disheveled. His fur cloak was torn and a nasty gash throbbed at his right temple, but the bearded old rogue looked well enough otherwise. He gaped at them in astonishment.

‘Burrin? You came to break me out of here?’ he said, hope igniting in his eyes.

Before Burrin or Athena could answer, Markius stepped in front of them, and Balth quailed before the mighty space marine.

‘First, I have one question. Listen and answer truthfully.’

Balth nodded dumbly, wincing at the screech of the alarms still screaming throughout the prison complex.

Markius said, ‘Are the charges against you true?’

Balth clutched his head, turned away from the marine and began pacing. He said, ‘It’s that damned Karim; he double-crossed me!’

‘Are you trading in forbidden tech? Yes or no?’ Markius said.

Balth looked past him, an appeal for help in his eyes to little Burrin.

Burrin said, ‘Bah! Just tell the truth, lad.’

Balth’s shoulders slumped and he ceased his pacing. He said, ‘Yes. It’s true, but you have to understand, Karim specially ordered those power armour suits.’

‘Power armour? Astartes power armour?’ said Markius, astonished.

‘Yes,’ Balth said quickly, wincing with every rise and fall of the alarms, ‘Mark VIII I think, but it’s the machine spirits that are really valuable. I didn’t steal them, you have to believe me!’

Athena stepped forward, ‘Karim ordered these suits? If it’s on the manifest we can prove it.’

Balth cried out, ‘It’s not! He double-crossed me. We had… ah… a gentleman’s agreement. For shipping inspection out of Vistro they are noted as simple void suits.’

Markius shared a look with Burrin and Athena. Then he shrugged.

‘I think we had better leave now.’

‘Wait!’ Balth fell to his knees, his hands forming the shape of the Holy Aquila. ‘Please, you have to get me out of here. I think… I think Karim just wants to execute me… get me out of the way.’

‘And why should we intervene?’ said Markius.

Balth’s eyes darted from side to side as he furiously wracked his brains for a reply. There were distant shouts and Markius guessed the governor’s soldiers would soon be coming to investigate the alarms.

‘Alright… wait,’ said Balth.

Markius hissed and prepared to turn away, knowing they had wasted too much time already.

‘Wait! I can help you! You are using the Mechanicus logarithms to try and trap the xenos, right?’ said Balth, and Markius paused, surprised.

‘How did you know that?’ he demanded. Balth’s eyes flicked towards Burrin for a second and Markius frowned. He should have known Burrin would have been loose-lipped with his fellow old pirate. He briefly wondered what other secrets had passed between them.

Balth replied, ‘I just know… Anyway, your tech-priest is getting it wrong. You’re missing the most important factor!’

Markius folded his arms again, allowing the prisoner just one more moment to try and impress him before leaving.

‘Look, I know what you need to know. Just get me out of here and I will tell you. You can catch the damned aliens!’

‘Tell me now,’ said Markius, ‘Then I will decide.’

‘It’s hard to explain…’ said Balth, ‘We have no time.’

Markius was about to leave again when another comment from the inquisitor flitted across his mind’s eye. Look out for the break. Could he afford to pass up this chance for information, no matter how dubious the source? He growled as he made his decision.

‘Where are the power armour suits?’ Markius said.

Balth blinked, mouth open.

‘Quickly!’ shouted Markius. The sound of booted feet stomping down the staircase reached his enhanced hearing over the screeching alarms.

‘Container five-two-three, right out there on the rockcrete,’ babbled Balth, ‘but what are you…?’

Markius turned to Athena and Burrin and said, ‘Can you get out of here without being noticed?’

The stocky man and lithe Throne Agent grinned back, nodding. Markius quickly explained what he wanted.

‘Can you do that?’

‘Aye,’ said Burrin, then he and Athena disappeared from the cell.

‘Talon Actual to Lambda,’ voxed Markius, quietly.

‘Lambda here,’ replied Tobias, quickly and efficiently. ‘What are these alarms?’

‘No time to explain,’ voxed Markius. ‘I need everyone in the courtyard, armed, now.’


‘What are you going to do?’ Balth said, shakily rising from his knees. Markius could hear the soldiers approaching along the corridor now.

‘Follow my lead,’ he said.

Markius turned to the doorway to the cell just as the first of the Coplin soldiers appeared, shouting. Saifi was in the lead, and Markius was surprised to see Governor Karim himself beside the general. The plump man huffed up his bulk beneath his ceremonial uniform and glowered at Markius.

‘What is the meaning of this? Are you responsible for those guards?’ rumbled the governor, his rows of medals jingling.

‘They were uncooperative,’ Markius said calmly. ‘I have need to question this man.’

‘Balth Kessiandas is being under arrest!’ said Saifi. ‘He is being guilty of crimes against the Holy Imperium.’

‘That may be,’ said Markius. ‘But he may also have information regarding the xenos. I will take control of this prisoner.’

Balth, thankfully, remained quiet.

‘Impossible!’ said Karim. ‘He is our prisoner.’

‘What crimes do you speak of?’ countered Markius.

Saifi and Karim exchanged looks. Outside the cell in the corridor, a crowd of olive-uniformed soldiers waited.

‘He is trying to unload forbidden archeotech here, a crime against the Holy Imperium,’ said Karim, pointing a fat finger at Balth, who cowered behind Markius. ‘And here on Coplin, I am the Imperial Authority, need I remind you, Captain?’

Markius made a show of thinking about this for several moments.

Then he said, ‘Alright, Governor, if he is trying to sell this archeotech here, who was the buyer?’

‘That is beside the point!’ blustered Karim. ‘He is guilty and that is the end of it!’

Again Markius took his time, nodding thoughtfully.

‘It seems we have an impasse,’ said Markius. ‘So let us come to an agreement. I want this man, and his information, but I cannot ignore these heinous crimes. Let me see this evidence for myself. Where is this forbidden archeotech?’

Karim bristled while Saifi’s pinpoint eyes darted between the governor and Markius.

Karim said, ‘If you see for yourself, you will give up this ridiculous claim to my prisoner?’

‘I swear it as an Adeptus Astartes of our Holy Imperium. And you will consign the prisoner to me if no evidence can be produced.’

‘Agreed! We go now!’ said Karim, turning to leave the cell.

‘Ah, wait,’ said Markius. ‘This can wait until tomorrow.’

‘No, now,’ said Karim, sensing a victory. ‘A summary hearing and judgment is scheduled for star-rise tonight. There is no time but now, if you are to keep your promise, Astartes.’

Markius glanced at Balth, who stared back with wide eyes. Inwardly, Markius groaned. He was not sure Burrin and Athena would have been able to do what he asked in such a short time.

‘Then it seems we must go now.’

* * *

‘THIS IS IT,’ said General Saifi, checking a dataslate, ‘Container five-two-three.’

Governor Karim led Markius across the rockcrete landing area between the stacks of transport containers, with what seemed like an entire company of defense troopers marching behind. The stark glare of the sun was dimming as dusk approached Kharthan.

‘Why are there no guards?’ Karim barked at Saifi, who baulked and looked around.

‘I… I gave orders, but…’

‘Let us get this over with,’ Markius said, also scanning their surroundings. There was no sign of Burrin or Athena, though he spotted his company dashing across the courtyard from the wing where they were based. Markius felt his pulse rising, and he offered a small prayer that Burrin and Athena had somehow pulled off a miracle, though he knew not how they could have managed it in such a short time. He began considering alternatives as to what to do next once the container was opened.

Saifi gave orders to soldiers and they unlocked and heaved open the metal doors to the container. Markius was still examining options of what to say when they peered inside.

‘Here,’ rumbled Karim, ‘Here is your evidence, Captain.’

Markius took a breath and looked into the darkness inside.

He blinked, and looked again.

‘This is the forbidden arcane technology?’

‘That is correct!’ Karim injected pompous triumph into his deep voice.

‘I think there has been a mistake,’ said Markius, gesturing.

Karim peered inside and Saifi joined him.

‘What the…?’

‘These are just normal void suits. Is that not exactly what you ordered, Governor?’ said Markius. Nearby, Balth, who had been led out at gunpoint by the soldiers, straightened just a fraction.

‘Give me that dataslate!’ Karim rumbled at Saifi, snatching the device.

‘Container five-two-three,’ said Markius, checking the number stenciled on the side of the container once more. He had to fight hard not to grin.

‘They were right here!’ bleated Saifi, when Karim rounded on him.

‘I think your men must have mistaken the nature of the cargo,’ said Markius, his face a study of blankness. ‘They are somewhat similar.’

‘That is impossible,’ rumbled Karim. He jabbed a finger at Saifi, ‘Where are they? You saw them, right?’

Saifi opened his mouth, then closed it again.

‘Well, not myself… but I was assured…’ his eyes darted frantically.

The rest of the marines caught up with the party outside the container and Tobias exchanged a salute with Markius.

‘What’s going on?’ he said out of the corner of his mouth.

Markius held up a hand, indicating he would explain later. He turned back to Karim.

‘Well, Governor,’ he announced. ‘It seems your forces have made a mistake. There is no evidence of a crime here. I therefore insist you hand the man over to me, as you agreed.’

Karim shook, his face turning red. He glanced between his company of peering, nervous-looking soldiers, and the fully-armed marines nearby.

‘Bah! There’s been a mistake all right,’ he rumbled. Then without a further word he whirled and stomped back towards his mansion at the centre of the courtyard. Saifi trailed him by several paces along with the governor’s personal entourage of guards, and gradually the rest of the gathered soldiers dispersed.

Balth was left facing Markius, mouth open. Finally the merchant captain was able to smile.

‘It seems you have saved my life for a second time, bless the Holy Emperor,’ he said, rubbing his untidy beard.

Markius loomed over Balth and jabbed a finger towards his chest, ‘And now it is time for you to keep your end of the bargain.’

* * *

‘SPEAK,’ SAID MARKIUS, when they reached the entry ramp extended beneath the blunt nose of Balth’s shuttle from the Xiphias. Markius positioned himself between the disheveled merchant captain and his shuttle. Balth glanced over his shoulder. Though green-uniformed soldiers marched in squads to and fro across the courtyard of the fortress, none were paying them any attention.

Markius had already dismissed the confused and slightly disappointed marines back to their barracks on the far side of the complex, but Athena and Burrin emerged smiling from the shadows beneath a shuttle wing.

‘Having a nice evening?’ Athena asked Markius.

‘Miraculous. It quite restores one’s faith…’ Markius said.

Burrin grinned and Athena said, ‘That’s good to hear.’

Then they all scrutinised Balth Kessiandas.

‘This had better be worth it,’ Markius said, ‘or I will march you back into the cell block myself.’

‘Yes, wait,’ stuttered Balth, gathering his thoughts, ‘as I said, your tech-priest is running a predictive programme to try and ambush the pirates.’

Markius nodded.

‘But it’s not working; you can’t ever seem to catch them, right?’

‘We know this,’ Markius growled again. Balth held up a hand.

‘It’s because you’re not using the key factor; you aren’t looking at what the xenos really want…’

‘That is not true,’ said Markius. ‘I have seen the dataslates myself; it looks random to me, some foodstuffs here, some high-technology goods there…’

‘Exactly,’ said Balth, straightening a little, confidence sparking in his eyes. ‘They are opportunists, but it is not the goods they are really after. That’s just a bonus. What they are always seeking is…’

‘Slaves,’ Markius finished for him. He thought for a moment. The colonies on Coplin that had been raided were worthless… except for slaves.

‘Yes, but not just slaves, either…’

Balth allowed a grin to cross his bruised face. Markius thought the merchant captain might even have started enjoying himself.

‘If you have something to say, just get on and tell me before I break your neck.’

‘The Imperial authorities at Kar Duniash would never have made the connection,’ said Balth, ‘but in the lower-level spacer bars, one hears things if one listens carefully. The Vistro Corridor has a reputation…’

Markius allowed his hand to stray towards his holstered boltpistol as Balth let another dramatic pause pass. He gulped and quickly continued.

‘The, erm... unofficial freighters were inundated when the Maelstrom troubles broke out near the core and there were millions of refugees trying to get out to the Ultima Sector. And not just the wealthy types, all the lowest scum were trying to get on a transport. A certain kind of run could make a lot of money transporting a certain kind of cargo.’

‘Bah! Ya ran twist ships?’ said Burrin, next to Markius. Markius glanced at the squat pilot.

‘No, no!’ said Balth, ‘but I heard about it, on the underground, you understand?’

‘What do you mean, twist ships?’

‘He means mutants,’ said Athena, her lip curling. ‘Unofficial, illegal, trafficking in the unclean. There is quite a lucrative trade, and they usually end up as slaves in some Emperor-forsaken sweat shop in the stinking bowels of some hive-city or other.’

‘The ships full of terrified refugees – and not just twists – they were getting hit again and again, while the more mundane ships were passing through,’ said Balth nodding. ‘If you knew where to look, the pattern was clear.’

Balth gave them all a meaningful look.

‘The aliens trade in fear. Terror is their narcotic. They strike wherever they can cause the most pain and suffering and terror,’ said Balth.

Markius exhaled and considered it. Something clicked in the back of his mind; the raids on the villages, the constant psychological broadcasts, the whimsical torture, even the celestial phenomena – starsets and eclipses, to incite a sense of fatalism in the victims – it did fit a pattern.

‘And Gaius, the fraggin’ machine, never spotted it because he doesn’t value human emotions!’ said Athena, excitement in her voice. ‘He can’t work out a fraggin’ parameter from psychological damage.’

‘Right,’ Balth was nodding vigorously now, ‘so when I took on the Coplin run, I knew it would be risky, but I thought my own cargo would not attract the damned xenos scum.’

‘Alright,’ said Markius. ‘This is all very interesting, but how does it help me?’

Balth took a breath, then said, ‘Think about it, Captain. What imminent scheduled flight, packed full of terrified refugees fleeing with a glimmer of hope to a new life do you know of?’

Markus, Burrin and Athena all looked at each other and exclaimed with one voice, ‘The Exodus!

They whirled ready to return to the strategium.

‘I don’t want to see you on Beta Coplin XXI again,’ Markius said to Balth as they passed, allowing him to get on his shuttle.

Balth nodded and said, ‘I am ready to cut my losses, I think. I never want to come back to this place again anyway.’

But as Burrin, Athena and Markius started to cross the courtyard, Balth called back to them, ‘Erm, I don’t suppose…’

‘What?’ said Markius.

‘Well, the evidence, you know? It cost me a small fortune to source it… I wondered if…’

‘Bah!’ said Burrin, stepping towards him. ‘What evidence? Just void-suits in that container, aye? Ya saying there’s other evidence the governor should know about, lad?’

Balth’s eyes flicked nervously between Burrin, Markius and Athena. Finally his shoulders slumped.

‘Well played, Burrin,’ he mumbled. ‘I suppose it was worth my life.’

‘Just one more question,’ said Athena. Markius exhaled, impatient, but she continued, ‘Where exactly did you source those… void-suits?’

Balth said, ‘Like I said, my dear, I didn’t steal them. A private contractor, erm, came by them out of… oh, where did he say? Stratix… Yes, that’s right: Stratix, the forge world. They were in indefinite storage – it seems whoever ordered them had cancelled, and they were just waiting for someone to happen upon and… erm… utilise.’

He looked at them all again. ‘Can I go now?’

Athena nodded and finally they started to make their way across the courtyard.

‘What was all that about?’ said Markius.

It was Burrin that answered.

‘The power armour: Painted storm blue with a white wing motif on the shoulder plastrons. Looked like they were intended for an expunged chapter. Get my meaning, lad?’

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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby Mauthos » Fri Jul 13, 2012 8:03 am

Didn't expect that, you have get my interest throughout this story, looking forward to the next part.

Thanks for the kind words regarding my submission attempt, not expecting much, first time I have actually submitted anything and first time I have done so writing within an already established universe. Fingers crossed, but more writing practice is needed I expect, especially considering the talent here that hasn't yet been picked up. :)
Simplicity is the key to brilliance.
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Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Tue Jul 17, 2012 3:31 am

= XXVI =

‘WHAT’S GOING ON?’ Athena said out of the corner of her mouth to Markius, and his hand instinctively strayed towards his boltpistol.

Squads of soldiers in olive uniforms stood to stiff attention, lasguns gripped firmly, outside the wing of the fortress that housed the marines. Markius growled, sensing trouble, and pushed on past the cohort nearest to the double-doors leading inside the building. Pinpoint eyes tracked Markius and Athena as they entered.

Inside, through the rockcrete-walled corridors and staircases that led to their temporary barracks, more sentries were posted, always in groups of at least six men. Finally, pacing up and down outside the strategium, General Saifi awaited them. The marine squad leaders – Goran, Rasmus, Tobias and Andreus – skulked inside the bunker. They gave him a look that told him they were waiting for his order before deciding what to do about their new ‘custodians’. Markius gave them a curt nod, then faced Saifi.

‘What is the meaning of this?’

Saifi halted and pointed a finger at him. ‘The governor is being… most displeased, isn’t it? You gave your words that you are being not here to threaten his authority… and now… now you overpower my guards, breaking into our prison… this is not acceptable!’

Markius considered his position, eyed the soldiers massed nearby, and checked his anger. ‘General, I regret what happened, but it was necessary. You must listen to me now…’

‘I am being finished not!’ said Saifi, and the soldiers nearest to him stiffened in their stances. Markius was taken aback by Saifi’s newfound courage. ‘From now on all movements of your staff outside these barracks being must authorised by me first. If you want to interview prisoners or use the broadcast station, it being must authorised by me, and…’ Saifi sidled closer to Markius and hissed so that only the marine would hear, ‘We both know they are being not just void suits in that transport container.’

The general’s sulphur-stained eyes darted toward Athena.

‘I know not how you did it, but the governor is being furious. There will be an investigation. You have caused a lot of trouble, isn’t it? For what? This… this merchant?’

Markius grabbed hold of the general’s shoulders, Saifi’s frame childlike in his massive gauntlets. The soldiers nearby reached for their lasguns.

‘Listen to me!’

The general stopped speaking, eyes widening, and the soldiers hesitated.

‘That merchant has just delivered extremely important information. Tell your governor we are going to catch your devils!

‘Wha… what information?’

‘We know where the next attack will be. Tell me, General, when is the Exodus due to take off?’

Saifi’s already pale complexion drained even paler. He checked his chronometer.

‘The Exodus? It… it is leaving today… before star-rise… less than an hour!’

Markius released Saifi and said, ‘Where?’

‘The launch-site is being ten kilometres north of Kharthan, in the Plain of Thansuul, but…’

Markius whirled and bellowed into the strategium.

‘All Talons, prepare for combat!’

The marines erupted into action. Markius turned to Athena. ‘Athena, you had better stay here and coordinate from the vox-station. Where the hells is Burrin?’

‘He, ah, had a little errand to run. Needed to get the shadowhawk up to the Arcis quickish, yes?’ said Athena, eyes darting towards Saifi, now out of earshot.

Markius exhaled and nodded understanding, ‘Then Brother Lars will fly us to the Exodus.’

* * *

‘CURSE THEM ALL!’ the Traitor shuffled back and forth inside the freezing cave-chamber, bottle of cheap amasec clutched in one hand. Sweat rolled in beads from his temples, despite the cold.

They knew.

The marines knew about the Exodus.

The Traitor threw a look at the mechanism perched on the stalagmite. It was only seven paces away. Despite the gloom of the chamber, its dark crystal petals glinted, as if winking at him. He had only to cut his thumb across its razor-sharp caress to contact the freaks. Only in an emergency, they had dictated. This qualified. He gulped down another swig of amasec and grimaced at the thin, oily taste. Still he had none of the good stuff to hand.

The freaks would be angry. It was their big event.

‘It’s not my fault,’ the Traitor said aloud to the darkness. The darkness said nothing back.

The warmth of the alcohol filtered through his shaking limbs, and the Traitor tried to think things through logically. It had been easy enough to watch the Astartes fumble around trying to catch the freaks, but now they had finally stumbled upon a real chance to ambush them, and he had a decision to make.

‘What am I thinking?’ the Traitor said. Was this not exactly what he wanted, after all this time, to be rid of the aliens once and for all? Finally, he had a chance to ensure they would be destroyed: To be free of the vicious parasites at last! But what if the marines lost the battle?

‘What if they win?’ he said. ‘What then, for me?’

Still the darkness held its counsel.

Would his… deeds… be traced back to him? If one of the freaks was caught alive by the marines… or the spiteful bastards found some other way to betray him to the Astartes…

The Traitor snorted. A betrayer betrayed? Was that to be his fate? He glanced again at the crystal mechanism. Or… he could warn them. It would be easy. He took another swig and considered the idea, swishing the foul liquid around his gums. Why would he do such a thing? His life was a constant torment because of them.

But he still had a life.

And they did give him things… sometimes.

It was not such a bad life. If he just tolerated the terrible meetings every now and then, he could endure.

‘No, it’s no life.’

Then end it.

That thought had surfaced before, like a crotalid in a lake disturbed by the vibrations of approaching prey, when he was confused and scared, usually after one of the meetings had left him particularly wracked with terror and soaked in his own spoil. The crotalid had become a more and more frequent companion in his mind, over the long, lonely years. But always the Traitor had evaded it before it could get a grip. I am a survivor!

You are a traitor.

The Traitor sighed. Whether the marines won or not, whether he was discovered or not, he would still always be a traitor.

By not warning the freaks, would you not become a hero?

That was a new thought to surface in his troubled mind. The crotalid was still there, watching, he knew. But he tried to focus on this new idea.

‘I could end the pain of these people forever,’ he said.

Was that not the right thing to do? Would that not make him a good man?

Traitor. What about all those who suffered because of you?

‘No! I had no choice!’

There is always a choice, and you made yours a long time ago.

‘But I can change, if I do the right thing now…’

It will not undo what you have done.

‘Maybe not, but I would feel better.’

Would you? Do you have the courage to try?

The Traitor drained the last of his amasec and let the bottle fall to the cold, stone ground. He shuddered as the alcohol hit his stomach, then belched.

He looked one more time at the xenos communication device, and made his decision.

* * *

‘SHE’S TAKEN OFF!’ Lieutenant Tobias pointed through the cockpit armourcrys screen as the shadowhawk thundered low over the Plain of Thansuul. Markius squinted from the co-pilot seat, the sulphur flats reflecting in a haze the fuzzy glare of distant Alpha, hanging low over the horizon of jagged mountains. The Exodus chugged skywards at the end of a stream of white smoke from its launch scaffolding, like the extended finger of a gigantic statue of a saint, signposting the way to the heavens.

‘Not much of a ship, is she, eh?’ Rasmus commented from the rear of the cockpit, where he had pushed in alongside Tobias and Goran. He was right, Markius decided. Though Markius was no tech-priest, the torpedo-shaped craft was obviously newly built, lacking the ancient adornments, embellishments and intricate craftsmanship he had become accustomed to in the superior, long-lost archeotech designs of the Astartes and the Mechanicus.

Markius frowned, ‘Can we board her without making her slow down or change course?’

Brother Lars, piloting the shadowhawk beside him, threw down a vox-set and said, ‘No contact from the Exodus anyway. I’ll try to rendezvous after they leave atmosphere.’

‘We are in a hurry,’ said Markius. ‘We need to be ready to ambush the xenos before we are detected.’


They reached the Exodus almost thirty minutes after leaving Beta Coplin’s atmosphere. Brother Lars toggled attitude thrusters while everyone in the shadowhawk held their breath.

‘We are matching speed and attitude now,’ announced Lars.

Markius punched the internal vox control, ‘First sight of the ghouls, let me know.’

Then he continued his vigil, watching the stars.

‘This is not going to be easy,’ hissed Lars. ‘The Exodus is not responding, and there are no machine-spirit signals for Shadow One to lock-on to for an autodock.’

‘So, ya’ll have to feel ya way in,’ Markius said, mimicking Burrin’s crunchy voice. He thought he heard Brother Lars chuckle. A tense silence gripped the marines as Lars controlled short bursts from the attitude thrusters. The huge outline of the Exodus loomed closer, filling the cockpit window.

They bounced twice from the passenger ship’s hull with nerve-jangling screeches of metal before a conclusive sounding clunk.

‘We’re locked on,’ Lars said, exhaling and leaning back in his grav-seat. ‘As close as I could get to the portal.’

‘Move out,’ Markius voxed through to the passenger deck, ‘void protocol.’

Marines on the passenger deck began disengaging grav-harnesses and the rear disembarkation deck air-lock was prepared. Markius turned to Brother Lars and said, ‘You did it. Well done, Brother Lars.’

Lars turned to his captain, augmetic hips whirring, and said, ‘I still don’t like it and I will never be good at it, Sir.’

Markius frowned, then gave a nod. ‘Understood. Get the ‘hawk well clear. I don’t want the ghouls to have any idea we’re waiting for them this time.’


Within four minutes the marines had executed a rapid disembarkation, fully armed, equipped and armoured in their carapace-reinforced void-suits, boots mag-locked to the hull of the passenger ship. The Exodus towered over a hundred metres tall, the vastness of space stretching beyond. The four huge, cigar-shaped engines around the circular hull burned steadily, the vibrations from the promethium jets rumbling inside their helmets.

Markius turned to Goran and said, ‘First-Sergeant, we need to get through that doorway immediately.’

‘Stand back, Captain,’ Goran gave him his signature wolfish grin through his transpariflex visor then attacked the locked blast-door on the side of the Exodus with his power-glove. Markius crouched and waited. There was still no sign of the ghouls, and the pulse of his twin hearts reflected his rising sense of anticipation.

‘A rather rudimentary design,’ Apothecary Sören voxed over the noise, pointing at the jets, ‘It will be a wonder if she gets to Vistro.’

‘Oho, it’ll be a wonder if we don’t bore the ghouls to death with your books, Scholar!’ said Borias. Those who heard grinned, though they threw apprehensive glances toward the shadows of the void, too.

‘Why didn’t they respond to our vox signal?’ Markius asked Sören. ‘Don’t they understand?’

‘Perhaps they can’t,’ shrugged the golden-haired Apothecary. ‘It all seems like a simplified, automated system to me.’

‘We’re in,’ Goran grunted over the vox.

‘Move out!’ Markius shouted to his marines and they hustled through the gap Goran had torn in the doorway, one by one, to enter the Exodus. Last in, Markius stopped by Goran, who was still waiting inside the doorway ready to re-seal. Their eyes met.

‘Good job, First-Sergeant,’ said Markius.

Goran’s green eyes glinted. He said, ‘You finally got the break, Captain. Let’s make it count.’

* * *

‘WHAT THE HELLS?’ Rasmus voiced Markius’s own surprise when they entered the main passenger hold of the Exodus, three airlock transitions later. The transport containers aboard the Xiphias had enjoyed better travelling conditions. The marines discovered a great unwashed mass of humanity stuffed into the gloomy darkness of a gigantic metal can. Struts and pipes of the starship’s internal workings formed a forest of black metal trees, around which the rag-swathed passengers huddled beneath weak glow globes.

They had done the best they could, some families pitching bivouacs with fabrics hooked to rivets in the walls, others finding shelter between huge pipes and infrastructure struts. Many had brought meager piles of possessions wrapped in cloths. Someone had even started a cooking fire; the acrid smell competing with the stench of sweat and fear.

There were also many people injured, spattered with blood and groaning, tended by relatives. Markius gasped, wondering if they were too late. There even appeared to be a pile of corpses bundled together in one corner of the hold.

‘Captain,’ breathed Sören, next to Markius, ‘these people had no proper safety measures for take-off. Without grav-harnesses, they would have been thrown around like leaves in an ice-storm!’

The grumbling of the engines reverberated inside the Exodus, and the passengers sat clutching their ears, eyes wide. The Exodus was not blessed with the more ancient magics of the Mechanicus that shielded crew and passengers, and the ship shuddered beneath his feet. Many of the passengers were praying and clutching tiny figurines of the Emperor. Then someone saw the towering Adeptus Astartes in their midst, and the madness began.

It was just a single boy pointing a finger and tugging on the skirts of his mother at first. But as more and more of the passengers noticed the black-armoured giants, so in turn they would tell the people next to them. It was like a virus spreading. Men, women, children, all began wailing. The build-up of hysteric noise along with the rumbling of the engines threatened to overwhelm even a marine’s enhanced senses and Markius felt a sinus-splitting ache in his head.

The ship lurched.

The hysteria took over and the people stampeded towards the exit that the marines had just entered by. Though it had only been a minority at first, the panic spread quickly and the marines soon faced a riot.

Markius stepped forward and fired his boltpistol into the high ceiling, praying the explosive bolts would not tear right through and compromise the hull. He had seen Sören do exactly the same thing to cow the crowd at Tobrusk. The reverberating echo of a boltpistol blast was surprisingly effective in the enclosed passenger chamber, and the marines were rewarded with a moment of quiet as the passengers gaped.

‘Who is in charge here?’ Markius bellowed.

No-one answered. Markius looked to Sören for help, who cupped his chin in a thoughtful gesture and tried to think of what to say in the local language.

‘What… what do you want?’ said a voice.

The crowd parted and a man alongside his wife, who carried a baby, stepped forward.

‘I am Rafik Saifi,’ he said. ‘I can speaking Gothic.’

‘Yes,’ said Markius, recognising the general’s son even though he was not in uniform. ‘I know you.’

Rafik nodded back, eyes hooded and frightened.

‘We need your help,’ said Markius, gesturing. ‘We need everyone to keep calm. We have a mission to complete here.’

Rafik’s eyes widened.

‘There is only one reason you could being here,’ he said. ‘Are the devils coming for us?’

Some of the other passengers must have understood, as the hysteric wailing began anew.

‘Please, my son, Sunil,’ said Rafik, pointing to his wife and baby as everyone began babbling at once, ‘can you taking them with you?’

‘We are not going anywhere,’ Markius took another step toward Rafik as a second panicked riot threatened to ensue. ‘Please, help us keep these people calm, and then we can keep you safe.’

‘I am not being a soldier here,’ said Rafik, tugging at his civilian rags. ‘I put that life behind me, but I will do as you ask.’

The marines exchanged glances as he turned and raised his arms and called to the other passengers in their own language. They stopped and listened, and as Rafik explained they glanced with their sulphur-stained eyes at the Astartes. Though Markius could not understand his words, Rafik appeared to speak well. The fathers and mothers remained calm, but the children moaned, and terror was writ in their eyes.

‘Thank you,’ said Markius when he had finished.

Rafik said, ‘They trust not you. Do not make a liar of me.’

Markius nodded, then searched the interior of the massive hold.

‘How do we get to the bridge?’

‘I… I think it is being sealed from the passenger deck, but I will show you the way.’

Markius paused and turned to his marines, who had opened their void-suit visors. He said, ‘Zeta squad, take the port flank, Lambda you’re on starboard. Omega, check dorsal and stern: we are looking for the best ambush positions. Rasmus, Sören, with me.’

Struggling through the over-cramped and poorly planned passenger deck, Markius sensed more and more pairs of pinpoint eyes following his progress toward the bow of the starship, and witnessed more and more injuries from the lack of protection from the terrible g-forces such a large ship would need to inflict upon her cargo in her leap for freedom from Beta Coplin XXI’s gravity.

Rafik showed the marines the way as well as he could remember.

‘I thought your father had forbidden you to be here,’ Markius said.

Rafik winced and said, ‘He knows not.’

Markius gestured to the conditions they were travelling in and said, ‘I hope it is worth it.’

‘Anything is being better than life on Coplin. It is poisoned world. My father is doing his best, but I can follow not in his footsteps – I can watch not the suffering and just turn the other way.’

‘He worries about his grandson, and you.’

‘And he is having good reason!’ Rafik rounded on Markius. ‘You will protect us from the devils if they attack?’

‘We’ll be waiting for them, eh?’ said Rasmus, catching up with them and brandishing his massive power-axe. ‘So where’s the fraggin’ captain on this ship anyway?’

‘Here,’ Rafik pointed to an internal blast door, which was indeed sealed. ‘I am hoping you can do what you aim to do.’

‘Wait,’ Markius said as he turned to return to his wife. Rafik waited. Markius said, ‘When you get to Vistro, make sure to send word back to your father.’


‘Promise it, and I will promise to make this ship safe for your passage.’

‘Then I am swearing it, upon my grandson, Sunil.’

Then Rasmus attacked the blast-door to the bridge.

‘What the hells?’ the big marine exclaimed for the second time, once he broke through. Markius and Sören followed close behind. Markius gaped. He was no expert on interstellar starships, but there seemed to be something very wrong with this bridge.

‘It’s all servitors,’ said Sören, ‘all automated.’

‘How will they jump to the warp?’ Markius wondered aloud, counting over fifty of the lobotomised, half-robot creations, immobile and hard-wired into cogitator stations, stacked four high and stuffed into cubic cells.

‘I have the feeling this ship was never intended to make that jump,’ said Sören, cupping his chin.

‘What’s that supposed to mean, eh?’ said Rasmus, poking at one of the servitors, trying to get a response.

‘Athena was right,’ Markius thought aloud. ‘It is a scam. The shipping line – and Karim – are lying to the people. This is a sacrifice.’

‘This is an offering?’ Rasmus rumbled, his face flushing.

Markius shook his head, realising he had not really formed a coherent plan in their rush to catch up with the Exodus.

‘We cannot worry about this now. We have to concentrate on attacking the ghouls after they board.’

At that moment, the vox-bead in his ear crackled. It was Lieutenant Tobias’s voice.

‘Lambda to Actual: Xenos ship incoming.’

* * *

HUMANS WAILED EVERYWHERE. They clung to the beams and pipes and to each other. The marines hustled. From the void outside, the engines of the Exodus thundered on oblivious.

‘There are spare cargo compartments on the starboard side – near to the outer hull. Zeta can ambush if they come that way,’ reported Sergeant Andreus.

Markius nodded agreement then turned to Tobias.

‘I think they will come in through the dorsal, like with the Xiphias.’

Markius looked upwards and raised an eyebrow.

‘More spectacular,’ Tobias explained.

‘Alright, go. But leave Brother Patreus and the heavy bolter down here.’

Tobias repeated the order to his squad and they moved out. Markius scowled at the howling passengers.

‘If it comes to a fight in here, we won’t be able to protect them all, eh?’ said Rasmus, hefting his power-axe over his shoulder.

‘But this is the only place we can be sure they will attack,’ offered Goran, grimacing at the hysterical humans. Markius made his decision.

‘We pair off; Goran and Kholar wait on the lower deck, Patreus with Borias – set up the one-oh along the main central opening. Rasmus, with me; we go portside.’

‘Invictus,’ the marines chorused their reply and set about their preparations.

Struggling between the praying, weeping, howling masses, Markius and Rasmus passed a rare port window revealing space outside.

‘Holy Throne, there they are, eh?’ Rasmus placed a hand on Markius’s shoulder plastron and pointed.

He peered through the portal and his hearts jolted. The silhouette of the xenos ship swooped through the void towards them, raven-like wings blotting out the star-dusted blanket of space.

‘Talon Actual to all Talons, standby! Ghouls approaching portside.’

‘Do we hit them as soon as they come in or let them get into the main hold, eh?’

Markius shook his head, ‘I don’t want to, but I think we need to wait in order to ambush them with maximum effect.’

‘Aye, and we need to be sure that baron-ghoul is on board, eh?’ Rasmus grinned. Markius had not seen the uneven-toothed smile in quite a while, and grinned back, his hand straying towards his holstered powersword. His adrenalin was surging now, his bio-enhanced body recognising the approaching conflict and heightening him to combat-readiness.

Markius watched the xenos ship as it arrowed through space towards them.

‘Actual to Zeta, ghouls still on course for portside. Re-deploy in main hold.’

‘Invictus,’ voxed Andreus.

‘All Talons, standby!’

Someone amongst the passengers had also caught a glimpse of their hunters, it seemed. The hysterics of the passengers threatened to explode into a panicked riot once more, but Rafik strode amongst them shouting phrases of reassurance. They stared at the Adeptus Astartes in their midst with open mouths, the distinctive darting eyes of Beta Coplin for once fixed on their saviours. Markius returned his stare to the port window.

‘All Talons; imminent boarding!’ he voxed as he saw the boarding tubes snaking out from the belly of the xenos ship like a sea-beast’s tentacles. Beside Markius, Rasmus clutched his power-axe so hard his knuckles were turning white.

‘We’ve all been waiting for this, eh?’ he winked at Markius.

‘Throne!’ Goran’s voice came over the vox. ‘Omega to Actual – check again.’

Markius looked and swore. The boarding tubes were retracting. The xenos ship was slowing. The gap between it and the Exodus was widening. For several terrible moments, Markius was locked staring at the winged silhouette as it turned elegantly in space, then flattened its wings and arrowed away again. Soon it was lost to sight in the inky darkness.

‘What in the hells?’ Rasmus slammed the wall in frustration. ‘Fraggin’ galau birds!’

Markius closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. Then he sensed Rafik next to him.

‘What is happening, Captain Markius?’ said the young man. ‘Are we being safe?’

Beyond him, the passengers had stopped wailing. They all looked to Markius with hands clasped and eyes wide.

‘Yes, they have broken off their attack,’ said Markius.

Rafik translated and the crowds cheered and wept. Markius voxed for his squads to re-group in the main hold. He exchanged a look with Rasmus. The big man shrugged.

‘At least we saved the ship and these people, eh?’

‘Thank you, thank you!’ Rafik threw himself at Markius and embraced the huge Astartes as best he could. Markius nodded and forced a smile towards Rafik’s wife and her baby as Rafik disentangled himself.

‘We’ll have to transfer a proper navigator from the Arcis and check the Gellar Field integrity, but you will make it to Vistro,’ he said.

‘If I can be doing anything to ever repay you…’ said Rafik.

‘Keep your word and contact your father.’

Rafik nodded solemnly. Lieutenant Tobias with Lambda squad reached Markius and Rasmus first through the now celebrating crowds. He also exchanged a shrug with Markius. Tobias leaned in close to whisper something only Markius could hear.

‘There can be only one explanation for their evasion,’ he said, and Markius nodded slowly, knowing what Tobias would say next, ‘the ghouls knew we were here. We have a security leak.’

Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Wed Jul 18, 2012 2:15 am


‘A TRAITOR?’ SAID Athena, leaning against the metal table in the strategium bunker. She double checked the damper device was operating. ‘I could have told you that from the start! It’s Karim, of course.’

The marines gathered inside the small room stirred.

‘We don’t know that for sure,’ Markius cautioned, ‘but someone has been feeding information on our mission to the ghouls.’

‘No wonder we’ve been running around chasing our tails!’ said Goran. His green eyes glinted, ‘We should have guessed this earlier, Captain.’

Markius sighed and nodded in agreement.

‘The Throne-cursed fool,’ snarled Rasmus, ‘What are we going to do about Karim, eh?’

‘It might not be him,’ repeated Markius. Athena opened her mouth to object, but Markius continued, ‘It could be someone amongst his staff.’

‘You mean Saifi?’ said Goran. He hummed, considering the idea. ‘That would make sense, too. I never liked his eyes.’

‘There is also the merchant, Balth,’ Markius suggested. ‘He has been hanging around and watching us.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Athena. Markius glared at her. She shrugged and said, ‘I’m not saying I like him or trust him, but… he did give us the information that led us to the Exodus after all.’

‘He was bargaining for his life at the time,’ Markius said. ‘He may have been forced to feed us that, and then acted to warn the ghouls.’

The marines all shifted again. Rasmus growled, and Goran mimicked crushing a neck in his powerglove.

‘Faithless bastard, whoever he is,’ said Rasmus. ‘Why would any human do such a thing, eh?’

Markius shrugged. Athena said, ‘I still don’t think it is Balth. He is friends with Burrin, after all.’

‘Yes,’ said Markius, frowning. ‘There is that, too.’

‘What’s that supposed to fraggin’ mean?’

‘How long have you actually known Burrin, Athena? You know he’s always out, trying to make his deals and acquire his toys…’

‘It’s not Burrin!’ Athena slammed a palm down on the table. ‘I’ve known him long enough to trust him with my life!’

‘I think she’s right, Markius,’ Rasmus added, caressing the power-axe he had won from Burrin. ‘He seems all right to me, eh?’

‘I know everyone here likes him, but the ability to drink ale well does not make him one of us! Where do you think he got that power-axe?’ said Markius, glaring around the dimly-lit room.

‘You don’t understand,’ said Athena. ‘Burrin has… bad habits, it’s true… he is compelled to acquire things…’

‘A kleptomaniac,’ said Apothecary Sören, sitting at the end of the table and reading a book. ‘That’s what it is called.’

‘No,’ said Athena, ‘he doesn’t steal… not anymore… the old man has broken him out of that; redirected him to dealing and bartering; and he now gives away everything he obtains. That’s why he is so generous! Surely you have noticed!’

Rasmus shrugged at Markius and said, ‘It does make sense, eh?’

Goran nodded too, patting the pocket that contained his cigars.

‘Alright,’ said Markius. ‘But we still can’t discount Karim, Balth or anyone in the Beta Coplin defense force.’

‘It could be any of them, eh?’ said Rasmus.

‘It could be all of them,’ Sören added from his corner.

‘The question is,’ Goran said, ‘What do we do about it? You’ve let Balth go now, and we can’t go and challenge Karim or Saifi without evidence.’

Markius folded his arms and hummed. He looked at Athena and said, ‘This is your department, spy.’

‘We keep everything we do secret from now on,’ she said, glancing towards the door. ‘The next time you deploy, we feed everyone outside this room false information on our target.’

‘The next time!’ snorted Goran. ‘When will that be?’

Murmurs of agreement rippled through the marines. Even Markius felt his anger and frustration rise, hissing like a serpent.

‘Warp take them, we almost had them on the Exodus!’ Markius said. ‘When are we going to get a chance like that again?’

‘It will come,’ said Lieutenant Tobias. ‘We’ve got the pattern now. We’ve been getting closer with every attack they make.’

He glanced around the room and settled his hawkish glare on Markius. He said, ‘At least we saved the people on that ship. We have dealt them a defeat, at last.’

‘Aye, that will provoke them, eh?’ said Rasmus, grinning. ‘Maybe they will make things easy and come for us next time!’

* * *

‘I WILL NOT soil myself, I will not soil myself, I will not soil myself!’ the Traitor stumbled back and forth inside the cold cave. He put his hands inside his pockets to keep them from shaking, and found the syringe. Sighing, he took it out and plunged it into his forearm. The device auto-injected and the Traitor felt the warmth as the obscura engulfed his body, a little at a time.

‘Oooh,’ he said.

They were due any moment. He could face this.

‘I will not soil myself!’

The strange, sucking sound rippled through the dank air, heralding their arrival from somewhere beyond the veiled darkness at the far end of the cave. The Traitor felt the violent shaking return to his limbs. He counted them off as they loomed from the shadows, nightmares creeping into reality.

The baron, in his daemon-faced helm and elegant armour. The bloodless freak with all his additional arms and the strange protrusions arcing up from his back. The huge serpent-thing with its massive axes. The Traitor gulped, suppressing a whimper, as the skinless dog-thing crept at the feet of the baron, its scent pits quivering as it picked up his fear. But it did not surge straight for him this time. It snarled at one wall of the cave, its tail between its gore-streaked legs.

The Traitor had no time to worry about the unusual behaviour of the canine-beast, or even to decide whether or not to herald the aliens. He shrieked as the serpent bodyguard lumbered straight for him.

His body wilted with terror as the monster grabbed him in two impossibly strong claws and forced him to extend one arm. The Haemonculus glided nearer, extracting a tool from his apron of heavy fabrics. The Traitor gibbered uselessly as the alien slid back his sleeve with one bloodless claw and then brought the tool to his bare skin.

The tool looked like some kind of drill or electronic scalpel, a needle that extended from its grip glowing red-hot. The Traitor’s eyes widened. He felt the first brush of heat on his arm.

‘I… I warned you of their attack, My Lord Baron Vorlxrath!’

‘How did they know of it?’ demanded the Haemonculus through the translating vox-device.

‘They… they guessed what you want! It wasn’t my fault!’ screamed the Traitor as the pain increased from the tool approaching closer by degrees.

The baron watched impassively.

‘My Lord Baron, please!’ said the Traitor, his voice hysterical as the tool began scorching his arm. He struggled vainly as the skin darkened where the tool touched, peeling and burning. The pain was shockingly intense from a tool so small. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

‘Nng, I can still help you! I can still watch them for you. Aargh! Stop it, I beg you! If I hadn’t warned you of the attack…’

‘You threaten us?’ hissed the Haemonculus.

‘No, I… aargh! Stop it! I helped you!’

After what seemed like a tormented lifetime to the Traitor, the baron barked at the white-faced one in their own language and the pain lessened. The Traitor opened tear-streaked eyes and dared not look at his arm. The serpent thing released its vice-like grip and he sagged to his knees, whimpering.

The freaks began talking together and the Traitor listened once more. He shuddered, thanking his bowels for not betraying him this time. He caught some familiar words in their hacking, coughing language.

‘The tribute is lost, again,’ the baron said. ‘We are in debt now. This situation has become intolerable.’

‘We must deal with the…’ the Haemonculus used a new word that the Traitor guessed must refer to the Astartes.

‘I… I brought the map, as you asked…’ the Traitor offered.

The Haemonculus slapped him across the face, splitting his lower lip.

‘We do not ask! We order!’ he screamed through the translation device.

The Traitor moaned and lowered his eyes. He glimpsed his forearm. The tool had hardly touched the skin, leaving but an angry red heat-burn. It had hurt so much, the Traitor was sure the heartless freak had cut right through the bone and muscle. He shuddered, stifling sobs of terror mixed with happiness that he had not been too badly mauled.

Then the baron voiced a phrase the Traitor recognised as meaning, ‘The deal is agreed.’

He looked up, suddenly curious. What deal? The baron was not addressing the Traitor, and seemed not to be talking to the Haemonculus, either. The serpent monster had positioned itself behind him, but from the tilt of the baron’s daemon-face helm, it looked like Vorlxrath was talking to the jagged stone wall of the cave.

The Traitor gradually realised that something else was there with them in the cave: something he had not noticed before. The dog-thing snuffled and retreated behind the legs of the baron. The Traitor shivered as the temperature seemed to drop even further inside the cave. He tried to look at the wall, but something in his instincts gripped his neck muscles and forced them not to obey. Even his eyeballs seemed gripped by some invisible claw, forcibly averting them.

There was something there.

Despite the full force of his will, he could not look at it, but from the periphery of his vision, he gained the impression of a humanoid form, squatting with arms too long for its hunched body. A head drooped from a long neck, dark-skinned. No, there was no skin. It was as if the thing were made from the shadow itself, its surface writhing with inky runes that were forbidden to witness. The Traitor’s breath frosted in the cold and he was seized by a sudden an unreasoning urge to flee in terror. He shuffled backwards but the serpent monster barred his way.

‘Wha-Wha-What in the unholy hells is it?’ he squeaked.

‘The map,’ barked the Haemonculus, grabbing the Traitor by his neck and jerking him out of his terrified stupor. ‘Show us!’

The Traitor fumbled in his pockets for several moments, his shaking hands disobeying his efforts to find it. Finally he pulled the fist-sized device from his tunic and managed to depress the activation lever.

A small hololithic projection of the fortress of Kharthan, complete with central mansion, broadcasting station and military barracks, appeared in a green, flickering image.

The thing shuffled a step. It was silent, but the shadows upon the cave wall shivered slightly. Though the Traitor could still not look at it directly, he sensed eyes like cold chips of ice scrutinising him, and a mouth like a wound splitting in a featureless face to reveal needle-like teeth. He whimpered again.

‘Where is their leader?’ croaked the Haemonculus.

The Traitor fought another battle with his trembling fingers, and pressed the prepared rune-key. A red light winked in one of the fortress wings.

‘Th-The-There, they have a wing to themselves… a-a-and this is his room.’

The baron spoke to the thing again in their own language, and though the Traitor was far too distracted to listen properly, he recognised that numbers were being stated: Numbers of souls to be paid.

The thing finally made a noise. The Traitor guessed it was speaking, but the sound was a scratching, slithering hiss that sounded like it came from some hellish alternative reality, like the voice of a frozen wind hissing, and nothing like the harsh tongue of the other freaks. The voice stabbed his ears like an ice-cold dagger and the Traitor felt a warm stain spreading in his loins. He shuddered.

‘The name of the leader?’ demanded the Haemonculus.

‘M-M-M-Markius…’ blurted the Traitor.

His bowels vacated themselves noisily as the shadow-thing spoke again.


* * *

THE SHADOW SLITHERED through the fortress-barracks of Kharthan. It passed through patches of shade, insubstantial and fleeting. Across patches of light, it ran like liquid darkness, slipping through crevices and around grooves in the metal walls.

It paused as two mon-keigh rounded a corner. They wore drab green uniforms and carried primitive las-rifles slung over their shoulders. They chatted and strolled down the corridor. Only where they passed the dark alcove in the wall did they stop. The shadow watched them, itself but a darker shadow within the shadows of the alcove, its form too incorporeal for them to visualise. It watched as they shivered and blew on their hands, then jabbered in their primitive mon-keigh tongue.

The mon-keigh moved on, and the shadow continued its progress. It came to a wall and crept across it, like a pool of ink spreading across blotting paper. It found microscopic fissures in the metal, small enough only for sub-atomic matter to pass through – and no barrier to its own ethereal form.

The other side of the wall brought a new corridor, and the shadow passed, flitting and slithering through the darkness. It was in the wing where the target lay now.

The shadow paused again.

Something was following. It was very quiet, very stealthy, but compared to the shadow itself, it was unskilled. Probably the baron being extra careful. Perhaps the baron was hoping to not have to pay the fee, once the deed was done, or did not trust the shadow to complete the kill. In either case, it was irrelevant.

The shadow moved again, choosing several more walls to pass through and lose its own follower. It rose through a floor, passing easily between the dark cavities between metal-grills and support beams, and only slightly more slowly through the microfissures between atoms in the ceramite flooring above.

Then it raced up a wall, being reckless, so that a mon-keigh eye might have noticed a disturbance in the air had they been paying attention. It pooled in the shadows cast by a ceiling luminator. Here it was very quiet. The air was burning hot to the shadow, and it recognised the planet was currently in its day cycle. The mon-keigh were sleeping, and there was little activity in the building.

Some more of the mon-keigh waited at the end of the corridor, possibly a patrol. They were there to watch for intruders. The shadow slipped along the ceiling as a wraithlike shroud, looking down at them. They had no idea why they suddenly felt colder. It would be very easy to take every single one of them.

But there was the deal. The payment. Not a time for sport.

The shadow moved on, around another corner. It saw the room, remembered it as the one indicated. The door was closed, but doors were meaningless to the shadow. It rippled through the matter and appeared on the far side. The room was in darkness, but the shadow saw everything perfectly.

There, on a bunk, the big transhuman slept. He still wore his armour, his weapons were nearby. The shadow allowed itself to begin uncoiling into corporeal form, watching the transhuman. The marine snored and turned on its bunk, oblivious.

The shadow manifested long, coal-skinned claws, then arms, then a whole stooped body constructed of darkness uncoiled into reality. Finally it conjured its crusted sickle-blade in one skeletal claw. It watched the marine. Still the mon-keigh super-warrior slept soundly, even as its breath frosted in the air.

The shadow raised its blade, the Soulstealer, above its head. The writhing runes on its skin pulsed brightly, the colour of hellfire.

This was all too easy. It hissed.


Posts: 352
Joined: Mon Mar 07, 2011 12:39 am

Re: BLACK SHIELDS INCOGNITUS (Final part, complete)

Postby kurisawa » Wed Jul 18, 2012 2:29 am


‘WHAT THE HELLS?’ the transhuman on the bunk stirred, his eyes snapping open. The shadow struck, plunging the sickle-blade down, ramming it into the mon-keigh’s chest. The marine spluttered, feeling the ice-cold touch of the Soulstealer.

The door to the cell slammed open. The shadow was distracted. Another mon-keigh leapt into the room: a slender one, clad in a black bodyglove. The shadow realised this was what had been following before. Somehow, it had caught up. It had found the shadow. A laser weapon barked, the searing beam slicing close to the shadow’s form. The shadow’s as yet incorporeal state protected it from harm.

No, wait. The shadow had coiled into reality. It was in danger.

The new mon-keigh – a female of the species, the shadow decided – cartwheeled into the room. It was quick, for a prey-beast. The shadow needed to carve the Soulstealer through the abdomen of the marine on the bunk to complete the kill, but it also had to deal with this new threat.

A heavy hand clamped onto the shadow’s claw. Through eyes like chips of ice, the shadow glared at the transhuman on the bunk. It was grimacing, growling and it was incredibly strong. The shadow managed to twist its claw in the grip of the marine, and it shouted as the blade skewered in its chest. The shadow slipped the transhuman’s grip, ripping its sickle blade out of the marine, aware of the female leaping towards its neck.

The shadow spun, jaws agape, preparing to flatten the female with a blast of limb-freezing pain-energy. But then the transhuman swung a fist. It struck the shadow in the abdomen like a hammer blow, spinning it. The shadow heard the female shout.

The shadow sliced horizontally with its sickle blade, seeking the flesh of the female but knocked off balance by the marine’s strike. The shadow cursed its own stupidity and arrogance. It had underestimated these prey-beasts. Then the energy blade rammed into its neck. The female came face to face with the shadow, and her violet eyes widened in terror at the sight, her limbs locking in fright. But the blade she carried was a potent weapon, wreathed in electric energy, and the shadow had made the mistake of forming completely into reality.

It shuddered, rejecting a mortal end to its immortal life. Its soul – what was left of the foul, twisted spirit – fled the unreal body, and the Great Devourer in the Warp opened Her jaws wide in welcome. The last thing the shadow heard, an echo of a voice from the plane of reality it had just been banished from, was the female speaking.

‘Rasmus? What are you doing here?’

* * *

‘WHERE IS HE?’ said Markius, squinting against the actinic glare of the sun. He surveyed the deserted commercial streets of Kharthan, unable to see any candidate for the inquisitor’s latest disguise. Some tramps shuffled in a side alley, but Burrin did not point them out.

‘Hold on, lad,’ Burrin crunched on a goat-snack and wiped his sweating brow. ‘Want one?’

Markius exhaled and shook his head. Almost as soon as Burrin had returned from the Arcis, Markius had regretted his suspicion of the stocky man. But he wondered if Burrin had inadvertently given sensitive information to Balth… or the Magos, or… his head whirled as he tried to make sense of all the possibilities.

‘This summons could not have come at a worse time,’ he commented to Burrin. ‘And now we can’t even find him? We are wasting time! Where is he?’

+I am right here, Captain Markius.+

Zharn’s rich voice spoke into his ear, as if Markius were standing right next to the inquisitor. Markius whirled, surprised, but no-one was there. He remembered his vox-bead and brought a hand up to his ear. Then he remembered the inquisitor’s telepathic ability, and finally recognised the clear nature of the transmission, just like back on Ornisgard, when the inquisitor had first talked to him this way.

+Slow down. Too many thoughts at once, Markius.+

Markius tried to think of an answer to the inquisitor, knowing he had to update about Operation: Venator, the attack on the Exodus, the evidence of a traitor, their suspicions… Don’t think of Burrin!

+Markius, listen to me. I cannot read you. You need to concentrate and vocalise what you want to say, as if you are talking to Burrin next to you. Pretend you are voxing – but don’t actually depress the vox control this time.+

‘I was surprised, I’m sorry,’ whispered Markius.

+Indeed, it is not my preferred method of communication except in an emergency. Forgive me. How goes the xenos hunting, Captain?+

‘We almost had them, but I have reason to believe someone on the inside has been giving information to the xenos.’

+I see. I think I can throw some light onto that. We have broken Operation: Oculus and found the first of our missing tithe-assessors. I am now confident that the governor himself is responsible.+

‘What? Why?’

+That psycho-resistant shielding around the fortress? I have traced a missing stock from the forge world of Stratix. It was stolen in a raid by none other than…+

‘The ghouls?’

+Correct. Our dark eldar pirates also took components of a juvenat suite and various other rare archeotechnological pieces.+

‘Juvenat suite. Yes. So how did they end up in Karim’s mansion?’

+One can only imagine some kind of bargain has been struck between the governor and the xenos. They are kickbacks from the aliens in return for Governor Karim not trying too hard to defend his people from their predations.+

‘By the Emperor!’

+Indeed. And this is why he has been killing off taxmen: They were bound to notice his little luxuries sooner or later and report back to the Administratum, who would then make the connection. A simple matter of his ill-gotten gains coming up on a tax assessment would have opened much wider investigations.+

‘I’ll rip his traitorous head from his neck…’

+Control yourself, Captain. We must proceed with caution. There is still an entire defense force trained to obey him without question, and this planet is technically at war. I will need you to get me inside the fortress, and then I will attempt a smooth and quiet arrest. If we are quick we can avoid anarchy and a complete breakdown of the planetary government, which will benefit no-one.+

‘So, the sooner the better. Let’s do it at star-rise tonight.’

+Ah, I must apologise again. My investigation has taken me up to some Emperor-forsaken place in the hills called Thangod Colony. I’m stuck here for tonight, but will arrange transport for the next day.+

‘What’s happening at Thangod?’

+The only transport up here is by goat-pulled buggy, but they are closed up tonight. Everything is. They have some local ritual or festival or something. They call it djinnlar or something.+

‘We will wait, then.’

Markius smiled and shook his head. He said, ‘Athena thought the governor was bad right from the start, even before she met him.’

+Indeed. She has her moments. I will be in contact soon. For now, make no move against the governor or the PDF. They must have no hint of what is going on.+

‘Yes, Inquisitor.’

+Oh, and Captain Markius?+


+I have you to thank for this break. The locals in Thangod colony saw that broadcast you made defying the xenos; it was you that gave them hope and encouraged them to break the wall of silence my agents had been encountering. They led me to the body of the assassinated assessor.+

‘That’s good to hear. I was beginning to give up hope myself.’

* * *

‘SOMETHING IS WRONG,’ Markius muttered as he and Burrin reentered the fortress wing that housed the marines. The defence troopers were dashing about, whispering to each other, and the muted quiet was tense and ringing, as if sore from screaming alarms that had just been silenced. They reached the corridor where the marines were billeted and Markius saw his men clustered about the strategium, and one of the sleeping cells just beyond.

Markius accelerated his striding pace, his disquiet increasing with every step. He realised the room the marines were congregated outside was his own cell.

‘What has happened here?’ he said, pushing past First-Sergeant Goran and Brother Borias at the doorway.

When he entered the gloomy cell his mouth dropped open, his enhanced eyes taking in the details immediately. The corpse of a… a thing… was sprawled across the rockcrete floor. Its skin sucked in the light, unreflective and the colour of charcoal, and lanky strands of deathly white hair splayed about its featureless head. Markius jolted when he saw the head was no longer attached to the inhuman body. Athena stood on tiptoes with her back pressed flat against the wall, her violet eyes wide as if she were in shock.

On the simple bunk situated in one corner of the room, Apothecary Sören stooped over a marine lying on the bunk, his medicae pack open. Markius dashed to him and jolted again.

‘Rasmus? Holy Throne!’

‘Stand back, Captain,’ Sören commanded without looking over his shoulder. ‘Brother Rasmus has been wounded by one of the ghoul weapons.’

Markius saw a rune-encrusted sickle blade discarded next to the bunk. Rasmus groaned and clutched at a ragged wound in his chest, just beneath the carapace plates of his armour. The fatigues had been cut away by Sören, and Markius saw the skin had turned an ominous pale, stained with spider web-like lines, like veins carrying an inky poison.

‘He was stabbed right in the primary heart,’ Sören explained quickly. ‘Luckily it shut down almost immediately, and the secondary took over, otherwise whatever the weapon was infected with might have spread right through his metabolism.’

‘Is he going to…’ Markius could not voice the words. ‘Not Rasmus!’

‘I’m working on it,’ Sören said, the strain evident in his tone.

Sergeant Andreus and Lieutenant Tobias burst into the room with a gurney. Markius made way as they lugged it to the bunk. Markius rushed to their aid as they lifted Rasmus and set him upon the gurney.

‘I have equipment in the ‘hawk this time,’ Sören said, giving Markius a serious look.

‘What happened here?’ Markius repeated his question.

‘An assassin, one of the ghouls’ beasts,’ whispered Athena, still pressed against the wall as if trying to melt through it, staring at the thing on the floor. ‘I spotted it skulking through the fortress and tried to follow it, but… It lost me somehow… I rushed here on a hunch, but I was a moment too late.’

She bit her lip. Markius growled.

‘An assassin?’ he realised he was standing in his own cell. That was his bunk. Sören, Tobias and Andreus began pushing the gurney towards the door. Markius followed them out. ‘What was Rasmus doing in here anyway?’

‘It’s my fault!’ Borias met him in the corridor and clasped his bullet-smooth head, horror in his expression. Markius knew they shared one of the cells. ‘He was snoring so loudly, I told him to find somewhere else to sleep!’

‘Markius,’ Rasmus croaked as his gurney passed. The marines halted while Markius bent down to listen carefully. Rasmus caught one of Markius’s gauntlets in his hand. ‘Death by snoring, eh? Didn’t think that would be my fate.’

He grinned weakly. Markius glanced at Apothecary Sören.

‘I need to get him to the emergency medical deck on the ‘hawk.’

‘Tell babyface it isn’t his fault,’ Rasmus said. ‘Just can’t get my Catalepsean working properly, eh?’

Borias shared a pained look with Markius.

‘Hurry!’ Markius said to Sören. The Apothecary nodded and accompanied the gurney as Tobias and Andreus rushed it down the corridor. A hush descended over the marines still gathered.

Markius stomped into his room again. Athena had not moved. It was noticeably cooler in here for some reason.

‘You killed it?’

Her eyes flicked to his.

‘It was intent on Brother Rasmus, I got it from behind, but I was too late…’

Markius nodded. Athena had another kill to her credit now, alongside the Chaos Champion she had beheaded on Callasia.

‘At least you got it, whatever it is,’ said Markius, crouching next to the corpse. ‘This thing was sent to kill me.’

Athena did not reply.

‘The baron is too much of a coward to face me himself.’

Markius’s lip curled as he tried to make out the hideous features of its head, beneath the lank strands of bone-white hair. Athena had beheaded it, just as Markius had promised Baron Vorlxrath he would do if he challenged him. He snarled and bent down to pick up the head by its long hair.

In the corridor, the marines parted as Markius stomped along, brandishing the gruesome prize. Outside the barracks, Markius met General Saifi accompanied by a cohort of guards.

‘I just heard, Captain,’ Saifi said breathlessly, ‘I don’t know how it got in. I’m sorry…’

‘I wish to use the broadcast station.’

Saifi eyed the xenos head Markius was carrying, gulped and nodded.

Markius marched across the courtyard, through the mansion, and along the covered corridor to the broadcast station, his marines following, and an increasing number of gaping PDF troopers trailing in their wake.

Inside the broadcast station they were in the middle of another public address. The same heavy-lidded military man noticed Markius enter, and again wordlessly gathered up his plastek notes and left the table on the set. General Saifi, the marines and the Coplin troopers packed into the large studio building to watch, wide-eyed. Markius stepped before the pict-capturer under the glare of the set. He saw his own image in the screen fixed to the ceiling rig, then glanced to Saifi.

‘Going out live across the planet,’ Saifi nodded back.

‘To the coward, Vorlxrath!’ Markius shouted. ‘You have failed again!’

He brandished the head of the xenos thing to the capturer.

‘You send your lackeys to sneak and slip in the darkness, and this is their fate! And where is the almighty baron himself, eh? Hiding away like the weak coward he is. To the people of Coplin, together we will defy this coward. I have faced him three times now, and the spineless coward has run away every time. He fears me, and he will fear you all, if you are strong!’

He tossed the head away with a snort of disgust.

‘Come out and face me if you dare, coward!’

He watched the screen for any sign of the disruption signal, knowing the xenos had to be watching. Sure enough, after several moments, the screen faded into a blizzard of static disruption, and the demented voice began chanting its mantra once more.

You will die humanity scum, you will not escape humanity scum…

The marines laughed ironically at the now grammatically correct threats, and the Coplin soldiers clapped and cheered. Markius exhaled and nodded, knowing he was winning the psychological war with the aliens, but he worried for his oldest friend, Rasmus.

Goran joined him on the set and said, ‘That was… well done, Captain.’

‘Now we hold vigil for our fallen brother. And we pray.’

* * *

‘THIS IS POINTLESS!’ Goran shoved the dataslates away from his place at the metal table in the strategium bunker. ‘How do we know any of this information is correct, anyway?’

Athena checked the damping device was switched on and shrugged at Markius.

‘He’s right. We don’t know what to trust anymore. For all we know Karim himself could have let that fraggin’ thing into the fortress.’

‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ said Markius, sitting opposite Goran. ‘I have something important to tell you all.’

He was interrupted as Sören strode back into the strategium. Markius rose from his seat, as did Goran, Tobias and Andreus, all looking to the Apothecary.

‘How is he?’ said Markius.

‘Unconscious,’ said Sören. ‘I could not save his primary heart – but it seems the infection, or whatever it was, did not spread.’

‘He will live?’ asked Tobias.

Sören nodded slowly, ‘I think so.’

‘I’ll go and tell Brother Borias; he’s blaming himself,’ said Tobias, leaving the strategium.

‘You did it,’ Markius rounded the table and put a hand on the Apothecary’s shoulder. ‘You beat their hypertoxins.’

‘This time,’ frowned Sören. ‘It did not work the same way as their splinter weapons.’

‘Nevertheless,’ smiled Markius. ‘I should have had faith in you and your books.’

‘I told you Rasmus was invulnerable!’ Goran’s face cracked into a grin, showing his canine teeth.

‘Captain Markius,’ Athena interrupted the lightening mood. ‘You said you had something important to tell us?’

‘Yes,’ Markius hunched over the table and gave them all a significant look. He glanced at the damping device and saw the activation runes lit up along its length, then repeated the discoveries made by Inquisitor Zharn, and how they implicated Karim was linked to the xenos.

‘I knew it!’ Athena scowled.

‘Then let’s go and kill the traitorous bastard!’ Goran flexed his power-glove menacingly.

‘It will have to wait until tomorrow. Zharn’s stuck in some mountain colony called Thangod. They are having some local festival and everything is shut down.’

‘A fraggin’ festival?’

‘Yes, djinnlar, I think he called it. Something local.’

‘Devilnacht!’ Sören huffed and slumped down into a free seat beside the table.

There was a silence for several moments.

‘What did you just say?’ said Markius.

‘Devilnacht,’ said Sören, raising his eyebrows. ‘Djinnar is a word from one of the mountain dialects. It’s not standard Beta Coplin tongue. They’d call it Devilnacht here in the city. In fact, low Gothic wouldn’t be much different. It means, oh, ‘night of the…’’

‘…devils!’ Athena interrupted again. She exchanged a significant look with Markius. Sören stared at one of them and then the other.

‘Yes, I suppose so. I read it somewhere.’

A hush came over Markius as he processed this information. Athena began rifling through the piles of data-slates.

Night of the devils,’ repeated Markius. ‘Holy Throne! Athena, you don’t think…?’

‘I’m looking for it now,’ she shot back, checking the slates. ‘Fraggin’ warp-suckers! Here it is, Thangod Colony.’

Markius came to her side.

‘M33 – Thangod Colony. It was one of the first places the ghouls attacked on Beta Coplin. Gaius has made some notes on the subtext screen…’

‘What are you two talking about?’ said Goran, joining them. Sören, also confused, leant forward in his seat.

‘Aha,’ said Athena. ‘He’s coded it again fifty years later – Coplin standard. There is a missing line in the reference tags from the PDF.’

‘What does that mean?’ said Markius.

‘It means they only included the first attack, but perhaps deleted the subsequent ones. The machine finally noticed something,’ Athena snorted. Her eyes narrowed. ‘Why is he querying each half-century?’

Athena hummed and Markius exchanged looks with Goran and Sören.

‘Wait a fraggin’ minute!’ she reached for a separate data-slate. She checked the dates against the information on the new slate. Then her mouth fell open and she stared up at the towering marines gathered around her chair.

‘It’s a total eclipse from the moons – each time, after starset but just before Beta rises.’

‘Will you please explain, Captain?’ said Sören, cupping his chin.

The night of the devils,’ breathed Markius. ‘That’s what Saifi and the locals call the ghouls.’

‘It’s not a fraggin’ festival, it’s a ritual attack, every fifty years – out of sync with the barycentric cycle,’ said Athena. She looked at Markius. ‘You think they’ll come again tonight, Captain?’

‘I just called him a coward in front of the entire population of Beta Coplin. I would bet my sword on it.’

‘We have a lucky break,’ said Goran, glancing at Sören. ‘You and your books!’

‘I love you and your books!’ said Athena, and Markius worried for a moment that she might throw herself at the marine and try and kiss him. By his expression, Sören harboured a similar fear.

Instead Athena stood and once again checked the damper. She said, ‘We must not let anyone outside this room know about this until the right moment.’

Markius grinned at Athena and said, ‘Finally, we’ve got them!’

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