The Helper

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

The Helper

Postby Chun the Unavoidable » Wed Mar 30, 2011 6:15 am

Dry vertebrae rasped loudly as pistons at the ancient praeceptor-servitor’s shoulders pushed its head from side to side. The sound broke a silence only otherwise marred by the scratching of a dozen nibs over vellum and by gas flames guttering in their wall lintels. The movement was a herald to announcements of import - the cyborg’s vestigial habit from a less mechanised time in its forgotten history.

Twelve postulants to the Holy Brotherhood of the Lamenters Space Marines sat at a wooden semi-circular table. They looked up, sensing a change in the regular proceedings.

A click, then the hiss of spooling tape as the praeceptor-servitor spoke from its pulpit mounting. ‘Today we have a guest speaker, discipuli Lamentori. You may view what he has to say as praeparatio for your Ego Adiunctus Noster Imperator remits. Tribunus, toll the bell.’

Solemnly, a postulant lifted the heavy brass bell resting before him and rang it once before muffling the clapper.

Heavy footsteps sounded in the corridor outside the classroom. Filling an archway through which three boys could easily walk abreast, Brother Captain Adward Poignant strode forwards to stand before the class.

He was in mufti – besadeurs, both pairs of cannons and gauntlets removed, weaponless. Yet he remained an imposing presence, his extant yellow armour doing little to dwarf his exposed head and arms; his skin shining an almost translucent, spectral white under the room’s flickering gaslights.

The Tribunus carefully replaced the bell. Wordlessly, the boys glanced at one-another. What could occasion a visit from such a high-ranking Marine? The eyes of the more knowledgeable boys widened with quiet unease – Brother Poignant was known as something of a nonconformist amongst the chapterhouse’s upper echelons, espousing departures from centuries of Lamenter tradition. Could that be his purpose here? And if so, just how were they, mere pre-implanters, supposed to react?

Another whirr of tape. ‘Postulants! Show respect!’

Hurriedly, the boys stood and as one intoned in High Gothic, ‘Frater dominus domno, Imperator munio te.’

The Marine smiled slowly, his features seemingly unaccustomed to showing such an expression - if not unaccustomed to showing expression at all. ‘And you, Brothers Postulant, and you.’ His voice was low, yet clear and commanding even without the amplification of his helmet. ‘Perhaps I do not need to introduce myself? No? Very well – to the crux of my visit. Please sit.’

The boys did as asked. Brother Poignant assumed a parade ground at-ease stance, his huge booted feet clunking on the flagstones and causing the Tribunus’s bell to ting! softly. Curling a thick-muscled arm over his armour’s immense cuirass, the Marine scratched at the red fuzz of hair on his pate.

‘I am here to tell you a tale, little brothers – one many of my peers wish I would keep to myself. You will be the first postulants to hear it, but not the last. And I pray to our Holy Emperor that one day there will be no need to tell it at all.’

The Marine sighed, linked his hands together over his yellow plackart. ‘We are an order of sorrows, as all know. However, there is a difference between sorrow and masochism - and it would be masochistic to allow our chapter to continue with its very foundations drowned in seas of grief. So then, listen.’

-oOo-


Heroism, like Beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What one sees as a heroic act, little brothers, another might view as despicable.

Like Beauty’s tarnish, Time, heroism is relative.

My first mission as a Neophytic seventeen year-old was an extraction - the penetration of Sub-Stratum XVI on Tertiary Hive, Ashen II. At the given coordinates I was ordered to retrieve a woman, Janjeel Ocks, and escort her back to our chapterhouse. I was not then privy to the reason for the mission, nor did I expect to be made so – my only wish was to succeed and be one step closer to the yellow armour and the blue teardrop.

Planet-fall was without incident, and our Thunderhawk rapidly descended the designated ventilation void to SS-XVI.

As I jogged down the hovering craft’s off-ramp and leapt the narrow gap to the landing, I imagined my newly implanted gene-seed restless within me as it prepared to exalt my body into the Emperor’s graces. What glories would I experience as a worthy of His? Would they begin with this mission?

My transport roared back to station beyond the tiny circle of daylight far above. I walked towards the nearest access maw, carefully surveying my surroundings and panning the ancient boltpistol loaned to me by my sergeant-master.

Yellow lumens, doing little more than reveal themselves, irregularly dotted the landing’s vast circular walkway – shrinking to mere pin-pricks on the void’s farther side. In my immediate location shadows softened the centuries-worth of human refuse piled about, and I found myself thinking wistfully of the enhancing capabilities of a Space Marine’s helmet – so many potential hiding places!

Yet I knew I was alone. Each of my steps puffed up spurts of dust –soft sediment from the myriad levels above- which was otherwise undisturbed. Even vermin seemed to have abandoned the area. Most telling of all, however, was the silence. Only a susurrus of ambient noise drifted down from Tertiary’s densely populated super-strata - to be met by a strange, low howl from the sumps far below, wafting by the landing as little more than a sad moan on the void’s updrafts.

I may have been the first living presence there in decades, if not longer. (Retrospectively, of course, I know this wasn’t the case. Other entrances would bear the signs of Lamenters’ booted feet.)

I reached the access maw. Here at last there was movement, if only of the air. A warm breeze exhaled from the tunnel’s depths, bringing with it smells of damp and rotting things.

I looked upwards again before I entered, perhaps wishing on an unacknowledged and boyish level for the mission’s conclusion and return to that distant circle of light… But certainly wishing –and again- for a Marines’ helmet to filter the stench.

From my first glimpse of the mountainous Tertiary in pict and plan, to the descent though its ventilation void, I had come to despise the compression of adamantine and humanity that was the hive: the seething crowds I had glimpsed scurrying like busy insects amongst the soaring towers and sky-bridges of the summit; the milling millions frequenting the cafés, plazas, and markets of the upper landings that I knew were a mere hint of the numbers deeper within; the billowing vents of strata factories and processing plants, miasmic and often further clouded with swarms of flies. All these were shocking enough for one used to the cool, clean, quiet cloisters of the chapterhouse. Not even the contained-explosions and simulated boltgun-fire of the training pits could compare with the hellish pandemonium of a hive.

Further, and in spite of its peace, down here in the sub-strata I found matters somehow worse, my loathing even stronger. For, though the silence seemed to preclude it, I knew I would soon be amongst people - and in similarly uncountable hordes to those of the higher levels. I had seen them in the picts and immersives of my briefing.

Calling what I had seen people, however, surely stretched credibility – they couldn’t even be compared to social insects like those above. What was social or organised about the feral humans of the underhive, these sub-men whose only concerns were their next meal, rut, or high? Cowering and capering in shadows and ordure, they went about their miserable lives as far from the radiance of our Emperor as it was possible to get without crossing into the un-light of the Corrupt.

And that was evident, too: the Corrupt. Chaos. I sensed its waiting presence as a barely perceived undercurrent of other in SS-XVI’s foul air. As a skein of indescribable colour -like slicked oil- on the shallow pools I wound cautiously amongst, quickly blown away by the stratum’s warm breezes.

As a strident, fearful edge to the distant roar of massed humanity finally encroaching upon the tunnel’s silence as I continued my advance.

Illumination improved. Graffiti appeared on the walls, names and dates scratched into the rusted iron panelling or scrawled in suggestive browns; ribald and disgusting phrases and cartoons, epitaphs and various quotations.

I heard the first scurrying of rodents amongst the detritus crowding my footsteps. The warm breeze suddenly became more agitated, the growl of remote crowds rising and fading with each of its gusts - along with the stench of rot.

Abruptly, I reached a junction – another tunnel running at right angles to the one I traversed. Cautiously, I stepped into the new passage, turned left and continued walking.

A further tunnel appeared to my right, its wide maw designated by a large, heavily defaced plaque, thankfully deeply-enough engraved to enable me to trace, ‘SS-XVI, Slice IXX.’ I grunted in satisfaction – the sign complied with my memorised map, and I knew I was heading true. I moved on.

More right-hand maws appeared at regular intervals, spokes radiating from the hub of the passage that, according to the chapterhouse’s records, encircled the entire ventilation void. As I passed each one the sound and stink of concentrated human existence increased tenfold. At one particular maw, Slice XV’s if I recall correctly, I found myself actually retching – and thanked our Emperor that was not my destination.

How could any man comply with such indignity and still call himself man?

The ‘slices’ were the spokes’ terminations, gigantic wedge-shaped halls filled floor-to-ceiling with latticeworks of cells and chambers suppurating people in their millions. At Slice IX’s maw, I traversed the short connecting tunnel and entered the grim reality of sub-strata existence in Tertiary Hive.

Imagine, if you can, the aspiratory exhalations, the dermatological and intestinal emissions, of millions of confined people. Couple that with the myriad processes of existence those people necessarily undergo, require, and buckle beneath. Then multiply the result by centuries of inadequate ventilation, laughable waste disposal, and consequently rife disease the likes of which the Apothecary General on High Terra would have trouble classifying, let alone combating. Then you might, might have some notion of the stink that palpably assaulted me in Slice IX.

And that was only one expression of the equation. Having entered the slice at its relatively stubby apex, the full cacophony of sound the chamber produced was focused upon me. My eardrums were battered with wails, screams, shouts. I heard inconstant clangs, metallic screeches and whines. Blaring music of a myriad of tastes intermingled to create a headache-inducing wall of reverberation that would cause an eldar banshee to bow its head in respect.

I advanced through the remains of a child’s playground, hiding my loaned boltpistol in its holster beneath the rags of my disguise. As the slice’s walls flared away from me the chamber’s clamour subsided - though never to an acceptable level.

I looked upwards at the rearing latticework. It looked like the un-hulled superstructure of some large space vessel, all landings, rickety gantries, and thin walls erected to provide desperate but negligible privacy. Shadows jerked and pulsed from various lighting sources, giving the whole structure a somehow unreal cast, as if it were the projected image of a faulty holo-caster and not grim reality.

Soon I was amongst the seething denizens of this netherworld. Emaciated and pale, furtive and fearful, they moved from chamber to chamber, stanchion-stairwell to stanchion-stairwell, in constant motion more reminiscent of the parts of some intricate mechanism than beings of free will. Their waif-children wound amongst them - all wide-eyed at their lack of future.

I sensed them looking at me sidelong as I cut through them, my disguise doing little to hide an obviously well nourished and exercised physique totally at odds with their jutting joints and wasted musculature. Yet nothing was said. I was never jostled or accosted. Whenever I caught the eye of an observer they would quickly look away, stepping aside to allow my passage and returning their attention to their shuffling feet or the thin, vendor-dispensed pasties that served as sub-strata food.

I quickly realised that these were not the barbarians of my briefings. I did not walk amongst sub-men. These were people. Pathetic, pitiable, barely acknowledged by an Imperium of which they constituted by far the greatest percentage. Yet people nevertheless - their existences weighed down by the billions of tonnes of flesh and mineral between them and the sky.

I moved on, my mind whirling with notions and concepts no postulant Space Marine should entertain.

How could these people be suffered to live so?

I shook my head to clear it of such borderline heresy. The oppressive atmosphere of the slice was affecting my thoughts. The problem was not mine.

My mission was.

At a stairwell laughably designated, ‘My Beatified Sister, Grnd,’ its brass plaque for some reason intricately scratched with hundreds of male names, I began to climb.

The temperature increased, and I sweated profusely into my rags. The air was stratified, becoming closer, clammier, as I gained each landing.

Moreover, and much more unsettlingly, the undercurrent of other, first sensed in the outer tunnels and surely the dismaying presage to Chaos, became steadily more evident. I felt its pressure as an almost physical thing on my nape, and I looked over my shoulder often, certain I was being watched or had heard my name called by childish voices.

I think it was at the sixth landing I realised my notions had solid basis. I was indeed being followed by slight forms keeping well back in the shadows... forms that grew in number every time I looked.

I stroked the reassuring form of my sergeant-master’s boltpistol through my rags.

At the tenth and penultimate landing I moved deeper into the latticework, along a relatively quiet corridor so thickly-lined with doors I wondered with dismayed awe at the size of the habitats beyond them. Most were tightly shut, though this did little to muffle the suggestive sounds coming through door and wall alike as I passed.

One door, however, was open, with only a threadbare and faded sheet hung across its frame.

I had reached my target destination.

The pressure on the back of my neck abruptly increased. I suddenly felt short of breath, as if the humid atmosphere of that corridor had been instantly drained of oxygen.

And I distinctly heard my name called from behind, the voice that of a young boy.

I whirled, scarcely stopping short of drawing my boltpistol.

The corridor was empty. At the dim landing beyond, however, I discerned slight forms once more ineptly scuttling to avoid my notice.

Lack of light, of course, made it difficult to be sure, but my followers, for all their apparent slimness, were not children.

I had heard no door open or close. Where, then, was the one who had called my name?

Moreover, how could he possibly know my name?

Perhaps Chaos was closer to consuming this place than I thought.

I suppressed a shiver, and then steeled myself ashamedly. This was hardly the conduct of a Marine-aspirant. I stepped through the hanging.

‘Janjeel? Janjeel Ocks?’

The habitat was indeed tiny, stinking of stale tobacco smoke and a weaker, though instantly noticeable, smell of copper. It was lit by a single, slowly pulsing lumen, and consisted of little more than mattress, table and stool. There weren’t even ablutions, and I guessed such facilities to be communal. The walls sported one or two discoloured picts, of pastoral scenes no denizen of Slice IX could ever hope to see... But the mattress took my immediate attention.

Laid directly on the patchily screeded floor against the habitat’s opposite wall, it was thin and tatty, springs all but poking through its threadbare surface.

One half of it was brown with bloodstains.

Horror, revulsion, and pity fought within me – more so when I saw, arranged in a neat row at the mattress’ foot, certain instruments of metal and plastic so brightly clean I knew they would otherwise also be covered in blood... be the cause of that blood’s release and flow.

‘I’ve pushed my luck too far, then? That really is a bad disguise.’

Emperor-damn it! Check all corners! I had been so absorbed in the mattress and all it represented I had forgotten one of the most basic elements of my training.

My boltpistol was instantly in my hand and pointing at the old woman who had spoken. She leaned in the corner to my immediate right, a cigarette smouldering brightly between her lips. She wore the ubiquitous colourless shift of all the females here, protected in front by a once-white apron now an oh-so suggestive beige. Her eyes widened in fear at the sight of my sidearm, but she didn’t try to back away or avoid its aim.

‘A bit heavy-handed for an old woman, isn’t it?’

‘Ocks? Janjeel Ocks?’

She didn’t answer the question. ‘I saw you looking at my mattress. I don’t use it like that, you know - I put clean sheets over it every time. But blood will seep, and that mattress has seen a lot of use over the years – thanks to you and yours. And, no, I don’t sleep on it.’ She drew on her cigarette, exhaled. The acrid tang of cheap tobacco filled the habitat, masking the coppery aroma. Perhaps she smoked them for that reason.

‘You are to return with me to the chapterhouse of the holy order of La-’

‘I know who you are, Yellow. And why you’re here. Tell me, did you hear them on the way in?’

The hairs on my nape prickled. ‘Who?’

‘The boy-babes. Some can hear them. I hear them clearly.’ Still under the cover of my boltpistol, the old woman began to unlace her apron. ‘But they’re not all mine, you know. I didn’t make them all. Many of them are yours.’

‘Mine? What do you mean?’ I had the horrible suspicion this old woman somehow had the better of me, had the real command of this situation in spite of the gun I pointed at her. Was this another lapse from my training? Perhaps, but in my defence Janjeel was obviously privy to the reason behind my mission, whereas I was not... Though the intimation of the bloody mattress was chilling.

‘Yours. Your damned brethren. There’s more than one way of making ghosts, you know.’

She folded the apron neatly, dropped it beside the gleaming instruments. For a moment she looked down at the mattress, and I heard her mutter, ‘Who will help them now?’ before turning to me. ‘Are you going to point that thing at me all the time?’ She smirked, and, just for a moment, I saw the cheeky, perhaps even pretty, teenage girl of her past before the unrelenting weight of existence in Slice IX crushed her from existence.

Somewhat shamefacedly, I holstered the boltpistol. ‘You will come without compulsion?’

‘You expect fight from an eighty-year-old woman, Yellow?’

She was putting on a brave front, but I could see the quiver in her hands as she pulled the burnt-through cigarette from her lips and squashed it into a battered ashtray resting on the stool. Suddenly, I felt authority return.

‘Walk before me. Do not call out or otherwise seek assistance. Consider yourself the ward of the Holy Brotherhood of Lamenters.’

She chuckled blackly. ‘Ward? How you Yellows love your euphemisms. Like “harvest” and “tithe”.’

I directed her through the hanging and into the corridor.

I heard no voices, saw no shadowed forms. We silently walked down the corridor and began our descent of the stairwell.

Many of those we passed greeted Janjeel, and she acknowledged them with brief, weary smiles. In her company, I received much bolder attention than I had alone – people plainly wondered at our pairing. Many frowns were directed my way - even a few muttered curses, as if some suspected my mission.

Janjeel collapsed at the third landing.

Crumpled on the ironwork floor, she began to sob into her hands. She knew her fate, and it plainly terrified her. The old woman could no longer maintain her bravado.

As gently and respectfully as I could, I slung her over my shoulder and continued down. Occasionally, her sobs were interspersed with the whisper, ‘But I only helped them.’ She felt so frail on my shoulder, her weight barely noticeable. And she only smelled of stale cigarette smoke.

I had half expected the metallic tang of blood.

The attention of the latticework’s occupants intensified now that I carried Janjeel. Some demanded to know where I was taking her. I ignored them, and none attempted to stop me - put off by my relative bulk and the steadfast demeanour instilled by my training. Nevertheless, I kept careful watch about me.

We gained the ground floor and I made directly for the slice’s entrance maw. Urgency compelled me – I had seen no sign of the mysterious followers of my ascent, and could only view their absence with foreboding.

They in fact awaited us at the playground.

At least two dozen girls and women, varying in age from fifteen to forty, sat in the rusted swings or upon rotten roundabouts, perched on the steps of battered slides or bent climbing frames. I could discern no weapons – nevertheless, and even in the low light, I saw murder in their eyes.

‘Where are you taking Aunty Ocks?’ asked a girl, possibly in her late teens. I stopped. In order to get to the maw I would have to pass through these females.

I braced myself against Janjeel, standing straight and intimidating against her slight weight.

Someone muttered over by a climbing frame, ‘Look, he struts like a simian from that holo Cherry stole up-strata. Do you think his arse is as red?’ A few giggles.

I ignored this, addressing the girl who had spoken. ‘That is not your concern. Stand aside. I bear the authority of the Holy Brotherhood –’

It was as if I had pressed a switch. Screaming, ‘I knew it!’ and, ‘Told you!’ they flew at me.

With the kicks and punches of the arts martial every Scout is taught, I initially fended off my attackers. But there were many of them, fighting with sharp teeth, ragged nails, and a righteous fury that kept them returning even after I had struck them whirling to the rockcrete floor. With one arm immobilised keeping the old woman secure, I could not hope to defend myself for long. In an instant of respite, I drew the boltpistol and fired upwards.

It made no difference. As if they were warp-spawned daemonettes uncaring as to their own injury, they simply began to claw at the gun, spitting and scratching.

Where did their vitriol come from? What experience had they suffered at the Lamenters’ hands to react with such all-eclipsing hatred? These pathetic, blighted females desperately wanted my death. More than that – they would gleefully tear me limb-from-limb were I to succumb.

Even then, however, I somehow knew it was not really me they saw themselves dismembering - but all I represented.

Simultaneously cursing both my hesitancy and the necessity of the action, I backhanded a young woman away from me and lowered the boltgun’s aim...

‘Stop! In the names and memories of your boys, you must stop!

The call, weak yet clear, came from my shoulder. Janjeel, all but forgotten as anything more than a hindrance to combat, was pushing herself up from my back.

The old woman’s words achieved what the threat of my boltpistol could not. As one, my attackers retreated. Panting, rubbing at bruises and wiping blooded noses and mouths, they glared at me.

‘Put me down, Yellow. Let me speak to them.’

Knowing no action of mine could diffuse the situation, I warily did as Janjeel asked.

She looked at the encircling women, nodding and murmuring names. Her tears had gone. Her expression was all infinite sadness and a kind of understanding I could not properly define.

‘What are you doing, girls?’

‘He cannot take you,’ said the teenager who had first spoken, her voice distorted by the blood bubbling in her nostrils.

Janjeel slowly shook her head. ‘And you think stopping this one will mean the end of it, Genva? They’ll just send others.’ She raised her attention to encompass the whole crowd. ‘Their Order, their Brotherhood, is everything to them. We know that. We suffer that. And I am a threat to it. They will not stop until I am taken.’ She coughed, and I watched her hands nervously beat the empty pockets of her shift, obviously seeking a cigarette. ‘There are those in the slice, those who do not understand, who call me Femme Fatality. Do any of you think I want more deaths in my name?’

Another, somewhat older woman spoke up, ‘But what of us, Aunty Ocks? Who will help us after you’re gone?’

The words once again brought the old woman to the verge of tears, no longer able to brave her audience’s eyes. Looking at her feet, she replied, ‘Genva has assisted me many times. She knows the procedures.’

‘But she has not the gift. She cannot see inside!’

Janjeel’s shoulders drooped. ‘No, she has not.’ Suddenly the old woman raised her head, her expression imploring. ‘Oh my girls, don’t you see? We have lost. We must accept their tithe. Let me and the Yellow past.’

For a moment, none moved. Then Genva’s gaze fell to her feet in the characteristic pose of Slice IX’s denizens, pulled there by inevitability. She stepped aside. The others followed suite, and I directed Janjeel through them - steeling myself to their tears of utter sadness; ignoring their glares of utter hatred.

At the slice’s entrance maw, Janjeel began to lean against me. By the time we reached the hub passage, I was once more carrying her.

The silence all but pounding after Slice IX’s clamour, we progressed back to the landing without incident. However, after I had signalled the thunderhawk’s pilot servitor and it began its howling descent of the ventilation void, Janjeel suddenly hissed in my ear, ‘Tell me, Yellow, whose son are you?’

That was all she said during our return flight, at last screaming the phrase when we came within sight of our beloved chapterhouse.

In the end, I was forced to sedate her.

-oOo-


Of the twelve docking bays our chapterhouse still uses, D-III is most memorable to me. Partly because it is one of the few sporting a servitor choir still able to harmonise, but mainly because it is the one to which I was returned after the completion of my first mission as a Scout.

I was supremely glad the mission was over. The experience had been –predictably, so I have come to learn- contrary to expectations.

Still, should any scout expect to have his very faith in his brotherhood tested during his opening operation?

I descended the Thunderhawk’s off-ramp to the loud cracks of its hull settling to ambient temperature, pausing when my feet at last met D-III’s rockcrete apron. I closed my eyes, relishing the opening lines of the mezzanine-mounted choir’s Return, Shrouded in Sorrow, and the pure, if harsh, smells of promethium and scorched metal – so wonderfully at odds with the clamour and stenches of Tertiary Hive.

‘Daydreaming again, Scout Adward? I trust you refrained during your assignment.’

I opened my eyes. Boots audibly thudding even through the rockcrete, my sergeant-master, Brother Ishmael Wane, approached. He was attired in full power armour, the yellow paintwork gleaming beneath the bay’s mercury lighting.

My eyes fell on the azure teardrop decorating his left besadeur. Would I one day also shoulder the primary emblem of our order? Prior to Slice IX, I would have proudly responded to that question with, ‘By the Emperor’s graces, yes!’ Post, the words remained... but the pride?

I snapped to attention and saluted, before unholstering Wane’s boltpistol to hold it across my chest, clearly exhibiting the activated safety mechanism in the proper fashion. Wane halted, returning my salute.

For a few moments he said nothing as he looked down upon me. I kept my eyes respectfully forwards, studying the imperial aquila emblazoned over his cuirass; following the labyrinth of dents and scratches that the pen of battle had written there during the many centuries of the armour’s use. If I found an egress, would certain meanings of existence be revealed to me?

Like the morality of my mission?

Even above the raptures of the servitor choir, I could hear air cycling through the triangular re-breather of Wane’s helmet.

‘The weapon, scout.’ He did not employ his helmet’s amplifiers; nevertheless, his voice possessed its usual characteristic boom... and was very welcome indeed.

I presented his boltpistol. Gauntlet servos wining softly, Wane took it. A skull servitor bobbed into view from behind the hulking Marine, its cranium trepanned into a gilt-lined bowl sloshing with holy water. Expertly, Wane tossed the gun into the air and spun it to grip the sickle-magazine. Next he dipped two fingers into the glittering water and lightly anointed the weapon, murmuring a quick cleansing rite as he did so.

Ritual complete, he dismissed the servitor with a wave and continued to study his boltpistol. With obvious affection, he said, ‘Reliable and simple, design complementing purpose... Unlike the gaudy ornaments favoured by some of my brethren.’ He paused, hefted the gun. ‘The magazine misses a bolt. I trust its discharge served you well?’

‘Sergeant-Master I... It served a purpose.’

Wane’s attention returned to me. I felt almost as if my mind were being scanned, as if his oculars’ regard incorporated the mapping beams of the more ancient simulators in the combat pits.

‘But perhaps it did not serve quite as expected? Hm?’

There came a clatter of caterpillar tracks on iron, and we stepped aside to allow the passage of a servitor carrying the unconscious Janjeel Ocks in its pneumatic arms. Wane stared at the old woman, and I fervently wished he had not worn his helmet as protocol demanded, so perhaps his face could have given some indication of his thoughts.

‘I see your mission was successful.’ He continued to watch the retreating, cracked-leather back of the servitor after it had passed. My sergeant-master would have been privy to most, if not all, of the details of my mission. Did he, now that he saw its object, also wonder at its justification?

‘Sergeant-Master – I would confess.’

He turned back to me, and once again I thought my mind bare to his eyes. Would I actually need to confess beneath such regard?

‘Hm. Perhaps you do. You seem somewhat flustered. Nevertheless, we will forgo a confession until your mission is complete.’

‘It is not complete? But I have extracted Ocks.’

‘True - but you have not yet witnessed her appearance before the Librarian.’

-oOo-


As postulants, little brothers, you will not yet have set foot in the Cathedral of Regret. Only those upon whom the honoured chirurgeons have at least begun their cutting are permitted into its hallowed voids - even then a journeyman’s presence is considered irregular and senior accompaniment compulsory.

I was conscious, therefore, of what I surmised to be the disgruntled stares of my more accomplished, all-helmed, brethren as we filed into that vast chamber to the Matins bell.

I was tired, having barely slept since my return from Ashen II (what sleep I did manage necessarily induced by a draught from the apothecary). My mind, my faith, were yet in turmoil. I prayed the imminent proceedings would ease my misgivings and bolster my beliefs... but could not shake a despicable premonition that they would not.

Sergeant-Master Wane and I reached our allotted places in the tiered pews. To further show my subservience and suffered presence, I was directed to kneel.

My nostrils filled with the scent of the heavily waxed wood of the pews, my ears with the quiet whine of power armour servos as the Marines gathered. I took in the absolute grandeur of my environment.

The Cathedral of Regret is the hub about which the heavily armed wings, buttresses and hyper-transepts of out chapterhouse spin. A cruciform chamber so vast that mists clouded its vaulted ceilings; that whispering breezes circulated throughout, carrying, so it was said, conversations and sermons centuries old; that four separate species of mute corvine occupied, their murders delineated by the soaring arches of the three transepts and the richly carved rood thickets of the voluminous chancel.

We occupied the southern transept, around halfway up its sickle-sweeps of tiered pews – stadium seating in all but name. The east and west transepts were similar, but empty and kept in semi-gloom, their vast concentric rings of suspended gas lintels turned so low they guttered on the verge of extinction (indeed, the cathedral is never free of the smell of ethanethiol). Here was testament to the depletion of our order, now less than a third the size of yore.

Hung directly over the pied porcelain tiles of the Orator’s Field at the intersection of transepts and the northern chancel, was the tightly rolled and heavily bound tapestry, Shameful Pledge of Three - destined only to be revealed again when our order completes its hundred year penance and is returned to the Emperor’s benediction. It is said the work was once named, The Glorious Stand of Three, and that, when the terrible mistake of the Lamenters, Mantis Warriors, and the Executioners chapters in backing the infamous Badab Uprising and turning against the Imperium was realised, the gifted artist who had spun it killed himself (of those historians of a darker imagination who suggest he may have been executed, I will say nothing).

A gong was struck somewhere beneath the pews and the access arches to either side quietly shut. The assembly was complete.

I frowned in consternation. The sad splendour of the Cathedral of Regret? So many Space Marines in full regalia? All this for frail old Aunty Ocks?

Softly, the unseen chancel choir began to chant the Maestus Acceptum. Captain Jarrunt Cry and Chief Librarian Raphael Threnody strode from the shadows of the rood thickets - rather startlingly, as I had thought their dimly realised forms incorporated in the intricate carvings of that great wooden edifice. Solemnly, silently, the two took up stations at lecterns positioned either side of the thicket’s central gate. Servitor skulls trailed them, under-slung thuribles pluming perfume. The heady smell of lilies eclipsed that of gas as the Maestus Acceptum faded to silence.

Though otherwise fully armoured, both Marines went un-helmed. Cry’s balled pate clearly exhibited the ever-weeping wounds of the extra HUD jack-points that were a necessary augmentation to those honoured with command suits. His stern face was screwed into a continuous frowning squint (obviously he missed his helmet’s oculars); and his left eye was darkly tattooed as if it streamed with tears – indication of his ranking as one of the Coventry, elite troops of our order.

Threnody’s scalp was the antithesis of Cry’s. It was festooned with tangles of flexi-ducts and cabling that linked his mind to the magnifying effects of the high, crystal-inlaid collar rearing sharply from the back of his gorget. The psychic hood. Glowing dull green, in the expectant silence I could actually hear the crackle of the eldritch device’s leaked energies. The corners of Threnody’s full lips were perpetually turned down, spoiling an otherwise handsome mien, and –visible even at this remove- constantly trembled with suppressed emotion as if all the woes of our order were upon his shoulders alone.

Captain Cry’s voice boomed through his lectern’s pick-ups and out of the transept’s hidden vox-castors.

‘We gather once more in dismay, Brothers. This is the lot of the Lamenters. Today, however, the reason for our assembly is of particular odiousness. A threat to the very foundations of our order has been identified and neutralised. In accordance with ancient law, the threat’s principle is to be presented before all; meted punishment displayed before all.’

He looked down at his lectern. In guilt? Sorrow? Suppressed rage? I could not decide which.

‘Open the gate. Stride forth, Coronach.’

An engine revved loudly into life, the jarring noise obscene in that hallowed chamber. The gate –an intricate mechanism of concertinaed wooden panels- folded open. From the chancel’s darkness, Coronach emerged hugely into the gaslight, blue-grey exhaust fumes billowing about him.

Coronach was Dreadnought, ancient mobile receptacle of those Marines so revered even near-death was not deemed reason enough to remove them from the battlefield. Somewhere between Terminator and ambulatory tank, the dreadnought towered over its parenthesis of captain and librarian, its huge power-claw and assault cannon arms ceremoniously shrouded in saffron silk, its thick armour plating glinting in the light where the yellow paint had been scratched and gouged in past conflicts.

Coronach’s roaring engine idled; the mammoth machine drew to a halt with a gut-shaking double-thud! of his pneumatic feet, one stride behind the two lecterns.

The engine shut off. I watched exhaust from the twin pipes at the dreadnought’s back rise to stain the pale clouds misting the vaults. The scent of lilies gradually replaced the miasma of exhaust fumes.

At last I looked at Coronach’s burden.

Naked, spread-eagled, crucified, Janjeel Ocks was lashed to Coronach’s bulkhead, her limbs and scrawny body stretched out in a pathetic ‘X’ of pain and shame. Her head lolled, her brown hair hung lankly over her face.

‘Behold, enemy of the Lamenters, Murderer of Marines!’ Cry’s voice seemed to drip hatred.

Hatred of an old, broken woman.

I heard mutters of combined incredulity and disgust around me. This half-starved sub-hiver was a murderer of Marines? How could that be possible? Why was this wretched creature paraded as if she were a captured captain of the fallen legions, or a dark elder haemonculus? Why such a gathering for... for this?

Captain Cry obviously heard the discontent - he squinted up at us myopically, trying to pinpoint the source of the disagreement.

I glanced at Threnody. He was staring intently at Ocks, his psychic hood pulsing with greater rapidity and lambency than it had before the dreadnaught’s entry. What did he sense in the old woman?

Cry spoke on. ‘You doubt me, Brothers? Do not let her appearance deceive – this witch is a foe of the highest echelon. She would worry at our very foundations - topple us to the ground if she continued her loathsome practices unchecked.’

There came a shout from the lower pews, ‘But, brother captain, how can this be? She is naught but skin and bones. Did she have help?’

At the word, ‘help,’ Janjeel began to stir.

Cry strode from behind his lectern, out onto the Orator’s Field – perhaps for greater impact, but more likely to be able to better focus on his addresser. With a loud crackle, his suit’s vox-castor connected to the transept’s.

‘As my word is not enough, Brother Mew, then I shall explain further.’ He gestured back at Coronach, ‘Aye, she had help – the help of Chaos, the help of mutation. She –’

‘Brother Captain, she speaks!’

Cry whirled. Janjeel had lifted her head, mouthing words none of us could hear. Her face was blotched and tear-streaked, her chin and collar bone crusted with dried blood from the ragged ruin of her chewed-through lower lip.

Oh how the Lamenters were demeaned by this terrible spectacle!

Cry approached the old woman, standing in Coronach’s shadow so his suit could boost her voice. ‘What did you say, witch?’

Janjeel kept her eyes tightly shut, as if afraid to see the host before her. Her words, even amplified, remained weak and barely discernable. ‘I only helped them.’

Cry frowned. ‘Helped who?’

‘My girls. I had to help my girls.’

Cry’s frown deepened. ‘What “girls”, witch? You babble.’ Cry addressed his audience, ‘She babbles, brothers. Chaos consumes her at la-’

For the first time, Chief Librarian Raphael Threnody spoke, his voice low, reverberating with the power and knowledge of his calling. He was still gazing at Janjeel. ‘She means the mothers, Captain Cry – the mothers of the tithe.’

For a moment, Cry seemed taken aback, as if suddenly aware that there might be another viewpoint to this woeful situation. But his face quickly hardened, and when he spoke his words were all pious surety.

‘Mothers? What care I for mothers? Sub-hive slatterns that should be honoured to have their offspring reared foremost in humanity! We make them into Space Marines, witch! We –’

Again, the captain was interrupted, but this time it was Janjeel who spoke. The old wretch silencing the hulking Marine! If it wasn’t for her words, Little Brothers, the sight of it would make me smile yet.

‘You tore them from their mothers with their little mouths still pursed to the nipple!’ Janjeel’s voice was raised, incandescing with the passion I had intermittently witnessed in Slice IX. Part of me was hopeful she might not be as ‘broken’ as I thought... but another part recalled how close her passion was to insanity.

‘Nonsense!’ replied the nonplussed Cry. ‘They are weaned before we receive them. We make sure of it. We have never taken them so young.’

‘No?’ said Janjeel, her voice now all tired spite, ‘Perhaps not – for where are the wet nurses in your brotherhood?’

At last, she opened her eyes, and my heretical heart swelled fit to burst when I realised she didn’t seem particularly awed by what she saw. In an echo of my own first meeting with Janjeel, I could see circumstances running away from Cry – the old woman was besting him in his own chapterhouse!

The captain, however, was not yet ready to give in. He pointed to his besadeur. ‘You see this teardrop, hag? It swells with the myriad sorrows our order has suffered. Do not think to lecture a Lamenter on pain and lo-’

Again, Janjeel’s quiet words stopped his. ‘We sub-levellers have no armour upon which to paint our tears, Yellow. We don’t ink them into our skin, either. They fall from our eyes.’

She sighed, her chin falling back to her chest. ‘For generations you have taken our boys from us. And we were honoured by it, once – you gave us a form of escape from IX, a feeling of significance, damn it! But then came your decimation in the Badab wars – so awful news of it fell even as far as us. Then your desperation began. You no longer took them at fourteen, no longer allowed them a childhood with their families. You had to be sure of their abilities, their worth, to wear your damned yellow armour. Nurture over nature, you said.’

Another Marine shouted from the lower pews. ‘But we never take them all. Each tithe, some are always left.’

Through the lank strands of her hair, Janjeel smiled, grimly. ‘Oh to be sure, you were kind, weren’t you? You leave a few - usually the deformed, the runts. Occasionally you leave healthy boys - but only as potential studs. You farm the sub-levels, Yellow. You farm us.’

Silence in that huge chamber. Desperately, Cry seized the opening. ‘And what do you do, witch? Using your eldritch sight to spy out the male embryos, you take the despicable tools of your despicable trade, and you -’

‘I abort them, yes!’ Spittle flew from Janjeel’s mouth with the shouted words. ‘Better that than having them torn from us! Torn, when they’re warm and trusting and helpless; when the bond between mother and child is strongest; when everything about a mother centres on her babe.’ Her voice quietened back to a near-whisper. ‘My girls know this; they come to me for help.’ She paused, sighed once more. ‘They sometimes bring flowers - lilies like those skulls are waving about. They get me up-strata flowers to thank me for what I do.’

‘To thank you for murdering boys that could have become glorious in the eyes of the Emperor!’

Damn your Emperor! Do you think He walks the sub-levels with the other ghosts? The ghosts of childhoods that never existed because of you? Of babes that never even screamed into the joyous air of their birth because of me? Do you think He was there when you came to take my boy? My boy who could send such lovely pictures with his mind... Such lovely pictures of places he’d never seen... I’d never seen. But where is he now? Who did he send his pictures to after you took him? How would he know who his mother was? How many of you know your mothers?’

There came a flare of green as Threnody abruptly stood and quickly strode towards Coronach’s hulking form, his psychic hood blazing to such an extent it cast a dark star of flickering shadows about his feet.

And Janjeel began to scream, her sanity abruptly eclipsed as it had been in the final moments of her extraction.

I ached to assist her; to run out onto the Orator’s Field in complete disregard of tradition and composure; to shame my elder brothers for their treatment of her – of Tertiary Hive’s sub-levellers in general.

My muscles tensed, I surged upward... into the rock-like gauntlet of my sergeant-master.

‘Be still, Scout. Remember you are here on sufferance.’

‘But this – this demeans us!’ I hissed, uncaring of the turning helmets nearby, the focusing oculars.

‘It does?’ asked Wane in a whisper. ‘She killed potential Marines, Adward.’

‘But this exhibition is wrong.’

‘It is? Ocks dealt in absolutes, and so must we. Is there another way to address such matters? Is what she did right?’

Suddenly I felt bone-weary, crushed beneath woes that had no hope of redemption. I relaxed, slumping back into genuflection. ‘I don’t know,’ I muttered.

With the soft wine of servos, Wane’s gauntlet lifted from my shoulder. I looked up at him – his helmet was swivelling from side to side, but I had to imagine the grim sadness of his expression. ‘If you did, Scout, then perhaps you should be attached to the Golden Throne.’

On the Orator’s Field, Janjeel was still screaming. Cry looked up at her helplessly, trying, without success, and despite his amplified voice, to shout the old woman into quiescence.

But now the chief librarian was beside him, his hood a glittering fan of emerald. With precise, measured gestures, he directed Coronach to release Janjeel. The dreadnaught’s power-claw lifted, its saffron shroud slipping to the pied porcelain. With a deftness that bellied the war engine’s bulk, he snipped the ropes binding the old woman.

With a startled yelp, Janjeel fell to the ground – her body little more than leather-bagged sticks. She lifted herself shakily onto her forearms and glared up at the pews. Deliberately looking at each one of us in turn, she howled:

‘Whose son are you?! Whose son are you?!’

Threnody knelt beside her. With his left hand, he gently took her weight, bent forwards, and whispered something into her ear.

His psychic hood dimmed. Janjeel abruptly stopped screaming, and a wide, absolutely beatific smile spread across her ragged lips...

...And remained there even after the boltpistol Threnody held in his right hand discharged its low-energy bolt into the side of her head.

-oOo-


Brother Captain Adward Poignant was silent, his gaze seemingly lost in past images rather than focusing on the enthralled postulants before him.

Tape spooled and hissed politely within the praeceptor-servitor’s fleshless ribcage. Adward shook his head, ‘Forgive me, little brothers - such memories, they... they eclipse the present.’

He sighed, his pale, heavily muscled arms slumping slightly against plackart and fauld. ‘There, my tale is complete. I will not dwell on my rise to captaincy, on the political and moral battles I fought alongside those involving boltgun and blade... Of the battles within myself to commit to an order that condoned these practices. Suffice to say that you, Brothers Postulant, are the last to be directly weaned from nipple to chapterhouse; and you are the first to be made aware, pre-implantation, of the true sorrow of your drafting into the Holy Brotherhood of the Lamenters Space Marines. Try and act upon the knowledge with the honour and understanding befitting that which you would attain.’

A slightly older boy towards the back of the class tentatively raised his hand. Adward inclined his head. ‘Speak.’

The boy stood, and in a nervous voice, asked, ‘Brother Captain, what did our Lord Librarian say to the wi- Erm, to Ocks?’

Adward nodded, as if he had expected the question. He scratched at the short red hairs of his head. ‘You have not yet commenced your training in the arts of subterfuge, have you, Little Brothers? When you do, be sure to concentrate during lip-reading instruction – it is a useful skill.’

Adward brought his hand down over his face, squashing his nose flat and stretching his jowls and lips. ‘What did Threnody say, as he executed Janjeel Ocks? What were the words that made her smile as if she were in the presence of Him Himself? Little Brothers, it was simply, “I am your son, mother.”’
Last edited by Chun the Unavoidable on Wed Mar 30, 2011 6:39 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Helper

Postby Chun the Unavoidable » Wed Mar 30, 2011 6:21 am

Note: Forgeworld are to/have release/released another of their tomes. This latest deals with the Badab Wars and goes into detail concerning the Lamenters. I'm guessing that much of the above will have been rendered bollox by that official publication... just so you know that I know.

For comments on the old Bolthole: click here.
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Re: The Helper

Postby Chun the Unavoidable » Sun Sep 16, 2012 11:01 am

A bump for those who haven't yet revelled in the stretched metaphors.
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Re: The Helper

Postby J D Dunsany » Sun Sep 16, 2012 11:21 am

I've already commented on this elsewhere, but I'll do so again. This has always struck me as the perfect 'entry level' story for people interested in Chun's oeuvre. All of the writer's considerable skill is on display in a nicely-packaged easy-to-digest (but not, perhaps, stomach) story, which presents powerfully and, for that matter, beautifully the ossified tradition, codified honour and brutal desperation of a Space Marine chapter on the very edges of the 40K Imperium. The story's sense of grim inevitability fits the melancholy Lamenters perfectly; the framing sequence only augments the pathos of the revelation of Threnody's words to Ocks: the pacing, baroque description and SM characterisation are all perfect. It's a fantastic story and I've enjoyed reading it again!

:)

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JDD story of the moment: Glory
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Re: The Helper

Postby Chun the Unavoidable » Sun Sep 16, 2012 11:26 am

I love you.
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Re: The Helper

Postby Mossy Toes » Sun Sep 16, 2012 9:15 pm

What JDD said (and not only so that I, too, can be loved).
What sphinx of plascrete and adamantium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Imperator!
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Re: The Helper

Postby BaronDeSade » Sun Sep 16, 2012 10:55 pm

Very well written and kept my interest until the end.

I am of two minds about the behavior of the hive-folk, though. I do not know how many parents would rather destroy an infant than give one up. This topic hits very close to home, with me, as my two adopted daughters were abandoned by their birth-parents, presumably for the flaw of being born female...and their birth-parents did, at least, leave them where they would be cared for (one, a hospital, the other, an orphanage) rather than just destroy the infants outright, which might have been the easier choice.

So, perhaps a little more emphasis, or perhaps, the idea itself, that "the helper" had as much revenge on her mind for her own son that she "inspired" the girls to believe that it was better that their infants be destroyed than inducted, as I don't know that that is a conclusion new mothers would normally come up with. It is true that many female fetuses are being aborted in the Far East, but it is my perception that this is done for the ease of the family, rather than any particular fear of the future of the child. At least, I have never heard such concerns.

Best,

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Re: The Helper

Postby Chun the Unavoidable » Mon Sep 17, 2012 7:24 am

This story is certainly not intended to state any particular POV over any other, only that there can be more than one. I've never really thought that Ocks had revenge on her mind, more that she had suffered in that fashion and wanted, therefore, to help -as she saw it- the women around her in potentially similar predicaments; and -now that the opportunity had presented itself- make the SMs understand their side of things. Furthermore -and not wishing to get into any ethical arguments over definitions- there aren't any infants being destroyed in The Helper, there are only abortions - if that hadn't come over then it is certainly a point that requires more emphasis.

Glad you more or less liked it, BaronDeSade, and thanks for your thoughts on the content.
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Re: The Helper

Postby BaronDeSade » Sat Sep 22, 2012 6:09 pm

I definitely liked it. I hear what you are saying about the ethics; I was just thinking about the real-life situation in China, where a lot of live infants are abandoned or allowed to die. The people who can afford a sonogram can abort a female fetus, but most of the poorer people have to wait for the infant to be born before they know its gender and decide to keep it or not.

Meh, just chipping in my .02 as someone who has directly encountered this kind of issue.

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