Lament of the Lone Guardsman

(This is Warhammer 40k fan fiction. Everything other than the main character and his unit is copyright of Games Workshop, used without their permission but hopefully with their indulgence.)

The recording transcribed here was collected during the recovery of bodies in the aftermath of a campaign against the ork corsairs in Segmentum Pacificus, during which the 401st Purganto was overrun and massacred. The speaker has been identified from remains in the destroyed bunker as Sgt. Pard Geram, who had been with the 401st for ten standard years. It is not clear why he recorded this, but it serves as his last words.

“All the others are dead or missing. I woke up and Kerath, who’d been on watch, was gone. What happened to him I can’t say but these damn greenskins can be sneaky bastards when they want. Why they left me I can’t imagine. Or maybe I can. Anyone who thinks orks are stupid hasn’t battled against them. They want me to suffer…

“I’m not done yet, you miserable green murderous bastards!


(Incoming artillery shells can be heard)


“Hear that?


“That’s our own artillery turned against us.The greenskins overran a Basilisk position a few days ago, looted the guns and turned them against us. They’re miserable shots. They like the noise of the big guns. More likely to blow themselves up than anything else… though at this point a stray shell dropping on my head might not be the worst thing.


“It doesn’t matter anymore though, does it? Maybe it never did. I’ve put in my time and done it with whatever sad attempt at pride a man like me could muster. I’ve come to believe that humanity is a shit stain upon the galaxy. I wish I’d been born and died on one of those backward, out of the way planets and remained ignorant of the rest of the galaxy.


“They tell us we serve the Emperor of all humankind, who sacrificed himself to save us from Chaos Undivided, or the green hordes, even from ourselves.They tell us we are the first line of defense against xenos and heretics and chaos and things that go bump in the night… the hammer of the Imperium, the Emperor’s fist!

“This the damned priests would have us believe. They should save their lies for the new recruits, who need inspiration to give up their lives for the greater glory of the Golden Throne. Words are nothing more than a thin veil drawn across the truth: we are nothing more than barely armored and lightly armed meat bags, commanded by idiots who feed us into the grinder by the millions. We are shot, burnt, exploded and torn to pieces by every horror the galaxy has to offer. No victory but death, or so they say.

“If you you’ve been in the Guard and survived with your limbs and sanity intact then you were likely in the Munitorum and I don’t have the spit to spare for you.

“I’ve seen entire regiments of new recruits decimated before they had a chance to reload. I’ve seen whole worlds burnt to a crisp. I’ve killed the servants of the archenemy, xenos, and things I can’t begin to describe or explain across worlds beyond my ability to recall.

“My body is broken. My lungs were grown in a vat as a replacement for the damage done while fighting a bunch of heretics on some industrial hive world. I’ve been stitched back together by the chirugeons more times than I can remember.

“And for what… the glory of the Imperium?

“I don’t know much about this galaxy. I sleep, eat and shit and if I’m lucky I get to fuck a Guard provided whore when I’m not slaughtering the enemies of the Emperor. I was born to serve and it’s likely I’m going to die on this shithole of a planet.


“What happens after that is like the rest of my life: out of my control, no matter what the Ecclesiarchy priests tell us. Any afterlife can go fuck itself. A seat at the Emperor’s table? I think any reasonable soldier would know that’s a lie and who in their right mind would want to eat with a ten-thousand year old corpse?


“Commissar Vindlu would shoot me on the spot if she merely suspected I was thinking this, much less said it aloud and that’s just the way it is. There is no doubt she would quite enjoy blowing my brains out, after all the trouble I’ve given her. Even the life debt she owes me would be conveniently forgotten. Order must be maintained. I would not be missed, no matter how many scars prove my worth.


“It doesn’t matter now though, does it? I’ll be dead before dawn, shredded by the next wave of those bastard greenskins. How much ammunition is left… I’ve got one fully charged cell and a couple of frags. I’ve got my knives but I can tell you it’s about as easy to knife an orc to death as it is to eat the crap they feed us without gagging… but I’ll go down killing because we don’t roll over and die without a fight. Not in the 401st we don’t.


“At least I won’t have to see the inside of that filthy troop ship again. That almost makes dying down here in the muck worthwhile.


“Here comes the damn artillery again. By the Throne how I wish they’d do whatever it is they’re going to do. I can’t raise anyone on the vox. I don’t even know if the lines are still intact. My last orders were to hold to the last and so I hold. I am the last…”


(The recording ends abruptly.)

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Learning to draw… again

A couple of days ago as I ambled up and down the aisles of our local grocery store, nodding to the other under-employed free-lance writers pushing their carts, I turned up the aisle that has periodicals on one side and children’s toys on the other.

I wanted the latest issue of Wired but that’s a magazine Wegmans only carries-wait for it-periodically (well, it was amusing to me) and this was one of those times that I couldn’t find it among the wide variety of magazines about guns, cars, guns, and guns.

I turned my cart around and started toward the guns-I mean soup-aisle… and stopped.

Wegmans is a grocery store so naturally art supplies are underrepresented. There is one small section no more than a few feet wide and heavily populated by a variety of guns-pens I mean, pens-and down at the bottom of the section were a few desultory bits of multi colored poster board and a drawing tablet: specifically, the UCreate 40 Sheet Artist Book of Medium Weight Drawing Paper.

Hmm.

I picked it up and flipped back the piss-yellow cover (the color of ART! I said to myself) and felt the paper. It was cheap crap, the kind of paper made from recycled detritus kicked out of waste management sites, bleached with some ungodly toxic chemical combination and packaged up for the artist in all of us.

Still.

I used to draw. Actually, I used to draw a lot. Both my parents are artists. I took every art class there was. I thought, at one point, that I had progressed from “that’s crap” to “that’s marginally better crap than the usual crap”. Specifically I enjoyed the fine art of cartooning. I did take a painting studio one time but the teacher and I came to the mutual conclusion that I was using up gesso and canvas that actual painters would need and that I should go make to making doodles on paper.

I hadn’t doodled on paper in quite a while. For reasons I can’t fully explain or understand, I simply put down the pens at some point in my life and didn’t pick them up again. It’s not like I was no longer interested. I still read comics. I still appreciate art, even the doodles. I can’t even put it into words, even now, when that is exactly what this post is about.

But recently I’d been in contact with my cousin-once-removed. She is an artist. She is a very good artist. As I flipped through pictures of her projects, I saw something in her lines and crosshatching that reminded me of my own scratchings. And I began to wonder why I’d put the pens down in the first place.

I tossed the drawing tablet into my cart.

A week or two passed since that momentary lapse of reason. I opened up the tablet and stared at the  blank page. A blank page used to excite me! Oh, the possibilities! What couldn’t I do? I was only ever bound by my imagination and questionable level of talent. But now I simply stared at the blankness and saw… nothing. No cartoon faces popped into my head. No fantastic, otherworldly landscapes popped into my head. I picked up my pen, a very normal Uniball Impact 207 with a nice medium-thick flow of ink. A whole past life of art teachers and lessons and endless hours spent bent over wooden tables flashed through me. I once knew this craft. I was once considered an “artist” of sorts.

I drew a line. That’s a good place to start. I could have started with just a point, but I was living large. One line. It looked… okay. I wasn’t hating it. It wasn’t straight, but my hand apparently remembered enough to start and finish a line. I drew a few more lines and put the pen down. Whoa nelly. Don’t get too crazy. Okay. Try a circle. It wasn’t horrible! It sure wasn’t “art” but then again, it was more than I’d been doing over the last ten years. I tried some crosshatching. Ooo, I could still do that. Trembling, I drew a cartoon face: eyes, nose, a mouth, added some eyebrows. It was crap, but then again, I was used to that. I was in my comfort zone. Back to the crap, I said to myself.

But I grinned when I said it. And drew another line that turned into a swirl and as the pen moved over the face of paper I was creating again and that was a pretty special feeling. This cheap paper and this expressionless pen, this was my gateway back into a world I’d put behind me for too long.

I’m back, ya bastards. Look out.

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All That Mattered

I met a young woman in a dream
Someone I’d known many years ago;
We were in a library,
Walls covered with fantastic books,
Artwork strange yet sublime,
And because this was my dream:
T-shirts with Opus the Penguin.

She had a book in front of her,
A scholarly work she had written.
As we talked I leafed through it:
Ancient cultures, snake gods and jaguars,
Stairs to nowhere
And the people who climb them.
I read a passage aloud:
Dense and scholarly but also
Infused with wit and charm.

I closed the book and looked at her
No different now then she’d ever been.

“What do you want?” she asked
“All I ever wanted was you,” I said
She laughed and shook her head
“You don’t even know me, not really;
You’re in love with the idea of me
And you always have been.”

She wrote a note to me on the flyleaf
In a language I couldn’t read
But it wasn’t important;
I understood the sentiment
And at that moment that was
All that mattered.

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The Necron of Texas

(Authors note: this is a piece of Warhammer 40K fan fiction, and is completely unauthorized. The characters are mine but everything else is from Games Workshop and used without permission. I wrote this because I love their universe and had a story idea that seemed to fit into it.)

“What do you mean, he’s dead?”

Bob Plante squinted at phone. “Not trying to be a smart ass here, Nick, but I’m not sure how you don’t understand what I just said. Oscar is dead. One of my cowpokes was out looking for lost calves and came across his body way out on the backside of my land.”

“That don’t make no sense, Bob. I saw Oscar last week, and there wasn’t nothing wrong with him other than his usual tin-foil hat weirdness.”

“I’m telling you there is something wrong with him: he ain’t breathing, he ain’t moving, and his heart, well, it ain’t pumping blood around in his fat clogged arteries! If that ain’t dead, I’m not sure what is. Now get off your fat ass and come take a look!”

Sherriff Nick Palmer sighed and pushed his chair backward with a grunt. “Alright, Lil’ Britches, no need to toss around insults. Is the body still there?”

“Don’t call me that, you know I hate it when you call me that.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I didn’t move it the body. After the last time, I ain’t hauling no more dead bodies. You comin’ out here or what? And you’d best drive your truck.”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll head out that way. Gimme a minute.” Sheriff Palmer hung up the phone. “Dolores!”

“Yes, Sheriff?”

“I’m taking the four by four out to Bob Plante’s place so he can show me something. Route any business that comes in to Deputy Mason.”

“Is this about Oscar?”

“I’m not even going to ask why you know anything about that.” He grabbed a key ring and hitched up his pants; his wife had been feeding him oatmeal in the morning instead of the usual bacon, eggs, sausage gravy, biscuit and coffee and he was a little less confined around the waist then he had been in years.

Bob Plante was a decent type and not given to hysterics; Nick had known him since they were kids. Bob had inherited his land from his father when Old Man Plante went out drinking one night and wrapped his truck around a telephone pole. It was a good drive out of Pale Oak to get to the Plante place and it was almost lunch time by the time he got there. The house was at the end of a long dirt driveway; Bob was waiting for him when he pulled up. Nick lowered the passenger side window.

“How you doin’, Bob?”

“As good as can be, I guess. How ‘bout you, Nick?”

“Awright I guess. Sorry to hear about Oscar though.”

“Yeah, it don’t make no sense.”

“Well jump in the cab, let’s go see what’s what.”

Bob climbed into the truck and they headed out. After bouncing down a few miles of dirt roads, Bob pointed to the right, where a couple of tire tracks diverged from the road.

“It’s down that aways.”

Nick shifted into four wheel drive and pushed the truck through the underbrush. A cloud of dust sprang up behind them. Bob guided him with a grunt and point in one direction or another for another few miles.

“What the hell was Oscar doing way out here?” Nick asked.

Bob shrugged. “I dunno. Okay, stop the truck, we’re close.”

They got out of the truck and Bob took the lead, pushing through low mesquite trees and scrub brush. Nick saw something up ahead; something white and long on the ground.

“We put a tarp over him just to keep the birds off.”

Nick nodded. “Who all has been here?”

“Just me and my guy. You know Jersey Ted?”

“Naw. Heard of him though.”

“Yeah, he’s the one who found him.”

“Is he really from Jersey?”

“So he claims. Rides like he was born in the saddle though.”

Nick approached the body, taking his time and studying the ground. Hoof prints and boot marks scuffed the dirt around the tarp. He walked around in a circle, trying to pick out what direction Oscar had been headed or where he’d come from, but he found no tracks of the dead man. Nick gazed in every direction and shook his head. There was nothing except the distant Davis Mountains. He knelt down and pulled the tarp back, then pulled on a pair of gloves and rolled him over.

“There ain’t a mark on him,” he said. “Heart attack, maybe? Aneurysm?”

“If you say so, I guess.”

“I’d sure like to know what he was doing out here, though. I can’t tell where he come from or where he was going. It’s like he was dropped here from a helicopter. What’s out that way, beyond your ranch?”

“A whole lot of nothing, as far as I know. Some of it is government land I guess.”

“Uh-huh. Them bastards will claim to own anything. Didn’t they used to do military stuff out this way? Tank maneuvers and such.”

“Not for a while now.”

Nick stood up and blew out his cheeks. “He didn’t have no water on him. You didn’t find anything else around, no backpack or nothing?”

“I’d’ve told you if I did. Jersey Ted said he was just like this when he rode up; all he did was check to see if he was alive then rode right back to the house and told me.”

“I’m gonna have to talk to Jersey Ted, just to keep it all on the up and up. Okay then. Let me take some pictures and such, just on the off chance there’s more to this than it looks like.”

He walked back to the truck to get his camera. He hadn’t known Oscar real well, but he was a nice enough guy, kept to himself and didn’t cause a butt load of trouble. Pale Oak had its fair share of people who could kick up a fuss: roughnecks from the nearby fracking sites, cowboys blowing off steam, even the kids from town could get rowdy given enough hooch. Oscar hadn’t been like that, just a hardworking dude who listened to too much Alex Jones and believed all kinds of wild ass things about lizard men and mind control; not quite a tin-foil hat type, but close to it.

Nick opened the truck door and bent in for the camera but stopped and straightened up. He turned around slowly and scanned all around. There was nothing in his line of sight but what he expected to see but he couldn’t shake the feeling he was being watched. After a minute he shrugged and gathered up the camera.

Bob squatted on the ground and stood up when Nick came back. “After I get done here, let’s wrap him up in the tarp and put him in the back of the truck,” Nick said. Bob nodded but didn’t look too thrilled. “Don’t worry, it won’t be like last time, if that’s what’s got you squirrely.”

“Naw, it ain’t that, Nick. Just got a weird feeling that someone has got eyeballs on us.”

“Yeah? Me too. But there ain’t nowhere to hide out here.”

“Uh-huh. I know. Still…” Bob turned around in a circle. “Probably nothing.”

“Let’s not make this any worse than it is, how ‘bout that.” Nick documented the scene but there wasn’t much to indicate a crime had been committed, though the location of the body was unusual. They wrapped Oscar’s remains in the tarp and carried it over to the truck.

“What are you going to do with him?”

Nick shrugged. “Procedure in a case like this says I gotta contact the Justice of the Peace, old Art Lindsey, who can declare him dead. I’d like to see an autopsy but it won’t happen unless Lindsey thinks there’s been a crime, and the nearest medical examiner office is over in Odessa. I sure do want to know what killed our man here, though. He didn’t have no relatives that you know of, did he?”

“Not around here, not that I heard him ever talk about.”

“Me neither. Alright, let’s go then.”

A WEEK LATER, Dolores transferred a call back into Nick’s office.

“Sheriff Palmer,” he said.

“Sheriff, this is Dr. Sadler. I’m the medical examiner here in Odessa.”

“How you doin’, doc?”

“Can’t complain. We finished the autopsy on that body you brought by the other day. I’m sending you the report to you and the JP now but I thought a courtesy call was in order given the circumstances.”

“Great. What was the cause of death?” There was a long pause. “Doc? You still there?”

“I’m here, Sheriff. I’m trying to figure out the best way to say this.” Another pause. “I’ve been at this job for long enough to have seen a little bit of everything. But this is a first for me. There were two injuries, both internal. The pulmonary artery, the superior and inferior vena cava, the aorta and the pulmonary veins were all severed. Very neat, very clean. Breastbone, ribs, everything is intact, and no marks on the chest or back.”

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“His heart was cut out of him, only on the inside. That’s not even the strange part.”

Nick sat up in his chair. “Go on.”

“In his brain, there is a hole, wide at the bottom and narrowing to a point, like a spike had been driven right through his head. Only the skull is completely intact, the skin is intact, there is no indication of an entry point for something big enough to cause that kind of damage.”

“That’s… unusual, doc.”

“Unusual… right, okay, we’ll call it that. I read your report. He was alone out in the middle of the desert?”

“From what I could tell, yeah. What could cause that kind of injury?”

“I was hoping you could shed some light on that for me, because I sure as hell don’t know. I’ve called in the M.E. from El Paso, I want her to take a look at this. Can we keep the body here until she comes by?”

“Yeah, I don’t see why not at this point. I found a distant relative but they basically said they didn’t want anything to do with it.”

“That’s a shame. Why do people do that? It’s disrespectful.”

“Sure it is. I guess they don’t wanna pay the expenses.”

“YOU’VE READ THE report from the medical examiner?” Art Lindsey put his boots up on his desk and leaned back.

“Yeah, I read it, all right. I still don’t know what to make of that.”

“Clearly that man didn’t die of natural causes, Sheriff.”

“There ain’t nothing natural about it, no. But there wasn’t anything to indicate it had been anything but natural causes. I was surprised when I heard you were sending the body up to Odessa.”

“You been Sheriff around here what, about ten years now?”

“’Bout that, yeah.”

“So the last time one of these happened was before you were on the force.”

“The last time?”

Art Lindsey took his feet down off the desk. “I’m gonna have to ask that what I say next remains confidential, you understand? I ain’t fucking around here, Nick.”

Nick Palmer nodded.

“You remember a gal named Tracy Hedges? She would have been about your age now.”

“Uh, yeah, I think I went to school with her. She died a while back. Overdose on black tar heroin, wasn’t it?”

“That’s the story we put out, yeah, sure enough. She was more of a pot and booze gal, but it was easy enough to plant the black tar story, folks knew she was a partier and had a wild side. Found her body not far from where you plucked up Oscar. Only she looked like she’s been in a fight for her life; clothing ripped all up, slashed and shredded all to hell. So of course it looked like a crime, and I ordered an autopsy. They said she wouldn’t have bled to death from the wounds on her body but what killed her was a big ‘ol hole in her brain and her heart cut to pieces.”

“Jesus Christ. Why didn’t you tell me about this?”

“I can’t tell you so don’t ask.”

“Then why are you telling me now?”

Art shrugged. “I don’t know nothing Nick; but I was told that if this happened again I could tell the current Sheriff. And it appears we’ve had another one.”

“But there was an investigation?”

“Of course there was. It came up with nothing. No weapon, no suspects, and no motive.”

“Any idea why she was out there, at least? That’s what’s been troubling me about Oscar, there was no reason for him to be so far out. He didn’t wander around in the desert; hell he didn’t even like cows. There’s nothing out there but mesquite and tumbleweeds.”

Lindsey leaned forward and put his forearms on the desk. “Yeah, I know. She kept a journal, hand written, not on her computer. We went over everything. She was an insightful and self-perceptive young woman and wrote very well considering her educational status was fluid after high school, but there wasn’t anything too unusual in there until we got to the entries a couple of weeks before she died.” He got up and walked over to the wall safe behind his desk. “I was allowed to make photocopies of some of the pages before it all got taken away.” He opened the safe and pulled out a few sheets of paper. “See what you make of this.”

Nick took the papers and started to read. After a few minutes he looked up and met Lindsey’s eye. “I’m not sure I understand. She said she felt like something called to her? Something out there in the desert?”

“Yes sir, that’s what it says. She was compelled to go out there. Unfortunately she got herself carved up before she could tell anyone what she did or didn’t find. Though I tend to believe she found… well, something.”

Nick handed the papers back. “I don’t know, Art. This don’t seem like much more than some lady smoking a bunch of dope and getting paranoid.”

“You were just out there. Notice anything unusual?”

“Aw what’re you tryin’ to do, spook me? There wasn’t nothing out there for miles and miles. I didn’t see no jackalopes or little green men chopping up cows or lizard people…” he trailed off and rubbed his chin.

Art stared at him. “Except…?”

“Oh, it wasn’t nothing. I just got the feeling someone was watching me. But damn Art, I did three combat tours in Iraq, I always feel like someone is watching me.”

“Uh-huh, yeah,” Lindsey nodded, “I got that feeling too. And I won’t go back out there anymore if I can help it. When you called in the other day about Oscar and said where you found him, I was sure glad to hear you’d brought the body back into town.”

Nick sat back and laughed. “Fuckin’-A, Art! What’re we doing here except scaring ourselves? It ain’t even Halloween yet.”

Lindsey put the sheaf of papers back in the safe and closed it. “Just let me know if you find something.”

SHERIFF PALMER PULLED his truck to a stop in front of his house. He looked at the three black SUV’s parked in his driveway and leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. This kind of thing would only stoke the tin-foil hat brigade. They’d be flooding their Twitter feeds with endlessly spiraling conspiracy theories.

“Honey, I’m home,” he said as he walked through the front door. Donna looked up from where she sat on the couch, sandwiched between two men—in black suits, of course—who were doing fair imitations of granite slabs masquerading as men in black suits.

“We’re in here,” she said. “All of us are in here.”

Nick kept his hand far away from the gun at his hip. “I’m just going to take a stab in the dark here and guess you’re from the government.”

“And we’re here to help,” said the man who stood with his back to him. “You can call me Mr. Lamb.”

“That’s a code name of some kind?”

“No, that’s actually my name. Thomas Lamb, Office of Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”

“I’m pretty sure that particular agency doesn’t exist, Mr. Lamb.”

“We like to operate on the down low, so to speak.”

“I’m sure you do. So you mind telling me why you’re in my living room, besides frightening my wife half to death?”

Mr. Lamb waved at the man-mountains. “Boys, go make us some tea.” They stood up and moved with unbelievable grace into the kitchen. Donna jumped up and followed after them. “We need to talk, Sherriff Palmer.”

Nick found that it was hard to focus on Mr. Lamb. Every time he looked at his face, he found he wanted to look somewhere else. His impression was that his visitor was a large man, but beyond that he was sort of a blank space in Nick’s living room. Rather than feeling worried about this odd phenomenon, Nick got what he could only describe as a warm fuzzy from the man.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“It’s about that man you found out in the desert. The one with the unusual cause of death.”

“Well, I guess I didn’t think you’d come all the way out to West Texas to chat about the weather.”

Mr. Lamb nodded. “True, Sheriff. By now you’ve gotten two pieces of information: a report from the medical examiner and a peek into a dead woman’s diary.”

“You’re the person Art was told not to tell me about.”

“Guilty, Sheriff.”

“I’m not putting those two pieces of information together. Why were those two people out there and what happened to them? The diary seemed to suggest she was drawn to the area, but there ain’t nothing out there.”

“There isn’t, not on the surface.”

“What’s below the surface, then?”

“That’s not an easy question to answer. Ah, there’s our tea.” The two man-mountains came out of the kitchen, trailed by a nervous Donna. One of them had a tea tray in his massive hands. “Thank you, boys.” Mr. Lamb poured three cups and passed them around. “Of all the advancements in human society, cultivation of tea leaves has to be one of the best.” He sipped. “Don’t you agree, Donna?”

Donna shrugged and nodded. “If you say so.”

“Sheriff, we’re going to finish our tea, and then we’re going for a little drive.”

IT WAS WELL after dark when the three SUV’s pulled to a stop near where Nick had parked when he retrieved Oscar’s body. Mr. Lamb supervised as his men unloaded their weapons and set up a perimeter around the trucks; then he asked Nick to follow him. The two men walked away from the trucks and into the scrub desert.

“I don’t get it,” Nick said. “If there’s some sort of danger out here, why are we leaving the perimeter?”

Mr. Lamb chuckled. “That’s mainly for show. Those boys wouldn’t stand a chance. But it makes them feel useful.”

“What are we dealing with here, Mr. Lamb? Drug cartels? Human traffic?”

“Not exactly, no. Here, put these on.” He handed Nick a pair of what looked like night vision googles.

Nick adjusted them on his head and powered them up. The barren landscape snapped into focus, but unlike the green filtered light he was used to, it was more much more natural, almost like daylight. “Whoa. Where’d you get these?”

“I made some modifications to the design,” Mr. Lamb said. “In particular, they allow you to see things that are phase shifted. Look around. Tell me if you see anything unusual.”

Nick scanned the area. There was nothing except…

“What the hell is that?”

Out in the desert, something moved. From a distance, it was difficult to say exactly what it was. It floated just over the top of the dirt and brush, moving with precise motions, very smooth and almost graceful. Nick caught a glimpse of green, high up where a head would have been.

“There’s no word for them in English, not really,” Mr. Lamb said. “They are old, old on a scale you couldn’t possibly comprehend.”

“It’s not… from around here,” Nick whispered.

“In a way it is, but in another way, not even close. This—construct—isn’t even one of them. What you see out there is a robot, you could say, primarily used as a repair unit and occasionally a sentry. This one has perhaps gone a bit rogue, some breakdown in programming. Or perhaps not, as they do not operate on any level we can understand. It may be doing exactly what it is programmed to do.”

Nick watched as it flicked around. He could now see what claw-like appendages and a long segmented tail that ended in a wicked barbed spike. “Repair… repair what?”

“A facility: a tomb long since buried by shifting sands and time. They are in what you might call stasis and have been like that for a very, very long time; and will continue to be like that for even longer. The energy that it takes to keep them suspended in time, to mask their presence and shield them from discovery seeps out and has an unintentional effect on certain—sensitive—people. They are drawn to it and if they get too close, they risk running into one of those—you might call it a wraith, for lack of a better term.”

“Why can’t I see it without these?”

“It has the ability to shift out of phase with reality; they can pass through solid matter as if it doesn’t exist; useful when it needs to repair something buried deep within the superstructure. They can stay shifted indefinitely, from what I can tell, like this one is now. But the part that is important for you to understand is that they can also shift parts of them back into reality; like a pincer near the heart or a tail spike in the brain.”

Nick shivered. “Nothing like that can exist. It just can’t.”

“And yet there it is.”

Nick watched as it drifted about, aimless and random. “It killed Oscar and the girl. From inside?”

“Yes. It did so without malice or evil intent. It was merely doing exactly as designed. Which is admirable, in a way, though I doubt that is any comfort to you.”

“No, Mr. Lamb, it sure as hell is not. How long have you known about these things? What are they? Communists? Aliens? Alien communists?”

“They were here long before our bipedal ancestors stumbled out the trees. There’s no name for them that you would recognize, but if I had to call them something, I suppose Necrons would suffice.”

“Necrons… necro? As in, death?”

“Yes, Sheriff Palmer. They are deathless and they are death to any planet they touch.”

“And you’re… you’re protecting them?”

“Not in the least! But I am protecting us from them, to the best of my ability.”

“What the hell, Mr. Lamb? If you know about these things, why ain’t you doing something about it? Why don’t you dig on down in there and root that shit out?”

Mr. Lamb laughed softly. “That would be a mistake, at least at this point in time. We couldn’t hope to match them with any weapons on this planet, though a well-placed thermonuclear warhead could slow them down a bit. Maybe. So we bide our time.”

“Mr. Lamb… who are you?”

“I’m just a concerned citizen of the world, Sheriff.”

“Why do I not believe that?”

“Nick Palmer, there are things on this world and beyond you couldn’t possibly fathom. Much of what is out there,” he gestured up to the sky, “is not friendly or nice and doesn’t want to be our friend. But for now, at this moment of this particular timeline, we are in a place of relative safety. It will not always be so. Threats—such as this one—must be managed as they arise.” He chuckled. “Or in this case, don’t arise, if we’re lucky.”

“You think this is funny?”

“A sense of humor is an admirable human trait, Sheriff. It would serve you well to cultivate one.”

Nick Palmer watched the alien thing roam the desert. Its movements were so strange, so different from anything he’d ever seen, it brought on a paralyzing fear. He removed the headgear and handed it back to Mr. Lamb. “I can’t look at it anymore,” he spit. “Why doesn’t it come toward us? Why isn’t it attacking?”

“I couldn’t begin to tell you. I’ve never come close to understanding them. From what I have learned, the Necrons were once not much different than us. But their gods betrayed them, and that is something that must never happen to us, Nick Palmer.”

“What will happen here, then?”

“I don’t exactly know,” the man said and smiled. “Isn’t that exciting?”

“You’re one strange dude, Mr. Lamb.”

Mr. Lamb nodded. “Yes, well, perhaps I am.” He put a hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder and Nick felt—rather than saw—Mr. Lamb’s eyes upon him. “Your part in this will be small, Nick Palmer, but nonetheless important. You are not going to remember me, or what happened here tonight or what you saw, because no one—no human—should be forced to bear that knowledge before its time. What you will remember is that this section of the desert is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs; you’ll do your best to keep people away from here. And when you pass your shield to the next Sheriff, if they have similar issues, I’ll come back. I’ll come back again and again, for as long as it takes. You have my word on that. If you understand, say yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Very good. Let’s get you home, then.” Mr. Lamb raised his hand and passed it over the back and side of Nick’s head. Nick slumped, first to his knees and then all the way down to the ground. Mr. Lamb bent down and picked up the big man as if he weighed nothing and slung him over his shoulder. With one last glance out into the desert, he turned on his heel and carried Nick back to the black SUV’s.  “We’re done here for now, boys,” Mr. Lamb said and waved them back into the trucks. He took one last look out across the West Texas desert. “I’ll be back for you,” he whispered.  “And when I do, I’ll complete the job I started thousands of years ago.”

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The Ultimate Promotion Telethon

(Quick note: this was part of my master’s thesis several years ago. It never quite lived up to it’s potential but I still find it amusing.)

Outside the studio, protesters were lined up three deep against the barricades, chanting, praying, and waving hand lettered signs. The ruckus could barely be heard through the studio walls. Inside, the television lights made halos burst in Cliff Fontaine’s eyes if he looked into them. Three big cameras were on the floor; there seemed to be black wire snaking everywhere.

“Are we safe in here?” someone asked the floor manager, who’d just walked up, his headset wrapped around his neck. He glanced at the clipboard in his hand and waved in the general direction of the outside.

“Those idiots haven’t gotten past those doors in ten years, kid. You’re safer in here than you would be out there, that’s for sure. Forget about those savages; let’s have some fun tonight. Alright, all you phone monkeys, gather around here!”

Cliff, along with all the other people manning the phone bank, leaned in.

“It’s a long night, and kind of stressful once things get going, so take it easy. We’ve got drinks and snacks available and subs if you need a bathroom break. It’s okay to look at the camera once in a while, just give a nice smile and don’t stop talking. Remember it’s a telethon, it’s all about keeping those donations flowing so look happy, look positive; remember we’re saving someone’s life tonight. Or killing them. So let’s have fun, okay?” He waited for some sort of response. “Hello? Mouth-breathers? We’re having fun tonight, OKAY?”

“OKAY!” the young man seated next to Cliff shouted. His eyes were flashing enough wattage to make Cliff wonder if he’d already dipped into the cosmic cookie jar. “Twenty-four straight hours, dude, I’m so ready for this! You ready for this, huh?”

Cliff didn’t answer. He looked at the black desk phone in front of him and then swung his head around to take in the whole scene. He’d watched the Temple of Harmonious Change Ultimate Promotion Telethon on TV as a kid but now he was behind the scenes. It was exciting and a little bewildering.

Cliff was Green Level 1, having just been hired by the Temple. All GL1 employees were required to work a twenty-four hour shift during the annual fundraising event. That seemed a bit extreme at first until it was explained that they’d be earning standard time and a half after the first eight hours and then double time for the last twelve. That kind of cash shut down any objections; as a twenty-one year old community college dropout, Cliff would do just about anything for a paycheck, even work the phone bank.

Just off the set to Cliff’s right the three employees eligible for the Ultimate Promotion were getting some last minute instructions from the floor manager. Standing near them was a man in a dazzling suit who nodded and smiled at everyone who walked by; he was the CEO of the Temple of Harmonious Change, Charles Stroud. As usual, he’d be the MC during the telethon.

The three lucky employees of the Temple who had been chosen for this honor were dressed according to Temple Dress Code, Casual Friday Style. Stroud turned and motioned towards the three as the floor director finished with them and walked away, muttering into his headset. The three employees huddled with the CEO for possibly the last time; Cliff wondered what he was telling them. Tonight, one of them might be eligible for the Ultimate Promotion and translate to a new and better reality. It was a great honor to be chosen to be one of the three up for the Promotion; Cliff felt a tinge of envy as he watched them prepare.

He knew the process from watching it on TV before; between comedians, live bands, and variety acts Charles Stroud would beg and wheedle and plead for donations to save the lives of his employees.

Not that there was anything wrong with them; they weren’t terminally ill, or in need of an organ transplant. They were, however, willing to kill themselves on live TV by downing a deadly cocktail if the fundraising goals weren’t met.

It was extreme, it was outrageous, it was exactly the kind of thing people couldn’t stop watching, whether they wanted to admit it or not. It raised mad amounts of money for the Temple, despite the highly questionable moral and legal nature of the whole affair. There were numerous court cases pending, accusations of coercion, protracted legal battles with equally determined armies of lawyers on both sides, cease and desist motions approved and denied, and yet every year the show managed to go on.

It was a testament, Charles Stroud would say, to the generous nature of the public that there hadn’t been a single Ultimate Promotion in four years because the financial goals had been met. And when the numbers weren’t met, the consequences were pretty much unforgettable.

Outside, the protesters raised even more racket.

“PLACES, people,” the director screeched as he ran across the set motioning frantically in all directions at once. The candidates moved quickly onto the set and assumed their seats. Charles Stroud stood on his mark beneath the lights, watching the floor manager counting down to zero.

It was time.

“In five… four…”

“This is intense!” whispered the guy with the exploding eyeballs next to Cliff. The house band kicked in, the lights came up on the three Temple employees—looking slightly nervous but smiling gamely—and Charles launched into the first hour of what was known throughout Texas as the Suicide Telethon.

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Reflecting on a Chance Meeting

At the diner this morning
Over coffee and such
I talked with a man filled
With fear of what he didn’t know.

I sensed that in some ways
We were more or less the same
Though our monsters took on
Different forms.

What are these days we spend
Like coins dropped in a fountain
Each one precious and yet forgotten
By the time the ripples reach the edge.

What are we with our scurry here
And there across the face of the clock
Chasing the hands that tell the time
The story finished before it began.

We are the flash in the darkness
Here and gone again
A quiver, a sigh, a blink of an eye
A memory never remembered.

Grandeur is our illusion
Our understanding confusion
Neither here nor there
Creating sense in the void.

What are these days we shuffle
Away and fill with pretense
Fabricated to hold back the dark
Just beyond the edge of the flame.

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An Unexpected Guest at the High Reach

(Authors note: this is a piece of Warhammer 40K fan fiction, and is completely unauthorized. The characters of mine but everything else is from Games Workshop and used without permission. I wrote this because I love their universe and had a story idea that seemed to fit into it.)

 

THE GOLDEN HELMET sat on a shelf in his office. The painted ceramite shell was scratched and burnt, but it had never been repaired.

“Grandfather Brand?” asked the little girl, pointing up at the relic. “Was that your helmet when you were a space pirate?”

“No, child. That belonged to the bravest person I ever knew.”

 

(Many years earlier, 936.M41)

THE DOOR TO the orbital docking station’s hospital ward slid open and Commander Lucius Dhall stepped through with quick but measured steps. He acknowledged the crisp salute from the junior medicae behind the control desk with a curt nod.

“Where is the—,” he paused for a moment to consider the right word, “new patient?”

“Just down the hall, Commander Dhall, in post-op. Follow the—”

“I remember the way well enough; as you were.” Dhall moved past the desk and down the hall. The High Reach, as the docking station was called, had hung far above the planet since long before he was born; as a young man he’d been a patient in this hospital himself, recovering from wounds suffered in action against Dark Eldar pirates or the forces of Chaos.

The guards stationed outside the door snapped to attention when he walked up but he waved them down. “At ease. Is the security chief in there?”

“Yes, sir. And the doctor.”

“No one else enters, understood?”

They nodded and one of them punched in a code on the door. Dhall stepped through the opening and when the door shut behind him, he leaned his back against it. The two warriors outside the door were veterans, crack troops, not just planetary defense trigger squeezers. They were armed and armored with the best tech available, some of it non-human in origin. Dhall had no doubt they could stop anyone from entering the room. However, they could no more stop what was in the room from leaving than a stream of spit could quench a firestorm.

The patient lay on a makeshift bed cobbled together in haste from whatever large objects they could find. The lighting was lower than normal, but the details Dhall could make out from across the room where enough to take his breath away. His eyes roamed over the massive figure, taking in the stunning proportions of arms, chest, and legs. No man he had ever seen could match the dense muscle mass and sheer physicality of the post-human on the bed; the heroic form was clad in sleek body glove; they had not peeled it off when they had removed his body armor.

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

Dhall turned toward the voice. Slouched in a chair, chief of security Lorgo Brand sat with his back to the wall. He held a data slate in one hand and appeared to be unarmed.

“Ah, there you are, Chief Brand. Yes, very impressive. Status?”

“Ask the good doctor.”

Various medical tools had been piled in haste around the bed. Doctor Salvek, who had served on the High Reach for as long as Dhall had been in command, looked up for a moment and waved a hand before turning her attention back to the diagnostic machines.

“I think Dr. Salvek has found a new favorite subject,” Brand whispered. “The physiology of our guest has her in a state of giddiness I haven’t seen since we brought her that dead space elf.”

“I see. That doesn’t answer my question, however.”

According to this,” the chief tapped the data slate with his fingers, “our guest is in remarkable health for someone who has been in the warp for what appears to be close to three hundred standard years. All organic systems that can be measured—even the redundant ones—are functioning normally. Brain wave patterns indicate he has recovered from his extended rest faster than anyone could have predicted.”

“So… is he awake?”

“Of course.”

“Then what is he doing?”

“Gathering data, assessing the situation, planning a course of action, and in all probability, deciding who he is going to kill first; I don’t want to brag, but I like to think I’m on top of a short list of you, me and the doctor. We may speak freely; there is little we can say that he will not eventually learn.”

“Any idea what his name is?”

The chief shrugged. “No. Captain Pintado’s crew was in and out of that ship so fast they barely had time to wipe their boots. They thought it was haunted. In their considerable hurry to leave, they failed to gather anything useful except what I sent you in the report, Commander. I assumed that you took a moment out of your incredibly busy schedule to read it?”

Dhall nodded. “Your efficiency is noted, Chief Brand, as is your undying sarcasm.”

“We all have our little hobbies. So have you ever seen one of them before?”

“An Astartes? No, unless you count those corruptions that vomit forth from the Eye, and if I never see one of them again it will be too soon. But no, certainly not, not out here. Even in the worlds of the Imperium, generations of entire sectors could live and die without ever seeing them. I’ve heard the stories, of course. Terribly frightening… seeing one for myself is certainly… enlightening.”

“How dare you speak of me as if I was not here,” the patient said in flawless Low Gothic. His voice, though ragged, was deep and resonate; Dhall fought a momentary urge to snap to attention.

Chief Brand shrugged and sat up. “I suppose the time has come to make contact. Let’s go say hello.”

They took a few steps forward but stopped when the huge man swung sideways out of the bed, planted his feet on the floor and stood up. The doctor stepped back and clicked her tongue in dismay. The Space Marine was half a head short of the ceiling, which was three meters high; he was as broad as three men standing side by side.

“Where am I?” he demanded.

“In the hospital of the orbital docking station above our home plant of Hardoon,” Dhall replied.

“Hardoon… never heard of it. What segmentum is this?”

“On Imperium star charts this is Segmentum Obscurus.”

“Obscurus… the Eye of Terror!”

“Yes, though that blight on reality is several hundred light years from us.”

The warrior crossed his massive arms across his chest. “You are not wearing the uniform of the Imperial Navy.”

Dhall could feel Brand tense up next to him. This was a critical moment. The legendary Adeptus Astartes—the Emperor’s Space Marines—were absolute fanatics devoted to the superhuman being who founded their order more than ten thousand years ago. During the Great Crusade, while the Emperor was reclaiming the galaxy from the Long Night, many worlds that had failed to accept compliance with the new order were crushed by the uncompromising power of the Imperial Army, Navy, and the Space Marine legions. To be outside the Imperium was to be a heretic and subject to extermination.

“That is true, we are not part of the Imperial Navy.”

“Then this planet is not part of the Imperium?”

“No, it is not.”

There was a long pause. The Astartes before them was not immortal; he had superior strength, size, and combat abilities, but without his power armor and weapons that made him a force of destruction the equal of a hundred or more soldiers, he could be killed. It was improbable that he would be able to escape the docking station alive if he chose to fight. Dhall hoped he wouldn’t, but it was out of his hands at that moment. Many of the men and women on the station would die before it was over, and Dhall would be responsible and he would probably pay for it with his life.

The Space Marine lowered his head for a moment and then looked up and met every eye in the room; then, with deliberate slow movements, he settled his titanic bulk on the makeshift bed, which sagged and groaned under his weight.

“As a scout marine, I was taught that making a decision in haste is to invite error, and errors have a way of becoming deadly,” he said. “What is your name and rank, then?”

“I am Lucius Dhall, Commander of the orbital docking station designated The High Reach. This is my security chief, Lorgo Brand.” Both men saluted and the Space Marine nodded in return. “And this is Dr. Salvek, in charge of monitoring your recovery. Sir, the circumstances that brought you here are—peculiar. We don’t even know your name.”

“I am Oban Scia, 4th Company of the Golden Gryphons.” Oban cast a cold eye on Chief Brand. “You were correct in your assumption, Lorgo Brand. My assessment was that your immediate demise was essential to my survival.”

Brand shrugged. “It’s good to be recognized for something around here.”

Oban Scia gestured to the chairs against the far wall. “Sit down. As you appear to be willing to communicate and you mentioned peculiar circumstances, I would hear more of why I am here. What of the ship and the rest of the 4th Company?”

“Do you require any—refreshments?” asked Dhall as he dragged up a chair. “I apologize for not knowing what your physical requirements may be. We have never encountered one of the Astartes in our—unique position here.”

“Water will be fine.”

“Water we have.” Dhall took the data slate from Brand and in minutes an orderly appeared, dragging a barrel of water on a wheeled lift and the largest drinking vessel they could find. It was still dwarfed by Oban Scia’s hand.

“Where are your servitors?” the Space Marine asked after he’d gulped down several liters of water.

“We don’t have them and we don’t use them.”

“Unusual. Why not? They are quite useful.”

“They are considered unethical by our government.”

“How quaint! But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We can dissect your undoubtedly vile heresies later. There are many questions yet unanswered. How is it that I am here?”

Dhall nodded. “Let me explain. We exist in a precarious place, in an eddy of a warp storm that both protects us and puts us in constant danger. We are vigilant and patrol the edges of the storm with our ships, and fend off the attacks of Chaos and others when they come. A few days ago, a frigate on patrol came upon a ship as it emerged from the storm, which was unusual enough. It was an Imperial Navy transport ship but appeared to be derelict and without a crew, which was even more unusual. Yet they detected the weak signal of a power source and decided to investigate and found you in a drop pod; there were others, but they were all dead.”

Oban Scia made the sign of the Aquila, the double eagle. “My brothers,” he intoned. “Emperor, look after them.” He was quiet for a long time but when he spoke again, it was as if he had already put it behind him. “You said something earlier about three hundred standard years. Is that right?”

“As far as we can tell, but time displacement in the warp even under the best circumstances can be very random. Do you remember where you and the rest of your Company were being deployed? Why were you in a drop pod, if the ship was still in transit?”

Oban Scia was silent for a long time. “Strange… but I cannot seem to remember…” he paused. “I was unconscious when found?”

Brand nodded. “That’s what they reported.”

Dr. Salvek had stayed out of the way but now spoke up. “If I may?” Dhall nodded. “It was more than just unconsciousness, sir. When they brought you in, it was as if you had been in stasis, almost as if you were… frozen in time. Quite fascinating from a medical perspective, really; however, there were no signs of trauma, at least not from what I could determine.”

Oban Scia frowned. “That is hardly comforting, doctor. Commander, the best course of action would be to return me to the Imperium as quickly as possible. Segmentum Obscurus is heavily reinforced. There must be a sub-sector station relatively nearby.”

Dhall hesitated and Lorgo Brand spoke up. “That may be the logical course of action, but I’m afraid we can’t do that. We are, as noted, both hidden and protected by the warp storm that surrounds this system. We have no way of getting you out.”

Oban Scia’s face almost creased into a smile. “Chief Brand, I have no doubt you are good at security, but you are a terrible liar. You have interstellar capabilities, warp storm or not. How do you do it?”

“I can’t…”

“An Eldar warp gate?” Oban Scia nodded. “Your reaction tells me all I need to know. Not just heretics, but dealing in xeno tech as well. You deserve whatever punishment the Inquisition decides to mete out. I would not doubt that your planet is tainted with Chaos as well. You may well be facing Exterminatus.”

Dhall threw up his hands. “Brilliant. This is exactly why we can’t just turn you over to the Imperium. You’ll destroy us all. I should have had them jettison you into space.”

Oban Scia did not react but Chief Brand’s face fell. “Uhm, Commander, I wouldn’t suggest using that tone with the incredibly dangerous Space Marine in close proximity to us both. You know? The one who could beat us to death with our own torn off limbs?”

“In fact, he’s right about jettisoning me,” Oban Scia said. “That’s exactly what he should have done. Saving me has doomed this system in one way or another.”

“What do you mean?” Brand asked.

“I believe you were meant to find me and bring me on board; some other hand is at work here.”

The commander shook his head. “I still don’t understand what you’re suggesting.”

Oban Scia sighed. “Don’t be so short sighted, commander. Your enemy—whoever it may be—has cleverly played upon that most human of reactions: compassion. Who else knows I’m here?”

“The captain and the boarding crew; the doctors who treated you; an engineering team that looked you over; the security team. And the two of us,” Dhall counted them off. “Why?”

“You haven’t notified anyone else?”

“No, Chief Brand thought it would be best if we held our report until after we’d met with you.”

“Perhaps that was wise. Perhaps not. There are too many variables at play. But we must assume that my sudden reappearance was a tactical decision, not just an accident of fate.”

Dhall frowned. “Aren’t we assuming an awful lot? This all sounds like paranoia run amok.”

“We have to trust him,” Brand said.

“Why?”

“Because he is an Adeptus Astartes and we don’t have much choice.”

Dhall stood up. “I believe I have a report to file. The government will need to know what we have done and decide on the proper course of action. Chief Brand, will you make sure our guest has the accommodations he needs?” He saluted Oban Scia once more, turned on his heel, and strode out.

Silence settled over the room as the two regarded each other.

“How do you know when I’m lying?” Brand asked.

“I have enhanced abilities that are not merely physical. During the transition and training, my powers of observation and intuition became highly developed. You are like an unlocked data slate.”

“How… useful.”

“It can be.”

“Oban Scia, are all Astartes like you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You seem unusually restrained considering the circumstances.”

“How else should I be? There is nothing to do now but wait and gather more information.” He drank more water. “Many questions are as yet unanswered and now is not the time for fruitless action. There were undoubtedly be time for fighting… there always is.” He stood up again. “Is there an observation deck? I would like to see this planet and hear more about it.”

“Doctor?”

“Lord Scia knows himself better than I do. If he is able, I couldn’t stop him,” she said with a heavy sigh.

Brand nodded. “Let me just get my team to clear everyone out first. No need to start a riot, which is certainly what would happen if they saw you.” He made a quick call on his communicator.

“Why?”

Brand shrugged. “The shadow of the Imperium looms large, Oban Scia. We are well aware of our supposed heresy, we understand what would happen if we were brought under the scrutiny of the Inquisitors, and what the punishment would be if we failed to comply.” He listened for a moment to the voice in his ear. “Follow me, sir.” They left the hospital wing and walked through deserted corridors. Oban Scia assessed the two guards who fell in behind them at a respectful distance.

“It is the way of things, Lorgo Brand. The way of the Imperium of Man.”

“Yes, perhaps. But we have managed our own affairs for too long to be easily drawn back into what is—if you’ll pardon the expression—a decaying dictatorship.” He held up his hand as Oban Scia’s eyes tighted.  “No disrespect intended. However, nothing we have learned or accomplished over the thousands of years we’ve been out here could stop you, the Imperial Army, or the Legions from wiping us clean. It is disquieting to exist between two such imposing forces, Chaos on one side, the Imperium on the other.”

They arrived at the observation deck. Several large windows looked out onto the planet below them; they were in geosynchronous orbit over a large ocean, across which several active weather systems leisurely moved.

Oban Scia nodded as he gazed upon the planet. “This is an unfortunate circumstance, to be sure. There is much about the Imperium I think you do not understand, however.”

Brand nodded and waved at the window. “Agreed; as there is much about life on Hardoon you do not know about, and possibly never will.”

“You are an impertinent creature, Chief Brand. It is an annoying quality.”

“Well, thanks for not killing me so far, Oban Scia of the Golden Gryphons.”

“The day is young. Tell me about how your people came to be here.”

Chief Brand leaned against the bulkhead. “A colony ship, launched thousands of years ago and promptly lost in warp space, an accident which, as far as our ancestors could tell, went all but unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. These things happen, right? Traveling in warp space is not guaranteed to be anything but dangerous. The ship managed to survive the transition out of warp space but ended up far beyond human controlled space. They should have died out there.”

“What happened?”

“Eldar, or so the legend goes; they came on board and directed the ship to a warp gate, on the other end of which was this system. It was habitable and, lucky for our ancestors, not overrun by orcs or any other xenos; there were ruins of a previous civilization but they were long gone. Why the Eldar helped I don’t know. This was so long ago that it is more myth than history. The ship landed and they set up a colony. It was modestly successful over time, as you can see.”

“Space flight, orbital stations—no need to diminish your accomplishments. But I sense there is more to your success than just hard work. Many colonies devolve into a feral, primitive state without, and sometimes even with, contact with the rest of humanity. The self-styled Children of the Stars, the Eldar, barely acknowledge humans and then only with contempt. Why would they help your ship to this place, and then continue to nurture what for them can only be a blight upon this world?”

“How did you know—”

“The guard’s weapons are not so subtle variations of typical Eldar armament. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to understand they have been helping your people.” Oban Scia pressed his lips together in a hard line. “As I suspected, your beautiful world is the product of heinous xeno interference.”

“I don’t understand why that’s so bad. We have had to fight for our existence without the benefit of the protection of the Imperium, and we’re still here. Do you know what it’s like to suffer through outbreaks of murderous warp beasts and incursions of Dark Eldar pirates?”

“I have done nothing but fight my entire life, Chief Brand.”

“Right, okay, you might understand. I get that. But why is it so important that the how of what we’ve done is somehow more important that the fact that we’ve done it?”

“I wouldn’t think you would struggle to come to the obvious conclusion, Lorgo Brand.”

“We’re dangerous, I get that as well. But we are also in the middle of a warp storm which shows no sign of weakening, ever. We are all but cut off from the rest of the galaxy.”

“Except you are not. You know how to use the warp gate.”

“We have limited access to the gate. Using it is dependent on an Eldar being here, and they are inconsistent.”

“The Eldar are using you for their own ends.”

Brand hesitated for a moment but then nodded. “Yes, that’s the only conclusion I can come to as well. They don’t ask anything from us, and we have populated this world and built up a sizeable military presence.”

“Enough of an irritant that one of your enemies decided it was worth killing off my entire Company and planting me here. Tell me—and speak the truth—is this station a key component to your planetary defense?”

“Yes, it is. There are other stations but they all are tied into this one. If we fall, our planetary defenses would be stricken.”

He shook his head. “It’s a fundamental tactical error to have your defense hinge on a single point. Has the High Reach been attacked before?”

“Yes, on several occasions. We’ve had incursions from within—Chaos corrupted who opened portals to hell—and from without, both from the Dark Eldar and forces of Chaos. But it is mostly the Dark Eldar who prey on our ships. Chaos has attacked the planet itself, and we expend much energy rooting out cultists from our population.”

The Astartes nodded. “The eldar have formed a buffer here. The fact that the forces from the Eye of Terror have not simply descended on this planet and taken it, and that the Dark Eldar stay away, should be a warning to you; there is something here. The eldar are unwilling or unable to protect it themselves but they also do not want to give up whatever it is without a fight. You stated there were ruins here when you arrived.”

“We never had the resources to identify them. From what I’ve seen, they’re not eldar. Something older, perhaps. I don’t know. I’m a military man, not a scientist.”

Oban Scia was quiet for such a long time that Brand began to wonder if he’d fallen asleep on his feet. He’d heard the Space Marines were capable of resting like this, recovering while still conscious. When Oban Scia finally spoke again, it was preceded by something that could almost have been a sigh.

“Lorgo Brand, despite the deep and obvious flaws of the very existence of this planet and all these people, I find myself feeling something almost like sympathy for our plight. You have been toyed with by forces far beyond your understanding. How you have managed to survive ten standard years, late alone several thousand, I cannot imagine, except that it was not by your own doing, given the corrupting presence of those wretched xenos. And now, I am here; I represent your doom one way or another. Pity! You would have made good citizens of the Imperium, after you had been thoroughly cleansed and re-educated, of course.”

“I can’t say that your grim outlook on things is exactly uplifting.”

“It is the way of it.”

“You keep saying that. You know, you’re not exactly what I expected.”

“What did you expect? A mindless killing machine?”

“Well… yes, in fact. There are so many stories…”

“We have existed for more than ten thousand years, long enough for a true mythology to be created. We are revered and at the same time feared. But before we are transformed, before we become this,” he indicated his own massive form, “we were all human. We are not perfect. We are not gods, though we are worshipped as such. We are flawed and on occasion, there is the rumor that we have been known to make a mistake.” Something almost like a smile flirted on his lips. “My brain is not just for fighting; I am well read, for instance. I enjoy quiet contemplation on the nature of the universe and all the incredible things I have seen with my own eyes. But when the time comes, yes, I strike like the weapon I was designed to be. You haven’t truly lived until you bring death from above to some xeno civilization.” He paused. “You appear to be unhappy, Lorgo Brand,” Oban Scia said.

Brand struggled to reset the look of horror on his face. He blinked slowly and looked down on his planet once again. “I have served up here on The High Reach for many years, and before that, I was a solider. I’ve killed my fair share. But I never took any great pleasure in it.”

“Killing is merely the road to the pleasure of victory. One cannot be achieved without the other. Let me ask you this. What do you think will happen next here? If I were placed here—and I believe I was—what’s the next move?”

“Why are you asking me?”

“For a human, you seem to possess a certain duplicitous guile. Indulge me.”

Brand thought for a moment. “If it were me, once I had inserted my asset, I’d want to take advantage of the asset.” He paused. “Uh, I’d want the asset to be as strong as possible before deploying it, to maximize the damage when I did pull the trigger.”

“Good. Continue.”

The chief warmed to the subject. “I’d frame an attack in such a way that the asset would be seen as indispensable, and that giving him what he needs to be most effective would seem like the only possible option. And then I’d…”

Oban Scia nodded. “Yes?”

“I’d unleash the asset… oh, frag. It’s going to be here, isn’t it… because of what else was recovered from the ship.”

“You have my armor and weapons.”

Brand nodded. “You were wearing it; and the pod was loaded with your bolter, a chain sword, and ammunition. The boarding party slung it all onto lifters and got out of there. It never crossed my mind to question why it was all so easily available.”

“It is all quite reasonable,” Oban Scia said. “How did you remove my armor? It usually requires several specialists, trained and well equipped.”

Chief Brand replied with as straight a face as he could manage. “We’ve got some intuitive engineers on this station. They enjoyed the challenge.”

“Tech-priests?”

“Something like that.”

“Interesting. I’d like to meet them. Let’s get back to the impending doom ready to fall on us at any moment.”

“It won’t happen right away,” Brand said after a moment. “They’ll want us to accept you and allow you to earn our trust. And we will do this because…” he struggled to find the right way to say it.

Oban Scia shrugged. “What choice do you have? As you said before, I am Astartes.”

“But I don’t understand. There is nothing about you that would indicate you are anything other than what you claim to be.”

“We must assume I have not merely been floating around in the void of the Immaterium for the last three hundred years. I may have been the guest of enemies not just of the Imperium but of all mankind. In all probability I have been manipulated, and even my own Chapter Librarian might lack the skill necessary to understand what has been done.”

“But I do,” said a voice inside their heads.

Oban Scia growled as he turned. “Eldar. I should have known you wouldn’t be far from your charges.”

Chief Brand turned as well and his eyes widened. He was aware, on a practical level, that there was a certain level of continued cooperation between the eldar and the planet Hardoon; it was quite another thing to see one standing a few meters away from him. She was tall and clad in black highlighted by bone white, her face hidden by the smooth face of a helmet. “A Space Marine and an eldar all in one day,” Brand muttered. “I really have seen everything.”

“She is here on our behalf, Oban Scia.” Commander Dhall stepped forward. “As you mentioned, given the unusual nature of your arrival, it may be best if all parties were involved. She may be able to help.”

“If you think I’m going to let that alien root around in my brain, you are quite mistaken,” Oban Scia snapped. “The eldar are treacherous and deceitful beyond all human comprehension.”

“Oban Scia of the Golden Gryphons,” the Eldar said, “I am Cynbel of Ulthwé. Your instincts are correct; we know your abduction and sudden reappearance near this planet are part of plans set in motion long ago.”

The Astartes crossed his arms over his chest. “Your Farseers have already determined how this will end? Why not enlighten the rest of us mammals as to what is about to happen?”

“Many outcomes are possible, and you are a focal point upon which these possibilities turn. Know this: the mark of She Who Thirsts is upon you, the taint of her manipulations oozes from your mind.”

“I feel nothing of the sort.”

“And yet you have already deduced that I speak true.”

Commander Dhall met Chief Brand’s gaze and rolled his eyes. “Cynbel, is it possible to remove or repair what has been done to Oban Scia?”

“We had hoped it would be so, but now that I have examined him, it could not be done without destroying him in the process. I have been instructed by my Farseer to avoid harming him at all costs.”

“You have meddled with these people for thousands of years, and I demand to know why,” Oban Scia snapped. “What is so important on the planet that you would use humans to protect it? Or will you not tell me?”

“You wouldn’t understand even if I was allowed.”

The giant man scoffed. “Exactly what I expected.” He turned to the two men. “You see? This is what you get trafficking with the eldar; secrets within secrets, lies and obfuscations. They will use you for their own designs and you may never know why.”

Cynbel moved across the space between them. Brand had fought against the Dark Eldar pirates and was aware how fluid their motions were, but this was different somehow. She made a simple act otherworldly. She stood in front of Oban Scia; they were almost equal in height. She reached up and removed her helmet. Brand gulped. She was both very inhuman and very beautiful. Oban Scia stared at her, his face unreadable. Brand wondered just for a moment what it would be like to watch these two beings, one a monument of strength and the other the paramount of grace, both bred for war and destruction, join together in a moment of peace and dance together. The thought made him grin and chuckle, but when the two mighty beings turned and stared at him he shuffled his feet and tried to regain a stern, neutral face.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

The two warriors looked at each other for a long time without saying a word. Whatever passed between them, it wasn’t communicated openly. Dhall and Brand looked at each other but said nothing. Brand glanced out of the observation port at the planet—his planet—turning slowly in the dark of space. He felt a sudden rush of fear and sadness, the grim certainty that whatever was going to happen would determine whether or not they survived.

“We don’t have much time, do we,” Oban Scia finally said.

“Not as you understand it, no,” Cynbel nodded. “We can’t stop what is about to happen anymore than we can stop the movement of the stars.”

“What do we do, then?”

She settled the helmet back over her head. “Prepare for war, Oban Scia, the last warrior of the 4th Company, Golden Gryphon Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, and make Chaos regret again using your Emperor’s finest for their own designs.”

“What happens when they pull the trigger inside me?”

“That has yet to be determined.” She turned and stalked away.

“And if it is bad?” he asked.

Cynbel didn’t break stride. “Then I will destroy you,” her voice said in Oban Scia’s head. She and Commander Dhall exited the observation deck.

“You can try,” Oban Scia growled. He turned to Lorgo Brand. “Perhaps I should get acquainted with your engineers and see if they can figure out how to install my armor.”

“I thought we agreed that was the last thing we wanted?”

“The eldar said to prepare for war. I’m not going into battle in this.”

 

THE ALARMS began to sound as they adjusted and bolted the last pieces of plate armor into place. Oban Scia stepped forward and flexed his arms.

“Impressive,” he admitted. “For mere humans, of course. How did you know?”

“The attachments and interface beneath your skin are ingenious, but also quite intuitive,” said Laurant, the main engineer. “I wish we had more time to study it. But I could suggest a few improvements…”

Oban Scia narrowed his eyes. “I’m sure you could. Keep your ideas to yourself.”

The engineers inclined their heads and stood back to admire their work. In his full plate, painted gold and black, Oban Scia was unlike anything they had ever seen. He picked up his chainsword and cycled the power; the vicious weapon snarling to life as he cut the air with it.

“Is my bolter cleaned and ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” He powered down the chainsword and attached it to the clips on his back, listening to the alarms going off.  “It sounds as if it’s time to use it.”

 

“WE’VE HAD incursions on decks eight, twelve and fifteen, mostly just imps but a few of those flame belching horrors as well,” Brand said. “So far my squads, with some help from Cynbel’s Guardians have been able to handle it.” The two men were in the High Reach’s control room, surrounded by screens that showed a station on lock down on the inside and high alert in the space around it.

Dhall nodded. “What about Oban Scia?”

“We’re holding him in reserve for now, as agreed. He’s spoiling for a fight, though; it’s going to be hard to hold him back if it gets worse… when it gets worse.”

“How are they getting in?”

Brand sighed. “Chaos finds a way, doesn’t it? A few of the new crew, just up from Hardoon, were cultists. Portals opened… well, inside of them. At least we won’t have to worry about them, they disintegrated as the demons came out.”

Dhall nodded. “The fleet is assembling as ordered. I don’t think we’re done here, not by a long shot. But if they send those giant battleships, I don’t know if we’ll be able to hold out for long without help. And as it has been explained to me, help isn’t available.”

“I don’t get it. How can they navigate through the warp storm?”

“They can’t, at least not very well, no more than we can. It’s been hundreds of years since one of their big ships made it through, and we barely handled that one.”

“What does the government say?”

Dhall shrugged. “They’re sending up troops but we shouldn’t expect them for at least a day. Until then, they reminded us of our duty and told us to serve with honor,” he said.

“That’s cold comfort.”

Dhall nodded and pointed to one of the screens, a display of the ships protecting the High Reach. “Massive warp signature detected.” He spoke to his captains. “All ships, key in on whatever comes through. Don’t let it through to the station.”

Brand talked to his captains on the micro-bead communicator. “High alert, all stations prepare to repel boarders.”

 

CAPTAIN PINTADO cursed. He couldn’t see the ship coming out of the warp, and from the readouts he saw, he didn’t want to. It was huge, at least a cruiser, maybe a battleship.

“How soon before we have a firing solution?”

“Working on it now, sir; it hasn’t even finished translating into real space.”

“Let me know the second we’re ready to fire.” Captain Pintado flicked a switch. “All ships of Hardoon, this is Captain Pintado. Target is emerging from warp. You can’t miss it. If you do, we’re all dead. Shoot straight and let’s give these bastards a reason to remember us.”

“Sir! The warp hole collapsed!”

Captain Pintado turned back to the screens. “I’ll be damned!” he roared. Three quarters of the ship had come through but the rest of it had simply vanished. “It’s got no engines! It’s dead in space! All ships, fire at will! Fire at will!”

The smaller ships of the Hardoon Navy circled around the stricken ship, reactive shells and missiles smashed into the collapsing shields and then into the hull. There was plenty of bite left in the Chaos ship, however. It launched its own missiles and shells, and Hardoon ships shuddered and broke apart, sending men and broken parts of the machines tumbling into the cold of space. Smaller ships launched off the flight deck of the Chaos vessel, twisting and sliding between incoming and outgoing salvos.

“Captain!”

“I see them,” Captain Pintado said. “Concentrate fire on the big ship and warn the High Reach that they’re about to have company.”

 

THE ONES that got through the station’s defenses locked and sealed onto the station hull in a dozen places; as they cut through the walls, some of the seals failed and explosively decompressed, sending the ship and the contents of the deck spinning into space until emergency hatches sealed off the compromised areas. But what poured through the holes they cut was the stuff of nightmares, the Legion of the Damned. What had once been humans, still wearing the remnants of their Imperial Guard uniforms but twisted and grotesque caricatures of life, came out dealing death. They surged down corridors and through the docking bay, faces distorted in the flickering emergency lights, killing anything in sight.

Yet on every deck, the inhuman surge broke against a wall of superheated plasma, pinpoint laser fire, and clouds of subsonic shuriken, the Guardians of Ulthwé working with Brand’s defenders. The Legion of the Damned were cut to pieces and still they came, bodies fueled by hellish energies, unwilling to go down even as the flesh was scoured from their melting limbs.

Brand monitored the fight from the control room. “It’s a stalemate, but we’re killing more of them than they are. They’re contained.”

Dhall shook his head. “I don’t think so. They’re just being used to set up something else.”

Cynbel nodded. “The commander is right. Something else lurks behind these meat puppets. Something is driving them but is staying out of our sight. It is on the station and looking for something… where is Oban Scia?”

Chief Brand checked a data slate. “The tracker we put on his suit is no longer functioning. Alpha, this is Brand. Alpha?” He looked at the eldar. “The squad I assigned to him is not responding.”

“We must find the power behind this attack There we will also find our Astartes.” She was gone in seconds, her squad of black-clad Guardians just behind her.

Dhall shook his head. “What are you waiting for? Go after her!” He paused. “Do you hear that? What is that… it sounds like…”

Brand blanched. “It sounds like pain.”

 

THE SCREAMS seemed to come from everywhere. Throughout the corridors and decks of the High Reach, men and women shuddered and moaned, desperate to stop the hellish chorus.

Cynbel and her warriors methodically searched for the source, wiping out any resistance they met as they moved from deck to deck, until they reached the hospital ward. Brand and his men were shaken but still functional; they crouched behind the eldar and covered the rear.

She led them inside. The stench of death and decay, rot and ruin, was overwhelming. They cleared room after room until there was only one left, and it was from there the terrible screams emanated.

“What is that?” Lorgo Brand asked, fighting the physical revulsion brought on by the sound.

“It is the Choir of Aberrance,” Cynbel said. “They follow their master into battle.”

“Their master… what is that?”

“A worshipper of She Who Thirsts, a degenerate warp creature you would call a Noise Marine. You and your men are not prepared for this, Lorgo Brand. You will be torn apart by what is inside. That you have come this far is a testament to your courage but you should return to command and wait for our return.”

Brand was about to answer but the doors slid open and a walking nightmare was upon them. Brand scrambled backward as the massive figure, clad in armor garishly adorned with nauseating symbols and patterns painted in purple, pink and black, launched into the eldar host.  The noise that came from it was not just debilitating, it was deadly. Several of Brand’s men erupted in fountains of blood, their organs ruptured and bones breaking by the sonic assault. Behind the terrifying Chaos Marine, pulled by chains attached to him, was the Choir of Aberrance, slaves of different species, their bodies pierced with multiple hooks and their unholy screams of abject pain and agony amplified by vox speakers to unbearable volume.

The remaining humans retreated but the Guardians and Cynbel stepped forward. Brand felt the air shift as she unleashed her psychic fury, staggering the mutated giant and momentarily silencing the howling that seemed to come from its helmet. The Guardians circled behind and filled the air with wave after wave of shuriken that methodically slaughtered the choir, silencing them for once and ever. Enraged, the Noise Marine swept his sonic blaster over them, and several eldar were broken and torn apart. The others fell back.

Cynbel kept the giant off balance with successive psychic attacks as they dueled, but the beast of Chaos showed no signs of weakening. Every moment they fought, the energy unleashed shook and rattled the entire deck.

Brand was still backing away when one of his men went down, hit from behind. He wheeled around and found himself face to face with a corrupted servant of Chaos. They fired simultaneously and Brand felt an impact on his shoulder, but the face in front of him vanished in an explosion of blood and bone.

“Behind us! Turn and fight!” he screamed.

There was nowhere to go. The Sonic Marine pushed Cynbel steadily back and the Legion of the Damned kept them from retreating. They were caught between two forces who wanted nothing more than to see them dead. Brand and his men battled with the intensity of men with no options left to them but fight or die.

The far door to their rear exploded inward and a massive shape in golden power armor charged through. Oban Scia crashed into the rear of the former Guardsmen like a whirlwind of death, chainsword in one hand and bolter in the other, the eyes of his helmet glowing green in the half light of the hallway. He swept through them in moments, a river of blood and broken bodies in his wake.

“Hold fire! Hold fire!” Brand shouted, one arm dangling useless at his side. The Astartes stalked past them and the remaining Guardians to smash with full force into the Chaos Marine, the impact so forceful it knocked Brand off his feet. Cynbel and her Guardians stepped back; her armor was shredded and she bled from several wounds.

Oban Scia hammered at his foe with his chainsword, the whirling blade striking sparks off the corrupted armor with every blow. The Chaos Marine blocked and struck back, an insane howl coming from helmet and vox speakers attached to its shoulders. Oban Scia forced it back, step by step, until it was forced to kick aside the ruined bodies of the hellish choir.

Chief Brand winced as the pain from his wounded shoulder seeped into his consciousness. He wanted nothing more than to run. Every instinct in his body begged him to flee. The noise coming from the Chaos warrior was beyond anything a normal person could stand, a cacophony so demented it ripped at his sanity.

Cynbel’s voice spoke in his mind. “Lorgo Brand! Flee now! Whatever is going to happen to Oban Scia will happen soon!”

“But he’s winning!”

Oban Scia had the Chaos Marine on the defensive, blow after blow chipping away at the armor. The wretched horror stumbled on a body beneath his feet and his guard dropped; Oban Scia swung a mighty blow sideways across the helmet, biting into it with a terrific screech of metal against metal, cutting through the adamantium and plasteel to the corrupted flesh beneath, until smoke poured out of the tortured blade and it could do no more. But the damage to the helmet was enough to shut off the bizarre howling and expose part of the face beneath. As the noise sputtered out, Brand’s head began to clear.

Distorted laughter filled the sudden silence.

“Why… why is it laughing?” Brand whispered.

“Go ahead, so-called Space Marine, slave to the corpse of the Emperor,” the beast screamed, the words spit from a twisted, fang filled mouth, “you think you can end me? I cannot die! If I fall here, Slaanesh will open the gates of the Palace of Pleasure and Pain for me! Do it, if you dare!”

Oban Scia shoved the hot barrel of his bolter into that offensive mouth, flesh sizzling. The Noise Marine reached up with both hands and locked them around the wrist and forearm of the Golden Gryphon, making it impossible to pull the bolter away.

Brand crawled forward. He saw something, something in the exposed eye beneath the shattered remains of the helmet, something unexpected from a thing so horrible: a desperate pleading. “Cynbel! He must not… that thing’s death is the trigger!”

She turned away from the scene and removed her helmet. “Yes. I can do nothing to stop him,” she said, so quietly Brand almost couldn’t hear her. “This is the moment around which the future of this planet and the secrets it holds turns.”

“Cannot or will not?” Brand yelled.

The look on her face was impossible to read. “Is there a difference?” she asked.

Oban Scia raised his other hand, encased in a ceramite gauntlet, made a fist and smashed it down on the wreckage of the helmet, again and again, until the hands wrapped around his gun arm loosened. He ripped the bolter out of the thing’s mouth and dropped it. He bent down and wrapped his arms around the Chaos Marine. His feet began to move, pulling his semi-conscious enemy across the floor, the Choir of Aberrance dragging behind, still chained to their master.

“Brand!” Oban Scia’s voice hissed in the micro-bead comm unit in the Chief’s ear. “Air lock! The nearest air lock! Have the engineers met us there!”

Brand staggered to his feet. “This way!”

 

THE FLIGHT DECK was damaged, bodies and blood spattered across the floor and walls. But it was still intact.

Laurant and his engineers, along with Commander Dhall had assembled by an air lock and their eyes widened as a strange procession entered from the far side of the deck. Security Chief Brand, wounded and barely able to stand, came in first. A medicae ran over to him but was waved off. Behind the chief was the golden form of Oban Scia, who dragged the Noise Marine and his entire dead and damned retinue behind him. Trailing behind them were the tall, silent eldar Guardians and their leader, the warlock Cynbel.

Oban Scia paused to pummel the wounded Chaos Marine, who had started to struggle, before taking the last few steps. He refused to loosen his grip on his foe, forcing him to his knees.

“Remove my helmet,” Oban Scia said, and the engineers scrambled to release the connections and pulled the golden helmet free, careful to avoid touching the other creature.

Brand gasped. The once noble face showed an incredible strain and appeared to be distorted and changed.

“I can feel it inside me,” Oban Scia grunted. “Every punch I land, as I bring this unholy bastard closer to death, whatever is happening to me accelerates. It won’t be long now.”

“Is there no other way?” Brand asked.

“No. And you know this to be true. Open the inner door.” He waited patiently, face contorted with pain as the crew cycled open the door. “Cynbel of Ulthwé? Will you tell me now?”

She shook her head. “I cannot. She Who Thirsts is in your head. She must not know what we know.”

“Eldar bitch!” he roared, then gasped an apology. “There’s just something inside my head, that’s all. It’s time,” he said. He hauled his ghastly cargo into the lock. Oban Scia stared for a long moment at the humans and eldar on the other side of the heavy door. “Lorgo Brand, I enjoyed our discussion,” he said. “I hope, for your sake and the world you love, that this is worth it. Close it. And Brand…?”

“Yes, Oban Scia?”

“Explosive decompression; it’s the only way to get far enough away from the High Reach.”

The inner doors cycled shut. The engineers made some adjustments and overrode several emergency protocols before they turned to Commander Dhall and nodded.

“Do it,” Dhall said.

The outer doors slammed open. Everything inside the air lock shot out into space above the planet: two armored giants and a gaggle of corpses chained together. Oban Scia, his lungs empty, stuck his bolter in the face of the Noise Marine and pulled the trigger until the clip was empty. There was no sound as the explosive rounds hit, blowing apart the heavily wounded head, the recoil causing Oban Scia to change direction. His body began to expand, an unnatural mass that split apart the golden armor, pseudopods and tentacles exploding into existence, a writhing horror that grew so rapidly it could soon be seen from the High Reach.

That was inside him?” Brand turned to Cynbel, who nodded.

“It would have consumed this whole station and taken down your defense grid,” she said. “In the end, he knew this.”

Dhall was on the communicator with Captain Pintado. “Blow that unholy thing to pieces,” he ordered. Within minutes, missiles streaked in and impacted the every growing monstrosity until all that was left was shattered shards of flesh.

Cynbel walked over to where the golden helmet sat on the ground. She picked it up and stared at it for a long time before she turned to Brand, who was seated on the ground and finally getting his wound triaged. With the slightest bow of her head, she extended the helmet. Brand accepted it with his good arm and immediately set it down next to him.

“It’s heavy,” he said, though the words seemed completely inadequate.

“That’s the burden of courage, Lorgo Brand,” she said. “Pray to whatever gods you worship that you need never lift its weight again.”

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