“WHAT DO YOU mean it might not be safe for us down on the surface?”, Martinez snarled.
He suddenly stood up like a predator about to strike. He punched one gauntleted fist into the palm of the other and the sound it made was like the crack of lightning. As if in anticipation of immediate violence, the small figure carrying his Warhammer stepped forward, lowered its head and offered it to him in reverence.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence before the Arch-Magos decided to intervene.
“There is civil discontent in all but two of the planets main cities, and there are countless other outbreaks of flagrant lawlessness across the surface.”
The question was direct and unambiguous, which was always the Inquisitors way. Heads shook and shoulders curled, but no one dared an answer. They simply did not have the facts in front of them.
It was a simple question. Why was an otherwise compliant planet racked with civil unrest?
No one had the wit or confidence to reply.
Martinez slowly turned his head and looked through dark eyes at the throng gathered around him. He saw genuine confusion and worry etched on their features but cared little about their discomfort. They all knew that if the painful pause did not end soon, they could expect one of the Inquisitors infamous eruptions, where heads would roll and careers would end.
Captain Lucas Grevenslag, an ex-Cadian officer with a string of hard-fought campaigns behind him, and one of only a handful of Guard officers on board, stood to the fore. He was a rough -bitten fighter and brawler with an exemplary record, he was cowed by no man, not even one such as Martinez. As the Inquisitors head of intelligence, he knew it was his job to find the answer… as such.
“My Lord, Preliminary reports suggest that systematic corruption…”
“At what level?”, Martinez interrupted.
“At the highest levels, my Lord,” he paused. “High taxes, over-officialdom, bad harvests, solar storms,” he shrugged his shoulders. “Are but a few of the causes.”
“Does it warrant our intervention?”
“There is a suggestion of outside influences, my Lord.”
With a flick of a command wand, he brought up a secondary screen which revealed a darkened command deck on a standard Imperial cruiser. A mid-aged officer, resplendent in a crimson red dress uniform looked back at him.. and the blood drained from his face. He was too slow to make his introduction. The Inquisitor saved him the formalities.
“Captain Zorich.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.
“My Lord…” he spluttered a reply. Martinez held up a hand. He did not require anything further from this man.
“Captain Zorich. Hand in your epaulettes, and march yourself to the brig. Your ineptitude astounds me.”
“I must protest…”, his pitiable stand was brave but futile. Martinez angled his head to the Arch-Magos, who glided up to his side.
“Donát, my Lord.”
A thick-necked, bull of a man stepped onto the screen. His face bore a long duelling scar and a copper-coloured augmentic eye cover.
This man has stood in the shadows for too long.
“Commander Donát. Consider yourself promoted…”
“Thank….”, Martinez raised his hand again.
“Captain, I am sending you the schematics of a vessel I am searching for in this system. Locate this vessel and inform me immediately you find it.”
“Do not engage under any circumstances, and do not fail me.”
The newly-promoted captain was promptly forgotten.
“Sister Balakhnova?”. Martinez sat back down in his throne, his armour sighing as internal systems adjusted to his movement.
Ah, Sister Balakhnova…
Though he had forsaken all worldly pleasures in the pursuit of purity and above all his duty, Martinez had still not lost his predator instincts or his male drive. Testosterone flowed freely through his veins and battle stimms clarified his mind.
The Battle sister was a fine-looking woman and very pleasing on the eye. He could but wonder…
Such a waste.
“I shall mortify my flesh..”, he whispered a little too loudly.
Wearing the black power armour and red cloak of the Order of the Silver Sword, Advanced Nunciate Balakhnova struck an imposing figure. She stood silently with her hand resting on the pommel of her power sword, her face neutral but noble. Her bleached white hair, cut in the normal style of the Adepta Sororitas bore a red streak on one side. In her Order, this was the sign of a veteran, though, Martinez surmised, she was no more than twenty-five standard Terran years old.
Her natural authority meant that everyone gave way to her, and she stood alone on part of the command dais that jutted out over the banks of cogitators and auspex monitors below.
She cocked her head towards Martinez then gave a subtle bow.
“I trust your Palatine is well?”. Martinez was almost paternal. There was an uncomfortable pause, before Martinez added. “You may speak freely.”
As a diplomat, Balakhnova was commissioned to use normal speech where necessary. When she did, it was always in High Gothic.
“She is at prayer, my Lord.” Speech did not come easily to Balakhnova and she struggled at first as her vocal cords got used to their reanimation.
Martinez tried to smile but it was ugly and twisted.
“We should all give prayer to our fortune. Are your sisters ready?”
Balakhnova raised an eyebrow. The question made no sense to her.
“We are always ready, my Lord.”
Martinez suddenly sprang to his feet and an audible gasp went up from those that were gathered.
“My contact on the surface has Stroms,” he balled a fist into the other. “Captain Gustloff, assemble my Stormtrooper’s,” he turned to Balakhnova. “Sister, you may release the Order!”
* * *
STROMS NOTICED THAT the room was now ominously quiet. Garcha’s men had already left with the anti-grav trolleys and were probably navigating the Freak Show by now. Only the brooding Mubarak, Dombi, Ó Báire and himself remained. Eight cartel foot soldiers, Pásztor Dea and the female barkeep faced them like a scene from a gunfight from old antiquity.
Stroms had already taken the liberty of scanning them for concealed weapons. He was not too disappointed. The cartel men had the usual hodgepodge mix of hand-stubbers and heavier stubguns in harnesses underneath their jackets. They all carried secondary weapons such as knuckledusters and blades.
Their minds were focussed on Stroms and his companions. They were trying to size him and his crew up, looking for the easiest and hardest targets. They were all preparing themselves for immediate violence.
Pásztor Dea appeared to be unarmed, but Stroms knew, almost to his cost, that his subtle mind powers were not infallible. If she was an operative of The Officio Assassinorum
, she would be a master of the art of guile and deceit, and he would not know until the last possible moment. The positive signs were that she was clearly agitated, scared even. Her heart-rate was off the scale and her breathing was rapid and deep. Her mind was a cloud of contradictions. She was trying desperately to focus on a single point, in this case an idyllic scene from a place she once knew, but her thoughts kept jumping back to Orosius’s face and the face of someone hidden in the background. It appeared to be an earlier conversation they had had, though the time frame could not be verified. Dea had received some form of rudimentary mind-block training, that was evident. She had the skill to block out low-level psykers, but it was not enough to hold back Stroms.
My dear Pásztor, what is it you are trying to hide from me?
He placed a small sliver of pain into her frontal lobe, nothing too damaging, but enough to give her stress.
As if on cue she creased her forehead and her hand came up to her temple.
Tension was heavy in the air. He knew that the next few seconds would be critical.
“I clearly underestimated you Orosius.” Stroms began. “You really would sell your soul to the highest bidder.”
The be-speckled teacher smiled back and then tapped the bridge of his glasses to straighten them. It seemed an almost pitiful gesture from a man who ran the notorious Vardaro cartel, a mini-army of thousands, with enough firepower to start his own war.
“Very important people are looking for you Morthern. Very important people who will pay the highest price for you.”
Stroms laughed and then shook his head. Petty criminals like Orosius were all the same. He had seen them come and he had seen them go. They were all hollow, greedy and without honour.
But most of all, they were all predictable.
Stroms once knew of a notorious gang leader (they were called gangsters in those days) who thought he was very clever and above the law. He had bribed the Arbites and the Judges and members of the Administratum and they were all in his pocket. A special task force was set up to bring him down. He was finally brought to justice, not for any of the heinous murders he had ordered or carried out himself, no; he was caught because he failed to keep his tithe records in order, and they incarcerated him for tithe avoidance.
His weakness was his narcissism.
Orosius? Well he just thought he was better than anyone else…
“What was it they offered you Orosius, protection? Riches?”
“No,” Orosius was quick to reply. “They offered me total immunity and absolution for all my… crimes. I think the price was well worth it.”
Stroms laughed, but it sounded like a cough.
“How little you know them, you fool. You have signed your own death warrant.”
Orosius grinned. “I have friends in high places. You have no idea…”
Stroms hated this little, meaningless lackey. He was stalling.
“You betrayed me, as I knew you would.” Said Stroms.
There was a tiny flicker in Orosius’s left eye.
“It is business Morthen, nothing more. It is not personal. I like you, I really do.”
“You have been playing me for time all along.”
“Of course.” Orosius smirked back.
I have it Boss
Stroms opened his arms wide, smiling, but this show was a big, open, genuine smile.
“As have I, as have I.”
It was a barely noticeable rumble at first, a dull sound that penetrated the subconscious. It was like a low frequency hum that you only hear when you lay on the pillow at night.
“And here they come, exactly on time.” Said Stroms.
Orosius beamed back, unknowing, unaware…
“It will not be long now Morthern, my friend…”
Stroms clasped his fingers together in front of him and then looked directly into Orosius. He could not read him from where he was but it was not necessary anyway. Everything was done, everything was in place.
The cartel leader was a dead man, he just did not know it yet.
Oh so predictable.
All around the room the cartel soldiers were fidgeting and muttering to each other. They were obviously in contact with their boss who was feeding them instructions through hidden ear-vox.
Their anticipation, their excitement and their fear was almost a physical thing to Stroms. He could read every movement, see every sign.
I am here
“Mister Orosius,” Stroms had reverted back to his formal manner, but with an almost matter-of-fact tone. “No, Lar, may I call you Lar?” He spared Dea an almost mischievous grin.
“Do go on… for goodness sake.” The cartel leader raised an irritated eyebrow. “This is not a game you know.”
“My dear Lar. This is a game, a game that I have been playing for a very long time,” he nodded at Dea again, “a very long time indeed.” He turned his back on the screen and the cartel foot soldiers and stared long and hard at Mubarak.
Words did not need to be said.
“Do not turn your back on me Stroms.” Orosius growled, the veneer of friendliness suddenly gone.
“Can you hear it?”, Stroms whispered. He turned to face the screen again. The school teacher glowered back, his face creased with distain and hate.
Stroms noticed the beads of sweat on the man’s forehead and the way his eyes were darting to the left and the right.
“What?”, said Orosius.
“I asked if you can hear it. Can you hear it Orosius?”
The deep rumble was now clearly audible and the walls and floor began to vibrate.
Orosius gave a knowing nod and appeared to talk to someone off screen before turning to Stroms.
“They have assured me that you will not be hurt,” then he added, almost as a sign of compassion. “If that is any conciliation?”
“Oh, I have no doubts about my well-being Orosius, but as for yours, well, your friends will have no such consideration. In fact, I know they will be extremely un-sympathetic when they realise what has happened.”
Orosius shook his head slowly. From his fortress at the top of the tallest spire in the Hive, the cartel leader was master of all. He would enjoy seeing the know-it-all, mental defective Morthen Stroms, finally fall, and fall he would; he had made sure of it.
“Is it time to play boss?”
“This is not a game Stroms.” Orosius snapped.
“I know Lars… you pimp!”
Ó Báire pumped two swift las-rounds into the female barkeep, one to the forehead and the second to her sternum. She was hurled backwards into a pile of stacked chairs, releasing the loaded shotgun that she had in her hands. At the same instant, Dombi brought up his club and swung it in a wide arc, striking the nearest ‘clanner’ across the face before imbedding its spikes into the chest of a second.
Stroms had wondered why Pásztor Dea needed a hidden power field. Now he knew. As well as Orosius’s concubine she was also his bodyguard.
He sensed the needle pistol before he saw it and turned just in time. The deadly dart glanced off the mesh armour beneath his coat imbedded itself into the wall.
She was good, very good.
Dea was on him a split second later, bringing up a stiletto blade which was aimed for his groin area and certain death.
He twisted to one side and the blade went wide. Dea gave out a surprised yelp and brought the blade quickly back towards his face. Her other hand was gripping the front of his coat and pulling him towards her.
Stroms did not want to kill the girl, despite her obvious desire to do him harm, she was an amiable creature and he did actually like her. He blocked the returning blade with his vembrace before shrugging off her other hand.
She was suddenly knocked sideways from the right and disappeared in a blur of black and silver. He saw the familiar shape of Ó Báire, his shoulder low like a charging Grox.
“Get your head out of your arse!”, Ó Báire snarled. “By the Emperor, did he not send me here to look after you.”
Dea lay on her back amongst the detritus of the conference room. She was gasping for breath and cupping her broken nose. Blood flowed freely down the front of her body glove. She stared at Stroms with a mixture of anger and desperation.
Dombi stamped down on her head and killed her instantly.
“Not nice lady.” He growled.
Mubarak had slid a long box across the table to Dombi, and then opened fire with his two Laspistols. He bracketed the entrance. Another ‘clanner’ fell, then a second who was the big, hard-faced thug who Ó Báire had un-ceremonially pummelled years before.
Stroms realised that Dombi now had his revered Ripper gun in his hands and that the next few seconds would be a world of noise and fire. With obvious glee, and with a beaming smile on his brutal face, the huge Ogryn let rip a long burst of exploding rounds, pulverising the remaining cartel soldiers.
They had not fired a single shot in return.
Stroms now stood motionless, separate from the rest, his eyes penetrating deep into Orosius’s soul.
“What have you done?”. Orosius hissed back.
“Good Luck Lars.” Stroms gave a mock salute and then he turned to his friends.
“Down! Hit the floor!”
The screen suddenly exploded in a cloud of light and sparkling plasglass and part of the far wall ballooned inwards. Rubble, plaster, metal fittings and thousands of other bits of debris funnelled towards them in an ever-expanding fire ball.
What light there was, was immediately extinguished, plunging the room into darkness. The noise was like a hundred heavy weights crashing down onto a metal roof.
Internal alarm systems began sounding followed by loud klaxons and wailing sirens. A dull, monotone voice gave instructions on where to exit or where to escape to.
Mubarak was the first to react. He came up onto one knee and emptied his Laspistols into the gap. He then mag-locked them to his belt and swung a combat shotgun around. He pumped round after round of the lethal shot at anything that might be following.
Ó Báire leapt forward and scooped up a small cylindrical object that came bouncing in amongst the cloud of debris. He threw it back into the hole and gave a grim smile as the choke grenade popped the other side of the wall.
I am Here
+ Plan B now Juliana. I fear that our guests have got here a little quicker than I anticipated +
The rest of his group were now moving back towards the way they had come in., their movements fluid and professional. It felt like an eternity, but only a couple of seconds had passed.
Dombi began firing again as more and more grenades began flying in through the gap. They were a mixture of Stun and Choke grenades, designed to incapacitate and not kill. Clearly Stroms and his crew were to be taken alive. That meant that the attackers would be cautious.
That gave Stroms the edge. He had no such restrictions.
There was no immediate follow up. The attackers were either all dead or being held back. Either way, it was to Stroms advantage.
The brief fire fight had caused a dull haze in the air that reminded Stroms of an early morning rendezvous in graveyards with shadowy agents. It was quite surreal. All but one of the overhead lights had been destroyed, which added to the gloom.
Dombi stood rigidly by Stroms side, his weapon cradled in his huge arms.
+ Are the supplies stored? +
+ Affirmative +
+ Deaglán and I will form the rear guard. Mubarak and Dombi will join you shortly +
+ Affirmative +
+ We will meet you in two days’ time at the rendezvous site. Understood? +
+ Got it Boss, but… +
Juliana, trust me. All will be fine.
See you soon
+ Prepare for a hot take off. Your guests are outside. The usual drill. No unnecessary casualties. They are… +
+ Misguided souls that do not know the truth. Yes Boss, I will try +
+ Safe journey +
+ Good luck +
Stroms turned to the others who had gathered up what useful items they could find I and amongst the detritus. He placed a reassuring hand on Dombi’s chest.
“You must go with Mubarak Dombi. Go back to the fun ship and help Juliana the flying lady. There are lots of bad men trying to hurt her. Me and Deaglán will wait here a while. Do you understand?”
“Dombi stay here with you.”
Stroms smiled and patted his shoulder. He loved the simple, child-like nature of this giant. Like all Ogryn’s he had adhered to Stroms natural leadership abilities. That is what made them such efficient soldiers in the Imperial Guard. They were loyal, tough, brave soldiers who would never let you down.
“Go and help the others. Make sure they get out alright.”
The big Ogryn’s face twisted in thought and then he nodded.
“Yes Boss. Dombi will help flying lady. He will see you later.”
* * *
A STANDARD Navy Valkyrie Sky Talon is used to carry light vehicles or troops onto the battlefield.
But this one was non-standard…
Unfettered by the rigid doctrine of The Adeptus Mechanicus, and free from the mistrust, secrecy and ridiculous dogma that has held it back for Millennia, Stroms’s dedicated team of Transmechanic’s were given free-range to do whatever they wanted. They were not restrained by the hierarchal rank structure of the Mechanicus and free-thinking was encouraged. Ably guided by Garxan Mansmay, an ex-Mechanicum Adept, their skills had surpassed even the worldly-wise of Mars.
They had adapted the Sky Talon to life on the run.
The single cockpit had been replaced by a two-seater bubble. The pilot, usually Juliana, could concentrate on flying the machine, whilst her companion took care of the weapons.
Like Stroms own ship, hidden amongst the clutter of space above, this Sky Talon packed a punch which was well-above her weight.
The nose-mounted heavy-bolter was still in place, though its swivel mount was faster and smoother than the standard Imperial package. Four Hellstrike missiles hung from its stubby wings alongside a single rocket pod. What was unusual and completely heretical, was the Eldar Firestorm scatter laser attached to the other wing.
This was Strom’s guarantee against Navy fighters or tightly-bunched enemy targets. He had acquired it many years before and despite some of his crew’s protestations against using xenos technology, he had kept the weapon for its solid reliability.
Sergeant Garcha gave Juliana the thumbs up as the last box was secure in the hold. He then replaced one of his men on the rotary cannon on the back of the ramp. The standard drop-pod had also been adapted to carry both cargo and passengers and the hard-slug weapon was assurance against counter-attacks or discouragement to the brave.
Juliana gave the far doors a forlorn look before she brought the engines up to taxi-speed. She turned the nose of the vessel a fraction to the right and saw them.
At first it was just shadows, moving, hazy shapes in the bright light outside. Then the shadows became solid and then an ominous blunt shape slid forward into view. There was no doubting the shape. It was a Rhino armoured vehicle surrounded by a sea of bobbing helmets and the barrels of weapons.
“Throne. We are truly fracked!”, Juliana exclaimed to any and all who could hear.
+ Eadfrid. Weapons free… but try to keep the damage to minimum +
She realised what she was saying was frankly ridiculous, but she knew Stroms, and if Stroms found out that they were more than liberal with their firepower, he would not be best pleased.
+ How in the Omnissiah am I supposed to do that? + Eadfrid replied, a hint of exasperation in his voice.
Juliana pulled on the stick and the Sky Talon lifted up into a hover position a metre or so above the ground.
The armed figures at the entrance were now fanning out and taking up firing positions. The pintle-mounted heavy-bolter on the Rhino was now pointing directly towards them.
+ It gets better. Eadfrid, to the left of the Rhino +
+ Which one? +
There were now two of the armoured vehicles and they had moved in to block the exit.
“Oh frack it!”
+ Say again +
+ Just clear us away through them Eadfrid… but try to be careful +
* * *