++ Personal Notes 71/7173 - Morthen Stroms. ++
By way of a note: Alcohol… Lexicon Categorization: A colourless unstable flammable liquid which is produced by the natural fermentation of sugars and is the intoxicating constituent of Amsec, beer, spirits, and other drinks, and is also used as an industrial solvent and as fuel.
ALL GOOD THINGS come to those who wait.
To Juliana Zadian the good times were few and far between, and the bad times were…well, interminable. If the good times were indeed coming, then they had better come quickly. She felt like she was on the edge of a deep precipice, and one slight roll would mean total oblivion.
She was drunk again, but nowadays she was always drunk. It helped her cope, it helped her forget, and it kept her sane.
Clad in her ubiquitous combat boots, combat trousers and tight-fitting black t-shirt, she lay on a louse-infested mattress in a filthy wet back alley staring up at the stars above.
Well, Juliana, you sure out did yourself this time.
Her head was pounding like the pistons in a Titans leg, and her mouth tasted like… well, like an Ork’s armpit.
It had been two days this time; a mammoth bender of epic proportion that had gone well beyond her usual limits. Now she was finally sobering up and now she would pay the price for her over indulgence.
Damn that Rogue Trader, damn the man. What was his name? Yeah, damn Ewatochi, that slippery amphibian, damn his luck. The cards…
“On your feet citizen and let’s see some identity.” The voice was barely audible and muffled by a face covering, or a visor. There was authority there, a hidden menace, but Juliana ignored it anyway. She turned over onto her left shoulder and brought her knees up into her chest.
She felt the tap on her shoulder and tensed up.
“You cannot sleep here citizen, this is a restricted zone and you have just earned a night in Precinct.”
Juliana knew that whoever was behind the voice was not going to go away. It was the law and the law was unforgiving and uncompromising. She knew that her respite was now over and the full after-effects of her binge would soon kick in. One thing was for sure however, she was not going to be sobering up in the drunk tank with lifes degenerates and inebriates. She would rather face a roll around with a Grox than that.
“Go away’ she spluttered, though she did not know why, “Why don’t you find someone else to hassle”.
The tap again, this time a little harder and with a determined hand.
“You have ten seconds to get to your feet and show me your papers, or you are going down town with me, and that could involve an element of pain compliance”.
Juliana rolled over onto her back and looked up into the bright beam of a flashlight. Her nemesis was clearly silhouetted against the background. She could make out the shape of a helmet and a set of studded shoulder pads belonging to a local Enforcer. She could also make out the long outline of a power maul.
Emperor-damned, why me?
Juliana suddenly felt brave and totally irrational. She somehow decided that this street plodder appeared to be on his own and his body language signalled that he was on edge and nervous.
A novice perhaps?
“Why don’t you go and bother someone else, I’m not doing anything wrong.”
The tap again and the buzz of the power maul being activated. A second tap, harder this time.
“Get to your feet citizen, while you still have the use of your legs.”
The irrational switch in Juliana’s head clicked into attack mode before the rational side of her alcohol-befuddled brain could do anything to countermand it. The possibility of her walking away with a reprimand and a frisk down was beginning to look very remote. It was now the classic fight or flight scenario and there was no going back. She was either going to run for it, or she would be squandering the rest of the day in a holding cell and the possibility of some form of serious injury.
She preferred the first option...
In a blink of an eye she flipped onto her knees and delivered a haymaker into the Enforcement officer’s groin, buckling him in two, his lungs exploding with expelled air. She then brought her hand down on the power maul, knocking it downwards and out of the way.
The Enforcer’s helmet hit the hard road with a sickening pop and Juliana made sure he stayed down with a hard blow between his shoulder blades.
She allowed herself a momentary pause of satisfaction.
Then the world about him exploded in pain and light.
Damn it, he was not alone…
One hour and twenty-two minutes later she woke up slumped in a chair with the coppery taste of blood in her mouth, and acid bile on her tongue. Pain ravaged her body, and as she moved her hand gingerly to her face, she realised that she had a large cut bisecting her right eyebrow.
Nice touch boys.
Juliana knew that she was now in a whole world of trouble. Her malevolence towards authority had now cost her dearly. Now She had to somehow get out of this place, wherever that might be, before the locals looked too deeply into her past. If they found out who she was then trouble was sure to follow. She shook her head.
There was the sound of movement and the click of a door being opened. She looked up, her eyes slowly adjusting to the harsh light from a bank of spots in the ceiling. She was in a small room with a door behind her. A standard mirror window was to her right, and she instinctively knew that she was being watched. She leant back in the chair and then grinned and winked at the window.
To the left of her was a barred rectangular window and a wired off rotating fan.
Despite her condition, she was already formulating an escape plan.
The door opened again, but this time someone entered. Juliana heard low voices and the scrape of wood against metal. An Enforcer pushed past her, dragging a table and a chair behind him. He placed them both in front of her and without even a glance, left the room.
“Am I under arrest?” She asked quietly. The question was pitiable, but what else could she say in the circumstances.
A thick-set investigator sat down in front of her, a typical career man, all sweat and starch with a large midriff that spoke of fast food and convenience. He wore a standard-issue investigators grey suit and a thick red neck tie. Juliana sensed that he was also carrying.
A thirty-four-twenty. Standard Arbites-issue snub-las, and probably a secondary in his sock.
The investigator flipped open a data-slate and grunted. Juliana watched him scan the contents before pushing the slate forward. The man placed a lho-stick in his mouth and lit its end with expert ease. He sneered at her.
“Name?” he asked matter-of-factly.
Juliana placed her hands behind her head, shrugging her shoulders. She gazed at the stained ceiling above. There was a small dark stain near its centre.
Is that blood?
“Name?” The Investigator repeated.
Juliana heard the sound of rubber on plasteel. The Enforcer had not left the room, he was behind her and very close to her shoulder. She leant forward and sniffed the air.
“Is that roll-up legal?”
“Name. What is your name?” repeated the Investigator.
“I wish to exercise my right to silence under the Articles…”
“Name?”, the investigator interrupted with hidden menace in the tone.
There was a pause and the Investigator stared long at hard at her.
“Let me see.” The investigator passed his palm over the reader.
“Petra Eceolaza… narcotics, prostitution. Jerta Cona, three years for larceny, assault and battery, narcotics,” the investigator looked up. “Again… Aneesa binti Taaha, weapons offences, flying without a licence. Ah, here it is… Vittoria Girgenti. It says here… narcotics, resisting arrest, assault on a law-enforcer, plus your little mess around today, which means times two. Oh, and finally, just a minor offence that must have slipped my mind… murder.”
Juliana never moved a muscle, not even a twitch.
The room was now deadly silent. Even the background noise of a busy Precinct House seemed to have gone.
Julian leaned forward. On the desk was a small metallic disc. She tapped it with her index finger and looked up at the investigator.
“This is a vox-thief right?”. The Investigator rolled his eyes. “Hello, hello?” she tapped the disc again. “To everyone out there, and so you are all very clear. I exercise my right to silence under the Articles…”
The blow hit her in the right temple knocking her sideways onto the cold hard floor of the interview room. She was not quick enough to prevent the collision with the ground. Her head impacted against hard plasteel, and pain shot through her like a plasma wave. She gasped, more with surprise than pain. She refused to cry out, even when her scalp opened up like a ripe fruit and blood pooled around her.
“Answer the fuggin’ questions you stupid bitch”, came a brutal voice. Juliana knew instinctively that it was the street-plodder she had dealt with earlier; still sore and itching for some payback. Rough hands pulled her back up onto the chair, and her face was pushed in the direction of the investigator. Juliana opened and closed her eyes. The eyebrow had opened up again and blood was flowing freely from the cut.
The investigator sat slowly back in his chair, arching his fingers in front of him.
“You are wanted in three different sub-systems.”
Juliana wiped the blood from her eyes and shook her head. “I guess I am a might bit popular.” She cocked her head. “Is this standard procedure for Arbites on this dung-hole of a planet?”
“Is that a Guard tattoo?”
The skull and crossed scythes of the Lifeguards. She had always meant to get it removed but just never got around to it. The damn mark had got her into a lot of trouble before, now it could get terminal for her.
Juliana pulled down her sleeve. It was such an obvious move, but she was caught momentarily off-guard.
“I’ve no idea what you are talking about”. The investigator nodded towards her right arm.
“That’s a Guard tattoo, I’ve seen enough of them in my time, so what unit were you with?”
Juliana sat back in the chair and then stretched her legs out in front of her. She contemptuously folded her arms across her chest.
“I have no idea what you are talking about’, she hesitated, ‘Just charge me with whatever it is you are going to charge me with, or let me go.”
There was an imperceptible nod from the detective and the street-plodder pulled Julian into a rough headlock.
“Shall I add deserter to your ever growing list of charges?’ said the investigator.
Juliana chuckled “It’s all fabricated, I am not who you say I am. I am just a lowly distillery worker… from K-District… Shiteville”. Another punch came, a vicious little jab this time, striking her temple. A stabbing pain shot through her head, bringing tears to her eyes. She threw the street-plodder a killing look and spat out a globule of blood.
“How are your nuts, you poxed pussy. I eat babies like you for breakfast”. She was suddenly pushed backwards this time, and this time it was the back of her head that hit the hard floor.
She blacked out.
“My real concern here,’ the investigator said. ‘Is not whether you are a deserter or not, it is who you really are, and where you actually come from.”
Juliana took a deep breath and looked up at the bull-neck. The man was staring at her, sweat trickling down his brow. He wore a bored expression on his pale, sickly face.
“That was actually a question”. He added.
Juliana’s head throbbed and blood was everywhere. She was hurting, but she had endured worse… much worse.
“I have the right to legal advice. Get me a Consuasor, or let me go”. It was worth a try she thought. Then she reflected that she could not remember what planet she was actually on and whether her requests were binding here or not.
The investigator smiled “Only citizens are entitled to legal advice on this… planet… but we don’t know who you actually are and according to our records you do not exist, you are an unknown’, he paused and tilted his head to one side ‘and off-worlders do not have the same rights as indigenes.”
The door opened again and another Enforcer entered the room. He bent down beside the investigator and whispered in his ear, nodding towards Juliana as he did so. Words were exchanged and the Enforcer shook his head. The investigator stood up. He placed the data-slate inside his jacket, pointing at Juliana with the other hand.
“You wait here; we are not finished with you yet”.
She spat blood and cracked her face into a smile.
“Like I am going anywhere.”
Endorphin rush: a feeling of exhilaration brought on by pain.
Wait here. What else was she going to do? She gave a pained laugh which was a last-ditch attempt at bravado.
Well, I am well and truly in trouble this time.
A minute later the door opened again. Juliana braced herself for the next attack that was sure to come. She tensed up her muscles and closed her eyes. Would the blow come from the right or the left? She had already decided that her interrogators had had enough play time for the day. She was in a bad place and was in for a bad time so what the hell. This time she would attack first before they did, she would hurt them before they finished her. She would go down fighting this time regardless of the consequences.
First, she decided, it would be the street-plodder, he would get his comeuppance. Then, if she could, she would take out the greasy investigator, maybe with his own piece. What happened after that was another matter, but she would not go down passively.
The be-speckled investigator did not appear this time. In his place was a robed Adept, with its hood pulled down low over its face. The Adept took up position to the left of the table with its arms crossed across its chest. Juliana hesitated.
What in the Emperor’s name was going on now?
Another man sat down. He was powerfully-built with cropped, dark brown hair and a face criss-crossed with scars. He had a strong chin with a hint of shadow. She could not discern his age, he was probably fifty standard years, perhaps slightly more? His eyes were hidden behind gloss-black eye protectors. He wore a long black trench coat over a body suit of an unknown matt material and what looked like a combat harness of military manufacture.
Juliana could not detect any visible weapons but She noticed that he had a Vox receiver in his left ear.
The new arrival sighed, and then cracked his heavy fingers. He leaned slightly forward and removed his eye-protectors.
What is this?
He had the most dazzling blue eyes she had ever seen. They were piercing but with a warmth behind them. There was wisdom and care there.
The man smiled.
“Juliana Zadian, aged,” he coughed and made an attempt to cover his mouth. He then grinned, revealing a row of immaculate white teeth ‘Native of E’lafpur 7, but spent most of your childhood on Orage Septimus. Father killed in combat, mother killed during an Ork raid, no living relatives…”
“Who the Fug are you?”
The man nodded and the Adept stepped forward unfolding his arms. He placed a large paper file on the table in front of them.
The dark-haired man continued. “Adopted by The Daughters of the Navy, placed in a military Fraternity before becoming a Noviate at the prestigious Muneris Palaestra Schola. Joined the Elite Orage Lifeguards as a pilot, rated top of her class. Ten years unblemished record ‘the man paused and sat back in his chair, rocking slightly. He stared at Juliana through eyes that now looked like dark blue crystals.
‘And there is the conundrum. The last line on the document states’, he studied the data-slate with renewed vigour. ‘It states that you were killed in action.”
Juliana sprang to her feet and then crouched low into an attack stance. Before she could take a further step, there was a grunt and then a pair of heavy hands lifted her up and then pushed her firmly back into her chair. Muscles of iron then held her there, pinning her down as effective as detention irons. The dark-haired man did not even flinch, but a smile broke across his face again. He looked up at whoever was holding her down.
Juliana tried to shrug the heavy hands away, but was pushed down even harder.
“I asked you a question,’ growled Juliana playing for time. ‘Who the hell are you… people?”
“Relax Juliana, relax. We are all friends here.” The man’s voice had a slight accent and was low and… soothing.
She finally managed to lean forward and stared at the man facing her behind the desk.
“Let’s get one thing straight. We are not friends. Never, in all my life, can I ever recall us sharing a drink together, or hanging out swapping war stories”. She leant back, satisfied.
The other man smiled “Sarcasm does no become you, Juliana. But I like sarcasm, I am skilled in its use. Now shall we get down to business?”
“Where is my Consuasor?” She attacked. “I have rights. Get me some legal in here right away.” The other man spread his fingers out flat on the table. She noticed a golden ring band on his right forefinger which bore a dark red ruby. She sensed it was very old.
“What the…?”. There was an icy sensation in her forehead
“Who the Fug is in my head?” She turned on the Adept but realised that it was not it but the man across from her who was skimming her mind. “Get yourself out of my head…”
We will not harm you
“You prefer me like this?”
“Fine.” The man smiled. To her surprise, Juliana felt a heavy weight lift from her shoulders. Not the physical weight that was holding her down, but a physiological weight, and the stress of her incarceration seemed to slowly fade away.
She looked directly into the man’s eyes.
What she saw back was a kindly face, a trusting face. She was being illogical.
“You are not a citizen here on this planet, like the Investigating sergeant said.” The man began. “Off-worlders have no rights here. You are not entitled to a Consuasor or any form of legal assistance come to that. Your future looks very bleak. Assaulting an Enforcer on this planet means five years in a penal colony. That’s five years digging up Thallium to make heat sensors or, bleeding to death in the shower after the sisters get hold of you and use you as a plaything. But you won’t last five years in the colony’s, you’ll last three at the most, before your skin peels away and cancerous growths turn you into…” he coughed. “A puss boil. But more than that, there is the other small matter of the alleged murder on your rap sheet.”
“Maybe so, but you will burn for it anyway.”
The man’s face was that of genuine concern. Juliana looked nervously at the Adept and then tried to turn around again. When she failed for the fourth time, she relaxed her shoulders and tried to smile.
“Are you a Psyker?”
“No I am not. I am far more than that” he said. “Far more than you can imagine.”
“You guys are not the law are you?’ she paused ‘No you are not, and you are not locals either. I smell military all over you.”
The other man grinned. “Very astute Juliana, but we are not soldiers… we are, how do you say, an independent organisation.’ he paused and then shrugged his shoulders. He had evidently made a decision and from this point on, there would be no going back. He sighed.
‘We operate outside the law, and I mean right outside it. So far outside it in fact, that we are technically not Imperium. We avoid the agents of the Imperium whenever and wherever we can, in fact, we avoid everyone. We are, I like to think, a family and we look after our own. I heard about you through my sources. I could do with a pilot like you. You have a rare talent.”
The skin on the back of Juliana’s neck began to tingle, and the temperature dropped a degree. The Adept leant forward and spoke to the dark-haired man across the table. He nodded.
“Juliana. We have not got long,’ he turned to the Adept. ‘Exactly how long have we got Eadfrid?”
The Adepts voice was curiously high-pitched and heavy with accent, “Seven minutes, twenty seconds Boss”
“You have six minutes to make up your mind. Stay here and it’s the Thallium mines on Den-Leb 10, or the electric chair down here. Come with me, with us, and at least you may have some say in how you… eventually die. I will give you anonymity, a new identity even, and you can be whoever you want to be and without any recrimination and without being judged.”
“Five minutes Boss”
The hands on Juliana’s shoulder’s relaxed, and that was all the opportunity that she needed. She was quickly on her feet again.
She had managed to break off a long shard of metal from the base of her chair during her conversation with the man across from her. Now she held it low like a dagger. She turned to take out the guard who had held her down. She would plunge the metal joint into the guard’s throat and take him out quickly. She would then try and take out the dark-haired man across the table. The Adept…
She never stood a chance.
A large fist completely enclosed her hand; and the other grabbed her by the scruff and lifted her high into the air.
“Emperor’s blood!” she gasped through clenched teeth.
“Juliana meet Dombi, Dombi meet Juliana.”
A huge man faced her, but not a man as such, his dimensions were all wrong. He was a brute-looking giant with a fantastic muscle structure squeezed into a formal black suit that strained over his frame. A wide grin crossed his face.
“A bloody Ogryn.”
“And one of my personal bodyguards and my friend.’ The dark-haired man was now next to her, standing a good head taller and twice as wide. He placed a reassuring hand on the Ogryn’s chest. “Put the lady down Dombi, she is one of us now”.
Juliana shrugged her shoulders and then looked at the other man’s offered hand.
“Three minutes Boss.” Warned the Adept.
“I am Morthen Stroms”. Juliana looked at the hand and then studied the Adept and Ogryn once more. She frowned.
“How the hell in the Emperor’s name did you all get in here without being discovered? Where are the Enforcers?”
“Two minutes Boss.”
“They are two minutes away Juliana. Would you like to accept my offer?”
“Good. You have no idea what adventures await you.”
Juliana hesitated for a few seconds, pouring over the last few minutes. She did not relish spending the rest of her days in the mines and a slow death, or frying her brains in the electric chair. If this was a way out, albeit temporary, then she would take it. This crew seemed to know their stuff and this Stroms person was obviously a professional.
I suppose I can try to escape another time, once I’m out of this fix.
Stroms cocked his head.
She smiled and then took Stroms hand and shook it vigorously.
“Sure, I’m in. Nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say. Now, if you can get in here, you can get out…. Right?”
* * *
ORDERS BE DAMNED, thought Juliana. The situation was critical and there was no time for niceties. Incoming fire would not be diverted by just faith alone.
Juliana knew that Stroms orders were explicit; no unnecessary casualties and no excessive destruction of property. To him, the agents of the Imperium, the soldiers and the law, were not enemies, just the misinformed and the ignorant. To him, everyone could be saved and brought back into the light once they knew the truth. All of them could be released from their shackles and blissful dogma.
Juliana knew that she would have to face Stroms and explain her actions later.
Now her co-pilot would have to test his marksmanship skills.
Eadfrid opened fire with everything they had.
The heavy-bolter and the Eldar weapon were very impressive, but the Hellstrikes were the key to their escape. They opened up one of the hanger walls like a sledgehammer against a pane of glass.
A trillion pieces of exploding metal and rockcrete brought everyone’s attention to that one single point, and all heads turned.
The cataclysmic noise, the ever-growing fireball and the thick, dense wall of smoke immediately concentrated the senses. It was just the kind of diversion that Juliana needed to get out.
With engines screaming well over their tolerance levels, Juliana pulled back on the throttle levers and the predatory craft accelerated through the gap they had just formed.
Their hunters were caught completely by surprise.
The over-bearing momentum of the craft and the burning engines caused them to dive for cover and scatter.
Just as the craft cleared the hanger, Eadfrid fired off two anti-missile flares which caused even more pandemonium as they ricocheted off the walls and vehicles and caused numerous fires and small explosions.
The Sky Talon roared out of the hanger like a carnivorous raptor floating on a tail of fire and smoke. With a thunderclap of sound, they shot out and across the open wasteland beyond. Juliana had already turned it into a nearby street before a hasty defence could even be mounted. The vessels 75mm armour was easily a match for the spattering of las-fire that did come up at them.
+ Good flying +
+ Good firing +
+ Casualties… zero +
This part of the Hive was made up of block upon dreary block of light industrial complexes, Manufactorums and furnaces. At various intervals, bulbous chimneys and moisture dissipater’s sprouted up like smoking abscesses. They ejected clouds of dirty gas into the air, adding to the layer of smog and pollution that hung above the Hive in a brown stain. Bland workers habs surrounded the area like parasites feeding off algae with roads and highways cutting through them in a seemingly random pattern. Nearer to the massive Hive spires were tall Tsiolkovsky towers growing out of the ground like spindly limbs. They reached up into the clouds above, feeding small shuttles and supply craft that fluttered around their length like small fussing insects. Their endless dance did not seem to be effected by the fighting that was going on in the streets below.
Spirals of smoke drifted up into the sky which appeared to mark out the front lines. Juliana noticed that more and more of them were sprouting up all around her as time progressed. Small flocks of military carriers floated above the Hive, moving backwards and forwards as if engaged in some hidden dance. A great billowing fireball snaked up from a street only one block away from the Sky Talon and a second later it was rocked by the pressure wave from exploding munitions.
This was not the usual sign of civil un-rest, this was much, much more. There was a plan here and a conscious mind behind it all. If the higher authorities could see it, they seemed either powerless to intervene or actually chose not to.
Juliana knew that Stroms would not have brought them here if he had the slightest suspicion that the planet would be in turmoil. He would never knowingly put them in danger as the risks were too high.
Unless, she thought?
Unless, he had something else in mind that he had not shared with any of them.
Juliana was aware that there were Navy fighters flying high in the clouds high above them, circling like carrion birds and waiting to dive down for a kill. She also knew that if she stuck her nose up too high she was sure to be seen.
She kept the craft low, skimming the road surface like a hover board. The streets were mainly clear of vehicular traffic and people so she could afford to increase her speed a little more.
This is not good. Where is everyone?
When she was sure she was well away from the hanger she opened the internal vox. Something was niggling her. Something did not seem right.
She trusted her instincts.
“Did anyone see the markings on those vehicles back there?”
Juliana had spent a life of crime; she was a professional lawbreaker. She had brushed shoulders with the authorities all her life and knew them well.
+ PDF + said Garcha in his deep distinctive voice, quickly adding + A strange colour scheme though +
+ Definitely Arbites + Mubarak corrected. He had probably been the closest to the arriving vehicles and knew the difference between military markings and those of the law enforcers.
+ Yeah Arbites. I saw meat wagons and crowd pacifiers +
Juliana felt somewhat reassured as she thought of Stroms and Ó Báire, alone out there in the Hive. The military might have been a problem to them, but local law was no match for their resourcefulness. In any environment, they were more than capable of handling themselves.
+ That settles it then. We get to our RV and wait for them to come to us +
* * *
THE REST OF Orosius’s men entered the meeting room at least a minute later. Stroms and Ó Báire had already left.
“You exasperate me!”, sighed Stroms as he watched Ó Báire set up another booby-trap behind them. “We have no time for this.”
The intrepid ex-Guardsman was giggling to himself like a small child. He was actually enjoying himself despite the predicament they were in. He was an expert in explosives and he relished the opportunity to show off his skills whenever the occasion presented itself.
Two of his devices had already gone off killing or maiming many of their pursuers. His latest trap consisted of anti-personnel mine in the overhead venting system which would activate the moment anyone entered this section of corridor.
“I am a master at what I do.” Ó Báire bragged.
They had cleared the Freak Show
, which was now a blazing inferno due in part to Ó Báire’s pyrotechnics and partly because of fighting that was evidently going on elsewhere. They had then taken a side door which lead into what appeared to be a service bay. Each side of the room was stacked high with lubricants and volatile liquids. Rickety shelving housed dubious items of contraband and dust-covered tools and equipment. Vehicle parts and stripped down machines stood like dead automatons, relics of a bygone age.
A single servitor shuffled up and down cleaning spillages with a large suction hose that snaked out of its chest like some grotesque parasite.
As soon as Stroms saw the lost soul he stopped and raised a hopeful eyebrow at his companion. Ó Báire lifted his hands in placation and vigorously shook his head.
“No Boss, No! We have not got time for this.”
Stroms knew he was right, but he still had to try. Their puruers would be cautious and would take their time to clear the corridoors. They would be in no hurry to put themselves in unessessary danger, despite being in the pay of Orosius.
“I must Deaglán my old friend. I am a sucker for people that are down on their luck.”
Ó Báire gripped his elbow. It was a tight grip and he meant business. Stroms easily shrugged him off.
“Those thugs will soon be on us,” said Ó Báire. “We have no time for this. Please Morthen, let this one go.”
“I must try,” hissed Stroms and he added as an afterthought. “You go on. I will catch up.”
Ó Báire was about to turn around then hesitated. He tilted his head slightly.
“Do you hear that Boss?”
There was a long ripping sound followed by a series of small explosions then two, louder distinct cracks that caused the ground to quake.
“Yes, it is Juliana.” Stroms sighed. “But she is fine.”
Stroms now stood directly in the path of the servitor and blocked its monotonous journey. By normal standards this model was old and had probably been sweeping this area for over a century. It used to be a male Caucasian, but it was difficult to tell through the layers of grime and filth. Stroms noticed the shapes of faded blue tattoos beneath the dirt, which could have meant the servitor was an ex-hive-ganger or convict. Stroms wondered about the man’s history and his previous life, but he knew from bitter experience that one should never delve too deeply into the mind of a pressed servitor.
Some had pasts that were best left alone.
The servitor stood motionless, staring at Stroms through dull, rheumy grey eyes. Stroms placed a hand on the servitor’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
Designation: Cleaner servitor 24-A-17. Sector 2-0. Property of Rolphus Municipal Parks.
Wake up my friend. Wake up.
The wait was excruciating, but Ó Báire knew it was pointless trying to move Stroms on once he had set his mind on trying to wake one of them up. It took time to bring the unfortunates, as Stroms called them, back to the real world; back to the living.
Ó Báire had seen it done a hundred times before with varying results. Some of them came back and were released to leave a normal life, others remained in their perpetual obsequious state and beyond his means. Occasionally the transition was too much and the servitor died.
Your days in the dark are over my friend. Come to me, join me.
This was proving difficult. The servitor’s code was encrypted and layered in broken, decayed binary. It was indeed old and stuck in a perpetual command loop.
There were beads of sweat on Stroms forehead which was unusually creased with effort. This servitor was proving difficult to recover.
Ó Báire remembered the first time he saw Stroms carry out this procedure and it amazed him so much that he truly became a believer in Stroms and his cause.
A few years before, Stroms had brought back a battle-servitor, a huge half-man, half-machine, with weapon mounts and killing blades. The man/machine had tried to kill Stroms but it was no match for an opponent who had been trained by the best masters from antiquity. Stroms had overwhelmed it with a series of lightning movements and precision attacks. The servitor was disabled and its fighting days were over. Ó Báire saw the servitor return to the man he used to be and was forever indebted to the man he had tried to kill.
The effect was almost instantaneous and the man, Ó Báire knew him only as Robert, became a valuable member of their crew and lived out his remaining life in peace and happiness.
They all did, the unfortunates. Most of the crew of The Alabama
were recovered servitors or the lost and dispossessed.
They revered Stroms as their savoir and now devoted their lives to him and the rest of their friends and colleagues.
There were no pressed men on Strom’s ship.
Finally, Stroms gave up. He was breathing heavily and his face was red with effort. The exertion of recovering this servitor was clearly too much for him. He shook his head and looked forlornly at Ó Báire.
“This one will not come back to us, he is too badly corrupted.”
Ó Báire was sympathetic but also secretly frustrated at his friend. Stroms could not save every waif and stray he came in contact with, no matter how hard he tried. The Imperium of Man was so corrupt and decedent, so dark and vast. Trillions of its people lived meaningless existences serving the system, without truly knowing what life was all about and what it meant to really live. Stroms had survived many lifetimes but still lived life to the full, instilling hope and energy into everyone he met. His spirit was contagious, and that is why they, the establishment relentlessly pursued him.
He was a revolutionary, a true leader and someone who could threaten the very survival of the Imperium
That is why they wanted him dead. That is why a Lord Inquisitor hunted him.
And that was why Ó Báire loved him. This rugged man with dark stubble and a tough face with its piercing blue eyes. The grey man, the inconspicuous man, in his ubiquitous long coat and ludicrously pointed boots. A man that was pure of heart and without vices. There was no one quite like him, and that was why Deaglán Ó Báire, the wiry ex-Guardsman who spurned authority and never served any man, would gladly lay down his life for him, and willingly follow him to the ends of the universe and back.
“Let’s go Morthen,” Ó Báire reverted to the less formal title rather than Boss. “We must disappear into the Hive and let our pursuers battle it out amongst themselves.”
Stroms stretched his shoulders back, kneading out some knotted muscles before finally nodding his head. They would move on, always moved on.
Never stop for too long, never tarry, keep going.
Ó Báire dispatched the lone ‘clanner’ who was guarding the small side exit to the outside world. As usual, and Stroms was very impressed, the ex-Guardsman did it with expert precision brought about by years of training. The thug was caught off-guard as he relieved himself out of the open door and into the alleyway beyond.
Ó Báire walked up behind him and bludgeoned him to death with a fire dampener that he had removed from the wall. It was quick, brutal and typical of Ó Báire’s way of fighting. He was a street fighter and a brawler who did not adhere to any of the laws of combat.
As the ‘clanner’ lay cooling face down in a puddle of his own urine, Stroms considered the notion that Ó Báire sometimes took too much satisfaction from killing his enemies.
As if he could almost hear Stroms thoughts he turned and shrugged his shoulders.
“What did I do?”
Stroms picked up the stubber that the man had no more use for.
“You could have…”
“Stunned him? knocked him out? Made him lay down and give up his arms?”
Ó Báire was already on the move, trotting down the alley, his head bobbing left and right looking for targets, checking the angles.
They crossed a wide expanse of rockcrete that was pocked with small shrubs and weeds, and then into the tangled remains of rotten warehouses that looked like they had been neglected for eons. They passed over roads that were pitted and worn and covered in litter and burnt out vehicles. The passed through alleyways and tunnels that were musty and damp.
They had seen rudimentary roadblocks that had been set up at road junctions. They were hasty affairs made up of stacks of furniture, old tyres and anything else that was heavy or would prove to be difficult to cross.
An Arbites Rhino would not even have faltered for a second as it went through them at speed.
There was evidence of fighting everyway; spent cartridges, blast marks and the odd discarded bit of military equipment.
Ó Báire found the first body and suddenly it was all very real.
He was military, the PDF uniform marked him out as such. They thought it was a ‘he’ but it was hard to tell as the body was burnt beyond all recognition. A military flamer does that to you.
“What do you think?”, Ó Báire asked matter-of-factly, as he tapped the cadaver with his boot.
Stroms knelt down and lowered his face almost to its chest. He closed his eyes and probed it with his mind.
“I think things have suddenly turned serious.” He murmured sarcastically. “This man is not what he seems.”
Ó Báire grimaced and turned away. He made an act of scanning their rear for any follow up but Stroms knew it was just for show.
Quite uncharacteristically, Ó Báire appeared to be spooked and his mind a sea of condradictions.
The Ex-Guardsman used the Mag-scope on his Lasgun to look deep into the shadows, especially those at the base of the surrounding buildings. There did not appear to be anyone following them, either the authorities or Orosius’s men. Stroms mused to himself that the cartel leader had a greater enemy to deal with now, an impeccable enemy that would utterly destroy his all-powerful empire. Stroms and his group of misfits and vagabonds were not an immediate priority. They were now on their own.
They crossed a wasteland that was stained yellow from industrial effluent, before reaching the tenement blocks beyond. These were standard ten-story, self-contained, workers habs designed and built by The Mechanicum for their workers who trudged day and night to the Manufactrums nearby. They were drab grey buildings with row upon row of small windows and doors. They were all uniform and without any character. Graffiti and fire damage covered their walls.
Piles of refuge, burnt-out vehicles and the detritus of a hundred years of neglect lined the streets and carpeted the open areas. It was a scene of utter abandonment. Clearly the well-being of its citizens was not high on the local Administratum’s list of responsibilities
The habs were empty and had been hastily abandoned. Wherever the tenants were, they were not in these blocks or the surrounding area.
A palpable feeling of anticipation filled the air. It felt like the silent and still coolness before a heavy rain storm. Stroms and Ó Báire quickened their pace.
They cautiously entered the nearest one and immediately arrived in a kilometre-long corridor lined with non-descript doors. Each one had the occupiers name stamped on the front in bold automated font. Most of the doors were locked, but the odd few were open.
Ó Báire took a cursory look into each one.
“All empty. Some were cleared in a hurry.”
“From what I wonder.” Said Stroms, almost to himself, though he thought he already knew the answer. The citizens had left leaving everything behind them. If they had left with time on their hands they would have taken personal items and items of value. If they were in a hurry they would have taken essential items that would help their flight. These people left everything behind. They had left very quickly.
“This is a mystery. They have left behind valuables and anything of any use. What is going on boss?”
Stroms shook his head.
“A storm is coming and we need to get well away from here.”
As they moved through the dull, monotonous throughways and rooms, they began to hear the sound of distant fighting. There were dull crumps at first, then long rattles of heavy weapons. Soon they could hear the clatter of vehicle tracks and a background hum of voices, shouts and commands.
Stroms and Ó Báire kept low and to the shadows and even though Stroms put a screen of concealment around them, they took no chances.
Ó Báire hit the dirty, rubble-strewn floor and brought his Lasgun up into his shoulder. Stroms was a little less dramatic and remained on one knee.
They could hear an engine throbbing from just the other side of the wall. It did not matter whether they were PDF or dissidents, it made no difference, both sides were potential enemies now. Ó Báire shuffled up to Stroms and then dared a look around the doorframe. When he looked back he rolled his eyes.
“A road block. Two armoured personnel carriers with a fuggin’ Hellhound to the rear. Lots of troops milling around. They are wearing PDF uniforms.” He shrugged. “That is all I could see.”
Stroms sat back against the wall and closed his eyes.
“Cover me.” He whispered.
* * *
STROMS LET his mind lift and leave his body. He passed through the wall and across to the vehicle barrier.
He knew straight away that something was not right. This scene was a lie.
The soldiers looked like PDF and moved like PDF but something was out of cinque. Their movements were awkward and seemed almost pained. Stroms could feel an inner turmoil brewing just below the surface but all around him. There was unrest that was slowly being released and bringing a tiny fragment of relief to those it effected.
He found the officer, or at least the one wearing officer’s epaulettes, and prodded his mind.
He immediately regretted the intrusion.
What should have been an analytical mind, a mind full of duty and honour to his men and the Emperor, was now filled with hate, violence and a darkness.
This is worse than I thought.
He drew back from the officer and back into his own body.
“Time to go.”
“This is not a local insurrection; this is a war!”
* * *
THEY RAN AS fast as they could away from the road block, away from the hab area, and away from this new threat.
They ran until Ó Báire pulled at his elbow and begged them to stop.
“We have not got the time Deaglán.” Stroms gasped. “The clock is ticking and we must get to the pick up as soon as we can.”
“Enough of your… riddles…” Ó Báire hissed between deep gulps of air. He pulled up fast and then bent over at the waist, his body heaving with the effort. “I have seen you… agitated, but this… is ridiculous.” Stroms stopped running and walked back. He had forgotten that the air on Rolphus was thinner than they were used to. He could run all day and not feel the effects, but his companion was not getting any younger.
“Here,” he said in a soothing tone that made Ó Báire look up. Stroms held out a small, silver hip flask. “It will make you feel better.”
With a beaming smile etched on his face, Ó Báire happily accepted his friends offering and helped himself to a long pull on the liquid it contained.
The results were instantaneous.
“Gunearth Ale?”. Stroms nodded.
“Where in the Emperor’s name did you find this?”. The rogue studied the flask with renewed interest. Gunearth Ale was renowned for its rejuvenation properties. It was a rare tipple that Ó Báire had not tasted for many years.
“I always carry some… for emergencies.”
Ó Báire sat down.
They were in an ornamental garden hidden on all sides by tall moss-covered walls. The flowers and shrubs were in full bloom, but despite it being mid-summer, they seemed sickly and withered. Some of the hardy shrubs had died and were now plagued by small swarms of flies.
A musty smell permeated everything.
Stroms noticed that there were no insects or birds around where they should have been present in large numbers. A small water fountain bubbled oily water into a green sink hole. The sound seemed sad and melancholy.
Stroms relented. They would rest a while.
“Mutants.” He said almost casually. Ó Báire looked up, an eyebrow raised. “This city,” said Stroms, “Maybe even this whole planet is corrupted.”
“Chaos?”, Ó Báire suggested.
Stroms shook his head.
“No, thankfully not. But this planet is so dirty, and so polluted, that its citizens are naturally changing. It is almost as if Mother Nature has decided that she should adapt the people to this new world of filth and pestilence...”
“Mother Nature?” Ó Báire quizzed. Stroms smiled almost paternally.
“Evolution. Natural development. Advancement? That is what I mean by that. It is an old time saying.” He raised his eyebrows to confirm that his friend understood. “That patrol, and a good deal of the populace we have seen are mutants. It is subtle but it is there beneath the surface.”
“Why the rush,” Ó Báire asked. “Are they a threat to us?”
Stroms shook his head.
“No, not really. In fact, this could positively aid us, but once Martinez discovers what is going on here, he will not tolerate it for an instant. He is duty bound to act. He has no choice but to stop his pursuit of us and deal with this new crisis. He will neutralise this aberration with all the subtlety we associate with the Great Hammer of the Inquisition. He will be forced to cleanse the population before he comes back for us.”
“And by that time we will be long gone.”
“What is our future?” Ó Báire tentatively asked. Stroms cocked his head and then leant over and squeezed his friends forearm.
“Positively rosy, Deaglán my old friend, but looking into the future is not a precise art and not always certain. There are an infinite number of paths in front of us depending on what we or those around us do. At the moment I know that we will be fine, but who knows?”
There was a long pause whilst each of them was caught up in their own thoughts.
Ó Báire looked up at his friend.
“When were your doubts about Orosius confirmed?”
Stroms was studying an Auspex in the palm of his hand. He never looked up but replied matter-of-factly.
“He confirmed it when he mentioned our two brothers-in-arms.”
Ó Báire grinned.
“The hammer and the anvil.”
“Yes, subtlety put. But never in all my dealings with him or the cartel, have I ever mentioned them or their existence. Their mere presence here on this planet or anywhere else in fact, would cause its own particular problems”
“Intolerable.” They both said together and then smiled. Their thoughts were with two of their friends up there in orbit on The Alabama
. Ó Báire subconsciously looked up to the sky as if he was looking for their reassuring faces.
“We could sure do with them now.” Ó Báire considered.
“They would sort this sorry mess out to be sure.” Stroms agreed. “But I fear we will need their skills later when we extract from here and move on.”
“Two days.” Ó Báire added.
“Yes. We have two days while the planet comes down around our ears.” He paused. “I would love to see Martinez’s face when he sees what we have done.”
Ó Báire smiled back, a cheeky almost child-like smile.
“Oh yes, he is going to be incensed.”
* * *