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.
Even the Inquisition.
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 in time, 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 dissipator’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 that plan. 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 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.
* * *