TO STROMS, THE Hive seemed to be a living thing. He could feel its raw power all around him. It was almost like a sentient being that had been slumbering for aeons and was now waking up from the darkness and into the light. The ground beneath his feet rumbled and the walls of the buildings shook as if the Hive had its own voice and was announcing its imminent arrival. The air felt heavy and it seemed like the pressure had visibly dropped. Stroms peered up through a gap in the towering blocks and saw a dark sky above him.
For a second his mind wandered from the danger and predicament they were in and he found himself thinking about the weather.
“I think it might rain.”
“I said it looks like rain.”
Ó Báire could only shake his head in despair. He had long got used to his friend's eccentricities and strange ways. It was just like Stroms to make light of something even when their world was collapsing around their heads.
Nothing to worry about
“But I have not brought my coat.”
They left the relative safety of a wall of buildings and crossed a wide expanse of rockcrete. The ground was pockmarked with small shrubs and weeds that had broken through the hard surface, splitting it open with impunity. The streets looked neglected and forgotten as if the hand of the Administratum had neglected or not reached out to this part of the Hive.
Stroms had a natural instinct for directions and was leading them in a meandering direction that only he knew.
He knew that Distance was the key. They had to put as much as they could between them and the pursuers that he knew would surely come.
His mind was racing.
He had predicted Orosius’s betrayal long before they had arrived on the planet. They were all the same to him, these petty mobsters and villains who were men without honour or scruples. But Stroms had bested far greater and dangerous foes than Orosius and in the end he played with Orosius like a child would play with a toy.
The Inquisition, however, well that was another matter altogether. When one was dealing with the agents and zealots of that organisation, nothing; absolutely nothing, could be left to chance.
He smiled to himself.
Lord Inquisitor Martinez will be apoplectic.
They pushed on, passing through the tangled remains of rotten warehouses and storage facilities that looked like they had been neglected for a hundred years. They passed over roads that were full of potholes and gaping cracks and covered in litter and burnt out vehicles. They passed through alleyways and tunnels that were musty and damp. They crossed culverts and ditches that were filled with refuge and years of filth.
Now and again they saw rudimentary roadblocks in the distance that had been set up at some of the junctions. These were hasty affairs made up of stacks of furniture, rubbish, old tyres and anything else that was heavy or would prove to be difficult to cross.
Stroms mused that an Arbites Rhino would not even have faltered for a second if it had gone through them at speed. Any advance through this area would not have been delayed for very long.
Then they began to see evidence of fighting.
As they cleared a multiple intersection they saw a knocked out four-wheeled prime-loader bearing military markings that indicated that it belonged to a PDF Supplementum
Some sort of rocket had bored through its engine block and flipped it onto its side incinerating everyone inside as the fuel ignited and the ammunition brewed up.
Ó Báire found the first body and suddenly it was all very real.
As they had suspected, he was military, and one of the prime-loaders crew. He was blackened and mummified at the rictus point of death. They assumed it was a ‘he’ but it was hard to tell as the body was burnt beyond all recognition.
Promethium burns at incredibly hot temperatures.
“What do you think?”, Ó Báire asked matter-of-factly, as he tapped the cadaver with the barrel of his lasgun.
Stroms leant forward and lowered his face almost to its chest. He closed his eyes and carefully probed it with his mind.
“I have suspected all along that this place, this Hive is all wrong. Now with these bodies, things have suddenly turned serious.” There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. He nodded to the man at Ó Báire’s feet. “This man is not what he seems.”
Ó Báire suddenly grimaced and stepped back as if the corpse was a plague-bearer or a zombie that would suddenly reanimate back to life. He was a military man through-and-through and had spent most of his life around death and destruction, but like all soldiers through the ages, he was also a superstitious creature of habit. He baulked at the unknown and called on ancient, long-forgotten Gods of War to protect him.
Stroms noticed that his friend was rubbing a small ‘T’-shaped emblem that hung from his neck.
Ó Báire was actually reciting a litany to himself, a litany of protection and indestructibility.
When he saw Stroms staring at him he suddenly stopped and made an act of scanning their rear for any follow-up. Ó Báire appeared to be uncharacteristically spooked and his mind was a sea of contradictions.
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, but one could never underestimate an enemy. Stroms pondered to himself that the cartel leader now had a greater enemy to deal with that Stroms bunch of mercenaries and misfits. Orosius was facing an impeccable foe that would utterly destroy his all-powerful empire and everyone within it with utter ruthlessness and efficiency.
They set off again with renewed rigour crossing a wasteland that was stained yellow from industrial effluent. They finally reached the tenement blocks beyond and were now covered from above and could now hide from wandering eyes. The buildings were standard ten-story, self-contained, workers habs that were designed and built by The Mechanicum for the legions of 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 and only graffiti and fire damage covered their plain, nondescript walls.
Stroms noted that a clawed hand emblem seemed to proliferate everywhere.
Piles of refuge, burnt-out vehicles and the detritus of a thousand years of neglect lined the streets and carpeted the open areas. It was a scene of utter abandonment.
The habs appeared to be empty and evidence suggested that they had been hastily abandoned. Wherever the tenants were, they were not in these blocks or the surrounding area. It was almost as if they had been scooped up and taken away en mass
to Emperor only knew where?. Stroms felt a chill ripple down his spine as he slowly began to realise what was happening here.
He turned to his companion.
“Watch your arcs and keep your concentration up.”
Ó Báire slowed his pace down.
“What are you rambling about?”
“All is not what it seems.”
“So you keep saying.”
A palpable feeling of anticipation filled the air. It felt like the silence and still coolness before a heavy storm. Stroms and Ó Báire instinctively quickened their pace.
They entered one of the hab-blocks, through a surprisingly ornate double-door bearing a golden Imperial Aquilla above the skull-cog emblem of the Mechanicum. It lead into a kilometre-long corridor lined with nondescript doors. Each one had the occupiers name stamped on the front in a bold automated font. Most of the doors were locked, but the odd few had been left ajar.
Ó Báire took a cursory look into each one.
“All empty. Some were cleared in a hurry.”
“From what I wonder?” Asked Stroms, almost to himself, though he thought he already knew the answer. The citizens had left, leaving everything behind that they could not carry including personal items and items of value. They had left very quickly.
“This is a mystery. They have left behind valuables and anything of any use. What is going on Boss?” Ó Báire mused as he inspected a wallet and removed a wad of credit notes.
Stroms shook his head and Ó Báire smiled mischievously back at him.
“A storm is coming.” Stroms continued. “I did not see this future before we arrived on this planet, but it is a welcome turn of events which will positively aid us.” He paused and then looked towards the ceiling slowly closed his eyes.
“The hunt is on again. They have reorganised after their initial confusion. It is time to go.”
Now they began to hear the sound of distant fighting. There were dull crumps at first, then long rattles of heavy weapons followed by the cracks and bangs of individual weapons. Then they heard the clatter of vehicle tracks and powerful engines and then the background hum of voices, shouts and commands. The war was now very close.
Stroms and Ó Báire kept low and to the shadows and even though Stroms put a screen of concealment up around them, they took no chances.
Suddenly Stroms hissed.
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.
A vehicle's engine was turning over just the other side of the wall. They were almost on top of it.
Stroms knew that It did not matter whether they were PDF or dissidents, it made no difference, both sides were potential enemies to them now. Ó Báire shuffled up to Stroms and then dared a look around the door frame. When he pulled back he rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“It’s a road block. There are two armoured personnel carriers with a fuggin’ Hellhound to their rear. There are lots of troops milling around them. They are wearing PDF uniforms.” He shrugged. “That is all I could see.”
Stroms sat back against the wall and closed his eyes.
“But even so, very precise for a quick glance. Cover me.” He whisphered.
* * *
STROMS RELAXED AND let his mind separate from his physical form and into his ethereal form.
He usually chose the form of a black panther, which was a deadly predator from Old Terra. The panther was wily and cautious and hunted in the shadows. Stroms wanted to get closer to the soldiers and find out who they really were, but he suspected that he already knew the answer as all the signs were there. He moved stealthily and quietly through the void, careful not to make waves and betray away his position. It was a trick that he had been taught a long time ago by an enlightened Space Marine who was an expert in the ways of the warp. Unfortunately, through ignorance and fear, the Marine was branded a traitor and killed by ignorant barbarians whose minds were closed to the untold wonders that could have been theirs.
The Marines name was Badrun, yes, that was it, Badrun of The Thousand Sons.
He passed through the physical wall of rockcrete and across to the vehicle barrier beyond.
He knew straight away that his suspicions were confirmed. This scene was a lie. The men manning the barrier were part of a façade. The soldiers looked like PDF and they moved like PDF, but something was out of cinque. Their movements were awkward, unsynchronised 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 affected. He felt the anticipation.
He found the officer, or at least the one wearing officer’s epaulettes, and probed his mind.
He immediately regretted the intrusion.
What should have been an analytical mind and a mind full of duty and honour to his men and the Emperor, was now a mind 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!”
* * *