Before the Imperium came to Baal, it was- by appearances- just another insignificant peak of the human diaspora. Indeed, it was less than that, as Baal was- in the end- a radioactive wasteland, one whose inhabitants were barely aware of their former glory.
And yet… and yet, even before Sanguinius, there was something about Baal. Perhaps it was eternity. Across the shifting radioactive sands, within dusty tunnels left over from the first terraforming, through the skies- crystal-clear, near-black skies, for Baal’s atmosphere was thin- there was a unique bind to the power of deep time. And to be sure, people were aware of the entropic end of everything; yet they were aware, too, that there were places not bound by the whims of thermodynamics (the first order of which was the space some called the Great Ocean), that there was hope of trueternity yet.
Hope- first among sins, according to Macipize.
And Sanguinius had only confirmed that bind. For the Angel, it was said, had been shaped by two designs- his father’s and Baal’s. The Emperor had given to Sanguinius nobility and fury, honor and uncontrollability. Baal granted him distance and time, separation and foresight.
Some Primarchs had whined about the possibility of an end to the Crusade. Others had merely feared it. But though Sanguinius knew fear, he had never felt it about the conclusion of the Great Crusade- at least, not visibly. Once, Dar Nakir- Twenty-Fourth Captain of the Ninth Legion- had assumed that Sanguinius had always looked beyond the petty confines of the galaxy. Once, Dar Nakir had assumed that the Crusade would be infinite in both time and space.
Now, of course, the things he assumed Sanguinius had seen were quite different.
Nakir glared at the green sphere of Catachan, doing his best to intimidate the planet. His best was, of course, not good enough. Thus, distractions.
“Nakir,” Captain An Xinui of the 26th Company warned. “You’re scaring the dignitaries.”
“I’m thinking about Macipize,” Nakir replied. “I suspect they have reason to be scared.”
Xinui walked up to Nakir’s side. “Macipize was wrong, you know. Imperial Truth and all that.”
“Was he? If anything is going to confirm the cynic, this war is it. The Imperial Truth is imploding, over half the Legions- including us- have raised the banner of rebellion, and those that haven’t are engaging in atrocities three times worse than the nadir of the Night Lords. Except the Night Lords, which are ten times worse than their previous nadir.”
“And yet the fire of humanity still burns. Or however you like to phrase it.”
Nakir flexed his shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. We have a war to fight- why, exactly, is half the Legion gathered here anyway? I should be killing people.”
“Someone needed to supervise the Mechanicum.”
Nakir chuckled and continued staring.
“In any case-” Xinui began, even as Nakir noticed a female tech-priest approaching the Space Marines.
“Excuse me,” she asked Nakir, “which way are the Raldorine Halls?”
“Straight ahead,” Nakir said with a turn- regardless of his possible madness, he wasn’t rude. Not usually, at least. “The escalator to our right leads straight into a long hallway; a kilometer and, er, two hundred and seventy-six meters into it, there’s a giant scarlet door on the left. That leads into the Raldorines, Madam-”
“Magos Salaia Kerme. Thank you!”
“You’ve memorized the directions,” Xinui noted as the Magos departed. “Impressive.”
“I’ve been asked before,” Nakir said. “By- er- Salaia Kerme.”
An Xinui blinked.
“I think,” Nakir ventured, “that we should go to the Raldorines. It could be… interesting.”
“Why does a tech-priest need directions anyhow? Don’t they all have cogitators?”
“As I said. Interesting.”
Xinui blinked again, and Nakir grinned.
To his credit, Xinui pulled Nakir along rather rapidly, though still keeping far behind probably-not-Kerme. The Blood Angels strode through the grand hallway, Nakir making note of the recent redecorations. It all seemed somewhat less ethereal than a few months ago, more… secular. Fewer metaphorical murals of battles past; more busts of the great Legion heroes. The mere mention of ritual was frowned upon.
A secular Imperium, of course, for a secular future; but Nakir couldn’t help but suspect that they were breaking with tradition a bit too much, making Guilliman’s error.
The Captains trekked through the hallway, heading towards the massive doors to the Raldorine Halls. First Captain Raldoron had, of course, resisted the honor; but he’d found it preferable to having an entire ship named after him, and so the name remained.
“Is it an assassin?” Xinui wondered. “And if so, why aren’t they heading somewhere closer to the important people?”
“Everyone here is important enough to kill. Besides-” Nakir unclipped his helmet and punched a few lines into it, then glanced into the interior- “the Raldorine Halls are the meeting ground for the Mechanicum contingent. They’ll choose their representatives to the Great Council here.”
“Which means that Kane himself will be present.”
Xinui let out an exaggerated sigh at Nakir’s professed ignorance, but cut it short as the 24th Captain slammed open the door into the Raldorines. It revealed an expanse of massive arches, each one leading into a separate mingling room; they surrounded a semicircle filled with tables, cogitators, and so many tech-priests that even a normal human would be hard-pressed to pass through by simple squeezing. Astartes, even unarmored, would require another method.
Xinui shoved a couple of unfortunate Adepts out of the way as he stomped up to the massive figure dominating the semicircle. He stood as tall as an Astarte himself, and indeed for a moment Nakir had thought it was a Techmarine; but he was too far from the human form to fit into power armor. Mechanical appendages snaked around him, a large cooling tower rose from his head, and a screen on his abdomen showed the vast numbers of guests in phenomenally small text.
“Captain Dar Nakir, Captain An Xinui, welcome.”
“Fabricator-General Kane,” Xinui said, and bowed. Nakir was too stunned to do likewise- this was the commander of Mars?- but gave a nod.
“Has a problem emerged?”
“Could you call Magos Salaia Kerme here?”
Kane gave no visible sign of affirmation, but a moment later stated, “The command has been sent. So, how is the Legion?”
“Divided,“ Nakir said. “One half is killing xenos and Imperials; the other is providing security to this conclave.”
“Council,” Xinui put in.
“Conclave. Anyhow, I’m not sure why I’m in the latter half and not the former, but duty and all that.”
The three figures stood in silence for a second. Kane broke the impasse. “Magos Kerme. And- er-”
Two Adepts- not as augmented as Kane, and therefore still appearing more human than robotic- came up to their leader. Both looked rather slug-like, with a large metal tail sticking out from their backs. More disturbingly, both looked identical.
“Polymorphine,” Xinui stated, now virtually certain.
“Left one is real,” Kane said, and raised a weapon-limb. Suddenly, the right “Kerme” rippled, even as one of Kane’s tentacles slammed upwards to grab her. Nakir unclipped his chainsword, running towards the silvery mass, pushing into it; Kane’s limb passed right through the false Magos; Xinui blinked-
The false Kerme contracted in pain, and Nakir flicked the momentary electric discharge custom-built into his blade. Suddenly, the polymorphine gave way, and a normal human being in a skintight black suit lay on the floor, bleeding to death.
The Astartes stared at it.
“Callidus Temple,” Kane commented. “A sect of Imperial assassins. They use the compound polymorphine to assume the forms of their enemies, and then kill them.”
“We know,” Xinui said. “Well, that was a lucky catch.”
“Lucky, yes,” Kane observed. “But the chances of finding a single infiltrator, especially one as skilled as a Callidus, by luck are insignificant. There are more.”
“Lots more,” Nakir noted with a smile. “This gathering might prove interesting after all.”
Xinui frowned. “Are you sure the other Kerme-” by this point the Magos in question had left- “is real? She asked Nakir for directions.”
“Since your Legion insists on refusing to reveal the deck plans of the Red Tear to our brotherhood, yes, a number of us have needed to ask you for directions.” Kane’s face etched itself into a grimace. “Since you refuse to treat us as brothers-in-arms, and insist on believing us barely loyal allies, since your kind destroyed Mars itself-”
There was a pause, and then Kane stopped his rant. “My point is,” he said after a few moments, “there is reason for bitterness from the Mechanicum’s side. I hope your Warmaster is aware of it.”
“Everyone seems to be bitter,” Xinui observed. “The governors, the Navigators, the Astropaths- and that’s out of the ones that sided with us!”
Nakir shrugged. “For any number of men, any two will always disagree on something. Especially in these cycles. What is it you say, Xinui? Surely some revelation waits in line, surely the Second Order waits in line?”
“That’s Sanguinius, not me, and he was citing a lost poem. But yes, Nakir, something big will
come of this war. Maybe it’ll be the Second Order.”
“Maybe,” Dar Nakir said, grinning at the fact that the Fabricator-General of the Mechanicum so obviously had no idea what they were talking about. “My point is, truth is found in conflict. We’re lucky to have a diversity of opinions at this conclave. Good luck!”
And he was pushing through the crowd of tech-priests again, considering his words. Yes, this conclave-council-gathering-assembly-thing-parliament-meeting-congress-negotiation was no war, but it was surprisingly like one.
Perhaps he’d be useful yet.