A Thin Line: A Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
The line between “radicalism” and heresy is treacherously thin. It is doubt in one’s own strength of purpose that causes so many to embrace the surety of puritanism. Some inquisitors keep far from the line, unwilling to leave their prison of black and white morality. Others build their reputations on balancing precariously on the line between good and evil, righteous and unjust. Eventually, after years of practice, avoiding the plunge into chaos becomes automatic. Just as a professional acrobat is completely unfazed by the height of the tightrope, the breadth of the abyss beneath me is of no importance, as long as I keep my focus.
From “The Teachings of Taron”, retrieved from the Inquisitorial Data Crypt on Jomunder IV, all other copies destroyed.
The Capita system is a dead-end. The great pirate Darbolos himself was doomed by its isolation. Great clouds of disruptive particulate surround the fringes of the system, and within this encircling sphere fluctuating radiation from the dying star and unexplained gravitational anomalies make the activation of warp drives far too dangerous to risk at every point except one. The Haelian tunnel, named after the famous explorer who discovered the system, is a spot five-hundred kilometers across where entry and exit of the Capita system is viable. Many years ago a trio of Imperial Frigates patrolled the tunnel while the cruiser Emperor’s Light and the gunboat Void Stalker sought out and destroyed Darbolos’s flagship.
As the last strands of Empyrean energies fade from peripheral view, a cold sense of entrapment settles into my stomach. I am suddenly struck by an intense fear that we will meet the same fate as Darbolos, trapped in a galactic cul-de-sac, hunted down by superior forces. But of course, I say nothing – I am always unsettled after spending time in the warp.
Inquisitor Taron stands at my side, hands behind his back, watching as real-space expunges the warp like a wet rag twisted dry. “It leaves me with a sense of awe every time, Lios. That we can sail these great void ships through the pores in the flesh of reality, and coast on the currents of raw emotion that lie beneath. It would seem an impossibility, had I not experienced it.”
I nod in assent, but as always I am put off by his metaphors. Something about the way he describes things… unsettles me.
“It is truly an amazing thing, my lord. Thank the Emperor that we have the light of the Astronomicon to guide us.”
Taron laughs. “Yes, it is most fortunate. I wonder if we would learn to navigate the Empyreal oceans without it.”
I’m about to reply when the intercom squawks and the voice of the captain pours through. “Inquisitor Taron, I have placed the ship into an approach vector that will put us in orbit around Capita III in just under 12 hours. The gravitational anomalies in this system make a more direct, and therefore quicker approach unfeasible.”
“That will be fine, Captain,” replies Taron, and the microphone built into the intercom relays his words back across the ship to Captain Jolothus on the bridge.
And then, before I can return to my previous conversation with the Inquisitor, Taron turns and walks away. “Come now, Lios. It is time to strategize and prepare the troops. These philosophical musings can wait.”
The surface of Capita III, like many worlds, is diverse. Great ice caps spread out icy tendrils from the poles of the planet, while the mid-surface is a cold, rocky wilderness of vast canyons, craggy peaks, and treacherous slopes. Besides microbial organisms in the lakes beneath the ice, nothing alive is native to the planet. Indeed, there is nothing bigger than a bacteria native to any planet in the system.
There is an old legend of the Eldar of a terrible being, a monstrous creature that could swim the channels of the warp and emerge at will to wreak havoc upon reality. The legend holds that the beast was imprisoned within this system, and that the gravity wells and radioactive clouds are the walls that prevent the creature from escaping through the warp.
That is not directly what drew Inquisitor Taron to this system. We’re hunting down a ship, the manned-probe Petitor Omnis. Actually that is not entirely accurate – we are seeking the invaluable data stored on board the Petitor Omnis. The ship had been en route to an installation jointly operated by the Inquisition and the Mechanicus. As the ship had approached the installation, it suddenly cut all vox links and veered away, then made an emergency warp jump to a neighboring system. From there it jumped again, but its jump signature was extrapolated by the crew of a system monitor there, part of standard procedure concerning unscheduled warp jumps.
Monitoring stations in all potential destination systems were put on alert. When the Petitor Omnis reentered real-space in the Capita system, the Inquisition was immediately informed via Astropathic relay. My lord Taron volunteered to track down the probe. This did not surprise me – he had long been fascinated by ancient myths, and his most recent studies had concerned the legendary “warp-walker” of Capita. The probe provided Taron with the excuse he needed to explore his newest subject of interest.
The Petitor Omnis had drifted into a decaying orbit around Capita III and crashed down to the planet roughly a day before we arrived in system. The unarmed, barely mobile monitoring station that watched over the system had been powerless to stop the probe or to dispatch anyone to investigate the crash site. We have no idea what we might discover.
The atmosphere is surprisingly calm, considering the wild turbulence of the void above, but I suppose the anomalous nature of the void has little relation to the weather of the individual planets. We set down at a bit of an angle, the rocks beneath the landing struts being heterogeneous in shape and size. One by one we emerge from the lander, Inquisitor Taron in the lead, then myself – Interrogator Lios – then Marana the Scout, Captain Arbillon Taxitor of the Skitarii 44th Brigade, Cansus Dole (expert in everything, or “omnologist” as he calls himself), Holon Gaiyer (sanctioned psyker) and then four guardsmen on loan from the 18th Chuvian Garrison. The latter make Marana shake her head in contempt. She comes from the almost-famous 11th Gorellian Scout Infantry, and as far as she is concerned Garrison Regiments are about as smart as orks and about as tough as water-caste Tau.
There were no safe landing zones within sight of the wreckage of the probe, but a short walk over the crest of a shallow ridge and the rubble pops into view. The back-slope of the ridge is slippery and steep, but we finally make it down without any injuries. Part of the Petitor Omnis is still intact – this is in line with the information we received from the Capita System monitoring station. Their estimates were that based on the orbit that the probe entered, it would crash with sufficient force to probably kill anyone still alive on board, but well-secured and armored data-packets might survive.
The probe appears to have snapped in half upon impact, the front end shearing off and tumbling through the snow, shedding its hull behind it. The back end sticks up at an angle out of the earth, looking almost untouched. Inside the probe are many corpses, but all except one belong to servitors, still locked in to their seats. The exception is the navigator, third eye dull and lifeless, head cracked open like an egg. His eyes are missing.
Every data packet in the ship is gone. Not destroyed, nor damaged, nor inaccessible, but simply not there at all. Marana gets bored of searching the ship and heads outside. Seconds later she calls us back out into the knee-deep snow.
“There’s footprints. Faint but there sure are a lot of them. All heading East-Northeast.”
We gather around her, and sure enough I see the footprints of at least six individuals, still just barely visible despite the snowfall that’s rapidly trying to fill them. “If we’re going to follow these, we need to hurry. We can always return here to the probe later on, sir,” says Marana.
Inquisitor Taron nods. “Yes, you are right. If there are survivors, and it seems quite likely from the prints that there were, then we need to find them immediately. They will be our best chance to find out what happened to the Petitor Omnis.
We find the first body after no more than ten minutes of trudging after the fading tracks. He’s face down in the snow, and his arms and legs are missing. There is no blood, and one of the guardsmen posits that perhaps the frigid temperature froze the blood in place, but Cansus Dole shakes his head. “No, even as cold as it is that would only work if he was frozen solid before being dismembered, otherwise his body heat would allow for at least a little spillage.”
Marana shrugs. “Who’s to say that isn’t exactly what happened.”
Cansus has no answer to that.
We find two more bodies, both without limbs. The second body is frozen like the first, but the third steams in the snow. Now there is blood, lots of it, turning ice to slush. The guardsmen are starting to look nervous. I cast about with my very limited telepathic capability and detect nothing in our immediate vicinity. Holon, our dedicated psyker, is a frightening combatant but telepathically a receiver only.
As we walk on, the snowfall increases, and I begin to fear we will get caught in a blizzard. No sooner does this worry strike me than a cave looms out of the white haze. It is a strange rock formation, rising out of the earth unconnected to any greater cliff or hillside. We cross the threshold into the cave wearily, for it is disconcertingly dark within – too dark, by my reckoning.
I activate the night-vision lenses on my helmet. The view through my goggles flickers and then reappears in shades of green and gray. In the back of the cave, a cloaked figure hunches over, facing the wall. A quick extension of my mind tells me that the person is dead, their body locked rigid into a crouching position. I notify the others.
Abruptly one of the guardsmen reaches the figure, grabs it by the arm of its cloak, and spins it around. A skull leers back at us – all the skin has been scraped from the corpse’s face and head, a fact that had been until now hidden by the hood of the cloak.
The guardsman looks somewhat ill at the sight. Marana rolls her eyes at his discomfort. “If you plan on working with the Inquisition, you’re going to need to get used to…”
Without a moment’s hesitation Marana stops in mid-sentence, screams “down!” and falls flat. Those of us who have worked with her before hit the ground a moment later, but the Chuvian guardsmen are a bit slower to react. My view flashes white as hell-gun bolts overload the lenses, and when they clear everyone is on the ground, but one of the guardsmen is screaming and another appears to be headless.
“Shit!” someone yells.
I reach out with my mind. “There’re two attackers. Neither are psykers,” I inform everyone.
“Night-vision off everybody,” shouts Holon, and I power mine down a second before incandescent light fill the cave. Holon is muttering litanies under her breath as she wreathes the walls in glowing flame. The trick catches our attackers by surprise, and before they can open fire again Marana swings up her rifle and fires.
“Blew one of them’s head right off,” she says proudly. Then the sound of fleeing footsteps. I jump up in pursuit after the figure as it disappears around a bend in a previously unnoticed corridor that intersects with the main cave.
I’m a fast runner, and my quarry is not. I catch up to him and tackle him to the ground. At least I guess that the shapeless humanoid is a “he”. It’s hard to tell with Mechanicus, especially when they are facing away from you.
“Fool! Heathen!” he cries as I lock manacles around his hands and feet and then search him for weapons. I take away his compact las-pistol and a small data-chip just as Inquisitor Taron arrives.
“Good work Lios.”
“Thank you, sir.” I step aside.
The Inquisitor crouches over the fallen Mechanicus. “He’s an Adept Minoris of some sort. Let me find the insignia… there. Divisio Obscuritas.”
“Obscuritas, sir?” I am familiar, at least at a basic level, with the various ranks and divisions of the Adeptus Mechanicus. I have never heard of any “Divisio Obscuritas,” however.
“The Omnissiah protects.” Arbillon of the Skitarii appears at my shoulder.
“Captain, could you explain to me the nature of the Divisio Obscuritas?”
“You are not cleared for that knowledge, sir.”
“I’m an agent of the Emperor’s holy inquisition, for throne’s sake.”
“The aspect of the Emperor that is human does not always agree with the aspect of the Emperor that is machine. Your status does not grant you the same authority within my organization.”
I’m about to retort when Cansus Dole, who I hadn’t noticed had arrived, clears his throat. “The Divisio Obscuritas is a secret unit tasked with handling and studying accursed data. Tainted artifacts, scrap code banks, etcetera.”
Captain Arbillon scowls but doesn’t say anything to quiet Cansus.
Inquisitor Taron turns to me. “Did you find anything on the tech-priest?”
“Yes, my lord. A tech-forged las-pistol and a small data-chip.”
“May I see the data-chip, interrogator?”
Odd. Taron almost always calls me by my name, rather than my title. No matter. I hand over the chip.
Taron inserts the small wafer into his portable cogitator-pad and waits for it to load. Then he gasps in surprise. “By the Emperor, it’s the Xrgtul Aelificor.”
Was I supposed to know what that meant? “Excuse me, sir, but what is the Zergitul Aelificor?”
“Xrgtul, Lios, not Zergitul. But regardless, this data-chip contains a digital copy of a legendary tome. A book that describes the origins of the Monster of Capita.”
Oh no. Not this again.
“That’s fantastic, lord. We can add it to your collection after we’re done interrogating this Mechanicus scum.”
We’re both alerted by a panicked bleating noise. The Skitarii captain has lifted our prisoner off the ground by the throat.
“How dare you call upon my loyalty to the Omnissiah, you self-serving embarrassment to Mars,” roars Captain Arbillon, shaking the shackled tech-priest in the air to punctuate his words.
“Captain, stand down,” orders Taron.
The tech priest gurgles through a cracked augmetic windpipe. “Skitarii. You display so much anger. So much pitiful emotion.”
“That’s why I’m Skitarii. It’s part of the job.” Captain Arbillon squeezes and a jet of oily black fluid squirts from the prisoner’s neck.
“Captain, I said STAND DOWN!” Inquisitor Taron draws his inferno-pistol and aims it at the Skitarii Captain.
“The champion of the Omnissiah. You mustn’t let these idiots destroy our chance to bring forth the avatar of god,” the prisoner sputters.
Finally the Captain notices Taron’s raised weapon and drops the wounded tech-priest to the floor. The prisoner wheezes and tries to suck in great lungsful of air through compressed and damaged airways.
“Flesh-loving bastards,” the tech-priest grunts, seemingly oblivious to his own obvious anger and “pitiful emotion”.
“I think it’s time you stop ranting and simply answer our questions. Every time you refuse or dissemble, Captain Arbillon will excise one of your augmetics.” Taron looks at the Skitarii with raised eyebrows, and after a moment’s silence the captain replies: “If that is your command.”
“May the Omnissiah smite your ship’s machine spirit and leave you stranded in the warp with a downed Geller field,” says the prisoner, displaying a remarkable stupidity in his choice of words.
A look of horror and disbelief briefly crosses what flesh remains of Captain Arbillon’s features. Sneering down at the heretek, the Skitarii blurts a machine-code message and then clicks on a power-blade. “Inquisitor, which augmentation would you like me to cut out first?”
“Can you remove his binary receiver?”
“It’s lodged in his cortex. I might cause brain damage.”
The prisoner screeches in alarm.
“Can you just puncture the device then, as opposed to removing it entirely? Would that be easier, Captain?”
The Skitarii places the tip of the blade against the tech-priest’s forehead and moves it back and forth, trying to estimate the exact spot to slip the blade in.
“Enough! I will talk! I will tell you everything! Spare my connection to the great and holy Omnissiah!”
Arbillon looks at Inquisitor Taron, who nods slightly in assent. The blade disappears into its sheath. “If you threaten a blessed machine-spirit again, though, the Inquisitor will not be able to stop me from cutting the cogitator right out of your brain, collateral tissue damage be damned.” The prisoner nods understanding, too panicked to speak.
After allowing the prisoner a moment to catch his breath, Taron begins the interrogation. If we had needed to, we could have brought the captive back aboard our ship, where we have a fully-outfitted inquisitorial “Explication Chamber,” but such drastic and time-consuming measures would be unnecessary in this particular situation.
“Your name and rank?”
“Adept Minoris Tulliver Ghan, Divisio Obscuritas, 5th Office”
“What was the mission of the Petitor Omnis?”
Of course, we already knew the answer to that, but Taron was warming up our prisoner with some obvious questions first.
“To collect data from the space-hulk Gargant, which was recently declared safe after cleansing by Fire Hornet Space Marines, and return with this data to Mechanicus Installation Argos Alpha.”
“Why did you not complete your mission?”
“Because we were presented with a miraculous and singular opportunity to do invaluable work in the service of the divine Omnissiah.”
“What was this opportunity that you speak of?”
“The opportunity to construct a living-machine with an advanced machine-spirit infused with a portion of the soul of the Omnissiah itself. A machine that would clear away all the non-believers in an inferno of holy fire and leave a utopia in its wake, where the division between man and machine is no more.”
For a moment, Taron is silent. I can tell by his expression that he is deep in thought.
“This opportunity, was it in any way linked to the Xrgtul Aelificor?”
“Yes. That book, or at least the copy of it that we obtained, contains detailed instructions for how to summon the Omnissiah’s champion into our world.”
“Some sort of demon, perhaps?” I theorize.
“No Lios. I do not believe this is so simple as that.”
Considering that dealing with demons is anything but simple, I’m concerned by the Inquisitor’s statement.
Suddenly, the prisoner squeals, a decidedly organic and unbefitting sound for a son of Mars. “They reproach me! They see my sin, and they cry out for my death!”
“Who?” asks Marana, suddenly alert and looking for enemies. “Is there someone, or something else here?”
“My brothers. I can hear them still. They tell me that I must not tell any more, that I have already spoken too much. But that I am not beyond redemption.”
Captain Arbillon speaks up. “It is not unheard of. An electronic ghost of a recently deceased tech-priest may persist for minutes after the body’s death. It is a psychic memory, of a sort, but detectable by a skilled tech-priests cogitator implants. He may truly hear the voices of his compatriots.”
With a cry the Mechanicus adept leaps to his feet and throws himself at Inquisitor Taron. I have no idea how he has escaped his bonds, but luckily his attack is extremely unsuccessful – Taron bats him away effortlessly with an armored gauntlet. But no sooner does the tech-priest strike the ground then he is back on his feet, and a glowing digi-weapon emerges from his finger. Before it can fire, Cansus Dole, of all people, puts an entire magazine of bullets into the heretek, then reloads and trains his auto-pistol on the motionless form.
Marana looks at the omnologist with what looks almost like lust (Emperor help the poor man), but then returns to her normal slight frown. “Good shooting.”
Inquisitor Taron looks at Cansus Dole also, but his expression is certainly not lustful. It’s angry. “Why did you go and do that, Cansus? I wasn’t done interrogating him!”
“But sir, he was going to shoot you.”
“Nonsense. I wouldn’t let him do that. Don’t you think shooting him twenty times was a bit drastic?”
“It was only sixteen times sir. Fifteen bullets in the magazine, and one in the…”
“Cansus, that’s not the point.” Taron sighs and his shoulders slump. “Oh well. I guess what’s done is done. No point being bitter about it.”
Marana is peeking over at Cansus again. I hear her mutter “one in the chamber… like we did in the Scouts… professional…” before I become terrified by the thought of an aroused Marana and divert my attention elsewhere.
“Alright everyone, I suppose it’s back to the lander then. Captain, if you would bring along what’s left of the tech-priest?”
“What about Ulin?” asks one of the Chuvians, in reference to the dead guardsman.
“Well, put him in a body bag and carry him along.”
“So I guess we head back to headquarters now, right my lord?”
“Yes. In five minutes we break orbit and head for the Haelian tunnel.”
“Good. It will be a relief to be back, and out of this dead-end system.”
“I suppose it will.”
He supposes? No matter. As long as we’re leaving, that’s ok. I guess part of him just wants to stay and search for the Eldar Beast or Monster of Capita or Champion of the Omnissiah or whatever it is. But that’s nothing more than a legend, surely. Taron may not be the most practical-minded inquisitor, but he understands his duty.
Usually Taron stands on the bridge when the ship jumps into warp space, but he’s not here now. We leave the capita system in a flashing storm of impossible colors. Is the data-chip we discovered so fascinating that he’s still holed up in his room, studying it? He’s been in there for five hours, now.
Fortunately the Inquisitor emerges soon after we enter the immaterium. He looks wide awake, refreshed even. His eyes are bright and he is smiling. “The book indicates that once there might actually have been a creature as described in legend. An actual warp-walking monster!”
Oh no. This is unfortunate news. He’ll never stop going on about it now.
Cansus Dole is there to make matters worse, and curiously Marana is with him.
“If you would like, lord, I would be happy to lend my knowledge to your studies.”
“A splendid idea, Cansus. For now I need a break, but you are welcome to join me after dinner tonight.”
Cansus looks at Marana and she nods and winks. Oh lord, there is something between them.
“Yes, tonight is good. After dinner, sir.”
For two days Cansus and the Inquisitor study the data-chip. From the amount of time they are engaged in the task, they must see in it something I have missed. Several times I have worked with the two of them in their endeavor, but each time I notice that the Inquisitor seems to see and read into the book more than is there. I am growing worried, because I have heard tales about how corruption can seep into neutral data and slowly drive men mad with obsession. But when Taron emerges from his cabin periodically he seems quite normal, relaxed even, and he jokes and banters with the crew. It is not the character of a crazed man.
On the third day since entering the warp Cansus tells me that he is no longer assisting the Inquisitor. Apparently they had some sort of disagreement. Cansus felt that the Xrgtul Aelificor, thoroughly analyzed from every angle, both literary and digital, was nothing special. But the inquisitor had grown enraged at the suggestion, and when Cansus had refused to continue studying the data-chip, Taron had ordered him out of the room, with instructions not to return.
That afternoon Taron informs us that we will be dropping out of the warp on an emergency mission to the Gladus system.
“What mission do we have there?” I ask.
“A band of witches have seized the Governor’s residence on Jolianatar and are using psychic powers to ward off every attempt by the arbites or PDF to recapture the building. I received an Astropathic message from headquarters telling us to delay our return in order to assist the Jolinatarian authorities.”
“Inquisitor, the mission of the Petitor Omnis has remained unfulfilled long enough. I suggest that we return to Installation Alpha Argos and then you come to the Gladus system afterwards,” says Captain Arbillon.
“Your suggestion is noted, Captain, but I’m afraid the cost to my reputation for disobeying the orders of the Lord Inquisitor Zanakar would be too great. We stop in Gladus.”
We stop in Gladus.
I am now utterly convinced that Marana and Cansus are having sex, to be blunt. They disappear together at random times, and I see the way she acts unsettlingly feminine around him. She even giggles. I mean, I suppose she’s not bad looking, but she’s probably the least feminine of all Taron’s acolytes. Even Bilryn the ogryn is usually more feminine.
But I have more pressing matters to concern me then the unlikely relationship between two of my fellow acolytes. When we arrive in the Gladus system we are informed that the witches have already been annihilated by a company of the Sisters of Battle who had stopped in Gladus for repairs on their ship.
“They really are an impressive fighting force,” Cansus remarks.
“I bet I could take one in a fight,” Marana interjects, then looks immediately embarrassed.
Cansus stares at her. “They are also all sworn to celibacy.”
“You two, work out your jealousy issues later. We need to consider our next move.” I say, looking at Taron.
Taron clears his throat. “Our next move is not to move. Clearly the vagaries of warp travel delayed our arrival here. The presence of the Sisters was fortuitous, but they will not be staying. We on the other hand will remain here to root out the source of the heresy and burn it.”
“But my lord,” I reply. “The report said that the arbites do not believe anyone else was involved. That all the witches and their followers were killed in the battle for the Governor’s residence.”
“Bah. You trust an Arbites report over my intuition?”
“No sir, I just wish to know where you would like to begin.”
Inquisitor Taron shrugs. “That’s up to you. It’s time you learned to lead, Lios. I’m placing you fully in charge of this mission. Consider it a test of your skills and whether you have learned from your experiences thus far. I will provide you with a file later that provides all the information I think you will need to start your investigation.”
Is this some sort of joke? I have only been an interrogator for two years. Taron never trusts any of his missions to anyone else, never delegates command. But then with a sinking feeling in my gut I understand. That Emperor-damned data-chip. He’s stalling our return to headquarters because he wants to study it more before handing it over for archiving.
But of course, I have no proof. Not yet anyway.
For two days I try to follow the leads in the file Taron gave me. But there’s something wrong. None of them feel real. The whole case file seems like a supplement to some mystery roleplaying game.
For the entire 48 hours, Taron remains away in his room, presumably poring over the data-chip. I begin to suspect that Taron has truly gone mad.
I finally locate the ship’s Astropath quarters. A light cruiser is not city-like in its scale, in the way Imperial Navy capitol ships are, but it’s a big place nonetheless, and the Astropath’s quarters are secluded deep within the bowels of the ship.
“Esteemed Astropath Nordok, may I speak with you?” I ask after knocking on his door and hearing movement within.
“Who is that?”
“I… er… I mean of course, come in.”
He doesn’t really sound like he wants me to do so, but he gave permission so I open the door and enter. Nordok is trying to put something under his bed, but when I come in he spins, stands, clearly trying to obscure whatever he was putting beneath the bed behind his feet.
“Nordok what are you hiding from me?”
With a sigh he steps aside and I see a tiny automaton come crawling out from underneath the bed. It’s a cybernetic rat.
“Nordok, why for Emperor’s sake would I care if you have a pet cybernetic rat?”
“Inquisitor Taron told me that I should devote my time to shielding my mind from the intrusions of the warp, not playing with some half-living rodent. But I do love Orbel, he makes me so happy.” As the last word leaves his mouth Nordok scoops up the diminutive creature and places it on his shoulder, where it perches and squeaks contentedly.
Taron is usually a pretty easygoing person, at least as far as Inquisitors go. It doesn’t sound like him to be so harsh. But then again, it is my doubts about Taron’s mental state that brought me here in the first place.
“I suppose you talked to the Inquisitor recently, then?”
“Oh yes, just this morning.”
Why would Taron have needed to consult with Nordok this morning? “What did you talk about?”
“I swore not to tell anyone. Sorry Lios, not even you.”
That of itself mostly confirms my suspicions, but still, it isn’t proof. I need hard evidence.
“Nordok, you received at some point in the past… few weeks… a message from the Gladus system asking for assistance dealing with some witches. They had seized the governor’s residence…?”
Nordok looks uncomfortable. “Yes, I think so.”
“When did you receive that message?”
“I don’t know.”
Nonsense. Taron must have ordered him to keep silent on the matter.
I briefly consider trying to pull the information from his mind telepathically, but immediately discard the idea as foolish. As unthreatening as Nordok might be, he’s a trained Astropath, and his mind is hardened against the shock of the warp. My meager psychic ability will be no match for his mental and psychic defenses.
“Nordok, did Taron order you not to disclose this information to me?”
No response. “Nordok, the inquisitor is in grave danger. I know that you promised silence, but you have to tell me.”
“He said that you might come here. That he feared you had been corrupted by something you all found in the Capita system. That you were seeking to undermine his authority.”
“No. Nordok, Taron has been locked away in his cabin for over a week studying that very “corrupting something”, alone, obsessed. You can’t trust him.”
“Maybe not,” says Nordok, “but I can’t trust you either. Can’t trust anyone, it seems. Maybe not even myself.”
I suddenly realize how bad an idea it was coming down here. Damn my impulsivity. As soon as I leave there’s nothing to stop him from ratting me out to Taron, and then the inquisitor might just execute me for mutinous behavior.
I draw my Yurundian Pattern Hell-Pistol.
“That doesn’t frighten me. You know you can’t shoot me,” says Nordok.
“I know. But if you don’t cooperate, I will shoot your rat.”
Tears spring immediately into his eyes. “You cold-hearted bastard. Orbel didn’t do nothing to you.”
“I don’t want to shoot it. It’s almost disarmingly adorable, actually. But this is a matter of dital satrtance, and if Taron has been compromised I have to know.”
Nordok grimaces and sits down, fighting back tears, starting to hyperventilate. “Fine.”
“Alright, tell me when you received the message from Gladus requesting assistance in combating the witches.”
“Twelve days ago. Am I done now?” There. Twelve days ago we were approaching the Capita system. The Sisters eliminated the witches one week ago, or three days after we entered the warp. But I still needed another piece of information.
“No Nordok, not yet. I’ve only asked you one question.” Nordok is starting to look ill. I better hurry before he faints.
“When did you receive the message from headquarters instructing us to heed the Gladus distress call?”
“Two days ago.”
That didn’t make sense. Two days ago headquarters would have already known that assistance was no longer needed. But still…
“When two days ago?”
“I don’t know. I don’tookp track.”
“Nonsense. You must timestamp every message you receive.”
Nordok shakes his head.
“What cycle was the ship on? Was it night cycle?”
Damn. Taron had informed us during the ship’s day cycle about the message. And yet Nordok had received the message later, during the night cycle. Which meant that either the entire message didn’t exist, or Taron had somehow faked it.
“You didn’t receive any message, did you?”
“No,” the Astropath whispers.
Emperor protect all of us, Taron had gone insane.
I immediately call Taron on my vox unit but received no answer. I gather together the other acolytes and explain what I have found. Everyone agrees with me that something has to be done. We head up to the Inquisitor’s cabin, and of course the door is locked.
“Inquisitor, it’s Lios. I need to speak with you.”
“Inquisitor!” I bang on the door.
“Damn you, what is it?”
“I did some digging and I’ve located the witch coven,” I lie.
“You… you did?” comes Taron’s response. He sounds surprised, probably because he knows that there is no witch coven.
“Yes my lord.”
“Come in. Are the others with you?”
“We’re all here.”
“You and Cansus come in. I want everyone else to stay outside.”
I look at Cansus and he nods. I see he has brought his auto-pistol. Cansus and I are the only two people, other than Taron, aboard the ship who have seen the contents of the data chip.
“I can see all of you standing there through the spyhole,” says Taron. “I want everyone else to leave the hallway completely.”
“Go on everyone,” I say. “We’ll not be long.”
They file out, Marana hesitating a moment in the doorway to share a second of eye contact with Cansus. Then Cansus and I are alone before the door to Taron’s cabin.
There is a click as the door unlocks, and the Inquisitor lets us in.
Chaos. Mundane chaos – scattered papers, scraps of food, even bottles of piss. And, I fear, the encroaching tendrils of the more sinister Chaos. Unintelligible writing covers the walls, most of it done in thick black marker, but some daubed in blood and excrement. Taron doesn’t seem to notice the disgusting smell of his room.
“I have it. It took me so long, but I have finally pried the secret truth from the book. Yes, the book. I had to painstakingly reconstruct it in its original form.”
Taron picks up a heavy tome from his desk and hands it over. I flip through the pages and my eyes widen in disbelief. The Inquisitor has copied, by hand, all 557 pages of the Xrgtul Aelificor. The original illustrations, gruesome and disturbing depictions of spiky balls of bloody, intertwined limbs, stand out in full color. The text is beautiful, illuminated flowing script, the first letters of each page insane swirls of lines and shapes. It is the work of a life time, completed in less than half of a month. Impossible.
I hand over the book to Cansus and I can see that he is as shocked by it as I am.
“My lord, what is the secret truth of the Xrgtul Aelificor?”
“It is the ultimate weapon against Chaos. Don’t you understand? It contains detailed blueprints for the construction of a living machine, that can walk without difficulty between reality and the Empyrean, smite demons, raise the Imperium from the brink of destruction to beyond its former glory. It is beautiful and incorruptible. It shall be the Emperor’s sword, by which a new great crusade is waged.”
Cansus looks up from the book. “It says here that you need the bound souls of a thousand virgins, the blood of a world, and the sorrow of Kaen-Shalathar the Eldar Warrior-King to forge the soul of this… thing. You think to collect such materials?”
“Of course. It will not be difficult. The sorrow of Kaen-Shalathar is in Inquisitorial possession already. I can obtain it, albeit through subterfuge, from my associates in the Ordos Xenos. They have a vial containing his tears, shed at the death of the greatest mortal Eldar hero of the contemporary era, Elrethran Yuriael. The virgins, I can gather them from some backwater agri-world one at a time. Their families will be compensated for the loss, of course, but with my resources financing is of no concern. The blood of a world? Well, it is a cruel necessity, but I have access to Exterminatus weaponry.”
Cansus and I just stare are Taron, unable to believe what we are hearing.
“Sir?” is all I manage to say.
Cansus composes himself. “Inquisitor Taron, you are quite insane.”
Before I can even move, there is a gunshot, and Cansus’s head explodes. Warm blood splatters across my cheek. “Emperor have mercy on you, Taron,” I say.
I start to pull out my own hell-pistol but I see Taron swing his N-54 Assault Pistol towards me. “Don’t, Lios.” I let go of my gun.
“You’re the only one I can trust anymore, Lios. The only one I can trust. I need you to tell me the truth. Was Cansus right? Have I gone insane?” A look of panic and doubt is plain on his face.
“My lord, you have been corrupted. I believe you have been driven mad by the Xrgtul Aelificor. Please stand down.”
Taron shakes his head. “I believe you Lios. I believe you because you are the only one I can trust. But I ask that you allow me to carry out my final duty to the Emperor.”
I think that he’s going to kill himself. But his aim doesn’t swing away from me. He keeps aiming at me even as he removes the data-chip from his pocket, lays it on the table. He opens a drawer and removes his inferno pistol, aims it at the chip, and fires. Where the chip was is now a glowing-edged hole in the plasteel desk. His next shot vaporizes most of the book, and ignites what survives. Then Taron drops the empty two-shot inferno pistol.
The inquisitor’s hand trembles like a flag in a hurricane. “I’m sorry, Lios, but the risk of the corruption spreading is too great. Everyone who has been exposed to the Xrgtul Aelificor must die. After I kill you, I will execute myself. I pray that the Emperor sees fit to forgive me. “
Taron fires. Thinking back, I like to imagine it was some spark of lucidity still remaining in him, some fragment of the old Taron, that caused his shot to miss my heart. In reality, it was probably just the shaking of his hand. The bullet strikes me in the left side of my sternum, and lodges against my spine, which will later force me to undergo months of rehab to regain full use of my lower body. But it does not kill me, only knocks me to the ground, stunned.
Although in terrible pain, I manage to pull free my own weapon and take aim at Taron. I hold my fire, watching, as Taron raises his assault pistol to his own temple, closes his eyes, and pulls the trigger, executes himself, as his duty demands. Suffer not the heretic to live.
I pass out.