In these times, Alexios Basiniand - senior Fulmentarus Sergeant, 154th Company, XIII 'Ultramarines' Legion - was greatly reassured that the mountains of Macragge were just as he remembered them.
He was within the Crown Range, far above the death zone - Macragge was a thin-aired world, only its lowlands possessing enough oxygen to breathe. Legend held that the mountains had been raised by four-billed avian gods, who sought to preserve most of the world from human life. Basiniand had spent much of his youth in Magna Macragge Civitas, in the shadow of the great wall.
Now, as a Space Marine, he climbed these sky-paths without much difficulty. His demi-squad had ascended Sylopos earlier in the day, and now tracked downward; Nophras was above him on this stretch of rope. Below, the cirque from which the Archann Glacier flowed was coming into view.
And fifteen kilometers below that, the sprawl of the city Basiniand had been born of. Magna Macragge Civitas was distant, and partially cloud-covered, and one who was not Astarte would have been hard-pressed to make out any details at all. But Basiniand had been here before; he could see where the Fortress of Hera pushed the clouds upward and the concentric, segmented walls around it. Further, there was the great flatland of the landing fields, with great rockets already stationed atop it; further still, the blue waves of the Pharamis Ocean. And every second of looking revealed more intricate detail. There were the fabs, there the markets, there the preserved ruins of Prima Macragge Civitas.
And fortresses. A lot more fortresses than Basiniand remembered. He did not regret that fact. As far as he was concerned, the defense of Macragge should have been a priority earlier. The inability to imagine a serious threat to the realm's safety implied a failure of imagination.
Not that he would accuse Guilliman of such, but Ultramar was large enough for lesser people to make mistakes.
He stopped on the ledge for long enough to see Nophras slide down beside him. "You know," he said, "why can't we just leave the ropes here? If we ever come this way again, we could use them."
"That would defeat the point," Basiniand retorted. "The challenge is the entire purpose of this exercise."
"Understood, brother-sergeant," Nophras said. "Even so... could we not simply not
use them, then?"
Basiniand rolled his eyes. Squad Basiniand was not known for its iron discipline, but they were
Ultramarines. "Brother Nophras," he said, "you have your orders."
"Theoretical: I suppose picking up our litter is also part of the challenge. Which is fair, actually."
Basiniand nodded, and they got to work. Leorchan, Acexiones, and Remnev were several hours ahead of them. They were returning, now, returning in victory.
It was useful as physical training, and as bonding. In truth, Alexios Basiniand did not climb the mountains for either of those reasons, and not even because they had taunted him since childhood. There was something in this rareified air, something which could never be found below, in the world of brotherhood and politics and art and war.
"One more span, brother-sergeant?" Nophras asked.
Basiniand looked down. "One more span until the bottom of the wall. Practical: I don't see a camp yet. We'll have to hurry."
Then his eye tracked upward, finding a boxy shape moving across the sky - at this distance, it could have been a heron, if not for its unnaturally vivid blue color.
"Theoretical: or perhaps not," he added. "Prepare for extraction."
The gunship rumbled on, hurtling unerringly toward them. By the time it arrived, Basiniand and Nophras stood at attention to receive it. Indeed, it set to hovering next to the narrow ledge, before a ramp rolled out.
"Playtime's over," said Marius Drialai, captain of the 154th.
Basiniand bit back an acerbic reply as he stepped into the heat of the Thunderhawk interior. Drialai did not like him at all, for reasons that dated to a long rivalry between the two veteran sergeants that perhaps had led to both being passed over for the captaincy in favor of Eodobos Coufed, but when Coufed had been killed in action in the Linekere Cluster, Drialai had been chosen for the captaincy. Basiniand couldn't fathom why. Yes, Drialai was tactically astute and skilled in personal combat, but he bred enemies as if he was a farmer and they his crop, to say nothing of his mistakes on Ouratham, which had left -
Past feuds. Of no consequence in the present. Unable to stop himself from grimacing, Basiniand bowed to Drialai. "Do we have a new assignment, brother-captain?"
"Your squad does," Drialai said. "Where are the rest of them, brother-sergeant?"
They picked up Leorchan, Acexiones, and Remnev downslope, next to a boulder fall. As they did, Drialai explained the background to their mission, glacially moving over facts Basiniand already knew. "The rest," he eventually said, "will have to wait for a more secure location."
Basiniand made no comment - whether Drialai was trying to get a rise out of him was irrelevant. Acexiones, unfortunately, thought differently. "Seriously?" he asked incredulously. "Why lead us on, then? Or are you still bitter over - "
"Acexiones," Basiniand warned. "Stop."
Drialai condescendingly huffed. "The rest," he repeated, "we'll go over in the Fortress of Hera. But I thought I might bring everyone up to speed on the strategic disposition of Ultramar."
The strategic disposition was that the Ultramarines would be deployed mainly in breaking up Imperial pockets scattered throughout the galactic east. Above all, their goal was preventing an Imperial expedition from finding substantial support in any advance on Ultramar. Their mission, thus, was defensive.
The gunship lowered itself into the Fortress of Hera, where Basiniand was reunited with the other half of his squad and was hurried to a briefing room. Along with Drialai, there was a Mechanicum adept present, or - no, not a Mechanicum adept. Quite aside from the organ in question being absent in Ultramar, this man lacked the degree of augmentations the tech-priests bore. A bionic eye, certain cranial bio-augments, but mostly baseline human.
"This is the squad you've chosen?" he asked Drialai.
"They are," Drialai said. "The best I have, in fact. This is Sergeant Alexios Basiniand. Brother-sergeant, this is Conservator Omar Phessix."
"Conservator?" Basiniand asked, curious despite himself.
"We have to call ourselves something
," Phessix said. "Open exchange of lore, free from Mechanicum constraints and with a very different Administratum policy... reviving the Conservatory seemed as good an idea as any, since that's what we're doing, exploring the past. Forms change, structures remain."
"I see," Basiniand said, although he didn't. "So what is this classified project?"
"Sotha," Phessix said. Basiniand wracked his memory for the name without success. "A minor world, a colony of Ultramar. Under ten thousand denizens. Home to Mount Pharos, believed to contain archaeotechnology. Sealed under writ of Lord Guilliman, but I've managed to convince the Primarch's administration to begin an investigation of the site."
"We have to grab every advantage we can in this war," Drialai added.
"So it's a ruin," Basiniand said, then raised a hand to forestall any response. "A ruin with arcane technologies, ergo valuable, but - why Astarte presence?"
"The Primarch ordered it," Drialai said. "Theoretical: the site has potential extreme strategic value."
"He also thought the Astarte perspective would be valuable," Phessix said. "Not to mention organization. The downside of rebuilding from scratch is time, and you're used to working quickly."
"We are," Basiniand said, bile rising in his throat. "Brother-captain, may I speak with you in private?"
When they were alone, Basiniand nodded, trying to center himself. "If I may speak freely - "
"I know you're bitter about Ouratham," Basiniand said. "Maybe even more bitter than you would have been had I not saved the battalion. And I also know you have a litany of other reasons, some even justified. But for the Primarch's sake, Drialai, this is petty even for you. Sending my squad, a Terminator squad, to garrison duty on a nearly uninhabited world, over grudges from before everything fell apart? You're a captain now. You should act like it."
He knew immediately that he'd gone too far. Saying that in private to a commander that didn't hate him would be improper; Drialai was a step beyond that. He seemed on the verge of attacking the sergeant then and there, and his spittle prevented him from getting a coherent word out.
"Veteran Sergeant Basiniand," the captain eventually managed to say, the acid audible, "it is true that I assigned this mission in part to get you away from me. I hoped that some distance would smooth our differences. In the practical, that looks an increasingly faint hope. Theoretical: as one last indulgence, if your return from Sotha goes as expected, I will give my recommendation to have your squad moved to another company, with my best wishes and a very positive account of your ability. You've done a great deal for Ultramar, brother-sergeant; I just wish it wasn't under my command. As to this mission, since you didn't notice, it comes from the Primarch himself. If you disagree to its merit, you can petition him
Basiniand had to fight hard not to recoil. If this was Drialai's attempt to settle their differences, it was a ludicrously mishandled one. But he should have expected nothing else from the captain.
"I apologize, brother-captain," he said, still unsure whether said captain was being entirely honest. "Regarding censure - "
"Waived," Drialai said. "After all, you did
request permission to speak freely. Just... get out." His voice was as hostile as ever, but still Basiniand was struck by the fact that Drialai had been the accommodating one this time. It was something to reflect on, and avoid in the future at all costs - because being less reasonable than Drialai was not something to be proud of.
But for now, it seemed, his squad really would have to go to Sotha.