The blow seemed like a wild swing, and Lysimachus Cestus, Captain of the Ultramarines' Seventh Company, chose not to block it. It was a split-second decision that he had cause to regret very quickly. The fist curved just to the right of where he'd expected, crashing into his gut and knocking his own punch off. It almost stunned him for a moment, or perhaps it was his own ill-timed analysis of the situation. Whatever the case, he was off-balance for just an instant, and his opponent wasn't. A headbutt later, Cestus stumbled back, and his opponent grappled him to the floor.
"I yield," he said, breathing heavily, and took his smiling opponent's offered hand as he got back up.
Brynngar Sturmdreng, of the Vlka Fenryka, looked at him with undisguised bemusement in his one eye. "You hesitated."
"I guess I did," Cestus acknowledged.
"I'm disappointed, I have to say. I expected you'd get better since Carthis."
"I'm still up fifteen-twelve, Brynngar."
Brynngar chuckled, well-aware of his intentional hypocrisy. "Eh, who cares about the score?"
Cestus shrugged, the adrenaline of the spar draining out of him. It had been good to meet up with an old comrade-in-arms again, even - or, perhaps, especially - one as different from him as Brynngar. The years had changed them both, of course. For the better, in the main. Brynngar's beard was more elaborate, and he had advanced in rank like Cestus had, becoming one of the Varagyr, Leman Russ's own honor guard.
Of course, fittingly for a Legion with more names than they had companies, that wasn't the only position he held. He was a subsidiary jarl of the Third Great Company while simultaneously being a thegn, that is, sergeant, with respect to training initiates. As with so many things about the Sixth Legion, it wasn't clear how it could possibly work, but as with so many things about the Sixth Legion, it did so magnificently.
"So," Brynngar mused after a brief pause, "a drink, then? I've sniffed out a nice place on the Leticatti deck - well, nestled below it, really. Excellent alcohol, though the music's a bit... earsplitting. Intentionally, mind you."
Cestus, even knowing Brynngar's character, couldn't help but boggle at his cousin's priorities. "I've served on this ship for years, and haven't heard of that spot - though I admit I haven't spent much time searching for such. Brynngar, do you actually do anything besides drink and fight?"
"All the time."
"...Do you do anything besides drink and fight, except
concurrently with drinking and fighting?"
Brynngar shrugged, looking down the hallway as they made their way towards the Leticatti deck. "Occasionally."
Cestus shook his head in disbelief, even knowing that Brynngar was exaggerating.
"But really," Brynngar continued, "drinking... well, it's far from my only means of entertainment, but it's involved in most of them. And battle is what I was built for - what both of us were built for, really. Our duty from the first launch, and our wyrd for all time. Some of my brothers have more diverse interests, some less, but we know well our purpose. Do you?"
"Of course!" Cestus turned to Brynngar with a spark of fury, though one caged by the knowledge that the provocation had been his. "Our first priority is war. For now, it has to be, and perhaps it will remain so until the end. But that is not all we are, it cannot
be all we are - both because we are human, still, and because we must know what we fight for."
"We know," Brynngar said. "That we are outside it does not mean we are ignorant."
"You know Fenris," Cestus countered. "As I know Macragge. But the rest has to be learned deliberately, and preferably not while drunk."
"I've learned a great deal while drunk. Forgotten half of it by next morning, admittedly...." Brynngar shook his head. "Look, I get it, you're mad about the mess we've made of Ultramar. But we both know it would've been even worse without us."
"I didn't mean that," Cestus backbeat, aghast at what he'd accidentally implied. There were those in the Thirteenth Legion who took offense at the Rout's aid in reconstruction, and the last thing Cestus had wanted was to sound like those ingrates. "I'm grateful for your presence here, Brynngar. But to think of everything but war as mere distraction - "
Cestus's words were interrupted by a loud ding from his vox, indicating a summons.
"...Anyhow," Cestus said, his train of thought of lost. "Until we meet again?"
"Of course," Brynngar said. "We're still friends, Cestus. And perhaps in a few moons, we will see where our different paths have brought us. I am concerned that yours will lead you false, that is all."
"It hasn't so far," Cestus said. "Though neither has yours."
They embraced, and then Lysimachus Cestus hurried to meet his Primarch. Seven companies of the First Chapter had departed with Guilliman's great fleet without their Chapter Master, reporting directly to the Avenging Son in that duration. Upon returning to find their Chapter Master dead, the remnants of the First had retained that temporary status, no new Master being appointed, because Guilliman had so much else to reorganize first. Indeed, when Cestus arrived in the sanctum, he saw his gene-father surrounded by a number of screens and charts exceptional even for him.
"Captain Cestus," Guilliman acknowledged without turning.
"Essarkomium is refusing the treaties with Empioea," the Primarch said as he swiveled in his somewhat inordinately complicated chair, rotating in all three dimensions to finally face the captain, "citing grudges that supposedly predate all records of human settlement in the segmentum. Carenn is rebuilding several standard deviations ahead of projections, likely because the projections were deliberately sabotaged. Five Imperial Army commanders are independently petitioning me about Calth. A hundred other crises requiring weeks of genius to solve. And none of them are what really matters." He shook his head, handing Cestus three stacked dataslates.
"Is that not what delegation is for?"
"Quite," Guilliman said with a smirk, even as his left hand continued sketching something with a luminescent stylus on one of the screens. "Top two are for two of your sergeants, choose according to fit. Bottom is for Ventanus."
Cestus couldn't help but believe his Primarch when he said the situation was fine. But for all of that, the cracks were showing. Even Roboute Guilliman's capacity for processing information was clearly straining at the number of fires in Ultramar.
"You seem skeptical," Guilliman said.
"I admit I am, lord. You still seem to be delegating less than usual. We were away, but we are here now... all the Legion and auxilia, not only you."
Guilliman, amused, shook his head, making Cestus feel unmanageably silly. "As it happens, Captain, I am delegating a great deal more than usual. At the moment, in fact, that is my main focus, and the reason for the state of this office. There is much left to do, but I've put all the immediate fires out. I am leaving Macragge tomorrow, for Konor."
"No," Guilliman said. "The Linearity. Everything else is necessary, but not sufficient, and does not require me - may even benefit from my absence. This is not a conventional conflict, and never was."
Cestus shifted. He'd heard the legend, had witnessed the power underlying it. And he felt he understood his Primarch in the moment, more than ever. Brilliance could be inscrutable, but vision carried others in its wake. Yet there seemed also a certain fragility in Guilliman's eyes when he described it, even if Cestus told himself he was imagining it.
"Regardless," Guilliman continued, handing Cestus one final data slate, "your orders, Captain Cestus."
It was a set of areas of concern, of which Cestus's choice for his first task was an inspection of several targets in the Narchaima district, coincidentally (or perhaps by the Primarch's design) close to his childhood home. Cestus went alone and unarmored without consciously considering it - this was Macragge, after all, and his home city at that - but upon touching down, he couldn't help but feel the gladius at his belt.
Narchaima district was on edge. Not the edge of inchoate rioting, not here, nor distrust for his person (indeed the civilians showed practically no sign of transhuman dread, decades of acculturation meaning he received autograph requests instead of fearful glances), and not something Cestus could immediately place from aura alone, but it was reminiscent of something besides home, and after a few minutes he realized what.
It was a peaceful compliance. A world suspended in the moment of profound transformation, not truly knowing what was to come even though they chose it willingly.
That was, he realized now as he should have understood years ago, what rebellion did.
The arena was what hammered that in. It was a monumental project, the tethers and scaffolding already majestic as they stretched weblike across the middle levels of the city. Its primary purpose was as a center for several dozen types of athletic and intellectual contests, and Cestus could intuit the spectacle that would be seen from both inside and (in less detail) outside the stadium. The design was unusual, though, far from fitting into any of the classic Nine Styles. It was almost organic, as a whole, but built of clean curves on the midscale. Not unlike the towers of the Xebbet Consortium on Attip, his first campaign as a sergeant, melded with the style of Pitohn, a recent diplomatic compliance in western Tempestus. The last, in fact, before Greffikh, reassignment, and the recall to Ultramar to hear impossible news.
Astarte would never fight Astarte, so Cestus had believed with a certainty that went beyond knowledge. It had been axiom, not theorem.
And yet, in the end, less than Cestus had believed had relied on that axiom.
"Who is the architect?" the Ultramarine asked of a policeman - a sergeant, though one with some nonstandard insignia - when he got the chance.
"Inoir Stambixis," the sergeant said, and nodded at Cestus's half-recognition. "Latest genius of that family, yes. It is an honor to meet a son of Guilliman; if there's anything else I can aid with.... I'm Cato Cepileo."
"Lysimachus Cestus," he answered, grasping Cepileo's hand in the warrior's grip. "It's certainly an unusual design. Is she on site?"
"She's somewhere deep within the scaffolding, I believe," Cepileo said.
They continued the discussion as they walked, Cepileo very eager to respond to Cestus's questions about the project and the city. He paused for a moment when asked about his insignia, though. "Sigmaethate officer position," he said.
"It's effectively a... well, a workers' association," Cepileo said. "Among, chiefly, the emergency responders of Narchaima, or really all of the western districts."
"For what purpose?" Cestus did his best to avoid showing any sign of concern, but he did not have a great optimism, in the present moment, for secret organizations with strange sigils.
"The ability to negotiate as a group," Cepileo answered. He shrugged. "Both with our superiors and with other industries." Cestus listened to Cepileo continue his explanation, relaxing as he did so. The Sigmaethate was a guild, more or less, an organization dedicated to advancing its members' common interests, such as wages. Nothing especially sinister or secret.
"Do the government channels not manage that?"
"They've been in disuse for years, and even some of the bureaucrats don't know, much less care, how they work. Easier to go around, most of the time."
"It does seem like it might get in the way of efficiency, though," Cestus acknowledged.
"Maybe for you it would," Cepileo said. "But down here, there's a lot of doors one officer can't open that a department united can."
"True," Cestus acknowledged. "Factionalism is hard to keep down even in the Legion." Especially now. The individuality of the Astartes had been reasserted by the rebellion; it had been thrust into stark clarity that they too had a choice. And so, even when it would have been most efficient to win the war by adhering to strictest discipline, Cestus had seen his subordinates more prone than ever to questioning him.
But Cestus welcomed that, in the abstract at least. They were fighting for freedom, and freedom of thought most of all. To tighten discipline would be prime hypocrisy, and that was toxic to an army and lethal to a cause. Imperium Secundus meant that they walked their own paths, even if they were not all the same.
"A lot of the industries have organized, since the initial Imperium Secundus declaration," Cepileo said. "It's all entirely legal."
"Have the advocates organized as well, by any chance?"
Cepileo's grin was rather cheeky, perhaps not undeservingly.
Since the Imperium Secundus declaration - changes that would not be easy to roll back, even if that was decided. A realignment of that sort was a rather seismic change, even if it was limited to western Magna Macragge Civitas. But it wasn't, was it? Different reforms in different regions -
But Guilliman knew this, doubtlessly, and his inaction indicated tolerance at the very least. And Cestus saw the value, too, in social experimentation, so long as such things were kept above board. It was not the Ultramarine way (despite how some viewed them) to see systems as perfect - and besides which, the Imperium's imperfections were made very manifest, now.
They walked through the inchoate corridors, with a few precarious jumps that somewhat concerned Cepileo, and Cestus took note of the fact that despite its civilian purpose, the building was not bereft of weaponry. It wouldn't stand up to a dedicated siege, or to Astartes, but it would be a useful strongpoint in the case that Macragge saw war. Cestus wished he could see that precaution as baseless, but he could not.
"Do you happen to know," Cepileo asked casually, "about the Regent's speech on Horus, after his arrival - what, exactly, does he intend to do?"
Cestus searched his memory for the broadcast. "You'll have to be more specific. Lord Guilliman always intends a great amount of different things, most of which I am not privy to."
"The rapprochement with Horus."
"That is not my concern," Cestus said. "Nor yours."
"Forgive me for presuming, lord Ultramarine," Cepileo said, "but in these days, dubbing those affairs other people's concern seems implausible."
And Cestus understood that as well. The relations of primarchs had a way of affecting the lives of many others, and the shadow of classified information frequently hid a great many sins. For the moment, though, Guilliman had not made any grand gestures, and he told Cepileo as much before they found Stambixis.
The architect brought ethereal memories to the fore of Cestus's mind immediately, memories of blonde hair just like her own rippling in the air of Manuch Tzeo Crater. Inoir would be Nachikae Stambixis's - granddaughter? Great-granddaughter? She looked all too much like her ancestor, regardless, even if Cestus remembered almost nothing, except in gossamer threads across his subconscious, about the girl who he'd thought he loved, in the halcyon days before Imperium Primus came to Macragge.
"What is it, Cepi - oh." The architect gasped. "My lord, is there a problem?"
Cestus moved to reassure her immediately. He did not enjoy being feared. "No, routine inspection," he said. "I was curious about the design, I will admit."
"It wouldn't have been accepted two years ago," Inoir said, "but after the coup - "
"At the planning board. Not a literal coup, but, you know. Politics. Some people were convinced to vote for some others' premature retirement. I don't know the details, Emi said that it was dirty, but less than half as dirty as what the old guard had done to stay in power." Stambixis's speech seemed to be accelerating geometrically as she got into her subject matter. Cestus's processing remained a heartbeat behind, but now that she said it, he noted that she really was
young, for this sort of commission, barely any older than the teenager in his pre-memories. "Anyway, Macragge can't remain fastened to the Nine Styles forever just because it's what the Regent grew up with."
"From what I've seen," Cestus put in when Stambixis took a breath, "Primarch Guilliman is hardly bound to any architectural formalisms. He designed Ul Leiut, for one, on Paiyra." That was a campaign he remembered well, mainly for the locals' bizarre and not particularly effective magmatic weaponry.
"It's in Tempestus - "
"Could you sketch it?" Cestus, bemused, picked up the data-slate he was handed and began to draw the arcology from memory. "But, I mean, a lot of the structures attributed to the Primarch were innovative for the time. He practically reinvented the Bezic from scratch! It's just that there's a lot of old fools who think that the best way to honor that today is by blindly imitating what he did two centuries ago. Substantially worse materials back then, I may note. And Macragge is a planet, and a capital at that; with our immigration figures syncreticism should be the goal rather than something to fear. Not that I want to import styles wholesale. Sometimes you have to start from first principles. Tradition mangles that, obscures it."
Cestus couldn't claim to understand the full context of every word Stambixis said, but he knew enough to see the direction. "The blank slate."
"Precisely," Stambixis said. "A blank slate, like Imperium Secundus."
"Ultramar is hardly blank."
"Ah!" Stambixis raised a finger, uncannily like an iterator. "That's a debate all of its own - do we rebuild Ultramar from the ground up as well? Metaphorically, I mean, obviously not literally, that would be stupid. And how much do we do now, as opposed to when the war is over, though of course we're never going to get around to it if we wait until there's no crisis, there's always a crisis somewhere, it's the crisis itself that we need to use to break down the old. I mean, but you know all of that better than me, of course, you're one of the people deciding it." She looked slightly bashful, flipping back to deference in a heartbeat.
"I'm not sure I do," Cestus mused. "I've seen a great deal of data, but I'm a warrior first, and even aside from that - you're the one that actually lives here."
Stambixis took that as the invitation, and began speaking twice as fast as before, mainly about the architectural inspirations and insights that made up the arena but with digressions into strongly held opinions of Ultramar, from time to time abruptly dumping a dozen qualifiers into her speech - afraid of sounding seditious, perhaps. In truth, many of the structures she discussed had little commonality with anything Cestus had encountered in the past century, but he did feel a slight tinge of tribal distaste at her casual dismissal of the achievements of his generation. He remembered the jubilation when the Algac - but then, it had been more than a century.
It had been more than a century; and, he realized, Stambixis did not know, and would likely not have been candid if she had. But at the same time, he had not spent the fifteen decades since his induction on Macragge, and so he could, to some extent, look upon his homeworld analytically. There had been plenty of time for things to get worse.
"But I'm exaggerating that aspect, really," Stambixis said in the end. "Macragge was never the problem - things have gotten better the last couple of years, and that's no coincidence. It was the rest of the Imperium holding us back. The Administratum, especially, and everything associated with it. Designed for Terra, redesigned for the Imperium, but still enriching Terra at the cost of absolutely everything else, and only certain castes on Terra at that. And Macragge's a Legion homeworld. It's so much worse outside Ultramar - well, so I've heard, at least."
"Some of the tithes were excessive," Cestus acknowledged. "Although nothing approaching human sacrifice, before."
"The tithes weren't even - well, what am I saying, of course they weren't an issue here
. Point is, we can't just go back, only with Horus on the throne. Even if Horus is as good a ruler as Lord Guilliman, we've begun building the future we dreamt up. Despite all the petty politics and the architectural debates, we're all still... I mean, you can feel it too, can't you?"
And Cestus nodded, because he could. Because even between the formal reports and the snippets of conversation, he felt a spirit - not a spirit of the Imperium, but more than just a spirit of Ultramar patriotism. It was -
It was an analogy he returned to, the peaceful compliance. The best of the Imperium, perhaps. Not what came after, when worlds were turned towards a purpose, but that moment on the frontier, that promise of a better world which was self-fulfilling.
The promise that the Emperor had betrayed, and which Cestus had chosen - because he'd had a choice, a real one, and he had known it even then - to place above all his other loyalties, at the beginning of this war.
"Lord Guilliman knelt to us," Stambixis softly said, sounding as lost as her own thoughts as Cestus was in his. "Not to any one citizen of Ultramar, not even to any one organization. He is above them all, and it would be improper to imply otherwise. But he knelt to the people of Ultramar whole, and that was right. And to try to step back, with a new emperor, to bring back Administratum and Mechanicum and Astronomica and the rest - that would be wrong. And I won't -" She broke off for a second. "I won't be happy to see that."
That hadn't been what she'd wanted to say. She'd wanted to say that she would not accept it, that she would fight it. And normally, Cestus would have noted the hint of possible disloyalty and moved on; and, on the whole, that was what he did, save for two things that held his thoughts.
The first was that he was not sure that Inoir Stambixis was wrong.
The second was that he was absolutely certain that she was far from alone.