And back to Ultramar. Hopefully no one finds this offensive....
Erikon Gaius, Twenty-First Captain of the Ultramarines, was not quite sure why this meeting had been called. It was not that he wasn’t aware the running of a government involved a lot of such meetings, some without any obvious purpose; he’d been involved in the ruling of Valhalla for a year near the beginning of his captaincy. But Carenn was a Hive World, and its government was bigger- and stranger.
The meeting wasn’t even run by the governor, Lady Ruler Itacia Remasna, but rather by her second-in-command, Vice-Governor Alarone Jaranuos.
“Now,” the vice-governor- a bald, but tall, man about the age of the governor- stated, “let us all stand up and sing our national anthem with the dance.”
“Let’s not,” the defense advisor- a younger man named Ulriader Sezemes, with whom Gaius had gotten along quite well- offered.
“You dare question my authority?”
“No, my lord, I-”
“Stand up! Now! Everyone- that includes you, Ultramarine!”
Gaius sighed and remained sitting. He didn’t know the national dance, and if he danced it, the floor would collapse.
“That-” the vice-governor tried again.
The vice-governor seemed aback and ready to unleash a frightened, yet furious rant; but at that moment the governor rushed in.
“Alright, what’s going on here?” she asked.
“The lord vice-governor hasn’t taken his medication,” the manufacturing advisor guessed.
“This is not about-”
The governor sighed. “Jaranuos, Jakane, with me. The rest of you, do something useful. Good luck!” And she waltz-rushed out, tapping a familiar melody with her feet. Asazexia Jakane, the palace manager, dragged the vice-governor out; Jaranuos assumed a dissatisfied grimace, but shook her off and marched out on his own.
“I still say he’s senile,” Sezemes said. “Don’t know why the Lady Ruler keeps him around.”
“He’s a genius when he’s sane,” police advisor Yarosine Konscalles noted. “He’s just dependent on the medication. And anyhow, you shouldn’t disrespect your elders.”
Suitably chastised, Sezemes leaned back in his chair.
“Anyhow,” Konscalles continued, “there’s actually a reason I wanted this meeting called, before Jaranuos’ condition hijacked it. There have been a number of statistical anomalies lately. An unusual number of kidnappings, unexplained disappearances and suicides in the Attatti district. I’ve sent some of my best officers down there, and half of them haven’t returned. I need something more.”
“The Ultramarines,” Gaius offered.
Konscalles nodded. “It’ll probably be elementary for you, but we can’t handle the problem. Will you-”
“Naturally,” Gaius said, though even as he said that, doubts began to creep into his mind. Sezemes looked about to protest, so the Captain turned to him. “You can handle the defenses’ construction on your own, I hope
“Of course,” Sezemes said. “I do hope, however, that you will return.”
“We will most certainly return. We are Astartes, after all,” Gaius said. He suspected that something capable of taking down a world’s best Arbites was a real threat even to Space Marines, but he had a lot of warriors with him. Hopefully, that would be enough. “Is there anything else?”
“I have the newest imports report,” trade advisor Oralexi Zentonna offered, and everyone began hurriedly getting up to leave. Gaius walked out into the hallway with Sezemes, quickly voxing the fifteen Squads on Carenn’s surface to meet up with him; the defense advisor seemed rather sullen.
“I sincerely hope that you will return soon, Captain Gaius,” Sezemes offered. “I’m not sure how much of the operations my clout will keep running.”
“For Guilliman’s sake, I’ll be gone for maybe half a cycle! It’s one mission- get in, kill or negotiate, get out. We do things fast.”
“That,” Sezemes said, “is encouraging.”
Sezemes was a strong, determined man, if somewhat lacking in respect. He could have been a great Ultramarine, and had in fact passed the initial trials, but genetic incompatibility had kept him out of the Legion. He had, however, served a tour in the Imperial Army and returned to Carenn as an officer; there, he had proven himself to be an able politician and rapidly climbed the ranks. At only twenty-nine, he was in charge of the entire PDF and had a seat in the governor’s inner circle. His son, born before he’d left with the Army, was ten and would take the Legion trials in a couple of years; due to the quirks of heredity, that one was genetically compatible, and Sezemes sincerely hoped his child would be able to achieve what he hadn’t.
That child- Erikon Sezemes, not named after Gaius but after Ulriader Sezemes’ father- was not particularly strong physically, but possessed intelligence and determination that would take him far, whether he passed the Legion trials or not.
“Good luck, Sezemes. Keep everything running.”
“I’ll try to,” the defense advisor answered with a smile as Gaius headed towards the shuttle pad.
Tactical Squad Frasar, along with Devastator Squads Alasigines and Ionnases, were already there; Gaius dispatched them, under Veteran Sergeant Ionnases’ overall command, to watch over construction for the event something happened while he was gone. Besides, a hundred and twenty Astartes was enough to conquer the average planet; cleansing a Hive’s depths of criminals would be- not easy, necessarily, but almost certainly doable even with the decreased numbers, one would assume.
The other Squads arrived gradually, flowing in from construction sites around the city. Tactical Squads Orsono, Loppones, Xelarcal, Zunacles; Assault Squads Hardonisses, Thespates, Ebenos; Devastator Squads Marianes, Frazant, Pernitum. Tactical Veteran Sergeant Usalaguer, Gaius’ second-in-command, was among the last to arrive; he had been improving the details of the defenses within the Hive. The final Squad to come was Alarone Partaxen’s, the Devastator Sergeant explaining his absence by a meeting with a neighborhood association. “They wouldn’t let us in,” Partaxen noted, “not until we broke down the door; but I believe every single one of them has since resigned. It was entertaining.”
It was, indeed, entertaining, but Gaius had other things to worry about. He went over the theoreticals several times in his head, considering the worst-case scenarios because anything else posed no threat.
“We’ll go down in the gunships,” he explained, “and investigate. This starts out as a reconnaissance mission. Hopefully we won’t need to go into full combat mode; but be prepared, because something odd is down there.”
They did as the Captain said. The gunships- the new Thunderhawk pattern, which Gaius had repeatedly commended for its resilience despite the fact that many in the Legion despised it- swept down from the gleaming heights of the Hive City and their artificial atmosphere. Carenn might not have been as stratified as most Hive Worlds, but below Gaius still saw more dust and smoke than in these upper reaches.
The Thunderhawks wove their way between hole-riddled spires under the distant midday sun. Bleak shadows emerged as the five gunships banked sharply, now descending helically around the spire at whose base the incidents had occurred. They hurtled down, accelerating, the Marines within them feeling their gravity lighten; like colossal versions of the birds they were named after, the transports began to draw ever-wider rings around the hive. Now the fullness of the megastructure could be seen and appreciated; it was as big as a small asteroid, and it was alive with the masses of humanity. They were invisible from the gunships, but Gaius knew they were there, somewhere around and behind the intricately sculpted facades.
The descent slowed. Now the birds were gliding, almost parachuting to their final destination, as the golden star above from which the day drew its strength revealed hidden statues on the arcology. It was noon, and now Gaius could see, below, veritable forests of sparkling monuments, lit by mirrors to gleam in the sunlight, multicolored yet with an overall pattern to them. He stared, doing his best to combine that with steering the Thunderhawk.
“The Zenith Statues,“ Frazant noted.
“Indeed,” Gaius said. “Beautiful… But short-lived.”
The sun had passed its highest point; and the fragile order of the mirrors and skylights was lost. The beauty was lost, replaced by a disorganized mixture of lit and darkened areas.
“This is what happened to the Crusade,” Frazant offered, and Gaius had to appreciate how fitting the metaphor was. But in the mosaic, was Horus the light or the darkness? In here, isolated from Legion and Chapter, Erikon Gaius sometimes forgot a galactic war was going on; and that state of mind was one he much preferred to his current one.
The Thunderhawks dove lower, slowing down as they approached the police station where the abnormality had first been noted. Behind, the Hive City still rose, though its heights were now somewhat cloaked by the smoke of countless forges above the convoy. The industrial regions were nowhere near the output of a Forge World, but despite knowing all the statistics Gaius was still amazed at the sheer scale of production.
The smoke concentrated as the Hive deepened, and by the time the gunships knocked greetings to the airstrip at the Arbite offices, the air beyond the widening spire was murky. The Thunderhawks touched down into small reception bays; then, the pollutants were pumped out and cleansed. There were great machines above the smoke-layer that did something similar on a larger scale, if Gaius remembered correctly. Then the bays were bright again, and the grand doors opened.
As Gaius climbed out, one of the two policemen sent to greet him fainted.
“Er,” said the other, pouring out words in a continuous stream, “thank you for coming! We were told, but- Guilliman, this is lucky! What am I saying?! Thank you, thank you, the commander will see you now.”
He scurried in the direction of the commander’s office. Gaius followed, motioning his task force to stay put.
The commander, a large man with a large moustache, proved less impressible. “Hello,” he grunted. “Thank you for coming. I assume you want the situation?”
“Well, the situation is this: 500% jump in disappearances, 30% jump in murders, 100% jump in suicides, and seven of the best police officers in all of Carenn dead- I think they’re dead, but we don’t even know that for sure. We’ve got a problem, lord Captain, some sort of black hole sucking in the people of my division. And as you understand, I don’t like it. I’m close to getting fired, but it’s obvious this rise has nothing to our efforts; so I’ll be simple. Here-” the commander pointed at a large map of what was probably the district- “is ground zero. That’s the epicenter, my statisticians reliably tell me.”
“And what’s there?”
The commander let out a roar of fury. “NO. ONE. KNOWS! I’ve sacrificed my career to end this thing, threw everything I had at it, threw everything the Carennian Arbites had at it- and we don’t even know what in the world it is!” He let out a string of strong curses, then continued his rant, interspersing it with similar profanity.
Gaius stood silently and listened to the commander until the human calmed down. It was clear this man was afraid, both for himself and for his district, but his reaction to subconscious fear was conscious rage. It was a useful trait to have, all in all.
“Anyway,” the man said, breathing heavily, “I’m sorry if I offended your sensibilities, but please. I beg you.”
“Farewell,” Gaius said.
“Farewell,” the frustrated commander answered.
The Space Marines ran into the Hive’s center alert and fully armed. Gaius knew they would look odd to the civilians around them, that the “anomaly” would know they were coming; but there was only so much that could be done to prepare for Astartes arriving.
No one bothered them. As the Space Marines negotiated the corridors and bridges that led them to the epicenter, no attack came. They trod through the heart of the spire, coming to an unremarkable structure nearer the other side- the fabled epicenter.
It was a tower, rising from the relative floor Gaius and the others were standing on; but its top, instead of ending in a pinnacle, spread out across a distant roof, a column in a human cavern. A typical hab-unit’s windows lined its outer walls.
Erikon Gaius of the Ultramarines knocked on the door.
A woman rushed out. She was middle-aged, though she had signs of a rejuv treatment’s early stages; her expression at seeing the Astartes was not one of surprise, but it demonstrated deep awe nevertheless.
“Come in, come in!” she said.
“First,” Gaius said, as threateningly as he judged the order of the Legion tolerated, “explain the disappearances.”
“We’re not- oh, the police are insane about this! Or stuck in bureaucracy, one of the two. You have to believe us- we’re just a church, but the police just write up all our converts as missing persons or murdered.”
“And what about the disappeared police officers?” Gaius dug, choosing not to mention that the Imperial Truth technically prohibited religion (or it did until- no, religion was still forbidden in Ultramar, and that was what mattered right now.)
“They understood the Word too. Come in, come in- I’ll explain. We only want peace, and yet we’re painted as murderers and kidnappers. Kartan!”
Meria Kartan was one of the supposedly-dead police officers. The woman who came out at the priestess’ request did look exactly like the photograph Gaius had been shown. Perhaps it was a fake, but it was looking more and more likely that the priestess was telling the truth- though there was probably a sinister undercurrent to this religion. Bureaucratic mistakes like the mentioned one happened, but not on Ultramar- Gaius assumed, though even that could be wrong.
“Show the Astartes around.”
“I would be honored to,” the former Arbite said with a bow.
“Alright,” Gaius proclaimed. “Put your helmets on; full combat readiness. Squads Zunacles, Thespates, Frazant, with me. Everyone else, stay outside.” He followed his own instruction and then looked at Kartan once more; she did match the picts and the downloaded records of body language, though the details were somewhat off- probably due to the lifestyle change.
She led them through the monastery. It was not unlike a Space Marine Legion’s fortress, with communal living a major focus. Gaius spotted, in passing, two more of the missing Arbites, as well as some other disappeared- though not one of the recorded murder victims showed up.
“We worship five gods,” the priestess explained as she led Erikon Gaius through the multitude of worship chambers, some with disturbingly human-like blood on the altars. “The first is the Rising Sun- that is the Emperor, of course, beloved by all.”
Here Erikon Gaius made his decision, and he barely listened as the woman explained about the High Sun- the god of honor, the Setting Sun- the god of compassion, and the New Moon- the god of hope. All the Captain noted was that the gods were viewed as quite real and concrete entities, which only reinforced his conclusion. He paid no attention to his surroundings, either, except to record a tactical overlay in case of hostilities.
His face plainly exhibited his disgust, but as it was veiled by his helmet, Kartan continued babbling.
“Thus the Full Moon,” the priestess concluded, “is the god of joy, who is also the goddess of joy. Here- smell the ceremonial incense.”
“But I insist! We forbid-”
“No.” The woman shrank back, Gaius absentmindedly noted. “Now I will tell you what will happen. Religion is antithetical to the Imperial Truth. This organization has a two-month grace period to disband, after which the cult members will return to their duties and families. We’ll take care of the police records.”
“But please! Has my talk of honor not-”
“I have told you what will happen! And that, by Ultramar, is what will happen. I trust you will not resist?”
“No,” the priestess said. “Of course not.”
“Just remember,” Gaius concluded, “we will be watching.”