Space Marines do not sleep; not in the conventional sense. They rest by closing down portions of their brains in sequence, while others remain semi-aware, ready to come to full alert – ready to fight – at a moment’s notice. Brother-Codicier Pergas uses his rest period for ritual meditation, focusing and honing the psychic gift which has earned him a Librarian’s mantle.
Even though he is not asleep, he dreams. He trawls the immaterium with his mind, exploring and parsing the impressions he finds there. The same visions have come to him now three times during his meditation. It is a bad dream, but not really a nightmare. A sensation of weightlessness claims him, as though his body were suspended in warm fluid. The visuals are murky, but he gets the impression of a close, dim chamber with a domed roof, and a multitude of figures pressing close around him as he floats in his strange bath. He can hear a rhythmic sound, like voices reciting scripture, but cannot make out the words. The vision is vaguely unsettling, but nothing he can pin down. He does not understand it, and can find no overt threat in it.
Sensing that they are near their destination, and therefore near the time of their deployment, he ends his meditation, coming back to full awareness. As he lets out a long slow breath and rises smoothly to his feet, the ship’s intervox chimes. Sergeant Ursus’ voice comes; “Brother-Codicier Pergas; to the arming chamber.”
Pergas smiles, mildly amused at the precision of his own timing. He keys the vox and answers, “On my way, brother sergeant.” He takes up his force weapon: a falcata crafted by his own hands and tuned to his psyche. In combat he will channel his gift through the blade and deliver the raw energy of the aether against his enemies. In meditation it serves as a focusing aid. Returning the weapon to its sheath at his hip he opens the hatch and strides from his meditation chamber into the corridor.
The ship’s crew step aside for him, whether consciously acknowledging his rank, or subconsciously reacting to his giant, well-muscled, fighter’s build. Skiming the surface thoughts from their minds requires no effort. He finds most of them are suitably impressed, many of them honestly proud that their vessel conveys a squad of mighty Space Marines. A few are resentful of his and his brothers’ prestige, but equally fearful of their lethal capabilities.
Falken falls into step with him as they near the arming chamber. “Brother-Codicier,” he says quietly, greeting the Librarian with a nod.
“Always so formal,” Pergas says, smiling faintly. Long familiarity precludes the need to read Falken’s thoughts. The veteran is uneasy around him because of his psychic ability. Most psykers, even Astartes Librarians, must endure a degree of mistrust, if not outright antagonism. Such a gift is often seen as an abomination, even by those who would harness and use it to protect humanity. “How long will it take for you to trust me?”
“A good while longer, I think, Brother-Codicier,” Falken says. His tone is carefully courteous, but not friendly. Falken is a veteran of nearly three hundred years’ service. He is wily, scarred and hardened by his experience. Pergas holds out little hope of ever winning the elder Space Marine over as a friend, but it stings to have that tension between them even after nearly thirty years in the same squad.
The others are already within the arming chamber, waiting for them. Brother Sergeant Ursus is inspecting Notal’s bolter. The youngest member of their squad, Notal is already in full armour, helmet sealed, at rigid attention. His red battle plate is immaculate, polished to a high sheen, the winged-blood-drop symbol of the Blood Angels proud upon his pauldron. Only a few honours and purity seals adorn his armour and it is yet to bear any artifice, etching, or engraving. In contrast to the sergeant’s armour it is a study in simplicity.
Ursus’ wargear is patterened with subtle embellishments of his own design: elegant filigree in the theme of feathered wings and the fierce, double-headed aquila of the Imperium. Parchments trail from a dozen or more purity seals; prayer scrolls and oaths of his service. Badges and tokens from significent battles have been integrated directly into the armour.
Vertanis is currently in the process of donning his wargear, assisted by three chapter serfs. Each armour segment is ritually blessed as it is fitted and secured in place.
Ursus concludes his inspection and returns Notal’s bolter. The younger battle brother salutes – his right fist over his primary heart – and receives his weapon.
“Honoured Brother Falken,” Ursus greets his veteran, and his Librarian; “Brother-Codicier Pergas.”
“Brother Sergeant,” Pergas aknowledges and they both salute.
“Armour yourselves and ready weapons,” Ursus says. “Our briefing with Magos Cognito will commence in forty minutes. We will embark to the surface immediately after.”
“As the Emperor wills,” says Falken.
At the appointed time the five armoured giants assemble on the ship’s strategium, behind the bridge; four in gleaming red armour, and one – Librarian Pergas – in rich blue. Magos Cognito is already waiting for them, along with his senior techpriests, leader of skitarii, and ships officers. However this briefing is primarily for the benefit of the Space Marines, and the others hang back, giving the Astartes the floor.
“Let me begin by once more extending my gratitude to you and your men, sergeant,” the Magos says. “We are endebted to the Blood Angels for their support,” he adds with a bow. Cognito is far more personable than many of the Adeptus Mechanicus techpriests Ursus has encountered. His face appears to be completely organic, but for a fine geometric lace of circuitry just beneath the skin. The rest of him is a complex assemblage of organics, cybernetics, and augmetic limbs and surrogate organs. Most of the details of his physiology are hidden beneath the plush red robes of his office, but the augmentations are clearly visible in the machined-steel manipulators which replace his hands, and the mechadentrites which coil and uncoil restlessly like dextrous bionic tentacles.
Ursus aknowledges the techpriest’s obeisance with a nod. “It is our privelage and honour to assist the Adeptus Mechanicus as they persue the holy work of our Emperor.”
“Omnissiah be praised,” Cognito exclaims in confirmation.
“Indeed. It is most fortuitous that His will placed us in position to join your mission,” Ursus says. “Tell us now, magos, where are we bound?”
“Aestus,” Cognito names the world. A whiplike mechadendrite plays across the brass and ivory control panel, calling up the holomap display. A light-sculpture image of the small world blossoms above the projectors mounted in the map table. The planet is almost completely covered in deep oceans, girded by a lacy belt of archipelagoes, with its only major continent in the vicinity of the north pole.
“Once there was a thriving human civilization here,” the magos begins. “But, just prior to the Age of Strife, an undetermined event skewed the planet’s axis and precipitated a mass extinction. Humanity died out here, but much of their ancient technology remains.
“The tilt in the planet’s axis creates a protracted seasonal effect,” Cognito continues. “For three quarters of the local year the surface of the main continent is in endless night. All the megafauna have adapted to live primarily in darkness. Our research station is in operation only during the last quarter of the year, when the continent is in daylight. Our personnel have been working diligently to recover and study as much as possible, and they have just recently located a substantial and highly valuable cache.
“We are here to secure and recover as much as we can. However I am told that the cache is located in a deep network of tunnels which are inhabited by various predatory megafauna. Such creatures would be prohibitively dangerous to our magi and servitors, and while our skitarii would do their utmost to defend us, it would greatly expedite our mission if your squad would consent to enter ahead and clear the way.”
Ursus is impressed by the man’s tact. Many adepts of the Mechanicus are exceedingly prideful and would not hesitate to order Space Marines about like hired mercenaries.
“As the Emperor wills, it shall be so,” Ursus tells him.
The research station is literally on the edge of the world. Suspended on a cliff face a thousand feet above sea level, and nearly as far beneath the level of the continental plain, it seems to hang from the ice-crusted stone like an oddly industrial shelf fungus.
Their shuttle transport comes to rest on the wide apron of a landing platform. Ursus leads from the front as the squad disembarks. It is snowing gently outside, broad white flakes drifting steadily down. There is no wind. The Astartes deploy in flawless order, establishing a security perimeter and only relaxing from a combat footing at his order. He is especially impressed with Notal. Their newest battle brother is steady and savvy, unhesitating in responding to commands, but sharply intelligent in his own right. Ursus expects Notal to progress quickly and advance to lead his own squad someday.
Pergas is the only one who goes without a helmet. He notices the cold, but is not bothered by it. Snowflakes settle on his shaven scalp to melt against his hot skin. Tiny trickles of water slide down his face. He enjoys the sensation. The psycho-reactive crystals of his hood hiss softly as the moisture evaporates from their charged surfaces.
He can hear the very faint, light ticking of flakes striking his deep blue armour.
He can hear the booming of the surf a thousand feet below them, and the low hum of the generators which serve the research station. The rest of the world is seemingly silent.
They enter through a double hatchway, much like the airgate of a starship. A robed Mechanicus adept greets them; “Worthy Astartes. Be welcome to Aestus Research Station.” His voice is synthetic, as his face is crafted from burnished copper. “Magos Cognito has communicated the purpose of your mission.”
Ursus appraises the adept with a critical eye. He notes a thousand subtle details at a glance, but the core of his assessment is that the man poses no threat. “We will begin immediately,” he says. “Direct us to the tunnel access.”
“At once, sir,” the adept agrees, nodding, and turns to lead the way.
The Blood Angels fall into an easy patrol formation, needing no direction from their sergeant. Falken and Notal lead, Ursus paces in the center of the group, Vertanis and Pergas guard the rear. As they move through the base they see little of its functionality, the sacred work that goes on here is concealed from casual observation behind code-sealed hatchways inscribed with the cog-and-skull of the Mechanicus. Ursus accepts this. War is his remit, not science. He leaves the particulars of industry and technology to the Techmarines and the Mechanicus.
The entry to the tunnels is sealed by another broad hatch. Likely, Ursus guesses, there is a second behind it, just like the main entrance. “There is a clear main corridor,” their guide says, “with lesser tunnels branching off. The majority were dug by our exploration crews. Some are natural caverns in the bedrock. A few belong to the megafauna.”
“Noted,” says Ursus with a nod. “Open the way, adept, and let us be at it.”
The tech adept moves to the brass panel beside the door, types a keycode, and spits a burst of static noise which the Space Marines assume is a binaric password.
The hatch eases open, and Ursus sees his assumption confirmed by the second closed hatch ahead. The squad troops into the airlock space, the first door grinds closed again, there is a hiss of air exchange. As atmospheric pressure changes, Pergas opens his mouth to compensate. Then the next hatch opens.
The tunnel was obviously dug with industrial meltas, the walls bearing the glassy evidence of stone run molten and then cooled solid again. It progresses almost exactly toward planetary north, straight and level. Ursus feels the attention of his squad upon him, and nods.
Notal and Falken lead off, Ursus follows. Vertanis walks behind his sergeant and Pergas falls back to the rearmost position. Falken mutters a littany as he activates his hand-held auspex. Pergas allows his psychic awareness to expand beyond their immediate group. He floats his consciousness in a bubble around them, feeling the surrounding area for the feral minds of the mega-predators. They all draw weapons.
The first hour passes without incident. The tunnel tracks steadily forward, and passageways open off of it to the right and left. Falken picks up some animal activity on his auspex, but nothing significant confronts them.
An hour and a half out, Notal kills a hairy, mammalian spider-thing, about the same mass as a Space Marine, but having ten limbs and very large venom-dripping fangs. Being adapted to total darkness, it has no eyes, but rather a cluster of bald, fleshy sensory nodes across its head, and long guard-hairs, almost like whiskers, all over it’s body.
It is a quick, brutal encounter. Notal strikes with the lightning fury the Blood Angels are renowned for. The animal, taken by surprise, tries to catch its attacker and instead loses limbs. It tries to escape and fails; it dies. Notal wipes dark blood from the blade of his gladius. The squad moves on.
Two hours fourty minutes in, they pass through a large natural cavern, carved out over millenia by water erosion. On the far side, the main tunnel begins a series of loose curves, though it is not clear whether the new configuration was chosen to move toward assets, or away from hazards.
In the next cavern they at last hit a nest of megafauna, giant blind beasts something like the ursines of ancient Terra, but with massive digging claws on the foremost of six pairs of limbs. Eight of the creatures are disturbed by the squad’s arrival and come in a frenzy of teeth, and claws as long as a Space Marine’s arm.
Falken kills two with neat double-headshots from his bolter. Notal again eschews his ranged weapon to close and kill with a blade. Pergas seeds confusion in the minds of the beasts, causing one to shy away from its charge and another to turn and attack one of its own. Vertanis picks off the animal which turned aside. Ursus engages the last two, drawing bolt pistol and power sword in the one smooth, well-practiced action.
Two more, much bigger and more grizzled, plunge at them across a shallow pool, splashing up mineral-rich froth with their claw-bladed feet. These must be adults, the others perhaps their brood. Their two-fold roar vibrates the enclosed space and only the Space Marines’ aural dampeners protect them from being deafened.
The lead animal has huge yellowed tusks curving up from its lower jaw. Ursus presumes this is the male. Putting down one of the original six with the power sword through its brain pan, he braces to meet the newcomers. Notal beats him to it. The young Space Marine has finished his first kill, and his blood is up. He roars as he springs at the giant male, actually staggering the massive animal with his weight and momentum.
Ursus meets the second beast, the largest of all, which he supposes to be female.
Of the original eight, two survive. One has Vertanis by the shoulder in its gnarly teeth, but his armour is so far holding against that awesome crushing pressure. He has succeeded in wounding it, but can’t aim his bolter higher than the monster’s forepaws.
The other is still confused. It snuffles and moans over the body of the littermate it has just killed. Pergas reaches out with his psychic power and crushes the heart in its chest.
Falken rescues Vertanis – another pair of carefully placed headshots – and hauls him out from under the massive corpse. “Got a bit too close?” the veteran chides in a mocking tone.
“Evidently,” Vertanis admits, examining the tooth marks on his shoulder guard. The proud chapter crest is marred only slightly. He shrugs and limbers his arm, checking that the armour mechanisms are not damaged.
The huge female rears up on her hindmost pair of legs and swings both right forepaws at their sergeant. The phenomenal double-impact bowls Ursus over and sends him sprawling. Vertanis and Falken fill the gap, harrying the animal with bolter fire, until their sergeant regains his feet. Pergas draws his falcata, charging the blade with psychic energy. It casts a weird light in the cavern.
Notal has managed to get himself astride the male’s brutish neck, just behind the head. The mega-predator howls frustration and pain. It careens into eerily organic limestone formations, trying to brush him off. Lacy structures built up over thousands of years take only a moment to destroy.
Notal fastens his left hand in a deathgrip on the monster’s scruff and with the right powers the gladius in behind the giant skull, severing the spinal column. The beast goes down at once. Notal snarls his dominance, springing clear and charging for the one remaining animal, the enormous female. She hears him coming and wheels to meet him, fouling Vertanis’ and Falken’s shots, so that their bolts rip out big meaty craters in her flank instead of her head. Screaming in pain and rage, she spins back again, barreling into the two Marines and all but trampling them under her shaggy bulk.
Pergas is there, driving her back with quick, sharp cuts. His falcata bites and burns at a stroke, psychic fire flashing at each contact. The beast shies off from him, howling. He can taste her fear, confusion, and hatred for this supremely unknown suffering. It is well the beast aborts the attack, because he suffers a wave of disorientation and nausea. The fit passes in a moment. He dismisses it, focusing again on the threat at hand.
Sergeant Ursus lunges, catching the beast in the side, between the shoulders of her first and second pair of limbs. The power sword sinks deep. The apex predator flails at him with both forepaws, but he dodges this time, ripping his weapon back in a wash of hot blood. Notal hits her in the chest an instant later, and rams his gladius up through the lower jaw into the brain.
The mega predator whimpers, her jaws pinned shut. Then she topples forward. Notal neatly sidesteps the falling corpse and cracks the heavy skull as he dislodges his weapon. Immediately he is on his guard again, scanning the cavern for any further threat. Each breath is a little growl in his throat, amplified by his helmet vox emitters.
“Notal,” Ursus calls sharply.
The younger Space Marine snaps around toward his voice. The others brace themselves for another fight. If Notal cannot master the brute impulse, they will have to put him down. It is the dark legacy of the Blood Angels that their great strength and ferocity in battle may also be their ultimate downfall.
“Stand down,” Ursus commands.
Notal does not immediately obey. The throaty growl builds.
“Notal!” Ursus barks.
The other seems to start. He shakes himself, glances around, and relaxes his guard. He lowers his weapon and bows his head. “Appologies, Brother Sergeant.”
“You know the danger, brother,” Ursus says. “You must control yourself. Always.”
“Yes, sergeant,” Notal says.
“Clean your blade, and put it away,” Ursus tells him. “Stick to the bolter for now.”
This time Notal does not hesitate, although the rest of the squad can read his disappointment.
“Be sure of them,” the sergeant orders the squad in general and they all fall about making certain the mega-predators are truly dead. In a minute they are finished. Ursus signals advance, and Vertanis takes point as they continue into the tunnel.
The hours spin out in the dark. Their auspex pips and fuzzes quietly. Pergas senses animal minds about, but nothing of high enough intelligence to pose a threat.
Five hours nine minutes have passed, when, at the fore, Vertanis pauses, lifting his head in the manner of a dog processing a scent. “I smell industrial chemicals. And ice.”
Ursus nods, accepting the information, and signals advance. Vertanis resumes his forward motion.
The tunnel transitions abruptly from cut stone to a weird assemblage of debris. It appears as if all the material evidence of a human civilization had been crushed together and used like compressed gravel to fill up a crevasse. The tunnel cuts on through this mass of junk. Ice sheets the walls in some places, twisting through the inherent cracks and gaps in the fill, like root tendrils of the mighty glacier weighing above their heads.
They progress another hour through this weird maze. Vertanis signals halt and brings his bolter up, snug to his shoulder.
“Contact,” Falken warns, his auspex lighting up with returns. “Throne… there’s hundreds of them.
They come in a flood. They are not large, roughly dog-sized, but in such numbers they could eventually overwhelm even Space Marines. The creatures are like something between a rat and a mustelid, long-bodied, with heavy tails, and sharp teeth and claws. Falken and Notal also shoulder their bolters. They and Vertanis open fire at the frontrunners. Ursus picks off the few that get through with his bolt pistol. Pergas opens his mind to the warp, drawing threads of power to him and priming a psychic defense.
Furry bodies begin to stack up, clogging the corridor. The hoard comes on, scrambling over their kin to get at the Astartes. “Coming up on a reload,” Vertanis warns.
“Brother Pergas,” Ursus prompts.
The Codicier releases the force he has gathered in a pulse of red aetheric fire. It blazes through the tunnel ahead, sweeping rat-beasts from their legs, scorching fur, boiling blood. The animal tide is blasted back.
Vertanis and the others execute their reload in that moment of respite and advance as the flame dissapates. The surviving weasel-dogs break and try to escape. Confusion reigns as animals at the rear continue to press forward while those at the fore scramble to retreat. The Blood Angels forge into them, blasting them to bloody rags. The thunder of bolters discharged in close-quarters drowns out the squealing and howling of the beasts.
Again Pergas suffers a moment of vertigo in the wake of his feat. This time, with his double-pulse beating wetly in his ears, he tastes his recurring nightmare. His awareness of the dreamscape swells. For a moment he seems to be immersed in fluid, and the fluttering heartbeat sounds singular, fragile and small. But that is all he gets before the sensation recedes.
“Brother-Codicier?” Ursus calls.
Pergas shakes himself. “I am with you, brother sergeant.”
They advance after their brothers. In this manner they purge the tunnel clear of the weasel-dogs. Pergas executes his flame attack twice more, always timing it to cover his fellows as they reload. Each time he gets another glimpse of the nightmare. It troubles him, but it is so vague he cannot even form a theory as to its cause or significance.
Vertanis picks off the last stragglers, and silence returns. Ursus rotates his squad again: Falken takes point this time, Pergas next, Vertanis and Notal at the rear behind the sergeant.
They go on. Another hour, two. They meet another swarm of weasel vermin and clear it the same way.
Vertanis remarks on whole objects embedded in the weird amalgam material of the walls: tools, trinkets, a mechanical time piece, a child’s toy, occasional bones, delicate machine parts. “They must be thousands of years old.”
“The cold preserves them, perhaps,” Falken says. There is no interest in his tone. He is a weapon, not an explorer. Pergas wonders if Vertanis will ever lose that sense of curiosity and wonder. He hopes not.
The tunnels change yet again. They find themselves moving through a buried city, sometimes on roadways, sometimes through ancient buildings, but always walled in by the aggregate debris of untold layers of civilizaiton which have collapsed and compacted from above. The squad stalks past windows and doorways packed full of the mess. Occassionally lesser corridors still branch off, but they stick to the main.
It is nearly eighteen hours after they first set out that they reach the hatch. This is almost new, installed here by the Mechanicus, set flush with the walls of the tunnel to either side. Falken tests the vox communicator beside it but receives no answer. He keys the simple mechanism and the seals dissengage with a heavy metallic thump. “No skitarii guard,” he notes. “No coded access. They do not seem overly concerned with security. I thought this was a significant, valuable find.”
Ursus nods and signals them inside. They go in focused battle order, ready for anything. The antechamber beyond is deserted. Lumen strips flicker on in response to their motion. That is the only change. “And why is no one here to monitor and study it?” Falken continues.
Inside his helmet, Ursus frowns. He crosses the antechamber and opens the inner hatch. It is the brother sergeant himself who leads this time as the squad files through.
Here at last the corridor opens out into a huge circular area, clearly a manufactured space. At its center, dominating the room, resides a technological marvel. Ursus removes his helm to get a better view.
“What am I seeing?” Falken wonders, impressed in spite of himself.
“A standard template construct,” Vertanis says, his voice hushed with awe.
Pergas feels as if he is being yanked backwards out of his own mind, and plunged wholly and violently into the reality of his recurring dream. He is suddenly immersed in the vision more competely than ever before. He can touch, hear, taste, smell, see every lucid detail. The fluid surrounding him is blood, hot and fresh. His consciousness is stuffed suddenly into a body which is too small, weak and fragile. Mortal. Human. The figures around him are abominations, clothed in robes of flayed skin. They chant hateful unwords at him, drawing upon arcane and perverted powers older than mankind; older even than this universe.
In the back of his mind, like a dream, he sees that other place: the sterile chamber beneath a frigid world, the relic, and his squad mates. As if from lightyears away he sees/feels his right hand raise a live weapon and turn it on his brother.
His entire being rebels. He thrashes in the blood bath, screaming as he calls on every iota of his aetheric power. This cannot happen!
The robed monstrosities around him reach forward with gnarly, misshapen limbs, fused-knuckled hands and hooked talons, amputated stumps. He feels the weight of their combined focus, psykers all. Their corrupt power is anathema to him. He feels this body which is not his own burning with exposure to their sick energy. He is trapped.
Far away, through his murky dream-sight he watches, helpless, as another intelligence uses his body to murder his brothers.
Falken is the first to die. Pergas shoots him twice in the back of his helmet and the veteran’s corpse topples forward to the ground in a clatter of armour.
The others react with incredible speed, but the killer still has the element of surprise. He uses it to drop Notal – two rounds to the chest as the younger Space Marine spins and raises his bolter. His fourth shot blasts Brother Sergeant Ursus off his feet.
Then Vertanis is on him, slapping the bolt pistol from Pergas’ hand and driving a massive armoured fist into the Codicier’s exposed face. Bone cracks, flesh splits, blood sprays. The Librarian reels, stumbles back two paces, and sits down hard on the deck.
It was his own psychic talent which let the enemy in. He sees that now. He is sick with loathing at what he has done, what he has allowed to happen.
The agony drags him back to his own body. Vertanis could have killed him with that blow, would have if Pergas were a mortal man. He drools blood. The super-dense reinforced bone of his skull is fractured; nose, jaw, and cheekbone broken. Blood is flooding his ruptured sinus. Pain stabs through his skull in time with his pulse. He embraces the red fury of it because it anchors him here.
“What have you done?” Vertanis demands, his voice tight with sorrow and outrage. Sergeant Ursus is climbing to his feet again, with one hand pressed to the gaping wound in his flank.
Pergas sucks a stiffled breath. “Throne.” Even speaking that single word sends fire through his broken face. “Forgive me.” His voice is slurred. He stares in horror at the brothers he has murdered: Falken, on his face, a wash of gore spilling from his ruined helmet; young Notal with a smoking crater in his chest, the bolter fallen from his unfeeling hands. The illustrious history and bright future of their squad both extinguished in a moment. Hot tears course down the Librarian’s face. They have nothing to do with the pain.
At the back of his mind, Pergas feels the enemy trying to reestablish the link, trying to flip him again, to swap his consciousness with that of their puppet. He fights as hard as he can, throwing up every mental barrier he has trained and perfected over his decades of service. He will not be used by them! Never again. He looks up at Vertanis as his brother looms over him. “Destroy me.”
“What?” Even faced with the shocking evidence – two battle brothers dead by Pergas’ hand – Vertanis baulks. “What madness is on you?”
“They want it,” Pergas tells him, forcing the words out through his crippled mouth, over the pestilential fly-buzzing whispers at the back of his mind. “They want the construct. They will kill us all to get it.”
“What are you saying?” Ursus says, his noble face set in an expression of sour menace and pain. “Who wants it?”
“Chaos,” Pergas croaks. His mind is awash with foulness, he tries to rebuild his barriers even as that distant dark choir rips them down. “God-Emperor, help me,” he sobs. His hand twitches with alien impulses, inching toward his belt and his singular falcata. He wonders vaguely whether the puppet could weild it to its full devastating effect. Could that thrall hijack his psychic ability as well as his body? Better if they never find out.
“Vertanis, end him,” Ursus orders.
“Brother Pergas,” Vertanis says, sounding uncertain.
“Kill me,” Pergas says again, “before it is too late.” He feels himself being drawn back toward the other weaker body, submurged in that wretched abattoir. His hand closes on the hilt of his force weapon. He wrenches control again before the blade is drawn, but it costs him. “Now, brother.”
“Do it,” Ursus confirms.
With solemn deliberation, Vertanis steps back, raises his bolter and takes aim. He seems to have accepted this grim duty as hateful but necessary. “I’m sorry. Emperor have mercy on you, Pergas.”
“I am an instrument… of the Emperor’s will…” Pergas whispers, closing his eyes, using the old litany as a prayer, begging their eternal master for forgiveness.
“And by my hand are His enemies destroyed,” Vertanis finishes, and squeezes the trigger.
Far away in an underground chamber thick with the scent of blood, a dozen Chaos psykers perish in the backlash of the Codicier’s death before their subject, the conduit, also succumbs. The wasted body, burned inside out by psychic fire, stops thrashing and floats limply in the steaming, bloody medium.
The deed done, Vertanis hesitantly lowers his weapon. Ursus can tell his brother is disturbed and disheartened by the grim duty he has been called on to perform.
“Steady,” the sergeant admonishes.
Vertanis turns, keeping the bolter in hand, but lowered by his side. He looks at his leader, then down at the rest of their squad, dead on the floor. “How…” he starts and falls silent again. “He killed them,” he says, incredulous at the horror of brother killing brother.
“Steady,” is Ursus’ stern repetition.
“Still your tongue, can’t you?” the sergeant growls. He straightens up, biting down the pain of his wound. His body is already working to stabilize the injury. “You’ve done what needed doing. We’ll avenge our brothers, rest assured.”
Vertanis is shaking his head in dismay.
“Focus, damn you,” Ursus barks.
Vertanis rocks back a step. He couldn’t be more startled if the sergeant had struck him.
“Who did this?” Ursus demands. “Think.”
Vertanis starts, “Pergas-”
“Pergas was used,” Ursus cuts him off. “I don’t like psykers – even though they be Astartes Librarians – but after thirty years I trusted Pergas. He would never knowingly turn on us. Whatever happened was beyond his power to prevent. He didn’t initiate this. Who did?”
“The Mechanicus,” Vertanis says as if the suggestion were equally unlikely.
Ursus nods. “I think so. There’s motive and opportunity.”
“What motive?” Vertanis says.
“The construct!” snaps Ursus. “There is a wealth of knowledge to gain from such a device. More if it still functions,” he turns to look at the vast machine, “and much even if it doesn’t.”
“Why would the Mechanicus kill the Blood Angels for this machine?” Vertanis wonders.
“Not Blood Angels, any Space Marines,” Ursus says half to himself, and sighs, finally working out the details. “Because we were in their way.”
“But we are on the same side!” Vertanis protests.
“Are we?” Ursus does not look at his surviving battle brother. He glares at the machine. Built millennia ago, before the Age of Strife, it carries invaluable secrets and capabilities since lost to humanity. Both sides in the long war would do almost anything to secure it to their own ends. He cannot trust the Mechanicus presence here with them. Neither can he stake a claim to the device with only one other Space Marine at his command. While two Astartes are still a formidable presence, he is wounded, and they have no defense against the full might of the Mechanicus vessel in orbit.
“How many melta bombs can we muster?” he asks.
Vertanis barely hesitates this time, “Four.” They carry one each, excepting Pergas.
“And how many krak grenades?”
“Twice again that number,” Vertanis says.
“Will it be enough?” Ursus mutters, then answers himself; “It must.”
“What is your plan, sergeant?”
“We have no choice, Vertanis. We must do our utmost to deny the Dark Mechanicum.”
“Dark Mechanicum?” says Vertanis, dismayed.
“At all cost, they must not have this device,” Ursus tells him. “We are a step ahead of them, I think. They expected Pergas to finish us all. We have time, but not much. It pains me to damage the construct, but I cannot countenance what will happen if the forces of Chaos claim it for their own. We will do what we can to ruin it, and may the Emperor forgive us.”
By the time the first detonations of their placed charges thunder through the bedrock, they are back in the tunnels, warding the two main approaches to the buried construct. The first wave of skitarii find Ursus and clog the tunnel with their corpses under disciplined fire from the bolter he has claimed from Notal. Vertanis likewise defends the other corridor with his bolter. When no more come at them they use explosives captured from the skitarii to sap the tunnels, burying the bodies and further cutting off the approaches. They move to intercept the next wave in the lesser accessways. Gradually they bottleneck the attackers into two limited tunnels, but even so they will never stop them all. Ursus wracks his brain for any contingency that will allow them to escape and carry warning. There is nothing. All that is left is victory.
“Vertanis,” Ursus voxes.
“Here, brother sergeant,” Vertanis sends.
“We are near the end,” the sergeant tells him. “When the rage comes – and it will – embrace it, make it yours, bend it to our designs. Own the rage, give in to the thirst.”
“Are you sure, sergeant?” Vertanis asks. Always he has been taught to exercise the strictest restraint and control in relation to their genetic Flaw. Each Blood Angel must work constantly to face down the double threat of the Black Rage and the Red Thirst.
“Make no mistake, Dennan.”
Dennan Vertanis nods to himself. “We’re going to die here,” he says.
“Yes, my brother,” Ursus solemnly agrees. “But we will die on our own terms, denying the enemy, defending the Imperium.”
“As the Emperor wills,” Vertanis says in acceptance.
The skitarii come for them en mass. Ursus finally submits to the insistent, hammering blood drive that is his constant companion. The Red Thirst sidelines all higher intellect. He is combat instinct and killing fury wrapped up in armour and weapons. The cyborg soldiers of the Mechanicum die in droves before him. But he is only one. Slowly their weapons erode his beautiful armour, and begin to ravage the flesh within.
Vertanis listens to his sergeant die over the vox. He is locked in fierce combat of his own, and may not render aid. It pains him to defy his leader, yet he must. He is not content to kill skitarii. He wants Mechanicus blood for his murdered brothers. He maintains tight control, nursing the Red Thirst for when it will avail him most.
During the shuttle ride down from orbit, Magos Cognito is calm and composed as the machine-god he worships. There is no need to get emotional. He has run the numbers countless times, and despite all the variables, only one outcome presents itself. The Space Marines will be eliminated and he, Vilelm Naberis Cognito, will claim the standard template construct for his own. With the secrets it holds he will forge a position of supreme power and influence for himself. He will finally command the respect and fealty he has always been due. No more groveling and fawning to the Emperor’s minions.
By the time he has disembarked upon the landing platform the snow squall has escalated into a proper blizzard. Cognito quantifies the precise temperature, wind chill, ambient humidity, and barometric pressure. His cybernetic components begin to compensate for the effects of extreme cold on his organics. A pulse of warmth from subdermal implants imbues the skin of his face with a healthy pink flush.
Inside the research station, a robed adept meeds him, conveying a detailed report in a burst of binaric machine-cant.
A frown creases Cognito’s features as he notes several lines of data at odds with his calculations: Subterranean detonations. Skitarii forces in hostile engagement. Main accessways offline.
<Error/flaw/negative/0> he blurts. <defective/inferior components precipitate failure. load contingency subroutines, execute.> His allies, powerful as they are, have failed in their appointed task. Emotion threatens to cloud his judgement. He is furious. The Space Marines are still alive! They are fighting his skitarii in the tunnels. They are destroying and blocking corridors, gradually closing off access to the construct. <load purge routines, execute. purge corrupt elements. terminate virus/infection/interference. reroute assets.>
<affermative/positive/yes/1> the adept responds. A way will be found to eliminate the usurpers. An alternate route will be discovered or made to reach the construct.
Cognito wastes no time, but forges ahead into the tunnels. As soon as the Astartes interference is eliminated he will begin his work. He moves forward at a steady rate, chosing his path in a way which might seem random to a causal observer. In reality he is calculating the most efficient route through the labyrinth using the tunnels which remain intact.
By the time he reaches the construct chamber, the fighting is over. His first priority is the construct itself, and impatience causes elevated stress to his organics as he waits for the hatch seals to disengage. His mechadendrites writhe in agitation.
Upon entering he absorbs the scene in an instant. A binaric shriek issues from his vocalizer. Adepts and skitarii alike flinch from the sound and the data-packet it transmits. The magos is incensed. The standard template construct which had stood inviolate for thousands of years is now shattered, scorched, and broken. Clearly this is sabotage by the Astartes. Now Cognito looks for the objects of his fury.
Armoured bodies sprawl upon the deck. The skitarii have dragged the dead Astartes together in an untidy row.
<negative/0!> Cognito rages. <incomplete/insuficcient data/data missing/error!> There are only four bodies. <101! rejecting 100! requiring 101! query/retrieve missing data! rectify error!>
Vertanis launches his attack from above. He has waited, partially concealed among ducktwork and massive power feed cables, his armour at minimum output. Now he ramps it up to full once more and drops onto Cognito. His massive amroured form all but crushes the magos, but he doesn’t settle for that. Finally he lowers his defenses to the crimson fury. As the Thirst takes him he has a split moment to relish the abject horror on the magos’ normally emotionless face. Then he forgets himself, forgets vindication, forgets honour, forgets loyalty, forgets even that he does this in vengeance for his dead brothers.
There is only blood and the drive to spill it.
There is only the Thirst.