Through the haze of pain suppressors and stimulants, Deimos complies. He grinds his teeth, straining, arching his head back with effort. Apothecary Prior Ixos adjusts several of the intravenous feeds. A moment later Deimos feels the tingling discomfort in his nerves ease, his visual focus improves slightly. He can distinctly feel his missing left arm. The right arm spasms and twitches slightly.
“Well done,” Ixos says.
Deimos wants to spit with frustration. The movement was purely involuntary. Now he makes a more deliberate action. His brain thinks he is clenching his fist, but the fingers of his right hand barely move.
“That’s it,” Ixos encourages him. “Once more.”
Deimos puts all his formidable concentration behind making a fist. His fingers curl a tiny bit.
“Splendid,” Ixos says. “That’s fine progress.” Now he moves around the low bed and inspects Deimos’ left shoulder. “And the stump is healing very cleanly. Once the inflamation of the burns dies down, we can begin fitting the augmetic.”
Deimos doesn’t want an augmetic, but he’s not getting the arm back any other way. There are limits to even a Space Marine’s healing ability. He is lucky Ixos was able to reattach his right arm.
“My legs?” he says.
“Nothing wrong with your legs, brother,” Ixos tells him gently. Nothing but the plasma burns, and shrapnel, and rapidly healing fractures. “It’s your spine that’s the problem.”
A soft growl rises in Deimos’ throat as he remembers; a massive World Eaters berserker had tackled him from behind and shattered his spine, crippling him. He shuts his eyes, reliving that desparate fight. Only by the Emperor’s divine mercy did he survive at all.
“Send me… a chaplain,” he says.
Ixos hesitates. “To what purpose?” he asks carefully.
Deimos opens his eyes again, looking up at the glare-lit ceiling of the apothecarion and the bright icon of the Imperial aquila painted there. “My Emperor has seen fit … to spare my life. I cannot question His wisdom. Only my own fortitude. I seek guidance.”
Ixos nods. “I will pass your request to Chaplain Kroxus.”
It is not Kroxus but Lothen who answers his request. The chaplain comes to his bedside in full armour; gleaming black battle plate. Parchments inscribed with prayers and blessings rustle quietly as he removes his skull-faced helm and takes a knee beside the stricken veteran. “Honoured Brother Deimos,” he says, “the Emperor knows your sacrifice.”
Deimos tries to reach out, but still his arm does not respond properly. The limb spasms, his fingers curl into a loose fist and lock that way for a moment before slowly relaxing open again.
Careful of the veteran’s extensive burns, Lothen lays a gauntleted hand on Deimos’ shoulder, above the line of neat dense sutures where Ixos reattached the arm. Scar-tissue is rapidly forming over the area and eventually the sutures will be absorbed and dissolved.
“I serve His will,” Deimos says. “I yearn to fight again. To carry His justice … to the enemies of mankind. But I am broken.”
“In body, perhaps,” the chaplain allows. “But it is the spirit which is always more important. I know your spirit is formidable. The Emperor knows your dedication. Do not despair; He has a plan for you, brother.”
“What plan?” Deimos says.
Lothen shakes his head. “That is for the Emperor to reveal to us in His own time.”
“I’m afraid I am out of time, chaplain,” Deimos confesses.
“Have faith, my brother,” Lothen charges him.
“How is he, prior?” Lothen queries. Since his visit to Deimos a week ago he has made it a regular habit to check on the veteran’s progress.
“Physically he is stable,” Ixos answers, “though his healing is not as far along as I’d hoped. Initially I believed his spinal nerves would regenerate, but now…” he trails off, letting Lothen fill in the gap for himself.
“And how would you describe his spiritual condition?” the chaplain presses.
“Poor,” Ixos says. “He constantly iterates his desire to fight, but he despairs of ever returning to the battlefield. I’ve fitted his left shoulder to receive an augmetic limb. Techmarine Eskil has a plan to modify the neurolinks for his armour to allow him to walk again. But I’m afraid it won’t be enough.” The apothecary clenches his fists in frustration.
Lothen gives a solemn nod. If he cannot perform in combat, Deimos’ only option will be ‘retirement’ back to the Angels Sanguine fortress monestary, to live out the rest of his centuries-long existence behind the lines. He might become an instructor of recruits, or an artisan or armourer in the chapter’s armourium, and while there is of course great honour in such a duty, it chafes a warrior’s sense of purpose and worth to be left behind from the battlefront.
Today Deimos learns to walk again. In half armour, with Chaplain Lothen at hand to support him should he need it, he staggers forward step by step. The armour is wired into his spine. Techmarine Eskil has modified the interface to interpret signals between his brain and his crippled lower body. Every step is fought for, as if he stood on a battlefield overrun by foes. He remembers all his long history of warfare as he bullies himself forward by sheer force of will:
Left foot; Garnis Primar. Right foot; the ork incursion at Heleras. Left foot; Damar’s Edge. Right foot; the bitter close-quarters melee at Loquistellas, among the standing stones.
Lothen mutters a continuous litany of scripture. Deimos hates to be ungrateful, but he wishes the chaplain would shut up. He tunes out his brother’s voice, concentrating on the next step. Left foot forward. Left foot. Ceramite squeals across the decking as he drags the limb up.
When he falls, Lothen catches him, but the rough contact sends a fire of discomfort across his body. He is not healing properly. His enhanced physiology is strained to its limits. His burns fester. He blames the World Eaters, and some unkown taint they must have carried to Vrisngr.
“That’s enough for today, brother,” Lothen tells him gently.
Deimos spits. Rage and frustration boil within him like a firestorm. He hates the weakness of his body as fervently as he hates Chaos and the traitor World Eaters.
As the armour is removed, piece by piece, Deimos closes his eyes so he won’t have to look at his useless legs. “Deimos,” Lothen calls to him.
“Let him be,” Apothecary Ixos says. “He’s exhausted. Probably did himself more harm than good.”
“Speak to me, brother,” Lothen presses.
“I have nothing to say,” Deimos says. His voice is extraordinarily deep and anger makes it more so. There are no words for the all-consuming fury. He is shaking with it; shaking with rage, not fatigue.
“Look at me,” Lothen says, and this time his voice carries the weight of command. Deimos meets the chaplain’s hard gaze, surprised by the determination in his fellow’s eyes. “This is only the first day, brother. It will get better. By the Emperor’s grace you will be running at the end of the week.”
That calms the fury somewhat. Ixos and Lothen carry him back to bed. He hates to be manhandled. He would rather crawl. But he appreciates the spirit in which assistance is given. For his dignity and for the brotherhood between them all they will never leave it to servitors, and they will never let him crawl.
“Do you want a sedative?” Ixos asks.
Deimos growls rather than deign to give a verbal response. Ixos merely nods.
The lumens are dimmed, but the aquila on the ceiling still shines like a beacon. Perhaps he is more tired than he thought, he could swear the double-headed eagle winked at him.
Today, at long last, Deimos makes a fist with his right hand. There is almost no delay between his mental decision and the physical response. It gives him no satisfaction. Infection rages in his burn-ravaged flesh. Ixos has flooded his system with counterbiotics and steroids, but he gets weaker by the day.
“There is nothing left,” he whispers. “No way back.”
“There is always a way,” someone tells him.
He thinks it is Lothen, but it might be Romanus, or Ixos, or someone else… “Away.” He blinks and forgets to open his eyes again. It has been days since he last wore the armour and tried to walk. He never made as much progress as he did the first day. “Away.”
“All things are possible in the Emperor’s might,” the voice says.
Deimos mouths the word but can put no breath behind it. He makes the fist again. He can feel his left arm; his left hand also making a fist. His left arm was torn off by a World Eater at Vrisngr, a moment before his right arm was torn off.
“Brother Deimos?” the voice calls to him. It might be Brother Captain Lomek’s voice. Heras Lomek is dead. At Vrisngr. Killed by World Eaters. Deimos knows this. He was there. He helped to carry the captain’s remains from the battlefield.
“My Emperor,” Deimos breathes. “Let me fight for You again.”
“Emperor love you, brother,” the speaker says. Deimos opens his eyes. Lothen kneels at his bedside again. “I will find a way,” the chaplain promises him.
Deimos lets his fist relax open.
He spends most of his time sleeping now. When he is awake he has trouble differentiating between reality and drug- and fever-induced hallucinations. The only thing solid in his awareness is constant pain. Everything else comes to him distorted. The painted aquila above his bed seems to breathe and stir, fluttering its wings, nodding its fierce heads.
Lothen stands vigil beside Deimos’ bed, watching their brother’s troubled sleep and fitful periods of waking. He prays. When he is awake, Deimos simply stares at the Imperial aquila above him. Lothen isn’t sure the veteran is aware of him at all, even when Lothen wipes tears from Deimos’ eyes. The stricken marine whispers and growls in phrases the chaplain can’t always understand.
Their brother will die if the infection cannot be purged. After losing so many at Vrisngr, it would be a terrible blow to the chapter to lose Deimos’ centuries of experience as well.
“It’s his only chance,” the chaplain insists.
Ixos nods slowly. “I thought of that. I’ll have to place him into stasis until we return home. Even then, there’s no guarantee it will work.”
“The sarcophagi have brought warriors back from the very brink of death,” Lothen reminds him. The sarcophagi are devices of ancient and mysterious medical technology; a precious few inherited from their parent chapter, the Blood Angels. Normally they are used to incubate chapter initiates as they undergo the transformation from mortal youths to fully enhanced Adeptus Astartes warriors. Occassionally they are employed to heal veteran marines from exceptionally grievous wounds.
“It must be his choice,” Ixos says.
So they put it to the veteran. Ixos explains, Lothen offers encouragement. “It is your best chance of returning to fighting form,” Ixos says. “But I will not do it without your agreement. You have more than earned your warrior’s rest, if you choose it.”
Deimos is silent for a very long time. He stares up at the aquila above his bed, weighing his options. “My Emperor has let me survive,” he says at last. “There is a reason. I will do it. I must.”
The transit home is long, but Deimos spends the passage in suspended animation, oblivious. Immediately upon their return, while the rest of the company is mourning their losses at Vrisngr, Ixos conveys Deimos to the Hall of Sarcophagi and lays him into one of the sacred relics. After that, all they can do is wait, and pray.
“The infection is cleared,” Ixos tells the chaplain. “The burns are mostly healed. His other injuries remain; there is no spinal regeneration of any kind.”
Lothen bows his head, disappointed on behalf of their brother. The sarcophagus has expelled Deimos of its own accord, after only three days. They must assume that the device can do no more for him.
“I have done everything I can,” Ixos goes on. “He will live, but he will remain crippled. He cannot return to the company in this condition; his injuries would be a liability in combat. The only thing left for him is a station here,” on the homeworld, away from the war.
“I think he would rather die,” Lothen says quietly.
“You are right.” Ixos grunts a laugh, it is grim humor. “Deimos could never meekly accept retirement.”
“There is one alternative left,” the chaplain suggests.
Ixos shoots him a hard look. “You nearly overstep yourself, chaplain,” he says, warning in his tone. “Who is apothecary here? What alternative?”
“Bind him into a dreadnought chassis,” Lothen says.
“No.” Ixos shakes his head. “I won’t put him through that. He’s suffered enough.”
“But he wants to fight,” Lothen insists.
“He’s not compatible!” Ixos says.
“I’ve seen the same analyses you have,” the chaplain counters. “He has a sixty-seven-percent probability of success.”
“Leaving a huge margin for failure,” the apothecary says. He sighs heavily. “False hope is worse than no hope.”
“He deserves this chance,” Lothen says quietly.
The Apothecary’s shoulders slump. “I can’t argue that,” he admits. He looks at the ravaged body on the bed for a long time. At last he says, “I will ask the Techmarines.”
“You will accompnay me,” Ixos says. “I’ll need you to reinforce the argument to Forgemaster Eamon.”
The chaplain nods at once. “Lead the way.”
“No,” Eamon answers bluntly once Ixos and Lothen have presented their petition. “Out of the question. We don’t have the resources to waste if his body rejects the interface. You know that. We can’t afford to take any candidate with less than ninety-percent rating.”
“I know,” Ixos says. The Angels Sanguine are a small chapter, barely half-strength, and their material assets are likewise limited. Waste and carelessness is not tolerated. “But I have failed to heal him,” he goes on. “This is his last chance – his only chance to fulfill his desire to fight again.”
“He is supremely driven, Forgemaster,” Lothen says. The Techmarine turns to face him as the chaplain continues; “I am sure the integration will succeed. The Emperor is generous.”
“The Emperor’s grace is all that would facilitate this,” Eamon mutters darkly. “If he rejects the interface he’ll suffer twice as much. He’ll go mad with it.”
Ixos gives a sober nod, but says only, “If.”
The Techmarine stares at them mutely for a long minute. “No. I’m sorry, brothers.”
“Apothecary, Chaplain. Wait a moment.”
In the corridor outside the armourium Lothen stops and lays a hand on Ixos’ arm to hold him from continuing on. Together they face the other Techmarine.
“Master Eskil, well met,” Lothen greets him with quiet courtesy. Eskil is senior Techmarine of their own company.
“I heard your proposal to the Forgemaster,” Eskil says. “I think he was wrong to refuse you.” He pauses, nervous at challenging his superior to two marines who outrank him. Lothen nods for him to continue. “Since venerable Dyomek’s death, we have only one dreadnought in the company. But we have a chassis available. Honoured Deimos is a hero of the chapter. It doesn’t seem right that he should be shut away here, to languish in retirement, when another posibility exists.”
Ixos says, “The Forgemaster has denied our request.”
Eskil refutes him simply, “This is the right thing to do.”
“Are you willing to subvert the Forgemaster to do the right thing?” Chaplain Lothen asks. his voice is cold and stern.
Eskil does not hesitate. “Yes, chaplain.”
“Then let us waste no more time,” Ixos says. “Prepare the chassis, I will make Deimos ready.”
Deimos is a pale, wasted shadow of his former strength. Ixos wakes him briefly to explain, and then smothers his awareness with anesthetoids and suppressors. He isn’t sure how much the veteran understands, but the last expression on Deimos’ face before he loses consciousness seems to be one of relief.
Lothen stands by, awaiting Ixos’ readiness.
At last the signal comes. Eamon is away from the forge, or occupied completely with some other task. Eskil gives them succinct instructions, no trace of hesitation in his voice.
Ixos nods to the chaplain, who intones a litany of gratitude to the mercy and generosity of the immortal Emperor.
The armourium is hot with forge-fire and full of the ring of hammers, the splash of sparks thrown off by cutting torches and welders, the stink of molten metal and ceramite and honest Astartes sweat. Eskil meets them and leads the way to an adjacent hall.
Three massive shadows lurk within, all hard angles and martial threat. Two are dormant, their systems dark. The one in the center is strung with power cables and the carapace yawns open, ready to receive its pilot. Teltales flash and glow, the interior is illuminated by soft red light.
“The chassis is ready,” Eskil tells them. “We must first bind him into the casket.”
Deimos dreams. He is suspended in a warm ocean, gentle sunlight upon his uplifted face. A two-headed eagle soars overhead. Gradually he becomes aware again. He is suspended in fluid, a nutrient rich biochemical soup. Neurolink cables trail from the plugs and sockets across his body. Horror and claustrophobia threaten to overwhelm him for a terrible moment. Then his awareness surges through the interface. He is suddenly conscious of himself as a titanic war machine. As his sensor array comes online he looks down on the Space Marines standing before him. A targeting reticle highlights each one in turn, and rejects a lock as each one is identified as a friendly.
A new figure storms into view, armoured in red, a giant servo-arm folded above his shoulders; anger projects from every nuance of his body language. “What are you doing?!” the newcomer demands.
Instinctively Deimos responds to the perceived threat by coming into a fighting stance. His new body responds in unfamiliar ways. The targeting reticle drops over the furious Techmarine, but continues to reject a lock. His arms – both arms! – come up, bringing heavy weapons with them. The clatter of autoloaders echoes through the cavern.
Deimos makes a fist. The power-bladed digits of his right blood talon close-combat weapon snap shut with lethal force. There is no delay or hesitation. He makes a fist with the left hand and a burst of promethium flame illuminates the chamber for a moment.
Apothecary Ixos ignores the arrival of the Forgemaster. All his concentration is bent on the readouts. Chaplain Lothen intercepts the senior Techmarine, blocking his advance with his black-armoured body and the stern regard of his skull-faced helm. Eskil is the one who answers. “We are doing what is right, Forgemaster.” The conviction in his voice gives his superior pause. Eamon looks up at the forbidding silhouette of the new dreadnought.
Ixos also regards his patient. “Brother Deimos?” he calls.
Deimos limbers his weapon arms again, and cycles a dozen other systems, quick as thought. He rocks on his heavy piston legs like a pugilist preparing for a bout. “I stand ready.” If anything the vox augmitter of the dreadnought chassis makes Deimos’ voice even deeper. The hall vibrates to his subterranean pitch.
“How do you feel?” the apothecary asks.
The dreadnought pauses, then takes a sudden lumbering step forward. The others stand back as Deimos takes his first experimental strides. He advances several paces, swivels his boxy torso to right and left, then executes a stomping turn. At last he rumbles his answer; “Alive.”