CHAPTER 1 - PROMISE OF WAR
The Alijes Manufactorum stretched its shadow over the nearby forest, buildings and vegetation alike turning orange and red as the two suns of Navida Prime touched the horizon. The manufactorum was located in a sector recently declared a “zone of Ork activity”, but considering the war effort to support Nectavus VI, the reinforcments were scarce. Lieutenant Fargis, a veteran of the first Sacaellum campaign, was finishing his round of inspection. Within the depth of the manufactorum the adepts of the Ommnissiah performed their strange and cryptic duties. The lieutenant’s men were stationed at each strategic point. If the heavy weapons, projectors, and Leman Russ for support fire weren’t enough to deal with any threats that might arise, they could even count on aerial support within sixteen minutes from the nearby hive of Vamii. Regardless, there were far from any potential front line.
The attack was as sudden as it was violent. In the middle of the night, orks wearing black silently emerged only a few meters from the defensive perimeter. The first defenders were mowed down by the hail of fire from the sluggas. Lieutenant Fargis recaptured a few defensive positions in a heroic charge before turning the heavy bolters to the main courtyard. The Leman Russ in the courtyard remained silent, having been mysteriously sabotaged. His squads opened fire on the attackers for as long as ammunition allowed, but were eventually forced to retreat to within the complex. The attackers pushed them back, corridor after corridor, until they reached the main cogitator control room. Here the last few men were barricading the main gate or helping the wounded, as the members of the Adeptus Mechanicus gathered in the back of the room. In the distance the sound of explosions and dying comrades echoed in the room. The vox-caster officer, the young sergeant Garmal, rushed to his superior.
“Lieutenant…” he frantically gasped, “they…they canceled the aerial support. No one is coming for us.”
“But…” Lieutenant Fargis stammered to himself, “that’s impossible. No one has the authority to…”
An hideous character entered the room through an access point from the restricted undergrounds. He was flanked by two members of the Adepta Sororitas, and on his chest he displayed the imposing rosette of the Inquisition.
“Inquisitor Caius Wroth” , he added in a raspy voice, as if this alone should be sufficient to explain his sudden arrival. He walked confidently towards the members of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Behind him, the imperial guards exchanged confused looks. A massive blow struck the main gate and the guards jumped to hold it.
“Gerontocrat Pelvum Torr?” asked the inquisitor.
“That’s me”, answered a shady figure hidden in a long red robe from which multiple mecadendrites were emerging.
“Are you able to show me a member of your team that knows how to maintain the relic, but not use it?”
The technopriest exchanged a short series of high pitched sounds with his team, then a young adept stepped forward.
“This is transmechanic Jogan Trevor”, announced the technopriest.
A second, even harder blow almost destroyed the main gate. Half the hinges shattered under the violence of the stroke. Impassive, Caius Wroth placed his skeletal hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Gerontocrat Pelvum, can you testify that all your team is gathered here, and that you are the only ones who knows how to operate ‘what is below’ ?”
“Most certainly”, answered the technopriest, with somewhat reluctant pride in his voice.
The inquisitor raised his pistol, the sisters of battle their bolters, and within a heartbeat the members of the Adeptus Mechanicus were swiftly eliminated by the explosive projectiles.
“Thank you”, concluded the inquisitor as the last adept fell.
The guards stood frozen, their weapons raised in absolute confusion. Without looking at them, the inquisitor walked to the main gate which had fallen strangely quiet. It creaked one last time and fell into the room under the weight of a massive nob ork bod. The corridor outside remained eerily quiet. Instinctively the guards moved to the back of the room. The inquisitor alone stepped forward.
“Shaper Agnok”, he articulated aloud with a reverence.
The sound of a snapping beak echoed from the massive silhouette in the corridor. A giant kroot emerged, his arms coated in blood, flesh dangling from his beak.
“What, is human, want?, he asked in an approximative low gothic.
“I know what you have come for.”
“Human you, wanted to it give, to Snagbrat!”
“That was my plan”, conceded the inquisitor, “but we can still do business.”
“And we still you can kill”, spat the kroot leader, raising his barbed rifle.
“I wouldn’t reccomend it”, answered Caius, pointing to the back of the room, “The only people who can operate the device you came for seem to have suffered an extremely ill-timed accident”
The kroot extended his neck to look at the bodies before turning his head to the inquisitor again. His beak snapped rapidly in frustration.
“What, human you want?”
“Kith has sent her lieutenant Liatha to Navida Prime”, said Caius, “I need the item she brought with her.”
Agnok drew up to his full height, pondering the choice, then extended a blood soaked hand to the inquistor.
CHAPTER 2 - BREACHING THE VEIL
Transmechanic Jogan trevor was fidgeting with his belt buckle, across from him the sister of battle who was escorting Inquisitor Caius Wroth stared at him. Jogan
jumped from his seat when the Inquisitor entered the cabin of the valkyrie.
“Your Grace! There is a problem.”
Following the Inquisitor the second sister of battle closed the lateral door, the aircraft’s engines were already roaring.
“Of what type?” asked the old man, unconvinced.
“It’s my wife. I lost communication with her, she was on her way here.”
The valkyrie took off suddenly and those who were not already seated held on to what they could. Jogan, still begging, followed the Inquisitor who was moving to the cockpit despite the shaking aircraft.
“Maybe we should wait for her.”
“I asked you to bring essential things, did I not?” shouted the Inquisitor over the roar of the engines.
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Good. You do not need anything else then.”
The Inquisitor stepped inside the cockpit and Jogan followed him and closed the door, muffling the roar of the engines. The old man was standing behind the pilots and Jogan came to stand near him.
“Your Grace, I am asking because you mentioned a threat, I thought...”
Caius turned his scrawny face towards the young transmechanic.
“Where is your wife ?”
“Last I heard she was in sector AR-A5.”
The Inquisitor thought for a few seconds.
“Then you can go sit down, she is already dead, our enemy does not show mercy.”
Jogan turned pale, his mouth moving but not producing any sounds.
“What do you mean?” He asked sharply. “AR-A5 is in the middle of the Elova II forge system, it’s defended by our best regiments and there’s even a Skitarii cohort. Our troops as well...”
But no one was paying attention to him anymore. The Inquisitor was talking to the co-pilot and the pilot himself was struggling with the controls to maintain stability. Echoes from various messages were coming from the cockpit’s voxcoms. Jogan, shocked, went to look out a window.
Below he could see the spreading facility, jewel of Imperial industry, and every street, every roof, every walkway, everywhere was chaos. Everywhere there were weapons firing, explosions, accidents, thousands of rippers, the smallest tyranid organisms, attacking anything that held a weapon. Ahead of them a carnifex was tearing into a defense tower, tipping it, and thousands of rippers swarmed around it to get inside. Jogan watched as the rippers swarmed the men defending the tower before they had time to raise their weapons. The tower tipped over with a dreadful sound and the pilot pulled hard on the control stick to avoid it as it fell. It grazed the aircraft and crushed a speeding freight train.
More chaos as they moved on, an isolated Leman Russ firing shells into a swarm of rippers only to have the gap it opened close up seconds later; a detachment of sentinels desperately firing their multilasers in an attempt to stop an enemy who only paused to eat its own dead. Everything was drowned under the tide of rippers as far as the eye could see. Jogan was hypnotized by this inconceivable and terrifying spectacle. Motion on the rooftop of a factory further ahead caught his attention. Without thinking, he harmonized his thoughts with the valkyrie’s auspex and his vision mixed with the machine spirit’s and made the rooftop seem much closer.
“Inquisitor!” shouted Jogan.
Caius, who was analysing data on a screen, stood up.
“My wife! She’s over there! She’s alive!”
The Inquisitor squinted, looking where Jogan was pointing.
“Pilot ?” he inquired.
“We will fly over that location in ten minutes.” answered the pilot after checking his instruments.
Caius went back to the battle screen, Jogan cut him off.
“Are we not going to get her?”
Caius pushed him aside gently, like one would push aside a child.
“Her life expectancy in this war zone is three minutes, and that’s being generous.” He said calmly.
“What if she’s still alive when we fly over?” Challenged Jogan.
The Inquisitor stopped to think about it for a moment, wiping a sadistic smile from his leathery face.
“Oh! In that case we’ll extract her, the Emperor would be upset if we left such a fine...what does your wife do?”
“She’s a nurse.”
“...such a fine nurse behind.” concluded Caius sarcastically.
The entire sector was drowning in hostile organisms, the factory’s last defenders eaten as they watched. Thousands of rippers died in a gigantic gout of flames fueled by promethium. The large fuel tank wobbled then came down on a neighboring roof in a dreadful scream of tearing metal. A young woman hung from a pole. She swung between the buildings and dropped onto the burning roof, temporarily cleared of tyranids. Rippers were already climbing the walls.
Observing from the valkyrie in stationary flight above everything, Caius was impressed and looked at Jogan appreciatively.
“Your wife is more resourceful than I imagined.”
“You gave me your word,” said Jogan anxiously as the rippers finished climbing to the roof.
The Inquisitor gave a signal and a sister of battle threw a rope while the other covered her escape with a few deadly shots of her bolter.The swarm of rippers closed up under the survivor’s feet as she was lifted off the roof.
Once inside the young woman collapsed, Jogan rushed to her side.
The Inquisitor, already walking back to the cockpit, turned around and watched Jogan shake his wife, notice the burns on her body and proceed to hold her more gently.
“Miro ! By the Throne ! You can’t give up now!”
The young woman coughed, opened her eyes and grabbed his shirt.
“Did you think you’d get rid of me so easily ?” she croaked.
A semblance of an amused smile touched Caius’s mouth as he walked to the cockpit.
“A happy reunion to you, transmechanic Jogan Trevor, he said.
Night had fallen on Navida Prime. Far away the Evola III hive was burning, lit up by remnants of fights against the tyranid invaders. The valkyrie had landed in the vegetation of a neighboring hill. Sat around the fire, Jogan had wrapped his wife in a makeshift blanket and was comforting her.
“What are we waiting for?” He asked the Inquisitor.
“When are they supposed to arrive? Miro needs medical attention” Jogan continued anxiously. Miro put a hand on his cheek to calm him.
“I’m fine.” She whispered.
“They should be here soon.” Said the Inquisitor, not paying attention to the young transmechanic. “They are coming from the Vamii citadel.”
Jogan thought for a moment, he’d worked in the citadel several times and he knew its defense systems. Despair crept upon him, he let his rations fall back to his knees.
“The Vamii citadel? Did you see what happened to Evola III?” he despaired, pointing to the huge fire reddening the horizon, announcing imperial defeat.
“The Vamii citadel will not fall.” said Caius as he put another log in the campfire.
“It doesn’t have a fraction of Evola III’s defenses…” whined Jogan.
The Inquisitor lifted his head and kept silent. A sister of battle stood up, bolter in hand, and the valkyrie’s pilots joined her quickly. A dull sound could be heard. Everyone was on alert. Slowly, as if he was feeling his age, the Inquisitor stood up too. In the black sky the dull sound had turned to a hum, a yellow Storm Raven emerged from the darkness and landed in the clearing next to the valkyrie.
Caius turned to Jogan.
“The Vamii citadel will not fall because Atornus Geis, the Imperial Fists’ Forge Master, is organizing its defenses.”
Morning found Jogan and his wife seated in the back of the empty valkyrie. Caius and the Imperial Fists had talked all night with senior officials and dignitaries of the Administratum.
“Do you realize,” he whispered, “there’s a Forge Master here on Navida Prime?”
Miro was applying ointment to the burns caused by the burning roof and listened to him attentively.
“His connection to the Omnissiah is something we can’t comprehend. He… he… Do you know where he trained?” Jogan was at loss for words.
Miro shook her head.
“On Mars! The Sacred Planet! The biggest Forge-World of the Imperium!”
Jogan’s account was cut short when a group entered the cabin and the pilots started the engines. Everyone strapped into their seat.
Caius Wroth sat in the center and across from him sat a noble from the high spires and his two bodyguards, deep in a discussion.
“... and yet the transmechanic would be safe in the citadel, especially since he knows what was stolen from the manufactorum Alijes.” continued the noble.
“Safe. Against outside forces yes?” answered Caius impassively.
“Are there any others?” asked the other man, skeptical.
The valkyrie took off and through the window Jogan noticed that they were escorted by several Stormtalons and valkyries full of officials.
“I need these detachments, Leisim.” said Caius.
The noble sat back into his seat, distractedly stroking the jeweled rings on his hand.
“The House of Olivarn is a humble servant of the Inquisition.” Answered Leisim in a diplomtic tone. “After the fall of Elova III these concerns are now a matter of survival. My detachments are at your disposal without conditions.”
“Thank you Leisim. Your loyalty is honourable in these troubled times.”
“Once we push back this terrible xenos invasion, I hope Your Grace will remember those who stood at your side.”
The old Inquisitor nodded knowingly.
“Where are the troops to be deployed?” asked the noble while signaling to one of his bodyguards. The bodyguard took out an elegant and sophisticated voxcom.
“What?” Leisim startled upon hearing the name. “But this city is a bandits’ nest, full of pirates, smugglers and xenos! You really think the transmechanic will be safe there?”
As he spoke he eyed Jogan rather as if he were merchandise to be protected.
“The Tau keep the area pacified to keep commerce going.” Caius pointed out.
Leisim was beside himself and opened his fan to hide his disarray.
“Ah, if I was planetary governor I would have led a campaign to boot these xenos off imperial soil long ago.”
“Along with the orks?” mocked Caius, Leisim scowled but continued.
“In any case, it is not for me to judge the actions of the planetary governor. I will give orders so that my detachments answer to you in Elova IV.”
Leisim reached for the voxcom but Caius stopped him.
“One moment your eminence.”
The noble turned to face Caius, surprised.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, but where the transmechanic is going is information of the highest importance.”
“And I thank you for your trust.” Leisim answered, perplexed.
The Inquisitor took a Tarot of the Emperor deck from inside his coat.
“You are a loyal servitor of the Emperor, are you not?” asked Caius, opening the finely crafted box that contained a deck inlaid with the finest and rarest micro-circuits imperial craftsmanship could produce. Silence fell in the cabin and tension rose for a second
“Of course.” Answered Leisim, trying not to stammer.
“So you won’t object if we examine that loyalty together?” continued the Inquisitor.
Across from him the noble shifted in his seat.
“No, of course not.”
The Inquisitor laid out cards in a circle before him, each card floated in the air on its own, suspended between the two men.
“Face to Face of Truth.” Said the noble.
“Your training in the art of cartomancy is excellent.” Answered Caius, trying not to show he was impressed.
“To subject someone to Truth one must first dare to subject oneself to it in the center of the circle...” Said the noble, feeling bolder.
“...I will draw two arcanas.” Caius went on. “If they are true for me then they are true for you, if they are false for me then they are false for you. Are you ready?”
The noble nodded.
Slowly Caius drew a card and steadily placed it in the middle of the circle, facing Leisim, before revealing it.
“The Xeno Archonte for you.”
“An Arcana Discordia ! I… I don’t understand.” The noble’s cheeks turned red and he wrung in hand nervously.
The old Inquisitor slowly put his hand back on the deck and drew a second card. He placed it in the circle in front of him, closed his eyes a moment before revealing it.
“The Heretic for me.”
Leisim let out a sigh of relief.
“Oh by the Emperor! You had me scared for a moment! I thought the Tarot was, wrongly, accusing me!”
The Inquisitor picked up the floating cards and put them back in the ornate box. From the back of the cabin Jogan could almost feel everyone relax, like releasing steam.
Leisim wiped sweat from his brow and reached for the voxcom again.
“I shall give the orders related to your request Inquisitor.”
Caius, was silently contemplating one last card drawn from his deck. Still looking at the card he whispered:
“She probably told you that the Crucible would protect you from everything.”
The noble stopped mid-motion, his two bodyguards froze. There was a moment where no one moved and only the jolts from the aircraft broke the icy silence. In the back Jogan and Miro shared a worried look and dared not breathe. In an instant Leisim drew a gun and his bodyguards raised their weapons. A blinding energy arc damaged part of the cabin and three heads rolled on the floor. The next moment the cockpit door opened and the sisters of battle, alerted by the sound, stepped in the cabin bolter in hand. Caius Wroth sheathed his power sword. In the back Miro had hidden behind Jogan, who wasn’t much better off.
Taking in the execution scene with the noble and bodyguards’ heads the sisters of battle went back to their posts. Caius was carefully picking up his cards, dropped during the confrontation, Jogan picked one up and brought it to him.
“Your Grace, I don’t understand, the Tarot of the Emperor is infallible.”
“Exactly. Be at ease Jogan.” Answered Caius, taking the card from him.
“But that means… he was innocent since you drew the Heretic for yourself.” Said Jogan not letting go of the card he was holding.
Caius looked darkly into Jogan’s eyes, the air cooled around them and, to Jogan’s surprise, the card they were holding blinked.
“Nothing can disturb the sacrosanct circuits of a Tarot! Nothing!” he stammered.
In front of him Caius seemed to be paralyzed by an outside force and could barely articulate words.
“Nothing… Except… A shadow in the warp.”
And as if he’d just managed to free himself from a vice in a huge effort of will he dropped the card and ran to the cockpit shouting into his voxcom.
“Evasive maneuvers! Break formation immediately!”
Things exploded outside, Jogan and Miro rushed to a window and saw a huge shadow above them. A long stinger hit the cockpit of a valkyrie next to them. The pilot, only lightly wounded writhed in pain before exploding. His innards and blood splattered on their aircraft and Jogan barely had time to see the copilot being eaten by rippers before the Valkyrie plummeted to the ground.
Their own valkyrie swerved dangerously before being brutally hit by a burning Stormtalon. They were thrown to the ground and could see that the roof of their aircraft had been torn off on impact. Locusts, fearsome winged rippers, were filling the sky. The creatures were throwing themselves in the aircraft's’ engines to damage them. With a metallic scream the valkyrie was torn in half and the rear plummeted to the ground, its engines roaring.Miro was floating in the air, held only by her seat harness. Jogan had instinctively activated the safety clamps, implants blessed by the cult, that replaced his feet. The wind howled violently.
“Jogan, do something!” screamed Miro.
Jogan looked around him. Above them the fight was getting farther away as they dropped, below them the forest was coming up at a vertiginous speed, get to got panic get ahold of him.
“The cockpit is gone Miro! What do you want me to do?” He shouted over the wind.The young woman tried to answer but the wind howled over her words. Jogan took a deep breath to push back the panic and repeated the litanies of the Adeptus Mechanicus. He was only a simple transmechanic but he is part of a whole, a cog of the Omnissiah. Struggling against the wind he bent over and touched the floor of the aircraft with the card from the Tarot of the Emperor that he was still holding. He focused and tried to connect to the Machine Spirit of the valkyrie. He felt pain, the pain of a machine cut in half. He tried to soothe the Machine Spirit, he implored it to save them, he focused as hard as he could. The ground was rushing towards them. One of the engines coughed then died, but then with power from the remaining engine the aircraft tried to correct its trajectory ever so slowly.
They hit the ground.
When Jogan came to he was lying in a makeshift hammock. Excruciating pain lanced through his shoulder. Above him he could see a thick canopy of leaves and the remains of a valkyrie. He tried to turn his head but the pain stopped him.
Miro’s face came into view above him.
“I knew you weren’t dead.” She said, playfully pinching his cheek.
Jogan grimaced and sat up a little to look at the damage. Miro had made camp in the wreckage as best she could. She helped him stand up and they walked out of the aircraft. The valkyrie had stopped close to a cliff. In front of them lay vast plains. Navida Prime’s twin suns warming everything with their morning light.
“Did someone come looking for us?” asked Jogan weakly.
“Not in the last six days.” Miro answered softly.
Disappointed, Jogan raised an eyebrow.
“What are we going to do then?”
“As soon as you’re well enough we move towards Elova IV.”
“Why not to the Vamii citadel?”
“The one that’s besieged by millions of terrifying creatures?” she said as she laid her head on his shoulder.
Jogan wrapped his arm around her waist and held her close as they watched the horizon. Walking to the free city was going to be difficult.
CHAPTER 3 - ENEMY TERRITORY
The last few days had been particularly tiresome for Jogan and Miro. Aerial patrols forced them to jump to the cover of the trees. Dark Eldar raiders attacked remote villages. There were even strange unidentified groups lurking in the night. It was all a strain on their nerves.
That morning, after an hour of intensive walking, Jogan and Miro had reached the top of a small hill. In front of their eyes lay a breathtaking spectacle: Elova IV, the free city. Pre-Imperial architecture, resplendent in the early morning, shone with a thousand reflections. The base of the city was a gigantic half-sphere from which rose an immense tower at the top of which a second city in the clouds overhung the whole valley. From their height they could see landing platforms rumbling with aerial activity, which at this distance gave the impression of an assault on a honeycomb. At the base of the city a second ring, connected to the central sphere by multiple bridges, overhung the lake on which Elova IV was built. Despite the distance, the couple could already see the terrifying defenses that the Tau Empire had installed on this second crown. Any land attack on the city had to go literally "under" the defenders.
Two hours later Jogan and Miro reached the main road to Elova IV. Constant Piranha Tau patrols along the access road made the site particularly safe. A merchant even took them on board what appeared to be a Taurox modified for civilian use. As they approached the city, the influx of convoys, travelers and mercenaries, by land, naval and air, became more and more intense. Then the Taurox stopped.
"No more way forward now," said the merchant, pointing to the road with a vague gesture.
Jogan took a look. In the shadow of the immense tower of the city, a massive access bridge rose from the level of the ground to the second crown. In front of them a line of trucks awaited their turn before what appeared to be a security post. Miro stood at his side.
"We're almost there," she whispered.
"The merchant has confirmed to me that imperial authorities are present in the upper city," replied Jogan, pointing at the chin tower. "Once up there we can get back to Inquisitor Wroth.”
"Once up there, yes," Miro muttered to herself.
The vehicle moved, advanced a few yards and then came to rest. The merchant grumbled and rustled in his pockets in search of something to smoke. Around the goods trucks, small groups of Tau guards made their inspections, long-barreled rifles slung over their shoulders. Children in rags passed between the vehicles, offering fresh water to the drivers in exchange for a few coins. Suddenly Jogan’s blood froze in his veins, and despite of himself he shook his wife's hand in amazement. At the guard post appeared a massive riding animal, an enormous kroot creature made for war. Mounted on it, Jogan recognized mentor Agnok, the one who had bargained with Caius Worth at the manufactorum Alijes. Instinctively the Transmechanic ducked lower in the cramped cockpit.
"Oh no! Not him!" Jogan implored between his teeth.
Miro glanced at him.
"What's going on Jogan?"
"It's him ! The Kroot warlord ! The one Caius met!"
"Shit," Miro grimaced.
"What is he doing?"
Miro straightened up again to look at the situation at the guard post.
"He seems to be giving instructions."
The merchant put an arm over his seat and turned to his passengers.
"What are you mumbling about?” he shouted. “I don’t want any trouble. I hope you haven’t been causing any trouble!"
Miro nudged Jogan and shook him.
"A patrol is coming along the line, they have kroot hounds with them."
"Hey! Are you listening to me?” the merchant snapped.
Miro pulled Jogan by the arm and opened the back door of the vehicle with a kick.
"My companion is feeling sick ... we are going... to get water!"
Without waiting for a reply, the two fugitives slipped back and forth between the vehicles. Behind them the kroot hounds began to bark. Along the main track the Tau patrols began to jog towards them. Nestled between two vehicles Miro was scanning for an escape route when a pair of boots and a large dust cover crashed in front of her.
"Looking for something mademoiselle?"
The voice was joyful, with a strong accent of Navida Prime but in an impeccable Gothic. Miro and Jogan raised their heads. In front of them stood an impressive figure, dressed in a great cloak, a hat with a rope wrapped around the brim and a ostentatious laspistol set at his waist in a leather holster. The man had the engraved face of a great traveler, but with fairly fine features, laughing eyes, and a thin scar that cut his lower lip.
"Djamsha, at your service," he continued to fill the silence. "I have the impression that you are looking for a quiet corner?" To support his words, he turned his gaze to pass over the patrols all around them.
Miro straightened up with an annoyed frown.
“You have a quiet corner?" She replied in a whisper.
The man winked at her triumphantly.
The small group slipped into a hovel where water vendors sheltered themselves from the sun. They walked around a few low walls and quickly found themselves under the level of the main track. There a muddy, dirt road meandered through the middle of a shantytown.
The man with the dust cover quickened his pace to place himself between his two new companions.
"You have the quick step! I see I had the right of it. What brings you to Elova IV? "
Miro stopped dead and faced him.
"Thank you for everything. But we will manage from here. "
Jogan took a step forward to intervene.
"Sweetheart. It's not worth being so direct, and you ... Sir, I thank you for all your help."
As the couple resumed their march, Djamsha followed suit.
"Hey, not so fast!"
"What do you want Dajsha?”, asked Jogan.
"Djamsha," the man corrected. Jogan nodded at him to continue.
"Well," continued Djamsha, "I have the idea that you want to get into the city, but that you would also like to avoid customs, am I wrong?"
The trio stopped a second time. Miro checked that the alley was deserted.
"Why do you want to know?” she asked in an inquisitive voice.
"Oh oh oh! What mistrust!” began Djamsha, raising his hands. “Why do I want to know? Well, it turns out that I too want to enter the city. And I, too, prefer tranquility."
Miro and Jogan exchanged a glance.
"You know how to get into Elova IV?" Jogan asked.
Djamsha pouted and patted his chin.
"As a matter of fact, yes. I know a ferryman at the port."
"What are you doing in civilian life?" Miro asked, then, before Djamsha could answer, she interrupted, "Don’t tell me - tourism."
Djamsha burst out laughing, then bent forward with the air of a conspirator.
"No need to lie between us. I'm a smuggler. That's why ... the customs up there. But I am loyal subject of the Imperium, like you! Not like all the xenos and heretics here! I was an officer of the Imperial Guard. "
"Really," Miro was surprised.
"Absolutely! It’s where I acquired my discipline and unwavering loyalty."
"Essential qualities for a smuggler," Jogan noted in a neutral voice.
Djamsha glanced at him from the corner of his eye. Miro seemed dubious.
"The Colonel of your company, was he severe?” asked Miro.
"Very," replied Djamsha emphatically.
"A colonel runs a regiment," Miro snapped.
"A company is commanded by a Major, not a Colonel. You’re lying.” She took her husband by the elbow and turned on her heels. “We’re leaving!”
Left behind, Djamsha raised a hand to try and stop them, then dropped it to his side and stamped on an innocent pebble as if to vent his frustration.
Down the road in the slum Jogan passed his arm over his wife's shoulder.
"Miro, you impress me!"
"I did my classes."
"Ah, yes. But this spirit of analysis, I like it! I must say that ... I rediscover you. You have a lot more resources than I ever imagined."
The young woman turned to her companion. She put her hands on her cheeks.
"We are together in this journey. We have only each other to rely on. You can count on me. "
Jogan placed his non-mechanical hand on that of his wife.
"You can count on me," he repeated.
In their hurry, they had reached the heart of the shantytown. A large square stretched before them. Hundreds of local residents were going about their business, and a large open-air market exuded its effluvia in the midst of a crowd engaged in bargaining for necessities. Jogan and Miro looked for a packed bar and pushed open the door. Inside the establishment the environment was unexpected. What had appeared to be a miserable population from the outside made room for individuals armed to the teeth and with worn faces. Most wore old military suits, many displayed tattoos from various mercenary groups. Eyes turned imperceptibly when Jogan and Miro entered, but the activity continued as if nothing had happened. A girl with a tray in the place of her left arm advanced towards them.
"What-can I get-get for you?” she asked in a frightful low gothic.
Miro leaned over to speak softly in her ear.
"We prefer what they serve in the middle of the lake. Do you know someone who... takes people there?"
The small girl nodded. They followed her out of the main hall, through a ruined corridor and into a small room where three men played cards. The little girl nodded and went off to continue serving in the bar. The biggest of the men put down his cards, finished his drink and got up.
"What do you need?” he growled.
"A ferryman," Jogan replied.
The guard nodded and tapped the wall next to a curtain at the back of the room. He pulled it aside to let a ganger enter. The new arrival was shirtless, covered with tattoos, with a big chain around his neck, a crest on his head and a big laspistol stuck in his pants. At his entrance the other guards rose from the table and came to stand behind him. He took a chair and indicated two more for Miro and Jogan.
"Please, sit down. So? We want to pass on the other side?" The ganger had the derailed voice of a drug addict.
"Absolutely," Jogan confirmed.
"It is dear," the ganger immediately interrupted him, slamming his fist on the table, "it's fucking expensive! You do not believe me? Hey! It is very expensive! Now that the Vamii Citadel is besieged. There are people with gelts who want to pass! Am I right boys?"
Behind him the guards nodded silently.
"How much is it?” asked Jogan.
The ganger waved his hand.
"Ten thousand?!" The transmechanic replied, shocked.
The ganger remained silent and slowly licked his lips. Jogan leaned over to Miro, they spoke briefly.
"Can we pay you a second part afterwards?” asked Jogan again.
The ganger pulled out his dagger to clean his teeth. "Nope."
"Can we come to an agreement?" Miro asked.
The ganger tilted his head. "You don’t have ten thousand?"
Miro and Jogan shook their heads. The ganger stood on his chair slowly and leaned over the table to stare at them. His heavy chain rubbed against the wood.
"Well ... maybe I have something for you."
"What is it?" replied Jogan doubtfully.
"The black xenos there, with their exotic weapons. They are always looking for slaves ..."
The guards began to advance slightly. The ganger lifted his knife forward under Jogan's nose. Jogan flinched away.
"It may not be the exact destination you wanted, but you're going to travel for sure," the ganger finished, all his rotten teeth on display as he smiled.
With a sudden movement, Miro grabbed the bandit's wrist and kicked out his chair. As he fell, Miro broke two of his fingers and slammed his head against the table, removed the dagger from his hand, and stuck it in the table through a link of his chain. In the same movement she drew his laspistol and jammed it in his mouth. The other men, blinking, had barely had a chance to grab at their own weapons.
"One more movement and I burst out your boss’s head!" Miro hissed, pushing the barrel a little more into the ganger’s mouth.
The man, locked against the table by his chain, waved a confused hand in the direction of his minions. Slowly, they withdrew their hands from the butt of their pistols. Jogan got up, confused.
"Excuse my wife. She's a bit picky when it comes to negotiating," he stammered.
"Put twenty thousand on the table now or die," Miro continued.
The henchmen looked at each other embarrassed, but once again the ganger waved his hands at them furiously. One of them pushed aside the filthy curtain into the back of the room and pulled out a case full of dirty notes and coins that he threw on the table. Miro pointed her chin at the case and Jogan moved over and lifted the lid timidly.
"How much?" she asked.
Jogan's eyes turned pure white for a moment, and a whistle sounded from somewhere inside his skull. He turned his head mechanically toward his wife.
"Seventeen-thousand-eight-hundred-twenty-five," he replied.
The bandits stepped back, panicking. Miro sighed, shaking her head sadly.
Miro shot through the mouth of the ganger. The brute died instantly, the henchman behind him dying in the same shot. The second tried to draw but Miro was faster, shooting him in the face. The third tried to run through to a back door, but she shot him in the neck to stop him and he collapsed to the floor, dead. Jogan, wide-eyed, had clung to the case.
“You killed them?!"
Miro was already cleaning the laspistol on the ganger’s pants. She nodded respectfully.
"The science of the Omnimessiah allows you formidable deductive reasoning."
Jogan glared at his wife.
"No, I meant... Why did you kill them? And don’t speak thus of the Omnimessiah. "
"Forgive me," replied Miro, sincerely repentant. "Concerning these bandits, I had no choice. You must be more discreet Jogan. You have not yet all the implants proudly displayed by your superiors, and in these baggy clothes you can still hide your true nature. But not if you do things that only a member of the Adeptus Mechanicus can do. "
Miro moved over to inspect the bodies quickly, then signaled to Jogan to take the case before checking the corridor discreetly. Trever was right on her heels. She turned to him in a low voice.
"Chances are that this Kroot is looking for you. If he is, he may know who you are. So don’t shout it from the rooftops. "
"You're right," Jogan replied, still a little shocked.
Miro glanced back into the corridor.
"It's clear, let’s go," she murmured.
In moments they were outside. Once on the main square of the market, they moved quickly through the multicolored and ragged crowd in an attempt to melt into the masses. Behind them mercenaries, with weapons in their hands, rushed outside to check the surroundings. Miro noticed a well-stocked street restaurant counter, promptly pushed Jogan onto a stool and sat next to him.
"Whatever happens, do not turn your head," she whispered.
"But they're coming," Jogan whispered worriedly.
"They are looking for people who are fleeing. And moving quickly. They know the city, we do not. So we are not going anywhere."
Jogan and Miro raised their heads together. In front of them Djamsha smiled guiltily over the noodles of his soup. As the owner of the restaurant between them he grabbed her arm.
"Hey beauty! Two bowls of Mai Pet for my friends. "
"No thank you," Miro replied.
Djamsha lowered his voice.
"Wouldn’t that be odd? The only two at the table not eating?"
Miro nodded, Djamsha sketched a smile and tapped the counter with his wands.
"Two Mai Pet! Two! "
Then the smuggler grabbed his bowl and his hat, wedged his wands between his teeth and walked around the counter to move between Miro and Jogan. Once settled, and not without Miro grumbling, he began talking in a conspiratorial voice.
"I can not believe you're still alive," he exclaimed carefully as he resumed his lunch.
"Why?" asked Jogan.
"Because I saw you enter the Barbed Suns," replied Djamsha, pointing to the tavern with his wands.
"It's a bit complicated, but we’re okay," Jogan said.
"Of course. And that's why you now have the biggest Elova IV cartel on your heels."
"And you? You did not know a smuggler to get out of this place?" Miro commented, carelessly tapping her pasta. Djamsha made a grimace.
"Yes. But ... prices have soared. It is because of these xenos creatures, everyone is in a panic. Thousands of refugees come to find safety here. "
"Can he quickly get in touch with us?"
Djamsha stopped eating to stare at Miro.
"How much did you steal from them?" he asked, a hint of admiration in his voice.
"We did not steal anything. Tell me how much you want for your contact. "
Djamsha put down his wands and assumed a solemn air.
"I'm coming with you."
"Never mind," Miro snapped.
"You've lied to us once," Jogan commented.
Djamsha put an affectionate arm on the shoulders of the transmechanic.
"Half the population of Elova IV will lie to you permanently."
"Well we shall try the other half first," replied the adept, politely repelling the arm of the smuggler.
"The other half are xenos who will simply try to kill you," continued Djamsha. “Listen, we started off on a bad foot. I admit it. But after what you've done , you don’t have too many choices. I'm the only one in town that will not sell you to the Barbed Suns."
"What makes you think we did something to the Barbed Suns?" Miro asked suspiciously.
Djamsha turned to Miro. His clear eyes had become hard and professional. He reviewed the young woman from head to foot.
"You did not have that laspistol hidden under your jacket an hour ago. You have blood under your boots. You have local currency. "
Miro readjusted her jacket.
"OK. We'll see your contact."
The small group had manoeuvred discreetly across the most filthy lanes, sneaking between broken fences, makeshift houses and overcrowded stands. Several times they had had to jump behind a rusty barrel or a worm-eaten crate to let a small group of mercenaries on the prowl pass by. Then they reached the docks. Djamsha now led them into a cemetery of ships. Carcasses of boats floated there between two wharves, upside down or on their side or dismantled by large construction cranes. Uncertain footbridges passed between the openings on the vessels and formed a maze which led to an immense workshop. The front door was guarded by a servant whose left arm had been replaced by a grappling lance with an enormous anchor. As they walked up to the heights of the entrance, Djamsha pronounced a key word and the imposing guard had moved aside in silence.
The interior of the workshop buzzed with activity. Here and there servo-skulls moved tools, and specialized servants worked tirelessly. Perched on a hovercraft floated the master of the premises, his welding helmet screwed to his skull. He called to his visitors.
"Djamsha! I did not think I'd see you so fast. I warn you, I can not take any more of your tirades, either you have the money, or you get out of here. "
Below him, Djamsha raised his voice above the sounds of the workshop.
"Quiet and calm. You know me."
"Yeah, that’s exactly what worries me," said the mechanic, removing his gloves.
Djamsha turned to his companions to give them a reassuring grin.
"He jokes," he thought fit to add.
"So, the money?"
The smuggler turned again to his companions.
"You have that twelve thousand, do not you?"
Miro nodded. The mechanic stood up and rubbed his hands.
"Let me see the money. If everything is in order we see each other in five days. "
The trio jumped.
"In five days Anto? But you told me I could take off in the evening! " cried Djamsha, starting to go around the hovercraft to join the mechanic. They found themselves face to face on the aft ramp.
"Because you think I only have you as a customer? You did not have the money. Well, there was someone who was ready, as it happened. Now I will have to repair another. "
Djamsha turned to Miro and Jogan who had moved closer to the quay.
"We can not afford to wait five days," Miro said in a low voice.
"I know," Djamsha replied.
"A backup plan maybe?"
Djamsha scratched his head under his hat while reflecting.
"What if we take it now?" Jogan asked bluntly.
The mechanic interrupted his weld by grumbling. He glanced at Djamsha.
"Now? Well it doesn’t even have an engine, asshole. If you want, I could sell it to you for the scrap value. I have dozens of others to repair. For six hundred I’ll give it to you. And at that price I’ll throw in three pairs of oars." Then the man lifted his visor and guffawed as he walked away.
Jogan took the money out of his pocket.
"Six-hundred, you can get off the ship."
Anto stopped laughing. Miro and Djamsha stepped closer to Jogan. The mechanic jumped to the dock, the hovercraft shifting under the transfer of weight.
"Get on board. Let's not hang around," Jogan commented as he settled down in front of the pile of pipes, pistons and turbines that had been smashed where the engine was supposed to be. Miro and Djamsha looked at each other, then boarded. Jogan pulled out a flask of oil from under his clothes and began to anoint the machine while chanting in a low voice. Miro began to approach, but Jogan interrupted her with a wave of his hand.
"The machine-spirit would like there to be someone at the helm."
The young woman moved away again.
The mechanic, who had finished counting and storing the cash, approached the quay to contemplate their work. He had regained his good humor and chuckled already.
"So what ? You're still not gone? Should I warn my contact at Elova IV that you may be late?” He laughed loudly.
Suddenly the hovercraft began to vibrate. Moments later, an immense wave of water blasted up and over the whole quay and sent the mechanic spinning as the machine left the workshop like a cannonball. Lying in a puddle the mechanic stammered while swiping water from his face.
"But it's ... a ... member of the Adeptus Mechanicus ... a real ...."
At the front of the hovercraft Jogan contemplated the immense structure of the city of Elova IV. They had passed under the first exterior crown, and were now approaching the base of the titanic pre-imperial city, which stretched for several miles in circumference. Miro had left Djamsha at the controls, so she could join her husband.
"Bravo Trev’. I did not know you were capable of such prowess as a simple transmechanic,” she began, placing herself by his side. Jogan emerged from his reverie.
"Oh. What prowess?"
"To operate the hovercraft without an engine," replied Miro, gently tapping the guardrail. "I thought that only the greatest masters of your order could perform such miracles."
"Ah yes. Except that in our case the engine is in place," Jogan commented, gesturing to the back.
"Ah? But Anto said that ... "
"Yes. He knows nothing about the real science of Omnissiah. He's just trying to put pieces together ... and this is techno-heresy," he added for himself, clutching the railing.
In the middle of the night, Djamsha maneuvered the hovercraft to a secluded cove after several hours of avoiding powerful searchlights from the patrol boats. Quickly the small group dismounted. They climbed a steep cliff and then reached the metal wall of the megastructure.
"And now?” Jogan asked, his back glued to the metal wall, looking down with concern.
"Now we hope that Anto did not deceive us," replied Djamsha, studying the wall.
In reply, a whistle made them raise their heads. A curly teenage head protruded through a half-open escape hatch.
The entry required them to crawl strenuously, but after twenty minutes in narrow passageways they emerged in the back of a small poorly lit shop.
"Here you go!" The teen said, tapping the dust off her knees.
Jogan straightened up and stretched his sore muscles - not without noticing to himself once again how weak the human body was compared to the machine. Through a half-open door he saw a strange crowd of people, setting the door frame to vibrating. He crossed the threshold out of curiosity. The sight which presented itself to him made him lose his balance in an instant. The ceiling of the structure reached more than eight hundred meters high. Enormous towers stretched from the floor to the ceiling, ending before reaching it, or descended from the roof without touching the ground. Massive bridges connected these metal mastodons and the resulting entanglement obscured much of Jogan’s view. At the highest points the inner city was buzzing with fantastic activity. Slippers and antigrav platforms circulated at all levels and the compact crowd strolled along large open arteries. Entirely closed, the inner city was illuminated by the lights of the city itself.
Behind Jogan the teenager slipped out of the shop and contemplated the show with him.
"The Smugglers' Den," she said, a tone of pride in her voice.
Without wasting time Miro and Jogan were looking for more discreet equipment and spare clothes. Lizti, their guide, had been recruited for the occasion and took them to the quietest places. Djamsha had gone on his own errands to find someone capable of passing them to the high tower. The troupe had agreed to meet at the Marais, a large bar that livened the third level. The crossing of the Smuggler’s Den turned out to be tougher than expected for Jogan. At each stand he could not help uttering cries of amazement, so much so that Miro and Lizti had been forced to pick him up by the shoulders and force him to step. Jogan squirmed like a worm, trying to communicate the extent of his indignation to his visibly unimpressed jailers.
"And there! The two cases of M35 Galaxy! But you see? T556FGG-X5-H. T556 is the designation for Tarrus! This is military stock produced here for the war effort! What the hell is doing here? "
"Ah yes. It will be reported after, Jogan, do you hear me? "Miro commented while preventing him from pointing his finger at the the crates.
"And that ? Look ! Ion rifles! It's ... it's xenos technology! It is a heresy! And in addition they are mercenaries of the Imperium who are buying them! By the Omnimessiah! "
Miro looked desperately at Lizti over Jogan's shoulder.
"Intolerable! But we're going to be late at the Marais. "
The pleasure establishment "Le Marais" presented itself in the form of an immense circular room surrounded by several slightly elevated terraces. Above the large central bar hung a cage with dancers. The bar itself opened on several comfortable alcoves conducive to more peaceful bargaining. The xenos technology, mainly Tau, was omnipresent, from the strobes to the drones that ensured timely service. Once comfortably installed at a large table everyone was able to regain their spirits. Jogan, in his corner, continued muttering unintelligible imprecations. Lizti came back with drinks. Djamsha, who had strolled in shortly after the others, took stock of the situation. He had met an old friend, a senior officer of the Imperial Guard, who had agreed to help them and allow them to join the imperial authorities.
In the middle of the discussion Miro interrupted him with a discreet sign of her hand. Djamsha glanced furtively in the pointed direction.
"They entered at the same time as me?” whispered Djamsha.
"No. They arrived after that."
"Something is wrong?” asked Lizti, sipping a thick blue drink.
"We're being followed," Miro replied.
"There is a service exit overlooking an unloading area in the back," Djamsha whispered.
"Very good. Lizti and I are going to dance. Jogan is going to order drinks. When Djamsha gets up, we all join him. "
Everyone nodded, then one by one they left the table.
Miro and Lizti were the last to break into the corridor. In a hurry the group snuck between the cooks and the clerks to reach a shed and then the unloading area. Djamsha lead them to a dark alley. As soon as the heavy service door had closed, three menacing figures emerged from a vehicle parked just outside the exit. The three individuals aimed autoguns on the new arrivals. Djamsha instinctively raised his arms as he advanced.
"Hey! Hey! Calm down. There must be an error here. "
One of the silhouettes advanced with a gun in his hand.
"Throw down your weapons and get into the vehicle," he said in a voice stifled by a mask.
Djamsha took another step towards his aggressors.
"No problem. We will cooperate. But you have a cookie under your speeder. "
As he spoke, Djamsha pointed at the bottom of the vehicle. For a moment the men turned their eyes in the pointed direction. Djamsha flashed his laspistol from its holster, there were three shots, the men collapsed. The smuggler's pistol made another three turns on his finger, then reholstered the gun and turned to his companions behind.
"Job’s done," he proudly announced.
Four violent searchlights struck the ground, illuminating Djamsha and his companions. Set back from the alley, two massive armoured XV88 Broadside suits and three squads of Firewarriors held them in their torches. The bluish lines of laser markers were fixed on their foreheads. Behind them the loading door opened and an additional squad in battle dress emerged to take them back. An officer approached Jogan and put a hand on his shoulder.
"You are under arrest."
In the Devilfish that slipped through the mazes of the megastructure of Elova IV, Djamsha, Miro, Jogan and Lizti looked at each other in silence. Disarmed, handcuffed, each supported by two vigilant Firewarriors, they were escorted in quiet safety. The journey was not long. Jogan adjusted his hearing sensors to better perceive the outside environment. They had left the crowd of populous quarters, but the pressure of the engines showed no rise in altitude. They had therefore remained in the shallows of the city. The presence of many surrounding spirits-machines convinced him, and they returned to the industrial zone of the Smuggerl’s Den.
The Devilfish swerved, then stopped. The ramp was lowered and the prisoners were pushed outside. Everyone blinked to get used to the raw light that was pouring from the ceilings. The little convoy had stopped inside a huge warehouse. At the four corners of the warehouse, on the upper corridors, more Firewarriors were in surveillance position. In the middle of the room, Tau earth caste technicians were working on an enormous cylindrical machine obviously of imperial design. The seal of the Adeptus Mechanicus was visible on the top of the craft. A massive kroot was in great discussion with two technicians.
"Shadowsun had promised me-Agnok that you could control. Make it work."
"Mentor Agnok. We promised to do our utmost. But we need time."
The Kroot snapped his beak violently.
"Time. I does not have."
The second technician advanced a step forward, presenting a tablet on which graphs were sliding and recalculating constantly.
"Mentor Agnok. There is another point that we would like to draw your attention to. We think it is not reasonable to keep the craft here at Elova IV. According to our calculations if it were to activate the surface of the planet would be vitrified for about three hundred kilometers in the round. Taking into account the topography. "
The kroot turned his beak and attention to the technician's face.
"We not move. Too much risk, she's looking for it. Work. Hard... "
The chief of the prisoner escort took advantage of this moment to clear his throat. Agnok turned his head abruptly. He looked over the group and approached by sniffing the air and slamming his beak as he came.
"Hm ... yes. Smell at the guard post. I was saying. "
He approached to sniff at each prisoner and stopped on Jogan.
"You, was at the manufactorum Alijes with old Caius Wroth."
"I was there too," Miro announced, stepping forward.
Agnok had already turned back to monitor the scientists. He waved his hand.
"Put them up for interrogation. Start before me. "
"And the other two?" The officer asked.
Agnok turned his head to gauge Litzi and Djamsha quickly.
"Run-Execute them. But basement. I do not like the smell. "
Djamsha and Lizti, protesting and struggling, disappeared in the basement as Miro and Jogan were climbing into a small glazed room that overlooked the technicians. They were tied back to back on a chair and then some sort of tau doctor made his entrance. He unpacked several scalpels and syringes and then spoke.
"Good evening. Before we start it is important that you know that you will make life much easier if you cooperate. We do not want you to hurt. By not saying that the truth will help the Supreme Good. And those who help the Supreme Good are our friends. "
Miro, who was apparently concentrating on the technicians below, moved in her chair, and with a sudden movement of the pelvis tilted the chair on which they were tied. The doctor turned and looked at the ground curiously.
"Are you going to go somewhere?"
The bursts of fire started from all corners at the same time. The doctor's body was literally pulverized along with the rest of the bay windows. On the great outer passageway all the firewarriors collapsed at the same time, revealing black-painted orks that pulled out their sluggas and blasted the Tau in turn. Ion rifle fire echoed in the distance alongside the sounds of automatic weapons and the whole warehouse was quickly plunged into appalling chaos. Through a green light, Jogan could see an imposing ork equipped with a huge black blade appear with a crash in the middle of the Tau technicians and rushed to the Imperial craft. As he reached the cylinder, a massive shadow fell upon him. In a clash of metal and claws the two imposing warriors exploded a command console and landed in the middle of a tangle of broken glass and wires.
"Korporal Snagbrat. At last, "Agnok groaned as he got up.
The two formidable fighters faced each other slowly in the midst of the fury of the battle.
From the top of their fragile platform, Miro and Jogan were studying the situation.
"The Devilfish at the bottom,” shouted Miro over the rattling gunfire. “Launched at full speed, could it smash the main door?"
"I think so."
"You know how to fly it?"
As Jogan went to answer a grenade exploded right under them, debris and pieces of tau armor fell in rain. Miro pulled Jogan by the sleeve and crawled as far as a staircase. Once she got to the bottom, she began to walk over to the vehicle. Jogan stopped her.
"Litzi and Djamsha are just downstairs!"
Miro glanced at the trap that Jogan was pointing at. The remains of an armoured crisis suit crashed right behind them.
"You really think it's time?" Miro shouted.
"I think we should not leave the faithful of the Emperor-God in the hands of xenos."
Miro looked Jogan in the eyes for several long seconds. She picked up a Tau impulse gun that had fallen nearby, lifted the trapdoor and pushed Jogan inside.
From the basement the sounds of fighting still managed to fill the ears. They moved rapidly through the dimly lit corridors. They stumbled into a small room with four cells, in one of which Lizti and Djamsha began jumping around and warning their comrades to take cover. At the entrance of the jail three Tau warriors turned to face and open fire on the intruders. Covered at the corner of the corridor Miro returned fire in turn but in a bluish flash her shots were scattered by the energy barrier of a defense drone.
"Impossible to pass," Miro shouted to Jogan in front of her.
"Maybe there's another access?"
"We do not have time Trev! Someone can come down at any moment."
Jogan seemed to think, then he tilted his head in the corridor for a fraction of a second. Moments later, three ionic shots exploded the concrete next to him.
"Miro. The barrier of the drone. It is not omnidirectional. It is directed towards us. "
Miro frowned for a moment, then her face lit up and she gave a broad loving grin towards Jogan. She took a deep breath, jumped into the middle of the corridor and opened fire on the energy barrier with rage. Instinctively the tau soldiers took cover. At that very moment the young woman threw the pistol over the barrier. The soldiers watched the gun tumble over their heads and landed in Djamsha's hand. Three bluish flashes then the pistol spun three more times before returning to the leather holster.
"Job’s done," Miro announced, passing between corpses to find the keys of the cell.
"Hey! That's my reply," Djamsha indignantly replied from behind the bars.
"You need to be faster then," Miro replied, opening the cell.
The group reunited and, now fully weaponed, glanced through the trap door to the battlefield that the warehouse had become. Djamsha turned to Jogan and Miro.
"You came to free us instead of fleeing when you had the opportunity?"
"Whether the Tau or greenskins win here, you were doomed," Jogan commented. Djamsha nodded in silence.
Miro gave her instructions and the group rushed towards the Devilfish by opening fire on all the xenos on their way. It was terrible shooting, but seemed to be working, until a plasma shot ripped off Lizti’s leg just as they reached the hovertank. The teenager, broken in the middle of her race, collapsed over a pool of her blood. From the rear ramp Jogan and Miro pulled her into shelter while Djamsha covered them with a few tight shots. In the cabin the chaos was almost as intense as it was outside. Litzi screamed in pain, Djamsha and Miro tried to control her and check the hemorrhage as Jogan tried to start the machine. Suddenly an enormous mass crashed into the Devilfish cockpit. Snagbrat, flung by a powerful attack of Agnok, had cracked half of the main screen. Inside each human held their breath. Slowly, Snagbrat, severely wounded, stood up and faced the Kroot. Through the broken window, huddled at the bottom of the vehicle, the four fugitives were present without making any noise at the confrontation.
"You fight well Kroot," the ork leader began, "but if I can not get the cyclonic torpedo ... then you're going to die here!" with a gesture the ork drew a snotling from his pocket and threw it on Agnok. The latter dodged the tiny green humanoid with a supple gesture.
"Failed," he said hoarsely and disdainfully.
"It depends on what I aim for. Farewell Kroot." Then the ork disappeared in a green flash as it had appeared. Agnok turned quickly. The Snotling launched by Snagbrat had landed on the ancient Imperial cylinder. The little greenish creature wore a strange mechanical device designed for its size. It sank into the bowels of the terrifying weapon of destruction. The moment after three red lights lit up on the control screen and a five-minute countdown began to scroll.
Agnok uttered a huge roar of rage and ran to the nearest exit. He spotted a Tetra target on his way, pulled the pilot out of his seat and threw the vehicle at full speed through the main door, which had been blown open by the ork assault. Everywhere, panicked xenos tried to flee by every possible means. In the space of an instant there was no living soul in the warehouse. Miro and Djamsha, incredulous, came out of the devilfish with their weapons in their hands.
"How do you cross three hundred kilometers of explosion in five minutes?" murmured Miro.
"The Tau Orbital Elevator. In the heart of Elova IV," replied Djamsha mechanically.
"So for us it's the end," Miro concluded.
Djamsha remained silent.
Still in the cockpit Jogan called out. Miro shook her head.
"Litzi has almost lost all her blood. You're a nurse, do something! "
Miro knelt beside the teenage girl. Djamsha sank into a resigned crouch nearby.
"What's the point in trying to save her when we all die in three minutes?"
Leaving Litzi in good hands Jogan got up and walked to the cyclonic torpedo. Djamsha waved at him.
"Do not bother Jogan! The best Tau technicians have been on it for more than a month. "
Jogan ignored the comment and arrived next to the old machine and pulled a cable from his mechanical hand to connect. After a little whistle the cylinder stopped whirring and the countdown stopped.
Djamsha and Miro stood up in amazement.
"You! You just defused the bomb?!" cried Djamsha between stupor and hysteria.
"Yes. It's been my job for eight years at the manufactorum Alijes. "
Miro bit his lower lip, Djamsha banged his head gently against a girder. Without paying them any more attention Jogan walked to the Devilfish.
"Djamsha. Give me the contact details. We should leave this place once and for all. "
The smuggler turned round. A certain embarrassment was visible on his face.
"It's not going to be possible Jogan," he began, clearly embarrassed.
Miro tensed imperceptibly. Jogan frowned. Djamsha rummaged through his pockets and pulled out a paper he handed to the couple.
CHAPTER 4 - OVERRUN
In the ravaged warehouse the tension had risen a notch. Jogan and Miro raised their heads from the paper Djamsha had given them.
"The Inquisition wants me dead?" asked Jogan, stunned.
"Why didn’t you kill Jogan when you had the chance?" Miro added coldly.
Djamsha slowly closed his holster.
"I do not work for the Inquisition."
"Then why do you have that paper?" Jogan asked again.
Djamsha leaned against a pillar.
"I'm a bounty hunter, not an assassin. I work for the Duke of Debris. When he learned that the Inquisition wanted Jogan dead, he put a good price on Jogan’s capture. To be able to haggle then."
"So, your contact that was going to get us out of here?" continued Jogan.
"Bullshit. The Duke’s men are waiting to pick you up, and hand over a good reward for Djamsha without having to do business with the Inquisition," Miro gasped, shooting the bounty hunter a filthy look. The latter nodded in silence.
"Why tell us that now? It does not make sense," Jogan asked, slightly disturbed.
Djamsha pouted. He seemed to be looking for his words. "You came and got me out of jail before my execution when you could have run away. It does not make sense either. You did it anyway. "
Miro let out an incredulous sneer, but she still let her hand move away from the butt of her gun. Jogan radiated relaxation.
"In all things, under the protection of the Omnissiah, unity is our strength!" he added, slapping Djamsha's back.
"Good! We should think of clearing out of here before the Tau realize that the bomb did not explode. We'll think about a way out on the way," Miro commented as she gathered her belongings together.
"Yes! Get Litzi out of the back of the cargo, take the torpedo with us," Jogan shouted, and then he started to undo the safety straps the Tau technicians had placed around the aircraft.
Djamsha intercepted Jogan and seized him by the arm.
"You are crazy! This trick could blow us up in our face any moment. We must go now! "
Miro had finished clearing the cockpit and was already starting the engines.
"He's right Jogan! Let's leave it there! "
Jogan disengaged himself violently. His voice was trembling with indignation when he began to yell, "Bastards! You have not the slightest idea of the absolute miracle of sacred union with Omnissiah! You may have seen two or three techno-priests performing miracles on the battlefield by coming into contact with the machine spirit of an injured vehicle in a matter of minutes! A great tour de force, but it is not true communion! It takes weeks, even months, to touch the true nature of a machine spirit!"
Still glaring, Jogan had walked to the torpedo, with fervor he laid his hand.
"Eight years! Eight years I take care of her personally! And you who do not even know how a generatorium works explain to me what links us?! To be absolutely fair, I do not even think she would be activated by knowing I was in the area!"
As if to confirm his assertion, the antique equipment began to gently flash a few green lights. Miro and Djamsha remained silent. Then without a word they helped Jogan loaded the torpedo in the back of the devilfish.
When the vehicle left the premises, the neighboring streets were still deserted. Thanks to the dim lighting of the industrial sector, the transport melted into the darkness to leave the sector quickly. In the distance, lights already moved towards the warehouse.
At the cockpit Djamsha was focused on driving. Beside him Jogan and Miro were evaluating the situation of Litzi, who had recovered her spirits.
"She needs a little more medical assistance," Miro concluded.
"Where are we going?" Djamsha asked.
"You do not have a hiding place in town? A bounty hunter worthy of the name ... "
Djamsha turned his head towards Miro.
"So yes. But mademoiselle excused me, I have not prepared a hideout that can conceal a bomb capable of razing the continent for six hundred kilometers. "
"Three hundred and forty," Jogan corrected mechanically.
"It does not tell us where we're going."
Litzi coughed then arose a little, helped by Jogan.
"In the sixth basement, section A5, the waste refinery named Nech," she articulated painfully.
Half an hour later the devilfish slowed down as it entered the abandoned and deserted refinery compound.
"Are you sure of this Litzi?" Djamsha asked, leaning over the cockpit to try to see through the surrounding darkness.
Behind him Litzi drew a whistle from one of her pockets and handed it to Miro.
"Two long blasts, then a short. And keep your hands in the air no matter what."
As they climbed out of the vehicle, the small group complied with Litzi's instructions. In a moment, dozens of young people emerged from the shadows, weapons in hand. Though they were at first suspicious, they immediately changed their attitude when they discovered Litzi bathed in blood inside the devilfish. Quickly the little company took everyone into the bowels of the refinery. Behind the disguised panels was a real smuggling headquarters. Litzi was taken to a medical unit where a surgeon was able to properly stop the bloodloss.
Quietly, in a small room, the group finally stopped. They had been given a hot meal, and Litzi had asked the bustling smugglers to leave them alone for the moment.
"Why would the Inquisition want my death?” began Jogan, ignoring the meal.
"Why not?" replied Djamsha.
"Because it does not make sense. I am here because the Inquisition wanted to protect me."
"You were already dealing with the Inquisition?" Litzi was surprised.
"Yes. A bizarre affair. With a shady inquisitor."
"A certain Caius Wroth?" asked Djamsha.
Miro and Jogan raised their heads, surprised.
"How did you know?" they asked with one voice.
"I do not know. I try to make the connection between the different rumors."
"It is said that an inquisitor arrived on Navida Prime a few months ago. He made some waves. And then he disappeared not a month ago. In a devastating crash it was said."
Miro frowned and then turned to Jogan.
"I see. If Caius has disappeared, it is likely that the Inquisition does not have all the details of his operation."
"And in this case, all they know is that you are something that the xenos are looking for. If you're dead, it's much more convenient for them."
Djamsha nodded gently.
"Charming," Litzi commented, gulping down a mouthful of pasta, "and how do you protect yourself from your Inquisition?"
Miro and Djamsha muttered in silence.
"We can not," Miro concluded after a moment, "there is nothing above the Inquisition."
Her statement clouded the rest of the meal. Everyone tried to think about possible solutions, and then they decided to take the time to lay down the situation flat. With Jogan wanted by the Inquisitors and Litzi recovering, they would remain hidden at the refinery, Miro and Djamsha would return to the upper floors to try to find a solution to their problems.
A week passed. Miro and Djamsha rarely returned, for more security. That evening, when they entered the large loft which had been arranged for them overlooking the main shed, it was Litzi who opened them, standing on both her legs. Djamsha was the first to react.
"Litzi! But how? Your leg ?"
The teenager leapt back so that her audience could see her and executed an impeccable pirouette on her new leg. It imitated the flesh correctly except at the knee where the delicate artificial mechanism was exposed.
Miro slipped from behind Djamsha, she did not seem particularly impressed.
"Implants of this quality are rare. How did you get it?"
"It's a gift," Litzi replied, smiling at Miro's question.
Miro examined the artificial leg again, pouting.
"The Duke of Debris," replied the teenager, delighted.
Miro glanced at Djamsha.
"In my world nobody makes unselfish gifts."
Behind the little group was a sound of scrap metal thrown to the floor. Jogan got out of his studio, carelessly cleaning his black oil hands with a tired cloth.
"In mine, too," he said, pushing with his foot the little block of scrap he had thrown to the ground.
"What is it?" Asked Djamsha.
"A tracker. It was installed in the prosthesis. "
"We really have too many friends," stated Miro laconically as she made her way to the large meeting table. The group gathered around it to begin a meeting.
"So, what is the news from above?" Litzi began playfully pointing the ceiling of the small room.
"Rather bad," continued Djamsha, "as might be expected, the Tau seek the torpedo. Agnok in person directs operations to find her. They pass over the city with a fine comb, and they do not leave any gaps. Almost all Elova IV accesses have been closed. They require maximum accreditation levels to enter or exit. They even activated the phase shield of the city. No one can cross it outside the access points. "
"Can we hope for some outside help?" Jogan asked.
Miro took the floor.
"The political situation on Navida Prime has become extremely complex. Maximila Phos, the planetary governor was murdered. "
Jogan and Litzi jolted in their chairs. Djamsha nodded.
"Yes, I heard the same rumor."
"But that's not all, the Prime Hermeticon of the Adeptus Mechanicus was murdered also."
Jogan uttered a cry of astonishment.
"It's impossible! He resides in the heart of the Vamii forge! Protected by a whole cohort of Skitarii."
"So the power has gone down to the Ministorum?" questioned Djamsha.
"It should have. But the personal vessel of the Arch-Cardinal Vahamlir was sabotaged and the latter preferred to stay on Navida Tertia. Officially to prosecute and punish the saboteurs ... but the Arch-Cardinal still sent someone. Canoness Vardina, of the order of the Crimson Oath. "
"That name rings a bell," commented Djamsha quietly to himself.
"Yes. It was she who organized the defense of the world-chapel Sacaellum and pushed back the World Eaters. That said, she's still on her way, and the warp is capricious. "
"It’s chaos out there then?" Litzi asked innocently.
"Yes and no. The Imperium is a solid and hierarchical structure, it does not collapse at the first blow of a dagger. A triumvirat has been designated. It is composed of Aleksey Agustin Petrus the Prefectus Tertius of the Departmento Munitorum for Navida Prime, Simlina Olivarn representative of the noble houses and Dacaron Massin the commander of the Planetary Defense Forces.
"Simlina Olivarn? Of the same family as Leisim Olivarn whom Caius executed before our eyes for treason? "Jogan surprised.
"Yes. It's her aunt. The Olivarn family is one of the most powerful noble houses in Navida Prime. "
"Well ... That triumvirat has gone well. Rotten even before exercising power. "
"There is good news though. The triumvirat, gathered in the hive of Vamii, appointed Atornus Geis, Imperial Fist, extraordinary councilor and irrevocable member of the triumvirat.
Jogan shrugged indignantly.
"Ridiculous! Atornus Geis is a Master of the Forge. His knowledge and skills are unparalleled all over the world. He studied the mysteries of Omnissiah for several centuries! He is far more qualified to run the planet than that triumvirate."
Miro tilted quietly in her chair with a satisfied air.
"What then?" Asked Jogan.
"Apparently your Master of the Forge thinks the same thing. A few minutes after the official statement of the triumvirat witnesses say they saw a beam in the sky blasting the top floor of the hive. The ionic shields held for several seconds before the beam broke through and destroyed the floor directly above the triumvirate meeting quarters."
Jogan leaned far forward over the table, all of a sudden perfectly attentive. Miro pursued her story quietly.
“Atornus Geis then declared on the public airwaves that the Imperial Fists chapter will take command of all the forces of Navida Prime and that the triumvirat has been appointed honorary administrative substitute. Before, it seems, adding that his weaponry systems were entirely capable of adjusting their aim down one floor."
Jogan was beatified with admiration. He pulled Djamsha through the sleeve in his euphoria.
"A conversion beam! This is a conversion beam that he used! I am sure ! You realize ? There may be scarcely more than a dozen in the entire galaxy. He holds in his hands a weapon already considered as a treasure of the time of the Golden Age of Technology! It is…"
Djamsha gently cleared his sleeve and leaned back at the table.
"What does it change for us?"
"There is nothing above the Inquisition in the Imperium," replied Miro, "but if there are two factions for which this notion is fuzzy, it is the Mechanicum and the Astartes."
"And it's good, Atornus is one of the two," Djamsha went on.
"This is our best chance," Miro finished.
Litzi, hitherto discretely listening, spoke.
"Only there is a problem, all communication with the outside is impossible."
"That's right," Miro confirmed, "I tried everything. The level of security imposed by the Tau is impenetrable. "
"I have a solution ..." Djamsha began, marking a deliberate pause. Everyone turned to him.
"And what is it?" Jogan inquired.
"The Duke of Debris."
"The very man who wanted to capture me better to sell me to the Inquisition?!"
Litzi and Miro frowned.
"That one," Djamsha repeated quietly.
Jogan crossed his arms on his chest.
Djamsha shrugged. Miro looked over at the small assembly before speaking.
"OK," she dropped.
Jogan stared at her with an exasperated air.
"But Miro ..."
"A question however Djamsha. Would he be willing to come and haggle here in person? "
Djamsha tilted back to put his feet on the table.
"You ... you have a plan. Beware, this is the most powerful character of the Elova IV underground. "
The next day, in the deserted warehouse, Miro, Djamsha and Jogan waited in front of the repaired Devilfish. Litzi and her scavenger friends had hidden in the neighborhood to alert them in the event of an ambush. Five enormous vehicles appeared at the end of the street. The column made a complete turn of the warehouse and then stopped in front of the devilfish. From the vehicle in the center, a long limousine decorated with the colors of the shallows of Elova IV, descended six armed guards armed to the tooth, then a character of high stature. Encased in a xenos-like armor, dressed in a long refined coat and a broad-brimmed hat enhanced with a green feather, he slammed his cane against the bitumen while approaching the trio with a resolute step . He wore a long mustache carefully cut and a strong beard. He smiled with all his teeth as he saw Djamsha.
The bounty hunter turned to Jogan and Miro.
"My friends: the Duke of Debris."
"Elova IVs best bounty hunter! Delighted to see you again," the duke began in a grave yet playful voice.
"You missed me?" Djamsha was surprised.
"We were worried. There was a rumor that Chief Kroot had killed you. "
"Yes. It's always sad to have to wear mourning. "
The Duke made a little pout.
"Especially sad to have to make a cross on a debt of six hundred thrones."
Miro, impatient, stepped forward.
"Duke, excuse me for interrupting this touching reunion but we have a lot to do."
The duke took a small theatrical step back, as when he drew back to admire a work of important art, then he took off his hat to bow a distinguished genuflexion.
"Djamsha, you're a poor bounty hunter, but you do not know any equal as a womanizer."
Then to the attention of Miro.
"Mademoiselle, it is a rapture of the eyes to be able to contemplate you. If you were once tired of the turpitudes of Djamsha, you will find our door open."
Miro's face was a frozen wax mask.
"Duke, this is the reason why you are here tonight:
From now on, and until the end of the operation we are mounting, you will work for us. You will have no more priority activities than the mission we are going to assign you. You will not receive any payment until the mission is completed and you will receive a non-negotiable amount determined by us for your efforts. "
Miro had spoken her speech all at once in a rush. Djamsha's face gradually broke down and ended in a grin of amazement. Around the Duke the stupefied guards had begun to raise their arms. Everybody was waiting in silence.
It was the Duke himself who broke the ice ... breaking into an immense laugh which almost made him lose his hat. Shaken by a fit of healthy and invigorating laughter, it took him almost a minute to recover from his emotions. When at last he regained a semblance of calm, he had to lean on his cane to stand upright.
"Mademoiselle! Djamsha had warned us that you were an eccentric, but we could not have expected that!"
Then the voice of the Duke changed slightly, and it descended a semitone towards a slower and colder rhythm.
"Given your grace and the entertainment you have just offered me, we offer you a last will before we execute you for your affront ... and do not count on your "friends" to help you."
As he spoke his words, a side door slid off one of the convoy's vehicles. Inside Litzi, gagged and handcuffed appeared. A duke's henchman pushed her roughly out of the car. Djamsha took a step towards the Duke.
"Duke, for a moment, Miro is not in the act ..."
The Duke of Debris raised a hand, Djamsha snapped his mouth shut.
"Djamsha. You know us, we are not bad people. But there are insults that demand blood. "
Miro cleared his throat.
"I have my last will. But before, do you have a real technology expert as we asked you? "
The duke raised his head to contemplate the young woman. A smile appeared on his lips. He snapped his fingers. A guard opened one of the doors of the limousine and a strange orang-outang xenos, barded with technological equipment, descended. At his sight Jogan could not repress a cry of astonishment.
The duke turned again towards Miro.
"Is it okay with you," he asked briskly, "if you have any idea what it is, of course."
Miro turned to Jogan, who walked over to his wife whispering in his ear.
"It's a Jokaero! A creature of legends. Until today I thought they did not exist. It's unimaginable. It is said that even the High Lords of Terra struggle to try to procure even one. "
"And what about a technology expert? Are they able to compete with the knowledge of the Adeptus Mechanicus? "
To this question Jogan lowered his head. He looked at his feet with a contrite air.
"What?" Miro asked.
"Well ... in fact ... their technological knowledge,” the transmecanician paused, “far exceed those of the Mechanicum."
Miro gently patted her husband’s shoulder.
"It's perfect duke. If your expert wants to look at what we have here and give you an accurate report on the nature and especially the abilities of this object. "
As she spoke, Miro had activated the opening of the ramp of the devilfish, unveiling the massive machine struck by the seal of the Mechanicum. The Jokaero exchanged a glance with the Duke and approached the machine. For several minutes it turned around, pulled out some strange instruments, isolated itself in a corner of the devilfish to tinker with something, came back to the machine to scan it with a new device. Then it froze to read the signals carefully on his device, and in the next moment, picked up its things with haste and returned with great simian steps towards the limousine. When it passed in front of the Duke it quickly passed on one of his modules before disappearing into the vehicle. Symbols appeared on the forearm of the armor of the Duke who skimmed the few lines quickly. His face darkened.
Miro stepped forward.
"I’ll summarize the situation. Since the Tau have reactivated the archaeological-technological shield of Elova IV no one can come out, not even you. If you do not help us, the Tau will inevitably trap us in a few days. We will not be caught and we will blow up the torpedo. If you try anything against us, we will blow up the torpedo. And if the torpedo explodes, Elova IV is striped from the planet and you with it, wherever you hide in the city. This makes my proposal your only way to survive and be lucrative."
The Duke remained silent for a moment.
"Nicely brought Mademoiselle. We, the Duke of Debris, will help with this perilous task of saving Elova IV and all its inhabitants from total annihilation. What can we do for you?"
Behind Miro, Djamsha was at last relaxing, he passed a hand over his forehead where real pearls of anxiety had begun to roll.
"Djamsha told me that you might have a way to communicate with the outside despite the barrier?" Miro replied politely.
The Duke tugged softly on his mustache.
"Of what nature?"
"A psyker. A fugitive from the black ships. "
"But it's a double heresy!"
Miro pulled out his gun and passed it to Jogan.
"I'm coming with you Duke. Jogan, Djamsha, take care of the bomb until my return. "
Jogan awkwardly received the pistol.
"But? Who are you going to contact? "
Miro turned to his team with a forced smile on her lips.
"I do not know yet. Someone who wants to help us. "
It was six hours later that the Duke of Debris returned in person to meet the small group. He was accompanied by a reduced and slightly different escort.
"You received a reply to your bottle in the sea," he announced, pulling up a chair at the table. Everyone was hanging on his lips. He pulled a paper out of his pocket and began reading.
"Air Marshal Everlid Passang. We have received your message. We confirm an extraction of four individuals and a load of twenty-two tons. The extraction will take place in twenty-six hours, between levels 23 and 34, north-east facade. You must imperatively lower the intensity of the shield by at least 60% at the time of extraction. "
The assembly remained silent for a time.
"It's ... it's singular," Djamsha began.
"At least that's an answer," Jogan tried to look positive.
"Do you know anything about this Marshal?" asked Djamsha to the Duke of Debris.
"Not much. She fought on Nectavus VI. She was recalled this year to take charge of operations for the entire continent since the first Orks raids. But aloft Elova IV is far from her usual theaters of operations. The area is under Tau control. "
"What about the shield? Do we have any luck?"
The duke smoothed his mustache, reflecting.
"It's complicated," he began slowly, "we know little of this generator. The Tau almost never use it, the last use goes back to twelve years. From what we know it is not a Tau technology. The system is part of the Elova IV structure."
Litzi leaped like a devil from its box. She disappeared into the storage room adjoining the loft, there were noises from the shelves upside down for several minutes, then she reappeared, covered in dust, holding a huge card rolled in her hands. With an excited gesture she placed it on the table and unrolled it.
"The Prohibited Levels!"
Everyone leaned over the map to see better. It was not a single map, but several, put together end-to-end, scribbled and annotated on all sides.
"There is no access for levels 20 to 30. To go to the upper floors the Tau use two footbridges here and there," Litzi began pointing with her fingertips, “and they installed themselves a dozen lifts on the outer wall here. We tried several times to explore the area, but without success. The Tau are suspected of not even entering themselves in these levels so the area is hermetic."
"What's the deal with our business?" Jogan asked.
"Well, one of our Crawlers reported seeing a very special Tau team on the way to the Prohibited Levels a few days ago."
Litzi paused as she straightened up to look over her audience.
"The last time a Crawler saw such a team at this level ... it was twelve years ago."
"The last time the Tau activated the shield of Elova IV!" exclaimed the Duke.
"How long do you need to get to the Prohibited Levels?" Miro asked.
Litzi concentrated for a moment.
"About three days."
"Yes. All levels after level 10 are forbidden to Gue'las. We go through the outer wall, but the progression is very slow because of the surveillance. "
"Except we have twenty-six hours."
The Duke of Debris took out a card from his pocket and pushed it on the table.
"Accreditations for any level."
Litzi's eyes began to shine. Miro stretched out her arm to retrieve the badge.
"We shall make good use of it. Thank you."
The preparations for the operation had taken an hour. Jogan, Miro and Djamsha, disguised as technicians, were now climbing to Level 19 aboard a freight elevator for maintenance crews. In front of them, to help them in their infiltration, Xantipe, an expert recommended by the Duke of Debris for the operation. And beside them, Litzi. The latter had insisted heavily throughout the duration of the preparations to be the first Crawler to see the Prohibited Levels. Tired Miro had finally accepted.
The hoist stopped gently and the side door slid into a scraping noise. In front of them was a wide corridor, on the sides of which two other freight elevators had teams of technicians. In front of them stood an imposing Tau dam. Drones and defensive positions pointed their ion weapons on them, while no less than a dozen fire warriors carried out the methodical inspection of the technicians. Xantipe had convinced Miro to shave precious time from their schedule to arrive at rush hour, and seeing the crowd of technicians hurrying in front of the controllers, Xantipe's advice seemed to be extremely wise.
When their turn came, Xantipe stepped forward to present the badge of her team and engage in conversation with the Taus guard. She spoke in an impeccable tau and the firewarrior in charge of their inspection seemed beleaguered. They discussed a minute or two in a tone that seemed perfectly amiable, then he waved to tell the whole team to pass.
"I did not think it would be that easy!" exhaled Djamsha as they walked away from the dam.
"The Tau believe in a kind of doctrine called the Greater Good," replied Xantipe, "they are struggling to try to rally all the races to this doctrine. This often ends very badly. Then they are forced to resort to coercion. For us it is simply war. For them it is a failure. This is because they have not been able to convince. A dead enemy is an enemy who will never join the Greater Good. So when they encounter an individual who has been able to embrace all the values of the Tau culture, for them who have only known war, it is a bit like a consecration, it is a tangible proof that they do not fight in vain and the Greater Good is realizing. "
They had walked to the outskirts of the structure. At this point the lateral corridors led directly to the exterior. Strong winds shook the meta-structure, and here and there nacelles slipped along the wall to convey the repair crews to the various points of the level. Xantipe took his team to the large external platform from which the various nacelles started.
To the chief technician who stopped them on the way she handed a paper.
"Repair on an outside rail," she added.
The chief technician handed her a key and pointed out a nacelle. Within moments they were slipping along the wall. Everyone took their harnesses out of their bags, as Litzi and Xantipe prepared the climbing equipment. The small group began its ascent with caution. Regularly it was necessary to stop when patrols of Piranha passed. Arriving at a good port Litzi pulled out some drilling equipment and methodically began cutting the wall. Quickly she stopped. The first protective layer had given way to a strange material, which reacted to the drilling by hardening. Jogan analyzed the structure and then threw together an emergency modification of the beam from makeshift equipment, including Miro's laspistol and several valuable gadgets that Litzi wore on her. Finally, a few hours later, they had made an orifice of sufficient size to pass through. Without losing a moment the whole team slipped inside.
Inside everything was black and silent. Jogan activated a lamp in his right eye and a wide beam of light split the darkness. The others lit their little portable lamps. The place was narrow and ruined. Tangles of cables hung from the ceiling, metal cladding panels from the walls fell here and there, revealing strange archeo-tech machineries, and the ground was strewn with debris.
Miro led the march, carrying an iron bar she had picked up from the floor, followed by Jogan and his light, Litzi and Xantipe stood in the middle and Djamsha brought up the rear. The group progressed slowly for long minutes. The immense spaces were as deserted. Sometimes, through a collapsed corridor, they could see gigantic open spaces, crossed by footbridges, industrial installations or strange amphitheatres with an unknown role. It was Jogan who stopped the progression. He had felt an energy flow behind a wall. Miro and he quickly disengaged the plate and uncovered a thick mesh of cables in good condition. Jogan cautiously connected and stood there, his eyes turned back, for long seconds. When his consciousness returned he smirked.
"The area is in perfect working order despite appearances. The energy grid is working and there is a particular concentration not far from here."
As Jogan got up and started walking again, there was a movement in the dark on the ceiling, something spinning from the end of the corridor to them. Miro instinctively knocked against the wall and touched something, but the second form fell on Litzi. There was a metallic clacking and Litzi cried out in pain as she held her stomach. Jogan panicked, turned his head to look at the girl, illuminating her with his eye. He had only time to glimpse a kind of metallic spider flee his light among the cabling of the ceiling. Suddenly bursts of light illuminated the scene. Djamsha opened fire in the corridor behind them, several laspistol shots painted the whole environment with their red light. At the bottom of the corridor dozens of metallic spiders were advancing at high speed in their direction. Djamsha took out one with each shot, but two others emerged immediately. Xantipe turned around to add her fire to Djamsha. Miro, who had split one of the spiders that had managed to slip to the top of her head, continued to swing with the mining bar while Jogan knelt by Litzi. He did not have time to do anything before two clamps erupted from the wall beside him, grabbed him by the neck and pulled him against the wall, shearing his flesh. Litzi, listening only to her courage, grabbed the cutters with bare hands to try to stop the grinding. In an ultimate effort, as the sharp metal began to pass through her gloves and blood began to flow between her fingers, she managed to stop the movement. Miro jumped and dove closer to them. With a powerful gesture, aided by all her weight, she struck blindly, through the cables of the wall, at the precise spot from which the two mandibles came out. His bar sank deep, there was a sound of dull explosion and the mandibles relaxed under Litzi's effort. Jogan, freed, dropped to the ground holding his throat.
"We must go! There are too many!" shouted Djamsha without giving them time to breathe. As a single person, the group quickly retreated along the corridor. Xantipe, Litzi and Djamsha took turns to keep a blazing fire on the pursuers as Jogan lead them on.
"Your wound," Miro shouted as they ran, "are you okay ?!"
Jogan nodded and pulled his hand from his neck. There was not a drop of blood.
"It's okay! I redirected part of my blood flow to other vessels.”
"Are you kidding," exclaimed Litzi half-disgusted, half-disbelieving.
As the group continued its orderly retreat, they emerged on a crossroads strewn with corpses and metal carcasses. Jogan was the first to react, he uttered a cry of both terror and admiration. He had pointed at a carcass in the middle of this pile. On the breast of an automaton was engraved the symbol of the Adeptus Mechanicus, the skull embedded in the holy gear. As the rest of the group followed into the room, the scene became clear to everyone. What they were watching was a battle scene. A last stand defended by warriors and automatons of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Jogan however seemed to have been been electrified by the sight of these remains. He threw himself on the heap of scrap metal and began to pull out pieces frantically.
Litzi, Xantipe and Djamsha formed a front at the entrance to the corridor and poured a deluge of fire into the darkness of the corridor. Miro climbed behind Jogan and instructed him to get him down.
"Jogan! Pulled yourself together! We must go! "
Jogan struggled so vigorously that the two tumbled down at the foot of the pile. Jogan still held an artefact in his hand, his eyes crazy as they met those of his wife.
"Look! A transonic blade! And there! It is! It's an automaton of class Castellax! Do you understand what that means?"
The rest of the group passed before them, running and continuing to shoot. Miro tore the transonic sword from Jogan's hands and put him back on his feet.
"That means we need to get moving so we do not end up ripped apart here!"
Jogan shrieked as though he were dying for long minutes as he was being dragged along the corridors. After much effort the group managed to evade its pursuers. At the corner of a corridor everyone stopped to catch their breath. As everyone was recovering their wits, Miro stopped. She raised a hand slowly to indicate the order to stand still and raised her blade very slowly. Everyone stared, then Djamsha was the second to see what Miro had seen. He nodded in her direction and prepared to draw. Behind them, against the wall, a scarab of metal the size of a paleo-dog was slowly forming by absorbing the surrounding materials in a quasi-perfect mimicry. Miro and Djamsha attacked together at a dazzling speed. But the machine was faster, and in a movement of unreal reflex escaped the two blows. She counter-attacked in the same automatic movement, and a sharp clamp touched Djamsha and Jogan with a circular gesture. Jogan let out a whistle of frustration when the attack damaged a metal case embedded in his abdomen. While the rest of the group took a desperate fighting position in front of this new enemy, the scarab had frozen. What looked like the head turned to Jogan and in turn emitted what seemed to be a whistle at the edge of the audible.
"Of course!" Jogan yelled at the machine.
The machine continued its very slight whistle. Jogan recovered a semblance of calm and began to emit what sounded like a dissonant whistle. Then he turned to the rest of his group.
"That's it! It's incredible. This machine. It is controlled by a member of our saint adeptus. Its lingua-technis is very different from mine, but we manage to communicate. He has no belligerent intent. He told me a way to reach him. He assumes that we would have much to exchange. I asked him if he knew anything about the generation of the shield of Elova IV, he transmitted to me several diagrams which prove to me that indeed we are in the right place.”
Djamsha lowered his weapon and sat up dubiously.
"Did he tell you all that in a whistle?"
"Lingua-technis is a mode of communication that goes beyond simple language."
"Did he say anything else."
"Ah yes! He mentioned that we only had a few minutes to live. An entity he calls the Guardian would be on his way to our position. And apparently nothing can escape him. "
As if to support his words the ground began to vibrate. On the ground small objects began to roll and dust began to fall from the ceiling. The scarab stuck again to the wall, in a few moments it merged with the surrounding material to become one with the structure.
"You know how to reach him?" Miro shouted to Jogan.
"Yes! He sent me all the plans for the Prohibited Levels. I can see them. "
At the end of the corridor an enormous mass moving at full speed crashed against the wall without bothering to slow down to turn. In the semi-darkness that reigned at the other end of the corridor, what looked like a ball of articulated metal tentacles, live cables and electro-whips began to make their way to them. The entity did not seem to have a body but rather resembled a teeming mass of worms in which shone a dozen pairs of red eyes focused on them. The thing was so big that it completely obstructed the corridor by which it arrived.
"The famous Guardian I presume," swallowed Litzi.
"Jogan, take the others! And disable me this shield!"
"What about you?" shouted Djamsha to cover the infernal cacophony of the Guardian’s approach.
"I will try to distract him. I'll lure him away and I'll join you later, or out! "
Without waiting for a reply Miro rushed towards the Guardian. The rest of the group left in the opposite direction, running behind Jogan who opened the way.
For Jogan the maze was no longer a puzzle. He ran with a secure step into the darkness. At every crossroads he knew exactly where to turn. At each large space, his light split the darkness to illuminate the concealed access ramp that had to be navigated. In the space of barely ten minutes they reached their destination. By sinking into the heart of the mega-structure they had begun to encounter colossal spaces, in which incredible machines were silently turning to fulfill some enigmatic functions. Arriving at a checkpoint, sliding doors suddenly closed around them. In an instant they were shut up in this room. By reflex Djamsha unsheathed but Jogan put a hand on the barrel of his weapon.
Against a wall of the control room the phenomenon of construction recommenced. The material began to assemble quickly and a human form emerged. He was a techno-priest, so completely mechanized that it was impossible to discern with the naked eye the slightest patch of flesh on his body. When he was fully formed he stepped into the room and showed a console to Jogan. The latter branched, the two adepts remained silent for a moment, then smiled at the same time.
"Praised be the Omnissiah. You've updated your Gothic? "Jogan began.
The individual first spun into the void, without any sound coming out, then out of his throat came a disarticulated metal voice.
"Yes. Update. Elements. Compare. Resemblance. Ease. Language. Commune. Praised be the Omnissiah. "
"You know something about the shield?" snapped Djamsha.
"Shield. Death. Drones. Come. Yes. Activation. Deactivation."
"Disable? Yes, how do we disable it? "Djamsha pressed.
The technopriest held out an arm. A panel slid against a wall, revealing a bay window. Below the turbines in activity illuminated a large room of a pale bluish light. At the same time data began to scroll on one of the consoles in the room. Djamsha and Litzi leaned over to look.
"The instructions to disable the shield!" She whispered.
Jogan let his companions concentrate and turned to the techno-priest.
"Who are you ? How ... how do you do that? "
The techno-priest climbed a few steps to the command post of the control center. He solemnly turned to Jogan, stared at him, then raised a hand. At the command desk a compartment slid to reveal an object, obviously of imperial construction.
Jogan approached his hand very slowly. He trembled. His subdermal systems interacted with the object. Slowly the data went back to him, and he had confirmation of the impossible. The object under his fingers was a fragment of a Standard Template Construct. The most valuable asset of the galaxy. The unique quest for the Mechanicum. The glorification of Omnissiah.
"It's a STC," Jogan whispered in binary.
Jogan turned his eyes madly towards his co-religionist.
"What does it contain?"
"Diagrams of modifications of the brain to allow consciousness in virtual spaces. And molecular remodelers. "
"It's unimaginable. Is it functional?"
"Yes. I used it. "
Jogan narrowed his eyes. His eyes wandered around the room. It was then that he noticed a strange construction behind the Command Chair. The original object had been roughly modified by technology of different origin. On the seat a skeleton that had fallen into dust was enthroned there, behind the bone of his neck, which resembled a drill.
"It's you ?"
The techno-priest remained silent. At the bottom of the stairs the group hailed the transmechanic.
"Jogan! We go down to disable the shield! Watch out for everything from the control center. "
The techno-priest took a step to approach the bay window, Jogan on his heels.
"They will not have the time," he finally commented after a long silence.
Already at the bottom Jogan could see his companions running between the turbines in direction of a generator larger than the others.
"What do you mean ?"
"The Guardian. He is coming. Nothing can stop him. "
"Miro ..." Jogan whispered.
"Here it is."
Although no sound went up to Jogan from the turbine room, the latter was able to see his companions come to a halt below. Then Xantipe and Djamsha opened fire in the direction of a target out of his field of vision as Litzi rushed to a control panel. Suddenly the Guardian appeared in Jogan's field of vision. The enormous mass of metallic tentacles slipped over a turbine, absorbing the shots. Djamsha dived to pull Litzi back, tentacles hit the spot where she stood the second before. Xantipe fired two consecutive shots, giving time for Djamsha and Litzi to get up. The techno-priest turned to the command seat transformed into an implant machine.
"They have no chance. But you can save yourself by becoming like me. "
"What do you mean ?"
"If you set up the STC, you can join the virtual space, there the guardian can do nothing against you."
"Implant a unit of mental impulse? An operation of this kind takes hours. "
"You can use a Cruxis Machina."
All of Jogan's being revolted. He knew the procedure only by name, but he knew the consequences.
"The STC would be destroyed in the proceedings!"
The techno-priest remained silent.
Jogan was startled by a detonation. He turned to the bay window. Down below the fight was raging. Djamsha was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Litzi sprang to drag him by the shoulders and pull him along the spans leaving behind a long red trail as he continued to shoot at the approaching Guardian. There was a second detonation which cut the Guardian in its tracks. On its right flank Xantipe, armed with grenades, took it by surprise. As she retreated in turn a tentacle slipped under a turbine and took her by surprise, blocking her leg. As she tried to free herself the Gardian launched a second tentacle with a drill bit. The machine of death perforated the skull of Xantipe, a wave of blood and brain bursting out with the drill as it emerged from an eye cavity, carrying an eye. Jogan put his hand to his mouth to contain his disgust. The Guardian repeatedly struck Xantipe's lifeless body and then violently tossed it against a pillar, finally dismembering it completely. Then the Guardian turned to the control center where Jogan was. The transmechanic stiffened. He glanced at the place where Litzi and Djamsha were, and there was only a long trail of blood disappearing in the dark spans of the room.
"He's coming for you," calmly announced the techno-priest to Jogan.
"The Guardian is a machine. You are the only fully valid target, you have become a priority. He will finish the others later. "
In saying this the techno-priest had placed his hand against a wall. Slowly he began to merge with it.
"But ..." Jogan could not find his words. Below the Guardian slipped in the direction of the central tower where the control center was located. Then it contorted to enter the gut of the elevator that led to him. When Jogan turned to the techno-priest he had disappeared. Jogan was alone. Everything was going too fast for him. He ran to the STC. He took it and approached the chair to plug it in. Then he stopped in mid gesture. If he did this he would destroy the most precious thing in the world. Simply to save his miserable life. It was beyond his strength. The weight of the guilt crushed his shoulders. A first tentacle struck the bay window violently, cracking it widely. Jogan shook himself to life, terrorfied, and connected the ST. Internally he had decided to reflect later on the consequences of his actions. The next moment he settled on the chair. The drill came back into the flesh of the neck with an unheard-of strength, but hardly had it begun until everything stopped.
He was there.
Standing. Or was he sitting?
Everything was red and dancing around him. Unless he lost vision?
A form appeared before him. He was different and yet Jorgan recognized him. He was the techno-priest.
"Where are we ?"
Jogan wanted to talk. But his thought was enough. The techno-priest smiled. He also thought, and Jogan could understand his thoughts.
"We are Elova IV."
The techno-priest directed his thoughts to those of Jogan. The latter concentrated. Everything changed around him. The red and dancing forms blend together. Everything becomes data fields, in all dimensions. He could feel Elova IV. He could see his corridors. It was all systems at once. It was one with almost infinite power.
"Why is there no longer Time?" Thought Jogan.
"It exists. But it is only a data. "
"It's there. Yes. I see it now. But so slow.
"Because Elova IV processors are powerful. We analyze things so quickly that time does not pass in the same way. Right here."
They were now in front of the command post. They were "watching" him under a fusion of angles, data, cameras, sensors, and analyzes, which formed a coherent and quasi-infinite whole. A tentacle of the Guardian was approaching at high speed from the bay window. At high speed, but still practically motionless. Speed was only a data. Jogan concentrated on the whole structure at once. Beneath him millions of data flowed in all directions. The techno-priest was there. Jogan turned his thoughts towards him.
"It's almost infinity."
They contemplated together the sea of calculations. From a thought Jogan aligned all the operations necessary to the analysis of the impact of the tentacle against the bay window. Billions of calculations passed in his mind, an immeasurable amount of data, and yet as clear as an image. He saw the result of the impact. He could SEE to the smallest fragment of glass projected, the position in which he would reach the ground, the angle of incidence, the rebound. He could calculate every rebound, every collision with other fragments. It was an absolute precision, a transformation of reality into a series of perfect and absolute equations. It was a vertiginous and perfect experience. He emerged from his mathematical reverie.
"What a feeling ! I could stay there ... "
"... forever," the techno-priest finished.
"But the Guardian will eventually reach me," Jogan noted.
"Yes. But in an almost infinite time. "
"I can read the Guardian," he remarked.
"Yes. Because it is part of the system. You can see it here. He has four targets. "
Jogan plunged into the system. He could distinguish points in a finite space.
"Oh I see it. Why does she have such a low rate? "
"Because she's stuck. The Guardian despised her."
"But ?! But that's Miro! "
Jogan focused on the immediate vicinity of the target. He was at the same time the walls, the hydraulic systems, the lighting, the electric currents, the doors, their locking systems. He took a deep breath.
In the total black Miro was running as fast as possible. The young woman had made a long fall in trying to escape from the Guardian. But it had suddenly turned away from her. From the well where she had fallen, it had not deigned to descend, and now, with her broken lamp, she advanced as best she could, but she could not find a way to go up. Suddenly the air became electric. Then a light came on before her, and the door underneath opened. And the corridor behind turned on in turn, then the door to the other end in turn and so on for several hundred meters. As far as the eye could see Miro continued to see the lights turning on and hear the slamming of the doors opening. The young woman remained on guard, silence fell, a screen blinked not far away. Text appeared.
"Miro. Do not take the path that has just opened. The Guardian is coming for you. I apologize. That's my only solution. I'll open a second way out. I'll take care of the shield. You are important to me. Jogan."
The young woman sighed. Already in the distance she could hear the metallic scraping characteristic of the Guardian. Behind her another door opened. She made a commitment to do so at a run. Behind, in the distance, the Guardian inexorably gain ground on her. At a corner crossing she fell face to face with Litzi. The teenager had unpacked first aid kit and was binding Djamsha as best she could. He had fainted and she had leaned him against the wall.
"Here you are! At last!" she exclaimed when Miro arrived.
"Was I expected?" Miro wondered.
"Yes. It was Jogan who lit up a path for us. He said you would come and take us. "
Miro did not lose a moment, she passed her neck under a shoulder of Djamsha, enjoining Lizti to do the same.
"We do not finish the bandage?" exclaimed Litzi a little panicked.
Miro gave her a hurried look over Djamsha.
"I did not come alone."
In the middle of the ocean of data Jogan watched calmly.
"They're going to make it."
"Yes," observed the techno-priest by his side.
"I'll go. The way is clear."
The techno-priest turned to Jogan. He seemed to think.
"Are you going for her?"
"For those who rely on me. And for her yes. "
"There is no truth in the flesh, only treason," thought the techno-priest, insisting on the word treason.
"There is no strength in the flesh, only weakness," Jogan replied, according to the millennial tradition of their faith.
A few corridors from the exit the small group was joined by Jogan. Nobody had time to ask questions, it was necessary to continue running while the Guardian was only a corridor behind them.
Litzi exited first, then they moved Djamsha out. The Guardian emerged down the corridor and charged. Miro hung her harness on a twisted joist and rushed outside with Jogan. Scarcely had they stumbled against the wall when spotlights were aimed at them. Suspended in the void, blocked against the wall, they were attacked by two piranhas. The weapons markers were locked on them and the guns began to turn. Before anybody had time to react two anti-tank missiles raised from the lower level and disintegrated the patrol vehicles. While they were shielding themselves from the incandescent debris that was pouring down on them, Miro looked down. The Duke of Debris and four armsmen armed with missile-launchers came in their direction aboard two nacelles. Everyone dropped down on board.
"Direction level 24!" The Duke ordered.
"The torpedo," Miro questioned, "you have it with you as planned?"
"Yes, but I'm afraid we'll never get there," the Duke said, pointing to the second crown of Elova IV below.
Miro leaned over to see. The Tau armada was taking off. Tens of Barracudas took flight, escorting Tiger Sharks. Remora drones formed closely followed the maneuver and placed themselves in the vanguard.
"What is happening ?"
"Imperial forces were discovered far too early by a reconnaissance drone. The Tau leave for interception. Without the surprise effect they will be massacred. "
Miro made a grimace and pointed her chin at the wide gangway outside level 24 which they headed towards at high speed.
"Let's take care of our massacre."
The sentinels of the outer gangway had no chance. Taken by surprise, they fell under the fire of the duke's men. The moment after everyone took a position on the big landing platform. Jogan picked up a drone that the surprise attack had damaged. He began to disassemble it.
"Do you get anything?" Litzi asked, sitting down beside him.
Jogan nodded his head.
"It's a liaison drone. I have access to some of their communications. They talk about the Imperial fleet. "
Interested, Miro and the Duke approached to listen. Jogan, his eyes in the vague, seemed to listen to an invisible voice.
"They do not have any visual contact yet. The Imperial Fleet is protected by a strong vanguard that conceals them but they have been spotted on Tau sensors. The whole fleet is discovered. Given the distance the Tau armada will have time to get into the interception position and prepare all their shooting solutions. "
Miro and the Duke exchanged a worried look.
"How long before the extraction?" Miro asked.
"Normally ten minutes," replied a Duke's man.
Jogan raised his head surprised.
"Something is wrong."
Everyone was silent.
"There is no imperial fleet. It's a lure. The vanguard fled. The first Barracudas make their reports. I hear. It's a commercial Tau fleet! She was attacked by Thunderbolts who jammed their communications and forced them to retreat to Elova IV. "
Litzi looked up at the horizon.
"Where do the fights take place?"
"At the South-East."
Litzi turned her gaze towards the northwest, the sun had just appeared on the horizon. As if to confirm her assumptions something began to move on the surface of the lake. Tens of Valkyries drifted on the surface of the water, motors extinguished in the darkness.
"The currents! They come from the southwest!" Litzi shouted in amazement.
In the distance a whole imperial fleet of valkyries roared its engines with vertical thrust and tore themselves from the water. In a few moments hundreds of missiles rushed to the positions tau totally caught unprepared. A series of explosions began to flourish throughout the outer ring as air battles fought between the Imperial fleet and the few defenders of Elova IV who remained in the area.
"And the Tau armada is in the south-east fighting nothing, this is the… most brilliant strategy I’ve ever seen.. how..." commented the Duke, who was really impressed. He was about to make a second comment when one of his men uttered a cry of alert. As everyone went to cover a salvo of shots swept the bridge. An enormous flying vehicle made a first pass above the bridge and moved away in an arc of circle to return front.
"Orca!!" shouted one of the Duke's men.
"We must flee!" replied another, running toward the nacelles.
"What is it?" Jogan shouted as he joined the group hidden behind a barrier of supply crates.
"A troop transport. The biggest one. It contains a small army. But above all ... its systems of defense are impenetrable. He will deviate our missiles without problem. "
Already the Orca had finished its turn and now slowed down its course. Obviously, to return his cargo to the bridge. Miro looked at the horizon. The valkyries were slipping on their position but they would never arrive in time.
Jogan stood up.
"Duke. You see these barrels of fuel on the tarmac? Let your men fire all their missiles on them. Miro, Litzi, Djamsha, take all the smoke grenades from the soldiers shot down and throw them all over the bridge. Now."
Jogan had spoken in a tone that did not suffer any questioning. Quickly the group executed and the bridge disappeared under a cloud of black and thick smoke. In front of them the Orca disappeared to their eyes but everyone could hear the roar of its four powerful engines getting into a hovering position.
"I do not know what you want to do Jogan, but the Orcas are equipped with the best Tau sensors that are. He can still land by relying on them," Litzi shouted in the middle of the acrid smoke.
"I'm counting on it," Jogan replied coldly, thrusting his fist into the drone he had kept with him.
His head was thrown back violently. When he straightened his eyes were white, blood flowed through his mouth and ears. His face was a mask of extreme pain and concentration. The smoke disappeared before his eyes, and slowly appeared the glowing data fields of the tau network. And in the middle, the data of the sensors of the Orca. Those which gave the pilots the necessary information for the landing.
"What are you doing!?" Miro screamed worried as she threw herself down to support Jogan's wavering.
Jogan turned his head slowly toward his wife. A grin of satisfaction appeared on his twisted face. He articulated painfully under tension.
"A calibration error."
The approach angle of the Orca was much too fast. The enormous apparatus struck the bridge in full force. Its front-right turbine tore itself against the steel of the pontoon. The pilots attempted a desperate avoidance maneuver, the entire side of the vehicle scraping against the bridge as the aircraft quickly lost altitude. The small group approached the edge to see the aircraft descending to the ground in a trail of smoke. Jogan lost consciousness. Two minutes later the Imperial valkyries arrived at their height to recover them. Djamsha was brought aboard still unconscious. In the midst of the smoke and the fires of anti-aircraft batteries Miro bade farewell to the Duke of Debris.
"I do not know if he wanted to leave Elova IV. But with the fights that await us he will not be able to survive," the Duke began.
"I'll make sure he survives." Miro replied.
"If he does... tell him I'm spoiling his debt."
Miro nodded. The valkyrie carrying the young woman began to rise.
"And you will have your payment for your help Duke. You have my word."
"I never doubted it mademoiselle."
The instant after the Imperial fleet broke the battle and fell back.
In the command apparatus, a huge modified marauder, Litzi and Jogan, stood at the bedside of Djamsha. Placed under intensive care, two nurses took turns trying to save him. Everlid Passang and Miro entered the little infirmary. The nurses stood at attention. Everlid dismissed them. The Air Marshal was a tall, dry woman, wearing the traditional blue and white uniform of the Imperial Navy with a red ribbon of war decoration and a silk jabot. She contemplated the small group with care.
"So it's him?"
"Yes," Miro replied, nodding deferentially.
"You convinced me. I am not yet fully confident in our triumvirat. It is not necessary that they have both the torpedo and the last person to know how to use it."
Jogan waved on his chair but did not say a word. The Air Marshal waved her hand, and her personal servo-skull flew to her.
"Command bridge. Contact the Admiralty. Confirm the result of the operation. Package: secure. Survivors: none."
The servo-skull retreated.
"As soon as your friend is ready, you will be transferred to an aircraft of my fleet. A pilot from my personal escort will take you to Vamii Citadel."
CHAPTER 5 - STARS ALIGNED
Citadel of Vamii.
Grand Hall of Honor.
Atornus Geis, Master of Forge of the Imperial Fists chapter, contemplated the horizon through the huge armored windows. Before his eyes the plain was literally covered with Xenos bodies. Thousands of creatures had tried to take the citadel. The Tyranids as the Ordo Xenos called them. Their help had been invaluable on Navida Prime. Atornus was wise and humble despite his rank. When a Deathwatch team approached him to warn him of the threat he was going to have to fight, he had listened to their advice, read their reports, and prepared his defenses accordingly. Today his patient maneuvers bore fruit, the imperial front had moved, suffering some necessary losses, but above all by provoking a direct confrontation between the Orks and the Tyranid threat. Since the opening of this new front between two enemies, the pressure had considerably diminished. So much the better, for the recent assassinations had caused a stir in the imperial hierarchy. The old techmarine did not see this council a very good eye. A nest of snakes.
He was drawn from his strategic reflections when the great door opened with a crash. Leodis, in charge of the safety of the citadel, made his entrance surrounded by two members of the honor guard of the chapter, two powerful brothers, among the most experienced of the whole chapter. He dragged by the hair a captive with bound hands. Dressed in a combination of black leather adorned with impious cabalistic symbols, she had the characteristic features of corrupt eldars. Leodis threw the prisoner at the feet of the great council table.
"What's all this brother Leodis?" Atornus asked as he walked down the stairs to join the crowd.
"An attempt to infiltrate. Twelve corrupted eldars. Through the sewer system. We massacred the whole group, this one panicked. Brother Sault captured her."
One of the two guards of honor made a slight curtsey. Atornus arrived at the prisoner's level to consider her.
"What did you come here to do?" Calmly asked the Master of the Forge to the captive.
She struggled on her knees to face her interrogator. Her face was swollen. His right eye closed with great difficulty and his lower lip widely split flowed from the blood.
"Your honor," she began in a whispering voice, "if you grant me mercy, I am ready to reveal everything to you. I just ask to be spared."
Leodis, in a rage, lifted the dark eldar by the hair and burst her mouth against the corner of the table in massive marble. Two teeth flew across the room.
"Wretched xenos! You think you can haggle! You are in the presence of Atornus Geis, Master of the Forge of our chapter. When he asks something, just answer! "
The prisoner carried her hands tied to her face in a very useless gesture of defense.
"My apologies, Master of the Forge, for my insolent remarks! I did not mean to haggle. I implored clemency."
Atornus pushed a tooth on the table with a distracted mechadendrite.
"We will see. Begin to talk, if you show yourself cooperative I will be ready to grant you a fast and painless death. "
The kabalite again tried to regain a proper posture.
"She came to assassinate you," she said.
The two guards of honor instinctively stiffened. Leodis slapped the prisoner violently.
"Do not talk in puzzles!"
Atornus raised a hand to calm his lieutenant.
"Thank you Brother Leodis. I think the prisoner understood the interest of her cooperation."
Furious, Leodis went away to go and do some ablutions. The venerable techmarine raised the kabalite of a mechadendrite and placed her on a chair.
"I am listening to you, who is this 'She'?"
The Kabalite took her breath.
"I could end my life now. In a moment. One move of my tongue ... "
"...but you do not," Atornus finished.
"No. I was betrayed. I am ready to cooperate. "
"What do you want in exchange?"
"To be spared."
An honor guard approached, his battle blade stripped. His superior stopped him with a wave of his hand.
"What makes you think we are interested?"
The kabalite paused for a moment.
"The one who comes to murder you ... is Liatha, the Hollow Shade."
Atornus straightened up with all his stature. The honor guards, already strained, redoubled their attention. Atornus considered the captive carefully, while he spoke a mechadendrite passed over the mouth of the captive to wipe away the coagulated blood.
"What was your role?"
"We had to serve as a diversion to allow Liatha to infiltrate. But she betrayed our position so that we could be spotted. For a better diversion I suppose... "
"Nothing surprising for a race of vipers," commented an honor guard. The prisoner spat on the ground with contempt.
"An interesting story," Atornus went on, "but how did your superior expect to be sufficiently armed to defeat me? She certainly knows that an impenetrable xenos device monitors any weapon introduction in my quarters. "
"I do not have the last details, but her weapons are already in the citadel for several days."
The three astrates warriors jumped together.
"How?" Snapped the Master of the Forge.
"Blasphemy!" Roared one of the guards of honor.
"Where are these weapons?"
The Kabalite lowered her head.
"Do I have a chance to have my life saved?"
Atornus let his mechanical fingers run over the immense marble table.
"These blades are said to be true archeo-technological treasures. If what you say is true, then you can leave."
"The blades are guarded by a traitor. The aspiring Feurit."
Atornus turned to his brothers.
"Where is Brother Feurit?"
"In his quarters. He was wounded a few days ago during a reconnaissance mission."
"Go down and get him. Search his stuff."
Ten minutes later the heavy doors opened again on a Leodis livid like death. His face was a mask of indignation and stupor. As he stepped into the entrance hall hundreds of red rays blocked his way as a long siren began to sound. He slowly raised a bundle before him and slid the black fabric revealing two fine black blades finely chiselled and covered with shining blue circuits.
"The prisoner was right. Feurit hid this." Leodis announced in a trembling voice that betrayed the emotion that overwhelmed him that a brother had dared to commit such an act.
Atornus deactivated the ancient xenos protection system and advanced towards Leodis. His eyes glowed with a greedy gleam as he took a blade to examine it.
Leodis placed the second blade and the packet on the command table and cleared his throat. Atornus looks at him out of the corner of his eye.
"Master, I ask you permission to proceed with the interrogation of Brother Feurit."
"I understand. Allowed. But let the chaplain-interrogator Nathaniel second you."
Leodis drew a deep reverence and went back to the elevators.
Atornus came back to the table, put down the blade he was holding beside the second one. The two blades shone for a brief moment.
"Fascinating. They come into resonance. What mysteries will they reveal to me..."
Then he turned his attention back to the prisoner.
"You did not lie. You may deserve to live. Is there anything else I should know? "
The Kabalite cast an anxious look at the two menacing honor guards standing behind her.
"Yes my Lord. He was not the only traitor. "
The Master of the Forge could not contain a scream of surprise.
"Two other warriors have been corrupted by a very powerful filter. They now blindly obey my mistress."
"Foolish ! Absurd! "Atornus muttered.
"Like her blades that are now on your table?" The female eldar asked in a low voice. Atornus glanced at the artifacts. He regained his composure.
"A point for you. You've already told the truth once. How can I recognize these possessed warriors?"
The Kabalite squirmed in her chair.
"It's simple monseigneur. Their iris is entirely violet and I know their identity."
"Speak now!" Shouted Atornus.
"The two honor guards in front of you."
The two veterans leaped in surprise.
"Lie!" screamed one, while the latter was already approaching the prisoner with a threatening step. The prisoner, her face still in blood, curled up in a vain gesture of protection. Atornus raised an imperious hand. All the audience froze.
"Wait. Our prisoner has not lied so far. If she still says the truth, you should have a violet iris."
The two honor guards nodded.
"If you lied, your head will roll on this ground, xenos. Brothers, please remove your helmets and wash your honor."
The two guards deactivated the protective fields of their old artificer armor, slowly quoted the safety notches of their helmets and removed them.
Their irises were normal.
Atornus turned his head towards the prisoner.
"This lie will cost a life."
The kabalite slowly unraveled a wick stuck against her cheek with her coagulated blood. She spoke slowly in a grave voice in which slipped an unhealthy joy.
"Master of the forge. Tell me, what is the only weakness of an artificer's armor?"
Atornus and his two guards watched the prisoner. The latter smiled frankly, staring at them. The master of the forge looked at the two black blades on the table of command. The prisoner followed his gaze. In the large courtroom the four fighters remained motionless, face to face, measuring each parameter, each option.
"It will be more fun with tied hands. I like some challenge when facing weaker opponents." the prisoner said.
In a flash, each warrior darted forward, four machines of combat, tested by centuries of training, trials and feats of arms.
Dafron, the first honor guard raised his helmet and hastened to readjust it on his head.
Sault, the second honor guard released his helmet and in the same gesture drew his energetic sword to strike the prisoner. The blow struck a diffuse form and only cut a cloud of shadow.
Atornus blew his mechadendrites towards the black blades, but the faster prisoner threw her chair against the bundle, making a backflip, propelling the bundle into the air, grabbed the blades and fell between the two honor guards.
Atornus turned round. The two black blades were planted in the throats of his two guards. Dafron had almost managed to lock his helmet, half a second ready the blade would hit the plasteel. Black blood flowed slowly over the blades, then the two guards collapsed.
"Liatha ..." murmured Atornus, returning to fighting position.
The prisoner, mocking, drew a great reverence.
"To serve you ... my lord."
Atornus was the first to assault. His energy axe touched Liatha full force, or at least that was what he believed, until the latter turned out to be a diffuse shadow. An oblique blow struck him at the temple. Liatha slowly emerged from the shadow behind Atornus.
"There is nothing so sweet as the fear and expectation in their eyes when I step out of the shadows."
Atornus returned to the attack. For several minutes the battle raged in the courtroom, but the insidious Liatha kept the advantage. A last stroke came out of nowhere and knocked the Master of the Forge by the throat. A stream of blood splashed on the immaculate ground and he fell to his knees. Liatha again reappeared.
"My mistress, Kith, sends you her sincere greetings. It's time now."
The assassin raised a blade and cut off a mechadendrite of Atornus. She picked it up and used it to activate a control desk. Data passed before her eyes, she banged on the desk in search of information. Behind her Atornus, dying, crawled in silence in the direction of his axe.
"Crawl my old friend, crawl. Every effort you make increases your heart rate and precipitates you a little more towards death." Liatha chirped without turning.
Atornus closed his hand on his axe. Liatha turned and raised a black blade above him. There was a dry snap, a brief explosion and Liatha disappeared in a black cloud and a scream of pain. At the other end of the room appeared a space marine in a terminator armor decorated with the most formidable insignias of the chapter. The warrior lowered his storm bolter still smoking.
"It's over Master. Keep your strength." He announced as he stepped into the courtroom with confidence. The shadows stirred around him.
"Over?" The voice of the murderer seemed to come out of nowhere. There was a movement behind the space marine, the latter did not turn and opened fire against a curtain to his right, a furtive shadow precipitately emerged from this fragile cover.
"Skillful," the assassin conceded, recovering steadily.
"You're going to die here xenos." Squeaked the marine space in a grim voice.
"You do not know who I am," the female assassin said, licking the blood of one of her blades.
"It does not make any difference," interrupted the space marine, roaring, "I'm Varn."
The warrior fired in the direction of Liatha, who disappeared in the shadows, the moment after she reappeared to the right of Varn who had anticipated the movement and smashed her ribs with his power fist. Without a pause he kept attacking, a black blade hit a shoulder pad of the armor that held the shock, Varn counterattacked with a hit of his power fist that sent Liatha rolling against the table of command. A gust of storm bolter forced her to shelter again. Varn threw himself on her. As she disappeared again in front of the space marine’s attack, the latter snatched the entire table in a gesture of superhuman power.
"You may be invisible, but you're still there," Varn yelled, swirling the huge table around him, sweeping the space in a split second.
The table met a solid shape and there was a broken bone sound. The dark eldar flew across the room and crashed into a wall.
Varn dropped the heavy table and revealed himself with all his might.
"I am Varn, Champion of the Imperial Fist Chapter, Protector of the Citadel of Vamii. And you are my victim!"
Liatha stood up painfully, her right arm hanging down her chest. Blood was flowing from her left flank.
The two warriors faced each other.
Liatha rushed to the large bay window in the courtroom. Varn raised his storm bolter to intercept the fugitive. With a brusque gesture the assassin threw a small sphere in the direction of Atornus lying. Varn intercepted it with a fluid movement of his power fist. He clenched his fist, the energy field of the powerful weapon activated, there was a muffled explosion then nothing. Liatha broke the bay window with her black blade and disappeared into the night. Varn approached the void and watched for a moment as the wall was swept away by the rain and a furious wind.
At the same moment, on the landing platform NV87 of the citadel of Vamii, a small aquila of the Imperial fleet landed. On board a very special imperial personnel, recommended by the Air Marshal Everlid Passang in person. Jogan, Djamsha, Litzi and Miro.
"The platform is strangely calm." Jogan commented, trying to get a better view through the small side hatchway of the aquila.
"Stop worrying, we have arrived safely. Nothing can happen to us now." replied Djamsha from his stretcher. He had emerged from his coma during the trip but could only move with great difficulty.
The access ramp of the unit was lowered. In front of them three disemboweled servants bathed in their blood. A threatening dark eldar appeared a weapon in hand and got on board.
"At the slightest movement you are dead. Pilot, take-off immediately. Direction the main complex of the Departmento Munitorum of Vamii."
The co-pilot drew his pistolaser in a flash, a black veil crossed the passenger compartment and he collapsed cut in half.
"I do not have time to play," continued the killer who seemed to have not even moved. Each one remained frozen with amazement. The dark eldar slid a strange black blade over the pilot's neck. The aircraft took off. The assassin pounded on a bracelet she was wearing. Data projected by xenos technology slowly drawn a portrait in the air. The Eldar moved it next to Jogan.
"Transmechanician Jogan Trevor?" She asked in a slightly panting voice.
Jogan looked more closely at the data passing on the holo-projection.
"But! These are high-techmarine encrypted datas! How?"
The assassin extinguished the projection and carried a hand to her ribs, grinning.
"Delighted that you are on time."