We must go.
We. When did he start thinking in plural? His head throbbed, an un-nerving pulse behind his eyes that was hours old and wouldn’t stop. He put a hand to his forehead, and the coppery tang of spilt blood nearly buckled his knees. Tear shaped droplets fell through his fingers from crimson palms.
They’ll come, and they’ll kill us.
“Stop,” he said. It came out as a low moan.
But it was right. The Arbitrators would come, and there would be questions he wouldn’t be able to answer, and a judgement, and then a single shot in a darkened room beneath a rockcrete precinct house. If the regimental commissariat deemed it less embarrassing than the truth, his name would be engraved in small writing on the list of the Hetekon 23rd’s glorious dead a suitable time after his ashes were dispersed, and he would be forgotten about. Oh, he knew how these things worked. He’d seen it happen. There wouldn’t be any justice, no mitigating circumstances, just another body to be disposed of and whatever memory of him that might be left quietly allowed to wither until even that ceased to exist.
He looked down. He’d barely known the dead man on the floor. They’d passed words a time or two since his return, but nothing more than that. He turned away, but as he chased away one image another rose in its place.
Darkness, grey dust suffusing the air, and a stunning concussion as grenades exploded. The moments before spiralled out in a series of staccato images; the creature a feral blur of limbs and claws and blazing eyes bent over him as he lay on the uneven rockcrete floor; the bodies of its human followers scattered about, entwined with the fallen of C platoon; Lieutenant Toth, God-Emperor bless him, bellowing curses at the creature from across the room. Sharp twists of pain in his shoulder and his chest followed by blinding, crackling light. The creature turning and charging. Toth’s face, frozen in the instant before he detonated the grenades. He’d looked strangely peaceful. The images stopped, hung on the expression etched forever across the lieutenant’s face.
He doubled over, vomiting up whatever it was he’d eaten that morning. Spots danced before his eyes, banishing the ghosts as he drew in deep, heaving breaths.
We must live.
It was right about that, too. Living through that dirty little pacification war, surviving hours under the rubble in the wake of the explosion, enduring the ministrations of the regimental chirurgeons rebuilding his shoulder; all that to die staring down the barrel of an arbitrator’s shotgun? No, they must escape.
He turned back into the cramped space of the hab unit, looking anywhere but at the body on the floor and its slowly congealing pool of blood. He started haphazardly stuffing things into a kit bag he’d barely emptied.
He wouldn’t be missed, not now the regiment had shipped him out as unfit for active duty. A commendation chit and the sincere good wishes of the Hetekon Fusiliers for his service to the Emperor. Thanks, and frack off quietly, Guardsman.
We are alone, now.
Maybe the separatists had had the right idea after all. The thought itself was heresy, and despite himself he glanced around as if expecting an Inquisitorial agent to materialise out of the grey walls. But in the silence of his mind he could say what he wanted, couldn’t he? Maybe the men and women he’d killed on that backwater dump had figured out another way, a better option to fighting and dying and sacrificing everything they were for a grinding, galaxy spanning war machine. And where was the God-Emperor while His people endured this, generation after generation? He hadn’t made Himself known for ten thousand years, hadn’t appeared from the stars to lead his people to glory and redemption, had he? Because maybe that too might be a lie. He felt his inner voice shrink a little at the thought.
The God-Emperor might be dead, might have died hundreds or thousands of years ago for all they knew, while all the time the Ecclesiarchy kept it secret for their own ends. Because they knew, with their robes and dictates to the common folk and their cloying incense covering every bit of their false piety. They understood the Emperor wasn’t the only God in the void, and if was alive, it wasn’t him that was travelling the stars looking to reunite the faithful.
We must go.
“I know,” he said quietly.
He stood over the body, bent and grasped the combat knife lodged in the man’s guts. He twisted and pulled, staring at the lightless depths of the man’s shocked and staring eyes, wondering if the motes of grey dust he saw in them were real or imagined. A final wrench and the knife came free with a wet, sucking noise, and he turned to wash it clean under the spluttering water outlet.
He closed his eyes and breathed out, long and deep. Fragments, dust covered like his dreams, flittered across his mind’s eye. A banging on the door, protests about screams in the night. A confrontation when the door slid open, a hand shoved into his shoulder and a flare of pain, another in the chest, designed to end the argument before the man returned to his own unit. Then a flash of red and the knife flickering silver in the light of the wall lumens. He heaved again though this time, nothing came up.
We must go.
As he reached the door to the hab unit with his kitbag slung over his shoulder he caught a look at himself in the mirror beside the door, and for a second, he faltered. He barely recognised the man staring back at him.
Down, we must go down.
Yes, we must. Into the dark, following the hidden ways where we can’t be found, until the time is right, when we’ve gathered our strength. A time will come to rise back into the light.
He tore his gaze away from the mirror and the man who he had been, and as he reached for the door his resolve grew. The smell of blood faded as he made his way down the corridor, and though nobody challenged him, and no Arbitrators appeared to bring their justice upon him, he wasn’t alone.
Down, we must go.
Yes, he said. Yes.