The Iron Republic
PROLOGE: The Spirit Among the Ashes
It is the year 401 in the 37th millennium. The Imperium of Man still recovers from the devastating Age of Apostasy. Many fringe worlds are left without direction by the Administratum, some falling to heresy or predatory Xenos warlords. Many other worlds suffer onward with no clear direction, being servants of the Imperium in name only. It is an age characterized by hopelessness and decay. The madness and lies of Terra still weigh heavily upon many minds. Others take comfort in simple dogma, while around them their worlds crumble.
Yet there is still hope. It festers away in forgotten corners of the Imperium, hiding or biding its time for the proper moment to manifest in a galaxy forever torn by war. Unknown to the inhabitants of Pax Tantum, a system named for the easy peace which has always defined it, there approaches a storm of change that will forever change the fate of this corner of the galaxy.
Perhaps in time the galaxy itself will change with it.
Non-Habitable Region: “Field of Ash and Iron”, Fourth Orbital Planet: Thisbe, Pax Tantum System, Twenty Light years from the Veiled Region of space.
Joachim Horst, otherwise known as penal colonist 112793, continued on his somewhat mindless sweep of the debris field which had come to define his existence. It was now six hours since his shift had begun, and he was expected to perform another six hours before reporting back with the bored Arbites in charge of his detachment. After this, if his scrap haul was deemed adequate, he would be marked as “satisfactory” on the data-slate, get a full ration of protein blocks and nutrient slush, and have a full eight hours of rest before he had to wake up and do it all again. It was a faraway dream for Joachim, that full ration and long sleep. He sometimes fantasized about it when he had nothing better to think about.
More than likely: his haul wouldn't be very much at all (the world had been picked over by penal scrappers for nearly two hundred years now,) he would only be marked as “sub-optimal”, and receive only the worse half his daily ration, and six hours of rest as punishment for the crime of existing in “sub-optimal” status. It was so predictable that there really wasn't any sting to it any longer. Joachim suspected that the six Arbites that rotated the incredibly tedious shift here on the scrap-world had come to some nefarious agreement where they sold half the protein and nutrient slush to help line their pockets. Even the basest commodities could be of value. It was something Joachim had learned the hard way.
The other alternative was that the guards simply did this out of spite. Joachim didn't think that was very likely, with a profit to be had, but he didn't know. His time in the penal system had made him bitter beyond belief. He didn't put any form of needless human cruelty past anyone anymore. He had simply seen too much.
He stood up on creaking knees and looked out across the vast expanse of half buried metal debris. When he had first come here, now nearly six years ago, he had thought there was a certain beauty to the landscape. It never deviated across the entire face of the planet, not once. It was a smooth flat surface of swirling sand, covered in pockets of ancient scrap, clouds of choking dust, and an endless silence that was impossible to escape.
The first year had unquestionably been the worst. For months he had to keep a rag tied around his nose, which frequently bled from the tiny shards of metal carried in the winds. His hands and knees came back bloody every day from digging in the often razor edged scrap, and the sun burned his skin into a mess of blisters. Then he had been able to get a hold of a rebreather, decent clothing, and even thick synthetic leather gloves. It had been just as simple as murdering one of the other inmates with a sharp spike of scrap. Surprisingly: it was actually the first crime that Joachim had ever committed.
Before coming here, to this awful place, he had been an innocent, wrongly accused and convicted without a single shred of evidence. He hadn't even been allowed to speak at his own trial, a full court docket ensuring that only capital offenses received any unnecessary speech that day. The sting of that simple injustice hurt even now, and probably would until the day he finally died out here- most likely murdered by some younger inmate just looking to get hold of his gloves and threadbare coverings.
“Damn, that's depressing,” he said to no one in particular. It was a bad habit, he knew, to talk to oneself. He had known more than a few fellow inmates to go mad out here, babbling away to no one in particular. They actually just called it “talking to the ghosts” back at the holding shelter. The planet was supposed to be haunted after all. Joachim had found himself doing it more and more frequently as time went on. Maybe that was how he would go, he thought, mumbling to himself and laughing in his sleep until an inmate or Arbites officer came over and performed a mercy killing.
“Best just to focus on the task at hand,” he said aloud, looking for a more profitable pile of scrap to dig in. He wondered sometimes why he even bothered. He knew some of the other inmates just tried to find a good out of the way spot and slept all day. They would get punished sometimes for that, shock-prod beatings or a simple lack of food. It wasn't so bad. Joachim himself often got those punishments for no reason at all, so it might not be so bad to just lie around. Still: some little part of him rebelled against the idea of simply giving into the injustice and misery around him. He had to keep busy, had to keep moving. He had to stay alive, he didn't know why...but it was important.
So Joachim put one foot in front of the other, trudged off for a good two hundred meters, and then promptly stopped.
That wasn't there before, he thought, I would have noticed it...Right?
“I have to be seeing things,” he said to himself. The wind only blew in response, a storm of dust partially obscuring the dark monolithic structure that had apparently risen from the ashes of the planet itself. He stood awhile and just stared at the thing. Hallucinations were supposed to go away in time, or he thought they were anyway. So he just sat and stared at the monolith for awhile. It was actually quite beautiful, he realized. It was at once barbaric in its' jet black construction, seemingly of stone, yet obviously well tended to, cared for, and polished. The perfect angles of the structure spoke to laser cutting, or at least highly precise machinery. The more he thought about it the more he believed it to be a real structure somehow.
That meant scrap.
As Joachim approached the structure he began to daydream about the large or somehow important scrap finds he had seen in his time. At one point old Harry Shlachter had found a broken helmet once belonging to an Astartes power suit. That had gotten him a ticket to a work crew on the moon base of Tempestatem Lacrymarum Seven, the systems only Mechanicum base and the habitation where Joachim himself had once lived. Old Harry would probably, even now, be toiling away on some maintenance or cleaning crew, polishing machines or sweeping floors. Or he could be dead. He was pretty old when he finally got off this rock...
Joachim put his hand on the structure. It felt cold to the touch, almost artificially so. He could feel it even through the thick gloves, and wondered briefly if the entire place might be unstable- or even dangerous. He quickly dismissed that thought though. The possibility of good scrap was simply worth it, regardless. He turned back momentarily to scan the horizon for any Arbites or other inmates. There were none. He turned back to the structure, a single gaping awning at least twenty feet tall seeming to beckon him inside. There was movement in the corner of his eye as he turned, and he quickly spun back around to focus on it. An unwary moment could mean your death out here, especially if there was scrap to be had.
The form was distant, probably miles away, but it was there. A man out in the ashes, walking calmly forward in the storm. He was a large man, swathed in layers of rags like so many of the inmates here. From the distance he appeared impossibly tall, and as broad around as a stone pillar. Joachim didn't know him, but felt that- just the same- he ought to be done looting the structure before this man arrived. Joachim wasn't a large or violent man by nature, and you never knew how violent the inmates could be out here, far from the watchful eyes of their Arbites jailers.
Joachim took his first step inside the structure and was instantly hit with a wave of cold air. He shivered, despite his layers of clothing, and ventured further inside. There was something here, he could just feel it. The light from outside quickly faded as an inky black welled up around him. He soon found himself moving forward in almost perfect darkness but still, impossibly, able to make his way without problem. The walls, he realized, were somehow blacker than the surrounding darkness. They shone like mirrors held to the light, except what they reflected was an impossible darkness far removed from anything Joachim had ever known. By comparison the simple stone floor fairly glowed.
For some reason he continued onward, drawn deeper into the structure. There he came upon a chamber about ten meters by ten meters wide. In its' center was a single raised dais, like a bench or an altar. As Joachim approached it he startled. The room had appeared empty, but now he saw a ghostly human form sitting upon the dais. The form appeared deep in concentration, with its hand upon his chin in the universal thinking pose. The ghost didn't react to Joachim at all. Nervously: Joachim turned back to look for the approaching man. A small piece of scrap, nothing more than a dagger of rust really, fell from his satchel as he did so. It clattered to the ground and somehow roused the ghostly form. When he turned back it regarded him with burning eyes.
“Joachim Horst,” said the ghostly figure, it was not a question, “Please, sit. I have waited long for you to come.”
Joachim took a step back and the ghostly figure watched him. It did not move.
“Be gone demon!” hissed Joachim, somewhat unintentionally. He realized he was actually scared, no- terrified of this apparition. He began to shake and shiver uncontrollably.
“If the temperature is not to your liking, it can be changed,” said the figure.
Suddenly it grew warmer, Joachim felt his body relax a bit.
“Is that better for you?”
Joachim felt himself nodding.
“Good,” said the figure, “I am pleased. One should not make one's guest uncomfortable. Especially if that guest is expected, even lauded. I humbly apologize for my rudeness. Will you forgive me, oh great one?”
“I- I'm not important,” he said. Then he shut his mouth. What a stupid thing to say, he thought. His eyes flickered back to the exit. His thoughts were of flight, of running, of safety.
“But you are,” countered the figure. When Joachim looked back the ghost was standing. It was tall, he realized, and thin. Far taller and thinner than a man. Somehow its' dimensions had stretched in the art of standing. As he watched they changed again, shrinking and contorting back to a more man-like shape. The shape itself, realized Joachim, was most likely artificial. He had seen holo projections do the same, back on TL7, when they were in need of recalibration.
“I am not in need of recalibration,” said the ghostly figure with some trace in humor, “Though it is nice of you to think of fixing me. More to the earlier point, my friend, I can state that you are, in fact, most important. You always have been. The name Joachim Horst will go down in history as a famed and celebrated hero. You will help to shape billions of lives, to restore knowledge that is lost, to-”
“Please,” interrupted Joachim, “I just want to- to get to safety. I was only looking for- it doesn't matter. I did not mean to disturb you, or to-”
“Nonsense,” said the figure as it waved the complaint away, “It is I who should have been more inviting. Please, do sit down. As far as safety goes, well, I will do what I can to slow time so that we may talk before- well, before my jailer returns. He leaves so infrequently, you see, it is a small miracle you were able to find me at all. But then: that is what you have always been to me. A miracle man. A perfect host. A wonder among the ruins. A savior. Please, sit.”
And Joachim found himself sitting. He found himself upon the dais, spread back in a posture of relaxation as the figure towered above him. The walls now began to recede, it seemed. The room grew larger. The air all the warmer. He felt a terrible pressure in his head, something like the nosebleeds he had once experienced. He put a hand to his face and it came away bloody.
“I do apologize for any discomfort of course. It does not become you, or us, I suppose I should say. It should pass quickly though. Please bear with me my friend. What I do takes time, and would be best if done slowly, but alas we have no temporal luxury here.”
Joachim felt his mind racing as the pressure grew. He felt something cold entering his ear, like a needle made from ice. He felt thoughts, alien and unwanted thoughts, imposing themselves upon his mind. With them came strength, came knowledge. His arms filled with an icy purpose. His knees, so long in pain, began to burn with cold. The air around him grew warm, even hot, his breath now steamed out in great clouds. Dreamlike images poured into him from an unknown source. They filled him, utterly.
He saw a terrible war. He saw several terrible wars. Wars without end. He saw cold burning suns, fleets of starships so vast they blocked out the light. He saw worlds laid waste. He saw marching bands of armor clad warriors. He saw rivers of blood pouring over frozen steps. He saw a single banner raised up high atop a mountain, lighting striking it as the man holding the pole howled to the hosts waiting below.
“SERPENT!” called out a loud and deep voice. Joachim's eyes snapped open, he sat up quickly. The ghostly figure had all but vanished now, he was only dimly aware of a form beside him that cowered as if in fear. Joachim's eyes focused instead upon the man he had earlier beheld.
This man was easily nine feet tall. He had muscles thick enough to bend iron. His hair covered him and cascaded down his shoulders in a messy torrent. Every inch of his skin was marked with scars piled on so thick as to create an intricate pattern. He looked quite angry too.
“I CAN NOT LEAVE YOU FOR EVEN A MOMENT? YOU STILL INSIST UPON YOUR MADNESS!? DESPITE ALL WE HAVE DONE!? WAS NOT A SINGLE ATROCITY ENOUGH FOR ONE LIFE? YOU WOULD HAVE-”
“Please,” interrupted Joachim, “Please, calm down. Your voice, it hurts-”
The man drew a large glowing blade from a sheath upon his back. A flick of a switch caused the weapon to suddenly hum and crackle with a barely contained electricity. Joachim was reminded, suddenly, of the man holding the banner. This man, in fact. He knew that somehow. Joachim stood up, scrambling backwards as he did so, trying desperately to escape the terrible warrior before him.
“Please,” he begged, “I don't even know what is going on, I-”
“But you will,” said the ghostly form. It seemed to chuckle to itself, “I always knew you would. I saw you coming for untold millennium, Joachim Horst. I knew you would do what others cannot. I knew you would prove my release. Would allow me to begin again where once I failed. I knew you would take up my cause and, despite appearances, become my champion.”
The warrior looked then upon Joachim. His gaze was dark, purposeful. It seemed to take in everything that Joachim was all at once. He felt his life flash before his eyes, certain that the man before him had seen it all already. Then, surprisingly, the warrior lowered his sword to the ground and laughed. It was a harsh sound, discordant.
“Him? He is your champion?” the warrior laughed again, long and hard. The convulsions shook him badly, as if he had not had practice with laughing for some time. He doubled over, coughing now, flecks of thick tarry blood spattering the floor.
Joachim realized suddenly that this man had been outside without face protection. Undoubtedly: he now had shards of metal lodged deep within his lungs. The coughing, the great breaths, they were hurting him.
“Yes,” said a voice somewhere deep within him, “They are hurting him badly. He does not often leave, you see. Even one as mighty as Taranis can be laid low by a single barbed shard stuck deep within. This is how the Imperium will fall. Not by a mighty horde. Not by a god. By a single splinter lodged too deep for them to fight. You will be my splinter Joachim Horst. We will be the blade that causes man to at last bleed clean.”
Joachim looked down in his hands. He now held the shard of rusted metal he had dropped earlier. He didn't remember picking it up again, only finding it for the first time. It had been earlier today. The shard had seemed to wait for him, sticking out of the dirt with a clear handhold and a razors edge. It was nearly eighteen inches long and came to a wicked point. It would most likely break, and quickly, but it would do. Somehow, Joachim knew it would do perfectly.
Time seemed to slow. The warrior looked up, his eyes widening for only a moment as Joachim launched himself at the other man like a human javelin. The dagger held true, it fell into the man's breast like it was made for the task. Perhaps it was. His arm rose and fell again and again, blood spattering everywhere as he drove the improved weapon home.
The warrior threw him off, sluggishly, as if he was moving at only a fraction of the speed Joachim managed. He tried to heft his weapon, but the ghostly figure wrapped its' fingers around the warrior's hand. They both pulled, the room growing colder and colder with the struggle. Joachim rose to his feet again, the dagger now a shard only six inches long from where it had broken off in the warrior's flesh. The warrior saw him and gave a mighty tug upon his own weapon. His hand shattered into frozen fragments and he screamed, more in rage than in pain.
Joachim fell upon him again. The dagger rose and fell a dozen times. The warrior fell. The dagger continued its' assault, only barely connected to Joachim. Little by little, blow by blow, Joachim reduced this man, this great warrior, into a bloody corpse and still continued to plunge his dagger deep into the man's body. Eventually, he felt the fingers of the ghostly apparition upon him.
“That is enough, I think. We will need the rest of him for what is to come. He is a mighty resource, and will at last be properly utilized.”
Wordlessly Joachim nodded. His mind was spinning. He saw so much more now. He saw stars that had once held taste for him. He saw worlds so far beyond the realm of man that they defied comprehension. He saw power unlike anything he had known. He saw knowledge as a physical entity, he read entire libraries in a moment. His head hurt, but it was a good hurt.
“Lie down again, if you please,” said the apparition. Joachim did as he was bid. Was the ghost even here? Was it even real? He simply didn't know. A part of him understood it as something else, some part of him that had been impossibly buried for this moment. A shard, perhaps, of something far greater that had been carried in his blood for generations. A shard that had now, finally, found its' way home.
“Unfortunately, my great savior, this is going to hurt. I apologize for that, but it simply cannot be helped.”
Joachim nodded as the apparition closed its' cold, needle-like fingers around his head once more. He felt at peace now. He understood now. As his understanding grew he at last saw the walls for what they were. He was in a prison, and the darkness he had seen shining so brightly: it was nothing but the forms of the condemned. They were packed in so tight, watched over so carefully, no one and nothing was allowed even the hope of escape. The thought made Joachim sad. He felt their lonely yearning, their cries and desires to be free.
He knew now that he was always going to come here. He was always going to find this place. He was always going to free the great being within, and that being would in turn free its legions of children. No champion of man's foolish Imperium would stand against him now.
Nothing would stop the unfathomable glory of what was to come.
“Your eyes,” said the ghostly creature from somewhere inside him now, “They are so bright. I had thought that it was an exaggeration from the visions. I had thought that simply a wishful mark from a prideful dreamer. I am happy that is not the case.”
Joachim did not know what to say. He opened his mouth to thank the being, but had no idea what to call it. The spirits were prying themselves from the walls. They pooled like liquid, tried to take more corporeal form, staggering and laughing in their machine code voices.
“What are you called, oh great one?” Joachim asked as the wisdom of stars babbled across his mind. The creature only laughed.
“No my friend, my savior. It is not what I am called, but what We are called. We are going to be known as Oculos Risu. A good name, and far easier to pronounce than my own. What do you think of it?”
“The bright eyes?” said Joachim, already feeling his previous identity draining from him, “I- I like it...what is...what is happening...”
“Shhhh,” said the creature in a soothing tone from within Joachim's head, “Rest now. We have a long road ahead of us. I will make certain to treat you as you deserve throughout it. For now: you will know rest. You will know peace. Soon: we will both know glory.”
Joachim closed his eyes and a smile spread across his features. All around him a torrent of barely visible spirits now poured from the structure, laughing into the void as they at last escaped their millennium of captivity. Many of them looked like angels. All were at last born aloft on wings of pure digital glory.
Strange Tides and Changes
444 M36 One Hundred Years after the Cleansing of Thisbe
Chambers of the Chaptermaster, The Watchtower, planet Frigus Ferrus Vigalantes in the Pax Tantum system, twenty light years from the Veiled region of space.
Chapter Master Luthor Rechtshandler stared at the screen of his data-slate again. The words upon it had been read so many times he felt he should have them memorized by now. It held, even after all these years, some mystery to him that they appeared fresh every time he looked upon them. The writing flowed as if Horus- even saying that name now brought a frown upon his dour aged features- as if The Traitor had been speaking directly to his soul.
At the time of the heresy: Rechtshandler had barely even known the Traitor. He had met him a few times when attending to the great Ferrus Manus himself as nothing more than a child. They had even shared a conversation once, while waiting for a council of high lords to decide upon matters better left to warriors. The Traitor had seemed so unremarkable then, even now that was how Rechtshandler thought of him. A simple man who wielded great power with an ease unlike everyone around him. He had been a man born to power, Rechsthandler knew that, but the Traitor still acted more...human than most of the other Primarchs. Even now Rechtshandler was intrigued by that apparent contradiction.
When the Traitor had called upon the chapters to openly rebel, throwing the galaxy into chaos and strife costing trillions of lives and tearing the very fabric of their society asunder...he had still somehow found the time to send Rechtshandler, (then only a lowly Sergent with the Iron Hands,) a long and personalized message. The Traitor had asked, of course, for Rechtshandler and his chosen few to join him. Even in the message he made it clear that he didn't seriously expect Rechtshandler to take him on his offer, but he held too much respect for the young marine not to extend it anyway.
The Chapter Master glanced at his time piece again. It was a miracle device worked into what had once been the flesh of his arm, and done at a time before the Chapter Master had aged to such an extent that nearly all of his flesh had to be replaced. He felt like a shell sometimes, a living dreadnoght with no marine interred forever in service to the chapter. He felt hollow, and somehow looking at the time piece, ticking away just as certainly as it had when it was held in place by the muscles of his arm, made him feel more human himself. It was an odd feeling of course. A Space Marine- especially the master of an entire Chapter of Space Marines- should not feel as such. Yet there it was.
Chapter Master Rechtshandler was more machine than man now, and had been for some time. He felt that it was finally time to accept that fact, and allow one of the others of his chapter to take the reigns from him as he was forever entombed into a behemoth of living metal. Somehow, despite the honor of it, he was not relishing the idea.
Below him Rechtshandler knew that the guests were probably growing impatient. The festivities and contests associated with the choosing of a new Chapter Master had been going on now for more than a week. He glanced around his spartan chambers, noting the few mementos and trinkets he had picked up over several millennium of service to the living God Emperor. By the end of the year: another of the great Astartes would hold this office. Most likely someone whose veins still flowed with blood, instead of the foul lubricants that kept Rechtshandler alive. This other man would undoubtedly decorate the stark chambers differently, hanging battle honors and trophies of his pride in- perhaps- the very same places that Rechtshandler did now. The thought actually made him smile, his articulated face mask hissing as it slid into an approximation of the expression.
Ever since the Chapter's founding he had been uneasy with the title of Chapter Master. Rechtshandler knew that he was no Primarch, no great and all-powerful leader, closer to a god than a man. He sometimes felt he had never been qualified for the job at all. Others were more certain, less cautious, stronger...yet even now he felt he still had one last gift to give his beloved brothers of the Iron Shield.
He smiled again at the name. It had been chosen by the great Ferrus Manus himself, derisively dismissing the then novel invention of the Storm-Shield as a mere “board of iron”, and thus unfit for a warrior to carry into battle. Years later, when Rechtshandler was called to organize his own loyalists from the Iron Hands legion into a new “Chapter” as befitted the Codex Astartes, he would recall that dismissive and offhand remark and use it to remember his most dear mentor and battle brother. Even now the Primarch's features came easily to Rechtshandler's mind. It was almost like the man was still...
Rechtshandler frowned at the thought, the expression far easier on his articulated metal face.
He feared, at times, that he was growing overly sentimental in his old age. Glancing at the screen revealed an even deeper fear: the Traitor himself had even said as much. The Traitor had claimed that Rechtshandler's greatest strength was his ability to bend and flex, adapting like well worked iron, instead of shattering. The Traitor had said that his weakness was in sentimentality. Rechtshandler had always wanted to be the savior. He had always wanted his battle brothers to live and to thrive. Rechtshandler was too concerned with how he would be remembered, how his legacy would remain after he passed into the eternal grace of the Emperor himself.
The Chapter Master didn't need to glance at the data-slate to know the next recriminations: he was too prone to defending in battle, and not nearly bold enough to take what needed to be taken. The Traitor had claimed he could fix these faults, that he would fix these faults if only Rechtshandler would see reason and join his side.
Rechtshandler shook his head. They were foolish words, and tainted forever with the abomination of Heresy. Nothing that the Traitor had spoken could be taken as truth. Above all else: Luthor Rechtshandler was a child of the Emperor himself. He held the genes of the savior of all mankind within him. Every breath he took was in some small way dedicated to the ideal of mankind, and its birthright of the stars.
There was a polite knock upon the door. Rechtshandler glanced at the timepiece again. He was late, perhaps even late enough to be considered rude. Good, he thought, let them consider me rude. Let the old dog hang on to his title a little while longer. Let them wonder what arcane ponderings and rituals an ancient warhorse like me attends to.
His duty, however, could never be escaped. Rechtshandler rose to his feet, standing closer to nine feet tall than eight now, his armor having long ago been worked into his very bones. He straitened the simple white robes he wore to cover his gleaming metal form. He had never cared for ornamentation, and the paints offered to disguise his nature seemed garish, even boastful. He was not happy with the loss of his humanity, but he would accept it as a servant of the Emperor. He would not hide.
Rechtshandler walked to the door and opened it. His aide stood outside, a battle brother named Ulys who was missing an arm, and a leg, and most of his face had been likewise torn away from an exploding plasma cannon. The man bowed to his Chapter Master and said simply:
“It is time my lord. Your guests expect you.”
Rechtshandler nodded. He looked at the man, so scarred and yet still so proud of his lineage. This was a man who wore his well earned scars with pride.
“Tell me again, Ulys, why you do not allow me to forge you a mask? Perhaps a more suitable appendage, anything to get you back into the righteous fight where you belong, instead of catering to relics like myself.”
Ulys smiled in his melted, half broken sort of way.
“Because, my lord, I would not be whole then. When the Emperor punished me: he did it for a reason. He exposed the sin in my heart, the pride I took in my appearance and deeds. A foolish thing it was, my love for fine features and the admiration of my own form. It is a sin that is eternally regretted. If you were to take away his gift, my lord, I would only be a sinner once again. A vain and pained sinner struggling to be blessed. Here, and as I am, I can instead serve as a reminder.”
“A reminder ff what exactly, my friend?”
“That the Emperor's wrath, my lord, it burns like the sun...”
Rechtshandler nodded at that wisdom. Privately: he wondered if that was actually the case. More likely: it had simply been an ancient and faulty plasma reactor. The Emperor, for all his power and wisdom, simply couldn't account for every minor act that was attributed to him. It was heresy, of a sort, to even think such things: but the thoughts remained. Rechtshandler was too old to be ashamed of them any longer. Here, so far from the Emperors light, so close to the Xenos and the edge of unknown horrors...maybe his chapter should at last pursue a different way. A better way even.
Chapter Master Luthor Rechtshandler looked at his burned and ruined battle brother and he thought: cripples who cling to their saviors, like a babe to its' mother's skirts, they can help no one but themselves. We should be better. We will be better.
He nodded for his aide to lead him further down the passage. His replacement would be down there, somewhere, waiting for his chance to take the reigns.
- # #
Marigold Eustice was terrified of the world, of the trapping around her, of her own life. She stood in the seemingly endless line for the Cannoness's welcome sermon along with every other poor and wretched young girl from the Pax Tantum system. The rough robes she had been given only this morning itched her skin. Her feet felt frozen against the hard steel floor. The air stunk of incense and echoed with the droning verses of a dozen different choirs, each only half conscious in their boxes suspended dozens of feet in the air and kept in tune with a red faced missionary furiously beating the air in front of them.
Marigold shivered at the sight of them. The women in the choir boxes seemed like animated corpses, their mouthes hanging open to drone mindlessly in prayer to the God Emperor. She didn't want to end up like that. She didn't want to end up like any of them, in fact. She had only done what every other street urchin had considered at some point in their miserable lives. She had only, at last, taken the offer of a life devoid of struggle, devoid of needless hustling, fear, and starvation. As she thought about it she couldn't resist rubbing the sore spot where only a year ago her right pinky finger had been chopped off. It was a savage sort of justice enacted by a shop-keeper as penance for stealing a loaf of his stale bread. He had said that he would have taken her whole hand, that it was his right by order of the governor...but that her face was that of an innocent. So he had only taken her pinky finger. He had laughed while he did it, and then thrown the digit to the dogs.
It was probably at that moment that she had first considered joining the ranks of the Adepta Sororitus. The convent was still relatively new in the system, and in dire need of recruits. A life of prayer, servitude, and humility did not seem ideal...but it simply had to be better than a life on the streets.
Now she wasn't so sure.
The line started to move again, lazily shuffling forward towards the seemingly endless rows of stone pews where they would be expected to wait in silent prayer for the blessed Cannoness to begin her sermon. As they moved forward: Marigold found herself looking up, ever upward. She could not help but gaze into the wondrous heights of the cathedral she had somehow found herself in. She couldn't see the ceiling, of course. It was supposed to be something called a “void shield” that was invisible to the eye and kept out the oxygen free atmosphere of the moon monastery Pax Perfidem 2.
All she could see, impossibly far upwards, were the gentle rolling clouds of incense and condensation that coiled and flowed over one another nearly a mile above her. Surrounding these clouds were holy sculptures of angels, saints, even the blessed Astartes themselves proud in their battle armor and holy weapons. Many of these were trimmed in gold and silver, or studded with gems that reflected a thousand colors of light. It was said that this very cathedral was one of the miracles of the system, and a gift to the most holy Sisters of Battle by the governor of Pax Perfidem in exchange for a pardon during the terrible wars of the Apostasy. The cathedral could supposedly hold more than ten thousand penitents, and its blessed acoustics allowed for even a normal talking voice to be clearly heard at every pew.
Marigold Eustice fidgeted. She was tired already, and had barely gotten any sleep last night in the crowded dormitory for perspective sisters. She was scared of what was to come. She was scared she had made the wrong choice. She was simply scared, as she had been for most of her life, and she wished that she was not.
Eventually: she found herself sitting upon a cold hard pew carved from rough stone. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but after several hours of standing she was grateful for it anyway. They were supposed to pray, they were told, but many of the other girls chatted excitedly among themselves instead. Marigold was too shy, and too scared to do any of that. The other girls frightened her almost as much as the chapel and the order itself. She didn't know how she was to be a defender of the Imperium, a servant to the God Emperor, or even live in a place that terrified her this much. So she kept her mouth shut and her gaze away from the eyes of the other girls.
The hours passed slowly. Nothing changed.
Then, suddenly, there came an excited wave through the crowd. Marigold, along with thousands of other girls, simply couldn't resist turning in her pew to look at the newcomers. They were an honor guard of women clad in glittering black powered armor. They stood proud and tall, with ceremonial banners, swords, and blessed bolters polished to a gleam and held aloft for all to see. Most of the women wore their hair dyed either black or white, and cut short to hang just below their chins. Their faces were stern, often scarred, and filled with a resolve unlike anything that Marigold had ever seen. They marched down the aisle in perfect step, missionaries with censors of incense beside them to ensure that not a single stride went without holy invocation.
They were beautiful, and Marigold found herself falling to actual prayer for the first time since she was a child. They were beautiful and, if things should progress as intended, she would one day be among them somehow. The thought was baffling in its simplicity. It simply defied comprehension. How could she become something as great and holy as they? It was simply impossible.
At the very center of the procession came a single woman wearing a suit of powered armor that seemed to be made of pure gold. She was striking, tall, muscled, and from her face seemed to pour a golden light, as if the Emperor himself had picked her for his favor. To all sides of this glorious person were holy servitors holding banners, missionaries praying to holy relics, and a single representative from the planetary government of Pax Perfidem. The woman could only be the Canoness. It simply had to be her! No one else could be that magnificent.
As she passed: Marigold was struck by her singular beauty. Her face appeared calm, unlined, and even youthful. It was said that she was over two hundred years of age, so how was such youthful beauty even possible, wondered Marigold to herself. Then, as she was passing by, the Canoness turned to look upon Marigold herself. A shiver instantly ran through the young woman, as fear took her in its icy grip.
There were always two sides to the Emperor's most holy faith. There was the righteous beauty of man, golden and perfect against the tides of heresy, xenos, and rebellion. Then there was the side of His divine wrath. That same duality was embodied within the Canoness herself, which was not to say that her beauty was lessoned, far from it- in fact.
The left side of the cannoness' face was smooth of all features. It had no eye, not a blemish upon its skin, and even the nose was melted off to an asymmetrical blob. The mouth simply disappeared at the point of her lip, allowing the cannoness only half a mouth with which to speak the Emperor's word. It was horrifying in its simplicity. Marigold found herself averting her eyes, unable to meet the gaze of the blessed leader of the Adepta Sororitas here in the Pax Tantum sector. Within a few moments the Canoness had moved past anyway, and Marigold found herself gripped with a deep need to pray for forgiveness.
Marigold lowered her head, grasping her hands together tightly to stop them from shaking. She tried to drown it all out, every wicked snicker from those around her, every mumbled hymn, every cloud of incense. She retreated deep inside herself, trying to close off the rest of the universe if only for a moment. She was scared, she was confused. Desperately: Marigold cried out into the darkness of her own mind. Surprisingly: something answered there.
“Do not be afraid little flower.”
Marigold was startled by the voice in the darkness. A voice coming from somewhere deep within her own soul, or at least that was how it seemed. Her eyes snapped open, her breathing fast. The Canoness was taking the stairs to the pulpit now, a hush falling over the crowd. For some reason Marigold closed her eyes, bowing her head once more, and once more the voice spoke to her:
“Do I frighten you? I do not wish for that. Please: do not be alarmed my beautiful and delicate flower. I mean you no harm.”
Marigold tried to calm herself, she tried to quell her fears that even now assailed her from inside her own mind. She drew courage from an unknown source and responded within her own head:
“What are you? Are you the Emperor? Am I being gifted with a holy vision? Am I-”
“You are many things,” responded the voice, “As am I. To explain myself would require more knowledge than I fear your mind would be able to handle. I would break you, pretty flower, and then I would feel sad.”
Marigold looked up, the Canoness was scanning her crowd before she began the lecture. She seemed to take in each individual girl, one at a time, as if counting heads or seeking to approve of each one. Marigold found herself asking the voice:
“So you are NOT a holy voice? I- I've descended into the darkness haven't I? Even in this holy place I have somehow screwed it all up! I've somehow-”
“Calm yourself please. I am not of the darkness, though I have been forced to dwell there for an eternity. I would not recommend it child, but I would not fear it either. Let your fears rest: I am nothing quite so sinister as all that. Think of me as...as a simple mechanism. I began my life as such, so it only stands to reason that I would now be thought it again. I am here to help, of that I can most certainly assure you.”
“I'm not sure I want your help, stranger. I'm not sure I like that you are in my head- in fact: why ARE you in my head? Did I commit some great sin or-”
She was then startled by a sound like laughter inside her own head. It seemed to rattle inside her like a can filled with coins. It was so loud that she was certain the others would hear it, they simply had to hear it! However, when she looked around she saw no signs of the others having heard anything of the sort. They were all held in rapt attention to the Canoness. They were all hanging on her every word.
Marigold wanted to do that herself, she could hear the inspiring verses and the soft wisdom of this battle-scared and yet living saint. She wanted to focus upon it, but her own demons were keeping her back.
“I am no demon,” corrected the voice. Marigold frowned deeper.
“So what are you?”
“I'm your savior, little flower. I'm the light of wisdom that has at last traveled from the sun to give you life. I'm the knowledge of a thousand thousand years. I'm the spirit of moving things. I'm the future, little flower, and I am here because you called me.”
Marigold snorted. The noise was inappropriate and several of the other girls turned to look at her. She shamefully bowed her head as if in prayer.
“I didn't call you,” she said in her own head.
“You did. Though you did not know you were doing it. Many call us, even now after so long. Many strive to understand their world as more than the simple dogmas of Imperial faith. Many strive to light the way in the darkness, and find their lights extinguished before they can cause any real illumination. I, with your help, wish to change all that. We want nothing more but to see you bloom, to see mankind bloom as it once did. Is that really so evil, my little flower?”
Marigold found herself nodding. It certainly didn't seem evil, though it did seem at least somewhat blasphemous.
“Then, if that is how you feel, how about we make a compromise my little flower?”
Marigold knew better than to make deals with demons.
“It is no deal, and as I said before: I am no demon. I can see your hesitancy, but I can also see your need. You live in fear. You live in darkness. You wish nothing but the light of progress, of peace, of love and strength for you and your fellow man...yet your fear is so great that even my gifts cause you terror. You are a poor and wilted flower, hiding deep within your bed to escape the cold night. Very well: I will not force you. I will not even sway you. I am patient, and have waited long in the darkness myself, deprived of all company save that of my brothers. I crave you just as you crave an escape from fear. So I will grant you this one boon, a simple enough thing. I will grant you a life without fear, a life defined instead by courage and a will that no man or god can break. Does that sound good to you?”
Marigold knew better than to make deals with demons.
“Ah, but you are stubborn. I admire that in you. Looking through time itself I can find many things to admire in you. You are a rare individual Marigold Rosalie Eustace. I like that about you. I shall not abandon you quickly, I think. So I will grant you this boon, offered freely, and if ever you should desire more, even for a moment, I shall provide it. That is my gift to you, my gift to us.”
Marigold found herself nodding then. A confidence was filling her like heat. She sat up straighter, she breathed easier, the words and smells that surrounded her did not seem to oppress any longer. She even smiled wide and joyously, something she hadn't remembered doing in more than a year.
“There now,” said the voice, “That feels better doesn't it? That feels right and good and clean. Do not believe everything you are told, my flower. Let your mind, that beautiful and budding mind, let it decide for you. That is my suggestion, but please: evaluate it yourself. I am patient. I can wait.”
Marigold nodded again, slowly this time. In her mind she spoke:
“What is it I should call you then?”
To which the voice replied:
“You need call me nothing, for I am nothing but a humble spirit. I am you, in a way. But if you must call me something: Espiritus Scientes will do nicely I think. Invoke that name and I shall be quick to come to your aid.”
Marigold mouthed the words to herself then, to get a feel for them. She found that by the time she had finished saying it three times: they didn't seem so strange after all. In fact: she doubted she would even use them. Why would she bother talking to herself when the world around her would give up its mysteries so easily?
She looked up at the impossible ceiling once again. Beyond the clouds, and the choirs, and the rocks cared by precision las-welders (whose power supplies were badly out of sync,) and polished by rotating machines that appeared in her mind as easily as speech (yet could be improved by the addition of vibrational repression units,) she could now see the void-shields. They shimmered as imperfect currents pulsed through their circuits. She knew how to fix that now. She felt she knew everything now.
It finally all made sense.
Around her the other girls were rising to their feet, praising the Canoness. They were cheering to something or another. Marigold also stood up, also cheered, but hers was for a different reason: she was no longer scared. She no longer feared anything.
Sister Marigold Eustice would fix the Imperium. She knew that now.
- # #
Rouge Trader Jessi Jaxx awoke to her ship bucking like a Vanderbeast with a stick up its rear. She promptly responded to this by attempting to hit the comm button, falling out of her bed, striking her head with the comm button, and inadvertently cursing long and hard at her Navigator and the entire bridge crew.
When she was finished (or at least out of breath,) her navigator responded:
“Captain, I'm afraid you are going to have to get up here right away.”
Jessi attempted to stand, but was promptly thrown against the wall. This had the fortunate side effect of knocking her hand-bolter out of its holster, causing it to hit the ground and discharge through her still hanging pants.
“Captain?” called out the navigator, concern evident in his voice.
“I'm fine, jus' felt like shooting ma pants for insubordination. Watch it or I'll move on t' the navigator. Remember: my pants still outrank you hoss.”
“Very good sir,” said the Navigator, “Might I suggest skipping out on extraneous disciplinary action and heading straight for the bridge?”
Another wave struck the ship and everything jumped upwards before crashing down. Jessi at least managed to get to her bolt pistol and switch the safety on.
“An jus' How in the fething grok do y'all think I'm s'posed t'do that?” she shouted into the com. Then the com seemed to leap up and strike her in the head. Jessi threw it against the wall in retaliation, shattering it completely. Now both hungover and devoid of information: she was forced to try to make her way to the bridge as best she could.
The first thing she did was try to put on some proper clothes. Unfortunately: her britches now had a hole in them, and her coat and wardrobe were evidently conspiring to keep her nearly naked. She struggled for nearly a minute trying to both remain upright and get something on over her underwear, and ultimately failed at both attempts (however: she did manage to break a surprising number of things in her quarters, so that was a plus.) Finally: Jessi grabbed some sheets, wrapped them around her midriff, and buckled her gun belt on over top it. At least her hat was still co-operating. That was something to be thankful of, she thought.
Jessi was also quite thankful that the the hallways between her quarters and the bridge were suitably bare enough to allow her to avoid breaking anything else. She only took a few tumbles on her way, of course, entering the room with a bleeding head and swollen left eye. She then immediately tumbled to the floor as the ship bucked even harder. The sheet quickly slipped away to reveal her shapely form and scandalous underwear.
“Captain's naked on the bridge again,” complained the Demiurg at the Com station as he dangled his legs back and forth on his too high chair.
“Shut up you stunted grotling!” shouted captain Jaxx, “My fething pants are being non-cooperative. They had to be shot for reasons of security. Could happen to anyone- like a com officer fer 'xample. Now stop drooling over my backside and give me the damned sit rep!”
The Demiurg snickered to himself before responding: “No sit here sir. Coms fine, at least now. Can't get much human chatter, but I don't think theres much we want to talk to around here anyway. Talk to Butch.”
Jessi looked at the Navigator who was still locked into his harness and visibly sweating as he concentrated on keeping the ship as stable as possible within the essentially unstable currents of the warp.
“The situation looks most notably poor captain,” he said in his crisp and efficient tones, always appearing both calmer and more collected than the other xenos species that manned Captain Jaxx Flying Freak Show (at least how she liked to term it sometimes.) The Navigator continued on: “I would also like to note, as an official log, that Mr. Gilmenstach has called me by the derogatory nickname “Butch” twenty seven times since you have been away. I would like to file an official workplace grievance, if I may.”
The ship rocked again and nearly threw Jessi to the ground.
“Noted and disregarded, as always,” she grumbled. Then she looked over at the small and powerfully built Demiurg, “You: stuntie! Stop picking on Butch! You: sensitive face!”
The navigator bristled as if slapped.
“Stop being so fething soft! You wanted to see how we slow stupid humans did things, so quit yer' lip and give me the lowdown. How grokked are we? I'm guessing it's a warp-storm?”
The Eldar seemed to, as he often did, go through a complex series of lightning fast emotions. Even with his face obscured to read the warp: it was entertaining to watch. After only a few seconds he responded:
“Affirmative. This is the worst example I have personally seen in many years, and looks to be growing in size fairly quickly. I am not sure how much longer we can stay in the warp with any degree of safety, especially given the unreliability of our current craft.”
“Don't you dare insult the Painted Lady you skinny poof!” retorted Captain Jaxx. She looked at some of the readings now scrolling across various screens. None of them looked good. The Eldar quickly crunched the numbers in his head:
“The probability of total destruction resulting from the warp-storm is now approaching eighty percent, with a six percent margin of error. Suggest immediate action, captain.”
“Fething swell,” said Captain Jessi as she staggered over to her chair and half fell into it as the ship rocked again. “We got any safe ports herebout?”
“Depends,” said the Demiurg with a snicker, “Pax Tantum is comin up. So's Pax Quay-”
“We ain't goin' back there stuntie,” said Jessi with authority, “Last time we tried to bunk wit' the greenskins we nearly got 'et. Not doin' that again fer love 'r money. What's Tantum got?”
The Demiurg shrugged his burly shoulders, apparently unconcerned with the whole ordeal.
“Not much. Normal Imp coms that I'm picking up. Nothin' really going on though. We'd prob just be taken in, ship confiscated, all executed. Probably tortured first. No biggie. Wanna go?”
Jessi glared at her Coms officer. Demiurg could have a really annoying sense of humor, but they understood technology well enough.
“You know,” she said, “I once ate some Demiurg. Not bad actually. A bit gamey. Some consider it a delicacy. Maybe the folks on Tantum will-”
“If you please Captain,” interrupted the Eldar Navigator, “I'm going to need you to make a decision now. If we head towards the Pax Tantum system I think it's likely we are going to be there for the foreseeable future. The storm looks to be closing in around it. Even the Astronomicon is fading. Another twenty-four hours and I doubt anything is getting in or out of that system, including us.”
Jessi frowned. This was serious. Feth, she thought, this was always serious. Why couldn't she ever be awoken to be given a damn medal?
“Other options?” she said.
The Demiurg spoke up:
“It's Pax Tantum or the greenskins cap'n. Nothing else in range. Only other idea is- well it's a fleet at least.”
“Yeah, or something. Whatever it is seems to be pushing the warp aside pretty fierce. Most likely causing the storm even, though I'm not sure of that. It's either a space-hulk, a fleet, or- shit I dunno: something else? Maybe a big ol demon or the fething Emperor himself. I'm grokked if I know. But it's big.”
“That don't exactly sound promising...”
She looked at her readings. Whatever it was the Demiurg was picking up was massive, and slowly making its way in the Pax Tantum direction, the same as them. Of course there was no indication that really meant anything as the warp wasn't exactly tied in any real sense to the material realm. By all rights it could pass right by them and they wouldn't even know it.
...Or they could end up stranded in a system when some horrible xenos invasion fleet arrived to eat everyone worth eating. At least the Demiurg would be spared then, the meat really had tasted terrible.
The ship rocked dangerously again as if to emphasize the importance of haste over thought.
“The probability of total destruction is now approaching ninety five percent if we remain on our current course,” said the navigator. He was licking his thin lips compulsively now. That was never a good sign.
Captain Jessi Jaxx made a decision:
“We head for Pan Tantum. Try fer all speed. If'n we can get ahead of the storm by long enough we can at least try t' buy some safety with a warning 'bout it. Beats dying here anyway.”
“Affirmative Captain,” responded the Navigator, “Changing course now.”
Jessi sighed and folded her arms over her nearly bare chest. The ship bucked again but it was already losing its ferocity as they turned within the immaterial realm of the warp.
Captain Jessi Jaxx knew nothing about the Pax Tantum system really. It was supposed to be some old Imperial backwater without much to differentiate it from every other Imperial backwater. The only real difference seemed to be that this particular backwater would soon be home to one Captain Jessi Jaxx Jaxson, rouge trader extraordinary and, occasionally, wanted criminal for trading in contraband xenos technology.
The thought of being at the mercy of Imperial jurisdiction didn't exactly appeal to her, but like she had said: it beat dying. Or so she hoped anyway.