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Cynical Cat

In Memoria

180 posts in this topic


Hethor

"Do you think you're tough boy?!" The grizzled sergeant was trying to be terrifying, but it seemed comical to the young recruit.

"No sergeant!" said the young recruit.

"Well you aren't! You are a piece of refuse unworthy of the Emperor's love! You- are you trying to eyeball **** me recruit?!"

What in the Emperor's name is that? goggled the recruit. "No sergeant!" said the recruit. It seemed to be the best answer.

"Ork ****! You tried to eyeball **** me you unworthy little heathen pissant! Drop and give me twenty!"

"Yes sergeant!" Twenty is easy, though the big farmboy. I thought this would be tough. Then the sergeant's boot came down on his shoulder.

"You're a big, strong boy. You can take it. Now give me twenty!"

"Yes sergeant." The sergeant bore down with his boot. The recruit struggled through the required number.

"Don't ever try to screw with me again recruit or you'll be in so much pain you'll wish you had become an Ork's *****! I'll be keeping an eye on you, D'eckor!"

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"This is a lasgun," said the sergeant holding the rod of metal and plastic before his trainees. "Some of you come from worlds so assbackwards that when you think high tech, you think crossbow. Perform the rights properly and the spirit of this weapon is supportive and reliable. It does not have a bolter's prickly pride or a plasma's moods and spite. It is so simple even you dirt brains can use it, for the lasgun is a true friend to the race of man. One day you may be worthy to bear it."

The sergeant twirled the gun and squeezed the trigger. Each time there was a loud hum and bolts of light flashed. The straw dummy started to burn. The wood dummy had a divot blown out of it and a large black scorch mark. The dummy wearing the breastplate had a noticable hole.

"The lasgun will burn through armor kill its target. Some alien monstrosities will resist its righteous power. Shoot them again! They will succomb! Each time you pull the trigger, the lasgun will fire and smite an enemy of the Emperor. For those of you who can actually keep time, if you hold the trigger down this model with fire three shots a second! This weapon has killed more of the Emperor's enemies than all other hand weapons combined! You will be worthy of the mighty lasgun or you will die in training! Am I understood?"

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"This is an knife, you Emperor denying maggots. It can attach it to your lasgun like this. Do you know why you have knives when you have a gun?"

"No, Sergeant!" the recruits yelled.

"Because we can't relying on you bunch of Emperor bedamned heathens not to **** up shooting the enemy! Because in the 40 millenia of human history, all armies have had a use for the knife! And you will learn to love this knife.! In fact you will learn to love this knife more than the Emperor loves you! And do you know why!"

"No sergeant!"

"Because the knife, unlike you, will be absolutely faithful. The knife will serve you better than you will serve the Emperor! Until you can match the faithfulness of this knife, you will not truly be members of the Imperial Guard. Form up for close combat drill!"

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"Hey, buddy this your first drop?" said the soldier beside him.

"Yes," said Hethor.

"Don't sweat it," said the man beside him. "Too bad this isn't a mixed unit. A few women would make this ride easier. Say buddy, you got any tabac?"

"Yah, they gave us some a while back. Don't know why. Here, take it," he said passing the pack over.

"Thanks buddy," said the other soldier. He drew one out and flicked a match against his stubble. He tucked the pack away and took a long drag. "Ah. Got hooked on Menthas Minor. You one of the replacements?"

"Yes," he replied.

"There grabbing people from every **** hole and sticking people everywhere to bring regiments up to strength. Do you know what that means? Casualties, lots of them. They're losing people so fast they are mix and matching regiments because they can't get gear for new foundings fast enough. Get used to seeing people die around you, if we make it down."

"If we make it down?" asked Hethor.

"We're doing a hot landing in a drop pod. Maybe three out of four will make it to the ground. The rest will buy it from bad landings, malfunctions, and enemy fire. From the ways the navy boys talk, enemy fire is the least of your problems when riding these things." The veteran took a long drag on the stick. "Better smoke them if you've got them."

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Trooper D'eckor walked through the village. "Heretical activity in this sector," the Commissar had said. "Scourge it clean," was her order. The vanguard had done that. They had reduced to village to a burnt out shells filled with charred corpses. Some of them were so tiny that they couldn't have been born live, but must have been cut from there mother's wombs.

Small lines of young women, naked, hobbled, and battered, had been trucked back from the front lines. The locals apparently had strong feelings about this kind of thing and after they were displayed through the surrounding regions they were sent to be slave-prostitutes for units rotating back from the frontline. The Imperial Commander wanted it to be clear he was taking a hard stance.

It bothered D'eckor. Places like this reminded him too much of home. But he was just too tired. He had seen too many people die near him, fired out into the darkness too many times, finished off too many wounded men. He was just wrung out. He kept slogging forward. Anyone not in Imperial uniform was an enemy to be killed and to do otherwise was to face the Commissar.

 

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Corporal D'eckor pumped las blasts into the beast's torso. Sometime between blast four and five it decided to drop and be seriously injured. D'eckor kept shoting, putting the holes in its chest up to seven and added a double tap to the head. "**** this! There has got to be an easier way of killing them. "

He was given the chance of finding out a moment later. Another ork rounded the bend, a huge pistol in one hand, a thirty pound cleaving blade in the other. D'eckor shot it point blank in the face. Twice. It dropped. "Praise be to the Emperor, that's more ******* like it!"

"P'terson, you take point," he said singling out the greenest member of his squad. If someone was going to buy it, better him than a proven veteran. His first campaign had taught him that. In this, his second, he was putting it into practice.

P'terson scrambled ahead. The newbie was shaking like a leaf. He's not going to ******* make it, D'eckor analyzed. Might as well give him all the hazardous duties until someone more expendable came along.

The sound of the world's noisiest gang of hooligans reached him over the shelling. "Back," he snarled. "Fall back." The trenches were arrayed in a zig-zag pattern back when the Imperial Guard dug them before the orks took them. The bend's were the best defences available under these conditions.

The squad hustled back. P'terson tripped and was got half stuck in the mud for a moment. ******* imbecile, Hethor thought. It was fatal. The Orks rounded the bend before P'terson hit cover. They riddled his body with bullets and he fell.

The squad returned fire. The had crouched down by the bend or gone prone for better cover. The greenskin lumbered forward, firing their big, unreliable guns and filling the air the bullets. The first one madie it half the distance before falling from las wounds.

The second got two steps further before Rawlin's kneecapped it. Hethor was up top, firing down into the trench on his belly. It was a lousy ******* position, but it gave him some cover from this bunch and a decent firing arc.

Number four took it in the face from Hass'n. She was a cold *****, make no mistake, but she was a **** good fighter. Rumour had it that her squad was gang raped by a bunch of Menthans from 2nd battalion and she hadn't been the same since. The Menthans thought they owned the greenies and they stole, bullied, and abused them whenever they could. The ******* Commissar turned a blind eye, thought it was good that the men were being toughened up. *****. Hethor put one in number five' neck, another in his face, and another in what was left of his skull. The Ork toppled.

Number six was practically ontop of the guardsmen before it fell. Number seven's machine gun had jammed and he proceeded to try and bash Gregar's head in. Greg tripped and fell back. Hethor put three rounds into number eight's right arm, crippling it. It still came forward, wielding a huge chopper. Rawlin's put two in its' torso, which was covered in leather and mail. It didn't go down and buried it's chopper in Rawlin's chest. Hass'n finished off number six as Hethor put down number eight.

Nine shot Hass'n at point blank in the chest with a hand cannon. She slumped, maybe dead, maybe injured. Gregar pumped las bolts into it. Number ten reached for Hethor and yanked him into the trench by the barrel of his lasgun.

Emperor preserve me, D'eckor thought. D'eckor was big and damned strong, but the Ork had more than a foot on him and was even more powerfully built. It didn't have a gun, it having discarded it for either jamming or running out of ammo some time in the past. The chopper in its hand was more than enough to finish the fight.

D'eckor sprung forward. He had learned that the Orks had a few good points. Their gear was unreliable, their supply methods were a joke, they were stupid as well as cunning, and they were slow. The Ork had been moving up to finish a human scrambling away. D'eckor collided with it, inside the reach of its chopper.

D'eckor moved. In a second the Ork would grab or batter him with it's free hand and then finish him with the chopper. That was unavoidable. So he stabbed his knife deep into the muscles of the Ork's right bicep and twisted. The ork flinched back, taking his knife with it.

The green skin grunted and tried to lift its' chopper. It succeeded. Hethor butted it in the jaw with his helmet, breaking teeth. It grunted and slapped him with its left hand. Hethor realed back. ****, I thought that would be worse, he thought. It ain't so tough. Rawlin's lasgun was nearby.

The ork transfered its chopper to its other hand, leaving the knife still sticking in the wound. Hethor swung the lasgun in a swift arc. The but shattered on contact with the Ork's skull, but the greenskin dropped. Hethor looked around. The other Ork was down, its torso an oozing ruin. So was Gregar. The Ork in front on him stirred and tried to get up. D'eckor kicked back down and then stomped it in the face.

He applied his boot a dozen more times. Then he ripped his knife out of its arm and went to work.

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D'eckor swirled the amber liquid in his glass and studied his cards for the third time. The Emperor had not intervened and the hand was still a dog. He sipped some the substance that the local's alleged was whiskey and threw the cards in. The tension dropped noticeably among his fellow gamblers. D'eckor leaned back in his chair. He was the lord of all he surveyed.

The CO of the firebase was a colonel, but he rarely left his dugout and was probably on something most of the time. The commissar was a liability and was probably going to get scragged sooner or later. The dumb **** had gotten too many soldiers killed to be tolerated. Most of the officers were slightly less useless.

But Sergeant D'eckor came back with more men and killed more of the enemy than anyone else. That his killbag included the previous commissar (false, that had really been the enemy) and a green lieutenant (false, it was a lieutenant and the major) was widely rumoured. Nobody said anything. D'eckor was hard, but he brought his boys back. And some numbers that made the officers look better.

The commissar came in. Everybody stood up and saluted, even Hethor. The commissar walked up to him. He was young and a little scrawny, with a fanatic's gleam in his eye. Rumour had it he had been shot six times by orks at close range and survived. Hethor had talked with a medicae and knew better. It was seven times.

"Sergeant, I want you to round up two squads of men."

"Yes commissar. In what way shall we serve the Emperor?" Commissars' ate this **** up. So did Colonel Maddox.

"I will brief you in half an hour," said the commissar.

I can have them in five minutes, idiot thought Hethor. What he said was "Yes commissar." He didn't need the briefing. The commissar's attempt at maintaining need to know was laughable. It was another sweep and kill mission through the highlands, using a variation of one of the three routes. The bonehead officers were only slightly smarter than Orks. Maybe he should frag the colonel, get some new blood here. Couldn't be any worse than the current lot, thought Hethor, deciding the issue. This pointless stalemate was going to continue until it killed him unless he did something about it.

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Brutal, bloody, pointless stalemate. For six months the brass had been dreaming up of new offensive to break through the enemy line. Four bloody failures. Four failures to break the line, four failures, to punch through and attack the planetary defense batteries. Four failures to weaken the enemy enough to bring the navy in the war. Four failures to get closer to victory.

You didn't need to be a genius to figure out that there was going to be attempt number five in the near future. Hethor knew when his regiment got rotated near the front that it was their turn to bleed and die. The chances of him getting his ass shot off because a general who only understood frontal assault was going to fail to learn for a fifth time was far too high.

There were some other clues which did not bode well. Those stuck up "elite" stormtroopers were patrolling in squads lead by junior commissars. The placement and coverage of heavy stubbers and multilasers batteries was also less than reassuring. Someone, probably a commissar, understood these suicide charges were less than popular with the troops. Hethor considered his options and decided now was the time to "volunteer" to lead a sweep and kill mission through the woods. It was a death trap crawling with enemy troops, but at least his life wouldn't be in the hands of the jackass general in charge of this operation.

"Sergeant D'eckor!" sounded from behind him. A green louie with fancy shoulderboards was standing behind him, along with several other officers and . . . . .Colonel Stran. What in the Emperor's name was Stran doing here? These guys weren't in his regiment.

"Yes sir!" said D'eckor, saluting as the officers approached.

"You and your platoon have been selected for a special assignment. Assemble them at point Upsilon three in one hour!"

"Yes sir!" Replied D'eckor. Maybe the bone heads were going to send him into the woods after all. But assembling in the daylight? Trust the brass to **** up a stealth mission. They were going to make it **** hard for him not to get killed in this ratfuck of a mission.

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Hethor got his boys and girls over to the martialing area. They probably hated his guts but they knew survival rates in Hethor's platoon compared to everyone else's. If Hethor could just manage to avoid having them assign another lieutenant, everything would be golden.

There were a lot of troops over here. A quick glance told him that a good third were stormtroopers and commissar cadets and the rest were light infantry. The Emperor have mercy. They're going to have us assualt something. But there was something wrong here. Too much brass. Why were they here to get their asses shot off?  They were far too close to the heretics' guns.

The hatch of an unfamiliar armoured vehicle opened and Hethor's question was answered. The figure that emerged was huge. His dark green armour added even more bulk to his frame. Metal studds glinted on his forehead. Even without the armour, he must have been as massive as a bull ork.

"Soldiers of the Emperor," the demi-god shouted. The chosen of the Emperor's voice carried like he was hooked up to a vox projector. "We are the Dark Angels! We will lead you to victory over the heretic scum who dare raise their hands against our beloved Emperor. Bow! Bow and give thanks to the Emperor that you will have the privalege of acting as His instruments of punishment."

"The Emperor knows that you are weak. The Emperor knows that you are not the equal of his Space Marines. The Emperor will allow you to prove your worth to him by slaying his enemies. For with service to the Emperor, redemption is possible! Soldiers of the Empire, prepare to follow the Dark Angels into battle and to victory! All hail the Emperor!"

"THE EMPEROR!"

"THE EMPEROR!"

"THE EMPEROR!"

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Eight demi-squads of Dark Angels lead the way through the woods. More than a thousand Imperial Guard troopers tried to keep up with two score Space Marines. Marine scouts had already been at work, the grisly evidence of their skills littered through the forest like leaves in autumn. It wasn't until they closed with the enemy lines that there was any resistance.

Hethor heard the shots and overran the destroyed positions. With their autosenses, auspexes, and augmented abilites, the Astartes found and killed nests of the enemy without pause. The skirmish line gunned down heretic soldiers on the run, firing and moving with superb accuracy. The barely slowed to finish the wounded, stomping on skulls with their armoured feet.

Hethor hustled his people forward. The commissars were in the back and the Marines only had eyes for the front. A small knot of the enemy managed to survive the Marine's initial volley. D'eckor's platoon added their fire to that of the Marines. None of the return fire came their way. The few feeble shots were fired at the Marines, with the only hit grazing a shoulder guard. The Astartes continued their advance.

The Marines continued to push forward. Eventually they stopped to allow the Guard to catch up as their scouts continued to work ahead. Hethor's people had barely gotten their breath back before the Marines pushed on again. They were in the enemy's part of the woods now and Hethor understood the plan.

The forest was impassable to most vehicles. Almost all the defenses would be anti-infantry with the most of the anti-tank placed well away, along the gap where four previous Guard assaults had drowned in blood. Anti-infantry weapons against the Astartes? They would cut through and shred the defenders, rolling them up from the flanks. That's why all the vets and the stormtroopers. Not to prevent the force from breaking, but to insure that they Astartes had the support necessary to win.

Adrenaline flowed through his body. He wasn't being sent to die. He was being sent to kill.

The Astartes barely hesitated at the forest's edge. A few quick orders deployed them in a spear point with the Guard on the flanks. Missle launchers lashed out at weapon emplacements as the other Astartes fired frag grenades from their bolters into anything resembling a strong point. As their battle brothers laid down a hail of murderous fire, a score advanced at a run towards the enemy lines.

Guard forced poured more fire in. "Charge," yelled an officer or commissar, Hethor couldn't tell which. His men stormed foreward. The Space Marines had first targeted the few anti-armour weapons and they had more than succeeded. Shattered multilasers and heavy stubbers gave mute testimony to the deadly effectiveness of the Space Marine gunners. The Astartes in the lead drew most of the remaining fire, but it was spotty and inaccurate. Anyone taking a shot at the Astartes risked a lethal return volley from his battle brothers.

The charging Marines hurled grenades with all the might of their augmented arms. They landed in fox holes and gun pits, shredding flesh. They landed in front of the firing slits of bunkers, blocking them with billowing smoke. They were followed up by a hail of deadly bolter fire and charging Astartes. Nothing survived.

As the first battle brother hit the line, the other half advanced under the covering fire provided by their batle-brothers. Imperial Guard fire teams remained, suppressing what little pockets of resistance remained. The charging Marines fired from the hip at anyone who dared to target them. That any of their shots hit at all was testimony to their accuracy.  There were a lot of hits.  The Astartes had killed more than five times their number and had yet to loose a man.

Hethor hit the line just ahead of the Marine second wave. The bulk of their armour did nothing to hinder their speed. Hethor's platoon stormed through the gunnery pits, finishing the dead and the dying, and securing the area for reinforcements.

The Astartes continued their advance. Ahead lay the artillery batteries, unprotected by the shattered defensive line. The line had been broken, but the Marines had yet to rip through the exposed units. Hethor moved up to support the Astartes. There was a lot of killing to be done and the Astartes could only carry so much ammo.

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Hethor stroked the gorget he had earned all those years ago, fighting along side the Dark Angels. He had seen then and there what it was to be truly be a soldier of the Emperor. He had not forgotten.

He was almost jolted out of his seat by the bump. It was almost over here. His regiment had been chewed up again and again. They were down to fewer than half their numbers and the campaign was almost over. One last push, that was what the colonel said. One last push.

The Governor's palace had to be taken intact. Minimum damage. Hethor didn't know why and didn't care. He just knew that the job had to be done.

So here he was sitting in an advancing Chimera while artillery plastered the palace with blind and frag shells. It was the usual "full ahead charge" Guard assault favored by far too many commanders. D'eckor knew better and held them in contempt. He was going to bring about victory regardless of the incompetence of his superiors.

"Sarge," said Krain. "Can I have your tabac?" D'eckor's face was impassive as he tossed the pack to Krain. Krain was a steady man, but he was weak. His indulged in a vice that weakened him on the field of battle. Hethor had no tolerance of those in himself, but knew that there was only so much his men would put up with.

The multilaser and heavy bolters were firing now. They were getting close now. The Chimera shook as something clanged off of its hull. Hethor checked his rifle again. He was using the Triplex model instead of the rapid fire Necromundia pattern carbine. He jacked the level to full power. Hethor favored one shot kills over spray and pray, at least with small arms. Of course, not very many people were as steady as he was in a fight.

The signal went off. The Chimera's hatch swung open as the grenade launchers fired. Hethor ran into the smoke and chaos of battle.

Hethor lead his men through the smoke across the palace grounds. The thunder of battle raged all around them as the Chimeras and support teams tried to take out every enemy shooter. Fire came back from the windows and the gaps in the walls as the traitors resisted. Four of the Imperial tanks were already burning.

Hethor pointed. "Zash, hit it!" The trooper pumped a frag grenade into the gap in the palace's side. There was some kind of stubber emplaced there. The grenade landed just in fron, spraying shrapnel. Hethor pumped full strength laser shots in. Kal and Nerek pumped full auto volleys inside. The stubber fired back, chewing up Caldreth's legs. The emplacement exploded as Zash put another frag grenade in, this time directly on target. Ammo and something else exploded.

Hethor lunged forward, Lenns coming just behind. Las fire continued to flash in and no enemy fire came out. Lenns closed the range and opened up with his flamer. Screams came from within. Hethor waited a moment and then chucked in another grenade. There was a dull whump as it went off. The guardsmen followed their sergeant inside.

Two traitors were still twitching. The wore a mix of metal and leather, remnants of some cult force. Hethor finished each one with a high power shot to the head and switched his power cell. "Take us forward Kal," Hethor ordered.

Kal stuck his head out the door and promptley fell back twitching with a hole in his head. "****!" swore Hethor. He bounced a smoke out the door and down the corridor. For good measure he tossed one the other way. He ducked low and popped out.

It was a long corridor, at least a hundred meters as far as he could see. Several traitors were retreating from other rooms that faced the advancing guard, obviously pulling back in the face of the Guard assault. He could see the bright boy who punched Kal's ticket, one of the Scravian Elite. He was still very pretty with his shiny metal breastplate, vambraces, and greaves over flak armour and his fancy mirror faced helmet. He was also faster than D'eckor and a good shot. The bolt from the Scravian's carbine punched through Hethor's flak armour over his right shoulder.

Which is why Hethor was using a max powered Triplex. The Scravians wore good armour and favored a high cycle rate but low powered carbine for close quarters work. With their heavy armor there was less chance of serious friendly fire issues when they filled the air with lasbolts. The looted mesh tunic he was wearing under the flak jacket drank up most of the rest of shot, although it hurt like hell. Hethor's return shot blew a hole in his chest and Hethor put another one into the chest before he toppled, just to be sure.

The retreating traitors had an inkling they were being flanked when Hethor's boys joined him in putting las rounds into them. Nerek pumped fire in the other direction. In moments the Eastern Promenade of the Grand Palace of Illizak, ancient home and headquarters to the Imperial Commander of the Tannezed System was empty of all life except for those who wore the emblems of the Imperial Guard.

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Hethor checked around the corner with mirror. Several bolts flickered down the corridor, one of them hitting the mirror, causing it to explode. So much for shaving.

"Bad?" asked Gellmenn.

"Bad. ******* Scravians. Improvised barricade. At least six of 'em. Maybe 30 meters back. **** the Governor's Grand ******* Promenade. And either they can shoot or worse, they're ******* lucky."

Hanto cracked a grin. "Hey sarge, too bad we can't borrow a Terminator with an assault cannon for, say ten seconds."

Hethor scowled. "One battle brother with a bolter, five seconds. Tops." He paused for a moment. "Okay, enough ******* around. Those ******* Scravians aren't going to kill themselves."

Hethor checked his weapons. Knife. Triplex Rifle. Frag grenades. Blind grenade. Two krak grenades. Stubber. Las pistol. Everything loaded and ready to go. Now he just needed a plan that wouldn't involve getting everyone killed. What would a Dark Angel do?

Direct frontal attack on such a well defended position? No, they were brave not stupid. Something to even the odds. Hethor looked up at the soot stained ceiling with it massive stained glass windows set in gilded, baroque frames. Most of the windows were shattered now, jagged chunks of glass clutching empty frames. He looked back down the long hall with generations of Imperial Commanders memorialized on pedestal mounted white marble busts, now scored the shrapnel and lasfire. Hethor smiled. He had an idea.

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Nek attached the demo charge and backed away. Heth could always be relied upon to pull his boys and girls through any mess and this one was no exception. Standing to close to him could be hazardous. "Fire in the Hole!" he yelled. He backed behind the wall and triggered the explosive.

Debris blew through the doorway in a thunderous cloud of smoke. **** that blast was loud. Nek and Gellmenn looked back in. Yep they had blasted through the wall. The grass was nice and green out there, because the Guard wasn't assaulting from this side. The shear cliff just beyond the palace grounds probably had something to do with that. Clutching their sacks, the two men exited and edged along the wall.

"Are we there?" Nek asked.

"About so," said Gellmenn. He looked up. "Hey the windows are still intact." Above him towered a eight meter high depiction of the Emperor vanquishing xenos.

"What do we do?" Nek asked.

"He'll expect us to do our duty," said Gellman as he raised his lasgun. He didn't feel good about this. God-Emperor, Master of Mankind, forgive me. He fired. Las bolts tore the beautiful image of the Emperor apart. For good measure Gellmenn cleared out the adjoining frames, bearing the images of Sebastian Thor and Rogal Dorn. Rainbow shards fell to earth.

"Let's do it," said Gellmenn retreating several steps. Both he and Nek reached into their bags and threw in a high arc. Inside, deadly flowers of steel shrapnel erupted around the barricade.

Hethor rolled out and fired as the grenades burst around the Scravians. Little J poured out full auto on his carbine and charged. Hethor watched with awe. He's even crazier than I am! He sergeant hustled forward to the ******* inadequate cover provided the nearest niche. Inadequate was better than none.

Zash began to pump fire from his grenade launcher down towards the Scravians. Two of them were returning fire. Hethor shot one of them in the head. Krain had dashed to the other side of the corridor and was advancing that way. **** this was a mess!

Hethor hustled to the next niche, snapping off a shot as he ran. The return fire was still spotty and inaccurate. Several of Hethor's boys were pumping fire forward, trying to suppress the Scravians's fire. As Hethor closed he learned one thing: there was a lot more than six of the fuckers.

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It went to hell in an instant. Just as the grenade from outside ceased, Zash scored a direct hit on a Scravian with his launcher. Good, another down and shrapnel in the area where Hethor wanted it to be. Then some Scravian ****** and stitched Krain up good when he was still in the open. Krain went down.

Little J put the ****** down but another Scravian had an underbarrel grenade launcher on his las. He sent a round back towards Hethor's fire support. Then another Scravian hit little Little J. The shot caught him high in the chest and he staggered. Hethor put the shooter down hard with his Triplex. Two other Scravians stitched up J real bad. At least a half dozen hits to the torso. At close range. Little J went down hard. There was no way short of direct intervention by Lion El Johnson that Little J was going to get back up ever again.

Hethor burned down one of the Scravians. The other fired wildly. It was hard to shoot straight when your target was shooting back. It wasn't a big problem for everyone. Hethor, for example. He punched two shots into the Scravian, almost severing his right arm and blowing open his left lung. The Scravian spun and fell.

Hethor was close now. He fired low, just over the barricade as he charged. His shots kept their heads down as his power cell bled dry. He dropped the las and drew his pistol.

He shot the first one in the chest. And again and again and again. The ****** then decided to fall. Even at point blank, a laspistol only blasted small holes in flesh after burning through all that armour. He shot the next one in the neck and got a much more satisfying result. To bad that the Scravian shot him twice in the chest. Holy Emperor, it hurt. Both men fell.

There was only one left, a Scravian with an officer's red piping. He raised a beautiful curved sword over his head-

And was cut down by half a dozen shots from Hethor's boys. "You lose," Hethor snarled.

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Hethor raised the glass and drank. The sweet orange juice mixed in meant that the grain alcohol actually tasted like something. He gulped half the glass and put it down. Praise the Emperor, he needed that.

A woman walked in. She was all wrong for this place. While not quite dirty, this place wasn't exactly clean either. It's customers had more than a few rough edges and the bouncers were big and earned their paychecks.

She was simply dressed, but their was something classy about her that didn't fit. Her dark hair was tied up with a short braid. There were grey strands here and there and crowfeet around her eyes. A slight smile on her lips. She was pretty good looking for a broad her age. She pulled out the chair on the other end of the table and spun it around. She sat down, leaning forward over the chair's back.

"I didn't tell you you could sit here," said Hethor coldly. He didn't know what the **** was going on, but there was no way he was going into it blindly.

"A little early for that," she said waving at his glass. She smiled, showing teeth that were way too good. She had to have serious juice to have teeth that good around here and most people of her age with that kind of juice had gotten scragged. The Arbites had spent three days shooting their prisoners. That meant she was probably from offworld.

"A man with responsibilities like yourself, getting drunk this early in the day. Might cost you your position as foreman if you keep going this way."

"**** you *****," Hethor replied. He would have to get pretty ragged before they would fire him.

"Of course, with your sideline as a bonebreaker for a moneylender, you do have another job. You could do your drinking somewhere better."

"**** you twice, *****" he answered. You didn't need to go to someplace fancy to get blitzed. And there you couldn't kick ass.

"How are the memories sergeant?" she asked. "Lot of dead you are carrying with you. Did a lot of service to the Imperium."

Hethor stood up, his face contorting in rage. She knew way too much about him. At the bar a weedy man stood up straight. He was with her, but too small to be muscle, unless he was really good muscle. She could afford really good muscle. She put something on the table, uncovered it for a moment, and then picked it up. It was an Inquisitional rosette. He was truly ******.

"The campaign was over, the worlds retaken. They didn't bother with the smashed regiments, did they sergeant? How many hundred men left in yours? Two, three? Out of a founding of full strength of how many thousand? Not worth it to ship you somewhere you were needed and build you back to strength, so they discharged you. How many years did you serve sergeant?" She must have already known the answer.

"Eighteen."

"How many of the Emperor's enemies did you kill sergeant?"

"I lost count. After fifty three, I stopped counting." He had been at fifty three when he saw the Dark Angels.

"So here you are, a discarded piece of the mighty Imperial War Machine, fighting, drinking, gambling, and ******* yourself to death," she said.

"What do you want?" he asked

"I want you to serve the Imperium again sergeant. Very few men swept the basement levels."

"We didn't sweep 'em," his throat was dry. He didn't want to think about there again. "We just secured the entrance for a special purge team."

"Yes," she replied. "That's were things go wrong. They were supposed to be swept before they were burned, but that didn't happen. The inquisitor who should have seen to it was killed by a booby trap earlier in the day and the Monodominant fool told no one of what he wanted. So everything got burned, without it being investigated. The purge team's identity isn't even recorded. The disposition of the 322nd Menthian Strikers is."

"What do you want with me?" he rasped.

"Something is stirring and it has a foothold in the palace. It was exactingly rebuilt. A need a tough man who can show me the way and Hethor D'eckor, you are that man."

"Who are you?" Hethor asked.

"I am Kyra Neven and my companion is Jolan Gix. Welcome back into the Emperor's service."


 

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Anjun


The temple was the biggest place he had ever seen. Even here, during dark cycle the holos on the ceiling were beautiful. It was kind of scary. All big and dark and empty. And he was still hungry.

"When are we going to eat mama?" he cried.

She hugged him. "Soon, Anjun, soon. Mama just has to do something to get us food. Now you stay here and I'll be back soon." She kissed him on the forehead and hustled down the isle. The priest in his shiny red robe with all the gold was there. He and mama talked for a little big and then went behind the altar.

Anjun fidgited. He had been told to stay put, but he was bored. He would go check on mama and asked. He crept up, being real careful. There were some strange noises coming from behind the altar. Anjun peaked around the side and saw the priest had his robe open and his mama was kneeling in front of him. What has going on?

His moma saw him and stopped what she was doing. The priest slapped mama and said, "I don't care. Finish if you want the food chit." A tear rolled down mama's cheek.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

"Hey," said Anjun.

The man didn't look up from the candies spread across the table.

"I was wondering, if I could, you know, step up," said Anjun.

"Step up?" His voice contained no warmth. Just the icy chill of drawn steel.

"Well, running and look out is okay, but I need more cred. I can do deliveries. And sell. I'm good with numbers," he said.

"Trusting you with a package is a big step," said the man. "Don't **** it up. Your mother hasn't hit rock bottom yet and you have a long way to fall."

"That means I can?" he asked excitedly.

"Vren, get him a package. We got a new merchant."

----------------------------------------------------------------

Anun jinked right and fired back. The autopistol sprayed small calibre soft nosed slugs in his attacker's general direction. The hive rat ducked back behind a corner as Chou hot footed into an alley. He could here them coming behind him. A crossbow dart wizzed past him, missing by a handspan. The young ganger leaped into a recessed doorway and returned fire.

That sent the hive rats leaping for cover behind piles of garbage. Hands shaking, Anjun ejected the clip on the autopistol. He grabbed a new clip, almost dropped it and fumbled as he inserted it into the butt of his gun. In the middle of this process, one of the hive rats decided to rush him.

The ganger was almost on top of him. He was shorter and scrawnier than Chou, who wasn't the tallest man he knew by a long shot and liked to think of himself as lean. The hive rat's teeth were rotten and his rags stank. Chou put a dozen bullets into his chest. The hive rat shook at the impacts and fell, his torso red ruin. The other fired a handbow at Anjun's head. The bolt skittered off the wall by his head.

Anjun fired back. One of his slugs went in through the hive rat's left eye and blew out the back of his skull. He fell. Chou looked out. No one else was out there. He slipped out of the alley, hugging the shadows. He had protected his turf and High Ones woud be pleased. He might be able to move up soon, or get more territory. He was whistling as he headed home.

--------------------------------------------------------------

Anjun was awed by the club. Hidden beneath one of the hive stacks it was the most opulent building he had ever been in, even grander than the Ecclesiastical Cathedral. Holos flashed and revolved on the ceiling and crawled along the walls, changing too rapidly for one to be quite sure about what you saw. Their was music, not church music, and it was loud and stired the blood. People danced, wearing a fortune or practicaly nothing, or both. Drugs and booze flowed freely. He had found paradise.

He knew where he was supposed to go, but he couldn't see it through the crowd. Pushing his way through, he finally spotted the High One. Anjun slithered through the mass, heading his way. A wall of muscle blocked his path. "I'm Anjun," he shouted over the music. "He wanted to see me." The muscle moved.

The High One was attended by three women. One wore skin tight armour and wore spring talons. A las was in easy reach. Another wore glittery gold fabric and was sniffing 'blot through through an ivory tube embossed with gold. The third was maybe fourteen with metallic hair. She was naked, except for some paint, and giggling. The High One didn't notice him for a moment and then gestured for him to sit.

Chou was wearing his most glitz clothes, but he knew he was like a scavy to the High One. The High One was at least a little drunk. "Chou, you earn well. Real well. And you only steal a little. That means your smart. And your smooth. We're going to move you up."

Anjun's draw jumped. He was going to become a boss. A distributer. People would come to him for packages. 'Who's territory?" he asked.

The boss looked at him for a moment. "No, not like that. We're going to move you up," he said pointing to the sealing. "Gone wheel and deal with the top level. Become their friends and their suppliers. Higher return, less risk. Make us all more money, make some uplevel friends for us. You can never have enough uplevel friends. You do this right, you got a big future." Chou sat there dazed, stars in his eyes.

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Anjun was walking home, a joy girl under one arm and a joy boy under the other when the raid happened. A shot banged out, ricocheting against an Arbites Rhino. That drew Anjun's attention to the scene happening way down the avenue, during the darklight hour. The Arbites were after something, mutants or heretics most likely. It didn't matter. Their response was predictable.

Combat shotguns opened up. Pintel mounted storm bolters raked the building. A larger vehicle opened up with multiple autocannons. The arbites poured fire and flame into the building for a full minute. When they were finished the front half was gone and the back half was burning. The Arbite's silhouettes were visible against the fire's glow as they swept for any survivors.

They drove away after a few minutes. Two buildings were cratered from autocannon rounds going through the wreckage and hitting another building. One of them was beginning to burn. The Adeptus didn't care. The priests didn't care. The nobles didn't care. The Imperial Commander didn't care. Why should Anjun Chou?

-----------------------------------------------------------------

"Hey Anjun!"

"Alexos!" Anjun sauntered over to the noble. They exchanged a complicated series of hand gestures. "Nice party."

The young noble extended his arms. "Welcome to my palace." There were scores of nobles sprawled among the cushions of the cavernous rooms. Each one was attended by at least two hangers on attending to his or her debauched needs. Lascivious holos danced through the room, some of them performing rather improbable acts of intercourse.

The young noble pulled Anjun closer. "Do you have the stuff?"

"Yah. No prob."

"Good. We're ah . . . .using it a little faster than I thought."

No ****, thought Anjun. This lot could snort through a mountain of drugs the size of a spyre in a weekend. "No prob. I was able to get some more stuf. You'll know better for next time."

Alexus smiled broadly. His teeth were inlaid with mother of pearl. "Yeah, I guess I will." He put his arm around Chou's shoulders. "But for now enjoy the party. As my personal guest." He steered Chou towards a low table. Silk clab beauties reclining there rose to meet them.

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Anjun knocked back another drink. It was his fourth. He had been doing that a lot since his mother died, but **** it, what was better? Drugs, booze, and sex were only temporary solutions, but they would do for now. It didn't affect his work. Hell, it was half of his work. The up level boys and girls loved him and the cred flowed.

"Mind if I join you?" a bass voice rumbled. He was distinctive, even in the bar's poor light. A huge bastard, muscled like a grox with shaved head and the aquila tattooed on his forehead. Light brown skin, definitely unusual in these parts. His tunic and pants were clean and nice, but nothing special.

"Who are you?" Anjun asked.

"A man with a proposition," the big man replied.

"What is that?" Chou responded.

"I've heard that your hooked in pretty good uplevel. That you make more money for the High Ones than most territories. Yet you aren't even a boss."

"So? Not that I'm saying its true?"

"You won't ever be a boss. They're all someone's nephew or son or some **** like that. If you marry in and your son's a good earner, your grandson has a shot. But you, you've gone as high as you can go. Your smooth enough of a chameleon that you can blend and make money, but that's it. You're done. You're just waiting to be discarded."

Anjun saw red. It was true, he ******* knew it was true. That didn't mean he liked it. He reached inside his jacket and found his wrist pinned by the big man. The big man squeezed and he let go of the gone. The big man spoke again.

"You're dead meat. I can kill you here or feed you to the Arbites. But there is a way out."

"**** you."

"Not smart," the man said as he shot chew with a digital needler. He tapped the microbead in his ear. "Coming out with the package." He through chew over his shoulder and walked towards the door. His las pistol was ready to discourage heroics, but at this hour there were no heroes. Only drunks. He disappeared into the night.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

The big bastard was there, smiling grimly. So was a slim woman wearing a form fitting black body glove. The third figure was an olive skinned man in up level clothing. He looked pretty tasty, but Chou didn't think he would be game. The fourth commanded his attention. She was middle aged, dark hair shot with strand of grey.

"Welcome back to consciousness Anjun Chou."

"Who are you?" Chou knew better than to run his mouth. These people could vape him anytime they wanted.

The woman smiled. "I am Kyra Neven. Sergeant D'eckor you have already met and this-" she pointed at the looker, "is Jolan Gix. You are going to bring Jolan to some of those debauched functions you service."

"Why?" he asked. She looked at him strangely.

"Not why should I do it, but why do you need me? You have the money to get yourself on the guest list if you want in."

"We need you to vouch for him so they won't check him throughy. Jolan Gix may be pretending to be a prosperous younger scion of a Mercantalis family, but he is actually a member of the Inquisition."

"Inquisition?" he gapped.

"Yes. I am Inquisitor Kyra Neven." She produced her rosette.

"Word will have gotten out about me being taken," said Anjun. Anything to talk his way out of this rat **** in the making. "I won't be any good to you."

"Word has indeed leaked out about an Arbites raid. Fortunately you weren't there and there are no witnesses to contradict that statement. Of course, if you aren't useful to us in this matter, then you know too much. Are you useful Anjun Chou?"
 

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Severa

Severa maneuvered the ponderous Gothic class cruiser in a broad turn, taking it out of the broadside fire arc of the Murder class. The Gothic class ship poured heavy fire from its powerful gun decks into the heretic ship as the Lunar class came along side and blew down the void shields with its gun decks and lance batteries. The Murder class burned as the Imperial vessels turned toward the other traitor cruisers, which had been dispersed by the Imperial torpedo volley.

The door opened. "I'm home!" cried out a strong male voice. The girl froze the holosimulation and ran across the room. A man in his mid thirties wearing the great coat of a naval officer stood in the doorway.

"Daddy!" she practically leaped into his arms. He picked her up and hugged her.

"How's daddy's big girl?" he asked.

She giggled. "I'm winning daddy!"

"Really?" he asked gently.

She wiggled lose and he lowered her gently to the ground. She yanked his arm. "Come and see."

He let his daughter drag him into the other room. He took a look at the projection. "So you are honey. So you are."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

She heard the door open behind her. "Your still mad at your mother?" he asked. He stepped onto the terrace, closing it behind him. She didn't answer.

"Throne, that's a beautiful sunset," he continued. "It's one of the reasons your mother and I wanted these quarters. Up above the bustle of the city, with a gorgeous view and a lot of room. Good place to raise a family."

He put his hand on her shoulder. She had grown over the last year. She wasn't much shorter than he was. "Listen honey, I know its tough. I'm not around often, it's difficult being your age, but you're tough. It's all right to be upset or angry, but just ease up a little on your mother. She has to go through enough-"

Her bitter laughter interrupted him. "Go through enough? How would you know? You're never here. And she doesn't miss you. She whores around when you're away! She's was with him yesterday!"

He rested his arms on the railing. "I know," he said softly. "The navy isn't all glamor, and danger, and hard work. It's a long time spent in places where you can't bring your family. It's hard to be alone for all that time. A lot of navy officers have quarters for mistresses. Some admirals have whole harems that travel with them."

He paused for a moment. "Your mother and I, we don't ask and we don't judge. When we are together, we use that time. And what we do when we're away, the other doesn't need to know about. Whatever gets us through the long lonely stretches, that's not anyone else's business. So if your mad at your mother about that, you better be mad at me as well."

He kissed her on the forehead. "Be well, my strong beautiful daughter. Whatever you decide to do, I am sure you will make me proud. Now I am going inside so I can help your mother set up for the party. Join us when you're ready."

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Severa considered taking another piece of cake. She'd pay for it latter, that's for sure. She didn't have her sister's lithe build and forest fire metabolism. She was heavier set, more like her father. She wasn't carrying too much in the way of extra meat, most of what she possessed was muscle. But next to her sister she always felt big and clumsy. What the hell. She scooped up the piece.

"Isn't she beautiful? She's glowing."

"Yes mother," Severa replied. She was trying hard to not to be jealous. It was a happy occasion and it was her sister's day. And it wasn't like Elena wasn't a decent person, but everything came to her so easily.

Severa watched her mother drift away, talking with her friends. A voice called out from behind her. "Hey Sever."

She turned around. Another cadet in dress uniform stood there. There wasn't a shortage of Navy families at this wedding. She greeted her classmate by his nickname. "Hey Jinx."

"Your sister's quite the looker. Too bad she's being taken out of the running. Lucky bastard- Owe!" He rubbed his arm where Severa hit him. "There wasn't any need for that Sever."

She smiled. "In your opinion."

He smiled weakly. "Hey, some of are getting together for a little get together tomorrow night. Are you gonna show? You don't have the excuse of having to study this time."

"Maybe."

"Come on. We're on break and it won't last long. You're a good girl all year. Cut loose just once."

"Maybe."

"Querrin's. 1500 tomorrow. Be there.

------------------------------------------------------------------

The music was slightly below deafening level and the booze flowed like atmosphere going out the side of a torpedoed cruiser. Maybe a third of the people were navy. Friends, relatives, hanger oners, and complete strangers had found there way in and were now partying with the rest.

Jinx was dancing with a pretty girl (much prettier than her, Severa admitted), a petite dark haired thing. He had been making the moves all night and was having some success. Severa took another sip of her drink. It was cool, fruity, and had a nice bite. Chaos take her if she knew it's name, but it was good.

Someone tapped her arm. It was Deadman. "Hey Sever. What are you doing here all by yourself and not shaking it on the floor. Wanna dance?"

"You're on flyboy," she replied. He took her whirling out onto the floor.

"****, you can really move," he said.

"My mother's fault," she shouted back. "Dance lessons." She nearly bumped into Carlyle, one of Chess's flunkies. He gave her a dirty look. Well **** him and their whole "Old Family" crowd. They'd look better if they actually worked harder, instead of relying on blue blood. She was Navy going back ten generations. She worked her ass off to get near the top of her class. What right did they have to look down at her?

The song ended and she bowed out to go to the bathroom. It took her a good five minutes, the line was so long. By the time she was back the fighter jock was gone, probably dancing with another lady. She took another drink. She smiled as she sipped it. The night was still young.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Severa groaned. Her skull throbbed in agony. She tried to get up, failed. She didn't recall drinking that much. Not enough for this. Not that she could remember much. She tried to get up again. Succeeded.

She didn't recognize the bedroom. And she was undressed. Her clothes were scattered about the room. And she ached. Really badly. She put on her clothes and staggered out. She got a cab and headed home.

She dodged her mother and headed into the bathroom. Clinically she examined herself. She was bruised on her arms and her legs. She was bleeding and sore between her legs. She dreaded to look.

She cleaned herself up as much as she was able. She dried her tears and pretended nothing much was wrong for the rest of break. But her eyes told a different story.

She caught the looks in classes and in the halls. People knew. Not everyone, but the Old Families. She could see it in their eyes, in their thinly veiled snickers. Someone had drugged her and then they had raped her and who was so high and mighty now?

Her gaze was cold. Her blood was ice. Her heart blazed with fury and indignation. She would not be broken. She was a Valen.
 

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Proctor Hessen walked into the infirmary. It smelled heavily of antiseptic. There was the usual training and horse play injuries and then there were the more unusual cases. Like the three last beds on the row.

Their bodies were almost completely covered in casts. Bones throughout their bodies had to be reset. And that was just the beginning. The broken bones made them unsuitable candidates for the skin grafting surgeries that they all needed. The delay wouldn't help, or so he had been told.

"Medicae."

The reedy man turned towards him. "Proctor."

"How long will their recovery take?"

"Another month for the bones and then there is the skin graft and the recovery period. I'm afraid there is no help to it proctor. They're going to have to repeat the term."

"Their fathers won't like it."

"With all do respect proctor, the ability of the human body to heal and recover is beyond the ability of their fathers to control. And we both know why they are here."

It wasn't said, of course. There was a reason why no one saw the mask wearing assailants who stormed the shower after the cadets' rec class and beat them severely, but not fatally. The temp regulator that had malfunctioned for a short period of time and bombarded their broken bodies with scalding water had also been no accident.

There were suspects, of course. The boys had coasted and bullied using their fathers' and uncles' rank. Of course, everyone had an alibi. The cadet core had an ancient way of leveling transgressions and it had clearly swung into action. What could they have possibly done to deserve this?

It didn't matter now. The investigation had dead ended. Whoever had done it had covered their tracks too well and cut the winds from these boys sails. They would still have careers and most of their wounds would heal. Their fathers would have to be content with that.

---------------------------------------------------------------

Severa listened as Gherhardt Ferr gave his speech. He had been first and fair enough, he had earned it. And to be fair, his speech was better than hers would have been.

Jinx squeezed her elbow. "How much do you think he beat you by?"

"Dunno. Not much, I hope."

Her friend smiled back. Emperor Above, it was good to have friends. They hadn't said anything, but just as the Old Families "knew" they had figured it out and had made themselves available when the time came. Severa didn't know if they got them all or if everyone of the one she had gotten had been guilty, but it was close enough. Imperial justice was like that.

"So," Jinx said. "Do you think you made eighth?"

She punched him lightly in the arm. Gherhardt rapped up his speech. They began calling the rest of the names. "Severa Valen," was next.

Second! She was second! She headed up to the podium to receive her bars. Behind her came the call of "SEVER! SEVER!"

------------------------------------------------------------

The grizzled officer showing the rookie was the ropes was a cliche, but it almost seemed appropriate. Lieutenant Ralthman was tall, lean, scarred, and was missing half of his face. A metal plate and an augmentic eye on the right side of his face covered the injury and upped the intimidation factor. His right arm was also an augment. A power cutlass and a bolt pistol hung from the belt around his great coat.

"So ensign," he rasped, "you placed 2nd in your class. I suppose you think that makes you hot stuff?"

Well I am, she thought. "No sir," she lied.

"Heh. What was your nickname?"

"Sever, sir."

"Cute," he rasped. "Not very original, though. You couldn't have been that good if that was all they could come up with."

"I was also one of the best duelists in the academy, sir."

"You mean your class."

"No sir, I mean the academy."

"So you do think you're hot stuff."

"You bet your ass, sir."

He laughed. "I like you ensign. Welcome aboard the Incandescent Blade."

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The Incandescent Blade shuddered at the impact. "Hold steady!" Severa yelled. The gun crews knew that the impact wasn't from weapon's fire. She grabbed the vox line. "This is Battery Four. We have an impact, presumed boarding vessel, approximately two hundred meters aft of our position. Repeat, impact two hundred meters aft of Battery Four. Probably boarders."

"Master Gunner, continue to fire as we bear. Senior Gunner Hark!"

"Yes sir."

"Round up every available crewman and arm to repel boarders."

"Yes sir."

She descended from the gantry down towards the deck with its power leads, capacitor banks, sub generators, and logic engine relays. She thumbed the safety off he pistol. She could here them coming down the long corridors toward her position. They had to hold.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

They were clumsy and in no way subtle, just like she had been taught. They fired their guns almost randomly and bellowed to each other in their uncouth tongue as they advance. Severa crouched and waited for them to close.

She rose, firing. She put four in the chest of the lead Ork with her naval pistol and it fell. She missed with her next and put the last into an Ork's head, blowing out the back of its skull. Crewmen fired with her, shotgun short barrelled, high calibre, low velocity autoguns. She crouched back down to reload.

Orks fells torn open by the fusillade of fire. Some orks suffered wounds that on a human being would be called terrible. They continued to fight. The Orks responded to firing wildly in the humans' general direction.

About nine out of ten of the Orks' weapons worked. Those weapons that didn't jam and blow themselves apart unleashed a lot of very big bullets. They tore up machinery, severed cables, punched divots in walls and the floor, and in a few instances, mangled flesh.

Severa rose up and emptied her gun into the torso of another rampaging Ork. It went down and it wasn't alone in falling. They kept coming, choppers and hand cannons clenched in their fists. Severa didn't bother to try to reload.

She drew her blade and opened up the first one from right shoulder to left hip. The power sword was a family heirloom, a seventy centimeter long single edged blade with a gilded hilt in the form of an eagle. Even Ork flesh and bone parted before its edge, especially after being disrupted by the power field. And the ork had no technique. Holding a giant chopper over its head was not exactly a stance conductive to defence.

She took off the top of the next one's head. Even a Ork couldn't function with its brain cut in half. The third charged straight at her. She impaled it, her blade going all the was through its chest. It kept on coming.

She sidestepped the chopper, losing her grip on her cutlass. Now she was really screwed. Fortunately a crewman rammed a pike into its chest and pushed it back. She reached for another ammo clip.

She never got to it. The Ork in front of her fired its big bore pistol. Two bullets struck her in the chest and she went down.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Severa came to. She was lying on her back and a medicae was leaning over her. "Relax ensign, you're going to be fine."

Grox ****. He head rang like a bell, the back of her head ached, and her chest was on fire. The medicae continued blathering. "You were shot at close range with a large caliber pistol. Fortunately they were low velocity soft slugs. Your armour stopped them, but there is a lot of bruising and three broken ribs."

"The battery?" she rasped. It hurt to talk.

"Preserved. The battle has been over for half an hour. We won." The medicae injected something into her arm. It didn't matter. She felt herself grow warm and sleepy. We won.

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"Not a bad looking record lieutenant." Captain Parlin drummed his fingers on his desk.

"Thank you sir." Severa managed to keep the smirk off her face as she stood rigidly at attention.

"If you're half as good as your record indicates, you'll do fine. Service on a station is very similar to ship service. In the security section most of the work is arresting drunken sailors and checking ship cargo holds. Every now and then the **** hits the fan. But you've dealt with that before."

"Yes sir."

"Have you met Senior Lieutenant Reckart yet?"

"Yes sir. He met me at the 'lock and showed me to quarters. I look forward to working with him," she lied. Reckart was a drunk and sloppy. A disgrace to the Navy who shouldn't be wearing a uniform let alone his current rank, but she wasn't going to let that stop her from doing her job.

"Good. Welcome aboard lieutenant."

"Thank you sir."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Uh, ma'am, uh the Senior Lieutenant said to pass this one through," the Ensign said apologetically.

"Really?" said Severa skeptically. She looked at the cargo list. The run was slightly profitable with the listed cargoes and she didn't know any captains that would take a run with profit margins this slim unless there was no other choice. And the Swift Traveller had been doing this run for three years, four times a year.

"Yes ma'am," said the boy. Severa swore that he might start getting peach fuzz on his cheeks next month.

"Priority," the ensign said. "These others higher priority searches. We can always get this one next time around."

"Funny, that's always the case unless the Senior Lieutenant is on hand to supervise the search. And the only time that happened he set a speed record."

She considered the problem for a moment. "Having docking control manufacture a reason to hold them. Begin the other searches. I need to speak to Captain Parlin."

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I really don't see why you are bothering me with this lieutenant. If I thought less of you, I would say you are slandering a superior officer." Captain's Parlin's voice was glacial.

"No sir," she replied stiffly. She was screwed. The old man didn't want to hear it and was going to make sure no one ever brought it up again. Which meant making an example out of her.

"There is no evidence of malfeasance on the part of Senior Lieutenant Reckart. For this he has grounds for calling you out," he said. Severa's heart skipped a beat. She wasn't afraid to duel anything this side of an Astartes. "This will go on your record lieutenant. You will not attempt to go behind your superior's back again or I'll find a way to bust you down to the lowest rank of conscript rating. You are dismissed."

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Severa Valin flipped through another listing on her data plate. They had screwed her good. In hindsight it would have been wiser to find out that half the senior officers were up to their neck in smuggling operations before going to the old man about it, but she hadn't.

They were too smart to write bad reports that could be challenged or investigated. Mediocre evaluations would do the job well enough. And, of course, she was always off duty or had a different assignment whenever one of their ships came in. She knew better than to complain. She had no proof and if she got too close an "accident" could always happen.

So she sat at her desk and rotted. Well, not entirely. She became very good with cogitator systems and auspexes. She acquired a lot of experience examining questionable lists and doing electronic and paper data traces. She got very good at searching ships that weren't paying off the officers on station and she learned security operations very well. She got most of the dangerous and dirty jobs and learned to excel at them.

Her career had taken a hit, but it might be possible to salvage it. If she performed well at her next posting, she might undo the damage that this one had done. That meant only two tours wasted. She was off the fast track, she could accept that now even though it still caught in her throat, but she still might make it back on to a bridge. She might have a command one day. It wasn't impossible that fifty years from now she might be issuing commands from a cruiser's bridge. Just unlikely.

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The two years Severa had been stationed here had not been kind to Parlin's gut. He hadn't been a lightweight to begin with and another ten kilos hadn't helped anything. And ten kilos was conservative.

"Ah, Lieutenant Valin. Won't you sit down?" He gestured to the chair in front of him. Severa noted that while it had remained the same, the rest of the furnishings in the office had increased in value in the last two years. Increased by about a captain's yearly salary.

She sat. He pretended to continue to read the gold framed data pict screen hovering in front of him. He wanted to see her squirm. She would give herself to an ork before she gave him the satisfaction.

"There has been a problem with your transfer," his toothy smile made his apologetic tone a lie. She braced herself. They were really going to **** her over now. She would face the destruction of her career with the same resolve she had faced death.

"Some sort of personnel mix up with The Pride of Cadia and with the replacements we were due to be shipped. I'm afraid they've already gotten replacement officers and we are short staffed. You'll have to remain at your current position until another post becomes available." He could keep the gloating out of his voice, but not out of his eyes.

"Yes sir," she replied lifelessly. "Is that all sir?"

"That is all lieutenant," he said smiling. "You are dismissed."

She got up to leave. She reached the door just as he spoke again.

"Lieutenant, if you want to discuss your options further, feel free to drop by my quarters at around 2000 hours." Be my ***** and I might let you go free. Just surrender your body and your pride for as long as they interest me and I'll let you crawl away when I am done with you.

"No sir, that won't be necessary." She walked out the office, her face as rigid as if carved from stone. She didn't start crying until she closed the door to her quarters. Silent, wracking sobs, unheard and and unseen.

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The Blimp and his cronies had another party last night. Severa scanned the security pict logs, watching the corrupt naval officers meet and greet their business partners. Not all of them were in the smuggling business, but all that dirty money was best laundered through legitimate front businesses. And what was the point of being rich if you couldn't spend it? Wine, fine food, and expensive companions were the order of the day at least twice a month if not more. It made the whole scam fairly easy to track. She sped through the record.

Something caught her eye. She replayed the previous part again. Ah, a new player. Severa followed his progress through the party. He was a short, slim man who wore a small fortune in silks and jewelry. He laughed easy and told amusing jokes while glad handing just about everyone. A stern faced dark man dressed in conservative clothing followed in his wake.

Severa linked her slate to her desk cogitator and flipped through the entry logs until she found him. A handsome, dapper young man who made a very nice looking pict. The minder was there as well, a stern man with olive skin and a scar on his left cheek. There was also a truly huge bruiser with an aquila tattoo on his forehead.

Rich boy. Family Retainer. Bodyguard. It fit, but it didn't tell her what his interest was. She began to formulate trace requests for out system transmission.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Severa woke as her door slid open. She had installed a nonstandard upgraded lock, but neither it nor the bar had been enough. She had been expecting this day for years. Her hand snaked under her pillow for her gun.

She was pinned by something she couldn't see. Graviton gun? her sleep befuddled mind asked. Shadowy forms entered from the darkness outside and closed the door behind them.. She was relieved of her gun and her arms pulled behind her back and tied with something plastic.

Then the force vanished and the lights came on. She blinked against the sudden brightness. It was the three. The bruiser was standing in front of her. The fop was sitting at her desk, her gun at the table. He was dressed plainly now, but the needler pistol in his hands was all business. The retainer was by the door, leaning against the wall.

Severa tried to think. This wasn't making much sense. Not for a background check. The only reason they were here would be . . . . would be if they were finally going to kill her and the fop wanted to watch.

"You're quite good," said the retainer. "When we started mixing with the high rankers, you started monitoring us. The first check didn't satisfy you and you sent out another. You are prying in all the right places and you're a pariah among the power brokers on the station. You're pretty tenacious."

She said nothing. Why bother? They were going to kill her anyway. "You've been here for almost four years and watching with considerable vigilance. Why haven't you come forward?"

She stared at him stonily. The fop spoke up. "She didn't know who to go to. And they laundered their proceeds pretty good with their merchant connections. No point in stepping up if the only thing that's going to happen is that you're going to be screwed even more."

She said nothing as her mind race. Could they be some kind of covert investigative unit? She had heard rumours of those working for Naval Intelligence, but how likely was it that they would target this station?

"Look into her eyes boss, the truth's right there if you want to see it," continued the fop. The scarred man took something out of his pocket. She felt her knees cave. It was an Inquistional Rosette.

"I am Inquisitor Jolan Gix. How would you like to assist me in cleaning out this den of corruption?" Severa looked up at him. He had a predatory smile. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
 

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Jolan Gix


The boy looked at the woman weaving cord. "What are you doing mama?"

The woman smiled at the boy. She was young and beautiful, with rich brown skin, silky black hair, and dancing eyes. "I'm weaving a net," she said with a smile.

"For da?"

"Yes, so he can catch fish with it."

"So you're helping da fish?"

"That's right. Everybody does their part. I weave nets and tend the garden and help mend the sails and cook and go berry picking and make dinner for little boys."

The boy's eyes were big. "That's a lot of work."

She smiled. "Yes it is."

"I am going to help you and da!" the boy declared.

She smiled. "I am sure you will," and kissed her son on the forehead.

--------------------------------------------------------------

The boy waited impatiently on the deck of the boat for his dad get on deck. The muscular young man carried on two more jugs of water and then began to untie the boat from the dock. The boy jumped up and down in excitement. "Hurry da! They're beating us!" The boy waved towards another boat.

The man laughed. "Don't worry about it. We'll catch them on the water." He ruffled the boy's hair and cast off. A few powerful stroked with the oars and they were away from the dock. The wind caught the sail and they began to glide up the bay. The early morning sun reflected brightly off the water.

"We'll get to the good waters soon," he said to his son. "And then we'll catch a lot of fish."

"I'm going to catch more than you."

The man laughed. "That's pretty tough, son. Sure you want to try that first time out?"

"Yes!"

"Alright then, we'll have to see how much you catch." The man laughed. Life was good. He had heard tales of the time before the coming of the Emperor's men, when his grandfather was a boy. Before every village had a radio and before there were any real doctors or medicines. Before there was law. When pirates and warlords could take you wife and your daughters as well as your wealth if you were unlucky.

Now every generation had it better than the last. Two years ago a man from their village had joined the Imperial Guard, to fight the Emperor's enemies. It was a big decision and his mother had been afraid, but they had all been so proud. Bringing the Emperor's peace to others was hero's work.

They were nearing the reef, which was a pretty good fishing spot. He began casting his nets. Jolan tried one of the small ones and got it tangled. Laughing, he helped his son sort it out and try it again. It got tangled up again. It seemed fishing didn't come easily to the boy.

He ruffled his son's hair again and showed him how to cast a net again. He then turned back to get some real work done. "Hey da!" said Jolan behind him.

"What is it?" he said as he cast the net into the water.

"I'm catching fish!" Jolan said.

"Good."

"And I don't need a net!" he said triumphantly. He turned around to see fish surging out of the water to land flopping on the boat. His son smiled at him. His blood turned to ice.
 

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The men came later that day. Not in a boat, as they expected, but in a flying machine that landed on the beach. It had been only four hours since they had used the village's radio.

Six men came out wearing dark blue battle dress with ceramite breastplates. Lasguns were clenched in their hands, their faces concealed behind mirrored face plates. A seventh followed them off the flyer. He was shrouded in dark robes. They walked up to the village.

One of the soldier's spoke. "Where is he?" His voice was distorted by his helmet. The elder trembled and lead them to the hut. Two of the soldier's followed him inside. A moment later the robed figure followed them. Crying came from the hut. The robed man emerged, followed by the soldiers. One was carrying the boy, who hands were bound and wore a collar around his neck. He was crying.

"Mama! Help mama!" The soldiers ignored his cries as they marched back down the beach. "Da!"

The loaded him into the flyer and strapped him down. One of the soldiers took out an injector and gave the boy a shot. The flyer's engines began to rumble. In a few more moments it was rising into the air and flying back the way it came. The boy's parents watched, tears streaming down their faces.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


The armoured door ground open. Black armoured guards stepped through, preceding another figure in black robes. His face was also shrouded by a mirror shield. The men on the other side saluted. The robed man spoke. "Are they all here?"

"Yes lord," said one the men.

"Their health and nutrition?"

"As ordered," the man held up a data slate. "Controlled exercise, regulated diet." One of the soldiers took the data slate.

"Exercise area?"

"An adjacent yard. Small, monitored. One at a time. Three times a week for a half our each time. The whole area is covered by dampers."

"Thirteen subjects. Two prepubescent, one seven standard years. Is this correct?"

"He was six when he was brought here lord," said the other guard.

"We will begin by opening the cells one at a time and insuring that the subject is secured adequately for transport." The black armoured men moved forward impassively. They had done this many, many times.

Within five minutes a column of new psykers was shackled together and secured for transport onto the Black Ship. The last figure in the line was a little boy. His eyes were wide but he did not speak.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jolan cowered in the corner. He could feel the fear leaking out. Some of his fellow captives were projectors and even with the dampers, sometimes he could feel waves of emotion emanating from them. It was bad around them.

Not that it was ever good. There were rules, rules that had to be obeyed or else. Rules about when you could eat, when you slept, where you slept, and even when you could go to the toilet. The masked ones knew everything. Sometimes they would come in and grab people. Sometimes just to move them to a different hold, sometimes they vanished. You never knew.

They had shock prods and used them often. To disobey was to be punished. Jolan didn't know how long it had been. It felt like forever. He could still remember his parents faces. He closed his eyes and pictured his mother. He tried to remember her smile. He held on to that image.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The main doors opened and the masked men came in. "Line up," one said. Most of the people in the hold began to get up and move toward the painted line. A few didn't. One wild eyed man sat and gibbered. One of the guards shocked him and he convulsed. "Line up," the guard ordered. The man babbled. The guard shocked him again. "Line up," the guard ordered. The man grabbed the guard's legs. The guard flicked a switch with his thumb and shocked the man again. He convulsed and lay still. The guard flicked the switch again and broke free of the clutching hands. He moved on to the next recalcitrant psyker. "Line up."

A few minutes later the psykers marched out, leaving only the dead behind them. They were marched down several long corridors and through an airlock onto another ship. They were secured to a long line a padded benches in a room that stank of disinfectant. With a loud clang, the ship they were in separated itself from the Black Ship and fired its thrusters.

Soon they were buffeted in their seats. The turbulence grew worse. Several fouled themselves in fear or vomited from nausea. After several minutes the turbulence abated and then they could feel the ship set down.

The guards came in and lead their line of shackled prisoners down a ramp. They prisoners blinked in the weak sunlight. It was brighter here than they had become used to. Their were other ships in this vast walled courtyard. Each ship was disgorging multiple lines of prisoners. Ahead of them was a vast tower that reached high into the sky and was broader than anything Jolan had ever seen. Cameras and gun turrets tracked them. Heavily armoured and armed guards were stationed all over their place. The prisoners were marched into a yawning maw in the side of the fortress.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Processing took hours. Each train had the lead prisoner unshackled and lead into another room. After an interminable time, the next prisoner was taken. After an small eternity, it was Jolan's time. A guard lead him into the room.

It was long and empty. A voice came from the wall. "Strip," it said. The Black Ship had taught the boy the consequences of disobedience. He complied. Some kind of mist blew through the room. "Advance to the doorway," the voice repeated. Jolan obeyed. The door opened into another room.

Their was a man and a woman in the room and then their were things. The woman was too pale and dark haired. The man had thing of glass and steel instead of eyes. Metal tentacles, like those of a squid or a jellyfish, hung from the back of his head. Three skulls with similar metal and glass devices on them hovered in the air. The room was full of sinister looking machines. Jolan quivered.

"Come forward boy," said the machine-man in a surprisingly gentle tone. Jolan knew better than to disobey. He took tentative steps forward. The man held out a device. "That's a good boy," he said. "I'm not going to hurt you." The device in his hand buzzed.

The woman continued to look at him coldly. The man said, "this is going to hurt for a moment," and then stabbed him with a needle. He could see the glass tube fill up with his blood. "That's a good boy. It wasn't too terrible was it. Now I need you to sit in this chair." Tubes and and devices surrounded the chair. A metal skullcap was supported on a boom above it. Jolan quivered but obeyed.

The man tightened straps around him. He moved some of the metal arms and then lowered the skull cap. He fastened it to the top of Jolan's head. He heard a hum as switch was flipped and he felt a strange buzzing sensation. It continued for a minute and then stopped after another switch was thrown. Then the woman moved.

She walked over to the chair and looked into his eyes. Her eyes were dark and spooky and seemed to bore into him. He felt like he was falling away from some terrible thing. And then the feeling vanished.

"Stable and strong to all the readers," the man replied. "No sign of corruption. The machine spirits concur with one another."

"I agree," said the woman. "Stable and strong. Nothing hiding in his mind."

The man unfastened him and said, "You've been a good lad." He fasted a tie with a number to his wrist and sent him out through the opposite door. The doctor then touched a button indicating the next one should be sent through.

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The lead cylinder slowly descended to the floor. The boy stood with his hands folded across his chest impassively. He was ten meters from the cylinder standing with a line of eight other students. He had finished his last repetition. "Good," said the instructor monitoring the students. He was a lean man, his face marked with scars and his hair more grey than black. "Repeat." They cylinder rose again into the air. It weighed one hundred kilos. It rose to head height on the ten year old and then descended again.

"Your control has gotten better," said the man as he made a note on the data slate. Jolan Gix demonstrated not only early development of his powers, but strong telekinetic talents and even more powerful pyrokinesis. Every month registered a noticeable improvement. His physical and mental development was also impressive. There were notes in his file to single him out for special attention. Clauss Richerd knew what those notes meant.

The boy hadn't even broken a sweat yet, repeatedly lifting an object that outmassed him. Richerd checked the progress of his other students. They were five to fifteen years older than Gix. They went through their reps with varying amounts of difficulty. Six of the eight had brows beaded with sweat. Two were panting heavily.

"You are dismissed. Go to your next session." The students began to file out. "Jolan. Remain." The boy broke from the line and stood rigidly in front of him. His eyes were impassive. "I am reordering your session. Your abilities require something more strenuous." That was true. The boy didn't have great control, but his raw talent and power were impressive. Gamma level and he was still preadolescence.

"I have something new. Raise the cylinder again. Hold it this time." The boy complied. The weight hovered in mid air. "Hold it steady. Now at the same time melt it."

A flicker of ghost fire danced around the cylinder. It grew rapidly into a blaze of green witchfire. The eldritch flame grew brighter. The edges of the cylinder began to soften. Then the shape began to collapse. The boy held up a mass of molten metal. He was trembling.

"Good. Now kill the flames and hold it till it cools." The boy managed that and even kept his footing. Exhaustion wrote lines on his face. Richerd marked down another notation in the data slate.

------------------------------------------------------------------

A tall figure wearing a white robe walked through the dark halls of the Schola Psychia. Behind here were two faceless stormtroopers wearing Inquisition black. They followed the Inquisitor to the room. "Wait here," the inquisitor said in a piping. mechanical voice. They obeyed. The inquisitor walked in.

The room was not spartan like the rest of the facility. The office was large, richly carpeted, and lighted by glow globes hovered on suspensors. A cudbear hide rug was strewn in front of the marble desk. The cogitator's holoprojector was plated in gold and the chairs were richly upholstered mechanicals that conformed to the body's shape for maximum comfort.

The inquisitor strode forward. There were two people of interest in the room. The magister of the Schola sat behind the desk wearing a cassock of dark silk lined with fur. His beard was trimmed neat and short and his augmentic eye was studded with tiny rubies. A boy in a dark uniform stood near him. He was handsome enough and fit, his skin pallor than its usual olive colouring.

"This is the candidate?" the inquisitor rasped.

"Yes," replied the magister. He touched a control on his desk. The holoprojector cast runes and glyphs into the air. "You can see why we contacted you."

"Yes," said the inquisitor. She threw back her hood. He hair was blond, with dark streaks. From the nose up she was a handsome woman. Her lower jaw and throat were augmentic prosthetics of glimmering brass. Her voice sounded like it came through a metal pipe because that was exactly how it worked.

"You were right to notify us." She turned to the boy. She could sense that he was frightened, but only because she was a telepath. The boy had spent the last few years living a life filled with fear and isolation. It had not broken him. Many psykers were damaged by the traumas associated with being collected by the Black Ships. Some of them healed. Some did not. Lesser psykers could be put to use serving the Administorium or the Imperial Guard, but the Inquisition had no use for damaged goods.

"Come with me boy. Your future awaits."
 

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"What is it that distinguishes an Inquisitor from the other servants of the Lord of Mankind?" the instructor thundered to the class. Several hands shot up and then a moment later several more. The instructor, a heavy set man with full white hair and beard, picked a student. "Jase," he thundered.

"An inquisitor has the power of life and death over entire worlds."

"Wrong!" the instructor thundered. "These are powers shared by the Admirals of the Fleet, the Lords Militant, and Space Marine Commanders. Phila!"

The girl responded immediately. "The power to act and enforce judgments without recourse to imperial law."

"Wrong! Space Marines and the Officio Assassinorum also employ their abilities outside the normal frameworks of Imperial law. Jolan!"

The lithe teenager responded. "An inquisitor has full knowledge of the threats against the Imperium and bears the burden of informed choice."

"Correct! The Commissariat can kill out of hand as they see fit. The Adeptus Arbites can take extreme measures to restore order. The Assassinorum can kill or destroy as they see fit in order to accomplish their mission. The Lord Admirals can burn planets if militarily necessary."

"Only inquisitors see the larger picture. Only know the full extent of the threats to the Imperium and take responsibility for it. Personal responsibility. Not military necessity, not the dictates of law, personal judgment. Most of you here will not become full inquisitors. Most of you will serve the inquisition in a variety of ways because your knowledge, your perceptions, and your judgment aren't good enough."

"Willingness to kill, even on a planetary scale, does not distinguish an inquisitor from the rest of the Emperor's servants. I can find commissars, Astartes, Sororitas, generals, admirals, and Arbitrators who can do that. It is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. An inquisitor needs to know when to burn a heretic's nest from orbit and when to send thousands of Imperial Guardsmen to their deaths to capture valuable evidence and information. An inquisitor must know when to send thousands to their deaths now in order to prevent the deaths of billions in a hundred years. The job is not simple. It is not easy. Mistakes will be made. An inquisitor must make good judgments, must not be broken by his mistakes, and see clearly the impact of their choices on the future of the Imperium. And they must make the right choice, regardless of the cost."

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The withered crone sat as still as death as the boy stared at the cards. Then her lips moved. "Touch them," she commanded. "Stroke them. Familiarize yourself to them."

The boy hesitated and then reached out. He stroked the cards. Several of them shivered as the displays changed showing different images. "Good, good. They are attuning themselves to you. Yes. Time flows differently in the warp. If flows fast and slow and bends. Through this you may catch glimpses of the future."

The boy nodded. "Pick up the card that represents you." The boy reached down and touched a card, hesitated, and then picked up another. It was the Magister, a tall robed man with a book in one hand and a staff in the other, attended by floating cherub.

"Good. Good. Now concentrate on the card. Let me mind flow free and see what surrounds it. " The boy frowned and stared at the card. Nothing happened. And then the world fell away.

He saw the crone's soul, a dark and terrible blaze that shown through her flesh. Currents of power flowed around him and he saw his own soul glowing through his own all to mortal flesh. Energy swirled around him, responding to his will and desires. The power had always come when he desired, but now he was seeing it for the first time.

He gasped as it faded. The crone smiled. "Now you know the true nature of what you will face."

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Jolan Gix looked at the laspistol. He was supposed to be practicing weapon maintenance, but his curiosity had pushed this to the fore. Independent thought had been ruthlessly crushed at the Schola Psychia and here thought and questioning was permitted. Up to a point. Applied in the approved direction.

This wasn't. But he had to know. He had seen spirits in the warp and he knew this ancient and honoured weapon had one. But he had sensed nothing from it. But that was from casual contact. Now he would look into the warp, as he had with the tarot cards. The world fell away.

He saw the other students working at their benches, blunt and talented alike. He saw the instructors, blunt as they were. He saw the raw energy of the warp. He felt the traces of the emotions of guns previous users. But the gun had no more life than the bench.

That shouldn't be. Perhaps he was not skilled enough to sense the gun's spirit. Or perhaps their was no spirit. There was a way to find out. Jolan began go through the rituals of maintenance, leaving out everything that did not treat the gun like it was just a complicated tool. As if it possessed no more life than a fishing net.

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Instructors wandered around salle's floor, watching their students. A dozen different styles were in use in widely varying match up. Sword and dagger against heavy hammer, longsword against axe, sword and buckler verses staff, and other combinations. The training weapons would deliver injuries no more serious than bruises to the students, the instructors would deliver expulsion to the incompetent.

It was not enough for an inquisitor to master his chosen weapons. He or she must be familiar with the use of all weapons. A hammer blow smashed a cadet to the floor. The other cadet hesitated. The instructor struck her with his electrified prod. "Finish him," he ordered.

The cadet brought the training weapon down on the cadet's chest and then again on his helmet. The cadet quivered. "Good," said the instructor. "Find another opponent." He squatted next to the downed student.

The student silently rolled around to his hands and knees. He carefully got up. The instructor took off the student's helmet. "You can proceed,' said the instructor with a look of distaste. This one was on the lower end of the proficiency scale, by Inquisition standards.

"Instructor, request permission for another hammer match up."

Students didn't make such requests. "Why?"

"My skills are obviously lacking. I need further practice."

"Granted student Gix. Halthor! Match up over here." The instructor stood back to watch Gix get pounded again. But he did better this time.

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The teenager put down the gun he was firing, striped out the power core, put it on safety, and returned it to the racks. The instructor registered the score transmitted by the range auspexes and grunted. By standards less demanding than the inquisition, it would be considered good shooting. "Try again," the instructor ordered. The teenager looked up. The rest of the students had switched over to slug throwers. "Again with the las," the scarred veteran repeated. "Do better." The las was the easiest of weapons. The student wouldn't move on until he demonstrated adequate proficiency with it.

A golden cherub hovered through the door. The servitor brain recognized the range master. "Student Jolan Gix is required in Magister Venox's office," it's artificial voice repeated.

The former stormtrooper turned to the teenager. "You heard it. Get moving. "

Jolan Gix followed the gilded machine down the halls and up the lifts to the magister's office. The armoured tower provided excellence in both scenery and protection. They were also accessible to students, while being extremely inconvenient for them to reach. The heavy door slid open and Gix entered into a surprisingly spartan room.

Almost everything was matte black. The desk, the walls, the bookshelves, the cogitator, the chairs, and the carpet all were black. The magister wore robes of white silk, shot through with threads of gold. His face was smooth an barely touched by age or injury. He extended one slim, pale hand studded with jeweled rings. "Sit down," he commanded.

Gix did so. There was a moment of silence and then the magister spoke again. "Do you know why you are here?"

The safe thing to do was to say nothing. That was contrary to what the school said you were supposed to do, but he wouldn't be here if that was the truth. But he there was another way of playing it. "It's about my paper," Gix replied.

"Yes," said Magister Venox. "Most unusual. Somewhat . . . radical in its conclusions."

"It is the most effective way of handling the situation."

"But not the orthodox way."

"With respect magister, the proposed situation is unlikely barring a long term warp incident and even in that case my solution is still the most effective one. Using the Jilnoy, the minor heretics, against the followers of the Ruinous Powers and then bringing them back into the fold."

"Instead of crushing them both?" the magister queried.

"The Imperium's troops can be put to better use elsewhere. The Jilnoy heretics can be dealt with without using such heavy handed methods. The Officio Assassinorium, Ecclesiarchy preachers, and few other agents would be a more effective way of going about it. But you know that. You've read my paper."

"I have. Most students your age do not think of such methods, being more enamored with brute force and zealous efforts. You will be transferred to a more advanced academic program. That is all."

"Yes magister," Jolan turned and began to leave.

"And Jolan? Keep up the weapon practice. You're scores are just above borderline. Dead prodigies accomplish nothing."

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Jolan swept up the remains of his stew with a hunk of bread. The food in the refectory was simple fare, but good by the standards of institution cooking. "Throne," said a cheerful voice a few meters away. "Look at those heffers. **** if the girls here aren't prime cuts." The owner of the voice sat down opposite of him. "Mind if I join you?"

Of course, he already had. "Suite yourself," Jolan shrugged. They were about the same age, although the other had about fifteen centimeters on Jolan's unimpressive one-eighty and at least thirty kilos on him as well. He was big, blond, smiling and put together like he could throttle a bull. "You're new."

"Yep. Just transferred from the Schola. They saw my worth. The teaching schedule is insane. They sure keep us busy."

"Newts like yourself don't have free time. That's something you get later. Then you have some control over how much time to practice, how much to study, and so forth as long as you score well. It's a privilege."

"Newt huh? I guess that's what they call the new boys." He reached across the table and grabbed a piece of bread from Jolan's tray.

Gix had been waiting for something like this. A lot of the new ones liked to establish themselves by bullying students already here into subservience. Everyone one here was a Schola orphan or a virtual orphan by way of the Black Ships. Only the best were selected. The meek never made it into the gates of this particular school.

Jolan grabbed his thumb and twisted. Big boy dropped his bread and gasped. "I'm not prey, dumbshit. I'm the one who has been trained here for years. I've passed the culls. No, don't try using the Power, I'll crush you like a gnat."

"Take a look around. There aren't any fat kids or kids afraid of their own shadows. The timid don't make it here. Conditioning of body and mind is the rule and you just made it. You don't have weight to throw around and even if you did, no one here would back down. You're used to being the big fish, well you just graduated from the pond to the lake. **** with me again and I'll put you in the Sanitorium. Understood?"

"Yes."

"Good. Now if you're hungry, go ahead and grab more food." Big boy blinked. "Yes, there isn't a food limit. They know a bruiser like you needs more than me. Just make sure whatever mass you put on is useful."

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The lock tore itself apart with a screech like it was being tortured by daemons from the warp. Daemons might have left less of a mess. Jolan telekinetically lifted the pieces up and placed them in the garbage. Enough of that for tonight.

"I see you still have that fine touch," Harad said behind him. Jolan turned to his friend.

"To the unenlightened it may appear that I was shredding a lock, but the the enlightened I was merely practicing lock picking, 'the ork way'."

Harad snickered. He was taller, darker, and more heavily built than his friend. "You're not going to climb to the top of the class with that performance."

"I thought you had exclusive claim on that position."

"I don't know about that," another voice purred. Saratta stepped into the room and Jolan's eyes followed her. "Some would think that I might have a chance."

Harad smiled back at her. "You're good, but you're not that good."

The raven haired woman smiled. She was pale, but not unhealthy looking. She had an infectious, mischievous smile. "Are you sure?"

Harad smiled easily. "Very sure." It was a joke, but also the truth. Everything came easily to the big man. History, technosorcerous arts, hand to hand, ranged weapons, his own psychic abilities, his social skills, everything. That he was the top of his group was an accepted fact.

"Why do you put up with him?" she asked Jolan, half teasingly.

"Because, like you, I don't care. No one here isn't a top performer. We compete and are graded on the minutest fractions of competency and the even the worst is merely "quite skilled." Harad doesn't care, because although he has rivals in each class, he's unquestionably the best overall. You don't care, because you are sublimely confident in your own abilities to carry you through. I don't care, because this is meaningless. Here we learn, hone our skills, and pass. Everything else doesn't matter. Once we graduate, then it matters. More than anything else in the galaxy."

"So says the swift mind of Jolan Gix," teased Saratta.

"It's half the reason you're attracted to me," Gix replied. He swept forward, grabbed her around the waist and spun her around. He kissed her on the lips and she responded.

"How come if I'm the best, you get the girl," complained Harad.

"Poor lonely Harad," Saratta mocked. "I seem to recall a certain young woman strutting past you earlier this morning, in a posture one could call suggestive."

Harad smiled. "Yeah. That wasn't bad."

"As for why you don't get me, tell him why Jolan."

"Easy. You always get everything you want, but that doesn't work here. Every male and female is used to being the leader of the pack. So you expect them to fall into your arms, like everything else. But they aren't prizes and you won't do the work. Of course, that cuts both ways."

Harad smiled. "Well, I'll let you to lovebirds enjoy the rest of your free time." He turned and left.

Saratta kissed Jolan again. "Convenient of them to give us usable time for some prolonged. . uh. . consultation."

Jolan smiled back. "It's deliberate. Emotional association and management. Aggression is channelled into hatred of the enemies of the Imperium. Lust, which adolescents have plenty of, can only be consummated by earning enough unsupervised time by getting high enough scores. Despair is molded into fatalistic faith. Ambition is sculpted into serving the Imperium instead of the selfish desires of the individual. It's another training program, just subtler than the rest."

"You're talking too much," she said and kissed him hungrily.

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The students stood nervously in the hall. They didn't know why they had been called down for. All of them had been in training for years. Speculation was rampant. They stood alone or in their cliques discussing rumours and speculation.

"I'm sure they are announcing some kind of graduation exercise," said Harad. "One more test to go and I will be enshrined as number one." Vanya coughed. Harad punched him lightly on the arm. Jolan Gix said nothing.

A man unknown to them strode out to the podium. He wore a robe of heavy samite, shot through with gold. A rope of gold was tied around his waist. A sword and a bolt pistol hung from gleaming black scabbards. His hair was black and his face was marred by scars that Jolan could see even from here. Two servo skull floated near him.

His voice carried even without augmentation. With it he thundered. "You are students no longer," he shouted. "You are now interrogators in the service of the Holy Inquisition!" The student body stirred uncertainly.

He continued. "This is not a case for celebration. You have been trained, and you will continue to be trained. One by one, you will get your field assignments, as we see fit. And there, many of you will die. Some of you are unfit and will either die or be reassigned to another part of the inquisition. Some of you will turn out be unready and will serve as interrogators for an extended period of time. Some of you will be merely unlucky and will die horribly. And a few of you will be both worthy and lucky. After even more training and field experience, you will become Inquisitors."

"This is not the Schola Progium. How well you score in your classes here does not determine your future. It only influences your first assignment and when you get one. All of this training and expense is only to prepare you for what really matters, the service of the Emperor. In his Holy Service, we shall separate the great from those that have great scores. All of this has been to prepare you for the most important Schola of all, working in His Service. For The Emperor!"

"The Emperor!" the class roared back.

"Dismissed. Celebrate your good fortune. The Imperium has spent a fortune training you. Now you may prove your worthiness as I know you ache to do. Tonight is yours! Tomorrow you will pick up a burden you will never put down. Go now and celebrate: Tomorrow is the beginning!"

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The deceptively mild looking man rose from his chair and smiled. "Kyra! What brings you out here?"

The woman chuckled. She was of age with her friend and looked it. Both of them had dark hair with a few streaks of grey. The start of crow's feet marked the skin around her eyes. Unlike her friend's heavy brocade robes, she wore an armoured black body glove and equipment harness. The body underneath was obviously in good condition. "The usual, unfortunately," she said as she strode forward and hugged her friend.

"Finished with young Maladar already?"

She smiled. "He became a full inquisitor three years ago and has gone his own way for about a year."

"So you are here for reinforcements," he said. "What took you so long?" he sat back in his chair and gestured to a waiting chair. Inquisitor Neven sat down.

"Busy. I grabbed two Sanctioned Psykers from a Necromundian regiment to make up the shortfall, but one of them is dead and the other isn't strong enough for our work."

"Hot lead?" he asked.

"Mobile target. It's a funny story. It was one of the loose ends from Maladar's last investigation. He kept jumping system and leaving messes behind. I must have had a dozen junior inquisitors trailing my wake, cleaning up the damage. Anyway, I put out a call and Maladar of all people managed to intercept him."

"I'll have to get the full story sometime. Tonight over dinner?"

Kyra smiled. "Agreed."

"Good. Now let's see. You want a bright young thing. Higher end intellectual abilities, mentally flexible, and a combat psyker."

"Got it one. I must have done this before."

"Funny. I have just the one for you." He passed a data slate across the desk.

"Hmm. Not the brightest bulb in the class."

"Have faith in someone besides the Emperor and your former students. He's bright and he's smart enough to hide any radical sympathies from our more puritanical instructors. Not that he's really more than a particularly pragmatic Almathean. But his real recommendations are that he is not only a strong psyker, but he has the best understanding of all the students of what field work will be like. He's been preparing himself with an eye for that for years."

"Oh, I can see that he's good. High scores in his classes, but mediocre hand to hand and marksmanship scores. Gamma rated psyker."

"And climbing. And dedicated. A thinker. And a phenomenally talented combat psyker. Fast, strong, steady. An eye for weakness."

"Sounds good. I think I should meet this Jolan Gix."

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Jolan Gix waited outside Magister Venox's office for permission to enter. The servitor in front of him was silent. It was a beautiful piece, a serenely beautiful naked woman cast in silver. Then she spoke. Even that was perfect. Deep, but not quite husky. Serious and alluring, but not quite seductive. "You may enter," it said.

Jolan touched a control and the matte black door slid open. Inside the magister waited at his desk. With him was a handsome woman much older than she appeared. Her long, dark hair was gathered in a single braid and was lightly touched by silver. She wore an armoured black body suit, which added to her air of severity. A weapon harness was worn over her armour and some of the most powerful and terrible products of the Imperial technology hung from that harness. Jolan made a quick calculation and then spoke. 'Inquisitors, how may I be of service?"

Magister Venox smiled at the woman and then turned back to Jolan. "Interrogator Gix, I have the pleasure of introducing Inquisitor Kira Neven."

"The Inquisitor Neven of the Radstadt Incident?"

She smiled. It looked good on her. "The same. I am here needing to recruit some psychic muscle. Someone who can directly confront the servants of the Arch Enemy and defeat them in battle. Of the recently graduated interrogators, who would you advise me to choose?"

A test, Jolan thought. His eyes narrowed. Might as well play along. "You are obviously considering me. As for the others, I can tell you that Harad Garvansson is your best alternate choice. He's the strongest and most versatile. But he thinks because the Black Ships toughened him up and didn't break him, that he can handle what field work entails. Everyone here survived the Black Ships intact. He thinks because he has always triumphed easily, he always will. He is unprepared for the realities of work in the field, no matter how good his scores on paper."

"No one else is clearly superior to me in the psychic arena. Several are a little stronger or have a more diverse array of talents, but I am steadier than they are. They also don't have my aptitude for psychic confrontations. They may joke that I am a hammer, but a hammer is what you are looking for. I am who you need for this kind of work. No other graduate is as comfortable wielding psychic energies as I am. You want a combat psyker, I am your best choice."

Inquisitor Neven raised an eyebrow. "Steadiest?" she asked.

"I've known for years that an Inquisitor usually dies in the field and I have accepted it. I don't worry about it. I know that the horrors that await are beyond my comprehension. I don't worry about that. Someday, they will kill me. In order to advance the Imperium, I can't worry about that. I just have to focus on destroying them utterly."

"Interesting. You're right about the horrors you will face will be beyond your ability to conceive of them. No one who hasn't faced them can truly know what it means to face the Ruinous Powers. You've addressed the present, but what about the future?"

"Let me face the enemy first. Let me crush them and learn what they are and their methods firsthand. Then I will have enough knowledge to start planning for the future."

"Welcome to my service Interrogator Jolan Gix. Together we shall see the future and set about securing the Emperor's Dream."

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The ship was a small tramp freighter, capable of landing on a planet and cruising into the warp. It was something a free trader or rich noble might own. Or an inquisitor.

The outside was thickly armoured and encrusted with gargoyles and purity seals. It resembled a barnacle encased whale. The inside was business like, well maintained, and clean. Until you reached the crew quarters.

These were luxuriously appointed. Thick carpets from a dozen civilized worlds. Elaborate brass fitting on the lamps and pic screens. Fur hides from Catachia. Sophisticated technics from Necromundia. Food and liquors from all over the Imperium. These were displayed in goblets and on plates of Vitrian glass, on a table of Vitrian glass, covered in an Iltherian table cloth, hovering without legs on Necromundian suspensors.

But the men and women who sat around the table were not the normal members of high society. Inquisitor Neven had thrown on a fur lined red silk robe so she at least could pass for one. She went clockwise around the rectangular table, introducing each one.

She pointed to a meek, shaven headed woman in clean overall. "Melissandra, formerly Sanctioned Psyker of the Necromundian Spiders. The tall drink of water next to her is Calidan Vils, bounty hunter and free lance enforcer. Gerran Balmish is our Navigator and that grim unsmiling man is our pilot Ziv Caldain, formerly a bomber flight leader with the Imperial Navy. That leaves Yvarine Recket, former member of several criminal gangs, former soldier of the Imperial Guard, and enforcer for the Three Systems Mining Consortium, which you've never heard of, at the edge of the Halo stars. Bella was a concubine and an assassin for a cult called the Tears of the Emperor. All of you, this is Interrogator Jolan Gix. Jolan, these are my people and they are now yours as well."

Gix nodded to them. Kyra continued. "Gix was one of the best combat psykers of his class and he got the usual training of budding inquisitors. I am sure I don't have to go into detail about that. Jolan, each and every member of my staff does his or her job to the standards which the inquisition sets. I suggest that you get to know them and appreciate them as I do. Now, what's the soup course?"

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Jolan picked up a slug thrower and examined it. Compact, high calibre, large magazine, probably high rate of fire. He examined a magazine stored near it. Large, pistol type bullets. Close quarters weapon. He put it back and reached for a longer barrelled weapon.

"Getting a feel for the armoury?" said a voice behind him. He turned to see Calidan Vils standing in the doorway. "Yes," responded Jolan. "Nice selection of weapons here and I haven't even gotten to the exotics."

"That there is. Usually don't need them. Las and slug weapons handle most problems just fine and most of the rest can be handled with a knife or a sap. Still, it's nice to know you've got the backup when you need it."

"Hmm," said Jolan as he searched through the handguns. He selected two and walked over to the range. He flicked on the warning light, activated the holotargets, and put on goggles and sound blockers. Vils followed him.

Jolan raised the slug thrower and fired. The target was set at twenty meters. Jolan emptied the magazine into the target's torso. He set it for a new tally and raised the las. He quickly emptied the power cell into the target's head and chest. He switched off the firing warning and activated the display. He took off the safety equipment and looked.

Every shot had hit. The torso of the target had been peppered, with a noticeable concentration of hits closer to the center. The las shots were in a tighter cluster. "Not bad," said Calidan. "Especially with that *****," he said, gesturing to the slug thrower.

It was a 10mm automatic that fired a high velocity round. It performed quite well against armour, especially with specialty AP ammunition. Jolan hadn't missed with a single shot with either weapon. It wasn't anything to boast of by the standards he had been trained with. The better shots in his class would have gone for head shots with stubber and gotten them. Jolan shrugged. "It'll get the job done."

Vils gave him a wintery smile. "Look my friend, it's nice to know that you can shoot and all that but you've got big shoes to fill. You've never done field work and Maladar may have been a son of an ork, but he carried the weight of three people easy. So, until you prove yourself, we're going to watch you like a hawk."

"I know," said Gix. "I won't tell you not to worry. To you I am an unproven element that you're going to have to go into a dangerous situation with. But don't let it interfere with your job. I will carry my end. Make sure you carry yours."

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The Navy officer turned back to them. "So up to here, everything was normal. And then we opened this hatch and well, we kicked it up to you after getting a good look. Brace yourselves. It isn't pretty." The young lieutenant spun the wheel, unlocking the hatch. With a grunt he pulled it open.

Yvarine stepped through first. The stocky veteran cautiously advanced, a shotcannon held in his hands. Melissandra twittered nervously in her armoured overall. Kyra stepped through confidently. "Come on," she said.

Jolan took a deep breath. This was his first investigation. He wore a stark black uniform with an Inquisition insignia. He was armed with the combat blade, stubber, and laspistol he had previously selected. He stepped through the threshold.

It was bad, but his nose had already told him that. Corpses were sprawled through the room and the floor was crusty with dried blood. The bodies were torn, as if by wild animals. Underneath the gore, some of them wore the recognizable remnants of crew uniform's. Jolan looked around. "No sign of weapons."

"Correct," said Recket. "Whoever did this took their weapons. The crew's I mean."

"No," said Jolan. "These wounds weren't caused by weapons or even genestealer claws. They tore each other apart."

"Correct," said Inquisitor Neven.

"Score one for the rookie," said Yvarine. Melissandra fluttered at the edge of the room.

"Now," continued Kyra, "what caused these men and women to fall on each others with their bare hands? Not one of them even tried to use a weapon, not even a wrench. Even frenzon doesn't cause this. I believe we have quite a job in front of us."

Auspexes hummed as they swept the derelict freighter. A squad of heavily armed Naval Security troopers accompanied them, along with a team of technical specialists. Inquisitor Neven personally oversaw the work of the Adeptus Mechanicus trained personnel. Every nook and cranny, every alcove and niche, was searched and scanned. Jolan observed the whole process. The inquisitor was going about the task using her preferred methods, but Jolan could tell that they weren't going to produce any results. At least, any results that she would want.

The scan came up empty. So did the physical search. The next step was to bring in even more team members and to begin to tear the ship apart. It was now or never. Jolan stepped towards his superior. "Inquisitor, might I have a word with you?"

She raised her eyebrow. "Of course," she replied and stepped away from the group. Jolan followed her.

"It isn't my intention to criticize your methods or undermine your authority, but I don't feel that this particular method of searching will be productive in this case."

Her face was almost impassive. A man who was less observant would have missed the slight upward twitch of her lips or the momentarily widening of her eyes. Combined with the rest of her body language, it meant that she wasn't displeased. Unless she was skilled enough to send such subtle and deliberately misleading signals. A Callidus Assassin was that good. A senior inquisitor . . . . could very well be that good. "What alternate method do you suggest, Interrogator Gix?"

"Psychic sweep, inquisitor. With no detectable chemical residue, some kind of psychic or warp activity is the most likely cause of this. . . . aberration. We should scry for traces."

"I concur. Melissandra is somewhat skilled in that area. Your own file mentions that you are not completely untalented in that area. Conduct the seance as you see fit."

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