Today is the third and final short story covering an incursion into Imperial space by the Word Bearers. Part One covered the fleet engagement in Hasmides, Part Two covered the ensuing boarding action, and now, we have an Inquisitor talking to an imprisoned Heretic Astartes.
This story references Joshua Reynolds' novel Apocalypse, although today's story doesn't contain any spoilers for Reynolds' effort.
|Inquisitor Eidan Drake of the Ordo Hereticus|
Side note: would I recommend Apocalypse?
Well, I enjoyed it. You get some fun insights into the conflicts within the Word Bearers, and the tensions between primaris and non-primaris Imperial marines. There's also some fun stuff about the Ecclesiarchy and some vigorously take-no-prisoners Sisters of Battle.
In general I enjoyed the characters, although the cast was big enough that none of the characterisations have enough time to become all that deep. The title sounds like it's going to be wall-to-wall bolter porn, and there's some of that for sure, but Reynolds actually means the word in the original Greek sense, that is, a revelation. Or, to quote Wikipedia, "an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling."
It certainly had some enjoyable revelations in it, and while it's been some time since I read it, I don't remember the prose being overly purple (a common problem in some Warhammer novels). I would, however, caution anyone with human ears against the audio version. The narrator does some obnoxious and borderline offensive accents, particularly for the White Scars, that reduce the characters to caricatures.
With that all said, you don't need to have read it for this story to make sense. Nor, indeed, are the first two stories essential.
79 hours after the bombing of the Offices of the Admiralty on Kaprun.
18 hours after the Battle of Hasmides.
+++TO: Inquisitor Eidan Drake, Cetus Major
+++FROM: Inquisitor Hera Jovian, Kaprun
+++SUBJECT: A matter of taste
+++THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Suspicion is a weapon, and should be sharpened accordingly.
Dear Inquisitor Drake,
We don't know each other, but since we're expected to police our own, I feel professionally obligated to express my surprise that you:
1. Promoted your interrogator after only six months.
2. Promoted her despite the fact that she is a pariah.
To the first point one might raise an eyebrow but say nothing. There are some rare individuals who have achieved the same.
To the second point, I must ask if you have taken leave of your senses. How a pariah could be expected to perform the subtle duties of our calling with both hands tied behind her back is a mystery to me. Perfectly decent Imperial servants will have a natural inclination to disobey her. Over time, such rancour could even compromise the Ordos' ability to prosecute our duty in the region.
I have not petitioned Lord Inquisitor Habermann on the matter but you may expect, given the increasingly difficult circumstances in the Cetus sub, that myself and several of my colleagues are following your movements with rather more interest of late, particularly since you have yet to hand your captive over to the Kapran Inquisitors. You have enough going on in Cetus, and we have a great many highly experienced interrogators willing to lift this load from your shoulders.
+ MESSAGE ENDS +
+++TO: Inquisitor Hera Jovian, Kaprun
+++CC: Lord Inquisitor Anjaal Habermann, Hydraphur
+++FROM: Inquisitor Eidan Drake, Cetus Major
+++SUBJECT: re: A matter of taste
+++THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Wasted effort is a twofold heresy. The loyal servant produces nothing, and their enemy gains a reprieve.
Dear Inquisitor Jovian,
Implicit threats are always a source of entertainment, but the demands on my time are such that I prefer transparency. Concordantly you will note I have CCd the Lord Inquisitor, who approved Ashar's promotion to Interrogator under the late Inquisitor Kovach - something you would know had you performed a cursory spot of research first.
Your message implies that you neither researched how long Inquisitor Lear served as an agent, nor established the reasons for her promotion, merely that she is a pariah.
Since you saw fit to question the promotion of a woman who was just followed into battle by over 30 loyal individuals to face down multiple squads of heretic Astartes, and in a region you were tasked with protecting no less, I find it impossible to avoid the suspicion that envy played a role in your missive.
There is no doubt that Inquisitor Lear has much to learn about her new job, much as we did if the lengths of our respective apprenticeships are any measure.
As the majority of Inquisitors in the Kapran Sub declared me to be the Achernar Sector’s foremost expert in heretic Astartes, I will continue to interrogate the asset until I have nothing more to learn from it.
When I have actionable intelligence, it will of course be sent without delay. None of us want to see a second Hasmides.
Perhaps, if both of us focus on our jobs, it can be avoided.
+ MESSAGE ENDS +
Cetus Major, high orbit, aboard the Inquisition vessel Trojan.
24 hours after the Battle of Hasmides.
85 hours after the bombing of the Offices of the Admiralty on Kaprun.
Eidan Drake watched Iarto Heloth through the one-way glass while considering his approach. The traitor remained manacled to his chair. The proportions of astartes warriors, even outside their armour, never failed to remind Eidan of his own mortality.
Unlike some heretic astartes, Heloth's physique had not been perceptibly remoulded by immaterium exposure. His allegiance was clear all the same; he was tattooed with blasphemous scripture that radiated in eight lines away from an octed branded over his hearts.
Eidan had interrogated a great many people in his career. He'd also dealt with a number of Astartes, both as allies and as quarries. Neither of these facts qualified him to execute the task at hand, they simply made him less unqualified. Indeed, it was his particular misfortune to be the least unqualified individual in the Achernar Sector.
Eidan had always been a man of doubt, both of himself and others. Doubt was one of the most important tools at his disposal, but any fool could see that showing those doubts would bear little fruit here. Right now, he was playing the role of Drake the interrogator. He let the role's mask fall into place. Unflappable. Empathetic. Analytical. Responsive. Intuitive.
Thus composed he entered the first door and locked it behind him. Then he opened the second.
‘You didn't bring your pariah this time,' Heloth said with a smile.
‘She isn't mine to bring, and you aren't a psyker,' Drake replied. His MIU link sealed the door behind him.
Heloth uttered a string of guttural words in another language. They were old words; older than the Imperium. Blood welled from his mouth.
Drake knew what they meant. They said a lot with a few coarse syllables. They were a desperate ploy from someone with nothing to lose.
I call upon the nearest, whatever you are. I accept you. I offer you the life of the other one in this room. If you do not claim his life, you may claim mine. This is my offering.
A pair of pallid, willowy hands unfurled in the air before Heloth. The hands pulled apart, widening the wound in realspace.
The daemon flopped out onto the cell floor like a foal tearing its way out of an invisible berthing sac. There was a spray of clear fluid. The taut skin on its ridged spine split in nine places. The exposed vertebrae parted to form nine mouths crowded with splintering teeth.
The spine drew breath.
The creature, all emaciated limbs and sparse dark hair, grew to the height of a tall man. It stood on two trembling arms, bent back like avian legs. Witchfire sputtered up within the mouth on its head. Its lips blistered, blackened, and peeled back.
A minor daemon. A wildcard. Weak-willed. Drake spoke a single word in the same language Heloth had used. As he pronounced it, a layer of skin on the roof of his mouth came away. He tasted copper.
The daemon reeled; its head swayed.
‘Look at me, Heloth,' Drake said. ‘Look at me. Pay close attention.' Outwardly calm, Drake placed a gauntleted hand on the stunned daemon's head. ‘You are not in control. You will never be in control again.'
Drake ignited his gauntlet and closed his fist. The daemon screamed. Its limbs went out from under it as its head caved in, forcing a gout of witchfire to surge from its mouth. The fire almost reached Heloth's chair.
‘You shouldn't know how to do that,' Heloth said. Like other Astartes, there was an unnerving void where his fear should have been.
To anyone else Drake would have just established himself as an implacable source of horror. To Heloth, it seemed, he had merely made himself interesting.
Interesting was just as usable.
‘You’re right, I shouldn't,' Drake agreed.
‘I can keep doing that for as long as I want. The next one could be much more powerful.'
‘A fine bluff,' Drake replied. ‘But a daemon won't take another's offering. You pledged yourself to a weak daemon. The others would lose stature if they submitted to you. You thought you had nothing left to lose, and now, that's true.’
Heloth smiled with bitter theatrical amusement; an obvious front to conceal his frustration.
‘Do your contemporaries know you can do that?’ Heloth asked.
‘They wouldn't understand,’ Drake said. It wasn't entirely true. Those who had been with him the longest knew of his mastery of the Ur-tongue.
‘You should find comrades who understand.'
‘Perhaps,' Drake said, smiling in a way that suggested he was at once joking and concealing genuine temptation. He probed the roof of his mouth with his tongue despite the discomfort, then smiled ruefully. ‘Funny, I only came to impart news. A gesture of goodwill, really. This wasn't how I imagined the conversation going.'
Heloth snorted in amusement, then laughed full-throated. It was a deep, resonant sound amplified by the scale of his transhuman ribcage. Drake laughed with him. It was a performance. In truth he was swimming in adrenaline from the daemonic attack. That, and the mere fact of being in a room with a giant that could snap him in half. All that potential energy, manacled to a chair. Waiting. Looking for the moment of opportunity. Drake saw a brief image of the daemon's face and shoved it to the back of his mind.
‘Well?' Heloth asked, still smiling.
‘I came to tell you we've emerged back into realspace. It was a short jump, but we seem to have lost a month,' Drake said, dressing the barefaced lie in a casual tone.
‘It matters little to me.'
‘I suppose not. Most people like to know these things.'
‘Imagine if you had died bringing me such incidental news! How pointless!' Heloth said, laughing. ‘I have lost millennia hiding in the Eye of Terror, and you think I care about a month!’
Drake obliged him with a wry smile, glad that he seemed to have bought the lie. ‘Now that we've reached an Inquisition Fortress I'll be able to requisition that vid record I mentioned,' he said.
‘The Anchorite of Almace?' Heloth asked, rather more eagerly than Drake suspected he meant to.
‘And a recording of a Word Bearer: Amatnim Ur-Nabas Lash, a man of high rank in your legion. You know him?'
‘I know he set out for Almace.’
‘You could learn what happened when he got there,’ Drake said. ‘The vid recordings reveal an uncomfortable truth, both for your faith and mine. It's not for the weak-willed.'
Heloth scoffed. ‘You think me weak-willed? Ironic, coming from an indoctrinated lackey.'
‘The citizenry are indoctrinated, as is necessary for the Imperium's survival. I am obliged to grapple with harder truths,' Drake replied. He dearly wanted to point out the weakness of falling to Chaos, but that would only entrench Heloth further. The mask of the interrogator didn't stoop to point scoring. He pushed on. ‘Tell me of Khairon's plans, and I'll tell you of the deeper truth Amatnim sought from the Anchorite. The deeper truth he's helped me to accept.'
‘Why would I betray my brothers on the strength of your word alone? Show me proof, and perhaps I may yet humour you.'
It was a ploy to gain some semblance of control. To be dictating terms. He had something Drake wanted, and without proof, Drake had no leverage. Eidan's doubt crept in. What if acceding to this request changed the dynamic? Was it a mistake?
Drake shrugged indifferently. ‘Very well; offering you proof costs me nothing.’
‘Run on, lapdog. Bring it to me.'
‘You've lived ten lifetimes, and that's the parting comment? I trust you'll think of something more lively upon my return.'
Heloth seemed to enjoy Drake's unflappability as one might enjoy any other puzzle. He grinned, the recesses of his teeth still reddened by the blood from his use of the Ur-tongue minutes before.
Drake smiled back, and left.
18 hours later.
The vid screen underlit Heloth's face as he watched. There was no sound - Drake had muted it - but he hadn't censored the visuals. He let the animation play for two minutes and three seconds, long enough for the look of surprise to cross Amatnim's face.
‘Pause,' Drake said. The slate's machine spirit answered with a click, and he lowered it away from Heloth's view.
The traitor looked conflicted. Curiosity, Drake reflected, was almost too potent a weapon.
‘You won't pass me to others in your organisation after this?’ Heloth asked.
‘I imagine you have no desire to be subjected to an indefinite number of sermons. Neither would I. Besides, you already know too much about me.'
Heloth gave a wry smile. ‘You seem to have no faith at all, Inquisitor.'
Drake shrugged. ‘Faith is for those without knowledge.'
‘You're not what I expected from the Inquisition.'
‘The Anchorite isn't what I expected from a Cardinal World of the Ecclesiarchy,’ Drake replied. Heloth was silent for a time; Drake waited. Got you, he thought.
‘How long has it been since Hasmides? A month?' Heloth asked.
‘And a day.'
A flicker of a smile crossed Heloth's face. To Drake, that said Heloth thought it was too late to do anything anyway. He could sate his curiosity and do no harm.
‘Eressus… in the Eridani sector,' Drake said. He couldn't remember much about it, but he knew it was heavily populated.
‘Indeed. Not that it matters. The gods thirst, Inquisitor. Who are we to deny them succour?'
‘Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?'
Heloth laughed, though Drake wasn't sure if it was at his chiding or at the imminent slaughter.
‘Now show me this “challenging truth,” and I'll judge for myself.’
‘As you wish,’ Drake said with a shrug.
Heloth would come to realise he should have been suspicious of Drake's willingness to honour his side of the bargain.
Drake produced a data slate from his coat pocket, dragged the side table over to Heloth's chair, and set the slate down. ‘The slate will respond to voice commands,' Drake said. ‘It has only two vid files on its drive, and no noospheric connection. Enjoy.'
Drake left the room, and watched him through the one-way window.
Heloth watched the first vid. It was surprisingly hard to read his reaction to the outcome of Amatnim’s foray into the Almace system. When it was over he watched the second much longer vid: the interview with the Anchorite. Drake found it quietly fascinating to see the shift in Heloth's demeanor. It didn't look like a full-blown crisis of faith so much as the introduction of doubt.
Drake stayed in the antechamber and observed him for a few hours as Heloth watched and re-watched the vids. The traitor gained the look of a man unable to resolve a circular thought. Drake allowed himself a little smile. When, he wondered, had he become someone who could eagerly anticipate a conversation with a man he was about to execute? The execution was merely a task to be performed, the sad end of an individual who had been created to do great things and strayed impossibly far. What Drake relished was much harder: cracking the certainty of a zealot. Religious belief has a way of justifying itself in the face of any evidence, but what the Anchorite offered wasn’t just evidence; it was a story. Drake already had the information he needed; this had shifted from necessity to sport.
He entered the room certain that he had nothing more to learn. As is so often the case when one is certain about something, he was wrong.
Hours later, Drake stepped onto the bridge of the Trojan with a stricken look on his face. Captain Janacek stood up from her command throne, as did several of the bridge crew.
‘How goes it?’ she asked.
‘Much better than expected.'
‘Your face says otherwise.'
‘Plot a course for the Kaprun system with all haste; we have a message to deliver.’
‘Why not use the astropa-’
‘That’s just it, Ariel,’ Drake said, ‘We can’t.’
Ariel Janacek knew from his tone that she didn’t want to know the details. ‘Our guest?’ she asked instead.
‘Has repented of his sins and, technically, is now freight.’
4 days later.
Kaprun Prime has an incomplete halo: the Aureole. Tethered to the planet’s surface by seven space elevators, it was originally intended to go all the way around the planet. Primarily, it seemed, for the grandeur of it. Several centuries into its construction, with large sections already surplus to any practical requirements, a newly-appointed governor had called a halt to the project. By then it already boasted hundreds of habitable miles, and thousands of miles of scaffold. It would have needed thousands more. Even in its incomplete state it was the largest shipyard in the Achernar Sector, and the home of the battlefleet.
A few days before the Word Bearers’ attack on the Hasmides system, a bomb was detonated outside the Aureole's Offices of the Admiralty. Admiral Tryphosa and most of her senior strategic staff were slain. Hundreds of people died in mass decompressions. It was assumed Tryphosa’s death had been the Word Bearers’ primary objective, intended to reduce the effectiveness of the fleet. In reality it was a diversion. With the psychic shock of so many simultaneous unexpected deaths, it seemed reasonable that the Aureole’s astropaths would experience some psychic backwash. For those assessing the damage reports coming in, such things were expected, and taken as a symptom of the event rather than an event unto themselves. There were much bigger, more physical problems to handle.
When the Trojan arrived almost a fortnight later, things were still in a state of panicked upheaval. The Aureole hadn't been attacked in living memory.
Drake strode down the Aureole's promenade flanked by a squad of ten storm troopers and Interrogator Zelenko. He found his way blocked by Hera Jovian.
‘Inquisitor,’ Drake said unenthusiastically, but inclining his head in greeting all the same.
‘Inquisitor,’ Jovian replied with entirely unconcealed contempt.
‘You're compromising the grandeur of my big entrance.' The deadpan jest did nothing to deflate Jovian.
‘Why did you stop sending updates on your interrogation?’ She asked. ‘And why are you moving through a public area with such a big escort? Afraid I might take you away for questioning myself?'
‘This is neither the time nor the place, as well you should know. Come with me if you like, or move aside. Every other option will leave you nursing a hindsight hangover.'
Jovian fell into step with Drake as he started moving again, reminding him of a feline that was trying to look as though it meant to fall off a chair.
‘The prisoner?’ she asked.
‘Full of useful information. And dead.'
Pedestrians continued to give them a wide berth as the troopers' synchronised footsteps reverberated down the promenade.
‘And yet you sent no word? I will be sure to discuss this with-’
She stopped talking when Drake turned, without announcement, into the atrium of the sanctum astropathica. Jovian was forced to hurry after Drake's squad as they moved through the archway.
The presence of so many weapons in the atrium triggered two heavy combat servitors to uncouple from their alcoves. Drake looked round at the man behind the off-world comms kiosk, who smiled weakly and entered a command on his cogitator. The servitors slunk back into their alcoves.
‘I… I'm sorry Inquisitor, I have to check your rosette,' the man said.
Eidan wanted to smile at the man, and put him at ease. Drake simply commended him for doing his job, held up the Inquisition medallion hanging around his neck, and waited for the man to rush over and scan it. All the while, Jovian kept asking questions. Drake ignored her.
When they walked into the casting chamber several minutes later, the twenty astropaths within shrieked in surprise. Per Drake's instructions, the power to their cradles was shut off. Kaprun, capital world of the Achernar Sector, stopped receiving or broadcasting all astrotelepathic communication. The planet's primary interstellar data feed was offline. Hundreds of miles below them, planetside backup teams were being roused automatically to handle the influx of astropathic data: a constant stream of communications ranging from the trivial to the tactically vital, winding through warp space, holding the scattered planets of the Achernar Sector together.
‘One of you knows why I am here. Confess, and mercy will be granted swiftly and painlessly.'
Drake was immediately bombarded with nineteen mouths offering terrified but inconsequential confessions. The astropath in alcove fourteen was slow to follow suit. He was far too busy not saying something. Drake gestured for Interrogator Zelenko to proceed.
She approached the astropath with her customary confidence. The sort of entitled confidence, Drake thought, that generally came with an extremely privileged education. The astropath recoiled from her, but had nowhere to go. She scrutinised him, drawing power into herself.
‘He's still active,' she said.
‘It's not me,' the astropath said, fighting back tears, ‘it's him! He wants me to hear the Word. The mouth of Khairon is open and he wants all of us to hear the Word. Will you listen?’
‘Zelenko, can you disrupt it?' Drake asked.
‘What in Dorn's teeth is going on?' Jovian asked.
‘I'll do my best, but he's strong. Stronger than he should be,’ Zelenko said.
At Drake's bidding two of the troopers dragged the astropath from his alcove. He struggled, frail limbs creaking. ‘Will you not hear the Word? Will you not hear the Word?’ he cried.
‘I demand to know what is going on!' said Jovian.
Once they were back in the corridor outside the casting room, Drake held out his hand for one of the troopers' sidearms, and shot the astropath in the head.
‘Frustrating,’ Drake murmured as the astropath's body slumped down into the floor. ‘You make one heretic repent, and they already have another lined up.'
‘What?’ Jovian said.
‘The admiralty bombing. It was just to cover the psychic shockwave of a ritual. I don't understand how, but Orcus Khairon, a Word Bearers sorcerer, found a way to cast into this man's mind, and turn it to his purpose. They've got every message that's come through the Kaprun relay for the last two weeks. Had I sent word, he simply would have intercepted it and had advanced warning of my arrival, just like the Word Bearers were already running for Hasmides' Mandeville point when Battlefleet Achernar arrived to mete out punishment. They knew we were coming. That's why I sent you no updates, that's why it's important to do the job thoroughly, and that's why, Inquisitor, I have had better things to do than humour you. Will there be anything else?'
Inquisitor Jovian stared at the dead astropath in disbelief. Pleased with this petty triumph over an irksome colleague, Eidan and Drake both smiled.