The mere act of leaving Erioch had been as unspectacular as leaving the ‘Fall of Angels’ when they had first met. What had rendered this escape a lot more precarious were their comrades. Vox had chosen the order in which to fetch them wisely. With Arrick uncomplainingly at her side, the others had asked no questions on the way out but Rogan, Caregar and Yorg had been generally unamused when the facts had dawned on them. The small shuttle they were crammed into had almost become a scene of bloody violence. It had taken Grimfang threatening them to smash their heads in, Ignatius calling them to order, Xavor offering to support Grimfang and Corven explaining at length that the situation was a mess in any case and that they might as well calm down. In the end they reluctantly accepted that they were technically on a mission and that only the Inquisition had made things complicated. Rogan, who had a personal grudge against all inquisitors, was happy enough to accept this. When he swayed, Tobias Caregar demanded that they all swore their loyalty to the Emperor right there and then. Yorg had withheld further comments but Titus made an internal note that he had to talk to the young man. Yorg was intelligent and a good tactical thinker. If he took it into his head to tag along to make trouble at the most crucial moment later, things could get ugly.
For now, he was only glad that they had found no way to smuggle weapons out. It meant that only Vox, Corven and Xavor were armed. The two librarians had their force weapons and Xavor had earned the honour to wield a thunder hammer, which he would have left behind for nothing in the world.
After the initial excitement, the journey that led them away from Watch Fortress Erioch was quite uneventful. Tiberius piloted them past innumerable surveillance satellites and established contact with the ‘Hammer of Destiny’ as soon as he found readings of the ship. If someone got his hands on the relevant data, they would know that the navigator had helped them out.
Nostromo seemed curiously dispassionate to find them floating forlornly through the void and ordered the ship turned around as soon as they were on board.
It was late evening ship time but they still decided that they had to fill everybody in on the details of their mission before further misunderstandings occurred. Since he had to be a part of the proceedings, the navigator offered the use of his briefing chamber for this purpose. Despite its rich ornamentation with golden wings and skull patterns all over the walls, magnificent drapes and the occasional painting showing Nostromo and his many sons, this room had clearly been built with one goal in mind: To get people around a table. All the richly upholstered chairs in the room stood pushed against the walls and although the oblong table was human-sized, it was luxuriantly so. The Astartes had enough room to move about comfortably and unthinkingly sorted themselves by teams. Titus claimed his position at the head of the table facing Nostromo opposite.
“Brothers”, he opened. “Our mission is not straightforward. We are will make contact and initiate negotiations with an Astartes Chapter, which has lost all connection to the Imperium.”
“I had contact with the Wings of War”, Corven supplied. “They are deeply loyal to the Emperor but have a hard time believing that we are.”
“And I bet, we have just the man to convince them otherwise”, Grimfang growled with a look over at Vox.
“Well done, Arrick”, she said with a nod. “Before we go any further, I must inform all of you of the legal status here: We don’t have formal orders from Commander Ferone. Because of the situation with the Inquisition, he could give them to us only by word of mouth and he only gave them to Corven and me. I am confident that matters will be resolved until we return but, for now, each of you has the right to refuse to go through with this mission and, as always, you have the right to fight corruption where you suspect it.”
“Does any of us have a real choice?”, Tobias Caregar demanded bitterly. “We escaped from Erioch with you after all.”
“You have the choice not to partake actively in the mission”, Vox told them.
“I’m in”, Xavor declared before she could go further.
“You’re a bit hasty, my young friend”, Caregar admonished him.
“Just easily bored.” The large man grinned at him with an impish twinkle in his dark eyes.
“I’m with you too”, Titus declared.
“I was with Vox before any of you”, Corven growled.
“I reject such slander”, Vox said sweetly and actually got Corven to blush. Titus grinned.
“I’m with you, brother”, Dankwart said firmly.
“You can count on my support”, Nostromo could be heard.
“I’m honoured, my friends”, Vox said and lifted a hand before any other comments could be made. “But let’s not be hasty. Listen to what is going on with my people and decide afterwards if you really want to handle this bucket of snakes.”
“Tell us then”, Grimfang said and his tones were pleasantly peaceful in the tense atmosphere.
“The negotiations we are trying to initiate are one thing”, she informed them. “But what Corven hasn’t found out, is that there are subversive elements within the chapter which have kept it hidden since its founding. They will try to continue to do so. I have found a way to get rid of them legally but for it to work, we must reach my home fortress without being discovered. If anyone is informed of our arrival too soon, we might not meet friendly circumstances and negotiating with bullets is very hard in my experience.”
“You wanna get the silver bullet in before they have time to fire back then?”, Xavor asked, nodding towards the bag full of paper which she still carried.
“I’m not sure if it is silver, Xavor, but paper cuts might just be nasty enough to make the other side yield”, she said with a weak smile. “What we have to do before I can employ my paper, however, is to get there.” Vox spread the star charts she had brought on the desk. “‘There’ is called Thetis. It’s a system beyond Ynnen here.” She tapped the lower right corner of the chart. “During my time in the Deathwatch, I have never seen a chart in which it has been mapped.”
“If it is beyond Ynnen, I suggest, I bring us to the established exit point here”, Nostromo said and pointed to a mark on the map. “How far, would you say, is it from there?”
Vox bit her lip.
“We are aiming for the outermost planet of the system. Fifteen, give or take five, I’d say.”
The man nodded calmly.
“We can pilot the jump from there if you provide me with guidance.”
“Fifteen what?”, Corven wanted to know.
“Light years”, Vox said distractedly.
“And piloting means what I think it means?”, he inquired innocently.
“If you think it means piloting the ship through the warp then this is the case, master”, Nostromo replied.
“So, just to be clear”, Corven recounted. “We’re going to aim at Vox’s home planet over fifteen light years or so. Through the warp.”
“It will probably take us about two weeks, yes”, Nostromo confirmed.
“Great!”, Corven growled with dark sarcasm in his tones. “No further questions.”
“Brothers, I see further questions in your faces”, Titus observed with a look around.
“Yeah, they are mostly on the lines of ‘what the fuck?!’”, Xavor translated for all of them.
“It gets better”, Vox said happily. “Thetis is not on your star charts because no explore party ever came back.”
“Planetary defences?”, Titus asked, his hearts sinking.
“I don’t know about you”, Xavor interrupted with an ironic edge to his tones. “But I always found something greatly soothing in the word ‘planetary defences’.”
Vox still smiled.
“I don’t know about your home worlds”, she said. “But I haven’t seen a planet as well fortified as Thetis up until now. We will not get anything through them that is larger than a thunderhawk or comes in a cluster of more than three.”
“Drop pods?”, Titus asked.
“A single one shouldn’t be a problem”, Vox mused. “But we’ll need transportation on the surface as well.” She looked over to Tiberius, who had started to smile softly.
“Navigator Nostromo, is the ‘Cornix’ still with you?”, the techmarine inquired politely, taking this cue.
“Of course, master Tiberius”, the navigator replied. “I have not been informed if she already inquired after you but I’m sure it will be her delight to take you down.”
“That’s not exactly how machines work, navigator”, Tiberius stated politely.
“Is it not?”, Nostromo said and there was the suggestion of amusement dancing in his eyes while his mechanical jaws ground together slightly. “Well, in any case”, the man said. “I shall turn to my calculations now, so that we may make haste on our way. As far as I remember, Ynnen is at least three months from here and the route there isn’t too simple. We will have a lot of short jumps to undertake and then, we haven’t considered the warp storms that have sprung up recently. Do you happen to know something about this by the way?”
“Yes, the Eye of Terror has opened and we have another black crusade on our backs”, Titus provided.
“What?”, Corven burst out. “Why wasn’t I told?”
“You were bent on getting a thousand warriors for the Emperor back into the war, Corven”, Titus said. “I think we can all agree that this is the thing to do in times like this, yes?” He looked from one face to the other and for the first time, he received nods from everyone. “What is the ‘Cornix’ by the way?”, he inquired.
“You know her, captain”, Tiberius answered. “She’s the Corvus Blackstar you saw on the ‘Aurum’ after you had requested extraction from the ‘Lawbringer’ over Corred. We didn’t need her for a while now but I was so fortunate as to attune her to me in previous missions.”
This was no trivial statement. The Corvus Blackstar was an aircraft pattern exclusive to the Deathwatch. It was small, agile and ridiculously well armed for its size. Techmarines who took the black were generally allowed to pilot a Blackstar but only the best were able to exploit the full range of possibilities this type of ship opened for a pilot. For this to happen, the techmarine attuned himself to the vehicle until his mind and the machine spirit of the craft became intertwined. If Tiberius could pilot a Blackstar, they might have avoided planetary defences even if they had fallen into the interception pattern.
“So, that’s our way to the surface”, Titus concluded and nodded a goodbye to Nostromo, who was leaving the room.
“As long as we stay under radar, I can direct us to the fortress”, Vox said.
“I suspect that this is heavily fortified too?”, Tiberius asked.
“What? A fortress? Fortified?”, Xavor cut in. “Astounding!”
Vox gave him a reproachful look.
“Now that you’re with Aegis you will have to work on your standard of humour, Xavor”, she scolded him and the huge, black-haired man ducked his head under this criticism.
“Indeed”, Titus supported her words. “I respect that, as one of the last three Space Wolves left in the Deathwatch, you have a rarity value but I’ll not refrain from further physical penalisation if you don’t at least try.”
“You’ll continue to kick the puppy?”, Xavor asked with wide, soulful eyes.
“I’m a cruel and unreasonable man”, Titus assured him. Both of them still had black eyes and swollen faces from their fight earlier. “At this point I suggest, we postpone detailed planning to when we get there”, Titus stated smoothly. “Any questions, suggestions or comments?”
“Yes”, Irdan Yorg raised his voice. He earned instant attention by this single word.
“Am I correct in my surmise that the Wings of War are the very same Astartes that held us hostage on Zenith?”, he wanted to know.
“Yes”, Vox confirmed.
“How do you explain this?”
Vox did not even flinch.
“They had illegitimate orders from the mentioned subversive elements in the chapter, which are in fact our priests.”
“Do you know that or do you suppose that?”, Yorg demanded.
“I know that”, Vox said firmly. “I met your jailers on Zenith before we came to fetch you. They are known to me as Scout Squad Remora and the sergeant is an old friend of mine. They told me about you, gave me the key and then regrouped with third company, which was withdrawing from Zenith at this point.”
“You still had troops down there?”, Titus asked in surprise.
“Yes”, Grimfang answered in her place. He stood leaned forward on the table and a slightly dangerous tension was building up around him.
“Vox told me about them in the shrine”, he growled, turning the glare of his single eye to Titus, who tried not to take this as offence. That had been one of his really low points.
Ignatius’ calm voice broke the uneasy silence: “I overheard a part of your conversation but that particular slipped my attention. May I inquire why you didn’t let this on, sergeant?”, he asked politely.
“Sure.” Grimfang straightened up. “’Cause of the holes in the walls. They had terminator size but Vox was sure that it was third company on the planet.” He made a pause to smirk grimly in Titus’ direction. “And according to your Codex, third doesn’t have terminators.”
“We are not completely Codex compliant”, Vox provided smoothly. “But we follow the suggested organisation as far as circumstances allow.”
“Where do you differ?”, Titus wanted to know courteously.
“In our heraldry”, Vox replied friendly. “We mark our apothecaries and techmarines only on their shoulder plates, not in different armour colours. Also, we have eight active companies instead of five with only two reserve. The Reach is large and we have to stretch our forces.”
“I have another question”, Rogan cut in. It was hard to tell with his scarred face and the expression of bitter rejection he so often wore but he probably was more angry than usual.
“Remora was quite civil as jailers”, he declared. “But I don’t fancy another stay in chains. How likely will you get us in without trouble?”
“Because trying to negotiate in chains totally spoils the first impression”, Xavor pointed out.
“I have to admit that this largely depends on you”, Vox replied.
“You mean if we bring trouble, there will be trouble?”, Grimfang asked.
Vox turned her steady gaze to him.
“Yes”, she answered calmly. “Although not very much, I’m afraid.” There was a disconcerting confidence about this statement.
“How much trouble would we have to bring for chains?”, Xavor inquired innocently, managing to give the situation a far lighter tone in the face of something like this.
Vox gave him an amused glance.
“I’m sure we’ll have chains for you if you insist, Xavor”, she assured him and dropped all the tension she had inadvertently built up. “But, please understand that none of our warriors will be part of whatever you intend to do with them.”
“I totally understand and will use them in private”, the Space Wolf growled happily.
“You’re demanding a hell of a leap of faith, Vox”, Irdan Yorg said, turning the conversation serious again.
“It is entirely up to you if you will take it.”
“Understood”, the Doom Eagle said calmly and to everyone’s surprise continued in the same tone: “And I’m in.”
“Me too”, Grimfang added on cue.
“I will stand at your side”, Ignatius proclaimed.
“Count on me”, Rogan grumbled.
“You’ll need a pilot, I heard”, Tiberius said with a shy smile.
All turned to Tobias Caregar who was the last one left.
The Dark Angel fixed his grey-green eyes on their black shield. “Vox”, he said solemnly. “I have come to trust you but under the black shield even those who have turned from chaos itself may find cover. I ask you therefore: Are you sure that your chapter is free of corruption?”
Vox gave him a long look. Finally, she reached into her bag and fished out a book.
“This is my personal copy of the Codex Astartes”, she told him and pushed it across the table. “Tiberius helped me to copy it after I had arrived in the Deathwatch and I have marked the passages formerly unknown to me or known to me in altered form.”
Caregar flicked through the pages.
“That’s more than half.”
“Two thirds”, she confirmed. “We have been lied to, Tobias”, she continued and took a few steps around the table to face him without furniture between them. “Our priests have deceived us. They’ve kept us hidden and isolated from our comrades in the Imperium. They have manipulated us and concealed our place in the world.” Coming to a halt in front of him, Vox stopped her slow pacing. “But there is one thing they will not keep from us and that is our duty”, she stated firmly. “Since our founding we fight for humanity in the Emperor’s name as He has designed every Astartes. This is what we are. Our true nature. I will not rest until I have brought us into His eternal light.” Vox made a brief pause to let her words sink in. “Are you with me, my friend?”, she asked softly.
Caregar handed her the book back.
“I am”, he replied quietly.
“I thank you”, Vox said solemnly. “I thank you all. Irdan is right. I demand a lot but I promise that there will be a great return on this endeavour.”
They all nodded quietly.
“Let’s conclude the day now”, Titus said into the pause. It was indeed late. “We will meet for the morning prayer tomorrow. Dismissed.”