When they finally reached Erioch, Titus had not regained his old strength but at least he was able to get through a whole day of training.
He and Vox had taken to wander around the ship after the even meal to avoid talking in reach of any surveillance devices. Only in the last few days, this changed. The librarian used these evenings to write his report. He had made notes on the run via his auto senses. Now, he put them together for the commander and finally, the archives.
These were silent times and Titus was just a little surprised at himself that he could stand them again. He had barely allowed the silence of sleep to settle on him. Now, he went pleasantly still. The quiet presence of his friend drove away the lonely despair that had haunted him in the darkness of his cell.
In the short period they were granted between even meal and sleep, he sat and watched Vox’s calm, pale face and his delicate hand, guiding the quill over the paper. On the third night, he fell asleep over it. When this happened, Vox used his anyway sleepless night to finish the report and from the next day on, they were back to normal. It was this day that Titus realised that ‘normal’ would end as soon as they reached Erioch in two days. Hollow remorse welled up inside him and he was unwilling to investigate from where exactly it sprang.
“You seem troubled, captain”, Vox noted on their last night. His tone was noncommittal and Titus decided to make use of this for once. He just shrugged and said nothing. Vox tactfully changed the subject and talked about Erioch instead. Titus remained rather monosyllabic for the rest of the evening and listened to a lot of easy-going facts that sank into his mind as softly as snow. How Erioch was built around the Omega Vault, a strange, ancient structure, moving to unknown patterns, turning up curious things from time to time. Weapons or artefacts so strange that no one could fathom their purpose. He learned that the Watch Fortress circled a dying star in a system with a number of worlds Vox was uncertain about and that each of them had a perfectly circular orbit but none of them held life. He was told that there was only one established exit point for warp travel, kept so secret that, bar one, only Erioch’s own navigators knew the coordinates for it. If the station was in the right position, it took less than a standard day from the exit point of the warp route to reach it but if Erioch was on the other side of the system, easily two months of real space travel were necessary.
Unobtrusively, Vox watched their steps and guided them back to their room when it was time for Titus to sleep. The captain lay awake in the darkness for a long time and tried to listen to the brother breathing. Yet, however much he strained his hearing, the noise was so quiet that Titus’ own heartbeats were louder. At some point he had to smile about his own sentimentality. Vox had become his friend. To lose the last one was always hard, he knew. Over these troubling thoughts, he finally fell asleep.
He was oddly relieved that Vox was still there the next morning. He had half suspected to find the room empty but when he stood up to turn on the light, there his brother was like he had been for the last two months. He noticed how tired he looked.
“Tonight, you can sleep again”, he said, not sure what he wanted to say with that.
Vox held his gaze a little unsteadily.
“My watch has been a pleasant one”, he declared with a lopsided grin.
They left for the morning prayer and afterwards started to train. Tiberius coordinated their half day of training before they would reach Erioch. He held the shooting lessons in the morning short and started an incredibly exhausting training unit designed to push them to their limits even in half the time. When they were done, Dankwart nodded at Titus and said: “Well done, captain.”
From their apothecary, this was practically a round of standing ovations. He felt adequately honoured for it and said so. But he remembered the weakness. From now on, probably nothing would be enough anymore.
There was idle chitchat during lunch and Titus knew he was unnecessarily gloomy but no one commented. Only Vox sought out his gaze a few times. With a slight nod he told him that he could see his troubles. Somehow, the mere thought that he had been understood without having to utter a word, made everything a little more bearable. Yet, there was this discord inside him whispering that, from tomorrow on, there would be no one to understand anymore.
After they had eaten, they went to the bridge to witness the docking.
Erioch was already so close that it filled the whole front window but even from here, it was obvious that it had seen many centuries of construction. Structures were built onto each other, not always matching the style of the old ones.
The whole station looked more like a folded city than a spacecraft. The inner structures reached almost as high as it was broad with innumerable buildings that interlaced to make up the core of the station. Extending from it like arms, were several tracts that did not form a solid block and were encompassed by two ringed structures.
The hangars were already engulfing the ‘Lawbringer’, taking her into their shadow like a mother embracing the long missed child. It took a while of frantic activity and praying on both sides until the ship lay safe to the side of the station.
In the middle of the turmoil, someone found time to relay the message to Titus that the commander expected to see him presently.
Aegis, or at least, as he had learned, half of it, followed him off board after they had politely said goodbye to the inquisitor. Tiberius and Dankwart asked to be dismissed as soon as they had left the ship and quickly disappeared into the hubbub of the docks.
Vox offered to accompany Titus to the commander’s audience chamber and the captain was glad to accept this.
Erioch had a very particular feel about it. It felt old and empty.
There were thousands of people here but in the vast corridors everyone looked like ants scuttling about their insignificant business. Vaulted structures stretched over their heads, the echoes of their steps and voices were lost in the distance.
There were numerous ways to travel through the station. Elevators and railed wagons were the most common but they also found band-conveyors on the ground, moving stairs and, of course, servitors of all sizes and shapes. Most of them had wheels, but some walked on shaky legs, not always only two of them. The embodiment of mortality, these things all carried at least a dead face somewhere, mostly other mummified body parts too.
Titus and Vox had little time to talk on their way because the young brother was busy looking around. He nodded and smiled at servants, greeted battle brothers crossing their way, saluted officers. Once he bowed slightly to a pompous figure in richly embroidered black robes, who nodded graciously back at them. All the time he was telling Titus the names of the passers-by. The captain had to grin and was almost surprised that he did not learn the names of the servants as well.
“That was Inquisitor Zork”, Vox said about the man they had just passed. “He’s Inquisitor of the Chamber here.”
Before he could tell Titus what this entailed exactly, a voice called out to him. “Vox!”
They turned and saw a Space Marine librarian hurrying after them. Vox shot Titus a short glance, who nodded encouragingly.
The brother coming up to them bore the insignia of a lexicanum as did Vox, but his armour was a lot more ornate. Seals and oath-scrolls adorned it and the ornamentation was intricately painted. A cloak billowed out behind him and on his right shoulder guard, a blue wing on white told Titus that he was one of the Eagle Warriors, a successor chapter of the Ultramarines. The man had short, brown curls and grey eyes in a rather angular face. To tell by the deep tan of his skin, he had been exposed to heavy or prolonged radiation recently. He glanced nervously at Titus when he had reached them. Then, he saluted and introduced himself: “Captain, I’m Correl Aventus of the Eagle Warriors. I’m a member of Kill Team Ictus.”
“Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. Pleased to meet you. You wish to talk to Brother Vox?”
“Carry on then.”
“Vox, can you help me?”, he asked and pulled Vox a little aside. “The index states that we have two tomes on Zenith but I can’t find them.”
“Let me think”, said Vox, thinking for a moment. “Could Corven have taken them?”
Aventus’ face fell. “I thought he doesn’t take tomes!”
“I don’t know where they should have gotten otherwise… Anyway. I’ve been to Zenith, maybe I can help. What do you need?”
“We’re to leave in ten hours and I wanted to check up on local flora and fauna.”
“You probably won’t need that”, Vox said with an impish smile and Titus could see an embarrassed grin rising in the face of the lexicanum when, whatever the answer was here, dawned on him.
“Emperor!”, he said laughing, palming his face. “Thanks, brother, you just saved me a lot of time!”
“You should check on Gladius’ report though”, Vox said. “They were dispatched there when we left.”
“Gladius is MIA”, Aventus informed him.
The colour positively drained from Vox’s face.
“All of them?”, he asked with a tightly controlled voice.
“Well”, the black shield said and pulled himself together. “I remember that Saltus has been there a while back. Have you checked their report?”
“Yes, it’s in the mission profile. Thanks again!”
“Glad I could help”, Vox said but called after him when he thought of something. “Correl? Zenith has an odd wind cycle around the equator. Try to drop pole-wards of your objective.”
“Thanks for the tip!”