They took up their stride again as Aventus hurried off.
“Zenith is under Tyranid attack”, Vox informed Titus.
“Yes, he probably won’t need local flora and fauna then”, the captain agreed.
Ten Space Marines, helmeted and armed for war, came their way. They walked in a loose formation, led by a sergeant of the White Scars. In the vast corridor the two groups could have easily avoided each other but when they passed, Vox and the tallest of their members, a Space Wolf by crest, ran into one another. They spun around and punched out, their fists clanging together with a dead thump before they both turned again and walked on as if nothing had happened.
Titus had to grin.
“So, you’re home then?”, he asked casually.
Instead of an answer, Vox gave a dismissive snort and Titus recoiled. That question had gone right under the black shield.
“That was Kill Team Morsus”, the librarian informed him a few seconds later. “Stay away from their sergeant if you can help it.”
“I hope a sergeant won’t make trouble for me”, Titus said in a relaxed manner.
Vox smiled a strange little smile as he pointed over to a door. It was remarkable in so far that it was unlike all the other noble entrances they had passed. Where every other door, high and forbidding like the gate of a chapel, had been intricately decorated with scenes of battle against humanity’s many foes, this one was small, plain and without any sign that behind it lay anything of importance. It wasn’t even guarded.
“This is the commander’s audience chamber.”
“What’s the protocol here?”, Titus asked, slightly bewildered.
“You knock”, Vox told him.
Titus stared unseeing at the wood for a while.
“Here your watch ends?”, he asked despondently.
“And yours begins”, Vox answered lightly.
Titus turned to him.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, little brother.”
Vox smiled. He handed him the sealed scroll with his report and there seemed to be something in the friend’s face. The suggestion that he knew something funny and Titus did not.
“Goodbye, captain”, he said and the way he emphasised on the ‘captain’ somehow substantiated this suspicion. “May the Emperor guide you through the darkness.”
“May He guide us… together”, Titus answered, frowning in puzzlement. Vox was telling him something, but what?
His sense of duty overruled his curiosity. The commander was expecting him. Everything else would have to wait. Titus knocked and was invited in. With a last, partly confused glance into an encouraging smile, he entered.
The room did not do the term ‘audience chamber’ justice exactly. For a start, it was quite small. Titus estimated that about ten or twelve people would fit around the massive wooden table that dominated its centre. If these people were Astartes, they would know each other well afterwards. The desk was the only illuminated object here and it looked more like an ancient altar of sacrifice than a table. As far as he could see in the soothing, soft light only paper and ink had been offered today. All in all, the room was the complete opposite of what Thrax had called an audience chamber. No frippery, no intricately carved furnishings, no costly decorations. Just an altar to sacrifice time and labour to the Emperor. Titus was impressed.
In the shadows behind the desk, he made out banners and a few curtains on the walls, showing ancient historical events to uphold the imperial glory. A figure stepped into the light, just as he entered.
Commander Ferone was of average height for a Space Marine, with a handsome, pale face that did not look old exactly, just conveyed the suggestion of age. He had intense, blue eyes that seemed to want to pierce him at first glance. His hair was so light that it was hard to tell if it was still blonde or had gone white. It was combed back in an orderly fashion and Titus had to suppress a smile when the crest reminded him that the commander was a Blood Angel. They suddenly seemed to be everywhere.
“Captain Titus of the Ultramarines, commander”, Titus introduced himself and made the sign of the Aquila.
“I greet you and welcome you on Erioch, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines”, the commander said after a moment of silent examination. “I see that the Emperor saw fit to sustain you. May He smile on you further.”
“I thank you, my lord”, Titus answered. “May the Emperor forge me into the blade that slays the xenos in His name.”
“I trust your journey was a pleasant one?”, the Blood Angel inquired.
“As pleasant as could be”, Titus replied and added before he could stop himself: “The daemons boarding us, hardly figured.” He groaned inwardly when he heard these words but the commander took no apparent notice of the far too lighthearted tone.
“I would ask you to tell me details but I see you have the full report for me already”, Ferone replied with a blank face.
Titus handed over the scroll.
“Vox gave it to me”, he explained a bit sheepishly.
“He’s very conscientious.” The commander took the scroll and laid it down on the table for now. “Captain, I’m sure you are aware that it is rare for the Deathwatch to summon a Space Marine who has not served here before”, he continued then.
“I am fully aware that I’m here for political reasons, commander. May I inquire how precarious they are?”
“You may keep your colours”, the reply came flatly.
“That bad?” Titus almost bit his tongue for the sheer insolence of this lapse.
“Yes”, the commander said and for the first time, a smile fleeted over his features. “Brother Vox does this to people. I’m still not sure how he manages it.”
“Forgive me!” Titus was so embarrassed that it took him several seconds to notice that even the commander had called Vox by his first name.
“Think nothing of it, captain. I can see, you will adapt well to our customs here and I have to admit that this was a concern I had. Ultramarines sometimes have trouble even if they are sent. Now, to business. As Company Captain, it is traditional that I offer you the rank of Watch Captain but in your case, I strongly suggest you lay down your rank to get yourself off the radar of certain institutions.”
Titus blinked. Laying down his rank? Only two months ago, he would never have conceded to something like this, however hard the duties of a captain weighed on his shoulders. Right now, he just hoped that his dawning grin could be kept from slipping too far into imbecility. Goodbye captain indeed!
“I will gladly take your advice, commander!”, he said and dared to push his luck despite Vox warning him about this. “May I apply to be assigned to Aegis?”
He could neither read the commander’s expression nor his voice when he answered: “No, you may not. You will partake in the rite to change your armour’s colour and of course, your insignia will have to be altered accordingly. After the morning prayer tomorrow, you will take the oath in front of the Omega Vault. One of Erioch’s Keepers will pick you up to guide you. During the ceremony, I will ask you what we shall call you. In reply, you must name the rank you want to assume. It has occasionally happened that a captain took up the vigil. Most of them renounced their rank too to learn the ropes so, this will not cause comment. Afterwards, you will lay down your left shoulder piece in the Hall of Glory. Do you have further questions?”
The commander nodded, pushed a few of the papers aside and opened a compartment set into the altar of wood. A servo skull hovered up. There was a hook dangling from it and the commander hung a tightly folded and sealed piece of paper on it. In a tidy hand, there was a receiver written on it: To Vox Draconis of the Deathwatch.
“Servo thirteen, in the name of the Emperor who speaks to the Omnissiah, I bid you: Scan for a new face!”, Ferone ordered the servo skull.
Titus held still while it fussed around for a moment and finally scanned his face with its one bionic eye. It clicked and whirred and one of its lights went green.
“Servo thirteen, in the name of the Emperor who speaks to the Omnissiah, I bid you: Recognize Titus of the Ultramarines and commit him to archive”, Ferone demanded. Again, it clicked and the light blinked green a few times. After this, the thing hovered towards the door and got stuck there.
“It will fly to the library now”, the commander informed Titus. “Follow it until it turns right and turn left instead. You will be walking up to an elevator. Let it take you down as far as possible and you will find the mechanicum. Someone there will help you with your armour. Dismissed.”