After a while, the solemnity of the occasion ceased and a sacred ritual seamlessly became a working day. Chaplain Sandris departed with a few quiet words to the commander and Keeper Cumbersant was graciously dismissed. Soon afterwards, Aegis broke their marching order. They came to Titus’ side, bidding him welcome and congratulating him. The brother he did not know yet introduced himself as Carnas Aharran of the Celestial Lions, his friendly demolitions expert. He had short, brown hair, wore a goatee and moustache and his green eyes twinkled in constant, unfathomable amusement. Titus had trouble placing Aharran’s heritage because the chapter was unknown to him but he had no time to inquire about this. The next people coming up to him to state their welcome were Dankwart and Tiberius.
They did it in the steadfast manner he was familiar with but their gesture made Titus’ hearts jump with sudden delight. It had finally dawned on him why it had been Aegis waiting for him: They were here to greet their newest member.
Vox was the last one to step to his side. The librarian said nothing. He just smiled.
Overwhelmed by emotions, Titus found himself reaching out, laying a hand on the bare black shoulder. A friend in the darkness. Comrades around them. A future ahead.
Nothing was missing but to raise silent prayers of gratitude to the Emperor.
They followed the commander to his audience chamber and filed in. Like Titus had suspected, with nine Astartes in here it got rather crowded. Unlike yesterday, the desk was not littered with papers. Instead, there was only one thick stack of documents and a large scroll. Vox positioned himself in front of this.
“Aegis”, Commander Ferone began without delay. “I will send you out again immediately. The ‘Aiolos’ is ready and will depart as soon as you are on board. Your objective is to destroy a Tau spacecraft.”
On cue, Vox reached for the scroll on the table. Unrolled, it turned out to be a star chart that covered half the desk and the brothers had to hold down the edges to stop it from rolling up again. It showed Erioch and its close environs. Ferone pointed close to the middle of the chart.
“The station should be in this sector somewhere. It may be searching for Erioch. Even if this is not the case, we need to get rid of it. It is not capable of faster than light travel but it has a powerful cloaking device at its command. The mercy of the Omnissiah alone revealed its presence to us.”
Tiberius said something in binary. Since it was probably a blessing, everyone nodded.
“The matter of a suspicious sighting in our domain was imparted to me yesterday. I entrusted Brother Vox with the investigation. Brother, over to you.”
Vox nodded, picked up the stack of papers in front of him and started to hand small portions of it around.
“I was able to confirm the sighting patterns and energy signatures of this”, he told them.
The papers that circled among them were pict captures of a space station that looked like a flattened sphere.
“It’s a station with a crew of about four-hundred and capacity for up to two-thousand soldiers plus extended war-gear and vessels. If the thing gets close enough to anything to set fully equipped troops down, it does damage.” Vox looked at the commander for a second and swayed slightly. “I’ve gathered more detailed reports about that if anyone is interested”, he said a little indistinctly and then pulled himself together. “The cloaking device would be bad news for us but it has one crucial drawback: As long as it is active, there will be no shield that could prevent us from teleporting on board. We just have to find the station.”
“Casimiré Nostromo has agreed to navigate you”, Ferone told them and in the satisfied nods of his comrades Titus read that, whoever Casimiré Nostromo was, he was the man to do this.
“He and Vox will bring you close”, the commander continued. “Then, the two of them will take their time assessing the xenos’ circadian cycle. Ideally, you will board when most of them are sleeping.”
“There was one attempt to bring the station down by another kill team”, Vox pitched in and shuffled through his papers, finally unearthing a sheet with notes he had jotted down. “They boarded while the main body of Tau forces was busy raiding Oertha and the team still was annihilated within little more than two minutes. They reported an attack by a swarm of flying, servitor-like creatures. I found data about several drones the Tau might employ for guarding their vessels but the way these Tau have acted so far suggests to me that they are O’Shovah. A subclass of renegade Tau”, he explained for Titus’ benefit who had not received his hypno-conditioning yet. “O’Shovah mostly use these things.” Another round of pict captures was handed out while Tiberius got a few pages full of arcane details. The pictures showed small, sleek silver disks, looking quite like the station itself in their outer form.
“If these are what they have on board, it’s bad news”, Tiberius said, after he had examined his material thoroughly. “They are at least halfway autonomous without a central entity to control them.”
“Elaborate!”, Ferone bade him.
“If they were controlled, commander, I could just knock out the central entity but if I try that with these, they will immediately sound the alarm because their centre has been switched off.”
“So, you can’t take them out?”
“Only one by one”, Tiberius said. “And that will set off the alarm at once.”
“Out of the question then”, Ferone mused.
“Can we distract them?”, Vox interrupted, rubbing his face while he tried to keep his eyes open.
“Vox, machines can’t be distracted”, Tiberius explained patiently.
“I know but… they can see us?”
“Kind of, yes”, Tiberius said cautiously.
“And they can tell the Tau if they spot us?”
“So, is there anything besides ourselves we could give them to spot and tell the Tau about? Ideally, something that doesn’t make them sound the alarm and keeps them busy for a while.”
Tiberius thought about this.
“Give me the blueprint”, he demanded then.
“What blueprint?”, Vox asked innocently.
“Don’t play stupid, brother”, Tiberius said mildly. “You always have one. Hand it over!”
“Alright, alright”, Vox said, passing some papers along. “I wanted it to be a surprise for Carnas but if you insist…”
“As far as I remember, even our highly valued demolitions expert can only blow things up, if he gets in reach”, Tiberius argued, unfolded the sheet to four times its size and spread it out.
“That’s the only reason I’m giving in”, Vox assured him.
The mentioned demolitions expert came around the table to look at the schematics as well. By the look of it, whoever had drawn the five circles on them had rather practised guesswork than put things down he was certain about.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”, Aharran asked politely, pointing at some notes on the side.
“That’s the scale”, Vox answered. “Sorry, it was late.”
“Ah. Those are figures. That makes sense”, Aharran said amiably and fell silent for a moment.
“I suggest we board in separate pairs”, Tsart said, tilting his head to look at the schematics as well. “This way, even if one team is caught, the others still have a chance to bring explosives wherever they do the most damage.”
“Here”, Aharran said, pointing at one of the smallest circles. “Somewhere here is their main generator. It will be secured separately but if we get enough melta bombs in there, the whole thing goes up.”
“That’s a corridor surrounding the station?”, Tsart asked, pointing at the rim of the biggest circle.
“I hope so”, Vox answered. “The schematics I found weren’t very accurate but on one of the pictures it looks like there are windows all around the thing.”
The concerning picture lay close to Titus. He handed it over to Tsart who gave it a cursory glance.
“We should teleport into the corridor as far apart as possible”, their specialist for urban warfare pronounced after a moment, tapping the point on the schematic he had indicated already. “And make our way to the centre. There we can team up again, breach the generator and place the charges.” His black eyes wandered over to Aharran.
“Give me six melta bombs per team”, their demolitions expert said on cue. “Then, we get the job done even if only half of us make it.”
“Granted”, the commander answered. Vox fished his quill and ink out of his pocket and wrote something down on one of the papers still in front of him.
“Alright”, Tiberius said and leaned back from the drawings. Quickly, he checked his list of arcane details again, which he held in the clamp of his third arm.
“I might be able to send all the drones to one half of the station but I can’t say for sure until I get there.”
“Then we can’t use the whole circle for boarding”, Tsart noted.
“Could you send them to a certain tract?”, Vox wanted to know.
“If I can direct them at all, I should be able to do that, yes”, Tiberius answered.
“Then, let me find out where the xenos sleep and send them there”, Vox suggested. “I’m sure they will have sleeping tracts like we do. Drones and warriors would all be concentrated in just one spot we have to avoid.”
Tiberius half nodded, half shrugged for this.
“Good plan”, he said. “But I have to get into their system first and apart from getting rid of the drones, I will need to bypass their optical surveillance, which I’m sure they’ll have.”
“Alright”, Tsart recalculated yet again. “Let’s board in a quarter circle. This way, we are moving quite a bit apart and if some of us are spotted, we can decide if we need to regroup or not. Tiberius and his partner will board first and call us in as soon as he has succeeded.”
“Erm…”, Vox said and started to rummage through his papers. “There was something in this report…”
Titus spotted the sheet with notes half-buried under the paper his little brother had written on recently.
“Oh, thank you”, the young man said distractedly, when it was handed to him. “Yes, the kill team I mentioned. The one that boarded. They had a supervising surveillance officer to track their progress. I can’t give you something substantial here because they were in there for literally less than three minutes, but the pattern I found suggests to me that these drones picked up on their vox transmissions. See here? That’s their log.” He pushed a single paper to the middle of the table. “There were no transmissions in the first minute, then, the team reported that they had just avoided some of these drones and suddenly, they all started coming.”
“Radio silence then”, Vargov said severely. All of them nodded, exchanging grave looks.
“Alright”, Tiberius broke the silence. “Then, give me a head start of five minutes.”
Ferone looked at the scattered documents for a moment and wanted to say something when suddenly, Dankwart raised his voice. All eyes turned to him immediately.
“There is a better way”, he said, looking meaningfully at Tiberius, who in turn gritted his teeth and looked over at Vox. To tell by the way his features hardened, whatever Dankwart was suggesting, was not to his liking. At all. Vox met his gaze head-on and managed to look defiant through his exhaustion.
“I hate it when you do that”, Tiberius declared.
“You won’t feel a thing”, Vox said quietly.
“It’s not natural!”, the techmarine insisted testily.
“Is there any point you wish to make, my fellow gene-hanced cyborg?”, Vargov cut in sarcastically, shooting Tiberius a reprobative look.
“Alright then”, the techmarine gave in with visible impatience. “I’ll signal Vox when you can board.”
The commander nodded.
“For more detailed planning, you will need more data”, he said in his deep, calm voice. “I expect you to sort that out for yourselves. You should have about four days of real-time travel until you come as close as the ‘Aiolos’ can get you. She’s our best-cloaked frigate, and the ‘Zephyr’ can take you even closer. I don’t want you to take unnecessary risks. This thing has escaped us several times already. Get your timing right and bring it down.”
“If time’s that short”, Vargov said. “We should pick our pairings right now and train accordingly. New members always take a while to adjust to”, he pointed out. “I’ll take Titus if no one has objections.”
“I object”, Vox said calmly, staring at Vargov from tired, bloodshot eyes. The librarian had to stifle a jawn before he could explain: “He’s with me for two reasons: First, we already trained together for the last two months. Second, with his resistance to the warp, I can’t perceive him. He gets lost, he’s lost.”
Vargov returned Vox’s rather unsteady gaze and his face softened.
“Granted”, he said quietly and turned to Aharran instead. “Demolition man, will you stand at my side if I can’t have Brother Blind Spot?”
“Sure”, Aharran answered with a grin and stroked his beard.
“Athuriel?”, Tsart asked. The Dark Angel nodded mutely. Dankwart and Tiberius exchanged a glance. Their pairs were settled.
“Here is my suggestion for our equipment”, Vox declared, handing out the next round of papers for the others to review.
“More grenades”, Tsart said after a short glance at them. Ferone beckoned for Tsart to hand him the paper and for Vox to lend him his quill, amended a few figures and handed both back. Tsart’s face lit up.
“That’ll do”, he said in his harsh tones.
“Anything else?”, Ferone wanted to know. All of them shook their heads mutely.
“Brother Vox?”, the commander asked but hesitated when Vox raised his unsteady gaze to him. “We don’t have time for you to lay down the tarot”, he declared firmly as if he had intended to say this all along. “Do that in your final planning stage.”
“Understood”, Vox answered weakly, starting to collect the scattered papers on the desk. It was Athuriel who gently took the task from him before Vox dropped the whole stack on the ground.
“Choose your leader and take your Oath of the Moment when it’s time”, Ferone ordered them when all the files were gathered. “Good hunting. Dismissed!”
When they filed out and purposefully started to walk in a certain direction, Dankwart suddenly spoke.
“Brothers”, he said and like before, he earned instant and absolute attention. “Vox missed his last medical checkup.”
“You go on ahead”, Vargov concluded the consequence Dankwart was pointing out. “We’ll collect our gear. Where does the ‘Aiolos’ lie?”
“Dock seventy-two”, Vox told them and Dankwart reached out to steady him because he swayed just for turning his head to their chaplain.
“Alright, off you go”, Vargov urged. “Test well!”, he called after their retreating backs.
Titus shot Vargov an amused glance and shook his head, laughing quietly.
The chaplain looked at him in slightly exaggerated astonishment.
“Dear me, brother!”, he said, opening his grey eyes wide. “Did you perhaps spot my rather weak pun there? I see I will have to do a lot better now that you are around!”
“I’m glad to offer you purpose, brother. For a mind without it will wander into dark places”, Titus cited one of the ever-present proverbs among the Astartes.
“If your sword is only half as sharp as your tongue”, Vargov said. “It will be my pleasure to fight alongside you. Again.”
Titus grinned provocatively and waited if Vargov had remembered who he was. Apparently, this was not the case and Titus was in no mood to help the chaplain along. They made their way to the armoury in silence until a vox transmission reached them on their team channel.
“Aegis, this is Vox.”
“Why aren’t you switched off yet, brother?”, Vargov wanted to know casually instead of an appropriate answer.
“The ‘Aiolos’ lies in dock four. Dock seventy-two was the one she was in last time.”
“I already wondered about that”, Vargov admitted. “Thanks for the notion but if you don’t let Dankwart knock you out immediately, I will come and help him, do you understand?”
“I admire your confidence”, Vox replied drily.
“As your chaplain, I’m the vanguard of unadulterated belief, young friend”, Vargov stated firmly. “Now. If I see you before tomorrow, I’ll make you pray until prayer!”
“Oh great, I didn’t have that for two months. Vox out.”
Titus could not see the chaplain’s face because he was in the lead. When he inspected the other brothers, Athuriel not exactly smiled but bore an expression of soft benevolence. Tiberius looked like he always looked, Carnas grinned all the time anyway but Tsart, who was the only one who looked back, rolled his eyes impatiently.
They reached the armoury.
As a former captain, Titus was used to a high standard of weaponry but what they got here still managed to impress him. In addition to the extensive amount of explosives and the standard bolters, there were storm shields and power swords for him, Dankwart, Tsart and Carnas. Athuriel would carry a heavy flamer. Mark II Ragefire plasma guns were reserved for Tiberius and Vargov. Also, a jump pack was ready.
When Titus inquired who took a jump pack into a space station, he was informed that it was for Vox.
“I’m amazed that you ask this, brother”, Athuriel said. “I heard you were boarded by daemons on your way here. You must have seen Vox in action.”
“I did indeed see him fight with his jump pack on”, Titus admitted.
“I had one mission with Vox, where he didn’t find good use for a jump pack”, Tiberius informed him in a friendly fashion. “And we’ve worked together for ten years now.”
“Indeed”, Vargov cut in. “We have long since neglected trying to turn him from his folly since we never could prove that it was folly at all”, he provided. “I myself have to admit to an incident which I wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Vox and his jump pack.”
“Yes. That thing is damned useful on Vox”, Tsart growled.
“And since he usually declines any other equipment, maybe except for a bolt pistol, he’s not exactly an expensive person to kit out”, Tiberius said.
“Then I’m agog to see how he will put it to use in tau-sized corridors”, Titus said pleasantly.
“Well, you’re his partner”, Vargov said with an evil grin and handed him the disputed object. “You’ll be the first to know.”