They ran up the stairs, Titus still steadying Vox. The three brothers they had left up there had fanned out and provided them with cover while Tsart and Athuriel had managed to reach a staircase as well. They all met at the mouth of the corridor.
Vox had just enough time to wipe the blood out of his eyes and straighten up before Tsart positively exploded into his face.
“What the hell has gotten into you?!”, their leader roared and came to a halt immediately in front of Vox. They were about the same size but Tsart nevertheless tried to lean over the librarian as he began to curse at him in no small manner. The others meanwhile were busy keeping the teams of Tau at bay who were trying to enter the hall from several directions.
Vox looked Tsart calmly in the helmet. When the Destroyer paused to draw a breath, he asked: “What did you take?” There was a lot of quiet menace in his voice.
“What do you want, you little bag of filth?”, Tsart snarled. “You broke radio silence, you gave us away!”
“Show him, Tsart”, Athuriel demanded from the side and finally, his voice displayed this quality Titus had already assumed it might have. This was no request. It was a command issued from the strong lungs of someone destined to lead his fellow brothers. Even while the Dark Angel bellowed his words, he steadied his bolter to keep a cluster of enemies under fire. Other teams appeared on their level now, and Aegis had to retreat into the corridor in their back. The four of them who carried storm shields formed a wall without prompting but Vox’s eyes never left Tsart’s helmet.
“Show me!”, the librarian demanded again.
“Damn it, Tsart, show him! I saw you take it!”, Athuriel reinforced the demand while gripping his weapon in a less than reassuring manner.
Tsart still hovered uncertainly behind his raised shield for a moment.
Reluctantly, he finally bent down and drew a combat knife from his calf sheath. Its blade was sturdy and short. Black and rough except on the edge, where the layered steel had been polished and showed itself in harsh, thin lines. The handle was wrapped with a kind of curly fur, clearly often gripped and worn down. On each side of the cubical pommel, the crest of the White Scars was deeply etched into the polished steel.
Vox stared at it, frowning.
“I hope you know that this is charged to the edges with warp energy”, he said flatly. He caught it when the Destroyer dropped the thing in response to this and handed it to Titus.
“You carry it, brother. It’ll harm you the least.”
Titus took it and like Tsart had done, wedged it next to his own combat knife.
“Damn it Tsart, I told you to leave it”, Vox said with surprisingly little rancour in his voice as he took cover behind him. “Next time at least wait for the way out!” He looked around wearily. The unbending intensity had fled from his features. It left helpless concern.
“Any suggestions on how we get a next time?”, he wanted to know.
“Yes”, Titus said calmly and was interrupted by Tsart immediately.
“What are you two doing?”, their leader snarled, his fury easily audible over the shrieking alarm. “This isn’t ‘choose your tactics’! Whatever happened, I’m still your leader!”
Before Titus had finished drawing his breath to answer back, Vox laid a hand on his arm and dragged him around. He now shielded them from the Tau that were moving in from the other side.
When they had sorted the suppressive fire out, Vox fixed his gaze on Tsart. All the intensity returned to his handsome features.
“Brother Tiberius of the Ultramarines”, he said loudly and distinctly, even though his eyes never left Tsart’s helmet. “I call you as my witness in matters of the law, laid down in the Codex Astartes.”
“I’m ready to testify”, Tiberius said a little absent-mindedly and shot at Tau on the far side of the corridor.
“Tsart of the Destroyers”, Vox continued in the same loud and official-sounding tone. “For endangering the sacred mission in the name of the Emperor that has been bestowed upon Kill Team Aegis, I relieve you of your command…”
Maybe behind his helmet, there was a telling twitch just before Tsart’s bolter came up sharply, but neither Titus nor Tiberius needed it. They had anticipated the movement as soon as they had understood what Vox was saying and acted in unison. Titus punched the bolter out of the way before a shot could go off and Tiberius slammed his third arm into Tsart’s breastplate that he hit the wall with force.
“… as laid down in the Codex Astartes in case of the failure of a leader”, Vox finished his sentence.
“I confirm the law”, Tiberius said curtly, getting a hold on Tsart’s arms. With difficulty he managed to hold him so that his shield kept facing the right way.
“I yield my command to brother Titus of the Ultramarines”, Vox mentioned in passing as he drew his sword. He jumped up to dart around the corner for a moment.
Titus quickly shuffled through the requirements of the new situation.
“Brothers, how long did it take the Tau to arrive after the alarm was set off?”, he wanted to know while he placed a few shots. Vox returned, covered in blue blood.
“About twenty or thirty seconds”, Athuriel replied, treating Vox to a reproachful glance as he indicated his flamer.
“Good”, Titus said meanwhile. “Tiberius, do I gather correctly that text messages are harder to track than vox communications?”
“Yes”, their techmarine answered. “The signals are shorter and easy to miss, but that’s no guarantee.”
“Better than nothing”, Titus estimated. “They will have a lot of vox chatter themselves. Let’s hope they’ll miss this. Tsart, we can still save this mission. Are you ready to do your part for honour and the Emperor?”
Tsart looked down behind his helmet but then, he nodded mutely.
“Tiberius, let him go!”
The techmarine obeyed without delay.
“Alright here’s the plan”, Titus began. “The force with which they come now, suggests to me that there is, or was something important in that hall and they think we stole it. Maybe, it’s the dagger. Maybe, it’s something else. The point is they are misled about our intent.” He took a moment to treat the enemies to another round of fire.
“Aharran, Tsart”, Titus then addressed the two men, who were best suited to save the mission. “You will split from us and head for the core while we fight our way back to the outer corridor. Vox, I need you to guide them around any Tau they might encounter. The xenos must not know that two of us are going somewhere else. You think you can do that?”
Vox shot him a calculating look while bullets ricocheted off the wall beside him.
“I think so”, he said. “As long as they move in clusters at least. I can’t perceive single Tau in this mess. The drones I can’t sense at all. Also, I won’t be able to do anything else.”
“It’ll have to do”, Titus decided. “Monitor their path and text them if they need to alter it. You two keep an eye on your signals and do what Vox says! With any luck, you can rejoin us without being noticed. Any questions?”
There were none.
Wordlessly, the brothers handed their share of the melta charges to Aharran and Tsart. Titus smiled a bitter smile behind his helmet. Specialists, who almost never stopped thinking.
“We’ll need to clear them a path through that corridor down there”, Vox said, pointing at the entrance opposite and one story down.
“Understood! Move!”, Titus commanded and the brothers pushed forward. They quickly made their way along the gallery and down the stairs on the other side.
Athuriel burned the Tau lurking in the specified corridor and Vox peered down it even before the last smouldering body had toppled over.
“I think, these Tau came up from below”, the librarian estimated and put his helmet on to get access to his text messages. “Text me about anything apart from bare walls. Good luck, may the Emperor protect you, brothers!”
Aharran and Tsart set out to find a way down and Titus just hoped the plan would work. The text functions of their armours were terrible to use. They were slow and sometimes unreliable and they blocked half the field of vision when they were displayed. Astartes used this feature only in dire need. Since Titus saw no other sensible way of communication, this probably counted as such, he reasoned. Vox’s list of powers clearly had excluded any form of long range telepathy after all.
“We’ll move through the hall on ground level”, Titus decided. “Maybe, we’ll find something else to take.”
They did not. Nothing among the smouldering rubble was small enough to risk its burden, especially when Vox slowed down more and more and started to walk into objects. Once, he simply fell out of cover without reason. The whole station was one big stirred hornet’s nest and it got harder for him by the minute to determine what was moving where. Even walking while trying to keep his concentration up, quickly got out the question. Noticing this, Tiberius firmly locked his third arm around their librarian and half carried, half dragged him along on his broad back.
They were just four fighters now and only Titus and Dankwart had shields. This way, pushing forward was no easy task. Tau fire was dangerous even for Space Marines and more than once, it was their superior metabolism that saved them. Luckily, the drones still were no problem. Whatever Tiberius had done to them, they appeared only in small numbers and were dealt with quickly. Even with the heavy resistance they met, Titus worried that the Tau had seen through their hastily constructed diversion. It turned out that they had swallowed it all too well.
The xenos jumped them when they had almost reached the outer corridor. It happened right after Athuriel had used the last of the grenades Vox had been carrying. These Tau were kitted out with full war gear which they used to the limits. It started with a smoke grenade and continued with immediate suppressive fire. The Space Marines switched to infrared vision in an instant but Tau behind their armours rendered no very clear image. Had it not been for Tiberius, the xenos surely would have been able to place explosives and put an end to all of Aegis there and then. Titus heard the techmarine yell “Look after Vox!” and rushed forward, to give cover to the falling form of his friend.
Tiberius had much better auto senses than his comrades and by the sound of it, the enemies had not anticipated any of them coming around the corner so quickly.
Titus cowered behind his storm shield when the Tau, who had chased them here, suddenly put the pressure on again. By firing wildly into the smoke they were trying to aid the xenos that had set up the ambush and proved that their communication was rather too quick for Titus’ liking.
The smoke was lifting slowly and he could make out shapes again. Knowing that this went for the enemies too, Titus put his bolter away, grabbed Vox, who had not moved and found that he was surprisingly light. He picked him up without trouble. Retreating into cover proved difficult however because Vox started to struggle. Titus renewed his grip and decided to follow Tiberius instead of heading for the last crossway they had passed. The Tau surely would overrun that position in the next seconds. On his way, he caught several shots because crouching behind a shield while carrying someone was no easy task to begin with. That Vox fought him added difficulty to his attempt to shield him.
“Let me go!”, his little brother yelled. “I can’t see them! You’re interfering, let me go!”
“Shut up”, Titus ordered. “You’re no use to them dead!”
“Then let someone else… Damn it, brother! Let me go!”
Titus allowed Vox to twist out of his grip when they had gained cover in the outer corridor. They were joined by the others while Tiberius smashed the last Tau warrior against the wall. The massive body of the techmarine swayed and bled, his breastplate and belly armour penetrated by several dozen shots. Dankwart steadied him with one hand while shielding them from the Tau that had appeared anew behind them. No command was needed to form a defensive huddle around their psyker.
A few heartbeats later, everything went very quiet. Several seconds passed with the alarm still screeching but no gunfire in their direction whatsoever. They all turned to their librarian.
“Carnas, I’m sorry. I lost track of you”, Vox said hoarsely, breaking radio silence. With this, he confirmed what they had already dreaded: Tsart and Aharran had been spotted.
There was no Tau suicidal enough to keep on attacking the five Space Marines in the outer corridor when their core was threatened.
“It’s alright Vox”, Aharran’s reply came in and they all thought they could hear him grin mirthlessly. “You really think we expected to make it back?”, the Celestial Lion asked. “Tsart is down. You have about thirty seconds to get out of here.”
“It will suffice”, Titus said confidently. “Go in glory, brother! Lifelines everyone!”, he bellowed and affixed his own line to Vox, dragging him to his feet. What was left of Aegis formed a tightly linked circle within seconds.
“May the Emperor protect you, brothers!”, they heard Aharran one last time.
“May He take you home!”, all of them answered.
“Concentrate fire at that window!”, Titus ordered as soon as the last syllable had died away. No explanations were necessary. Within seconds, the window cracked and started to break under their shots. On Titus’ command, they threw themselves against it as one man, knocking it out of the frame with their combined strength. The storm of escaping air accelerated their passage into the void just enough to pass through before heavy shutters came down to prevent the loss of air.
“Damn!”, Vox called into their team channel while he tried to get them as far away as possible with his jump pack. “Hold on, brothers, or the blast will separate us!”
They pulled together as fast as they could, intertwining arms and legs, tightening their grips on anything they could reach. Tiberius still got knocked from their huddle, his lifeline snapping under the immense force of their acceleration but Vox had reached out and caught his flailing third arm.
When the strange distorted noise of an explosion in space had seized, they shot through the void at a constant, indeterminable speed.
“Everyone alive?”, Titus checked.
“Is that a trick question?”, Vox wanted to know sarcastically.
“Yes, actually I’m not so much concerned about everyone. Tiberius, if you’re alive, request a pick-up, please!”, Titus commanded.
“On it”, the brother confirmed weakly, manoeuvring himself back to them. Vox let go of him but was unable to lower his arm. While Tiberius talked to the ‘Zephyr’, Dankwart tried to set Vox’s dislocated shoulder. It took him several attempts and some halfway funny acrobatics to achieve this. No one laughed.
They stayed in their huddle, holding on to each other in an absent-minded sort of way. No further word fell between them until the ‘Zephyr’ had picked them up.