The Space Marines waited until they were alone. Only then did Tiberius address Titus again.
“Before we retrieve your armour, captain, we have to deliver a message from Commander Ferone.”
“Go ahead, brother.”
The techmarine stepped up to him and performed a lengthy ritual. He used the binary language of the tech priests, moving his arms around with careful but expansive gestures. Finally, he nodded and his armour replayed the advertised message: “I, Ferone of the Blood Angels, Watch Commander and Master of Vigil on Erioch, greet you, Captain Titus of the Ultramarines. In the name of the Emperor, who sent His servants to the Jericho Reach, I invite you to join the ranks of the Deathwatch on Erioch for as long as you see fit. I have spoken to Chapter Master Marneus Calgar who is ready to agree to your decision. If you wish to satisfy my request, for the glory of the Emperor and the xenos’ demise, you may join the squad sent to you. May the Emperor guide your steps!”
Titus sank into deep thought for a moment. His chapter master and the commander of the Deathwatch leaving this decision to him? Very unlikely. This apparent suggestion was nothing short of an order. He caught himself stroking the service studs on his forehead. No Ultramarine anymore then. Taking the black, not for honour but to avoid shame. Still. At least a way to keep fighting.
“It will be an honour and my pleasure to join you”, he said and found a stern, controlled sadness in the two visible faces before him. There was something else beside this. A strange tension that struck Titus as odd.
All three of them turned to look into Vox’s helmet. He nodded as if acknowledging their attention.
“We’ll… See to the armour”, Tiberius reluctantly informed his librarian and received yet another nod. Dankwart and he left without asking Titus’ permission to be dismissed.
“Follow me, captain”, the remaining Vox said. “We will see to your food.”
Omitting any explanation, the brother with the black shoulder guard led him to the back of the room. Here, a narrow door was discreetly hidden behind the banner of the Inquisition. Titus had trouble crossing the distance but to his relief, his companion ignored him stoically.
The room they entered was smaller and even more splendidly furnished than the audience chamber. There were many places to sit here, including a table with half a dozen ornate chairs around it. Bookshelves lined the walls and a large wardrobe stood in the back. Behind beautifully ornamented doors, it concealed its secrets from the intruders. The pictures were of a more spiritual nature than outside. Uncovered skin dominated most of them. A fresco on the ceiling showed the sign of the Ordo Xenos, its skull gazing downward in stoic distaste.
The table bore a simple meal which Titus judged insufficient even for a snack. The furnishings were too small for them, especially with one wearing power armour. There was nothing for it but to push the chairs away and fold themselves around the table as best they could.
“I’m sorry about this, captain. Dankwart judged you over-hungered”, Vox explained as he knelt down opposite. “We have the option to get you more later.”
Slowly, Titus began to eat, concentrating on every movement. The strange tension the brothers had displayed had sprung over to him. Something was up. Vox, meanwhile, removed his helmet. With all the proper rites too, Titus noticed.
“Travelling with Tiberius does this to you”, the young man remarked with a lopsided grin when he saw Titus’ attentive gaze.
The complete ease with which he met the eyes of a man he had seen as a badly mutilated prisoner, struck Titus as odd. Therefore the captain withheld an answer. Instead, he examined Vox’s face carefully. He judged him a little older than back in the dark but the long, flowing hair and smooth facial skin of Sanguinius’ blood made it hard to guess his age. As he observed, his counterpart looked back unabashed, scrutinizing him in the same manner. Titus was uncertain who of them gained the deeper insight.
“I wouldn’t know”, he finally replied.
Without turning his gaze from Titus, Vox took the microbead out of his gorget and put it into an ear. So, the brother wanted to monitor vox transmissions in private but why? He had already drawn the breath to ask, when the young man suddenly said: “I bring greetings from Captain Miranda Nero, captain. She sends her regards.”
This derailed his train of thought sufficiently. It took him several seconds to recognize Mira’s full name.
“Captain?”, he asked in surprise. “She has been promoted then?”
“Yes. After the events on Graia, she became captain of the two-hundred third.”
“How is she?”, Titus inquired cautiously.
“Well, I met her three months ago…”
He lowered his gaze to the bowl of nourishing gruel.
“Of course”, he said hoarsely. Three months was more than enough for a life to end.
“How was she then?”, he wanted to know nevertheless. The question was shameful but he was desperate to hear news from one of the few friendly ghosts that had haunted him in the darkness.
Vox narrowed his eyes, peering at him closely as if what he was about to tell him was not to his liking.
The information hit Titus like a bullet to the stomach. It shut down all non vital processes in an instant. After almost a minute of stunned silence, Vox continued in a placating tone: “She thought you dead.”
Titus was deeply shocked that the turmoil in his mind should show on his face. Even more so about the indication that the brother knew why there would be turmoil.
“Well. They are short-lived”, the captain finally managed and it sounded rather wooden. He tried to sort his features out and rubbed his face to regain control.
“A human would move on, I suppose”, he added desperately.
Vox looked at him intently before he shook his head.
“No”, he said quietly. “The woman I saw wept for a mistake she made. I think she would have waited all her short life, had she known you alive.”
Again Titus needed a long run up to form the next words.
“And that would have been a waste, wouldn’t it?”, he said despondently.
“I suppose so. We’re terrible lovers, I’m afraid.”
Now, Titus blushed.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you”, Vox was hasty to add, only managing to put Titus to even more shame by it.
“It’s just…”, the young man valiantly tried to save the situation. “If you are only aiming for the pleasure and the physical act it’s probably something different but, forgive my cruelty to say so, you two seem to me like you had something more in mind. And you won’t live up to that.”
Titus stared at the brother in the cold fury of the helpless. He was at a loss for words. The worst was that they had long passed the point where he could have told Vox off. The captain had posed the question to lead them here after all.
“Did you tell her that too?”, he managed after a while.
“Broadly”, Vox said in a soft tone. “She despaired when I told her that you were alive. What could I have done but to try and comfort her? And how could I have done it but by enforcing her belief that she had chosen the right path? If nothing has gone terribly wrong, she has a child and a husband to fight for now.”
Vox held his gaze with calm compassion. Titus clearly saw the sympathy but there was this strange pain in his chest, urging him to pass it on.
“It wasn’t your choice”, he accused him.
“No”, Vox admitted collectedly. The cruel reproach slid off him like rain.
“And it wasn’t yours either. We have been chosen to fight for humanity in the Emperor’s name. We stand apart. With all the consequences this brings.”
“Have you been preparing that speech?”, Titus asked. A heartbeat later, he scolded himself for this comment, vowing that it would be the last. Insulting a brother over a human was nothing he would hear from anyone, least himself.
Vox meanwhile still seemed to take no notice of the repeated affront. Instead, he earnestly answered the question: “Kind of, yes. I already had three months to reflect on this, captain. You didn’t. I’m told it gets better over time.”
Now, Titus was interested despite himself.
Vox gave him an impish grin.
“I have a chatty chambermaid. An invaluable source of information, let me tell you!” But instead of telling him anything, suddenly, a change came over the young man. He tensed, the smile disappeared and he lifted a finger for Titus to pay attention. On the edge of detection Titus heard: “We’re clear.”
Vox tapped a spot on his gorget. Possibly the outer vox ears of the Mark VI would be hidden there. If so, the tap would be sufficient to produce a confirmatory noise on the other end.
“Gate three”, Titus’ enhanced hearing could pick up.
Vox tapped again. Then, he raised a finger to his lips, pointed to his ear and drew a circle in the air.
Someone was listening.
“Your time here must have been exhausting, captain”, the brother said out loud, looking at him intensely. “How about you get some sleep? I will stand guard outside.” His hand made a gesture, urging him to confirm.
“Yes, brother. Thank you. I need time to think”, he said, frowning and tilting his head in a silent question.
Vox stood up, walked around the table and pulled him to his feet. Again he put a finger to his lips and pointed outside. Titus understood that there would be explanations beyond the door.
He was rather too shocked to do anything about it when the brother mouthed “sorry” and ripped the robe off him. Gripped by one bony arm, the captain was rushed outside. He distantly considered refusing to leave the room while naked but since the door closed behind them already, he just tried to follow his brother. Vox ran a few steps down the corridor before he noticed that Titus was completely unable to match his pace. The young man returned and picked him up, lifting him to his breastplate with both arms. Like this, they sped along the hallway until they reached a door that seemed no different from any other they had passed.
“You might be wondering, what’s going on”, Vox said casually and opened the door with a quite well-balanced kick against the skull next to it.
“The question crossed my idle mind”, Titus conceded coldly while he clung to his brother to make himself easier to carry.
“Well, captain. We don’t trust our inquisitor to aim to let you live but since we want to keep you alive, we are removing you from where she knows you to be.”
“And the robe?”
“It’s bugged!”, Vox declared cheerfully. “Come on, captain! Did you only fight the obvious battles until now?”
“Apparently”, he said stiffly.
“Cheer up! Maybe we’ll stumble upon Thrax. Nobody will comment if we shoot him down, I’m sure.”
“Good point”, Titus said with a reproachful look into Vox’s brazen grin. “Give me a gun. At least I can make myself useful if someone follows us.”
“I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to shooting but here you go!”
There was a complicated moment in which Vox reached for his pistol while trying not to drop Titus. Afterwards, the captain was at least armed.
It was impossible to avoid all the people on the ship and wherever they were spotted, they drew astonished glances. Oblivious to these, Vox rounded corners, sometimes ducking into adjacent rooms. There, he waited for obscure reasons before running on.
However hard he might have lied to himself about his condition, Titus had to admit that he would not have kept up. To avoid dwelling on this, he busied himself with guarding the brother’s back.
He felt awkward.
Even in full armour, Vox was a little shorter than he was but he carried him with the strength and resilience of the true Space Marine.
Which Titus had lost in the dark.
The captain gritted his teeth and vowed that he would regain it, come what may. He would fight again in the Emperor’s name and for humanity’s glory. Nothing would stop him.