Titus sat and stared at the tabletop when Laraise re-entered. She was really good. He had to admit it. Her face betrayed nothing when she sat down opposite.
“Well?”, she asked as if she had not monitored their short exchange and cut it off in the middle.
Titus looked at her. He was certain that the pain inside him betrayed itself in his eyes but this did not change the facts.
“My answer is yes, inquisitor”, he informed her and when the hungry smile spread across her face, he leaned forward slightly. “I trust my brother”, he clarified. With this, he stood up.
“And what makes you think you can leave, Brother Titus?”, Laraise asked, dropping her charade as she rose from her chair as well.
“Faith”, he answered simply and looked into her anger-filled eyes.
“I notice you have rather a lot of that”, the inquisitor snarled and Titus was unable to fathom how much he despised this woman. This person who had gotten comfortable with being superior, who was used to having the upper hand. He could not bring himself to look at her for more than a few seconds and he had his work cut out not to answer back. Vox had asked him to leave without another word and he judged this wise. Denying Laraise a confession after she had been so close to it, would make her furious. Titus was uncertain about the consequences an inquisitor faced if she killed a brother of the Deathwatch. What he was certain of, however, was that if he offended her on top of her already stoked anger, she might reach the conclusion that she could afford to demonstrate them to him.
As if by keeping silent he had indeed won this struggle, the inquisitor suddenly stormed out.
Titus felt like a traitor. He could imagine on whom she would rain down her wrath.
Beyond the door, he found the dumb messenger.
“Bring me back to the ‘Hammer’”, he demanded. The man shot a worried glance in the direction Laraise must have disappeared in before he bowed deeply.
Titus put his helmet on. He doubted very much that he would reach the ‘Hammer’ without help and wanted to be alone with his transmissions.
“Tiberius, come in!”, he voxed. Titus knew that his range was less limited in free space than on the surface of a planet. He was lucky. The line was not clear but Tiberius answered. Since, at this time of night, the brother had been asleep, the first sentence was about as coherent as that of Vox earlier.
“It’s Titus”, he informed his techmarine. “I’m on the ‘Lawbringer’ and need extraction. Wake Nostromo, maybe he can help!”
“How did you get to the ‘Lawbringer’?”, Tiberius asked in confusion.
“I’ll wake Solomon”, the techmarine decided. “Maybe Elaine can help. Tiberius out.”
Titus rejoiced. They never stopped thinking.
Even with this backup in place, it was probably a good idea to get off-board as quickly as possible. It was unpleasantly far to the bays and Titus only stuck with his mute guide because he knew where all the transportation servitors were. Since he chose a fast one, there was no point in running alone.
When they entered the hangar and approached the shuttle they had arrived by, the man took a quick look around in a nervous fashion. Titus tensed. He was waiting for the man to run and indeed he did but he beckoned to follow him first.
Titus decided to take the risk. Few humans were loyal to a murderous superior and a servant of Laraise probably learned to read the signs.
The man led him to a shuttle much further down the line. It was midnight black with glorious silver applications and the signs of the Ordo Xenos on the doors.
His pilot entered hurriedly and started to perform rites the Omnissiah could hopefully hear, while Titus folded himself inside as well. The ship was luxuriantly dimensioned for a human, for a Space Marine it was rather small. When the rites were finally finished, his mute pilot commanded the machine spirit of the ship to take off and they left the ‘Lawbringer’ without complications.
“Tiberius, come in”, Titus used his time to vox. “What’s your status?”
“Solomon tried to contact Elaine but can’t reach her”, Tiberius reported shortly. “We’re on our way to pick you up ourselves.”
“I left the ‘Lawbringer’ in a shuttle”, Titus informed him. “I’m quite certain that my pilot is trying to help but I’m afraid I left Laraise in a bit of a state.”
“Oh great”, the techmarine commented flatly. “What else could we hope for? Alright, stay safe. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
Forced to sit almost bent double, Titus glanced out of the window. They were just rounding the bulk of the ‘Lawbringer’ and to his surprise, the ‘Aurum’ came into view. The much larger, golden ship had taken up station alongside the ‘Lawbringer’. It gleamed in the light of Corred’s sun which stood somewhere behind them.
Titus knew that things were going wrong when his pilot suddenly got nervous. A heartbeat later, he spotted several black dots that were detaching themselves from the golden hull of the ‘Aurum’.
He considered his options. Those were spaceworthy interceptors. To judge by the way they flew, something equal to a storm raven or a thunderhawk class. So, they faced warships, which were certainly better armed than the small vessel they were travelling in.
Titus was fully prepared to break the door open and let the man suffocate to take his chances outside. He braced himself and waited for the right moment to carry out this plan when the ship suddenly dipped towards the ‘Lawbringer’ in a violent dive. His pilot pulled up at the last moment and something exploded right next to them. When they flew a tight circle, Titus finally saw what was going on: There was a squadron of Ork ships coming in from Corred. They were almost eclipsed by the blinding light of the sun in their backs but Titus, safe from the brightness behind his auto senses, counted at least a dozen vessels. Something about them was off and he closed his eyes to replay the pictures in his head. In theory, his auto senses had a similar function but it was rather more complicated and time-consuming than just calling upon his next to perfect memory.
Yes, he had been right. There was at least one imperial ship with this swarm. It was ahead of them and seemed to flee but Titus immediately knew what had happened here: Someone had drawn the Orks and he was ready to bet who had given the order to do so.
It had taken no more than a second to reach this conclusion and then he had other things on his mind in any case. He could do little, only wedge himself between seats while numerous projectiles exploded around them. The Orks were a crazy race, dismantling any type of technology and using it in strange, new ways. Thus, it was not surprising when a spear as long as their shuttle smashed through the roof. It missed Titus only just. The air started to escape rapidly and the mute pilot put some kind of respirator mask on. Titus judged this only a temporary fix, however. The lack of pressure would knock the man out in short order. Since he could summon up no enthusiasm for the prospect of being stranded without pilot in the current situation, he busied himself by sealing the breach with his armour cement. The stuff was standard equipment for every Space Marine. Encountering reduced atmospheric pressure outside its tube, it set quickly. It was designed just for an eventuality like this. He did not get the ship airtight again but enough so that the Omnissiah saw fit to keep up the pressure required for a human to exist.
“Titus where are you?!”, he heard Tiberius’ excited voice over vox a few seconds later.
“Somewhere en route from the ‘Lawbringer’ to the ‘Aurum’”, Titus answered while he struggled to sort his limbs out in the narrow space.
“You mean in the middle of these Orks”, his techmarine stated flatly.
“Approximately”, was the most sensible thing Titus found to say. Another explosion shook the ship but he noticed that this time his pilot hardly twitched. The interceptors from the ‘Aurum’ had reached them. They swarmed around them, shooting at Ork vessels and a short, confused while later, their flight went steady. Two thunderhawks escorted them towards Inquisitor Elaine’s ship.
Quiet, uncertain minutes went by until they had docked. When his mute pilot opened the door for him to unfold himself from the vessel, Titus saw that they had arrived together with the rest of Aegis. The brothers were pouring out of a Corvus Blackstar gunship in black and silver. Titus had only heard of this type of ship. It was exclusive to the Deathwatch and rumoured to have a very strange machine spirit which made it difficult to steer. Once a techmarine had mastered it, however, it was said to be the best, most formidable ship of its size ever built by the Imperium of Man.
The hangar around them was in the full bustle of a red alert. Warships were deploying as fast as the machine spirits could be made to obey. Even their escort was swarmed by ground personnel to get them out into the fight again. Just when he wondered why no troops were greeting them, he spotted Inquisitor Elaine in the throng. It remained unclear whether she had just arrived or had been waiting for longer. She wore something that was probably an armour but tried to conceal the fact. It was neatly fitted, black and silver as it suited an inquisitor of the Ordo Xenos and made her seem strangely powerful and agile. A magnificent, crimson cloak hung around her shoulders and her bodyguards ensured a luxuriant amount of space around her in the crowds.
Titus was surprised when his mute pilot scuttled up to Elaine and fell to one knee while his brothers gathered around him. They all watched in bemused interest while the messenger received a few quiet words from the inquisitor and disappeared between hustling people.
Aegis exchanged glances. This mostly resulted in Hyron and Vyron declaring the confusion in their features, since the rest of them wore helmets.
They all reached the conclusion that a little display of respect was in order and removed said helmets before they marched towards the inquisitor. Not a word had been spoken between them.
“Welcome, my lords”, Elaine greeted them and Titus noticed how different her demeanour and voice was. She had been relaxed and open when they had met her. During the debriefing, she had been quiet and focused. Now, she was hard.
“Who of you spoke to Laraise?”, she inquired curtly.
“I did, inquisitor”, Titus answered.
“I must ask the others to leave again”, she said with a short nod towards the rest of Aegis. “I promise to return your brother safely. Follow me, Titus”, she ordered and turned.
Titus could only give his friends a concerned glance before he had to hurry after her. She led him to a room he had not seen before, leaving her bodyguards outside. It was a small but comfortable living room. Two narrow doors led away from it. The sparse furnishings included a table, a couch and an armchair. Elaine invited Titus to sit on the couch while she took the armchair opposite.
“These are my private quarters”, she informed him. “I’m not in the habit of bugging them. You may speak freely.”
“Thank you, inquisitor”, Titus said cautiously.
“I must say, Titus”, Elaine continued, leaning back in a strangely tense manner. “I have rarely seen someone as lucky as you. I have only a handful of sleepers with Laraise. We didn’t have much contact until now and she actually chose one of them to fetch you.”
Titus found nothing to say and Elaine smiled about that. It was the same, confident smile he had seen on Laraise less than an hour ago.
“Bertram is a good pilot and quite a sound thinker in a tight corner”, Elaine continued. “Had he not informed me when you left the ‘Lawbringer’ and that you had stolen Laraise’s personal shuttle, there would have been no help for you. So much for the details of why you are here. Now, I would very much like to know why my colleague went through so much trouble to get at Vox, only to get at you.” Her eyes searched his face. “And I see, you will not tell me readily. I can live with that. So, will you please tell me everything you can? We will work our way along from there.”
Titus hesitated. Elaine was even worse than Laraise. Her attempt to get him talking had a lot more punch. He only just managed to refrain from opening his mouth right away.
“First of all, let me thank you for my rescue, Mistress Elaine”, he said to gain a little time but Elaine lifted a hand.
“Please”, she said not very patiently. “I don’t have time for games. Let me make one thing clear: The way things looked outside, something went wrong for you in dealing with Laraise. How long do you think Vox has until she ‘accidentally’ kills him? I see you are not certain yourself”, she said immediately. “Titus, you only just survived your encounter with her. You will work with me or lose your brother. Now tell me what you can and I will make use of it!”
“Do you know about Thrax?”
“I know an inquisitor by the name of Louis Sassubel of Thrax.”
“That should be the one.”
“What should I know about him?”, Elaine inquired.
“Laraise accused him of dealing with chaos and Vox helped her in the investigation.”
“How do you come into the picture?”, Elaine asked calmly.
“Their investigation started with him imprisoning me for three years.”
Elaine’s features froze in a hard to describe way that nevertheless conveyed that she understood firmly what being a prisoner of Thrax meant.
“My apologies, Titus. I didn’t know that”, she said quietly.
Titus nodded and his grey eyes wandered through the room for a moment before he went on: “When Laraise accused Thrax, I was released, but Aegis reckoned that she would try to kill me and they managed to get me under the protection of the Deathwatch. I was a captain among the Ultramarines and laid down my rank to make myself unimportant enough to be left alone. Now it seems that Laraise hasn’t made enough progress in her investigation against Thrax. She got her hands on Vox to get out of me what Thrax made me do.”
“What did he make you do?” A lightning-fast smile crossed Elaine’s features when she saw Titus’ face. “Just checking”, she assured him. “So, Laraise wanted you to confess and promised to let Vox go if you did?”
“And you didn’t comply because…?”
“I think she would have held me complicit”, Titus admitted uneasily. He grew more uncertain by the second if he had judged the situation right.
“She could have called me to court as a witness, this way seemed wrong to me. Also…”
“Yes?”, Elaine prompted.
“She let me talk to Vox and he asked me to leave without another word.”
Elaine leaned back and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “How angry was Laraise?”, she inquired then.
“She left the room at speed without making threats”, Titus said cautiously.
Elaine stood up and Titus followed her example. The inquisitor took a few aimless steps before she sighed deeply.
“Titus, I know of no accusation against Thrax”, she let him know as she turned her firm gaze back to him. “If an inquisitor is accused of heresy, every other inquisitor of every order in the quadrant must be informed to root out the sleepers and loyal personnel the inquisitor in question might still have around. This has not happened. I didn’t even know that Thrax has been removed from duty.”
“The way it sounded, she must have him on board”, Titus presumed.
Elaine gritted her teeth a few times, narrowing her eyes while she thought.
“Vox could tell you”, Titus said desperately. “I bet if Thrax is on the ship, Vox could find him.”
“Forget about Thrax for a moment”, Elaine said and started to walk up and down. When she came to a halt, she looked worried.
“I have no legal way to get at Vox”, she declared. “But I think I can keep him alive until she has to release him. You must return to the ‘Hammer’ meanwhile. I know, Astartes don’t like sitting things out, but this is a battle between inquisitors. Promise me that you will not interfere!”
Titus stared at her. He failed to fathom all the layers of manipulation, she shuffled so easily. From personal to outright forceful and back. It was no use. He was out of options in any case. He had only ever fought the obvious battles. This was beyond him.
“I promise”, he acceded after a moment of hesitation.
“Thank you”, Mistress Elaine said earnestly. “I promise I will do what I can to bring your brother back alive.”
“Thank you, inquisitor.”
Elaine walked him to the hangar herself, sending out numerous vox communications all the way. Among other things, she got reports from the pilots outside. Apparently, the Ork situation had worsened and the whole imperial wing had to retreat from orbit or be involved in a battle of major proportions.
Titus took it as a courtesy that she shared the intelligence freely.
They parted with even more than the necessary respect when Elaine boarded her ship.
On his way over, Titus’ guilt caught up with him. It had been prudent to leave Vox behind. His little brother simply had the better chances of survival but he could ponder the cold, hard facts as long as he liked. It made nothing better.