To enable Vox to join training again, Aegis as a whole devised a few training sequences in which they tried to wage war on each other without employing their hands. This at least took care of the nervous severity holding them in its devious grasp. It dissolved into laughter.
Three days later, Titus kept Vox company through the night while he wrote his report. The friend was hardly able to hold the quill in his mangled hands but he radiated a grim kind of satisfaction all the way through.
It took another day to sort out formalities, after which they met Elaine again. She was kind and welcoming, especially to Vox but lost no word about the incident. Instead, she asked them to attend another task for her. Two of her adepts had gone missing on Implicit. It was a former mining world in the Jericho Reach, where efforts had been made to build a fortress world as a bulwark against the Tau Imperium. The lost adepts had been investigating Tau sympathies on the planet and Aegis agreed to accompany Legate Solomon to pick up the investigation again.
They would provide a little ‘implicit disappearance prevention’ as Vox called it.
Which surely implied active help, Titus noted.
In her talk with Nostromo, Elaine had sorted out terms and conditions for the Fleet of Destiny to transport them and they would be ready to leave within the hour.
A couple of weeks later, they had just completed their third jump and Aegis was in the middle of training, when a servant brought the request to come to the bridge immediately.
Flanked by Nostromo and Solomon, a small, thin man awaited them. It was Oulairy Sequessina, the astropath on the ‘Hammer of Destiny’. He wore the customary blindfold of his profession but nevertheless turned to them as they approached. Since he had been the last leader, Vox was coming up to him first.
“Greetings, Master Sequessina”, he said for all of them.
“Greetings, my lord Vox Draconis”, the astropath replied politely. Especially next to the exceedingly well set up Space Marines, he looked like he would fall apart with sickness any moment.
“This has just arrived for you.” He held out a piece of paper which was skimmed over quickly.
“Oh, dread”, Vox commented, handing it around. It began with praises to the Emperor, the Imperium, the Inquisition, the commander, the Space Marines in general and Aegis in particular, listing them all by name. As usual for a translation from one astropath to another, the actual message was extremely short. It read: “Kill Team Gradus gone missing on Almond hunting Genestealers. Investigate!”
“Do you know when Gradus has gone missing, master Sequessina?”, Vox inquired politely.
“The date alignment has returned two days since the event”, the astropath replied with equal care.
“I have already calculated our route”, Nostromo provided helpfully. “We are about six days out. I can engage the jump immediately.”
“Please, do so”, Vox asked him and looked around. “Brothers, I can tell you little about Almond apart from its being a young hive world.”
He earned a few groans for this information. Genestealers on a hive world were an incredible threat.
“Similar to Corred, Almond is a lifted world”, Vox continued. “It was rediscovered by the Achilus Crusade about two-hundred years ago. Unlike many other worlds around here, it had a stable human population without chaos or xenos taint. I think it is still capable of sustaining itself for a while if the need arises, but about a third to half of its landmass should be covered by the hive. It’s a major recruiting ground for the Imperial Guard here in the Reach and a manufacturer for standard issue weaponry for our human forces.”
They all went grave. Losing a world like this to Genestealer infestation would be a blow for the endeavours of the Imperium in the Jericho Reach.
“Let’s choose our leader directly”, Vox suggested and immediately named his candidate: “Brother Titus.”
“Vox”, the two Heartrocks said in unison. Dankwart and Tiberius both named Titus.
“I withhold my vote and thank you for your trust, brothers”, Titus said solemnly. “We’ll return to the training grounds. Vox, anything else you can tell us?”, he wanted to know on the way.
Vox scratched his nose for a moment.
“Gradus is a kill team under Captain Jupari”, he recounted. “He is in the habit of putting mostly tactical marines into Gradus and mixes his teams in the field as he goes. There is one constant for Gradus, however: If he has any, he sends one librarian and one chaplain with them and he only very occasionally uses kill teams, not at their full strength. They will very likely have been ten members.”
“Say”, Hyron wanted to know casually. “Is it just me or is it a rather bad idea to send a second kill team to investigate why the first one went missing?”
“It’s just you”, Vox replied and Titus noticed little smiles on the faces of him, Tiberius and even Dankwart.
“Welcome to Aegis”, Tiberius said on cue. “If there is any chance for things to go crazy, we’re usually right in the middle of it.”
“So, Aegis specialises in crazy?”, Vyron asked casually.
“Just me”, Vox said happily.
“And we all know, you’re the best”, Titus praised him, earning a friendly grin from him in return.
“We have considered letting Vox just do everything alone”, Tiberius said.
“But…?”, Hyron prompted when he stopped.
“I’m still working on the punchline”, he had to admit.
“You’re doing great with this humour business”, Vox adulated him with a pat on his blue and golden shoulder guard. “You’ll get there in no time at all. A few hundred years tops.”
“The success of a pupil is an indication of the prowess of his masters”, Tiberius said flatly. He earned an appraising grimace from Vox for this rather witty riposte.
“I look forward to the day we find out, who of you is the master and who the pupil”, Titus said.
“Oh, Tiberius and I have that figured out”, Vox informed him with a serious expression.
“And what, brother?”, Vox asked in playful offence. “The relationship between pupil and master is an intimate one. There is no place for a third…”
“Vox, stop that!”, Tiberius interrupted him with just a hint of panic in his voice.
“Yes, master – oh, damn!”
Titus laughed quietly.
When they re-entered their training ground, they found Kalin Ruhr working in one corner. The tech-priest was constructing some new kind of machinery. Since he was deeply immersed in his doing, they left him to it and continued with their training.
Kalin Ruhr worked for the next four days and the Astartes soon started to wonder what he was up to. Instead of commanding a swarm of lesser tech-priests, he worked alone, speaking only to the Omnissiah himself. This way, not even Tiberius could fathom what he was doing and they trained to the accompaniment of curious rites and clouds of sacred smoke.
This setup was responsible for a very strange day for Aegis. Interrogations under drugs and foes with poisoned projectiles were not the only hazards of this kind a Space Marine faced in the field. Venomous creatures and noxious fumes were only too common. Therefore, they trained for this at regular intervals. To know how the body reacted in these circumstances could save their lives.
One of them was always left out when the apothecary administered the substances to put their metabolisms under stress. It was his task to watch the behaviour of the others, prevent unnecessary injury and give feedback afterwards. Usually, they took turns but in this case, all of them agreed that Vox should be the one who would be spared. He clearly had had enough training for quite some time to come.
Their guardian was forced to put a stop to the unit after half the scheduled time in any case. The fumes everywhere in the hall turned out to produce very strange side effects. On top of the physical pain and disorientation, which the substances were supposed to cause, they also made the Space Marines dizzy, irrational and hilariously giddy. In this state, they refused to fight anyone, only pushed each other playfully and fell over themselves. Vox was able to save parts of their honour by herding them into the far corner of the hall, where they could huddle and declare their eternal friendship without anyone hearing too clearly what they were saying. It probably was the most embarrassing day they had ever lived through. The only blessing was that they retained very hazy recollections of it. Vox nobly promised that he would never mention the incident again, even though he assured them that the philosophical disputes had been hilarious.
Only one more day separated them from Almond when Kalin Ruhr was ready to present his creation. They returned from their midday prayer to find him waiting impatiently. The construct looked like the foldable version of a Tyranid skeleton with a ghastly face on the chest. When activated, it extended a dozen evil-looking, barbed, claw-like blades. Moving with disconcertingly quiet oiliness, it rose above their heads like a giant snake. There it stopped to wait with weapons ready.
Kalin Ruhr talked at length about the mechanisms he had used and the sources of his inspiration before they finally got out of him that this servitor was meant to be used as a means of close combat training device. It could be set to stay stationary or move about and it would seize its attacks on the word “Stop!”, uttered in a loud, clear voice. The rest of the mechanisms and settings was something Tiberius understood but none of the others. Ruhr itched to see his creation in action and asked that they tested it immediately. Having failed to make him leader, Hyron and Vyron volunteered Vox for a demonstration. Ruhr guided Tiberius through the operation of the thing, starting with slower settings and working their way up from there. Witnessing how well Vox did against the servitor, Titus mused that it probably had been a bad idea to send their best sword fighter in first. This could well lead to over-ambition and cause injuries among the others later. A day before they deployed for a mission, this was something they did not need.
He refrained from commenting, of course. Getting injured was the standard occupational hazard of a Space Marine and any self-respecting brother would be offended if he was prevented from proving his prowess in battle for the prospect of getting hurt.
Ruhr was highly pleased with the results Vox achieved at first. After about ten minutes, however, he got nervous. Regardless of the fact that he was fighting on the highest level of difficulty, the librarian had not called a halt yet. He kept on dodging and parrying, his training blade whirling around him as the thing followed him through the hall.
The tech-priest looked uncertainly at the stoically watching Astartes and after five minutes more he asked cautiously if they should interfere. Aegis as a whole shot him a blank glance before they went back to watching the show. It was too good an opportunity for learning to miss it. After altogether twenty minutes, the power unit of the servitor gave out.
Vox stepped back from it, panting heavily. When he took off his helmet to grin at them, he looked adequately exhausted but smugly satisfied.
“There’s a rhythm to it”, he said happily. Only now did they realise that they had quite an audience today. About a hundred other tech-priests were gathered on the galleries above them. Some of them came down, beeping in excited binary. Among them Kalin Ruhr took turns to scuttle around Vox and his creation, all the time chattering to some of the other tech-priests.
Within minutes, they had enough substitutional power packs for all of them in the hall and the Space Wolves amused themselves with their new toy while the others continued with their tactical training. The last one to test the new machine was Dankwart when they were nearing the end of their training day. All of the tech-priests had gone to bed by now and none of Aegis saw how it happened. It was Vox who suddenly spun around in the middle of a melee, yelling “Stop!” at the top of his voice.
He ran towards Dankwart, who had been skewered on three of the spiked appendages of the servitor.
Vox had already ripped two of them out of their apothecary before the others had caught up with him.
The wounded man proved unresponsive and they decided to call it a day. Titus, Vox and the twins brought Dankwart to the apothecarium while Tiberius stayed and tried to determine what had happened. For the four of them Dankwart was an easy weight to carry and the broad corridors of the ‘Hammer of Destiny’ had more than enough room so that the few people around at this hour could get out of their way. The stricken brother lay on an operating table within minutes.
As the current leader, it fell to Titus to report in short words what had happened while the human apothecaries started to swarm around them. Most of the mortals had been woken from their nearby quarters and the brothers left them to it. They were well used to standing back when the medics had to work.
When the four of them retreated from the white corridors of the apothecarium, the arrow-straight professionalism fell from them. They removed their helmets and Vyron was the first to find words: “Great. Our apothecary is down and we didn’t even see any Genestealers.”
“Yeah, let’s hope they don’t need medical assistance”, Hyron said despondently.
“The Genestealers?”, his brother asked. “Don’t worry. You heard Tiberius. After Aegis has gone through them, they won’t need anything anymore.”
They walked on in silence until Vyron said: “Damn.”
“What?”, Hyron wanted to know.
“Vox and Titus didn’t join us in fooling around. The situation must be really serious.”
The Space Wolves looked at their comrades.
“To tell by their faces, we’re all going to die”, Hyron noted.
“At least we won’t need medical assistance in that case.”
“You know what bugs me?”
“The two of them have a rather higher standard of bullshitting than we do and they still haven’t lost patience with us.”
“Things are looking grave”, Vyron agreed in a sepulchral tone.
Titus shot Vox a glance and saw that the librarian indeed seemed deeply worried. Even more so than Titus, who did not like the situation already. To descend into a Genestealer infested city without the one team member who could test for the alien infection the xenos caused would make their task even harder.
They picked up Tiberius in the training hall. He had found no malfunction in the servitor and supposed that Dankwart had simply slipped. They awarded the thing the attribute ‘adequately deadly’ and switched it off for the night.
Under normal circumstances, they would have lost no second thought about this incident. Astartes often got hurt during training and they healed well enough but Navigator Nostromo had estimated that they would leave the warp tomorrow. Vox could tell them that Almond was the outermost planet in the system and if they were unlucky, there would be very little real-time travel before they reached orbit. This could well mean that there would be too little time for Dankwart to heal sufficiently to take him along.
Nobody talked about it. Even Hyron and Vyron stopped their attempts to lighten the mood. They had a rather quiet meal and a slightly less fervent prayer than usual. Afterwards, they all went to the apothecarium again. By then it had turned out that Dankwart had gone straight into suspended animation. The apothecaries had not dared to wake him from this, because his wounds seemed too severe to them. They wanted more time to pray and hope for betterment before they brought him back.
Since there was nothing to say to that, Aegis left again.
Vox and Titus separated from the others with their usual early good nights.
Wandering slowly towards the quarters Vox made a half-hearted comment about this being the first time for Titus to lead them without having to defrock anyone but Titus was as little up to easy nonsense as he was. They resorted to talking about which Oath the librarian should prepare for tomorrow and departed early. This way, Vox could write the oath scroll before it was time to sleep.