The Emperor Himself must have guided the crew to the Space Marines a second time. Nothing less than divine intervention was imaginable in the unstable mess the planet below them had become by now.
Crawling clumsily over the sudden surface under them, Vox was almost pulled off the ship by his parachute. Since Titus was in no mood to lose him again, he held on stubbornly. After the friend had failed to slip his grasp a couple of times, he finally managed to disengage the chute. They came to rest somewhere on the thunderhawk’s surface and lay around in a pile, too dazzled to unfold themselves just yet. While the others did not comment, Titus was laughing with exhaustion and relief.
A hatchway opened and one of their Space Wolves clambered out, indistinguishable under his helmet. They crawled towards him, dragging Tiberius with them. The Heartrock carried the techmarine down into the ship first. Vox tried to stay up there until last but Titus mercilessly pushed him into the hatch. After the suicidal tendencies he had witnessed today, he was unwilling to leave his friend without surveillance.
They had to pass through a narrow maintenance corridor to get to the cargo bay. Here the others bid them a warm welcome, congratulating them for success and survival.
“I’m glad you’re back”, Dankwart said while he gathered them all in a corner to tend to them. “You have to do something. If the Heartrocks make one more coitus interruptus joke, Gradus will go hostile, armour or not.”
“Were you able to test them?”, Titus inquired as quietly as possible, cursing the fact that he had taken his helmet off already.
“What a relief!”, he sighed and raised his voice for all to hear: “Vox, could you please call your Space Wolves off?”
“You’re saying that as if I had something to do with them making tasteless jokes”, Vox protested and collapsed on the floor next to Tiberius.
“Haven’t you?”, Titus asked as he tried to sit down painfully.
“No”, Vox said a little testily while staring at the ceiling. “I clearly remember setting them to idle chitchat before we left.”
“Dankwart, did you fiddle with their calibration?”, Titus wanted to know.
Dankwart gave them a look.
“It wasn’t him”, Titus determined.
“Hyron, Vyron?”, his little brother called out on cue. Like last time after the mission, the two Space Wolves came to him like loyal companions joining their master. They sat down beside them and looked attentive.
“I’m so glad you’re back”, Vyron said, leaning down conspiratorially.
“Yeah”, Hyron agreed. He fiddled with his earrings in a nervous manner. “I’m sure the next time we try to do this ‘lighten the mood’-thing you two always do, Gradus will try to kill us!”
Titus and Vox exchanged glances. Vox turned out to be much better at concealing his grin than Titus.
“That’s because you’re not leaving your cocks out of your humour”, the young man declared gravely.
“That’s right”, Vyron grinned. “I don’t know how you manage it.”
“Oh, you know how it is”, Vox said with a shrug and a tired smile. “If it doesn’t hang to your knees, you don’t keep tripping over it.”
It took the Space Wolves a moment to work this out but then they both roared with laughter, slapping Vox on belly and thigh.
“Now, have you introduced yourselves?”, Vox wanted to know.
“Oh, just out of interest.”
“Yours or theirs?”, Titus wanted to know.
“Apparently not theirs”, Vox said flatly and tried to get himself into a sitting position.
Dankwart looked up. They all went still.
“He’s alive”, he announced. “Just gone into sus-an.”
A ripple of relief ran through the ship. The members of Gradus who could possibly manage any movement, crawled a bit closer to them. Vox even reached out and patted the unconscious techmarine on the shoulder plate while he and Titus earned another round of congratulations.
“So”, Hyron said casually. “You weren’t joking when you said you specialise in crazy.”
“Me? Joking? Can’t remember any time like that”, Vox muttered in reply and managed to lean himself against the wall. “Now. Some of you haven’t met”, he announced in a surprisingly clear voice after the day’s events. “Let’s hope I can remember all your names! The gentleman with the incredible tactical mind over there is Sergeant Merth Cunn of the Ultramarines. The young Adonis next to him is Stephan Folden of the Iron Hands. The man with the most intimidating scar pattern I have ever seen on a son of the Khan is Nergui Talak of the Rampagers. Still able to move about right over there is Cassius Maureo of the Silver Skulls and the man who will rightfully kill any Space Wolf who makes one more inappropriate joke about his dead friend is Orin Gahannen of the… Oh, damn. Help me, Orin. What colour of Templar are you?”
“Red”, Orin said with an intense glint in his dark eyes.
“Red Templars! Great!” With a gesture Vox drew everyone’s attention upwards in the direction of the cockpit.
“My friends”, he called, “Up there on the ledge is Legate Killian Solomon who, I’m sure, is implicitly glad to have us back. In the cockpit behind him are Captain Hoban Reynolds, Mistress of Vox Kaywinnet Washburne and Mistress of Surveillance Zoe Frye whose incredible skills saved a considerable surface area of skin today. Some of it twice. Thank you up there!”
His cry was echoed by all who were even remotely able to speak.
“Now, let me turn to Kill Team Aegis who, for your comfort and convenience, were sent to rescue a mission, were trying to rescue a planet but had to content themselves with rescuing everything else. At present with Aegis are the brothers grin here, also known as Hyron and Vyron Heartrock of the Space Wolves who missed their cue to make dirty jokes about me when I introduced the crew. Our two Ultramarines including our current leader and tactical mastermind Brother Titus and our brave, yet unconscious techmarine Tiberius who, from what I’ve seen so far, must be a personal favourite of the Omnissiah himself. Dankwart, the indestructible Blood Drinker, who needed a second apothecary to vouch that he wouldn’t fall over on his own accord before we took him down with us and my humble self, whom I think you have met. Now. Will someone please take over for the inspiring after battle speech? We already skipped that last mission…”
“But this time you can’t claim it went with our chaplain”, Titus observed.
Vox shot him a dark look.
“How can you do this to me?”, he complained. “If I claim that it went with Gradus’ chaplain, I’m no better than Hyron and Vyron.”
“That would be a hard fall indeed”, Orin Gahannen cut in.
“Yes, and you probably had enough falling today”, Sergeant Cunn provided.
“So, any suggestions how we get to a slightly higher level of bullshitting in the name of carrying on for the Emperor, our fallen comrades and…” Vox rolled his eyes as if searching for a good addition to this list and came up with: “The Emperor?”
Titus tuned out at this point to make room for Gradus to participate. He and Vox were easily able to dominate the scene but this was not the prudent thing to do here. Since Vox knew them all at least well enough to remember their names and chapters, he left it to him to steer the conversation.
Left unoccupied like this, the relief washing through him made Titus restless. He soon decided against sitting around despite the retained injuries. Instead, he clambered up to the cockpit to talk to the crew and find out how they had managed to find them for the second time. Also, he wanted to thank them personally.
Up on the ledge, his legs dangling casually, sat Solomon. He was the only one seemingly unhappy with the situation and Titus hazarded the guess that this had something to do with Vox. The man’s intense, dark gaze rested immovably on the librarian who was doing nothing more offensive than idly and tiredly chatting with the brothers down in the bay.
When he had finished talking to the crew, Titus felt inclined to sit down beside Solomon. By the look of him, he got the distinct feeling that this man, human though he was, might pose a threat no one would see coming if he lost sight of him now.
“He frightened you, didn’t he?”, Titus outright asked him.
Solomon said nothing for a while, not even turned to him. Then, he grinned mirthlessly.
“I never understood why Astartes are made to know no fear”, he said. “Fear is nothing bad in itself. It is our internal warning system to help us distinguish what is dangerous and what isn’t. It concerns me that none of you seem to fear him.”
Titus did him the courtesy to think about this before he answered.
“I will tell you something, legate. Even Astartes fear but we do it differently from you mortals. We do not fear death or battle or the foes we might encounter. We do not fear what our imagination can paint the darkness with. We fear dishonour, corruption and failure in our sacred task to protect humanity. We certainly fear the day when chaos will take away a friend and we’ll strive to avenge him when this day comes. But your presumption is correct: We do not fear that friend as he is now.”
“Ah, wise, mentoring words”, Solomon mocked him with an acidic smile. “Something, I haven’t had in a long time. How old are you now? I thought Astartes took longer before they started mentoring someone they hardly know.”
“A hundred and fifty-seven”, Titus answered unperturbed.
“Well, I must bow to your sheer age then, I’m only thirty-two.”
“And that bothers you?”
“What? No!”, Solomon said with a genuine laugh, but then the smile fell from his face as if switched off. “Vox going over the edge and no one paying attention bothers me.”
Titus laid a hand on the legate’s back for a moment, careful not to push him off the ledge.
“Look closer”, he counselled, pointing at the scene below. “Vox might be on the edge but his friends are around him and gently pull him back. Have patience and faith. With any luck, there will be no more exertion today and he can sleep it off.”
“I admire your confidence.”
“May I ask you a question?”, Titus asked.
“May I refuse to answer?”, Solomon asked back.
“Then go ahead!”, the legate encouraged him. He still seemed ill at ease, however.
“I get the impression that you deeply care for Vox”, Titus said carefully. “But you’re always on edge when you two meet. Why is this?”
Solomon looked down at his own knees and Titus already thought he would not answer when he said: “Maybe I too fear the day chaos takes away a friend. And you might have noticed that humans don’t deal with fear as well as Astartes”, he added bitterly.
“As far as I can see, you’re doing great.”
“Oh, spare me the drama! Go, pull on Vox! Today might not be the day after all.”
“You should come too”, Titus said.
“Great idea after I insulted him earlier.”
Titus lifted his eyebrows in surprise.
“You really think he might begrudge that to you?”
“He almost hit me. And he called me mortal”, he added rather more meekly.
“Well, you had just poked around under his black shield. Twice.”
Solomon drew a deep breath.
“Yeah, you’re right. What did you find on that station by the way?”
“Oath of Secrets, my friend.”
“I hate it when you take that one…”
“Yeah, me too”, Titus admitted. “It means even we can’t ask questions afterwards.”
Solomon turned to him in surprise.
“But I thought you were the leader for both missions. Don’t you choose the oath then?”
“Yes, it was my choice. Sometimes, I just like to suffer a little inconvenience for a friend.”
“If you don’t stop mentoring I’ll… throw myself off the ledge and claim it was you!”
Titus laughed and slapped him on the back so hard that he almost really fell but he caught him generously.
“Before both of you think you have insulted the other one, I suggest you talk to each other”, was the last piece of advice he threw at Solomon before he climbed down to give Vox his helmet back. It was still clipped to his belt.