On their way to the quarters the next night, Titus had pressing questions for Vox:
“Will you be alright with Tyranids, little brother?”, he needed to know. “I’ve seen psykers on worlds with them.”
“Alright is far from what I’ll be”, Vox answered realistically. “But I’ll probably manage. As long as I don’t have to use my powers too excessively, I’ll manage.”
Titus weighed the possibilities for a moment.
“A world overrun by Tyranids in the last stages? I think it unlikely that you’ll find no use for your powers.”
“Me too…”, Vox agreed quietly, looking at the wall. “The good thing is that I’ll probably just die”, he said and his fingers trailed one of the ornaments in the corridor until they had passed it by. “It’s hard to rip open a rift when the Hive is around. So, at least you’ll be… Well, not safe”, he had to admit. “But at least not endangered by me on top of everything else.”
“If that’s the only good thing…”
“Oh, come on”, Vox said, giving his sergeant a gentle push with an elbow. “The chance to get our hands on an STC is worth any risk.” Vox looked at nothing for a moment. “You know, I’ve been there”, he said. “I walked in that labyrinth and I didn’t know what was down there… There was no hint that there could be something contained in that thing. Next thing you know, the Tyranids arrive and some random idiot grabs some random documents and now we’re the fourth kill team sent down there.”
“And we are four”, Titus said despondently.
“Yes, but we are Aegis.”
Titus had to smile.
“You know, bragging in front of the Space Wolves is all very well but sending just the four of us is… unwise. At least in my mind. Do you know why the commander did it?”
“Yes”, Vox answered and smiled confidently. “He asked my counsel and I counselled that he’d send just us.”
“What? Have you gone insane?”, Titus burst out, stopping dead.
“Captain”, Vox said sweetly, coming to a halt as well and turning round to him. “Don’t give me that”, he demanded as soft as velvet. “You’re still thinking in companies. A company wouldn’t prevail down there. You’d need a whole chapter or more at this stage. Our only chance is stealth. More than five or six Space Marines would have been stupid and attaching new members to us would have been stupid too. Imagine someone who hasn’t stood with us when the chips were down.”
“And the Heartrocks are heavy weapon specialists. Even if they hadn’t been leaving, it wouldn’t have made sense to take them…”, Titus mused. “Yes, alright, under these circumstances I see why just the four of us.”
“We need to move fast and stay inconspicuous. It’ll be hard enough towing Tiberius along”, Vox agreed.
“Do we have jump packs for the rest of us?” He was sure that Vox had thought of his own jump pack.
“Oh, yes”, his little brother said with satisfaction. “And you’ll like the rest of our gear. Want to rummage a little now?”
“It’ll keep until tomorrow”, Titus said placatingly and started to walk again. “Use the last night you can sleep… Did you just call me captain?”
“I almost thought you had missed it.”
“I admit that sometimes things slip my attention but I usually get there in the end.”
“Yes, that’s a real problem with you”, Vox said absently.
Titus shot him a glance.
“That really preys on your mind, doesn’t it?”
“It’s one of my greatest fears”, Vox grumbled.
“So, you’re not an Astartes then? Because Astartes shall know no fear.”
“Oh, I’m an Astartes”, Vox said with conviction.
“And what else are you?”
“A black shield serving the Deathwatch, sergeant”, Vox replied flatly.
Titus had to sigh.
“That damned thing always gets between us…”, he said in desperate need to generate some amusement out of this annoying fact.
“Your superior rank does not entitle you to flirt with me”, Vox scolded him. “Especially after you forbade me to flirt with humans.”
“Where did you learn to flirt in any case?”
Vox laughed humourlessly.
“That’s an instinctive power of mine.”
“Which came to you in dire circumstances?”, Titus teased him.
“More curious than dire but broadly correct.”
“And? Do I not get the story this time?”
“You’re no inquisitor and I’m not trying to outmanoeuvre you in court. So, yes. You’re not getting the story.” Vox looked at him calculatingly. “Say…”
“Uh-oh”, Titus said, dreading what his little brother had thought of.
“Were you jealous of me or of the women I flirted with?”
The sergeant blinked several times until he had sorted out the implications.
“What kind of question is that to ask me?”, he demanded.
“A provocative one”, Vox answered brazenly.
“And what are you trying to provoke?”
“Ideally an answer but don’t worry”, Vox said, giving him an imputent smile. “Your blush was satisfying enough.”
Titus pushed Vox into the next wall. He caught himself and grinned defiantly before they continued on their way.
“Vox?”, Titus asked after a while.
The sergeant got no further.
“Come on, tell me”, his friend prompted.
“I don’t know how to phrase the question.”
Vox sighed and managed a lopsided smile.
“What about you try plainly?”, he suggested, far more placatingly than his tone had been up until now. “I promise, I’ll ignore it if I’m offended.”
Titus laughed uneasily.
“Alright. Are you gay?”
Vox burst into laughter.
“Nope”, he said then. “Straight as an arrow. Tried to be gay, didn’t work.”
“You tried to be gay?”, Titus asked in giddily relieved astonishment.
“Yeah, you know?”, Vox replied with laughing eyes. “Sometimes you get these urges. For deep seated affiliation and such like.”
Titus shot him a quizzical look and Vox grinned.
“No, I didn’t try to be gay with you”, he answered the unspoken question. “You’re straight too, right?”
“I think so”, the sergeant answered cautiously, considering that he could hardly avoid an answer after he had brought this up.
“How did you take Mira?”, Vox wanted to know and patted Titus’ shoulder guard when he twitched for this.
“You noticed that?”, the sergeant inquired.
“How did you meet Mira?”, Titus asked in return. “Lieutenant Mira, I mean. Or… Captain now.” He had never dared to ask before.
“Laraise and I wanted her testimony, so she arranged a meeting beyond the Jericho Maw Warp Gate.”
“And Mira was pregnant?”
Vox looked away.
“Very much so, serge. Sorry.”
“Well… You said it yourself”, Titus said, lost in deep remorse. “We’re terrible lovers”
“That we are”
“Good that none of us is gay. That would be just as bad as Mira and me.”
“Worse”, Vox said despondently.
“You think so?”
“Yeah”, the friend said gloomily. “Seeing you every day without the prospect of my love ever returned… I don’t think I’d take that very well.”
There was a strange bitterness about Vox, Titus was unable to interpret.
“If we both were gay now…”, he tried to lighten the mood.
Vox sighed deeply.
“I don’t think we’d work if we both were gay”, he said.
“You don’t think so?”
“Yeah, look at us! You still owe me a ring! How could we get anywhere?”
“Vox?”, he asked.
“We’ll have five weeks of real time travel.”
“Yes”, his friend acknowledged, waiting for what he was getting at.
“I don’t want to force this on you”, Titus said softly. “But I would like to stay awake for the whole jump. We’ll have plenty of time to sleep then, right?”
“You long for this light headed feeling when you don’t know where you were going a moment ago?”, Vox teased him. For the first time in this conversation real amusement stood in his still pretty mangled features.
“I didn’t have that in a long time”, Titus declared easily.
“Stay with me then”, the young man gave in and Titus had to smile. He himself had said this to Vox on their first journey together. It was good to have someone to remember with him.
In the six nights before they were travelling real time, Titus thought that they got into a more relaxed stride than before. He wondered why his promotion had changed things between them so much. When he had been a captain, he never had the feeling that one of them had been reluctant or uncertain. Now, it happened at every turn. Still, the time and their solitude helped.
Then, the five weeks in the world began.
Witnessing Vox come to life with the well-slept nights was refreshing but it made watching him break down slowly as the shadow of the Hive crept on all the more aggravating. It turned out to be the last blow their damaged connection was able to take. Vox simply shut off. He lost contact to all of them.
This became most apparent in their planning sessions. Vox knew a lot about Zenith and most of it he was unwilling to part with. Sometimes they needed an hour to get some irrelevant detail out of him. Once, he retreated behind his black shield and would not budge until Titus called the planning off for that day.
Titus was highly concerned. He could see the constantly growing agony the Hive shadow caused but Vox never sought him out. He did not confide, would not seek comfort. The sergeant was not even allowed to provide some distraction. Titus did his best to reach out. He joked, he asked, offered what he could but all he got was the next rejection. The promise he had given his friend started to loom between them like a threat. He had promised not to dig deeper, not to force but this had been dependent on the assumption that Vox would continue to share on his own accord. In his capacity as bailsman, Titus grew more worried by the day. As a friend, he fared even worse. He was deeply concerned.
The other two were picking up on the developments as well. It showed in subtle gestures. A meaningful glance to each other, a frown, a raised eyebrow. Ten years they had been together, Vox had told him. He had never paid much attention to the relationship between the three, had even been surprised that the taciturn Dankwart thawed in Vox’s presence. Now, he felt a bit stupid. Of course, they had grown together. In that much time, Vox probably could get a servitor to cry on his shoulder and tell him what it really thought about lobotomy.
All this weighed heavier on Aegis than they dared to admit. However hard they tried to bury themselves in training and, even though they honed their tactics to a new level of finesse, it was with a bad feeling that they began their mission.
Titus had thought long and hard about taking an Oath of Loyalty like they had done under Ecurael’s leadership. He had decided against it. The kill team felt like cracking up. He did not dare put more pressure on them. So, he had chosen the Oath of the Astartes. It was a general oath, not exclusive to the Deathwatch. Titus had taken it many times and everybody knew it. In front of their drop pod, they gathered around him and laid their hands in his. He knew the words by heart but read them from the scroll anyway:
“We are your finest warriors!”
“We give ourselves!”
“We are your bulwark against terror!”
“We give ourselves!”
“We are your defenders of humanity!”
“We give ourselves!”
“We are your Space Marines!”
“And we shall know no fear!”