In a few days it will be the 6th anniversary of your crash.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve written to you. It feels like an eternity. These last two weeks in particular have been more jarring than any since I left the Navy.
I’ve been stuck in bed for a week now. My medtech says I’ll make a full recovery if I rest and give my body time to heal. That’s time I don’t have. I need to be better. I need to be training. I need to be moving.
I can picture your reaction. “Althea, one thing at a time. As your father’s daughter, you will never face a challenge your will cannot overcome.” I try, my father. But my spirit is exhausted.
I find myself caught up in schemes. Risking my life to achieve unknowable ends. I think it will get worse. I’ve killed so much. I’ve killed so much of myself. In the Navy my uniform was a shield against doubt. Now I lack that shield, and I’m full of doubt.
I know you would tell me to leave. I cannot. I do this for you. I was sent a vidtape shortly after I joined the Navy. A very disturbing scene, involving you. I don’t know how they got it. I don’t know how it exists. All you built - your reputation, your business. It would be ruined. As my last gift to you, I hope to prevent that tape from ever making it to the Nobles’ Ledger on Neroter.
I miss you father.
I’ve tried to make you proud. I’ve tried to push and achieve, but I haven’t found a direction. Now someone has given me a task, but how can I know if it’s worth fighting for? Is this task just a chance at redemption for you? If I redeem you, will I myself be damned? I’m tortured by not knowing.
In a few more days I should be able to walk around, and a few days after that I should be able to begin practicing again. I still have your gun. Thank you for using a soldier’s gun instead of a showman’s gun - it’s saved my life more than once.
I know you weren’t perfect. I’ve had six years to think about it, grow older and hopefully wiser. I know you put your business first, but you protected me when you could. From mother and my brothers.
Now all I have of you is your gun, your scribebox and your legacy.
I’m afraid this year’s anniversary prayer will have to be private instead of at a chapel’s altar. I’m a wanted woman in this world. I hope your spirit forgives me.
Love, your faithful daughter, Althea.
Althea signed her name and put quill down. She sighed and rested her head down on the desk.
She got up suddenly, knocking her chair over. Her mind seethed.
Cut you father! I can’t do this anymore. You neglected us. You neglected me.
She paused, trying to slow her rapid breathing.
You always cared more about your business. We needed you. Why couldn’t you see that? Or did you see that and not care?
I still love you. You abandoned me.
Althea sprinted down the hallway. She strained her ears but couldn’t hear anything other than the pounding of her feet on the tile and the pant of her breath. He had a 5 minute head start. He could be anywhere. But she knew the twists and turns ahead of her as well as anyone. He wouldn’t be just anywhere - he would have picked a spot where she wouldn’t be able to sneak up on him.
A copper light filtered down, showing the rust on the walls. This hab block hadn’t been properly maintained in centuries.
Five cutting minutes! Frag it. There’ll be surprises. One of the two best ambush spots was straight ahead as the corridor branched out. This was the only entrance into this side of the Nest and they both knew she wouldn’t take the long way around.
She caught a glint of light on a wire at knee height.
Hah. She started to pick up speed. He knows I’m coming. I gotta take this fast - be a hard target to hit.
She launched through the air and over the wire.
She planted her hands on the ground and pivoted into a backflip. CRACK. Lasgun. She heard tiling shatter as she spun through the air and made it past the passageway. She kept racing down the corridor.
He would be moving his position now. She just needed to keep him moving, not let him settle in again. She knew the odds were with him if he managed to dig in again.
She crept along slowly. She had him. Around this corner…
She heard the slightest scraping sound behind her and whipped her head around.
He was there with a piece of piping, swinging it at her head.
She launched herself backwards. She managed to dodge the pipe, but she wasn’t graceful about it, spiraling out against the wall. It was all she could do to keep her feet.
He came at her again. Too fast.
She dodged. Barely.
He was getting a full head of steam. It was going to be impossible to stop him soon.
She reached for her laspistol. She had been practicing in her room for a month. It came out in one fluid motion and was in her hand almost before he realized she was grabbing for it. His eyes widened in surprise. Frankly, she had surprised herself. I hope the power level is still set correctly.
She leveled the gun at him. “It’s over.”
She squeezed the trigger, but he shifted quickly to the left and the bolt of energy went crackling by him. NO!
He brought the pipe up and connected it solidly with the laspistol, ripping it out of her hand and sending it flying up in the air. Althea’s eyes followed the gun’s trajectory straight up, but he was quicker. He leapt at her with the pipe.
It was all she could do to avoid the blow, leaping out of the way and landing on a heap on the ground.
He caught the gun on its way down and leveled it at her. “You’re right. It’s over.”
“Frag it,” she yelled. “You cutty bastard!”
Lazarus threw back his head and laughed.
“Got you again. Face it, I’m better than you.”
Althea took his offered hand and let him haul her to her feet. “You’re better,” she said. “For now.”
He shrugged. “You might be right. I was impressed with that quick draw. If you had just shot me instead of pausing to gloat, you probably would have had me.”
She smiled ruefully at that. “How can you blame me? That’s the first time it’s ever worked in front of another person.”
Lazarus laughed again. “I’m not blaming you, just pointing out that you’re your own worst enemy.”
“But I dodged that pipe what, three, four times?”
“Don’t forget the lasblast at the beginning. Like I said the last time, you’re getting better.”
She preened under his compliments. They had been out here for two weeks while he trained her. She knew she had so much to learn about everything, but they had been working on her speed and her ability to dodge – she had to stay alive long enough to learn everything else.
“Who knows,” he continued. “Maybe one of these days you’ll get good enough that I’ll be out here training my skills to keep up.”
She punched him, but grinned despite herself.
They walked back to the safehouse in silence. The abandoned hab-block they called the Nest lay past some warrens of dubious safety.
They made it back to the safehouse as twilight was descending. She wondered, not for the first time, whose safehouse it was and whether the owner knew they were staying there.
“This is heresy!”
“Look Gus,” Doc Geryk continued, “you need to calm down.”
Althea looked over at Lazarus. Poor guy.
“Calm down!?!” Gus sputtered, “Only the fool is calm in the face of heresy!”
Althea’s cooking skills barely stretched to fixing dehyd soup, so when Lazarus had shown any inclination to fix food she had willingly abdicated all responsibility. Hoping to buoy flagging spirits, Lazarus had spent the afternoon slaving in their sorry excuse for a kitchen (his words). It had looked good and tasted even better than it looked. She was rather impressed.
Of course, that was overshadowed by the scene in front of her.
Doc Geryk was doing his best to keep their voices down and their conversation private, but there was no controlling Gus. They could hear him loud and clear from the other side of the room.
“Milk curds with fish! Imperial Creed forbids dairy during the Feast of Vernon!”
Poor Lazarus. It looked as if every comment was a stab wound to the chest. She leaned forward. “Laz, it really is quite good.” He wasn’t listening to her.
“Gus, you don’t have to eat it.” Doc continued.
“You would have me sit by while heresy takes root?! Next you would have me hand the heretic my hammer for his next dark sacrifice!”
It was breaking her heart. Nobody had cooked for her since ten years ago, when one of the cooks had made custard eggs for Candlemass because they were her favourite. Finally someone had made a delicious meal and it was being ruined.
“Gus, this is hardly a dark sacrifice. He made us dinner.”
“Knowing that to eat it would be a sin in the Emperor’s eyes! He is trying to damn us!”
That’s it. “You cutting bastard, what the frik is wrong with you!?”
Gus turned his piercing gaze on her. His eyes were tainted with madness.
“You too! You’re in on it!” He took a step forward.
Doc Geryk stood in between them. “Althea,… “ he started.
“What the frik is wrong with you?” She said. “You haven’t been acting normally.”
“How could I act normally with heresy right under my very nose?!”
She reached down and grabbed her plate. “Imagine the heresy if you had fish and dairy running down your tunic and soaking in your hair.” He took a step backwards and a look of horror spread over his face.
“Emperor guide my aim. Don’t test me.”
Gus abruptly turned and fled towards the bunkroom. His mind is just cut right now. What is wrong with him?
Althea looked around. Lazarus had left too.
“Althea, why do you antagonize him?”
“Lazo was just trying to help.”
“You know the Emperor’s light blazes brightly enough in him to dim some of his other thoughts.”
“No, Doc.” She shook her head. “I think the Emperor’s light is dimming. He hasn’t been the same since that night at the Red Eyes’ depot.”
Doc Geryk sighed and waved his hand, conceding the point. “I just think there are better ways to defuse Gus’… piety.”
“That’s not piety. That’s one of our crazy teammates undermining one of our dependable ones. You need to figure out what’s wrong with him.”
“The touchstones are beyond all my knowledge and reasoning. I cannot discern their function.”
“Keep trying!” She said, with a little more force than was necessary. It wasn’t Doc’s fault.
Althea sat down and looked at her plate, no longer interested in the food.
She heard Doc Geryk shuffle off towards his study.
Althea had made it halfway through her plate when a bloodcurdling shriek cut through her thoughts.
It had come from Doc’s study.
She grabbed her laspistol, sprinted through the safehouse and burst through the door to Doc’s study. In front of Doc Geryk was a shimmering apparition. It was floating a foot above the floor. It was tall with long, lithe limbs. It had long flowing robes and delicate interlocking armour and it turned to face her, long hair shimmering about its form but not quite hiding long pointed ears. Its grace was unmistakable. This was an Eldar. She thought it was male, but she wasn’t quite sure. She hadn’t seen one since her Navy days when they had fought off Eldarii pirates. She raised her laspistol at it.
|The xenos ghost of christmas future pays our heroes a visit|
“Your weapon is useless.” His musical voice sounded like gentle rain.
She ignored him. Her skin crawled with psychic power being harnessed and keeping her gun pointed gave her a measure of comfort.
She heard Lazarus and Gustavius barrel in after her, nearly knocking her over.
“Who are you?” She demanded.
“That is not important.”
“I will decide what’s important. What the cut are you doing here?”
“Trying to decide what type of nuisance you are. You have stolen my property. But you may yet make amends.”
“Why, my poor stones.”
“He is referring to the touchstones we procured.” Doc said.
“Those are yours?”
“Yes. And I will have them back.”
“They are ours now. What are those touchstones doing to the people of Pickman?”
“Heresy…” Gus muttered.
“Why are you doing it?”
“We do this to save you, and everyone.”
“Your stones are poisoning people’s heads and your monsters are killing people.”
“We are doing only what we must. An unspeakable horror is upon us. The Great Devourer approaches, and we act where your people do not. We act to save life, and freedom and thought and beauty.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your leaders ignore this peril and doom us all.”
“You seek to save the planet by burning it?”
He considered this for a second. “Why do you do nothing while the planet burns around you?”
Althea was taken aback. “We are working to save this planet.”
The simplicity of the question struck a chord in her. She didn’t truly know. They had done what the vox (and Olivia) had asked of them. She had no idea what their true aims were.
“Serve me and help me save you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Olivia and your patron know not what they do. Only we can save the sector.”
He continued, louder now, in a voice that reverberated through her head. “Serve us and help us save the world.”
The Eldar turned and looked at Geryk, talking quickly now, and staring.
“Geryk, we share a great enemy. Rest assured that our ultimate goal is to confound the Great Devourer. You are wise to fear it. You are unwise to avoid it. We can help you become the hunters that will be needed not now, but next year, and the year after that. Your masters up to now have not rewarded your commitment and your tenacity. I have at least the honesty to admit to you: you are disposable, but you can be useful now for all of your kind, and mine.”
Geryk’s face was a mask of emotion. It was clear he was deeply affected by what the xenos was saying.
“Gustavius, I know I am asking you to break oaths that have served you well, and served your people well. I also know that your understanding of humanity is more nuanced than some high-minded and rigid forms demand. Is it your belief that He on Terra demands the obliteration of this sector? Can only humans have solutions to a crisis born outside the very galaxy? A new age is coming, and the Eldar will stand with Humanity here, to protect a bounty that lies hidden. Here among the Ghoul Stars you drift upon a battlefield that has raged since your Dark Age. The Emperor’s light will never fall here if we cannot learn how the Swarm behaves. Here, we have the antibodies that might begin to turn the tide. All that is required is your patience, diligence and grit.
Next, the xenos turned to her and fixed its eyes upon her very soul. “Althea, the retribution you seek is nothing at all. It is meaningless. Your own father trafficked with my most blasted Cousins. His malfeasance should be exposed, or his name be never more than a sham. Your patron has certainly damned you, and only we can save you, make you really human in a way that a name could never achieve. Indeed, you can find a new name should want it, if you have the boldness to take it for yourself. You are lucky: you need not tread so lightly on the skeins as I must, and thus may live a full life, without the terrible burden we suffer.”
Althea was stunned. It was talking about her father.
“Lazarus, You understand this all already, I believe. There is nothing to be gained from sentimentality if it bars one from effective action. This is a job worth doing.”
“WHAT THE CUT ARE YOU SAYING ABOUT MY FATHER?!?” Althea raised the laspistol and shot a bolt right into its eye. The bolt passed harmlessly through the apparition and scorched the rear wall of the study.
“You heard me. You already surpass your legacy and you are held back by ties to the past.”
“You’re LYING.” Althea fired again. Twice. Lazarus reached over and took the pistol out of her hand.
“Look instead to your true heart. You believe.”
That was perhaps the scariest part - that a part was only too ready to believe that it told the truth of her father.
“How can we fight the Great Devourer?” Geryk asked.
“We can show you how. There is no place you can run, you must take a stand.”
“Whaddaya want us to do?” Lazarus asked.
“I need a token of good faith. I need you to prove that you will help us, serve us. There is a cell near the Face where a genestealer cult is operating. We need you to go and return with the claw of a genestealer.”
“Why would we believe you?” Althea asked.
“Your friend is sick.”
Althea blinked as the pieces fell into place. Gustavius. She looked at him. Gus was staring blankly, pleadingly at the xenos.
“When was the last time you ate?”
“How have you slept?”
“Do you dream of fire and blood? Of creatures from your worst nightmare.”
“Yes.” He whispered.
This explains Gus. Althea thought. But nothing else…
“Why is he sick?” Althea asked.
“His blood has been mixed with the blood of our Pack. Those you know as bloodwraiths.”
“What is this sickness?” Doc asked.
“He will eventually turn into one of them. More properly, they will turn into him.”
A silence fell as the group digested this.
Trying to regain control of the situation, Althea asked, “Why don’t you kill this genestealer yourself?”
“We need a gesture of good faith from you.”
“We need a gesture of good faith too. Heal our friend.”
The xenos considered this, and then nodded. A blue light came out of his outstretched hand and a cloud seem to float out of Gus’ mouth in one long exhale. Gus slumped momentarily before looking back up.
“How do you feel?” Althea asked.
“Hungry.” Gus got up and turned to leave. “I need food.”
“Wait!” Doc Geryk hurried and grabbed Gus before he could leave. “I must inspect you first.” Doc peered into Gus’ eyes and down his throat and brought out his scanner and passed it over him. “He’s healthy.” Gus practically knocked down the Doc on his way out of the room.
“Now you will do as I request?”
“How exactly did you see this working?”
“There are Sun Guard waiting for you outside. They will take you there in a cutter and you will retrieve the creature for me.”
Althea looked around. Lazarus was nodding and Doc was still looking at his scanner. She sensed that Lazarus had been won over. She had heard Doc’s views on genestealers before and knew what his decision would be.
She wasn’t as deadly as Lazarus, as righteous as Gustavius or as useful with a needle and a stimpack as Geryk, but she felt useful to the group nonetheless. She felt that the others looked to her for guidance when the bullets started flying. She supposed she might be their leader.
And she felt a certain amount of loyalty to these three cutting bastards, and wanted to make the right choice by them. She knew Olivia and the vox had been holding out information on them. Probably lying to them too. Just as she knew that this xenos wasn’t telling them the whole truth. Probably lying to them too.
“I assume it went without saying, but let me be clear. The Sun Guard will either take you out of here in a cutter to the cult, or they will take you out of here in boxes.”
The threat rang true, but she wasn’t that worried. She knew this xenos underestimated them. Everyone had so far.
Ultimately, it came down to trusting her instinct and the decision became a lot easier once she put aside concerns about Olivia and the vox and what they would think. Her decision boiled down to one simple question - fight the Sun Guard, who might be her enemy, or fight the genestealer cult, who were definitely her enemy.
“Tell them to prep the cutter, we’re going in.”
They could deal with Olivia and the vox later.