Apr 22

Penal Hive XN-34217, Encara Tertius, Segmentum Auxa

‘Tell me exactly what happened.’

Her voice invited no argument, no deviation, only a straight answer.

Sat at the chipped, plastic table in his superior’s office, Loader glanced to his colleague beside him before taking in a stuttered breath. Both of the prison officers sat bolt upright in their chairs, dripping in cold, fear-induced perspiration. Thick bolts held the chairs down and the single picture on the wall, a pict showing the moment of their dead superior’s elevation to office where he had led Arbites in a brutal firefight against Novus Encara gangers, hung secured with smaller bolts. Nothing to improvise as a weapon. Nothing now the mounts for an Arbites shotgun lay empty beneath the desk across the room.

And the rightful owner of the shotgun lay sprawled atop the desk, his brain matter decorating the otherwise grey wall behind.

‘Finch was already down ‘fore we knew what was goin’ on,’ Loader blurted. He was the larger of the two, a brute of a man, possibly genhanced judging by his width of his round shoulders. Something looked off with his head though. Genhancements failed to take or stabilise, most likely.

His colleague, Jensen, took courage from his lead. ‘Yeah. Nothing to do with us.’

The woman stared down at them. Another two women stood either side of her wearing jump suits of green so dark it was almost black. Each carried swords crossed over their backs and their faces were covered by expressionless masks. A squad of PDF troops marched past their open door and saluted to the sentries outside.

Loader shuffled in his seat muttering, avoiding the stare but Jensen buckled under its intensity.

‘They’d already taken the armoury before we heard anything. I was out–engineering consignment came in not long before–needed sorting out because it came from from that mine. What’s it? Gillean’s Reach. Had nothing to do with us. Stuff was supposed to go off-world. That’s when we got jumped. Gangers jumped straight off the train. Loader here took one in the eye.’

‘Ay, shut up,’ Loader snapped, jabbing his elbow into Jensen’s ribs.

Jensen jabbed him back. ‘She asked, I’m telling. Unless you think that big, bloody letter I on her coat doesn’t mean she ain’t got ways of getting answers out of you. So this ganger, Novus Encara, I reckon, skinny streetcat of a woman, gives Loader here that black eye. Few dozen of them jumped off that train, tooled up and meaning business, if you catch my meaning? Well, a few of us managed to get behind the loading gear and give them a few slugs before they split. Had us pinned though. It was all quick from there. Too quick, yeah? You ask me, they knew about this inside.’

Their interrogator leaned forwards. The wide brim of her hat nudged Jensen’s forehead. Her breath smelt of stale Caf. ‘Who on the inside?’

That voice! It made Jensen want to spill every secret from stealing bread as a kid to failing PDF recruitment and slacking off on his order consignments. He clammed up though. Her mere presence put the fear of the Emperor Almighty through him and clamped his throat shut.

Then Loader found something resembling his backbone. ‘Whole damn officery is corrupt. You want my call? That jumped-up clerk’s at the heart of it. Slimy thing, he is. Gets in the governor’s pocket with something he set up at the mine and he’s throwin’ his weight about like he’s Lord bloody Commander. Brought a load of his own lads in too, mucked about all the shift rosters.’

He shrank back at suddenly gaining the Inquisitor’s attention.

‘Do you have any military training or combat deployments?’ she asked

The prison guard straightened his back and scowled. ‘Let me tell you somethin’. I got eight years holed up with naught but hive scum. We got the toughest, most vicious criminals and gangers in the sector here and I ain’t never let one slip. I been shivved, mobbed and bludgeoned and fought my way out every damn time. I done all that undermanned and under-resourced. If that ain’t military trainin’, I don’t know what is.’

The Inquisitor stared back, expressionless. ‘No military experience.’

‘What’s this about?’ Jensen asked and regretted it before the words even left his mouth. ‘…If I might be so bold, ma’am.’

‘You are relieved of your duties with immediate effect and under the command of the Inquisition. My infocytes will contact you.’

Mar 18

Planetary Governor’s Residence, Encara Tertius, Segmentum Auxa

‘Four manufactorums silent. Four!’

His raised voice was muffled by the opulence of the chamber, with most surfaces finished with cushioned material. Lapis lazuli wall coverings clashed with vibrant red floor tiles arranged in diamond patterns, all trimmed with gold amidst mahogany frames and skirting. The door slammed behind the Lord of the Tithe and a flake of cerulean blue from a mural of flying cherubs dropped to the ground.

‘Penal officers massacred,’ he raged on while covering the distance to the man behind the desk. ‘And now we’ve lost contact with Gillean’s Reach. This falls on the highest levels, you hear? Or have you forgotten? That lackey you send in your stead might have the ruling caste hanging on his words but you are responsible. You, Planetary Governor.’

The tirade met silence. Facing away from the intruder towards a tall archway that led to a balcony, the Planetary Governor sagged in his carved throne. His blue and white ceremonial uniform had even more gold trim than the chamber though it was creased and grimy as though worn for days.

‘No,’ the Planetary Governor whispered and turned towards the politician. His face went ashen and his lips trembled. He buried his head in his hands, hiding the dark circles that ringed his eyes and revealing veins forked across his bare cranium which gave it a violet hue. ‘Not any more.’

Before the Lord of the Tithe could voice his question, the door clicked shut again behind him. He whirled around and saw the long, black coat of the figure standing there. The blood drained from his face.

‘Emperor save us…’

Mar 05

Gillean’s Reach Mine, Encara Tertius, Segmentum Auxa

‘I’m telling you,’ Gev said to the bedraggled man by his side as they stumbled past a tracked ore processor, its rumbling engines and the crunch of rock masking their voices, ‘this is it. Can’t believe they moved us here. We steal out of this mine, we got wilderness, not twenty more levels of penal hive.’

The man grunted and shook his head, stirring the nest of cables in his enviro suit. ‘Not happening,’ he rasped, strained and distorted through his mask rebreather. His pace increased slightly, taking the lead as he ducked under an uneven stanchion.

‘Air still getting to you?’ Gev asked, not wearing a mask though the dim flickering tunnel light revealed little more than the swelling of old bruises on his already round face. Scarred, pockmarked, and with the reddish tint of extended rad exposure, his face was straight out of the Encara Tertius manufactorums, a face that had experienced the hives. ‘Seems just fine to me. Benefits of being an underhiver; air might stink and fumes set your head spinning, but it makes you hard. When you’ve lived in that,’ he made a show of filling his lungs to capacity, ‘you’re hardened to anything. Still, doesn’t mean I’m sticking around in some mine ‘till one of those rock saws takes my head off or I’m in the wrong place when the brass melta-bore through the wrong tunnel wall. Ain’t that right, surfacer? They ain’t letting us out of here. You know it like I do.’

When no response came, Gev changed tac. ‘Where are we heading anyway? You got a better route out of here? Usho? What’s the matter with you?’

‘Yeah,’ Usho said. He waved vaguely down an uneven passage. The heavy air held the scent of freshly hewn rock. ‘Down here.’

The tunnel lacked the finish of the previous and the ore processors diminished to a distant hum behind them. They trudged uneven ground for minutes, not another soul crossing their path until the grind of rock saws grew louder once more. It was darker here. The first person they passed ground at the walls with a rock saw held in both hands. He worked only by the lambent bug-eyes of his enviro suit and paid them no mind beyond a short, sidelong glance.

They passed another two, similarly garbed, who paid as little attention as the first, or so Gev thought. Something about the fourth worker caught his eye. His stance was wrong for someone cutting rock, suited more to a prepared swing of the heavy cutting tool. Gev then picked up on a subtle gesture from Usho before the worker took up a stance more appropriate to mining. Far too appropriate, for the worker’s third arm gave him exceptional control of the tool.

Mutants. Not unheard of in the bowels of the underhive, huddled under cowled rags in dank, secluded corners. Not unheard of, but mutants always meant danger. Gev’s hand involuntarily moved to a cluster of pockmarks on his face. Always dangerous. ‘What’s going on, Usho?’

Boots scuffed on the ground behind.

Gev spun around and faced three miners in bug-eyed enviro suits blocking his exit, one with a rock saw and the other two with mining picks. ‘Usho? What is this?’

Usho reached up and removed his mask to reveal discoloured skin and a bald head with an elongated cranium. ‘A choice,’ he rasped.

The rock saws whirred to life.

Part 3