By R.J. Barna
It was a Hive City on a Hive World like any other. From below, the only way to make sense of the pitted, plasteel labyrinth – its limits uncertain through the creeping haze of recycled atmo and neon glow – was by feel: arid towards the Heat Sink at the city’s center and damp cold from the barren waste outside its Shell. Green mold grew on the north side of a bulkhead, or so it was said. In moments of extreme uncertainty, apart from blind faith in the Emperor’s guidance, it helped to remember that the gas rose up and the sludge dripped down, at least to tell floor from ceiling.
MX-IIXC Something Something. No one bothered to give its name much thought since Lord Commander Guilliman reclaimed it from those who had forsaken the planet in the first place. Worn duracrete walls were thick with millennia old graffiti. The most recent coat zealously praised the Emperor, no doubt to drown out prayers to the Dark Gods and unsolicited prompts for a “Ruinous Time” beneath. The city’s people, loyal servants to the Imperium of Man, similarly washed over the hab zones and honeycomb shelters, too grateful for a moment’s respite to long consider what heretical heads may have laid there before them.
With one shift always starting in the soot-belching manufactory, reclamation, and crematory plants, the city never truly slept – not that it could under flickering glare of the glowglobes overhead or for fear of the gangs, merchants and rival families all around. Never asleep and hardly awake, the loyal machine turned slowly and with dreamlike purpose. It was driven by a steady flow of the weary, fueled by little more than hope and corpse-starch biscuits. After six standard years that passed like fifty, Palomeanae Solus, agent of the Ordo Chronos, had learned to walk softly enough not to truly wake anyone.
“Three more days,” she groaned and reclined against a rotten pressboard blockade barring passage to an apartment cluster outside the bustling main corridor. From the smell, Solus ventured to reason that its former residents were still inside – at least the unusable parts of them. The dead made for better company than those she’d find peddling their bones and baubles in the market stalls just on the edge of sight.
Her pale, grey eyes kept careful watch over the street beneath a short fringe of black hair protruding from the front of her arming cap. A lean ganger in warpaint appeared from a tunnel across the alley. Solus folded her arms across her long, brown duster, as much to send a clear message to the newcomer as to reacquaint herself with her concealed armaments: a silenced stub pistol in her shoulder holster and power maul clipped to one side of her belt. The uneasy juve retreated as quickly as she appeared.
Solus’s servoskull hovered over one shoulder and turned to relay a vox message in clicks and garbled static. Arfor was in place and had eyes on the target. Solus nodded to a small, shadowed mass around the corner, and a Ratling girl leapt out from cover of a litter-woven ghillie with a giddy squeal. Piggy’s mess of brown curls and bare feet vanished between the passing legs of traders too busy contending their worth to notice much besides. (547)
Solus’s blood quickened, but training steeled her nerve. Over the raucous din of consumerism, she focused on the steady leak of ammonia from a condenser pipe and willed her heart to match pace. Drip. Drip. Drip. She exhaled in unison with the Hive. Toxic breath seethed out through a steel grate beneath her chem-burned, leather boots. By light of the flexiglass neon of the habitats below, she vaguely made out a pair of leathery, blue wings in the drain before they vanished behind a veil of rising steam.
“Thief,” a voice cried out. “Someone stop her!” Unless it was a gunshot, nobody was moving, and even then, it would have to hit close.
Solus closed her eyes and searched for the sound of bare feet smacking the wet, steel-plated streets. Piggy’s pace was fleet for her size, barely a meter to her crown, but she held back to ensure their target never lost sight of her. Three pairs of feet approached, one small, one frantic and one trying desperately not to be noticed behind them both.
An instant later, Piggy slipped out from the tattered, silk robes of some lesser house noble with a wallet held proudly aloft. Her smile was all the more wild for the crooked, oversized teeth within it as she sprinted past Solus’s position and winked.
The noblewoman shrieked as a lanky, disheveled man crashed into her, knocking her to the ground as he scrambled to stay on his feet and maintain pursuit. From the sight of his veiny, high forehead and what may have been a second pair of smaller ears tucked behind his Emperor-intended pair, their target was a mutant. It wasn’t uncommon to harbor some inhuman mark from prolonged exposure to toxic Hive life – and little of it wasn’t.
The mutant’s worn work shoes screeched to a halt as he noticed Solus stepping out from the shadows, her dark skin and outfit further obscuring her identity. But the red, emblazoned “I” dangling from a gold chain around her waist declared intention beyond need of any clarification.
“No,” he begged, lifting both hands to cover his face. Crackling vanes of warp energy rendered him invisible as they crept across his flesh.
“No,” Solus commanded, warpfire spilling from the corners of her eyes.
The mutant’s manifesting power was denied by the agent’s overpowering will in a flash and plume of brimstone. He reeled in agony, clawing away the smoldering embers that nipped at his face and eyes. He spun blindly to retreat and was immediately knocked to the ground by a hunched, broad shouldered figure in a high-collared trench coat, emerging from the crowd behind him.
Arfor cocked his head to face Solus as she strode casually towards their disoriented prey. A glimmer danced across his chrome optics from a targeting laser on one side of his head, surveying her and the target both. She knew her old friend well enough to recognize that the Servitor was pleased, or as close to it as one could manage without the burden of human emotion.
“Inquisitor,” the target pleaded. “I’m not that kind of mutant…”
“I’m not that kind of Inquisitor.”
Arfor’s static vocader interjected.
“Right. Acolyte,” she admitted. “Not an Inquisitor yet.” Solus sneered playfully at her cybernetic friend and tipped her head towards the cowering mutant between them. Long arms that had dangled lifelessly at Arfor’s side stretched out to grip the mutant’s shoulders tightly and encouraged him to stand. Solus removed her hand from one pocket and held it out, finding the pilfered wallet offered up by Piggy immediately. “Thank you, dear.”
Piggy blew a kiss before nonchalantly turning to pace the perimeter with a lascarbine on the right flank. An identical Ratling emerged from a shadow to do the same on the left, grumbling beneath her breath about the attention her double received. “Thank Piggy, not Piggy, eh?”
Arfor chattered again, but the girl only pointed to their captive dismissively before returning to her patrol. He patted down the mutant with a dozen multi-jointed manipulators from the front of his jacket, keeping his main arms locked on the prisoner’s shoulders. Solus withdrew the mutant’s Imperial ID as her servoskull scanned its barcode with a red laser from a lens hidden in the depths of an otherwise empty eye socket. Gears clicked and grumbled as the tired bones processed the data.
“I have bad news for you, Mr. See-uh-fuss.”
“It’s pronounced, ‘Ki-uh-fuss.’”
Solus groaned and flicked the ID at him. “The bad news, Mr. Ciaphus, is that you’re dead. That’s a problem. For you and for us.”
The mutant was stunned. “Eh-excuse me?”
“You are Ryvon Ciaphus?”
“Y-yes, but I’m not dead. You can clearly see that I’m alive…”
“Ryvon Ciaphus: Sanctioned Psyker, First Class, Choir 2811 something something. Thank you for your service, by the by,” she mumbled aside. “Killed on crusade for the Holy Emperor during a year that may or may not be the fiftieth of M42 if not the nine-ninety-ninth of M41…”
“W-what year is it now?”
Solus and Arfor shared a tense look. “That’s – not our department,” she replied. “We’re here to resolve a temporal anomaly. Your description and identification match those on record with the Scholastica Psykana.”
“I thought of joining, but I didn’t…”
“You have admitted to being Ryvon Ciaphus,” Solus half-asked.
“Yes, that’s me, but…”
“According to Imperial Record, you joined and you died.”
“But I’m alive!”
“Are you suggesting that the Imperium is sloppy in its record-keeping?”
Ciaphus was silent.
“Are you admitting to impersonating an Imperial Citizen on record?”
Ciaphus remained silent.
“Then you are, in fact, Ryvon Ciaphus,” Solus explained, “a second version of the same person occupying the Emperor’s own timeline. It may have occurred during a passing warp storm. As you said, you were thinking of joining. The storm may have continued the timeline of you who did and you who did not. Or, you may simply be victim of variable planetary time, living a slower past that has outreached your expired present. Time does pass more slowly here so close to the Great Rift.”
“I thought that was just Hive life…”
Solus shook her head. “You are a redundancy, sir. A loose end.”
The pronouncement dropped from her lips like lead. It was one she’d delivered many times over the past six years, but also one she’d received all too often in childhood. The Ordo Chronos scholars who raised her had always suspected she was a child born out of time: the sole survivor of a warp travel accident. Although it was impossible to determine due to inconsistencies between two approved calendars (and three heretical), ship logs dated its departure as either thirty years before its arrival or after, making her a redundancy as well, possibly living in a timeline during which she had yet to be conceived.
“Wh-what do you want from me?”
“Service or death,” she answered flatly. It was no less than the expectation thrust upon her. It was no more than any loyal soul could hope for. “You’ve died for the Emperor once already. Don’t spoil it by dying for nothing now.”