Return of the Reasonable Marines

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Small Book.pngThe following article is a /tg/ related story or fanfic. Should you continue, expect to find tl;dr and an occasional amount of awesome.

The sequel to LongPoster's An Investigation into the Heresy of the Reasonable Marines, by an anon who calls himself Not LongPoster. Still a work in progress as of 2011.

PROLOGUE: The Inquisition's Verdict[edit]

Third Company Captain Roland Darren, Master of the Deal, had over eight hundred years of front-line experience. He had stood against Orks, Eldar pirates, and, more recently, Tyranid hordes and Daemons. He had borne rocket launchers, plasma cannons, chainswords, and responsibility over whole worlds. None of that had felt so heavy or so terrifying as the dataslate which he now took to his Chapter Master: the Inquisition's verdict on the Aprior Sector and the Knights Inductor.

Inquisitor Immam had left the system convinced that they were all guilty of about a dozen forms of heresy, and rumor had it that Inquisitor Lord Damnos was already in touch with his Monodominant allies and the stricter Space Marine Chapters to arrange a Crusade against the Aprior Sector. On the other hand, Darren's Recongregator contact Inquisitor Lord Krieger had assured him that he would put in a good word at the hearing, and the Ultramarines and Salamanders were living proof that a Chapter could be Reasonable and Loyal. Chapter Master Randi was convinced that Darren's testimony was powerful enough to sway any fence-sitters into the Knights' side of the ring, although Darren himself was less certain. He admitted to himself that he had thought the same way about every promotion and honor he had received, and turned out to be wrong in each case, but what if his intuition was correct this time?

Finally, the interminable walk from the Fortress-Monastery's starport to the Chapter's offices ended. The staffer at the reception desk buzzed the Chapter Master: “Captain Roland Darren to see you, Chapter Master.”

Zakis Randi strode into the room, beaming at his friend. “Roland! I thought you were still busy cleaning up Norton's World.”

“The Inquisition relieved me of that duty,” Darren responded tersely, and the Chapter Master's face set grimly.

“Delivered their verdict, did they? Let's have a look.” Taking the dataslate, Randi opened the message with his private key. Darren kept a close eye on the Chapter Master's face as he read, noting his eyes and mouth relaxing and then tightening. Finally, Randi looked up. “We're officially loyal.”

Darren released a breath he hadn't noticed he was holding. “So the Crusade is off?”

Randi hesitated. “Mostly. They will be screening our gene-seed with extra scrutiny, but I'm not too worried about that. The Ecclesiarchy will also be sending some preachers to make sure the sector doesn't, and I quote, 'fall further from the Emperor's true path,' but I think they'll approve of our public education programs, especially the emphasis on service to the Imperium.”

“Alright then! So what's the bad news?”

“It seems that we'll be seeing more of Inquisitor Immam going forward. She's been assigned to monitor us.”

“Emperor preserve us...”

CHAPTER ONE: The Inquisitor Arrives.[edit]

Inquisitor Rightina Immam, Ordo Hereticus, Conclave Astartum, scowled at her dataslate, hoping that she had misread it, or that her hatred would retroactively change the panel's mind. She had no such luck, for the Verdict of the Inquisitorial Panel Regarding the Knights Inductor and the Aprior Sector stood: they were loyal, if unorthodox, and that she was to monitor them and report further on their divergences from mainstream Imperial policies.

Rightina was furious. Was her initial report somehow unclear? The Apriori (and especially the Knights Inductor) were heretics of the worst sort: subtle! They would never act directly against the Imperium, and they never talked down about the Emperor, but their reforms, their policies, and their ways of life would covertly undermine the foundations of Imperial authority if allowed to spread. Inquisitor Lord Damnos had seen the threat, and was scarcely a decade away from launching a Crusade to expunge the Sector's heresies; he had only to obtain formal permission from the Conclave, and the Sector would be burned from existence and purged from history.

But no, those accursed Radicals had thwarted her Lord's efforts! That thrice-damned Recongregator Johannes Krieger had found the gall to suggest that some of the Apriori reforms could be useful to the Imperium! She knew that he had something to do with this assignment, and she was certain that he didn't want to know about the “unorthodoxies” to analyze them for heresy.

Still, the Emperor's will found a way, she told herself. Even if direct action was out of the question, she would still report to Lord Damnos, and if anyone could find a pretext for a Crusade, it was he. “Give me six sentences said by any man, and I will find a reason to purge him,” as he often said.

All she had to do was hold her sanity and her duty in the den of heresy.

The interminable transit from Nemesis Tessera to Aprior Regius finally ended, and she found herself impressed against her will as she saw the new construction from orbit. She had only experienced a few decades in transit from the Aprior Sector to Nemesis Tessera and back, but the Materium had experienced over four centuries, and in that time, Regius had been covered in a web of metal and glass; as her shuttle approached the ground, she could see the individual transit pathways and buildings, arranged to follow the curvature of the ground. Terra had larger, more ostentatious buildings, but a very small part of her found a sort of beauty in the simple elegance of the Regian construction. Regius was also much cleaner, and seemed more pleasant to live in. She quashed those thoughts; indeed, as if the Emperor had willed it, the Thought for the Day had been “A fortress built on a foundation of heresy cannot stand.”

Her shuttle came to rest at the starport, and when she entered the terminal, she came face-to-face with the Arch-Heretic himself: Chapter Master Zakis Randi, in his dress uniform, with some other Knights Inductor, and differently-uniformed individuals whom she did not recognize. “Chapter Master,” she greeted him, inclining her head to the minimally required angle.

Randi was, superficially, more pleasant: “Inquisitor Immam,” he extended his hand, “Welcome to Aprior. I look forward to working with you.”

Rightina snorted. “One of my cover identities was an agri-worlder; I got pretty good at recognizing grox dung.”

Randi sighed, and his expression settled. “Inquisitor, you're making this harder than it has to be. We're both fighting for humanity. We're on the same side!”

“You claim to be fighting for humanity, but you flout Imperial regulations at every turn! You permit unauthorized use of restricted technologies, you tolerate trade with xenos, and I haven't figured it all out yet, but you're doing something with heretics and daemons that doesn't involve cleansing and burning!”

“Maybe we're violating the letter of the law, but we're following the intention: to protect humanity.” Randi held up a hand to forestall her protests. “We will gladly address your concerns in full and in the open, now that we don't have to hide anything from each other. However, I must ask that you withhold your judgment until we have shown you everything, Inquisitor. The reasoning behind our actions may not be immediately obvious to you, but it will all become clear in the end.” He nodded to some Chapter staff, who trotted out to retrieve her luggage. “In the meantime, these staffers will escort you to your accommodations. Should you need anything, you have only to ask them.”

CHAPTER TWO: Surfing the Airwaves[edit]

Rightina found her apartment to be decorated in the sparse, simple style common to most Apriori dwellings, although the wallpaper had been given a subtle =][= motif. Aprior Sector Internal Security, an organization that seemed to be a rough equivalent to the Arbites or Inquisition, had seen fit to assign her an aide-de-camp, one Harald Olson, in the room across from hers. As he explained it, his job was to keep her out of trouble and “arrange” whatever she needed “arranged.”

Moving her belongings and settling in had taken most of the day, so in-depth investigation would have to wait. On the plus side, she had some idea of the heresies being perpetrated, so she could make more targeted inquiries than her previous visit. Even better, the Apriori were proud of many of their deviations, like their public education system. Why not pick the low-hanging fruit first? Sure enough, when she asked to be given a tour of a typical school, Harald readily agreed, scheduling one for the next day.

Finding herself unable to sleep or focus on writing that day's report, Rightina switched on her room's holo and browsed the available channels, and was surprised by the amount of Imperial media available, from “Arbitrator Foreboding” reruns to the latest Vocks Castor film. According to Harald, the Apriori were fascinated by all things Imperial, as it was all new to them after their long isolation. The domestic media were, unsurprisingly, outside of mainstream Imperial boundaries, especially in their coverage of what most worlds considered sensitive topics; no less than a half-dozen stations covered every event of the Aprior Sector in excruciating detail, from embedded reporters with Imperial Guard companies to investigations of the activities of the planetary governments. Most disturbing was the matter-of-fact discussion of the enemies of Mankind; one station was airing a special on a Slaaneshi cult which had recently been broken up in a sting operation. Trembling with fury, Rightina listened and took notes as a Knight Inductor, one Lieutenant Marcus Rallen, described the nature of the daemonic threat:

“The name 'Slaanesh' literally translates to 'Prince of Pleasure,' but a more accurate name would be 'Prince of Excess.' His or her followers engage in activities steeped in decadence and sensation, and the more extreme, the better.”

The view cut back to the news anchor, as he interjected a question: “Statements from the arrested cultists refer to Slaanesh as a 'God of Chaos.' What does this mean, and is this sort of god related to the God-Emperor of Mankind?”

The blasphemy nearly made Rightina choke, but Rallen responded smoothly: “Slaanesh is more accurately described as an emergent phenomenon: the collective embodiment of every sentient being's hedonistic drives, as these emotions influence the Warp, as opposed to the God-Emperor, who is a single extremely powerful psychic individual. This sort of embodiment is drawn to and empowered by activities which tap its particular emotion, especially if they are ritualized, as was nearly the case with the recent attempted daemonic summoning. The 'Chaos' part is very accurate; if we were to act on our impulses at all times, civilized society could not exist.”

“So if I eat a sandwich, and enjoy it, does that attract or empower Slaanesh?”

“Not measurably so. Even sexual activity barely registers on the Warp. It is important to note that Slaanesh was only created as a result of the collective effort of the entire Eldar Empire, and Eldar are much more sensitive to stimulation than a human, and their Empire was much more wide-spread than our Imperium; one human won't make too much of a difference. However, this is not to say that Slaaneshi activity, or activity devoted to any Chaos god, is not a threat; the Eldar Empire and most of its inhabitants died when Slaanesh was born, and if these cults are not identified and destroyed, that fate awaits us.”

Sickened, Rightina could not listen any longer, and she switched off the holo. She forced herself to look at the bright side: once the Grey Knights heard about this breach of secrecy, they would not hesitate to put the sector to the torch.

This media also put a new sense of urgency on the upcoming school visit: if the average Apriori citizen had access to this sort of material, what were their children learning?

CHAPTER THREE: Going to School[edit]

Harald grinned at Inquisitor Rightina as they boarded a train bound for Orion Public School. “You're in luck, Inquisitor! It's recruiting season for government services, and they're all giving presentations today.” Harald indicated several uniformed men and women at the end of the car. “Health Service, Utility Maintenance, Knights Inductor, Imperial Guard, you name it, they're looking for new recruits.”

“In the schools?”

“Where else? Of course, you can sit in at the presentations and hear what they have to say, but that's nothing out of the ordinary; if you'd like to talk to them in person and ask questions, now's the time.”

Rightina looked over the various government workers, but the massive Marine seemed familiar. Rightina wracked her brain, trying to fit the face, when she suddenly recognized him. “Marcus Rallen!” Rightina called. The Space Marine looked up at her, confused. “You were on the holonet last night, talking about daemons!”

“So I was. What did you think?”

“I think you were being extremely irresponsible! There is a reason that information about the Chaos Gods is kept highly classified by Imperial authorities!”

Taken aback, Rallen blinked, and answered, “Forewarned is forearmed, Inquisitor. Think of it this way: when the entire world is informed of the threat, people will recognize cults and inform authorities before they become a serious problem. We have effectively given ourselves an entire planet of informants.”

“And what about those who would not have heard of Chaos, if not for you?”

“We have found cults who didn't know the name of the god they served, but served all the same. People don't need to know the words to have the emotions. You can think of our activities as a mental vaccination: present a sanitized, objective look at Chaos, and the horrible side effects, and people will choose to avoid it and report it going forward, where an uninformed person might be taken in by the weird new club that just opened, and not realize what he has done until it is too late.” Rallen saw that Rightina seemed unconvinced, and decided to try a different tack. “Here's another way to look at our public-information program: information is very hard to contain, and the harder you work to hide some nugget of knowledge, the more valuable and enticing it becomes, and you get no control over what leaks out, or how it spreads, or when or where the leak occurs. By relaying the information ourselves, we get to control all of those things.”

Rightina seemed to accept this justification. “Tell them enough to keep them away, but not so much as to be a danger.”

“Right! They don't need to know how to summon daemonettes, so we don't tell them how, but it is handy to know how to recognize daemonettes in disguise, and who to contact for assistance.” Rallen noticed some conflict on Rightina's features. “So, does that point go under the 'Loyal' column now?” he joked.

“You're not off the hook!” Rightina snapped. “You are still under investigation by the Inquisition! And in any case, while your methods may have merit and, apparently, work here, there are problems with implementing them throughout the Imperium.” Rightina counted on her fingers as she elaborated. “Most worlds don't have a Space Marine Chapter watching over them, most worlds don't have the communication and transit networks that yours have, and most worlds don't have an educated, well-off populace like yours. Imagine you're a poor hive-worlder, and you hear about these 'Chaos Gods.' Information is scarce and unreliable, but it sounds like they're powerful, and maybe bad stuff happens to you in the long run, but the short-term perks are worlds better than what you've got. Doesn't worshiping them sound like a good deal?” Rallen was forced to concede. “And, what happens when your traders start to interact with the Imperium? Are they going to leak information wherever they go?”

“We will tell them to use discretion,” Rallen promised.

Rightina decided that she would discuss the matter more thoroughly with Chapter Master Randi later.

The train's speaker chimed and announced that they had arrived at Orion Public school, and the visiting government officials disembarked into the school's main hall and headed for the auditorium. Rallen's imposing figure quickly became the center of attention, and the children pointed and stared, while trying to look like they weren't pointing and staring. Rightina was reminded of her own profession.

One bold girl, no older than eight and no taller than Rallen's knee, ran up to the massive Space Marine. “Wow! You're huge! Are you a Space Marine?” she asked. He had hardly begun to nod when she continued, “I wanna be a Space Marine like you when I grow up!”

Rallen, torn between admiration for the girl's enthusiasm, and his understanding of the impossibility of her request, managed to pacify her with a “we'll see,” and an admonishment to study hard in the meantime, sending her on her way to class. When he turned to the Inquisitor, he saw that her face had turned a peculiar shade of red.

“You don't actually turn women into Space Marines, do you?” she hissed. “I wouldn't put it past you!”

Rallen assured her that adapting Space Marine implants to women was and, for the foreseeable future, would be beyond the Knights' ability.

The government officials had to prepare their presentations, which left Rightina alone with Harald. “Any classes you would like to see?” Harald asked.

“I was told at the Inquisitorial hearing that your schools include classes on civil defense and a focus on service to the Imperium. May I see one of those?”

Harald nodded, and took her outside. “We fold civil defense into physical education, keeping everybody in shape to be ready for disasters, and all that; the service part gets emphasized in civics, where people learn about how our government works, and then have to pick a public service, volunteer for it, and write up a report and give a presentation on that at the end of the year. Gives them a head start on the job market, see? It's kind of funny; everybody goes in wanting to work for the Knights or the Guard or what have you, but I always liked the Public Utility Maintenance presentations the most. It's a good job, fixing things up, you know?” Harald kept up his chatter all the way to the scrumball field, where a few dozen students were engaged in a sort of race. As Harald explained, each team had a scene with several “victims” afflicted with various injuries. If a team was able to successfully demonstrate the proper treatment for a victim's ailments, that victim would be stabilized and earn the team points based on how quickly the victim was saved and the severity of their injuries. On the other hand, if they took too long or made too many mistakes, the victim would “die.” In order to earn as many points as possible, the teams had to judge the victims' injuries, establish a triage, and work as a team to get everyone treated. The winning team managed to save every “victim” at their station with a few minutes to spare, operating with a speed that rivaled many Imperial Guard medic teams Rightina had seen. Maybe the Apriori are right on this count, Rightina mused.

After the class ended, Rightina decided against seeing the government officials' presentations; she would learn more by investigating Imperius, the capital city of Regius and the entire Aprior Sector.

CHAPTER FOUR: Inquisitor Rightina Goes to Imperius[edit]

Returning to the train station, Rightina and Harald transferred to a high-speed maglev which would whisk them straight to Imperius, so that Rightina could investigate the Aprior Sector's governments.

As the train slowed down for the approach to the station at Imperius, Rightina looked out the window and noticed a knot of people standing on the lawn outside of the Aprior Sector Legislative Assembly, waving signs and shouting. She abruptly realized that the signs had anti-government slogans! Some of the participants were even handing out flyers to passers-by, but aside from a few PDF watching from the side, and some hecklers at the opposite end of the lawn, nobody seemed to care! Rightina took a deep breath to calm herself – it wasn't as if anybody was actually being violent – and then turned to Harald, icily asking, “I suppose you have an explanation for this?”

Harald leaned to the window, and frowned. “Protesters. We get them now and then. Some of them can be dangerous – that's what those PDF are for – but they're usually harmless, and...thought-provoking.” He settled back into his seat. “It's a sort of safety valve – let people vent their grievances in a nice, public area, so they feel like they're being heard and accomplishing something, and they won't resort to rebellion.”

“So, when they say,” Rightina peered at the signs with the largest writing, “'I Am More Than My Genes,' what are they trying to accomplish?”

Harald thought for a moment, and answered her question with a question: “Are you familiar with our genetic screening program?”

“I know that you screen people frequently; I didn't learn too many details last time I was here.”

“I'm surprised you didn't get a fuller briefing – it's a vital part of our health care system! People get screened at least once every two years, starting before birth. We use it to catch mutations before they become problematic, and identify people who are compatible with Knights Inductor gene-seed, among other things.” Rightina filed the idea away for future reference; her fellow Inquisitors would find such a program a great boon to investigations. “The problem – not that I think it's a problem, this is just their beef – is that, once we have that information, it doesn't go away. We have laws to protect the information, and make sure that it only gets used for certain purposes, but these people think that we use this information to determine peoples' destinies at birth. To some extent, people may be accepted for or barred from certain programs, like Knights Inductor training, based on their genes, but we're not the Tau Empire – people make their own choices about their lives! Honestly, most people are pretty satisfied with the program as it is; I don't think these protesters will change anything.”

Rightina sat in silence for a while, and then asked, “What did you mean when you said protestors could be 'thought-provoking'? And, if these people won't change anything, why allow them to – destabilize things?”

“I mean that, sometimes, they're right!” Harald snapped. “Not even four decades ago, a Pontifex Mundus decided that he had the God-Emperor-given right to decide which Cults Imperial on his planet were worthy of sanction; naturally, he only sanctioned those which agreed with him, generally the Puritanical ones. He and his cronies agitated for violence against 'anyone who threatened the dominance of mankind,' which turned out to be just about anyone who worshiped the Emperor differently than they did, and anyone who tried to check their power. They got the violence they wanted, and his teachings started to spread to other worlds. To make a long story short, after the initial violence was suppressed, there were some hearings, that Pontifex got put in his place, and the Assembly put some stricter protections for variant Emperor-worship practices, among other things, in the Sector Charter.” After a moment's thought, Harald added, “And that also demonstrates my point about allowing protests – technically, Internal Security could have decided that the Puritans in question were a 'threat to societal cohesion,' or something like that, and had them all arrested – or, for that matter, we could have done the same to the people who protested against them. Had we done so, we just might have found ourselves with a religious civil war on our hands! Instead, the minority party got to air its grievances and, in that case, get them redressed.” Harald noticed that Rightina still looked uncertain about protestors. “You should talk to one of the Librarians about the history of the Knights Inductor when you get the chance,” he suggested. “Apparently, they learned to allow protests the hard way.”

A quick tour of the Aprior Sector Legislative Assembly revealed that the governments of the Aprior Sector followed the same general pattern: a few elected bodies and officials who squabbled and bickered and, somehow, made policy, like most Imperial representative governments – hardly surprising, as the Knights Inductor had played an instrumental role in establishing many of those governments, too. Legally speaking, the Knights ruled every world in the Aprior Sector, as they ruled the Aprior System, and it was their fleets which had settled every other world in the Sector, but in practice, they limited their rule to the Aprior System proper. As the Sector had been settled in a time when the Warp in the region was especially turbulent, the Knights had decreed, as part of the Aprior Sector Charter, that all star systems should be able to survive on their own, and advising that every world be as self-sufficient as possible. This extended to the Sector's governments: generally, each system looked after itself, and while the Legislative Assembly was the ruling body of the Sector on paper, was little more than a military and trade alliance, and a cursory glance through their records had turned up nothing out of the ordinary – a fuller investigation would come later, but they didn't seem to be trying to hide anything.

To find the major deviations from Imperial norms, Rightina would have to investigate the organizations which held the real inter-system power: the Adeptus Mechanicus, Internal Security, and the Knights Inductor themselves.

CHAPTER FIVE: Bending the Rules[edit]

While not a tech-priestess herself, Rightina had received some training by the Mechanicus so that she could identify the many forms of techno-heresy, and she had seen multiple infractions on her first visit to the Aprior system – the Apriori Imperial Guard regiments made use of Land Raiders, and the Knights Inductor had developed stealth fields for Terminator armor which could only have been based on Tau stealth-suits.

Of course, that had been before the panel's verdict; now that she had been assigned to examine the Aprior Sector for every deviation from Imperial norms, the local Mechanicus had, with some protest, granted her access to what they called their “Primary Workshop.” At first, Rightina had been furious at the perceived slight, demanding to see their central Forge World, but she received an unexpected answer: the Aprior Sector had none. Some planets were more industrialized than others, but the idea of dedicating a whole planet to nothing but manufacturing and research flew directly in the face of the Apriori ideal of self-reliance and decentralization – such a world would be reliant on other planets for its food and manpower, and other worlds would be dependent on it for manufactured goods. Instead, the Apriori tech-priests had developed a distributed model: each world in the Aprior Sector was home to some number of general-purpose manufactora and laboratories – some of these were highly specialized for more expensive fields of research or production, but any facility could, with time, take on any role as needed. The Aprior System, as the first system to be pacified by the Knights Inductor (and their techmarines), had the most such facilities, and most of these were on the moons of Aprior Quartus, including the “Primary Workshop” on the largest moon.

Harald, for all his training, was no more a tech-priest than Rightina, so they were accompanied by one: Artisan Zora, a specialist in power armor maintenance, manufacturing, and design, and apparently one of the dedicated spokespeople for the Apriori Mechanicus. When they first met her, the reason for this was clear: she had carefully crafted her appearance to be approachable by lay people. Rather than being a bristling mass of wires and cables, Zora kept most of her augmentations concealed, either under her robes or behind her facemask – a mostly-opaque plastic or glass oval, with two lights shining through where her eyes would normally be. Her eye-lights narrowed and turned upward in a “smile” as she greeted the two of them.

“Agent Olson, Inquisitor Immam, welcome to our Primary Workshop!” Her voice had a synthesized edge to it, but it retained a sort of lilt from whatever her original accent had been – something vaguely Vostroyan or Valhallan. “We are the largest research and manufacturing facility in the Sector, and I imagine your time is limited. Is there anything you would like to see in particular?”

Rightina thought quickly. Demanding to see tech-heresy wouldn't go over well, but there had to be a way to make them proud to show her their deviations. “I've heard that you do...novel things with STC designs – making your own patterns, and such. Can I see where that happens?”

Zora took the bait, and nodded eagerly. “Certainly! We spend a great deal of effort on research here – we must keep ahead of our enemies, you know. Right this way, please!”

As they walked, Zora pointed out the many laboratory wings that they passed, where tech-priests studied every subject conceivable. “If we are to research and work intelligently, we need to understand the world, and figure out how to make things do what we want them to do. The Ancients knew a great deal, but we have lost all primary sources from that time, so we have to learn indirectly. The way that we do that is by studying and understanding their works – the STC schematics. By understanding why they built things the way they did, we can learn the fundamental laws behind their engineering and science, and be able to create designs ideal for our circumstances.”

Rightina spoke up, trying to keep her tone neutral. “I've spoken with tech-priests before, and they were big on tradition – 'to break with ritual is to break with faith,' they say. Have you ever wondered if trying to improve on the Ancients' work might be dangerous?”

Zora stopped short and fell silent with a sour look, and Rightina was afraid that she had pushed too hard, but the Artisan responded icily: “I see you have been listening to those rusty old – fogeys – on Mars.” Her tone indicated that she had intended to call the Martian tech-priests something stronger, but thought better of it at the last minute. “I want you to understand what we do here, Inquisitor. We are not hereteks. We are nothing but loyal to the Imperium, but we are also practical people. Every year, we are finding ourselves with fewer and fewer vital components to old STC designs, without the knowledge and means to duplicate them – not least because the Forge Worlds keep everything to themselves, by the way. Meanwhile, our foes are expanding their production capacities and advancing their designs faster and faster! We cannot sustain this state of affairs, Inquisitor – something must change!” Zora paused, and forced herself to relax – the Inquisitor was serving the Imperium just as much as she was – and explained, “we would follow the STC plans to the letter if we could, but they were not created with us in mind – they were adapted to whatever world printed them. Suppose we are creating a weapon which requires some widget that we do not have and cannot create; we will need to use a substitute for that widget. But there are other components which require the widget, so we will have to change those, and there are systems which are optimized to support the widget, so we will have to change those so they support the substitute, and the systems which we change depend on and are depended on by other systems, and...before long, we are changing so much, not all of which is well-understood, that we would be better off just creating something new.”

“So why study the STC designs at all?”

“Because the STC schematics are the result of the Ancients applying their knowledge.” Zora wracked her brain and cogitator for an example. “Think of the schematics as specific mathematical equations, like 'two plus two makes four,' 'one plus seven makes eight,' and so on. These equations are nice, but the deeper knowledge – understanding the 'plus' operator – is what is truly powerful, as it lets you create many equations, equations that are useful to you, not just the equations that the Ancients thought were worth writing down. The STC printouts can be useful, but we are most interested in knowing the laws of science and engineering that the Ancients knew and applied – that is the real Quest for Knowledge, in our opinion.” Zora heaved a weary sigh. “When I talk to Magi and other high-ranking tech-priests, I feel like they cannot see the forest for the trees; they are so caught up in the STC schematics that they forget that the knowledge behind them is what is truly powerful.”

Zora's words sounded nice, Rightina thought, but did this philosophy deliver? “What have you learned from the schematics, and what have you developed with it?”

Zora brightened immediately at Rightina's interest. “Oh, all sorts of things – to both of your questions! For example, from the schematics for the Land Speeder, the servo-skull, and various starship classes, we have reverse-engineered a general-purpose theory of gravity manipulation – we are still working out the particulars of the interactions at the sub-atomic level, but we can make gravity run up, down, and sideways if we like, at almost any distance-scale and strength. Our trains can easily accelerate at 10 times the normal acceleration of gravity, but you did not feel that because gravity generators create a counter-acceleration field inside the train. There is no STC train design which can accelerate that quickly or that safely, but we needed one to link our cities, so we designed it and made it!” Come to think of it, besides a little bump at the start and end of a ride, Rightina had never felt any acceleration on her train rides in the Aprior Sector. Meanwhile, Zora seemed to have forgiven the Inquisitor's probing question, and she led Rightina and Harald to the testing facility, where they might see the fruits of the Workshop's labors with their own eyes.

As they walked, Zora happily chattered about every project they passed, Mars-sanctioned or not. In general, it seemed that the Apriori were most concerned about replacing or duplicating rare archeotech; these also happened to be the projects which required the most deviation from the STC canon, and the ones which faced the most difficulty, as the old technology relics were of a quality that the Apriori tech-priests could not reproduce. This was especially apparent in their attempts to create power-armor and Terminator suits using entirely known and reproducible technologies, which were running into what Zora called the “Three-S problem:” they could have some combination of Speed, Strength, and Simplicity, but not all three. Meanwhile, the best and oldest suits of armor were getting rarer and rarer as parts wore out and other suits had to be cannibalized for replacements. “At current rates of use, we will have no more suits of Artificer armor in about three centuries,” Zora explained, “so we must have replacements ready by then.”

For the moment, the Workshop had developed several lines of substitute power armor, all of which were inferior in some ways to the Dark Age technology, but were infinitely easier to produce. The most basic was the Trooper, a simple powered exoskeleton (not even fully enclosed) that might be employed by Space Marine Scouts, Imperial Guardsmen, or Sisters of Battle, as it required no implants, and yet enhanced strength by almost an order of magnitude and, by taking loads off of the wearer, could sustain a pace twice that of a conventional army. Already, artillery units and transport and manufacturing facilities were starting to employ a variant of Trooper armor optimized for cargo handling, as a replacement for unwieldy loading cranes and gantries.

The next step up was the Marauder, a fully enclosed and modular suit of true powered armor. Depending on a mission's requirements, the Marauder could be given a balance of speed and strength (but not both), with several hardpoints for weapons, sensors, implant interface ports, and other attachments. The Knights Inductor Reserve Companies were beginning to train with Marauder armor, with each variety of Marine being given a variant which best supported their role: strength and integrated targeting for the Devastators, speed for the Assault Marines, and a balance for the Tactical Marines.

The Crusader was the strongest and largest of the new designs, intended to replace Terminator armor. It was much bulkier than Terminator armor, as the tech-priests could not fabricate fiber bundles as strong and as light as the oldest Terminator suits. Somewhere during the Crusader's development, somebody had noticed that a multiple-amputee Astartes could sit entirely inside the chest, and so the Crusader was also being considered as a replacement for the Dreadnought.

Rightina felt a tiny thought tickling the back of her mind, an instinct that these armor patterns were somehow familiar. They certainly didn't have much in common with any of the more widespread armor patterns – for one thing, the fully-enclosed models lacked distinct helmets! Instead, the torso was extended to reach up and over the head of the wearer, leaving it with a peculiar hunched-forward stance, like a bulked-up Jokaero. The pictures on the wall of the armor laboratory held the answer: someone had made a detailed dissection of Tau battle-suits, and evidently thought highly of the full-body-enclosure. Rightina glanced back at Zora, and perceived that she had not noticed Rightina's discovery. Rightina resolved to inquire further on just how much the Apriori studied xenotechnology.

The tech-priests were having more success at replacing old vehicle technology, as there was more room available to modify designs. Rightina had already seen how the Aprior Sector produced enough Land Raiders to use them for their Guard and PDF as well as the Knights Inductor, but she was surprised to see that they were also creating entirely new weapons of war. Zora took Harald and Rightina to a carefully isolated test chamber which seemed to stretch on to infinity. “This is a weapons testing range, ten kilometers long,” she explained, “and you are about to see our latest design!” A short turret protruded from the ground and took aim down the range, where a massive armor wall had been elevated into place.

“Warning,” a synthesized voice called, “grav-driver firing. Clear the range.” Zora seemed to suddenly remember that Harald and Rightina had organic ears, so she handed them each a set of earmuffs. “Capacitor banks charged. Safety control has confirmed range cleared. Firing in five seconds. Two seconds. Fir–”

The voice was interrupted by a tremendous thunderclap as a fireball streaked from the turret and blasted into the armor wall; when Rightina's eyes recovered from the flash, she saw that a hole had been punched straight through it!

“That was the gravity-manipulation mass driver,” Zora beamed. “It uses our gravity manipulation technology to accelerate a projectile to ten times the speed of sound – that is fast enough to cross the range in less than three seconds – and it will tear through anything, as you just saw. It makes a mess of organic targets, for that matter, but it is intended for anti-armor. Since there are no moving parts – except for the bullet, of course – it is simple to build and resistant to damage.”

Rightina frowned. “It's impressive, but why not just use a lascannon?”

“Energy losses, mostly – a dense projectile loses less energy over its flight through atmosphere than a laser pulse, and since it cannot diffuse, we end up with more energy delivered per unit area. We are still having some problems with that fireball – it happens because the projectile is moving so quickly that it ignites the atmosphere by friction, and it tears up the barrel, but we are improving; it used to be that we had to replace the barrel after every shot!”

The tech-priests had even managed to create entirely new vehicles, like the Valkyrie Avenger. “The Knights Inductor are best at surgical strikes,” Zora explained, “but the Codex Astartes and STC library only provide for a very small number of ways to insert them – a couple of varieties of Thunderhawk, the Drop Pod, and the teleporter. They wanted something like the Valkyrie or Land Speeder Storm, but capable of carrying power-armor or Terminator armor, so they could fly a small team into a target zone without requiring a starship to be directly overhead or a vessel too large to be stealthy.” The result was shorter, wider, and more armored than its parent vessel, with a cockpit that took after the Land Speeder, with the two operators side-by-side.

Rightina felt a twinge of regret as she burst Zora's enthusiasm by mentioning the Stormraven. Zora howled, “You mean Mars has been sitting on a vehicle like this for millennia?! Omnissiah's brass bearings, we spent decades on this thing!” After she'd taken a moment to calm herself, she demanded, “Why in the world would they keep that sort of design to themselves? We are not stingy with our blueprints – I have spoken with tech-priests at other Forge Worlds, the lower-ranking ones anyway, and they are most grateful that we share our results. Are those rusty shrapshunts trying to keep everyone dependent on Mars? They are hurting the Imperium with their greed!” Zora realized that she was getting worked up again, and that Rightina couldn't answer her questions, anyway. “I am sorry to snap at you, Inquisitor, but every day that we delay is a day that our armed forces are inadequately equipped, and that is a gap which we cannot afford to leave open.”

Rightina sensed an opening. “So you do whatever is necessary to keep up with the enemies of the Imperium?”

“Absolutely!”

“Even imitating them?”

Zora narrowed her eye-lights. “What are you trying to say, Inquisitor?”

“I did my research on you on the way to the Sector; there are records of you using Terminator armor with stealth systems – systems which could only have come from Tau stealth-suits. Just now, I saw Tau battle-suit plans in your armor laboratory. Frankly, out here on the Eastern Fringe, I'm not surprised that you've been tempted, but I would have expected better from an Artisan. 'The alien mechanism is a perversion of the True Path,' and all that.”

Zora's fists clenched, and she forced them to relax. “I see those rust-brained sump-suckers have you hook, line, and sinker,” she finally seethed. “I will show you what they call 'xeno-heresy;' what you make of it is your concern, but you will hear my justification for our work.” She turned on her heel, and led Harald and Rightina to an iris door, larger and heavier than the others. The words “Reverse Engineering” were etched into the archway overhead, and the door only dilated after Zora plugged her right hand into a socket and entered a password, revealing an airlock with an identical door at the far end. Automated security turrets rested in alcoves, but their lights signaled that they were carefully screening the trio; when the door irised shut behind them, the lights blinked green, and the door before them dilated to reveal a sterile hallway, lined with windows and control panels. As Rightina peered in the nearby windows, she recognized pieces of xeno-technology behind each: Tau battle suits, Ork and Eldar weapons, and even some vehicles in larger chambers. Each chamber was filled with sensors and manipulator arms, and some held servitors made in the image of the aliens which once owned the technology within.

“This is our reverse-engineering facility,” Zora explained. “Each piece of technology you see here was either captured in battle or donated by defectors. We figure out how they work, observing them with the sensors and operating them with the manipulator arms and remote-operation servitors. With time, we can discover the underlying principles behind their operation, and develop technology – human technology – which duplicates their effect, or even does better.”

Rightina stared. “Why – how does this fit with the Quest for Knowledge?”

“The laws of the universe bind the xenos as much as they bind us; we can learn from their technology in the same way that we learn from the STC blueprints. Eldar and Ork technology is still somewhat beyond us, but the Tau's fascination with plasma and electromagnetic technology has enabled us to learn much, which allows us to improve our own technology.”

“And the thought that this understanding happens with the help of xenos doesn't bother you at all? Have you so little ability that you must depend on them?” Rightina scoffed.

Zora gave a short bark of laughter. “I am slightly peeved that they beat us in the short run, but at our present rates of research, we will overcome them in the end. And do not make the mistake of assuming that we depend on the xenos – this wing has no manufacturing capacity, and our policies strictly forbid us from rendering vital infrastructures dependent on xenotechnology. Everything that we make, we make ourselves.”

Harald coughed to attract Zora's attention. “That statement is somewhat misleading,” he explained. “Everything is made by Apriori, but not necessarily by humans.”

By this point, Rightina wasn't sure that she cared if the Apriori tech-priests employed xenos or not; they had already proven so far divergent from the norm, what difference did it make? She quashed that thought – if nothing else, she ought to make sure that these xenos weren't a further threat to the Imperium.

CHAPTER SIX: Keep Your Enemies Closer[edit]

The xenos were employed (Zora had reacted indignantly when Rightina had asked where they were “kept”) in one of the furthest wings of the xenotechnology vault; Harald explained that this was because of a longstanding policy known colloquially as “sandboxing” – nobody knew the exact origin of the name, but it meant that individuals of unknown trustworthiness were generally allowed to act as they saw fit, but were prevented from accessing resources which could be used against the Apriori. In the case of the xenos employed by the tech-priests, they were given support for their research, and allowed to cooperate from a distance on projects which related to their fields of expertise, but they could not directly access the Workshop's networks.

It seemed that most, if not all, of the xenos employed at the Workshop were Tau, of the Earth Caste. Rightina had heard of humans who had defected en masse to the Tau; had these xenos done the same?

“Why not ask them yourself?” Zora indicated the most senior xeno present. “That is Acolyte Underminer – that is a rough translation of his name, and his former occupation.”

Hearing his name, Underminer turned to Zora, and then he saw Rightina. “I did not expect to encounter the Imperial Inquisition out here,” he admitted.

“Of course not – nobody expects the Inquisition.” Rightina cleared her throat. “So, Underminer; what proof do you have that this isn't an act?”

Underminer swept his hat from his head, revealing a long scar from front to back, just to the right of center. “This scar is from the surgery to excise my olfactory control node. The Ethereals no longer have a hold over me – or any of us; our will is our own, and we have cast our lot with the Aprior Sector, and your Imperium.” His voice retained the precise, clipped Tau accent, although its edge had softened with the time spent among humans.

Rightina scoffed. “And I'm supposed to accept that?”

Underminer shrugged drily. “Accept it, or not; I'm sandboxed, just in case they turn out to be wrong about me. 'Trust, but verify,' as they say.”

A piece of advice from Inquisitor Lord Damnos sprung to Rightina's mind: “Never trust defectors – they betrayed their first master, and they will betray you as well!”

Of course, everyone did have lines they would not cross, or values which they would not compromise. Organizations changed, and maybe a member would leave if he was more loyal to ideals than to people. There was only one way to find out: “May I ask what convinced you to change your allegiance?”

Underminer fell silent as he struggled to recall his days as a Tau Engineer. “My memories of the end of my service to the Tau Empire are...uncertain, but I do know that my task force came upon some ancient structures, or possibly an ancient artifact; I do not recall what took place there, but the Ethereal decided that the Greater Good would be best served by destroying us. He told us to die – for the Greater Good – but I – I could not. None of us could.” Underminer's voice faltered as he remembered the terrible choking cold that had clutched his throat and stifled his heart, but then he remembered the heat, the resolve, whatever it had been that had resisted, and how his comrades-in-arms had struggled back to life as well, and his spirit returned. “Whatever we had seen, it changed us so that we would not just lie down and die, so they had us marked for re-education. The camp was overrun by the Imperium, and I feared that we would be put to death, but the Knights Inductor spared us, and the Apriori Imperial Guard just...took us in. They flew us straight to the Aprior Sector – it was only later that I even offered my expertise, so they didn't save us for what we knew – they thought that we were worth saving by virtue of our existence!” Underminer's pride in his adopted people swelled, empowering his voice. “The Ethereals used us, I realized later – we were nothing to them, tools to be discarded on their path to galactic domination. They do not believe in any Greater Good, they believe in what is good for them alone. And then, we learned of your God-Emperor, a man who made the ultimate sacrifice so that his Imperium might live, and how your generals lead from the fore of their armies, how every citizen, one way or another, is dedicated to the Imperium's defense, and we realized that your Imperium better exemplifies the Greater Good than our own Empire did! When we realized that this was the case, we swore – long live the Imperium and the God-Emperor, and death to the Ethereals!”

Rightina had to admit that she had never heard a Tau speak as passionately in favor of the Ethereals; indeed, Underminer's fervor had left her speechless in a manner that most Imperial preachers couldn't manage. Finally, she found her voice again. “How many are you?”

“There were twenty workers who served under me, perhaps a hundred to a hundred and fifty Fire Warriors, ten pilots. I understand that some have become advisors to the Aprior Sector Armed Forces and Internal Security, and others wished to retire to civilian life.”

“Any other xenos work here?”

“A few other Tau defectors – not many.”

“Generally, an Ethereal will command his force to kill itself rather than risk capture; we only rarely manage to capture them before then or resuscitate them afterward,” Harald clarified.

Underminer continued. “Besides us, there were a few Orks a while ago, from Kaptin Feegul's crew, and I heard that there was an Eldar here once. There may be more in other workshops or with Internal Security. Oh, and then there's Elliot.” Underminer pointed out what Rightina had initially thought was a simple servitor; closer inspection proved that it was something...else. It looked positively ancient, with skin as grey as ash. Its face was gaunt, with long ears like an Eldar, but without their typical ethereal, unearthly beauty, and it seemed to be fixed with a permanently dour expression. Its body was thin and bowed, and it seemed to be so fragile that a gentle breeze would blow it away, as opposed to the typical overly-muscular build of a servitor. In spite of its apparent frailty, its green, sunken eyes had an unnatural intensity; overall, it looked like a corpse which had animated itself out of spite.

Despite the bodily differences from a servitor, it wielded equipment which would not be out-of-place on a medical servitor, with various syringes and scanning apparatus.

Rightina turned to Zora. “What is a medical servitor – if that's what Elliot really is – doing in the xenotechnology wing?”

Zora hesitated before answering, “Xenogenetics. Our Navy led some Dark Eldar into a trap, and we recovered some...hybrids.” Zora shuddered. “I prefer not to think about how they came to be. Anyway, there are some...interesting medical conditions which they are experiencing, most likely as a result of genetic mismatch. We employ Elliot to try and understand what the problem is, and how we can help them.” Zora thought for a moment. “We also study the Blank gene, as it is unusually common in this sector; perhaps one in a million or so have it.”

“And how has that worked out?”

Zora shrugged. “Results are mixed – we have developed treatments to help hybrids...'synchronize' their heritages, to put it simply, but they are still quite risky. We have learned some, but not much about the Blank gene – it seems to be linked with the Necrons, although we are not sure of the causal relationship. The mechanism by which the gene operates is still unknown to us; when we learn that, we will be able to engineer techniques to grant people the Warp-resistance without also causing the socialization problems.”

“I have to wonder, Zora; how do you decide which xenos work here? You can't just put them straight to work on faith that they'll be loyal. How do you vet them?”

Harald cleared his throat. “We don't let just anybody work here; there's a debriefing and screening process, where we decide how trustworthy they are, and how we can best help each other. That's an Internal Security matter, and that's what I normally do. If you're done here, I can arrange a visit tomorrow.”

“Sounds like fun,” Rightina answered sarcastically. “So, Artisan, have you got any more novelties to show me? Abominable intelligences, perhaps?”

Zora gasped. “Omnissiah, no, that would be dangerous!”

“And consorting with xenos isn't? I can maybe understand your perspective on the Quest for Knowledge, but what good can come of studying xeno-technology?”

Zora threw her hands up in the air. “I have shown you what we have accomplished by our variant Quest for Knowledge, and still you lack faith in us! Omnissiah, give me the strength to deal with this close-minded doubter!” With a frustrated wave of her hand, she directed a wall-screen to view a test chamber filled with two dozen plasma guns. Rightina recognized half of them, but not the others. Zora explained venomously, “those plasma rifles on the left are standard Mark Five Mars-pattern Plasma Guns, used by Imperial Guard regiments across the galaxy. Those on the right are Mark Forty Aprior-pattern, incorporating Tau and Eldar plasma technology, used by our armed forces. Now watch.” The twenty-four plasma guns fired as one. Rightina glanced at Zora, but she was too focused on the guns to notice. The plasma guns fired again, and Rightina wondered what Zora had hoped to show her. On the third volley, half of the Mars-pattern guns exploded violently, while the Aprior-pattern guns fired normally. Zora's eye-lights were turned down in a glare as she waved to darken the video-feed. “Did you see that, Inquisitor? We have performed thousands of tests, and a Mars-pattern plasma weapon has a one in six chance of overheating on any given shot – one in six! That is unacceptable – monstrous, even! Those miscalibrated Martian scrap-sacks dither and twiddle their mecha-dendrites while Guardsmen are being killed in legions by their own weapons because they are too short-sighted to consider that their vaunted STCs might have errors, or that they might have made mistakes in translation.”

Rightina opened her mouth to speak, but Zora wouldn't have it. “Look at this list!” She waved her hand at the screen, and a long list of names scrolled up. “These are all of the Apriori Guardsmen and Planetary Defense Militiamen who died because of their plasma weapons – two thousand casualties per year. They say that half the Sector is related to at least one person on the list, and I am fortunate enough to be related to two of them. I swore that I would do everything within my power to end this state of affairs, and by the Omnissiah, we have done it. Two thousand casualties a year, down to zero. If being accused of xeno-heresy by small-minded, arrogant old waste processors is the price for such an accomplishment, then I gladly pay it! We study xenotechnology, but we are saving human lives!”

Rightina had no answer.

CHAPTER SEVEN: Returning to the Fold[edit]

During Rightina's first visit to the Aprior Sector, Sergeant Sacres had been suspiciously evasive when he was asked about what the Apriori did with heretics and mutants. By this point in her tour, Rightina had seen that the Apriori seemed to have set out to break every rule in the book, which lead her to believe that, whatever the Apriori did with their heretics, it didn't involve Imperially-sanctioned procedures like cleansing and burning. This raised the question: what did they do instead?

Whatever they did was done on the fifth moon of Aprior Sextus, chosen for its isolation; as the transit from Quartus to Sextus was too close for Warp travel to be economical, the journey had to be made via sublight drive, which took ten days. In the meantime, Rightina wracked her brain for what could possibly be done with heretics, and found herself at a loss for answers. Most of what she could imagine involved some kind of therapy – but that was impossible!

Or was it? Before coming to the Sector, Rightina would have declared that it was impossible to cooperate with xenos, or safely and productively deviate from STC canon, but the Apriori had clearly done both of those...

The Inquisition was a distributed, decentralized organization, but the headquarters of the Ordo Hereticus was nominally the Adepta Sororitas Convent Prioris, on Terra. The building held records, vaults, and training and living facilities, all decorated in the ostentatious Gothic style typical to Imperial government buildings.

The headquarters of Aprior Sector Internal Security, the Panopticon, was rather less ornamented – indeed, from its external appearance, Aprior Sextus Echo was unoccupied, because the headquarters was entirely underground. The shuttle had flown inside a deep trench, revealing a hangar set in one of the walls, which itself connected to the Panopticon. There, Harald scanned his palm-print and eyes, entered a pass-code, and scanned an implanted token, and the door irised open, revealing a labyrinthine office. Rather than festooning every surface with eagles, skulls, and =][='s, the Panopticon was visually sterile, with smooth surfaces colored a cool blue-green. “It's easy on the eyes, and keeps us from getting cabin fever,” Harald explained.

Harald and Rightina soon came to a junction. “We do a lot here – surveillance, analysis, interrogation, and treatment and reform. What do you want to see?”

So, the Apriori did try to treat heretics and mutants! The first three tasks were already familiar to her, but how did one reform a heretic? Rightina asked to see where and how it happened.

“Broadly speaking, we deal with three kinds of people down here,” Harald explained. “We've got people with hereditary mutations – those are pretty easy to fix with some medical genetics, surgery, and physical therapy. With our screening programs, we can actually catch those mutations and prepare a treatment regimen before the person is born! It saves families a lot of time and heartbreak. Most of the time, we don't even see the mutant, since most planets have at least one medical center with the knowledge and equipment to help them, but we keep track of all of them here.”

“Across the whole Sector?”

“Absolutely! You've only seen the Aprior System, because there's not enough time to traipse around every world in the Sector, and since this system was colonized and pacified first, it's the pattern on which all the others are based. That said, each world is unique, and we have to keep tabs on things to make sure everybody sticks to the Charter. Each sub-sector, system, and planet has its own Internal Security branch, but they all report to us.”

Eventually, Rightina and Harald came to a thick door, about the size of the door to the tech-priests' Reverse Engineering Department. “This is where we help former Chaos cultists. Just so you know, you may feel a sensation of buzzing or pressure in your head. This ward is psychically warded against the Warp, and those sensations are perfectly typical, but let me know if it gets too distracting, so we can leave,” Harald warned.

For a brief moment, as soon they crossed the threshold, Rightina's head felt like it had been put in a vise, breathing became laborious, and her vision started to swim. Harald caught her on his arm before she could collapse to the floor, and started to take her back outside, but the feeling quickly passed. Gasping for breath, Rightina stood again. “That's one hell of a ward!”

“Of course it is – we've got former cultists, Warp-tainted items, heretical texts, you name it. This place would call down every daemon in the Sector if we didn't keep it warded!”

Rightina looked around, noticing that cells and isolation chambers lined the walls. “So, you actually treat heretics?”

“We do our best,” Harald corrected. “Not everybody responds well – with our current techniques, we can only heal a person's soul so much. There comes a point where it's more humane for us to kill them quickly and annihilate their soul, rather than keep them alive and in torment.”

“And if people do respond? How well does it work? What do you do?”

“Why don't you ask someone who's been through it? We've got a few reformed heretics who work here – to catch a thief, and all that.”

Harald showed Rightina to a room somewhat larger than the other cells. A thin, nervous-looking young man lived inside. He seemed to have a constant tremor or twitch, which suddenly got worse when he saw Rightina.

“Ah – an Inquisitor – here – but you said – I – you said –”

“She's just here to understand, Gordon,” Harald reassured him. “You're not in any kind of trouble.” He glanced sharply at Rightina, his eyes sending a message: Do not antagonize him.

Rightina nodded. “I just want to understand how things get done around here,” she told him.

The man calmed down, with only his hands trembling slightly. “I – I'm Gordon. I work here as a counselor – to show people that it is possible to move past our – ah – histories.”

“Do you mind if I ask...what brought you here?”

Gordon inhaled deeply, and exhaled slowly. “I – don't like to think about it, but I – I made it through, right?” He swallowed nervously. “I used to be a servant of Tzeentch,” he finally admitted. “I was lost before then – unemployed, not enough money to get to college, didn't have the gumption to enlist – and it was comforting to be working for someone who seemed to have a plan.”

“And then what?”

Gordon laughed shakily. “We tried to summon a daemon, and we got busted. And – and they took us here, and with the isolation, I could feel clear-headed, and I – I remember wondering, 'what the hell was I thinking?' Because I had time to think about it – and they made sure that I thought about it – and I realized what I'd been doing – I mean, the summoning required a sacrifice – and I had just sat back and – and they c-cut him up –” Gordon couldn't make himself continue. “Any – anyway, that was when I decided that I needed to change things.”

“Like that? Why then?”

Harald interceded. “Chaos has a warping influence on the mind. People will do almost anything – it's like their reasoning faculties get shut off.”

Gordon nodded. “I remember feeling like I wasn't really there – I knew, on some level, what was going on, but that it didn't matter somehow.”

“Part of the reason for the wards is that it keeps that influence out, and part of our counseling is to make people think about what they did, and recognize that their actions and their drives are in conflict – 'provoking dissonance,' they call it.”

“Yeah – and then, once you get to that point, the program is pretty much detox for the soul. Drain the taint out of it, get people healed up inside.”

“And how well does that work?”

Gordon held out his trembling hand. “Results are mixed, obviously. I was pretty good at tennis in high school, and – not anymore. Small price to pay, comparatively speaking.”

“Some people never fully recover – their souls are always 'marked' somehow, such that if they leave the warded area, they're targets for daemonic possession. We figured that out the hard way, and we haven't got a way to detect it without exposing people to the Warp unprotected, so until we crack that problem, everyone we treat has to stay in a warded zone for the rest of their lives.”

Gordon shrugged. “That's not too bad a fate, if you ask me – better than being daemon lunch, and at least I can be part of the solution here.”

Gordon's work shift was about to start, so they left him to minister to his patients. As Harald led Rightina out of the warded zone, Rightina saw a daemonette's leg disappear down a side corridor. “Stop right there, heretic scum!” she shouted, as she drew her laspistol and gave chase. Harald called after her, but Rightina didn't have any attention to spare – daemonettes had a knack for disappearing at a moment's notice. This one had obviously taken notice of Rightina's pursuit, as she heard a sudden clattering of claws on metal. Rightina was easily able to follow the noise, when the noise abruptly stopped and she found herself at a T-junction: obviously, the daemonette had entered one room and stopped. Praying that she had chosen wisely, Rightina darted to the right, and found an empty room. When she turned, she suddenly found herself receiving a kick to the jaw, knocking her flat on her back, her laspistol flying into the air; when she felt three talons on her throat, Rightina decided that it was wisest to not struggle until security arrived, and slowly looked up at her prey-turned-assailant.

She had not expected to find the daemonette to be fully clothed – quite conservatively dressed, in fact! She (this daemonette had chosen a more female figure, rather than the typical androgynous form) wore formal business attire, with a pair of thick-framed glasses perched on her nose. Her hair-tentacles, rather than flying wildly around her head, were gathered in a tight ponytail. If not for her obvious bodily mutations, she would not have looked out-of-place at a formal dinner. One claw, large enough to decapitate Rightina with one snap, crushed Rightina's laspistol, while the other gently held a clipboard. The atypical look was completed by the look of concern on the daemonette's face.

Harald came running down the corridor, panting heavily. “I hope nobody's hurt?” he puffed.

“I didn't get shot,” the daemonette answered cheerfully. “I kicked her in the chin, though. I didn't hurt you too badly, did I?” she asked.

Rightina didn't answer. “You work with this – creature?!” she demanded.

“Well, strictly speaking, I don't work with her, since we're in different departments, but, yes, she is employed by Internal Security.”

“What's it doing here?”

“She,” Harald emphasized the pronoun, “is Ardi, and she has personal experience with the Warp and with cults, which helps our research efforts immensely. We also have several items which are dangerous for humans to handle, but harmless to daemons.”

The daemonette – Ardi – interjected, “I'm right here, you know! You could ask me about my job! By the way, can I help you up? You're not going to try to shoot me if I do, right?” Rightina sighed and nodded, and the daemonette stepped off of her throat, and extended a claw. Rightina pointedly didn't take it as she stood. Ardi shrugged, and continued, “when Internal Security busts a cult or smuggler, I go through their belongings to see what does what, and how to contain it.”

“Many bindings require extremely expensive components – tears of a virgin shed in the month of June come to mind – and some are mutually contradictory,” Harald explained. “Ardi is extremely valuable because she can let us use exactly what is needed, and no more.”

“And why not burn it?”

Ardi gasped. “You don't just burn Warp-tainted stuff! What if there's a daemon bound inside, or worse? Honestly, there are some artifacts and texts that even I can't understand; we're best off just keeping these things sealed away. Hence the wards.”

Rightina glared at Harald. “I guess, at this point, all I can do is ask if you're using proper safety protocols with – her.”

“I stay in the warded zone,” Ardi explained. “I can't teleport, shape-shift, escape to the Warp, nothing. I'm just about powerless here, and honestly, with the prevalence of the Blank gene, this sector is probably the worst place in the galaxy for a daemon to be.”

At least the Apriori weren't leaving themselves entirely open to corruption – Aprior Sextus Echo was as far from the centers of government as could be. “And does that hurt? Why put up with the warding for – forever?”

Ardi shuffled her foot as she thought, digging three parallel scratches into the floor. “This lets me help them, and it lets them be sure that, if I'm lying to them, the harm that I can do is minimized. I – I can't help helping people, it's just who I am, and if I couldn't – I don't know what I'd do! I might as well ask why you keep – inquisiting. It's just what you do, isn't it?” Rightina wasn't sure that she liked being compared to a daemonette.

The intercom buzzed, and a voice announced, “Chaos contraband inbound; hazmat teams to loading dock Charlie Four.”

Ardi grinned. “That's my cue, I'm afraid. Nice talking, Harald, and I hope to see you both again sometime!” Rightina scowled at her as she left. She hadn't made any attempts at seduction; she had to be the most patient daemonette in the galaxy.

When she asked Harald about that, he actually laughed. “If she were Tzeentchian, I might believe that she's been playing us for fools for a century, but she's not. Daemons are fairly simple, at least as far as their motivations go; they are basically constructs of pure emotion, and that's all that they feel, and all that motivates them. Usually, that's blood-lust, or something similar, but as far as we can tell, she got built out of compassion.”

“That leaves the question of why anyone would summon a daemonette of compassion – and frankly, how they even exist! I've never heard of a daemonette that runs around giving people comforting hugs, or whatever it is that they would do on the battlefield.”

“The Warp is influenced by all emotions, Rightina, even the positive ones. As for how she got summoned, her cult wasn't asking for any daemonette in particular, they just grabbed the closest one. She realized that the cult was hurting people, so she contacted us.” Harald chuckled. “Usually, summoned daemons don't blow the whistle on their own cults, but Ardi did – knowing full well that we might destroy her, she told me later.”

“That didn't matter to her?”

“Apparently not – she could act to help people, so she did.”

Unbidden, Rightina wondered briefly what it must be like to be a daemon, driven solely by a single emotion, and unable to feel anything else. Maybe there were more daemons composed of negative emotions because it was easy to act on them? To feel compassion for any and every being, no matter how hostile, must be incredibly painful.

Rightina didn't want to think too hard about the psychology of the creatures her organization was sworn to destroy, so she changed the subject. “You said there were three kinds of people here, Harald. Mutants, Chaos cultists, and...?”

“Xenos. That's actually where I usually work – so we won't have to interrupt anybody to ask questions!”

“So, you employ xenos here, too?”

“Not really – we're mostly vetters. If the Armed Forces capture some infiltrators, or find some alleged defectors, or what have you, they come to us, and we decide what to do, depending on the species. Tau get their olfactory control node severed, for example, and then we go from there.”

“What do you deal with, for the most part?”

“We're on the Eastern Fringe, so we mostly get Tau and Tyranids.”

“Do you try to heal Genestealer Hybrids, too?”

Harald's face fell. “We try,” he finally whispered. “This way.”

Harald and Rightina came to a hallway lined with isolation cells. Inside, hybrids of varying degrees of humanity lay on beds, hooked up to intravenous feeding and medicine lines. The ones whose eyes were open had a vacant, thousand-yard stare, as if they were asleep or lobotomized.

As Rightina and Harald passed one of the rooms, the occupant suddenly became animated; her body was entirely human, although her eyes were still eerily empty. “Madam,” the woman called, “please tell me, have you seen my child?” Rightina had scarcely managed to answer in the negative before the woman continued, “she's such a beautiful child, she means the world to me! Only, they tell me she's sick. They took her from me. But she will return! She's smart, and strong, and she will find me, no matter how far away she is...” The woman's gaze sank to the ground as her voice trailed off, and Rightina was left speechless.

She turned to Harald. “What was that –”

The woman looked up, and seemed to notice Rightina again. “Madam, please tell me, have you seen my child?” Harald gently took Rightina's arm, and they left the woman to talk to the air about her child.

“She's been infected by a Genestealer,” Harald explained. “She was a passenger on a ship from a planet which, we learned later, was home to a Genestealer cult. The trip here was long enough for the infection to fully corrupt her, and if we hadn't caught her in the Customs screening, she would almost certainly have founded a cult here – she was actually pregnant when she arrived.” He shook his head sadly. “Genestealer infectees are the most depressing to work with, because they still think and feel, but their will is drained from them. You noticed her eyes?” Rightina nodded. “Her hybrid child is literally the only thing she thinks about – the infection has robbed her of every other motivation. If this facility weren't warded against psychic activity, she and her child would detect each other and they would do everything within their power to get back together; until then, that woman has no other drives.”

“So, why hasn't anyone else asked me about their children?” Rightina wondered.

“Maybe they're asleep, or childless – about a decade ago, we busted a big cult on Tarquin Dorsus, where a lot of hybrids were apparently solely used as soldiers. Without a cult network to guide them, they don't do anything – they won't even feed themselves, which is why we have them hooked up to IVs.”

Rightina fell silent as she pondered the progression of a Genestealer infectee. Did the mind ever become aware of the subversion and fight it? Could the mind be aided by medicine? She asked Harald if such a thing was possible.

“At the moment, we can reverse the genetic changes with a counter-retrovirus, but that won't restore a person's mind.” Harald shook his head. “I can't bear to think too hard about what they must be going through, and their families, too – we've tried everything from Librarians to Silencers to warding to hypnosis, and they just don't respond. We've recently started engaging with Adelind, to see if she can help.”

Rightina stopped short. “And what is Adelind? A code-name for a something which will, undoubtedly, set the bar even lower for the sector?”

“...Yes,” Harald admitted. “It's a Tyranid Norn Queen.”

“You realize that you're at the point where nothing surprises me, right? This cannot be a good sign.”

“If we're going to work together, we'll have to trust each other. You are more or less powerless here – it's not like any of our ships will commence an Exterminatus on their own homes, and by the time you get word back to the Imperium, we will have decades of warning and be all but impregnable when the fleet arrives. That gives us an obligation to be fully open with you in return.”

“Wait – who said anything about working together?”

“We're back in communication with the Imperium, right? We need to make things fit together, and that means that ASIS needs to liaise with the Inquisition, and that starts with you and me.”

“And you're not willing to consider, I don't know, adhering to standard Imperial policy?”

“I'm afraid we're too far down our path to consider that, Rightina, and frankly, if our strategic prognostications are any indication, it's the Imperium that will have to change – as a matter of survival.”

Harald led Rightina to a briefing room; gesturing for Rightina to take a seat at the conference table, he pulled up a star map on the holo-projector. “This is our subsector,” he explained. “We're here.” A red dot appeared over Aprior Sextus Echo. “And this is Hive Fleet Draco, or what's left of it.” The view changed to a nearby star, Tarquin. The star had two planets, exactly sixty degrees apart from each other. The one in the 'front,' designated Tarquin Ventrus, was devoid of life – stripped of it, in fact – and had a Tyranid hive ship orbiting it. Further out, a small fleet stood vigil; Rightina recognized a Knights Inductor Strike Cruiser and two Gladius Rapid Strike Vessels. “A century back, we failed to stop a Genestealer Cult from taking root on Tarquin Ventrus, and it called down the Tyranids. We evacuated the inhabitants and prepared an Exterminatus, and then...they stopped. The Tyranids in orbit and on the ground just laid down and died of starvation, except for the central Hive Ship. We conducted a genetic analysis, and it seems that they consumed the Blank gene, and spliced it into themselves.”

Rightina blinked. “So what did they do after that?”

“Nothing! Without the driving hunger, the Synapse creatures had no motivation, and so the creatures under their control didn't do anything, either. Our Librarians tell us that only the Norn Queen herself – code-named Adelind – is still alive, and that she's getting smarter by the day, now that the hunger isn't stifling her. Communication is difficult – frankly, we're still dealing with an alien mindset – but we think she's not hostile; just in case, we've got our fleet watching.”

“And you think...she...may have a way to reverse the Genestealer infection?”

“There may be a way for her to override the Brood Mind, and restore the minds of the infected. At least, we hope she can – our Librarians and Silencers have been unable to disentangle the original personality from the Brood Mind.”

“Maybe so, but is it worth it? I mean, you're playing with fire here –”

“Do not lecture me about risks, Inquisitor; my mentor was the woman who did the threat analysis concerning her! We have exhausted all of our other options. If working with a Hive Fleet is the way to find a cure, then I will make it happen!”

Rightina frowned as she realized where she'd heard that tone of voice before. “You sound like Zora; what's your reason for doing this?”

“The knowledge that, in a world where humans and xenos can coexist – and even cooperate – and heretics can be healed, and entirely new technologies can be created from nothing, I am utterly powerless to help these people! They have had everything taken from them, Inquisitor, and I will not rest – I CANNOT rest, until their lives are restored!” Harald chuckled bitterly. “It's not just Zora and I who feel this way about our fields of expertise. Underminer, too, and those protestors on the lawn, and Chapter Master Randi, and Lieutenant Rallen, and everyone who ever struggled to protect this Sector – we know, instinctively, that there must be a way to make things better, and we will not stop trying to find it.” After a long silence, Harald shook himself out of his reverie. “Anyway, while we're still here, I might as well show you where the other...interesting folks in the sector live.”

“Like an Ork Waaagh, perhaps? Underminer mentioned a 'Kaptin Feegul.'”

“Kaptin Feegul has a sizable crew under his command, mostly Stormboys and Kommandos, and they're not so much a Waaagh as a 'Shhh:' they rely on rapid-assault and stealth, and they call themselves 'The Green Shadow.' It seems he's convinced that, if he can protect us long enough, we'll grow to be big and strong like his Orks are, and then he'll have a good time fighting us.”

“And how long has this gone on?”

“Fifty years since he arrived in the Sector, plus however long they've been together before then. They don't seem to have noticed that we aren't getting any bigger, or if they have, they don't care. I mean, look at it from their perspective: out here on the Fringe, there's a lot of bigger, nastier things for Orks to fight than humans.”

“I guess Orks aren't known for their subterfuge; but Eldar? Underminer mentioned them, too.”

“You're not with the Ordo Xenos, so I don't know how much you know about Eldar, but some of them basically abandoned all of their advanced technology, preferring to live simpler lives – that's how they avoid the temptations of falling to Chaos. They call themselves 'Exodites,' and there's a colony of them in the Lida system.” The star map's focus changed, highlighting the Eldar colony. “Imperial records suggest that these colonies, and especially Craftworld Eldar, react violently to interference; while we were settling the Sector, we didn't have the manpower to contest them directly, so we left them a wide berth. Then, about eighty years ago, we detected an Emperor's Children Strike Cruiser on a direct course to the Lida system; that Cruiser had frequently been encountered engaging Eldar, and Ardi informed us that Slaanesh is particularly partial to Eldar souls, so there was little doubt to their intentions. We computed that the Eldar would take significant losses, including many souls lost to Slaanesh, so we decided to aid them. Between a preliminary barrage to damage the cruiser en route, and lightning assaults on planet-side summoning sites, we and the Eldar were able to annihilate them with minimal casualties.”

“And what did that get you?”

“They told us that they were expecting losses upwards of 30 percent; since they hadn't seen any possibility of our assisting them, it seems that Silencers and those around them are invisible to prognostication. This in and of itself is a great boon: knowing that we have a totally unpredictable strike force is a great deal of leverage over the Eldar, and being responsible for saving thousands of Eldar lives – which we could easily have allowed to perish – is more leverage. They promised that, should any of their Craftworld cousins get the wrong idea over what we did, they would intercede to try and stop war from breaking out, and their younger leaders have expressed some interest in further cooperation, such as technology exchange – it will take time for the colony's opinions to change, but I think we're headed in the right –”

Rightina interrupted Harald. “Hang on. That's the second time you've used the word 'prognostication.' Is that important?”

Harald hemmed and hawed for a moment. “I don't know. Maybe. You see, the Eldar have one great advantage over us, and that is their ability to see the future – or possible futures, at any rate. So, the Eldar of Lida offered to scry for us. Bear in mind, we have no way of knowing that they are telling us what they really saw, and that anyone with the Blank gene, and anyone around anyone with the Blank gene, cannot be scried in any way, and so may exert any number of unknown influences on the future, so their predictions are...highly speculative, at best. That said, they told us that we – which may be the Aprior Sector, or the Imperium, they were not clear when they told us, and may not know themselves – we would not be able to stand alone during the next millennia. We would have to stand with the Eldar, and maybe the Tau, in order to survive in the long run.”

Rightina scratched her head. “That sounds awfully convenient for the Eldar with whom we would, hypothetically, be cooperating.”

“Very true! But it would be convenient for us, too. And, frankly, the Tyranids and Necrons are coming in ever-growing numbers, and Chaos isn't getting any weaker, either – we will need all the allies we can get.”

“So, if, hypothetically, you decided that you had to work with the Eldar, would you, Aprior Sector Internal Security, be the ones to get the deal hammered out?”

“Oh, no! We're investigators, not diplomats. If you want diplomacy, you'll have to talk with the Knights Inductor and the Order of Reason's Light.”

CHAPTER EIGHT: The Torch[edit]

To investigate the Knights Inductor and Sisters of Reason, Rightina's journey was coming full circle, as they were based on Aprior Tertius, more commonly known as Regius. Their headquarters, the Torch, was buried under an ancient mountain range near Regius' nigh-uninhabitable northern pole. “They like it up there because nobody's around – it helps them do wilderness survival and combat training, and it's good for security.”

Rightina looked out the window of the shuttle as they approached the Torch, and saw lights below! “So what's that down there?” The shuttle swooped low, and Rightina noticed that the city was devoid of life – a city that well-lit should have been crawling with activity, but this one was not. Instead, power-armored fire-teams advanced through the streets.

Harald leaned over. “That's their fake city – for urban combat training.”

The shuttle eventually came to a crater of a long-extinct volcano, and descended through ancient channels and caverns, finally coming to rest in a massive chamber, big enough to hold a small city. Vehicles of every shape and size filled the space, from Thunderhawks to Valkyrie Avengers to the myriad tanks that a Space Marine Chapter fielded. The walls were encrusted with buildings from floor to ceiling, filled with training grounds, living quarters, workshops, and even a small factory. “Welcome to the Torch,” Harald grinned.

Harald and Rightina were greeted by a Chapter staffer – someone who had sought to become a Knight Inductor, and proven highly valuable to the Chapter, but, for one reason or another, had been unable to actually receive the implants. This one, Alex Ilon, had tested positive for psychic ability, and so was incompatible with Knights Inductor gene-seed, but would be valuable as a Librarian, to serve as an astropath and psychic defender. Part of his training for the Librarius included learning the Chapter's history, and so it was decided that he would be ideal for showing Rightina around. “Anything in particular you would like to see?” he asked.

“I keep hearing the word 'Silencers;' could you show me what that means?”

Alex grimaced. “I'll take you to them, but I won't go in with you – they're Nulls, and I get a splitting headache if I'm around more than one.”

Null Marines? Now that she thought about it, Rightina supposed that such a thing could happen; the Officio Assassinorum usually tried to get Blanks as soon as they were identified, but with the Aprior Sector's genetic screening program, the Knights Inductor could identify Blanks before they were born!

Rightina, Harald, and Alex eventually came to the reinforced iris door to the Nullarium, and Rightina braced to, once again, pass into a warded area. Alex noticed, and chuckled, “It's not warded to keep the Warp out, you won't need to worry about that. It's warded to keep their null auras in!” The door dilated, and Alex gestured inside. “Go on in, and ask for Ryan – it should be his shift now. I'll wait out here.”

As soon as she crossed the threshold into the dimly-lit chamber, Rightina felt a creeping chill on the back of her neck, and a cold pressure behind her eyes. “That's the null aura,” Harald explained. “There's something about it that trips all of a body's warning systems. I've actually seen some people get an allergic reaction to being around Blanks!”

“Harald Olsen. Rightina Immam.” A deep, hollow monotone echoed around them. “I apologize for not dampening my aura.” The pressure eased, and the hairs on the back of Rightina's neck laid back down. From the gloom, a Marine's bulk loomed. Circuitry covered the right half of his face, and his left eye, dull grey, seemed devoid of all feeling. “I am Ryan Ornus, Silencer Grade Secundus, and I welcome you to the Nullarium.” He held his hand out, and after fighting down her fight-or-flight instinct, Rightina took it in hers.

Harald seemed used to being around Ryan. “She'd like to know about you – I'm not aware of any other Chapters who use Silencers,” he explained, saving Rightina from having to find her voice.

Ryan nodded. “Our role is similar to that of other Librarians, in that we engage in psychic warfare. Unlike Librarians, our tactics involve denying the enemy use of psychic abilities, such as disrupting Tyranid Synapse networks, annihilating Daemons, and shattering the minds of enemy psykers.”

Rightina's voice returned. “By getting near them and...being Blanks?”

“Correct. We can also productively use our abilities against non-psyker units, as our presence can instill feelings of dread or, in the case of Eldar, physical pain, thereby reducing their effectiveness. As you have experienced,” he added as an afterthought.

“I've heard of psykers using 'force weapons' – they can channel their power into it, and it becomes more effective. Can you do something analogous?”

Ryan held up his left hand, which had been replaced with an augmetic, or possibly encased in a gauntlet. “Certain materials lend themselves to conducting psycho-kinetic energy; I can use myself as a connection to ground, so to speak, and drain PKE out of whatever creature I strike. This technique is especially effective against psychic units, like Daemons and Eldar.”

“So you have fought against Eldar?”

“I was part of a counter-attack on a Dark Eldar pirate force. We left no survivors.” Rightina thought that she could hear a note of pride in Ryan's voice. “It is not my place to decide whom we attack, but, should our relationship with the Eldar on Lida sour, we Silencers would be the tip of the spear against them, so to speak. I do not anticipate them to be a threat, but I would be surprised if our existence is not part of their strategic considerations – they witnessed us in action when we joined forces against Slaaneshi invaders, and know that they cannot scry us.”

“And what do you do off the field of battle?”

“As you have undoubtedly noticed, we take a uniquely nuanced approach to dealing with heretics in the Aprior Sector,” Ryan commented drily. “It has not escaped the notice of this Sector's leadership that such practices leave openings for us to be corrupted. It is the task of the Silencers to be vigilant against the threats of Chaos, and ensure that we remain pure. For example, as we speak, Silencer Hylius is observing a meeting of the Aprior Sector Executive Council, both to ensure the...levelheadedness of all present, and to shield them against divination.”

“So, if all of this messing around with xenos and heretics went wrong, you would be the ones to know?”

“Us and the Librarius, yes. It would also fall to us to purge the system of taint.”

Finally, the million-throne question, “and has this ever happened?”

The silence that followed was oppressive in the stale air of the Nullarium, but Ryan finally answered, “yes and no. Our gene-seed renders us heavily resistant to the whispers of Chaos, but our Librarians are still vulnerable; on one occasion, I had to...terminate a Brother, as he was experiencing the Perils of the Warp. Thankfully, the threat did not spread any further. Similarly, I and four other Silencers deployed to Aprior Sextus Echo when Internal Security discovered – by personal experience – that some heretics' souls are marked for possession the moment they step outside of a warded zone. Aside from the possessed former heretics in question, the only casualties were some unfortunate security personnel.”

“Have you ever deployed with Librarians? How does that work?”

“Our powers cancel each other out, so there would be little point in battling together. Furthermore, as we are compatible with Knight Inductor gene-seed and they are not, we are the ones who take the field of battle. That said, we do train together. If Brother Alex feels that he is ready, I will demonstrate.” Leaving the Nullarium, after checking that his null-dampener was fully active, Ryan declared, “Brother Alex, I would welcome the opportunity to train with you in Traning Room Bravo Two.”

Alex nodded eagerly. “Gladly!”

Training Room Bravo Two was specially built for training with psychic and anti-psychic abilities, with a full set of wards – both to keep the Warp out, and to keep a Silencer's null aura in. After Rightina recovered from the vertigo of crossing the wards, she noticed that Alex and Ryan had taken up positions on either side of the mid-line. “As Ryan undoubtedly explained,” Alex called, “our powers cancel each other, so we don't fight side by side. Nevertheless, we can still learn from each other.” Alex summoned a grid of small lights, ten by ten, in midair. “A Blank usually doesn't start with much control over what he dampens, so we do this drill to train agility.” One of the lights suddenly changed color, and Ryan snuffed it out. The light returned, and then another one changed color, and disappeared by Ryan's power, and reappeared. Faster and faster, the lights winked in and out of existence, until Ryan finally slipped, and snuffed the wrong one. “Not bad!” Alex called.

“Not my best, either,” Ryan grunted.

“Alright, I'll let you rest while I sweat.” Snapping his fingers, Alex caused a door in the far wall of the room to open, and a dozen balls bounced out, while a ring descended from the ceiling. “This is a drill for me. I'm trying to get a ball through that ring, and Ryan is trying to stop me.” Focusing his will, Alex lifted a ball a few feet off the floor. “Of course, almost any psyker can carry it through, but –”

Ryan glanced at the ball, and it dropped to the ground. “I can break his grip with ease,” he explained.

“Exactly. The thing is, there are too many balls for Ryan to cover them all – he has to react to me, and that gives me a window of opportunity. Once I grab a ball, though, he'll notice and break my grip, unless I can give it the right momentum – I 'kick' it, so to speak, and let physics do the rest.” Alex and Ryan stared at each other for a long moment, when suddenly, one of the balls launched itself into the air, sailing cleanly through the ring. “I held the ball and kicked it too quickly for him to interfere!”

“And what does that drill do for you?” Rightina asked.

“I usually won't take the battlefield – that task is reserved for my hardier, gene-seed-enhanced brothers – but we're all expected to be capable in a fight, and that means I have to be able to work against an opponent – especially, since we're out here on the Fringe, an opponent who can make it difficult or even dangerous to use my powers. I need to be able to see when my opponent's concentration wanes, and take advantage of his sloppiness.”

Alex and Ryan demonstrated a few other drills, intended to test various aspects of psychic or anti-psychic control, before concluding their impromptu training session with a game of psychic hide-and-seek: they donned blindfolds and sought to find each other by psychic sensitivity alone. Rightina had only a minute sensitivity to the arcane, but now and then, she could see a flickering distortion in the air as each sought to project a decoy to the other. In the end, Alex got the better of Ryan by using a particularly convincing decoy to set Ryan up for a fall; once Ryan ended up on his back, Alex darted in and tagged the Marine by snatching off his blindfold.

“Congratulations, Brother Alex! As always, I appreciate your cooperation,” Ryan declared.

“Anytime you feel like another round, I'm up for it,” Alex agreed. “Right now, these visitors need to see the rest of the Torch!”

Rightina marveled at the number of classrooms and training rooms available. “Why do you have all of this space? You can't induct more than a few dozen new Marines every year, can you? Does everyone get a room to himself?”

“No – because this Sector is almost entirely populated with Civilized Worlds, where people aren't expected to fight for survival from day one, we don't know which few dozen out of the hundreds of thousands of children who are compatible with Knight Inductor gene-seed are actually Marine material. So, we pick the few thousand or so who have the capacity for leadership, combat aptitude, and gene-seed compatibility, and train them all at once – we get a few dozen new Marines, and the few thousand others are well-prepared to serve in the Guard, PDF, Internal Security, or just about anything remotely technical or military.”

Alex decided that, since they were already in the training wing, he would show them how most Aspirants trained. At the moment, they were engaged in firing drills, and Rightina was surprised to see both men and women at the range. “We use the same weapons as our Sisters, so we figured we'd save a few thrones and train them all together,” Alex explained. “A lot of the Aspirants who don't make it go on to serve in the Guard or PDF as Heavy Weapons Teams, so we're effectively training those units, too.” They were clad in rudimentary power armor – Trooper suits, Rightina recalled – and seemed to be firing fake weapons. They jumped in the hands of their wielders, but made no flash or noise. “Those weapons have a spring-loaded mass inside them, so they recoil the same way as the real deal; that way, we can train them in how to properly handle their bolters without expending ammunition, or putting them at risk – bolter shells and Aspirants aren't cheap, you know!”

“But how do they get used to the noise and flashing?”

“We run live-fire exercises later on, but those are more effective – thereby requiring fewer shells to be expended – if they know how to hold their bolters before starting.” Alex thought for a moment. “I suppose it does take more time to do things our way, but we've got the time, and we end up better-trained in the end.”

“What do you mean, 'you've got the time'?”

“I mean – how much do you know about our gene-seed?”

“It's incompatible with psyker abilities, enhances Blanks, and apparently makes you resistant to Chaos corruption. Is that about right?”

“Yes, but it is the mechanism which is key – it's the implants which affect the mind which are different. One of the negative side-effects is that hypnotherapy doesn't work – we can only learn the old-fashioned way, which means that training takes much longer. On the plus side, that lets us spread lessons out, which means they sink in better.” Alex paused for a moment, contemplative. “You know, I've always wondered what it must feel like to have all that information just dumped into your brain; it probably warps you inside. Chapter leadership thinks that's why other Chapters are so much more distant from the humans they protect than we are – they literally forget what it's like to be human!”

Rightina didn't feel like speculating on Space Marine psychology, so she asked, “what else do you do with that extra time?”

“Oh, all sorts of things, especially for people who are going to end up as officers, or specialists, or working in other services instead of becoming Knights. Leadership, diplomacy, engineering, medicine...the list goes on. We actually get quite a bit of crossover with the other Armed Forces and Security Services, both teachers and students – as you can attest, Harald!”

Harald nodded. “My courses in leadership and close-quarters combat were taught by Knights, and when I took courses in xenobiology from Internal Security, I worked in a group containing a tech-priest, a Knight, and a Sister-in-training.”

“All of which lets us build a coherent, interoperable force. By cross-training between the various services, we standardize tactical doctrines, communication methods, and equipment, so that any combination of our forces can easily work together – why, Harald could take command of a squad of Knights without too much trouble!”

When Rightina asked to see what Alex meant by “teacher crossover,” she and Harald were led to yet another training room – in this one, Aspirants and Sisters-in-training were learning close-quarters combat. So as not to disturb the class, Alex, Rightina, and Harald sneaked into the back to watch. “The instructor is Sister Silmarwen,” Alex whispered. “Officially, she's the Order's Historian, but she's – well – she's an Eldar, and there's nobody in the sector who's faster with a blade.”

Silmarwen moved quite slowly as she demonstrated proper technique, but if she saw a student whose ego needed deflating, there would be a blur of motion, and the student's blade would sail across the room, and the student him- or herself would be flat on the floor.

“So, how does an Eldar get to be a Sister of Battle?” Rightina demanded after they left the room.

Alex sighed. “I hate to talk about people behind their backs, but the gist of it is, she got found as an infant by a Sororitas task force – actually, this was before the Knights Inductor arrived in the sector. Anyway, the Sister who found her had a daughter who had been taken by the Dark Eldar, so she – either out of maternal instinct, or revenge, or whatever – could not bring herself to kill Silmarwen. So, they trained her to be a Sister instead.”

“And how has that worked out?”

“Oh, they pushed her extremely hard, and she responded very well – like I said, she's the fastest swordswoman in the Sector, and she's a dead eye with a flamer. She – did you notice that she doesn't wear a soul-stone?” Now that he mentioned it, Rightina hadn't seen one – not that it meant that Silmarwen didn't have one, but she decided to take Alex at his word. “She's laying her soul out for any daemon to devour, with only her faith in the God-Emperor to protect it.” Alex chuckled suddenly. “Actually, I remember, she came with us to negotiate with the Eldar on Lida. We hoped she'd be able to smooth things over, but we – well, we guessed wrong there. Some Eldar demanded why she followed 'the mon-keigh corpse god,' and she responded that, at least her god didn't get devoured by Slaanesh, and, to make a long story short, Ryan had to hold them apart and threaten to annihilate their souls to get them to stop arguing.”

That did sound like the sort of thing a properly devout Sister would do, Rightina mused to herself.

Training methods aside, the Torch had all of the elements that most fortress-monasteries were expected to have, and so the visit quickly ended. “Harald told me on the way here that you've seen a lot of the important institutions of the Sector – our tech-priests, Internal Security, and our government. As a Librarian, I'm something of an expert on our history, but I've always wanted to hear an outsider's perspective. What do you think so far?”

Rightina struggled to answer. The obvious answer, of course, was that she thought they were the most heretical Sector in the galaxy because of their extensive deviations, or perhaps, given their apparent successes, the most Emperor-blessed! She also knew that such an answer would not go over well, and wouldn't be very helpful to Alex. Finally, she said, “You've done a lot here that I would never have believed possible. Honestly, I can think of at least a dozen ways for this Sector to crash and burn, but you're obviously still standing.” After a moment, she asked, “so, what's the catch?”

Alex was taken aback. “I beg your pardon?”

“There's no such thing as a free lunch! What did you have to pay to get here – have you struck a bargain with the Ruinous Powers? The Tau?”

“We have never been anything but loyal to the Imperium!” Alex snapped. “Nevertheless...everything does have a price,” he admitted. “In our case, that price is five thousand years of trial and error.”

CHAPTER NINE: The Limits of Reason[edit]

Alex brought Rightina and Harald to a massive archway in the wall of the Torch's main cavern. "Our chapel is through here," he explained.

The chapel was dimly lit cavern, with a vaulted ceiling that was almost too high for the light to reach. Again, the chapel was relatively spartan, compared to the ostentatious cathedrals typical of most Imperial worlds, or even other Space Marine Chapters. As Rightina's eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see red lights in the walls. Most of them were within a foot or two of the ground, but here and there, a column of lights stretched up to the ceiling. "What do those lights mean?"

"They are a history of our Chapter, told in casualties. Each column stands for one of our campaigns, and the height represents the number of lives lost – it's a logarithmic scale, so when the height increases by a foot, the number of casualties is multiplied by ten, or so."

"So, that column by the door back there – call it seven feet tall – represents –" Rightina wracked her brain – "ten million losses – from what? There aren't that many Marines in the galaxy, let alone your Chapter."

"Not our losses; they stand for losses from the forces which fought beside us, and the civilian populations whom we sought to protect. Every day, every Aspirant, Marine, and Sister passes through this hall at least twice, and they're reminded that, when we falter, people die."

Rightina swallowed. "And you memorialize all of them here..." Few Chapters thought twice about the civilians whom they protected and armed forces with whom they cooperated; how many forced themselves to remember the casualties which had occurred on their watch twice a day, every day? "I don't think I've heard of anyone else who takes them so seriously."

Alex snorted. "Of course not – as long as you uphold the status quo, you can always claim that your actions are justified in the long run, no matter how many deaths you cause. We don't evaluate methods by that measure; instead, we strive to minimize collateral damage, like we learned from the Salamanders. And in that respect, Inquisitor, we've had some pretty spectacular failures." He turned to the column that Rightina had first indicated. "Take this one, for example; it stands for Jemax, our Chapter's first independent operation, in 010.M37. Jemax is – or was, perhaps – a hive world with several munitions manufactora, and at the time, there was an opposition movement fermenting among the workers; the Imperial Guard needed those guns, so we were sent to keep them flowing." He paused, deep in thought. "Now that I think about it, we have pacified a lot of mining or manufacturing worlds with large, oppressed populations. Maybe the Imperium should consider a different industrial model?" Alex shrugged, and continued. "Anyway, we didn't handle public relations very well, and we were perhaps a little too heavy-handed in dealing with public disturbances, and so most of the populace, especially those who heard about us second- and third-hand, got convinced that siding with us would only result in trading one oppressor for another. We didn't pick up on that resentment until it was too late, and we found ourselves with a spate of riots. We would put out the riots in one hive segment, only to find that those riots had triggered more riots in other hive segments, and then we had to put them out, but we couldn't clamp down too hard, or we'd only make things worse! About a hundred thousand people died in the riots from crowd crush and the like, and millions more died from network disruption – food and other supplies weren't getting to where they were needed, with all the rioters wrecking everything. In the end, the riots fizzled out once people realized that they were only hurting themselves, and we did get things back on track, but it took us decades longer than it should have."

"And the munitions? Those must have been disrupted, too."

"Ah, yes, the munitions, the whole reason the Administratum wanted Jemax pacified in the first place! Turns out that the Regiments which Jemax supplied had been wiped out or folded into other Regiments about a century before. I'm still not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – it's nice to know that, in the grand scheme of things, the Imperial war machine wasn't harmed by our inexperience, but I'm also bothered, and I'm sure that the Knights of that time were bothered, that all of those people died for nothing." Alex shrugged again. "On the other hand, Jemax was destined for rebellion anyway, and if we hadn't cleaned it up, they would have been in the hands of someone who might have been more willing to inflict collateral damage, and we did learn a lot from the experience. We got much better at engaging with people, for one thing; we actually created the post of "Master of the Deal" to handle those tasks! We do other things a little differently, too – did you see the Legislative Assembly building?" Rightina nodded. "And there were people protesting in front of it, right?" Rightina nodded again. "We let them do that because, without some way to relieve pressure, popular resentment builds, and – well, we learned what happens next the hard way."

Rightina noticed a pair of tall columns, further around the Chapel's wall, and very tightly packed together. "What do those columns stand for?" she asked.

Alex studied it for a moment, and frowned sharply. "The first one is the 404.M40 campaign on Archos; it's a world in this Sector, and they tried to pay off some pirates, and – well, first I need to explain a little about the Sector Charter. It's the document under which all of the worlds in this Sector were colonized, and we knew that, with the Warp turbulence making communications spotty, we couldn't have worlds relying on a central authority, so it doesn't actually require much Sector-level activity. Because of that, most worlds' internal affairs were entirely their own business, and therein laid the problem. Archos was free to do more or less what it pleased, so nobody else knew what they were doing, and even if they did know, there wasn't much they could do. Archos paid the pirates, which would be problematic enough, but then those pirates turned out to be Dark Eldar, and they wanted to be paid with young, living bodies." Rightina's lip curled with disgust; she could see where this was going, and Alex nodded wearily. "Archos paid that tribute with some Guardsmen and Guardswomen, and some of their tributes had information on Archosian defenses; once the Dark Eldar had that, they infiltrated Archos, took control of the world, and started kidnapping the inhabitants. We stopped them, but millions of soldiers and civilians were killed...or worse."

"We learned from that, though," Harald interjected. "The Sector Charter was amended to slightly reduce a world's autonomy, by requiring that all dealings with outsiders, pirates and xenos included, be conducted by Sector-level authorities if they were available – and then, those Sector-level authorities were created. Aprior Sector Internal Security was founded to coordinate investigations into those outsiders and other possible threats to the Sector."

"Then, the Aprior Sector Armed Forces – the Knights Inductor, Apriori Guard and PDF, and Battlefleet Aprior – founded the Aprior Sector Executive Council, to coordinate military responses to those threats," Alex concluded. "They're not a policy-making body in the way that the Legislative Assembly is, and they aren't quite an executive body, like ASIS, but they help keep everyone on the same page, and make it easier for our forces to cooperate. It was their idea, for example, to integrate training the way that you saw today.” Alex paused, glancing at Harald. "These reforms led directly to the next event. Maybe you should talk about it, Harald?"

Harald grimaced, and nodded. "ASIS has extensive powers, but that's offset by transparency, public education, and press freedom – people know quite a lot about what we do and why, and they know even more about their planetary governments. The organizations are still powerful, but there are also many checks on them. This wasn't always the case, and we paid a heavy price for it." Harald pointed to the next tall column of lights. "In the early 400s of M40, the Kobol Branch of AIS – especially their Director at the time, Janus Doscaras – decided that the Kobol government was too inefficient to adequately deal with the threats of the Fringe, and that they would run things better, so they used blackmail, shell corporations, and other covert methods to influence the public to grant themselves more power, leading up to a declaration of martial law in response to a 'clear and present danger' of heretics – one which was exaggerated at best, and wholly fabricated at worst. In any case, the people of Kobol thought it was real, and they became suspicious of each other, and then paranoid. Anyone could be accused of heresy for just about any reason, and imprisoned without trial – or even made to disappear."

"And when the threat failed to materialize?"

Harald laughed bitterly. “Oh, the initial threat may have been fabricated, but Chaos is nothing if not opportunistic; while the people were so focused on "outing" those who might have been just a little odd, actual heretics were slipping in right under their noses! The fractiousness of the time meant that it was impossible to sort out the true threats from the false positives, and in 472, the heretics were able to launch a full-blown insurrection! Thanks to ASEC and other ASIS Branches, the Sector-level response was timelier than it was on Archos, but we still lost many, both to Chaos and to friendly fire, as many Kobolian PDF detachments were convinced that the off-worlders were heretics, too."

"So you made those changes – transparency, education, and so on. I assume that's why I saw those PSAs, and all those news channels watching the government?"

"Correct. By informing everyone about the foes of the Imperium – enough to identify them, at any rate – they become clearly defined and mentally manageable, rather than nebulous boogeymen used to keep people in line through fear." Rightina thought she heard a hint of accusation in Harald's voice. "Then, we included civil defense training in our public education programs, so that people feel – correctly – that they will not be helpless in the event of an emergency. All of these policies help avert societal panic of the sort that enveloped Kobol."

"How's that worked out?"

Harald and Alex shared a glance. "Fairly well," Harald finally declared. "Of late, we've been having increased contact with xenos, both hostile and friendly, and it's bringing some friction with it – it seems that old xenophobia dies hard. Less well-off worlds in particular are more suspicious and reactionary towards outsiders, and it seems that some Preachers from the Ecclesiarchy have been stirring up those feelings as we get more traffic with the Imperium. The world of Norion V was the worst of these; they're on the border of the Sector, so they're the first stop for many invaders, a convenient location for a Preacher looking for his first gig, and not located on any major trade routes. About four decades ago, after Hive Fleet Draco, the Zeist Campaign, contact with the Eldar of Lida, and the Green Shadow arriving in-system, Norion V had an economic depression thanks to, among other things, some underhanded practices by off-world financial institutions; those factors created a perfect storm which resulted in a tremendous increase in the power of the Puritan Preachers. Finally, one of them, Joachim Urian, attained the post of Pontifex Mundus, and he started preaching violence against 'anyone who threatened the dominance of mankind,' and...you heard what happened next, when we saw the ASLA building. As I said, it was resolved peacefully, for the most part, but Redemptionist mobs did riot in several immigrant neighborhoods, and there were some who talked of seceding from the Sector Charter."

Rightina stared numbly at the red-lit walls of the chapel, each pinprick representing a life lost, or ten lives, or a thousand. Such losses were to be expected, of course, but for an institution to take each one so seriously, and take such radical steps to prevent more going forward was unheard of. To give civil defense training to every man, woman, and child in a whole Sector? To teach every citizen how to identify the myriad threats to the Imperium, instead of leaving them in ignorance? To actively study xenotechnology and step beyond the STC canon in order to close technology gaps and better equip one's armed forces? Unthinkable.

Alex cleared his throat, shaking Rightina from her reverie. "I want to put these figures in some perspective – there are about two hundred inhabited planets in this Sector, and we have pacified several hundred planets more, both before entering the Sector and after Warp travel became possible again. The majority of those worlds are in excellent condition, with minimal losses during the pacification process and very few problems afterward. The reason that I brought you here was to show you that every policy of ours has a reason, that we are extremely aware of the risks that we incur, and that we take every action to minimize them."

Rightina digested Alex's words, and finally nodded. "Thank you for showing me this," she said, and turned to Harald, continuing, "and thank you for conducting me through the system. I think I've seen enough; now I've got a report to write."

CHAPTER TEN: The Inquisitor's Report[edit]

In her decades (or centuries, depending on how one counted time spent in the Warp) of service to the Inquisition, Rightina had faced Chaos-worshipers, Genestealer hybrids, and deviant Imperial Cults, and had exterminated each without second thoughts. But in all that time, only a relative few lives had ridden on her actions; this time, her report would determine the fate of not just one world, but over two hundred worlds and a trillion and a half humans, not to mention the myriad xenos that the Aprior Sector contained.

Had she been asked about the Aprior Sector a year before, she would have answered immediately: exterminate them. Even if their actions were taken without malice (unlikely, in her opinion at the time), showing any mercy to the enemy was a recipe for disaster. Losing a Sector was bad enough, but allowing the enemy such a foothold could be devastating to the Imperium as well.

But from what she had seen, things were not so simple. The Aprior Sector was hardly in danger of falling to any of the enemies of Mankind – indeed, if a few of their policies were adopted in a few key Sectors, the Imperium would be better off for it! Rightina's brain whirled a mile a minute as she imagined the possibilities.

What if the Scholae Progenia and a few Space Marine Chapters implemented a joint training program? Would the Damocles Crusade have been more successful with a more cohesive force?

What if a few Forge Worlds developed novel patterns of old STC designs that were no longer dependent on archeotechnology? Imperial Guard Armored Regiments were chronically under-strength, but a truly mass-producible tank could turn that around. Even if the new patterns were inferior to the designs of the Ancients, surely that could be compensated for through superior numbers?

What if interstellar travelers were required to be genetically screened upon arrival? What if every Imperial citizen were screened for mutation? How many Tyranid invasions and Chaos cults could have been averted with proper vigilance?

Of course, cooperating with xenos (even if they had sworn allegiance to the God-Emperor) was out of the question, and she would have to handle that part of her report with extreme care, but surely the Aprior Sector's good policies outweighed the bad? Rightina resolved to convince her superiors of this.

She was shaken from her thoughts by a chime from her dataslate: Chapter Master Randi had sent her a message.

"Inquisitor Rightina, I am told that you are writing your report on our Sector. When you are finished, I would welcome an opportunity to meet you and discuss your findings. We knew that we would face a reckoning for our choices, and have some plans for dealing with objections, but we would appreciate your input."

Rightina had to laugh at the absurdity of the request – she had arrived in the Sector expecting to find heresy, and now, having found it, the most powerful man in the Sector wanted her help in justifying it to the Inquisition!

In the hours and minutes leading up to the meeting, Rightina found herself plagued by doubt. Of course, the Chapter Master had the defense of humanity as his goal, but would the other Inquisitors see it? Even if they did, the Aprior Sector was not like any other: it had a Space Marine Chapter in residence, and, more importantly, it had been built from the ground up with its present state in mind. Most Sectors in the Imperium had neither of these luxuries. Would other Inquisitors decide that the risk of a world getting an idea for which it was unprepared was too high to permit the Aprior Sector to survive? Would they decide that, for all their good points, the Apriori were just too far from the status quo?

On the lonely walk to Zakis Randi's office, Rightina quashed those worries as best she could – Inquisitors always worked against stacked odds.

Randi smiled pleasantly when Rightina came through the door. "Glad to see you, Inquisitor," he declared. "Would you like a seat?"

Rightina considered, but declined – if she stood, the massive Space Marine's eyes would be level with hers as he sat.

"I suppose I could open by asking you your general impression of the Sector," Randi invited.

Rightina paced up and down the Chapter Master's office. "The Inquisition had expected some deviation from Imperial standards during your isolation, but what you showed me," she shook her head, "I don't even know where to begin. It's as if you set out to break every rule in the book!"

"We have sought to subvert typical anti-patterns wherever possible," Randi admitted. "Often, those anti-patterns were codified in law, which meant we had to disobey them."

"But you made it work! I've turned it all over and over in my head, and you've got a pretty solid set-up." Rightina shook her head again, and seemed lost in thought. "I misjudged you," she finally said. "I thought – with what I saw in the Sector on my first visit, I thought that you had acted recklessly at best, and maliciously at worst; obviously, that is not the case. You made your decisions with the benefit of experience, and the best of intentions, and – honestly, I can't argue with success."

"We had hoped not," Randi smiled.

Rightina blinked, not comprehending.

"We could easily have kept you from seeing our, shall we say, unique practices," Randi explained. "Harald is quite adept at giving Tau spies the runaround, and we had initially thought to do the same to you. It was actually Darren's idea to show you everything – to force you to confront your preconceived notions with the reality that we have created. Of course," he admitted, "we can't do this for every Puritan in the galaxy; that's why I asked to meet you. What can we do to convince outsiders that we are loyal?"

Rightina shrugged. "Honestly, I don't think my report will sway anyone to either side – your allies already believe in your methods, and your enemies won't accept your results. No, what you need to do is make yourselves valuable. I'll do what I can to help ASIS liaise with the Inquisition, because I'm sure you have information that they can use; you must have studied Genestealer Hybrids as much as the rest of the Imperium put together, for one thing."

"ASIS can arrange to give you an official post with them, if that will increase the legitimacy of this endeavor," Randi offered.

Rightina nodded gratefully. "I look forward to working on it. Speaking of the Inquisition, I know some Inquisitors who would kill to have Deathwatch Marines with the innate Warp resistance that you have; I suspect that many of your critics would be willing to look the other way if you lent the Ordo Xenos a few of your battle-brothers, especially a Silencer or two." Rightina glanced at her dataslate. "I recall that there was also concern about the unusual size of your Chapter, and your force integration and joint training programs. If you launched a few Crusade Fleets, that would spread you out and cause those concerned to calm down."

Randi leaned forward eagerly, as he considered what a Crusade Fleet could accomplish. "We could do that, and send some Imperial Guard and Navy units with them, too – show off how powerful an integrated force is!"

Rightina grinned. "While you're at it, you could use those fleets to spread your genetic screening program – that was actually your only policy that got a majority approval, so you need to play that up as much as possible."

"And public education, too? Imagine – every Imperial citizen standing vigil against the enemies of humanity!"

Rightina's enthusiasm abruptly plummeted. "About that," she warned, "I feel that it could be useful for supplementing Imperial Guard training programs, but there are extremely powerful parties who object to any public knowledge of Chaos whatsoever."

"Other Inquisitors?"

"And the Grey Knights. They are deadly serious about keeping the threat of Chaos a secret from Imperial citizenry, and when my report reaches them, they will undoubtedly react with force."

"Funny you should mention the Grey Knights," Randi mused, "because reports have just come in that there's been a bit of a shake-up in their leadership – in the Inquisition, too, for that matter." Randi picked up a dataslate from his desk. "It seems that the Emperor objected to many of their policies, including their, shall we say, zealous protection of their secrecy."

"And how did the Emperor make His displeasure known?"

"Very directly," Randi explained, and he read from the dataslate: "'YOU KILLED HONEST, UNTAINTED CITIZENS AND SOLDIERS OF MY IMPERIUM BECAUSE YOU THOUGHT PRESERVING YOUR OWN SECRECY WAS MORE IMPORTANT. YOUR ARROGANCE AT ASSUMING THAT THE GREY KNIGHTS SHOULD REMAIN A SECRET AFTER NINE THOUSAND YEARS OF COMBAT ACTIONS IS APPALLING.' This was said to Grand Master Kaldor Draigo, by the Emperor Himself." Even though Randi was merely a mortal, Rightina felt as if the words themselves had retained some echo of the Emperor's power.

Finally, she swallowed, and asked, "And how did He deliver such a message? I thought He was...incapable of speech, to say the least."

"That is difficult to say, but it seems that He summoned a massive daemon before the Golden Throne and possessed it – I keep seeing the world 'Emperasque.'" Rightina stared, disbelieving. "I realize that this seems far-fetched, and it is possible that the reports have become distorted with each re-transmission, but every report is in agreement that the Emperor walks again."

Rightina took the dataslate, and perused it. Rescuing an Eldar goddess, purging Cadia of daemonic taint, finding the still-living Primarchs – surely, none but the Emperor could accomplish such feats. Trying to find a bright side to the situation, she finally said, "At least you won't have to worry about the Grey Knights torching the sector."

Randi sighed. "We're out of the frying pan, but possibly into the fire – by all accounts, the Emperor has been dispensing judgment as He sets things right. We're not a high-priority zone right now, but I must assume that our time of judgment will come, and while I am sure He will be fair, we certainly have taken actions which violate the letter, if not the spirit of the Lex Imperialis."

A gloomy silence descended upon the room, until Rightina forced a smile. "I guess we'll just have to work extra hard to convince Him that He needs us,” she suggested. "Unless you have any more questions, I'd hate to keep the Inquisition waiting." Randi and Rightina stood and shook hands, and Rightina made the sign of the Aquila. "The Emperor Protects," she declared.

"The Emperor Protects." At least, Randi hoped He would.

After discussing her report with the Chapter Master, Rightina felt as if a weight had been lifted from her chest – all of the stress of anticipating his response and of second-guessing herself had evaporated. In fact, she had left the meeting in such high spirits that, when the maglev train she and Harald had taken smoothly decelerated to a halt, it took her a minute to realize that it wasn't her stop – the stop which would have taken them to the spaceport had been bypassed long ago. Rather than bustling with life as that terminal had been, this one was empty and sterile, decorated in the same style of the Panopticon. The gate was flanked by a squad of ASIS troopers, and when she turned back to face Harald, his expression was regretful, but resolute. "There's been a change of plans," he said.

"I had figured that back-room executions weren't your style," Rightina snapped.

"Your report has already been sent; killing you won't change that. We're here to take you into custody, and give you a choice." Harald passed her a dataslate with an image of a fleet. Rightina recognized Battle Barges and Strike Cruisers from a dozen Chapters – the Black Templars, the Marines Malevolent, the Imperial Fists, and several vessels in the Angry Marines' red-on-yellow, among others. At the center of the fleet was an Inquisitorial Cruiser, silver-on-black; its prow bore the unmistakable profile of the terrible Exterminatus cannon. The dataslate said "Command: unknown," but there was no doubt in Rightina's mind: Inquisitor Lord Damnos was at the helm.

"He actually called a Crusade," she whispered. "Even though the Panel vetoed the option!"

"One choice," Harold continued, "is to remain a prisoner of Internal Security. You will be interrogated, but you will also be treated with the same respect given to all those under the care of ASIS."

"And the alternative is to help you?"

"Yes, by volunteering information, or otherwise –"

"I want to talk to him," Rightina interrupted.

Harald was taken aback. "I beg your pardon?"

"I want to talk to him," Rightina insisted. "He's on extremely shaky ground, here – I've never known him to act against his fellow Inquisitors, and I may be able to convince him to abort the Crusade, or convert it into a quarantine, or otherwise spare the Sector. This fight will accomplish nothing but bloodshed, and there are far more deserving targets for his ire."

Harald heaved a weary sigh. "For our sake, I hope you're right." He motioned to the troopers, and they relaxed. "In that case, we need to get to the Torch. It's time to convene the Executive Council."

EPILOGUE: The Inquisitor Lord's Crusade[edit]

In another life, Captain Ariel Landris had been a courier, with one rule: as long as the customer paid, and stayed out of trouble on her ship, she didn't ask them any questions. The Inquisition was not pleased to learn this when they wanted information on her cargo, and she would undoubtedly have met with some pernicious fate, had it not been for an Inquisitor Lord stepping forward to reveal that she had ferried him and his retinue on several occasions. Instead, she was "volunteered" to serve the Inquisitorial Fleet, where her discretion about her missions would be an asset instead of a liability.

Of course, this mission was not a shuttle run, or even the typical one-and-done Exterminatus action. Landris was the captain of the flagship of a Crusade of over fifty vessels, which, on its own, suggested something well beyond the ordinary, and she had never seen torpedoes as large as the ones she had taken on at Nemesis Tessera. Her years of experience at quashing her curiosity had kept her from cracking under the strain of uncertainty, but at long last, Inquisitor Lord Damnos had seen fit to explain to her just what she would be doing.

"Captain Landris," Damnos began, "I must warn you that the mission on which you are about to embark will be a severe trial of your soul. Make no mistake; we are entering the den of sin." He passed her a dataslate. "Further details on the Aprior Sector are contained here, but the pertinent facts are these: the Apriori have fallen far from the light of the God-Emperor in their isolation, and in their apostasy, they have committed every form of heresy imaginable." Landris felt herself inhale sharply, and Damnos nodded gravely. "Indeed. Cooperating with xenos, trafficking with the worshipers of the Ruinous Powers, debasing Imperial institutions into mockeries of their true purposes, oh yes."

"And we're to take it back?" Landris asked.

Damnos shook his head, his face a cold, impassive mask. "No. This Sector is too far out to be of service to the God-Emperor, and I could never accumulate enough Guardsmen to hold so many worlds. We will burn it all."

"Not enough Guardsmen – but you managed to acquire ten Battle Barges and forty Strike Cruisers!"

"Yes, and it has taken me many decades to do so. Furthermore, a Space Marine Chapter is a law unto itself, for better or for worse, and nobody will question a Brother-Captain who decides to bring the Emperor's light to the ends of the galaxy, while Imperial Guard Regiments have much more...baggage." Damnos scowled at the dataslate. "I would need the backing of many other Inquisitors to obtain the Imperial Guard's support, and somehow, the Apriori have managed to deflect or subvert every official investigation of their activities."

Landris swallowed, and took the dataslate. "Shall I read this, then?"

Damnos nodded shortly. "The details may be of value to you when the time comes for an attack, but the summaries will suffice for the moment."

Landris read the summaries of Rightina's first report, the Panel's discussion, and Rightina's most recent report, and was astounded by the reversal in tone that Rightina had undergone – clearly, these Apriori were extremely persuasive in person. At first, Landris was puzzled by Damnos's consternation; the Apriori policies on captured heretics and xenos were unorthodox in the extreme, but they still had matters very much under control. Then, Landris read between the lines, and realized that the Apriori were all but independent of Imperial support, even in the face of the many threats of the Eastern Fringe. Landris had never been particularly bothered by matters of faith, but in her years as a courier (Inquisitorial and otherwise), she had seen what could happen on a world that thought it didn't need the Imperium; the rebellion of a whole Sector would prove devastating. Still, had Rightina not explained how the Aprior Sector would prove its worth to the Imperium? They certainly hadn't taken any rebellious actions yet. Landris decided to ask the Inquisitor Lord. "I understand why a Sector with as much firepower and independence as this one has can be dangerous, but I'm not clear on why we need to be out here – they're addressing that, aren't they? Rightina said they're going to launch a half dozen or more crusade fleets, so they don't have as much power in one place."

Damnos fixed her with a glare. "That is precisely what they CANNOT be allowed to do!" he snapped. "Don't you see? If we let them spread their tentacles into the Imperium, we'll never be rid of them! Every heretic in the galaxy will see them, and be inspired by them!" Damnos stood and started pacing around the room. "We must make an example of them – show the heretic that their kind are not tolerated!" Damnos clenched his fist for emphasis. "And when we are finished, the light of two hundred burning husks will illuminate the Eastern Fringe, an eternal monument to the rewards of sin!" Damnos spread his arms wide and gazed upward, as if basking in the glow of the burning Sector. "Let us light the first torch," he hissed, and with that, he struck a rune on his cogitator console, aiming his ship's high-power vox-caster at the Norion System. "Team Alpha Four," he declared, the words streaking across the void, "your day of judgement is at hand! Prepare yourselves and your world to meet it. May the Emperor be with you, and may your souls go to His side." Striking the rune again, he turned to the Captain, his eyes blazing with manic energy. "Prepare your vessel, and have the rest of the fleet do the same. Within a fortnight, Norion shall burn!"

See Also[edit]