Hand of Contrition

An Unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Story

Chapter 1:  Rats In the Smog

Ferdi again pressed his ear to the door, wincing as a chill shot through the wood.  He heard the familiar shuffling of a respirator being pulled off.

“Child of terra,” the stranger said through the wood, “you gaze upon the mountain, Child of terra, you see its snow-capped peak… Child of terra you- you- Child of terra…  Ferdi, it’s me, please just let me in.

Ferdi stood and lifted the door’s latch.  It was a heavy piece of steel that simply dropped into hooks on either side of the frame.  Ferdi had to crouch and brace the bar against his chest to lift it off.

The boy slipped into the mansion and closed the door behind him, allowing Ferdi to gently lock it again.  He looked down as the boy pulled off his hood.  It was Arend.  Arend was knelt on the floor now, his head tipped back to silently suck in air.  His olive skin had paled, and was slick with a dull green residue. 

 Ferdi sat down and jabbed him on the shoulder.

Arend turned, shooting Ferdi with a toothy grin and pulling him into a wet embrace.

Ferdi held him there for a moment, then pulled Arend’s head closer so he could whisper into his ear.

“Were you followed?”

“Why does anyone ever ask that?  If I knew I was being followed, why would I come here?”

“Nobody saw you?  No drones, no servitors, nothing?”

Arend placed a sticky glove against Ferdi’s arm, “nothing.”

“Okay then,” Ferdi said, his voice now climbing from a whisper, but still low.  He sat back on his knees and smiled at Cylla and Maike.  They were still glaring at him and Arend.  “It looks like we’re in the clear” he said.

Both exhaled.  “By the throne,” Maike said, this may actually work.” 

Ferdi smiled.  “This is Arend, we knew each other before the academy.  Arend, Maike and Cylla, Maike and Cylla, Arend.”

Arend smiled, heading over to shake the girl’s hands.

The smog had formed a thick residue in Maike’s hair, making it clump together.  Her bloodshot eyes regarded Arend coolly.

Cylla’s head was shaven, the edge of her hairline just visible under her overalls’s hood.  She leaned forward to take Arend’s hand, exposing fresh bandages running from her jaw and into her collar.

She broke Arend’s eye contact and looked to his rucksack.  “Bring anything good with you?”  She asked flatly.      

“Oh yeah, like you wouldn’t believe!”  He pulled off his backpack and set it down between them.  The thick fabric was sopping wet and covered in the same snot-green film that seemed to cling to everything outside.  Arend brushed a layer of it away, then pulled open the two biggest compartments.  “lascarbine, laspistol, med-kit, a week’s worth of rations…  though its mostly corpse-starch.”

Maike grimaced.

“You’ll have to get used to it, food won’t be much better back in Opis Hive, or at least where we’re going.”

She peered into the rucksack again, then leaned back in defeat.  “I miss grox meat,” she said quietly.

“Hey,” Ferdi said, catching himself as his volume rose too much.  “You’ll eat well again, we all will.”

Cylla caught his eye, nodding slightly.

“He’s right,” Arend said, “besides, I wasn’t done ladies.”  He opened the second compartment and pulled out a small metal tin, and a glass bottle wrapped in layers of socks.  “Amasec, and recaf leaves, the posh stuff too.”

Maike snatched the tin from him and put her nose up to the lid, taking in the strong and bitter scent.  “I take it back, this is the best decision I’ve ever made!”

Ferdi smiled.  He took the amasec and rotated the bottle in his hands, watching as the amber liquid sloshed against the glass.  “It was risky getting all this.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you did, but still.”

     “It was nothing, the Mess has been too relaxed since we made planetfall, it was as simple as-”

Maike’s vox unit crackled to life.  It buzzed aggressively in her lap and filled the roof with a sharp trill that echoed against the walls.

Ferdi’s hand shot out and clamped down over the speaker, whilst Maike twisted the unit’s volume knob to almost mute.

“What was that?”  Ferdi hissed.  “I thought we were disconnected.”

Maike was absorbed in the unit’s display, her ears pressed against one of its speakers.  “We were- we are- hold on.”

The four of them sat in silence while Maike worked.  Cylla was back on the balls of her feet.  Arend chewed the inside of his lips.  And Ferdi stared up at the ceiling.

Finally, Maike looked up.  “You all need to hear this.”  She placed the device down, then slowly twisted the volume knob until a voice could just be heard.  It was hard and weathered, but not hoarse.  It spoke slowly and softly, with each word being perfectly and patiently articulated. 

“-and maintain a perimeter around the mansion.  Anyone other than myself seen leaving, is to be treated as hostile.  Captain Styx will take command once I am on-site.  And remember to distribute helm-torches and vid-screen waterproofing, this exercise will be for naught if too many guardsmen miss the show.  Commissar Themis out.”

Everybody leaned away from the vox unit. 

“Was that Themis?”  Cylla said, her eyes snapping between Maike and Ferdi.  “Like, the, Commissar Aegeus Themis?  And he mentioned a mansion…  It’s not like there’s many of them in Opis’s shadow.  So, they’re coming here?  Now?”

Ferdi moved back over to the door and peered through its mail flap. 

Nothing but green smog.

“I can’t see anything,” he mouthed back silently.  He pointed to Arend, mouthed “check the upstairs window?”

Arend gave a thumbs up, then began walking upstairs.

Maike’s again looked up from the display.  Ferdi watched as she whispered into Cylla’s ear, before the two of them beckoned him over. 

He obeyed.

     “Ferdi, that message was old.  Like, it was sent at least an hour ago, just after we got here.”

     “But then, how are we only receiving it now?”

     “The outbound signal must only now be in range.”

     Ferdi felt a coolness creep up into his stomach.  “Okay, let’s not rush to any-”

     “Look out!”  Cylla barked, shoving them both hard and sending the three of them sprawling to the floor.

     No sooner did Ferdi land on his back, did Arend fly down from above and land hard where the trio had just been sitting.

     The boy impacted the ground with a loud and hollow crack.  The sound shot through the wood floor and echoed around the foyer.  Arend bounced slightly, his limbs sprawling out around him, before his body came to rest in front of Ferdi. 

One of Arend’s eyes rolled awkwardly in its socket to glare at Ferdi.  The other hung from his face; with his cheek shattered it had simply fallen from his head and flexed limply on the floor.

     Cylla and Maike were already on him.  Maike was supporting his neck, whilst Cylla ripped open the med-kit. 

     Arend continued to lock eye with Ferdi.  His lips moved, trying to speak through broken teeth.  “He’s…  here.”

     Cylla and Maike caught the words too, both turning to look at Ferdi.

     He stood reflexively and looked up at the staircase and landing above.  Nothing.  “To the basement,” he said anyway.  “Now!”

Chapter 2:  Underground

It was far louder here.  The pressure of the fluid flows beneath made the room rumble, so much so that the floor seemed to sway underfoot. 

Ferdi had been on a nautical ship only once before.  He had spent days on a deck just below the surface, hearing the constant beating of water against its armoured hull.  This was worse. The fluid was thicker, it seemed to slap against the basement rather than flow beneath it.  And that wasn’t even mentioning the smell.  Even through layers of earth and ferrocrete, the smell was still strong enough to taste. 

     Ferdi grimaced.

     “This is all such crap,” Maike said, almost spitting the words.

     Ferdi kept his eyes on the door opposite.  “The plan will work.”

     “That’s not what I meant.  We shouldn’t have just left your friend out there, it wasn’t right.”

     Ferdi inhaled, reluctantly pulling his eyes away from the door to look at Maike.  “I know, but it was the only way.”

     “Was it though?”

     “Yes, it was.  We couldn’t move him with his injuries, we couldn’t stay there either, and we couldn’t have-”

     “I get it, by the throne, you damned analysts are all the same.”

     Ferdi nodded slightly, turning to again stare down the door.

     The basement was small.  It had been emptied apart from a tall locker that stood next to the door.  Ferdi was sat against the wall opposite, bracing Arend’s lascarbine against his shoulder.  He pointed the muzzle back at the door, imagined someone charging through, then shifted the muzzle to slightly right of centre-mass.  Just as he’d been taught.

Cylla was balanced on top of the locker, her laspistol also on the door.  She was trembling too, it was slight, but Ferdi noticed.

The locker itself was rusted metal.  Its doors were missing, exposing a rack of tarnished longswords within. 

Maike was sat against the other wall.  She was stooped over the vox-unit in her lap, almost hugging it as she peered down at its display.

“I’m getting a message,” Maike said.

Ferdi turned quickly, almost rolling over just to look at her.  “Really?”  He said, “from Dyno?  Has she come early?”

Maike continued to glare at her vox-unit, she ran a hand through her hair, pulling the green-soaked locks from her face.

“Maike?”

Maike looked up, her brow twisted into a scowl.  “No.  Not from Dyno.  It’s a restricted message- no- a direct message.”

“What are you saying?”

“The last message we received was a broadcast, like, to the whole base.  This was sent to us, and just us.”

“Hey,” Cylla said flatly, “don’t drag this out.  What does it say?”

“Right, yeah, it’s a script message, no audio.”  She took a breath, then read quietly.

“I am the Emperor’s judgement made flesh.  I will purge cowardice, incompetence, and heresy wherever it is found.  Cadet Maike 0175, Cadet Cylla 0136, Cadet Ferdi 0154; today, my contrite hands shall fall upon you.  Put forth your best resistance. For I shall face you unarmed and unarmoured, so that the folly of your path shall be made apparent to all.  There is no hope, there is only the Emperor.”

Maike met Ferdi’s eyes and glared at him. 

“This isn’t working!”

Ferdi looked back to the door, “Maike please be-”

“No, we’ve been here half an hour already!”  She pointed to her vox unit, “he definitely knows where we are anyway, what good is sitting in silence going to do?”

“The plan will work.”

“It really won’t.  Listen, if Dyno even comes then-”

When, she comes.”

If, Dyno even comes, then what difference is it going to make?  We’ll still have to go through this damned mansion to get to the roof, and our dear crazy Commissar is still going to rip our spines out!”

“You can’t- that’s not even possible…  Do you have a better idea?  Do you want us to go out looking for him?”

“No- I just don’t- I don’t know damnit!”  She brought both hands up to her face and began rubbing it in large circles.  “I just don’t know.”

The torrent of sewage beneath the basement seemed to slow, a temporary lull in the flow.  The drop into what seemed like silence immediately sent Ferdi’s skin into goosebumps.

“Hey,” Cylla said, “blow your nose.”

Maike obeyed, wiping her face with her sleeve and blowing into the folds of her overalls.  The snot and tears blended in perfectly with the residue that already clung to her.

Ferdi grimaced again.

“Good,” Cylla continued.  “I have an idea, something to keep us all focussed.”  She rubbed at her left arm.

“What, like some blasted game?” Maike spat.

“Not quite.  Tell me what you’re going to do once we escape.”

“Seriously?” Ferdi asked. 

“Seriously.  And now you’re going first Ferdi.”

“I guess we’ll have to go underground, work with Dyno’s contact in the hive until-”

“No, I mean what do you want, like, out of your new life?”

Ferdi blinked, turned away for a moment, the knot that had been bubbling away in his guts loosened a little.  “Given the opportunity, I’ll finish my scholia programme, then go from there.”

“Ha!  Seriously?”  Maike said, “after all you’ve been through, you want to go back to being a student?”

Ferdi smiled, then shrugged, “Yeah, I do.  What about you?”

Maike grinned and sat up straighter.  I’m getting off this wretched planet, and I’m going to make a massive pile of thrones.  I’m going to be wealthy, eat stag every day and bath in wine!”  Her eyes seemed to twinkle with the thought.  “Not that recycled crap either, I mean wine made from fruit!”

“And how are you going to make all that cash?”

“The question was what I want!” she hissed, “not what I think is reasonable, you little smart-arse.” 

Ferdi threw up his hands apologetically but rolled his eyes.  “And you Cylla?”

  Cylla glanced to the door, then moved to sit on the wardrobe, allowing her legs to hang off the edge.  “I don’t know,” she said eventually.  “After we escape, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Ferdi crossed his arms, “this was your question, remember?”

     “Well, how about this then.  My hope is that after tonight, I’ll still be able to decide what I want, rather than have someone else decide it for me.”     

Ferdi nodded, and Maike grunted in agreement.

“Now, can we please start working together again?  No more bickering.  Please.”

“Actually, I was thinking, Maike you’re right.”

“What?”

“We can’t just stay here, if he really is unarmed then Themis’s best opportunity is to ambush us on our way to the roof, which means that he will attack us then.”

“Ferdi?”

“So, if he’s going to attack us, he may as well do it on our terms.”

“By the throne, we’re all going to die.”

“Probably.  But I do have a plan.”

“Is it a good plan?”

“Not really.  But it should allow most of us make to the roof.

Maike rubbed at her brow.  “Well, at least you’re honest.”

Cylla dropped down from the wardrobe, her boots thumping against the metal floor.  “let’s hear it, she said.”

Ferdi felt that same knot in his stomach tighten as he met their eyes, felt the focus in them both.  “In a moment, both of you come here.”  He stooped over the rucksack and retrieved the bottle of amasec, and recaf leaves.  “I’m willing to bet that Themis won’t attack now, and I’m not sure when we’re next ever going to get a treat like this.  So, we drink, then we get to it.”

Maike and Cylla looked to each other, then nodded.

“Here,” Ferdi passed both to Maike.  She looked at them for a moment, then crammed a mouthful of the recaf leaves into her mouth, chewing them until they became brown paste between her teeth.

Cylla punched her in the arm, “make sure to leave some for us” she said, only half-smiling.

Maike spat out her glob of recaf onto the floor, then passed the container onto Cylla.  She brought the amasec to her lips.  “What’re we toasting to?”

“Freedom?”  Ferdi asked. 

Maike sighed.

“You have a better idea?”

She shrugged.  “I guess not.  Freedom will have to do.”  She took a swig, her lips hungrily clinging to the bottle. 

Cylla did the same, crewing up a chunk of the raw recaf and then taking a hit of the amasec.  “Freedom, and to the end of our service to our damned and distant Emperor!”  She then passed both to Ferdi.

     Ferdi bristled at her words.  He stared at Cylla blankly, then quickly composed himself and took the offered containers.  He took all of the remaining recaf into his mouth and chewed, enjoying the acrid bitterness that quickly blocked his nose.  Satisfied, he spat it onto the floor.  “To our new lives,” he said quietly, then drained the last of the amasec and winced as it burnt his throat.  “Okay then, listen up.”

Chapter 3: Creeping Shadows

Ferdi crept forwards, his feet padding softly against the old wood.  He had removed his boots, their heavy and waterlogged steps replaced with barely audible taps as he slowly placed one foot in front of the other.

The trio walked in line, all of them in their socks.  Cylla was in front, bracing the lascarbine against her shoulder.  Maike walked behind her, her vox-unit discarded but laspistol held tight.  Ferdi was last, with a longsword held up and ready. 

They crouched low to duck under the tall windows set to either side of the front door.  The glass had long ago become opaque and milky, but still wasn’t worth the risk.

Cylla stopped abruptly, looking up to the ceiling.  Ferdi followed her gaze. 

Arend was strung up.  He was suspended by a long and old rope that bound his ankles to the banisters of the floor above.  His injuries had distorted his form.  Broken legs and hips made him seem too long, and he swayed too fluidly in the air.  Half of his face lacked structure, replaced with a fleshy mass where the bones beneath had been shattered.  Blood flowed from him; it pooled in his overalls and dripped from his broken face in a thin and steady stream.

Cylla and Maike tuned to Ferdi, their expressions unreadable in the gloom.

He swallowed, then stabbed his hand forward. 

The trio continued.

As they moved upstairs Ferdi could see the familiar yellow-orange glare of helmet torches through the windows.  He heard the squelching of boots in the filth outside, the rustling of vid-screens wrapped in all-weather cases.

Cylla reached the top of the stairs, sweeping her lascarbine around the landing while she waited. 

Maike reached her, gently punched her on the arm, then nodded at Ferdi before heading off towards the west corridor. 

Ferdi reached Cylla.  He went to make the sign of the Aquila on his chest but stopped himself.  Instead, he simply placed a fist on his chest and nodded.  Cylla looked at his hand, then nodded back.  Ferdi moved to take the north corridor, not turning back when he heard Cylla quietly move away to the East.

The corridors, as well as most of the mansion, had been stripped long ago.  Its walls and ceilings were little more than greying plaster, and the now almost rock-solid carpet had dissolved from a royal red to a muddy crimson.  Ferdi kept looking down, following the pattern of wear in the middle of the carpet to his destination.

He turned a corner, entered another corridor, this one was short and lined with doors on either side.  It spat him out onto another corridor that extended to Ferdi’s left and right.  Directly opposite, and set against the wall, was a steel door.  The metal was thin and rusting, its surface warping towards the base.

A muted thrum echoed up the corridor.

He stopped dead, flattened himself against the wall.  He crouched, trying to make himself dissolve into the shadows.

     The sound was coming from his right, his sight blocked by the corridor’s blind corner.

Should he dart into one of these rooms?  But he’d surely be heard?  And what if the doors are locked?

     The sound grew louder, now undoubtably travelling towards him.

     He gently placed his boots down and gripped the sword, ready to leap out as soon as the sound rounded the corner.

       The thrumming was joined by a low whine, both felt like they were ringing in Ferdi’s ear as it drew closer and closer and closer.  Then it finally came into view.

     Ferdi leapt forward, one hand reaching out towards it, the other bringing the sword down.  Then he stopped. 

A servo-skull hovered in front of his face.  Its once bleached bones had adopted a pale green tint, as if the device had become ill.  The gravity pack on the back of its cranium puffed thin jets of steam, whilst its thin manipulator arm whirled at Ferdi’s sudden appearance.  An amber-lensed vid-capturer took up its right eye-socket.  The lens moved sharply, adjusting until Ferdi could see his own gaunt and green-stained face in its reflection.  

     He exhaled, allowing his shoulders to drop.

     So that’s how this “show” is being broadcast?

He retrieved his boots and opened the steel door.  The servant’s hatch within was empty.

“Ha!”  Ferdi let out a laugh, then Immediately stifled it.  He took a step into the space and began pulling his boots back on, unable to stop himself from grinning.

A familiar crack whipped through the air. 

He turned towards the sound, looking down the corridor and into the darkness beyond.  It was distant and barely audible, but distinctive enough.   

Another laspistol crack sent a shiver through him, as if he could feel the superheated air wash against his skin. 

He turned away, starring at the rusted stairwell in the middle of the servant’s hatch.  He was here.  The roof was a few seconds climb away.  The plan had worked.

Ferdi looked to the servo-skull still listing overhead, back to the stairwell, sighed, and then took off sprinting towards the distant shots.

Chapter 4: The Commissar

Ferdi turned a corner, almost losing his footing on the rotten carpet. 

Glass shattered in the room opposite.  He glared at the door for a moment, then rushed it, pushing it open and running in. 

The room was like all the others, stripped and empty.  Although this room at least featured large windows on the wall opposite, allowing the green-tinged moonlight seep in. 

Maike let out a weak croak.  She was lying on her stomach in the middle of the room, her face slick with blood.  She turned to look at him.  “Ferdi,” she said, “why- did-”

Her face slammed into the wooden floor as a boot came down on the back of her head.

Ferdi’s eyes tracked up the glossy black leather until he was glaring at Commissar Aegeus Themis’s pale blue eyes.  The irises themselves were an intense cyan and flecked with specs of crimson.  They focussed on Ferdi, calmly boring straight through him.

Themis drew himself up.  The moonlight pouring in from the window washed over him, framing him in emerald light and making his white hair glow in the darkness.

He was in his shirtsleeves, forgoing his still immaculate uniform’s greatcoat and peaked cap. 

He raised his arms to waist-level, revealing them to be a pair of sleek bionics.  Freshly greased servos and black wiring sat below a brilliant silver shell of overlapping and articulating plates.  As he extended his arms towards Ferdi, the plates bunched together and lengthened like the contractions of real muscle.  A silver hand pointed at Ferdi’s chest, palm up. 

All Ferdi could hear was his blood thumping behind his ears.  Even the rumbling of the toxic flows seemed to pause as the Commissar glared at him.  He tensed, then charged.

He crossed the room in two long strides then lunged at the Commissar, whipping his sword to strike form overhead. 

It was well-telegraphed, almost begging Themis to leisurely swat it aside, giving Ferdi and opening to spin the blade into the side of his skull. 

As the blade came down, the Commissar’s arm began to rise, just as predicted.  As Ferdi felt the metal contact, he pivoted his hips to swing the sword around.

His momentum suddenly halted.  The Commissar hadn’t swatted the blade aside, he had caught it!  Ferdi looked up, watching as bionic digits began crushing into the blade.

     A knee struck Ferdi.  It rose in an instant and connected just below his sternum.

The power went out of him, and he flopped onto all fours.  He wretched, feeling a gush of stinging bile wash against his back teeth.

     The Commissar gingerly reached down, plucking up Maike by the collar and hoisting her into the air. 

Blood streamed from her nose and dripped onto the floor.  She swung at him with her arms, but the strikes were drunk, missing their mark or slapping harmlessly against him.

     Ferdi pushed himself up to standing, biting back another wretch as he looked to Maike.

     With one hand clamped around her throat, and the other gripping her overall’s waistband, he brought her down hard, then bent her over his knee. 

loud and hollow cracks erupted from her and echoed around the room.  The Commissar’s metal limbs hissed and spat oil as they continued to fold her in half, only stopping when her thighs touched the back of her head.

     He stood, letting Maike roll from him and fall to the floor face down.

     Ferdi sucked in another mouthful of air, still glaring at Themis.

The Commissar looked him up and down, tilted his head slightly.  His eyes moved to glare just over Ferdi’s shoulder.  Themis crouched, then turned and darted towards a door behind him.

     Ferdi blinked.

     Lasrounds cut through the air next to Ferdi’s head, sending waves of scolding heat rushing over his ear.

     He ducked, reeling around to see Cylla standing in the doorway, her lascarbine pumping another burst of superheated laser from its barrel. 

     The rounds landed just short of Themis, burning red holes into the walls just behind him. 

Cylla kept tracking him, the lasrounds getting closer and closer until he dived, landed softly, then rolled through the doorway and out of sight.

     She marched forward and stood over Maike, her weapon trained on the door.  “Carry her,” she said.

     Ferdi had crouched again, still sucking air into throbbing lungs.

“Cylla?”

     “To your service hatch,” her eyes flicked to him, then back to the door.  “Do it now.”

     Ferdi obeyed, grabbing his sword, and then securing Maike over his shoulder.

Ferdi gently laid Maike down on the stone floor and knelt behind her.  He placed a hand on her chest, but he could only feel damp fabric.  He looked up at Cylla.  

     Cylla was finishing forcing the door closed, with a final kick the rusted metal thumped back into its frame.  She turned and met Ferdi’s expectant gaze.  She looked to her med-kit, then to Maike, then back to Ferdi, before shaking her head slowly.  “It’s not your fault,” she said. 

     Maike’s grime-stained hair had fallen over her face.  Ferdi reached down and moved it aside.  Blood and snot still ran from her nose and mouth.  Her face, which was usually pulled into a tight frown, was relaxed. 

     Ferdi shivered.

     “Sit back,” Cylla said. 

     Ferdi obeyed, sliding back against the cold wall and resting his head against it. 

     Cylla crouched over Maike, pulling her overalls’s oversized hood up to cover her.

     Ferdi looked away, “shouldn’t you be watching the door?” he said.

     “No point, Themis won’t attack us here, he’ll wait until we move for pickup.”

     “Makes sense.”

     A flash of red light washed over them. 

Cylla snapped round to look at the door.  The servo skull hummed on the other side, its vid-capturer thrust into the thin seam between the frame and the door.

     Cylla frowned.  She inspected the lascarbine, rubbed green film from the ammo counter’s display, released the magazine, checked it too, thumped it back into place.

     “Last one?”

     “We only had one to begin with.  How long until Dyno arrives?”

     Ferdi checked his watch, “6 minutes, not that it matters.”

     Cylla glared at him.

     Ferdi met her glare numbly.

     She pulled her eyes away, rubbed at her scalp, and then at her bandages.  She slung the carbine across her back and sat down in front of him.

     “Do you remember what I said, back downstairs?”

     “About the future?  You said that you didn’t know.”

     “That’s still true.  You know my unit?”

     “84th battlegroup, civic duties.”

     She smirked, “of course, you know everything about everything.”

     “Heh,” Ferdi gave a short laugh, but there was no humour in it.

     “I thought that would be my life forever, getting shot at by the same people we’re trying to protect, then eventually graduating so that I can do the same thing with an extra chevron.  And then do that until one of our dear neighbours actually manages to kill me.”  She looked away, smiling thinly.  “I thought that that would be my life forever, until you came along with your plan.”

     “I’m sorry it’s not going how I promised.”

     “Don’t be.  You gave me hope, Ferdi.  Hope that I can be something else, anything else.  Even if only for a moment.”

     “It probably will be.”

     “That’s good enough for me.”  She stood and reached out her hand for him to take.  “Is it good enough for you?”

     He looked at it for a moment, smiled, then took it.  “Yeah, it is.”

     She heaved him up to his feet.  “Good.  Now start climbing.  We’re out of time.”

Chapter 5: Taking Flight

Ferdi crouched a few steps behind Cylla.  She herself was crouched just below the hatch, her hands bracing against the release lever.  The servant’s hatch’s seals had long since worn away, allowing faint trickles of amber-green light to seep into the dark stairwell.  Ferdi looked down at Maike’s body, her face obscured by her hood, he looked away.

     Cylla and Ferdi had put their respirators back on, ready to brave the green fog yet again.  The rumbling of the toxic flows beneath them wasn’t felt anymore, instead it was heard, and overwhelmingly so.  The sound seemed to penetrate into Ferdi’s skull, only being drowned out by the equally overwhelming roar of a shuttle’s thrusters.

     “I can hear her,” Ferdi said.

     Cylla checked her watch, “Right on time too.”  She pushed on the hatch and shifted it open, then pulled herself up and through. 

     Ferdi waited, then after a moment.

     “Alright, bring her up” she said. 

     Ferdi lifted Maike up as high as he could.  Cylla took her by the collar and lifted her through the hatch.  It was clumsy, with Maike’s shoulders bumping awkwardly against the hatch’s frame.

Ferdi followed.

The green smog had thinned as it rose, allowing Ferdi to peer out at the black stalagmite-shaped shadow of Hive City Opis in the distance, and the wastelands surrounding the mansion.

The smog parted, whipped up by the shuttle’s engines and then blown away as it came to rest on the edge of the roof. 

Ferdi scooped up Maike’s body and walked towards the transport.  Cylla kept just behind him.  She walked backwards, her carbine tracking across the various servant’s hatches across the roof.

The transport was long and thin.  Three compartments sat behind the cockpit, with each one connected by articulating seals.  After a moment, the access ramp lowered and Ferdi stepped inside.

     “Stow her, and get this thing airborne” Cylla said, “I’ll head in when we start moving.”

     “Okay, I’ll be quick.”

     “Sorry we couldn’t go back for your friend.”

     “Yeah,” Ferdi said, already walking inside.

     The compartments were narrow, their space taken up by tall vats that towered over Ferdi on either side of the walkway.  Each one had a reinforced glass window at eyelevel, revealing sloshing green ooze within.

     The crew section was built into the first compartment.  It was barely six feet long, with its only amenities being three bed racks built into the walls.    

     Ferdi lifted Maike into a rack, secured the sleeping harness, then closed the curtain across the rack.

He rushed into the cockpit.  Dyro was sat over the controls with her back to him.  The servitor in the co-pilot’s seat turned to Ferdi, acknowledging him with a curt chime as its dead and milky eyes passed over him.

     “Dyno, we’re ready to go.  You need to take off right now.”

     She ignored him.

     “We’re out of time, come on!”  Ferdi grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around in the flight chair.

     Dyro’s skin was pallid, and her left eye glared straight through Ferdi.  Her right eye was missing, replaced by a smouldering hole that had also claimed most of her cheek.

The stench of heavy carbon and burnt meat filled his nose.  He hesitated, but only for a moment.  He spun at the servitor, whipping his arm at it.  He connected with one of the servitor’s thin servo-arms, swatting away the laspistol he correctly anticipated was pointing at his head. 

The pistol flew away, bouncing across the flight control panels.

The machine charged him, lurching forwards on shaking legs.  This servitor was thin and lithe.  What was once a man was now a pallid and dry husk, with invasive bionics replacing its torso and most of its head.  Two servo arms flared from its back at shot forward: the thin one, and another much larger servo-arm.

Ferdi caught the thin arm, but the heavy arm clamped around throat.  The servitor continued forward, pinning him against the cockpit’s wall. 

Ferdi pulled hard on the arm but couldn’t wrestle any more breathing room.

His lips begin to tingle, and his face grew hot with trapped blood.

Ferdi risked taking a hand off the heavy servo-arm.  He groped around the pilot’s console until his fingers brushed up against metal casing, he glanced down, the laspistol!

He thrust the weapon towards the servitor’s face, but the thin servo-arm was faster, catching the weapon by the muzzle.

Ferdi pulled on the trigger, sending a superheated lasround into the ceiling, filling the cockpit with ozone and a flurry of sparks.  He pushed against the servo-arm, trying to twist the pistol towards the servitor’s head.  He fired again, sending another round skimming just past its head.  He fired a third time, but nothing happened.  The weapon’s trigger clicked, but no round was released.

Ferdi glanced at the pistol.  The servo-arm was now clamped around the pistol’s housing, having crushed the weapon into a twisted and useless mass of metal.

He felt lightheaded now, and his vision began to tunnel and darken.

Something crashed into the servitor’s head, with the impact throwing the machine onto its side.  Ferdi was released and tumbled to the floor.

Cylla was stood over the now flailing machine, her elbow covered with its amber blood.  She unloaded her lascarbine into it until it clicked empty. 

The dead servitor looked grilled.  Burning holes had been punched through its body, each one easily bigger than Ferdi’s fist.  The surrounding areas fared no better, reduced to blackened metal and smoking meat.   

“Are you injured?”  Cylla asked.

“No,” Ferdi croaked, almost choking on his own spit.

Cylla was looking around the cockpit, her eyes tracking over the myriad of controls, then settling on Dyno’s body.  “Do you know how to fly?”

“No.  We’ll need a new plan.”

Cylla nodded, then turned to walk back down the length of the shuttle.  “Okay, follow me, I think I know…”

“What is it?”  Ferdi followed her eyes and looked down the corridor.

     Commissar Aegeus Themis glared back at him.  The Commissar approached the foot of the loading ramp and marched up it, moving with the same grace and purpose as if he were strolling into the officer’s Mess. 

     Ferdi punched the fire containment control button.  The cockpit door slammed shut, followed by the loading ramp and the two additional compartment doors.

     Cylla inspected her lascarbine’s empty power-pack.  She moved her hand to her waist and groped for webbing that wasn’t there.  She looked to the servitor and pried the burnt laspistol from its still smoking servo-arm.  She pulled out its power pack, grimacing as it came out in blackened pieces.  She sighed, now resting the carbine on her shoulder like a club.

     The sound of pinging metal shot through the shuttle, it was piercing and short, like iron being bent with a hammer.  Cylla and Ferdi peered through the cockpit door’s narrow view-slit, and then through another view-slit in the first compartment’s blast door.

A pair of metallic digits had forced their way through the seam of the second blast door.  They wrapped themselves around the reinforced metal, flexed, then the door flew open in a flurry of sparks and shrieking steel.  The Commissar stood in the now empty doorway between the third and second compartments.  He lingered for a moment, his breath shooting from his mouth as thick vapour, then he marched towards the next blast door.

     Ferdi turned and shifted Dyro clumsily onto the floor, before jumping into her seat. 

     “I thought you said you couldn’t fly?” 

     “I can’t.”  Ferdi’s hands were haphazardly dancing over the flight controls, struggling to input a half-remembered sequence. 

Realization washed over Cylla’s face as she climbed into the co-pilot’s seat, making sure to secure its harness tight over her chest.

The shuttle rumbled, the two long engine pods on either side of its hull glowed, throwing warm orange light across the cockpit.  The shuttle slowly began to tilt up, with the poisonous clouds above filling the viewport.

     Another cry of tearing steel reverberated through the shuttle, followed again by another crash as the second set of blast doors were rammed back into their housing.

     Ferdi risked a glance back. 

There was now only a short corridor between the Commissar and the cockpit’s door.  Through the view-slit Ferdi could see the Commissar striding towards him, his head unbowed despite the beads of sweat running down his brow.

     Ferdi continued to slowly pitch the shuttle up.  Ignoring Cylla’s expression, and the surprising soft thump, thump, thump, of the Commissar’s approach.  He felt a pit grow in his stomach as his equilibrium shifted onto his back.  Then he rammed the throttle control forward.   

The engines spat out torrents of flame and the shuttle lurched forwards.  It picked up speed and pinned Ferdi back against his flight seat.

     Rubber squealed behind him. 

He turned in time to see the Commissar slide back down the corridor, his boots failing to give him any traction against the acceleration.

     They were climbing fast now.  The grey mansion below had become swarmed with a sea of harsh yellow dots, each one the foggy helmet-torch of a guardsman come out to see the bloody show.  The mansion became smaller, and the yellow lights coalesced into a foggy mass, then both vanished as the shuttle entered the green clouds. 

It was dark and inky, with green liquid penetrating the ancient hull and spraying Ferdi with rancid rain. 

The engine pods began to tremble.  The altitude warning claxon activated, and red warning lights flashed across the control panels. 

Ferdi looked over to Cylla.  She was sat upright in her seat, both hands clamped around her restraints. 

She caught Ferdi’s eyes and turned to him, rested her hand on his.

He took it, interlacing his fingers between hers. 

They both turned back to the viewport. 

The engine pods rocked in their housings as they began to choke.  With a final lurch they both stalled and died.  The shuttle fell silent as its last throw of momentum allowed it to just clear the cloud layer.  It hung there for a moment. 

Above the toxic clouds, the sky was clean and clear.  It was a midnight blue and stretched uninterrupted as far as Ferdi could see.  Their distant sun appeared as a ball of diffused but still piercing white light that slowly rose on the distant horizon.  Greens and purples mixed with the light of the coming morning, as if the colours were slowly dancing across the clouds towards them. 

The tip of the Hive City Opis still loomed over them, but here, its black spires twinkled silver and bronze against the rising sun. 

Ferdi exhaled, allowing himself to breathe in the details. 

Then the shuttle began to fall backwards.  The inertia pushed him against his restraints, and his head began to fill with the sound of whipping and shrieking wind.

Chapter 6: The Fall

The world began to materialize from the centre of Ferdi’s vision; it peeled back the blackness in his eyes until Ferdi could make out a blurred face staring at him. 

“What?”  He said weakly.

     Cylla sighed, “thank goodness.”  She began pulling off his restraints.  “Are you injured?  Can you stand?”

     Ferdi blinked the remaining fuzz from his eyes and tried to stand. 

Pain shot through his ribs and up his back, stealing his breath away and bending him double across the flight controls.  He took a slow breath in, feeling the left side of his chest throb angrily in complaint. 

     “Come on,” Cylla said, draping his arm over her shoulder as she pulled him up.  “At least the restraints did their job.” 

     Ferdi smiled weakly.

     She led him forward, climbed over the flight controls, through the now shattered viewport, and slid off the shuttle’s nose and onto the roof below.

     Ferdi followed, landing hard and grunting through more pain as he forced himself back up to his feet.

     The roof was on fire.  Plumes of black smoke mixed with the midnight and the clouds above to become a dark veil in the sky.  It continued to rain, but the fires raged on, nevertheless. 

The shuttle was splayed out across the roof.  Its three compartments were gutted, and their toxic contents had spilled from it like green blood. 

     The remaining engine pod ignited.  It immediately became enveloped in flames and sent a wave of heat washing over Ferdi.

     Cylla took his arm again and began leading him back towards the servant’s hatch.  “Come on, we need to head back down, maybe there’s still-” She came to a stop.

     “Still a what?”  Ferdi followed her eyes to one of the shuttle’s compartments.

     A sealed service door fell from the burning hull and crashed to the ground.  The tall silhouette of Aegeus Themis climbed down from the hull and landed onto the roof.  He was covered in the green ooze.  The toxic chemicals had ignited and were burning with blueish flames.

The Commissar ripped off his smouldering shirt and wiped away the ooze, taking the flames with it.  Satisfied, he flicked it clean, then tucked the rag away in his belt. 

     He turned and glared at the cadets.  The fires surrounding him had mixed with the burning ooze, throwing a sickly yellow light across his body.  Welts and bruising covered his now exposed chest, and blood ran from a wound on his side.  His hair was gone, burnt away before he could wipe off the burning ooze, leaving infantile flecks of blackened fuzz on his scalp.

     A familiar whine came from overhead.

     Ferdi looked up, seeing the same servo-skull listing gently above the roof.  its vid-capturer flitted between himself, Cylla, and the Commissar. 

     Cylla let go of his arm. 

     Ferdi sucked in a breath of hot and ashen air, then drew himself up.  He pulled the sword from his waistband with a long rasp of steel against wet fabric.

Cylla was stood with her lascarbine in both hands.

     They looked to each other, then slowly towards Aegeus Themis.

     The Commissar stood opposite.  One leg a half-step in front of the other, his weight shifted slightly away from his wounded side, and silver hands held out and ready just in front of his chest; one was balled into a fist, the other open and pointing at the cadets, palm-up.

     The rain stopped abruptly.

Then Ferdi was running towards the Commissar.  Fear, hate, and anger had mixed in his stomach, giving him a sick and listless sensation.  His legs moved on their own, his ears rang, and his most likely broken ribs rose and fell numbly.  All Ferdi could feel was the Commissar growing closer, the grip on the sword, and the cold comfort that Cylla was only a half-step behind. 

And then they were on him.

Ferdi whipped his sword at the Commissar in wild arcs, whilst Cylla swung her lascarbine around as hard as she could.

The Commissar seemed slower than before, though, he countered their strikes well enough.  But the assault began to take a toll on the prosthetics, with Ferdi’s sword beginning to crack and bend the intricate plates.

The Commissar took a step back, ejecting a puff of vapour from his nostrils as his weight shifted onto his bleeding side.

Ferdi loaded up for another swing, then pulled the sword towards the Commissar’s face.

His blade stopped just above the Commissar’s head, with a silver hand wrapped around its length.  The Commissar crouched, turned, and pulled hard, sending Ferdi tumbling onto his stomach and his sword flying from his grip.

He sprung back up immediately. 

Cylla had jumped onto the Commissar’s back, her arms locked around his neck.

Ferdi ran to his sword and scooped it up in shaking hands.

The Commissar twisted his body, reached behind his head, and threw Cylla over his shoulder.

Ferdi was running at Themis now.

The Commissar swung his fist round in a sharp hook, his hand caught Cylla on the side of the head, just as she had risen to her feet.  Her body rocked with the strike, wobbled on driverless legs, then pitched forward and landed face first into the ash.

The move had left Themis open, his body tuned side-on to Ferdi.  Ferdi lunged and thrust with his sword’s point.

The blade stopped short. 

Ferdi blinked.

The Commissar’s metal hand had again shot out and wrapped around the blade, halting it just before it could cut into his flesh.  Now, Themis turned to Ferdi.  He shot forwards, moving faster than an injured man should. 

The Commissar’s palm slammed into Ferdi’s face, sending his vision spinning.  His grip on the sword loosened, then something crashed into his stomach and sent him to the floor in a wheezing and choking heap. 

The strength went out of him again.  His breath immediately became laboured, as if something were pressing against his chest. 

The pain in his ribs and stomach returned, then doubled.  Ferdi groped weakly at his stomach.  But instead of finding a welt, he felt the hilt of his own sword, and the dampness of his own blood and bile.

He managed to roll to his side, ignoring the rush of blood and saliva that was filling his mouth.

The Commissar was looming over the now kneeling Cylla, his hands clamped onto the sides of her head.  With a firm push, both of his thumbs entered her eyes, crushing them as his silver digits disappeared into her head. 

Cylla let out a weak moan.  Ferdi watched as her bloody lips twisted into a thin smile, then realised that she was silently giggling.

The Commissar turned her head around with force, spinning it on her shoulders until she was looking down at her own back.  A spurt of blood leaked from her mouth, then she toppled back down onto the ash.

Themis withdrew the rag from his belt and began to absently wipe away the viscera from his fingers.

He turned to Ferdi, his eyes scanning across him.  “I must apologise, that was rather dramatic.”

The servo-skull descended, it’s vid-capturer flitting between Ferdi and the Commissar. 

“In truth, I took no pleasure from my more excessive displays tonight,” he gestured to the servo-skull, “but examples must be made.”

Ferdi flinched as the Commissar crouched beside him.

“I must commend you Cadet 0154, you lead your peers in quite the resistance.  Which is the problem.  Do you understand?  You give people hope Cadet 0154.”  The Commissar reached down and lifted up Ferdi’s sagging head.  “Should you die here, your death would no doubt inspire others to stray from the path of honour and duty.  But worry not, we have alternative measures just as effective as execution.”  The Commissar looked around at the burning roof, then shook his head solemnly.  “You give people hope,” he repeated.  “But hope is a lie.  There is there is no hope.  There is only the Emperor.” 

Thank you for reading “Hand of Contrition”

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