"The Merchant Guild would never condone the unlawful detention of any Imperial agent. Obviously." Hespas DuPontiae smiled unctuously and steepled his fingertips beneath his several chins. "However, if such an unseemly circumstance were found to exist, we absolutely agree that it would be in the best interests of both the Guild and the Imperium if the situation could be corrected by reuniting said Adept with his chapter."
Commissar Cracken's head ached. What had begun as a routine recruiting trip was turning messy. SNAFU, the mantra of an Imperial guardsman's existence.
Colonel Senekal had contacted the planetary governor of the hive world Lodi and accepted her cordial invitation to land a shuttle at the base of Cascade's spire to look over the latest batch of hopefuls. The governor was known as an enthusiastic host, at least in part because she viewed fulfillment of Guard recruitment quotas as a means of culling unusually problematic or vicious individuals from Lodi's population. The inspection of recruits from the various planets within Danikan jurisdiction was generally regarded as light duty, so when Commissar Cracken and a pair of the Colonel's Bloodcoats received orders to do the honors, they had been happy enough for the opportunity to stretch their legs off-ship.
Soon after their arrival planetside, they had received notice from Colonel Senekal that the 4th Danika was required for immediate deployment to Goren II. There had not been time to send a shuttle back to Lodi for the three men, and so they found themselves stranded. Despite the commissar's frustration at being unable to rejoin his unit, he was determined that he, Wulf, and Osric would carry on with the task they had been sent to perform.
Their situation had become more complicated when Cracken overheard one particularly gregarious recruit--a hulking Brob'nag who went by the ironic nom de guerre of "Tiny"--as he tried to engage a disinterested-looking scummer in conversation about the previous night's events at his favorite fighting pit. What caught Cracken's interest was Tiny's description of a lopsided brawl pitting a group of three outlaw Rippers against Uriah Mobweed's star attraction, a seven-and-a-half foot tall cyborg called Barabbas the Butcher.
Further questioning of the Brob'nagian had revealed an urban legend surrounding Barabbas. According to Tiny, Barabbas was a god-like being who had fallen to Lodi from the stars. He had been purchased and imprisoned by an ancient ancestor of Guilder Uriah Mobweed, who forced him to fight all comers for his owner's entertainment and profit. It was said that the obsidian cuirass that encased his torso was part of some arcane means the Mobweeds had used to bind the giant's spirit and keep him imprisoned for hundreds of years. Like most legends, Tiny's story doubtless contained some kernel of truth. Once stripped of ignorance, superstition, and exaggeration, what had remained of the story was a cold certainty that sat in Heironymous Cracken's gut like a lump of lead: Barabbas was no god; Barabbas was an Adept of the Astartes.
Relations between Imperial Guard and Adeptus Astartes had always been strained, and the Danikan Guard certainly had no obligation to act in this matter. History notwithstanding, Colonel Arcturan Senekal, Cracken's commander and friend, had carefully cultivated personal contacts with officers in several of the space marine chapters, over time establishing an unusual spirit of cooperation that had proven beneficial to marine and guard alike. If the Colonel were to become aware that the Emperor's servants were being held in thrall to the likes of Uriah Mobweed, he would certainly take whatever action was necessary to secure the captive's release and to forcefully impress upon the captor the error of his ways. For Colonel Senekal, it was not a matter of zeal, but one of principal. The more devout Commissar Cracken would do no less.
Through Governor Zeta, he had requested an audience with representatives from the Merchant Guild and had subsequently been granted the meeting in which he was presently engaged. He found himself both infuriated by Hespas DuPontiae's smarmy patter and thoroughly convinced by his demeanor that the Guild were aware of Uriah Mobweed's activities. He knew from previous experience that the man's tepid agreement about the essential wrongness of the "hypothetical situation" was as near to active condemnation as he would get. The Guild would not stand against one of their own. Nevertheless, they were not blind to the possibility that Mobweed's reckless behavior could attract unwanted Imperial attention that would be bad for business.
"Perhaps Commissar and his men would care to attend one of Guilder Mobweed's events? I would be honored to make the arrangements." DuPontiae seemed genuinely delighted with his idea. "Why, I even know of a reputable House Möbius gang who would willing--no, honored--to act as guides to ensure an uneventful excursion. For a reasonable fee, of course."
Cracken accepted the offer, and DuPontiae turned him over to his assistant to finalise the arrangements, grinning and pumping his guest's hand all the while.
The dome lighting that signaled the start of another day had been on for hours by the time Gav arrived at Jocko's. Most of the area's inhabitants he passed on the street had been about their business for at least that long, but one of the perks of running a bar was the option of sleeping late and recovering from the side effects of the previous night's business.
Knowing that the service entrance would be open, he pushed through the battered tin-sheathed door with one hip, balancing several heavy glass jugs of Jocko's Second Best with an ease that came from years of experience. Used to be, he had tried to keep the place locked up when he wasn't open for business but had long since given that up. Hasps and locks had done no good; the gangs had only torn them off as fast as he replaced them, letting themselves in when ever it pleased them. And it pleased them, apparently. He had found it a more effective means of security to allow one gang to claim the place as part of their turf and let them worry about keeping the others out.
He made his way in the dark, instinctively avoiding the obstacles he knew were there, ignoring the scratchy sounds of small feet and the pattering sounds of larger ones. He nudged the light switch with one shoulder and was rewarded by an amber glow as the lights came on. Arms and shoulders aching, he made his way to the small door at the end of the bar along the right wall. He pushed through and bent to set down the heavy jugs, groaning as he relieved himself of their weight. He straightned and glanced across the top of the bar to see one of the Möbius girls sidling to the bar from where she'd been sitting in the dark. His heart raced and his mouth went dry as she sprung easily to sit facing him, cross-legged atop the worn surface of the bar, casually twirling a nasty-looking stiletto between her fingers.
"Mornin' Jocko," the juve said.
It no longer registered with him that she didn't call him Gav--short for Gavriel, his family name. Jocko had been his father, and when Gav had taken over running the place he became 'Jocko' as well. Had he given it any thought, though, he would have admitted that it was better than his given name, which he had always hated.
"Pris," Gav replied, nodding. "What do you want?"
"What?" she pouted, lazily scratching a doodle on the bar top with her knife. "I can't just come by t'see my favorite 'tender?" She gazed at Gav with blue eyes as big as saucers and smiled that smile that Gav knew was probably the closest he would ever come to seeing the sun.
He began to perspire and loathed himself for the effect she had on him. For the way his body betrayed him. He knew all too well that she was manipulating him, but he couldn't help himself. The way she moved, the sound of her voice, the slight musky scent of her skin. The way her hair fell across one eye. Her presence was narcotic.
"Um. . ."
Pris laughed huskily, tossing her head and arching her back to raise her firm young breasts to Gav's eye level, where they strained against the thin fabric of her top. She was all artifice, this one, and her twin sister was just as bad. The two competed to outdo one another, counting coup, toying with and discarding the male population of Cascade at will.
"Oh Jocko," she sighed, turning and lying back to stretch melodramatically along the bar. "Too bad you're old enough to be my father or I'd take you right here."
"Yeah, right," Gav choked, wondering why she didn't just knife him while she was at it.
Giggling, the girl sat up again.
"I did come by for a reason," she said soberly. "Got a favor to ask."
Gav smiled wanly and wondered if this 'favor' was going to cost him any vital organs.
"Actually, it's for Exene," she said.
Gav shrugged. "Well?"
"Okay. Well, Exene's got some thing lined up for us, and she's supposed t'hook up with these Imperial bigshots tonight. Told 'em to come here." She rolled her eyes. "Anyways, these guys shouldn't be hard to spot. She says to tell you when they come lookin' for her tonight, you catch her eye and she'll scope 'em out."
"I knew we could count on ya," Pris beamed. Still holding the stiletto, she suddenly reached to lock her fingers behind Gav's neck, pulled him toward her, and slowly licked the side of his face, leaving a slick trail from neck to temple.
"Thanks!" she chirped, spinning around and hopping off the bar.
"Um. . ."
"Seeya t'night," Pris called, shooting Gav a smoldering look over her shoulder on her way out the front door.
"Sure," he replied, a full minute after she had gone. "Tonight."
Sliding to the floor next to the jugs of Second Best, he simultaneously broke one of his hard and fast rules and the seal on one of the jugs.
After all, it had been light for hours already.
* * *
Surprisingly, the directions to Jocko's turned out to be clear and accurate. For the most part, landmarks had appeared where they were supposed to be, and it was apparent that the Guilder's assistant had intentionally routed the guardsmen around the worst areas. There had been several encounters with panhandlers, and one brash young bravo had undoubtedly suffered a severe concussion after attempting to pick Wulf's pocket, but their passage to the place where they were to meet their guides had been mostly uneventful.
"Ye gods and martyrs," Osric snorted, standing just inside the doorway of Jocko's. "I thought my standards were low. How do people live like this?"
Commissar Cracken turned a critical eye on the long, narrow room. Weak amber-colored light was provided by bare elements mounted on the ceiling and would have been insufficient to illuminate the gaps in the worn plank flooring, except that the ceiling itself was oppressively low. The patrons were mostly men, though the occasional feminine giggle rose above the general drone of voices. Here and there, a better-dressed individual held a glass of amber liquid, but the drink of choice was colorless and slightly cloudy. Most stood or sat on mismatched stools around high tables, and there appeared to be some sort of gambling in progress near the back of the room. Along most of the left-hand wall stood the bar, crowded with those trying to catch the eye of a bartender or simply taking up space.
There was a subtle stir among the crowd as the three Imperials entered, but most were careful to avoid the appearance of overt interest.
"Yes... well, I expect we won't be staying long." Cracken nodded toward the bar. "I'll ask about our contact."
He strode to the crush of people surrounding the bar and worked his way through. From where they stood, Wulf and Osric could see him talking to one of the bartenders, who signaled to someone in the main room. After another brief exchange, he nodded and made his way back. "Apparently, we're expected but I imagine we'll be made to wait while we're given the once-over." He motioned toward a table that was unoccupied except by dirty glasses. "We might as well make ourselves comfortable."
A bored-looking woman carrying a tray of glasses filled with the colorless liquid stopped at their table. She removed three of the empties and replaced them with others from her tray. "That's 75 creds," she muttered.
While Cracken counted out the appropriate number of chits, Osric sniffed at his drink and made a face. "You were robbed, Sir. Smells like paint stripper."
Ignoring his own drink, Cracken replied, "I wouldn't doubt it a bit."
After a few minutes of watching the crowd, Wulf nudged the commissar. "Sir."
Both Cracken and Osric followed his gaze to a woman moving through the crowd with a stride that was equal measures swagger and calculated diversion. She wore a black knee-length duster, trimmed at the shoulders and lapels in some short wiry animal pelt, which only partially concealed studded chaps and a power sword swaying at her hip. Her raven mane was bound by metallic coils into several long tufts, forming a crest along the top of her head and cascading over her right shoulder. Her vibrant green eyes, heavily outlined in black and flashing with feral intensity, missed nothing as she approached, and her full, bruise-purple lips were set in a defiant pout.
Osric let out a low whistle. "Now that--"
"Cap it," snapped the commissar.
She walked straight to their table and stood over them, hands on hips. She cocked her head slightly and stared frankly at the Bloodcoats' namesake red jackets and white trousers, then at the commissar's black trench coat and wheel cap. "You know you guys stand out like 'Nags in a litcube seller's stall, right?" A wry quirk showed briefly at one corner of her generous mouth, and she stuck out her hand. "You Cracken?"
Cracken removed his hat and clasped the proffered hand in his own. The woman's grip was strong, her skin cool and dry. "Commissar Heironymous Cracken, 4th Danika, at your service. And you are?"
"At my service, huh?" She chuckled throatily and made a show of fluttering her lashes at the commissar.
When Cracken showed no reaction, the woman rolled her eyes.
"Exene Thrush, leader of Dystopia's Daughters. House Möbius." Before the commissar could protest, she reached out and ran her fingers across his hairless scalp. "Why, Commissar, you're bald as an egg," she cooed.
Cracken ignored the comment and gestured toward the two Bloodcoats. "These are guardsmen Wulf von den Loewen and Osric Fayrehope." Thrush acknowledged them with a nod.
"It's not just you, is it?" asked Osric, searching the room.
Exene bent to place her lips near the Bloodcoat's ear. "Do I look stupid to you?" she purred, her eyes narrowing. "We've been watching you since the moment you walked in."
Giving Osric's earlobe a nip, she helped herself to his drink and downed it in one gulp. She grimaced almost imperceptibly at the taste of the questionable beverage before returning her attention to the commissar. "So what do you say we leg it. You can meet the rest of my crue, pay me, and we can get down to it." Without looking to see if they had followed, she turned away from the three Danikans and strode toward the door.
The commissar replaced his hat and turned to
follow, but not before seeing Osric grin and
elbow Wulf. "Not a word," he warned the guardsman.
Exene Thrush's "crue" were all women, but of a provocatively lethal variety that even Osric could see could not to be taken lightly. Exene introduced them to the Imperials as Cold Ethyl, Sindi Sixx, Hard Candice, Naya, Black-eyed Susie, Bad Penny and twins Priscylla and Carybdis. Physically, the women varied in size and racial background--from the golden-skinned, sloe-eyed Susie to Penny, with her ebony complexion and pale aqua eyes--and all but the youngest bore battle scars. Their hair, whether worn close-cropped or long, was brightly dyed in a variety of shades and patterns, and the commissar took this to be an aspect of their group identity. Each of the women wore heavy leather leggings and all but a few wore carapace armor on their arms and chests, leaving their midriffs defiantly exposed to show off tattoos or mutilating jewelry. Only the twins and Naya wore no armor at all, possibly an indication of their status in the gang. The Daughters were armed with an eclectic mix of shotguns, pistols, knives, and swords--even an autogun--which they handled with easy familiarity.
After exchanging brief introductions, the Danikans followed their Möbius guides' lead, dividing the party into smaller groups and spreading out to lessen the risk of being surprised by attacks from vermin, human or otherwise. Running point were Sindi Sixx and her apprentice scout, the fiery juve called Naya. A short distance behind them, Bad Penny and Black-eyed Susie chatted easily while surveying the area with watchful eyes. The twins, Priscylla and Carybdis, had volunteered to pair off with Wulf, whose face showed the strain of fending off the young women's flirtatious advances. Commissar Cracken was escorted by Exene Thrush and Cold Ethyl. The latter, who seldom left Thrush's side and rarely spoke, had the flat gaze of a statue and so many facial piercings that she resembled a victim of ritual torture. Bringing up the rear were Osric and Hard Candice, a tall, lithely muscular woman with savage-looking facial and body tattoos.
In this fashion, the company made its way through the often treacherous, decaying landscape of the underhive. Through vigilance they averted any major mishaps, although Osric had a close call when an opportunistic face eater attacked his helmet and visor. Candice efficiently dispatched the vicious pest and the guardsman's only injury was to his pride. Finally, they entered the settlement of Arcadia and Naya jogged back to speak with Exene and the commissar. "Sindi says this's the one," she announced, pointing out a large abandoned-looking two-story building. "Mobweed's place."
Three large corrugated metal doors were set in the front wall of the building, each with a ramp that sloped from below the base of its frame up to the street. Another smaller door was located near a large patched-over area that once may have been a window. Long ago, the place had probably been the home of a manufacturing operation, or perhaps a warehouse, but no longer. The commissar knew that it was not the habit of the hive to husband its resources, and as its levels grew upward in search of more room and cleaner air such undesirable areas as this were abandoned to opportunistic scavengers.
He had seen neighborhoods left in better shape after an orbital barrage.
Exene Thrush appeared at his shoulder and followed his gaze. "Pretty swank digs," she observed without a trace of irony. "There's good cred in the pits, but Mobweed's real fortune comes from a couple salvage stakes he's got further downhive. That's how he can afford to keep this place."
"And this is where he keeps his fighters?"
"Yeah. Far as I know, he keeps all his slaves here. Diggers, cutters, packers... the works." She wrinkled her nose and tapped Cracken's gas mask. "If you'd take that wheezer off, you could smell 'em from here." Before heading downhive, she had assured the Imperials that today's air quality reports were "better than average" but all three of the Danikans wore purifier masks none the less.
A much younger Heironymous Cracken had once spent an agonising week in the infirmary, his lungs raw and filled with fluid as a consequence of his first experience with what passed for air in the lower levels of a hive. What adaptations allowed the native hivers to breathe this caustic soup, he could only guess, but he had ever since made sure that he and the men in his charge came prepared. "If it's all the same to you, I'll take your word for it."
"Whatever," Exene replied, shrugging. "So how are we gonna do this?"
"Come on, Commissar. You didn't really think we came all this way just to leave you boys with your stems waving in the breeze, did you? As much cred as the Guild's payin' us to see you make it back in one piece? Our rep would never recover!"
"Besides," she growled, running the tip of her tongue along the edges of her upper teeth, "the Daughters have their own business with Guilder Mobweed."
Cracken's eyes narrowed. "The 4th Danika is paying you. The Guild is paying you. Now it seems that you have some sort of personal agenda, as well. Precisely what am I to make of this?"
Exene shrugged. "Pretty standard political intrigue, really. I'm surprised you haven't figured it out. Mobweed's an embarrassment to the Guild, but they'll never publicly oppose another Guilder, even a sump sucker like him. The way I figure it, they already know that Mobweed's got your friend, and now that you know, they need to make sure you get him back. The last thing they want is a bunch of pissed off gene-freaks coming in and trashing Cascade. Am I right?"
"Go on," Cracken said.
"Okay... enter the Daughters. We need the cred, you need the muscle... everybody gets what they want."
"And just what do you want?" asked the commissar.
Exene did not immediately answer, her attention seeming to be momentarily absorbed in the small bit of metal she was nudging about with the toe of her boot. "Mobweed's got some of the Daughters, and we want them back," she said. She tilted her head and glanced at him from under her lashes. "Didn't figure you'd mind. You know, seein' as we're already in the neighborhood and all."
"So how are we gonna do this?" she repeated.
Several long moments later, Cracken came to a decision. "All right," he said. "Wulf, Osric and I, and you and Ethyl. We'll go in and find out whether this Barabbas even exists and then go from there."
"You've got to be kidding," Exene said, her expression one of open disbelief. "What about the rest of my crue?"
"They'll wait outside," he said.
She shook her head firmly. "Unacceptable. If we get in there and run into trouble, we're going to need the girls. You're in the underhive now, Commissar; normal rules don't apply. You go in prepared or you don't come out."
Cracken considered this and could see the sense of it, but it was the face of Hespas DuPontiae grinning his deceitful sham of a grin in his mind's eye that convinced him. "I see your point," he said, nodding. "On the other hand, I don't want to walk in surrounded by an army if there's any chance of getting what we want without a fight. Can the rest of the Daughters stay out of sight until they're needed?"
"It's what we do best," she said.
With a jerk of her head and a few hand gestures, Exene called the rest of her crue together and explained what was expected of them. The women accepted their orders with a nod here and there, and Cracken got the impression that they were probably as well trained, in their own way, as his own troops. Meanwhile, Wulf and Osric checked their equipment. They hadn't brought their plasma pistols with them to Lodi--it was supposed to be just a recruitment visit, after all--but they had their laspistols tucked inside their jackets, as well as the ever-present power swords. Both of the men wore flak armor and their helmets. Cracken himself was armed with a bolt pistol and sword, but he had the additional advantage of a conversion field to protect him if things got ugly.
Wulf made a half-hearted attempt to brush the filth from the vents off his pants, but they would never again be anything approaching white.
"Look at you. Just wait 'til your daddy gets home," Osric chided.
"Get stuffed," Wulf said without looking up. "Seems to me a guy with guts all over his helmet's got no place to talk."
"If you two have quite finished, may we proceed?" the commissar interrupted.
The two Bloodcoats snapped to attention and barked in unison, "Sir!" The twins, Scylla and Cary, giggled as they hovered near the men, but neither guardsman so much as batted an eye.
"Very well. At ease," the commissar said. "Let's get on with it, then."
"I'll have Ethyl check the door. She's our best at finding the sort of nasty things guys like Mobweed leave for unwelcome visitors." Then, catching Cracken's eye, she added, "Unless you're just dying to get your hands dirty."
The commissar nodded toward the smaller of the doors, and Cold Ethyl quickly set about her work. After a short time, she turned to her leader. "Nothing. It's clean."
"Okay, go," Cracken said to the Bloodcoats. Wulf stepped up to the door and quickly pushed it open wide enough to allow one person to pass through, the hinges protesting shrilly but briefly. Wulf slipped inside and disappeared from view. Moments later, Osric reported to the commissar what Wulf was transmitting on his helmet comm.
"Wulf says it looks like an old factory," Osric said. "Lots of junk lying around... partially stripped machinery... looks like some piles of salvage." A pause. "He can't see anybody, but there are voices toward two o'clock. Sounds like somebody's having a good time, he says."
"All right," Cracken said. "Let's go see."
One by one, they squeezed through the doorway to stand in a broad aisle leading left and right. Except for Exene and Ethyl, the Daughters quickly melted into the shadows and were gone from view. Following the sounds of the voices Wulf had described, the commissar's group their way until they came to a small building within the larger one. Light streamed from an open doorway and struggled weakly against one filthy window set in an adjoining wall. The five of them quietly approached the doorway and looked inside. Seated on crates around a large empty cable spool were three greasy-looking men playing cards. Judging from the credit chits piled in the center of the table and the contentious tone of their conversation, they were wagering as well.
The commissar tapped Osric on the shoulder and gestured with a lift of his chin toward the door. Nodding, the guardsman drew his laspistol and stepped silently through the doorway and to the left. Wulf followed suit and stood to the right. Drawing his own bolt pistol, Cracken preceded the Daughters into the room.
He loosened his filter mask and let it hang loose across his chest. "Good evening, gentlemen," he said, raising his voice to be heard over the bickering of the three card players. Startled, the man farthest from the door tipped over his crate and fell heavily to the floor, but another quickly turned and reached below the makeshift table.
"That," Cracken said, waggling a finger at the latter, "would be an exceedingly poor decision." The fellow froze and laid his hands flat on the table. Wulf stepped up to relieve him of the shotgun leaning against the table, keeping an eye on the first man as he struggled awkwardly to his feet, rubbing his head and smearing blood across his shaven scalp.
The third man had not budged during all this. He had simply laid down his cards when he'd seen the Imperials and now sat shaking his head, cursing softly. He turned his head and fixed the commissar with one bloodshot eye, the other dead and milky. "What is it, then?"
Cracken moved to stand near the table. "What is your name?" he asked.
The one-eyed man looked from the commissar to the Bloodcoats, and back. "Mosel," he replied warily. "Detmer Mosel. Me an' the boys here, we look after the place for Guilder Mobweed. Feed the workers an' suchlike."
"Workers," Cracken repeated evenly. "Indeed. Well, Detmer Mosel, you may call me 'Commissar'. I require your assistance in the service of the Emperor. I'm sure you must be curious about what that means, but let me first assure you that our visit has nothing to do with you or your companions personally." He paused for a moment to let this sink in, and Mosel relaxed perceptibly. "Unless I don't receive your full cooperation, of course."
Mosel nodded and turned to the other two men, who glanced at one another and then acquiesced. "Sure... okay. Not like we've got much choice is it."
"Very little," Cracken agreed. "Now then, what I require is that you take us to where you're keeping a pit fighter called Barabbas the Butcher."
Mosel's jaw dropped. "Oh no... not Barabbas. Please. When Mobweed was to find out, we'd be dead men."
Cracken raised his pistol and pressed its barrel into the socket of the man's good eye. "Guilder Mobweed is not your most pressing concern, Detmer. Do I make myself clear?"
The one-eyed man swallowed noisily. "Y-yes, Commissar."
"Much better," Cracken said, smiling darkly. "Let's be on our way, then. Shall we?"
"Yeah... yeah. I need to get a couple things first. Okay?"
The commissar nodded, and Mosel stood up from the table. He walked to the back wall of the office, into which were built half a dozen rows of pigeonholes. After a few moments of poking about, he came up with a small black box and a ring of keys.
"What's that?" Exene asked, pointing to the box.
"Detonator," Mosel said, seeming to notice the Möbius leader for the first time.
"A detonator for what?" Cracken asked.
"Explosive collar," Mosel said, glancing briefly back to Exene. "See, most slaves you can just lock up, but not Barabbas. With that saw he's got, he'd cut out of a normal cage in no time, and he's so big and fast there'd be nothing we could do to stop him. The collar keeps him in line."
"Give me the box," Cracken demanded, his hand outstretched to accept the device.
Mosel complied, and the man who had gone for his shotgun protested. "You can't, Mo! He'll kill us all!"
"Shut up, Lehri."
"I SAID SHUT UP!!" Mosel shouted. "Don't you get it? We don't have a choice!"
Lehri glared at the one-eyed man and then glanced at the spool table and grinned. "Have it your way, asshole. I was losing anyway."
"Enough," the commissar said, intervening. "Take us to Barabbas."
Mosel nodded, took a pair of oversized goggles from a peg on the wall, and walked toward the doorway. "Whenever you're ready."
Mosel led the way through a maze of old machinery, piles of salvage, and general trash with until they came to a deep pit cut into the floor. The edges of the pit were straight and square, neatly formed in the concrete, and thick foot-long bolts protruded at even intervals around the edge. Cracken concluded that there had probably been some sort of large hydraulic press set into the pit, at one time, but nothing of that sort remained. Dangling from the darkness above was a heavy chain with a hook on the end. Alongside it was a rectangular box with several buttons, attached to the end of a thick black cable. Mosel pressed a button on the box, and the chain moved over the pit. He pressed another button, and the hook disappeared into the darkness below, the chain following it until there was the metallic jingling of the chain touching bottom.
"Hey Babs," Mosel shouted into the pit. "Hook up. Your public awaits."
After a short time, the chain whipped back and forth several times. "Okay, here he comes," Mosel said. He paused for a moment to put on the goggles he'd brought and turned to Commissar Cracken. "Make sure you've got that detonator ready."
"What's with the glasses?" Osric asked.
Mosel turned and glared at the Bloodcoat. "Tell you what: let that evil bastard spit in your eye, then get back to me if it still needs explainin'."
He pressed another button on the control box and the chain began to emerge from the pit, bringing with it the hulking form of Barabbas the Butcher. If Mosel had seemed edgy before, he was terrified now. As he guided the dangling pit fighter out of the pit and lowered him to the concrete, he pulled on the control box leaving not an inch of slack in the cable. "He's all yours now. Emperor save you."
Barabbas casually unhooked from the chain. He did not speak, did not move, but his eyes burned from within his scarred face.
Commissar Cracken met the fighter's gaze. There was desperation in it, the mad cunning of a caged animal, and yet... pride. He'd seen that look before. Despite the obscene chunk of metal that replaced the man's lower jaw, despite the toothsome abomination that served as his right arm, there was a look in the man's eyes that Cracken had seen nowhere but in the eyes of the Astartes. And, if there were any doubt, Barabbas still wore the black carapace with which all Astartes were bonded.
Cautiously, Cracken approached the captive marine. "I'm Commissar Heironymous Cracken," he began. "4th Danika Guard. I've come to take you back to your chapter."
"Oh... I don't think so," came a voice from the darkness. The voice was followed closely by an ugly little man clothed in red velvet and rat fur, and roughly a dozen pale-skinned, blonde men carrying guns. "You see, Barabbas is my property--Guild property—and there isn't a thing you can do about it."
"Ah," the commissar grinned wolfishly. "Guilder Mobweed, I presume?"
The guilder stood with his hired guns near the stack of crates that had concealed their entrance. "Yeah, that's right... and you're trespassin'."
"Remand Barabbas into my custody, and we'll leave," Commissar Cracken said.
"Hey Pug," Mobweed called over his shoulder.
The ganger who stepped forward bore the fine features and white-blonde hair that were traits of House Phebis, but it was the flattened wreck of a nose that was his obvious namesake. The shotgun he carried dangled loosely in one hand, but his eyes were quick and bright. "Whatsit?"
"Der Kommissar wants me to give up my primo fighter. Know what I think of that idea?" Pug shook his head. "Well, I think..." Mobweed began, then screwed up his face, cocked one leg, and farted loudly. Pug and several of the other gangers snickered.
Cracken waited until they had finished. "Let me be certain that I understand your answer," he said evenly, "because your future hangs on it. You admit that you keep an Adept of the Astartes among your stable of slaves, and yet you refuse the opportunity to seek the Emperor's grace by releasing him into my custody? You do realise that this man's brothers would reduce this hive to a smoking hole, were they to learn of this."
The Guilder hawked, spat, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "That's what I think of them genetic freaks. They're not so tough. Hell... they been workin' our stakes ever since my granddad caught 'em, and they haven't broke free and killed us in our beds yet! Why's that, do you suppose? Eh? Because they can't, is why." The little man was practically vibrating now, and his eyes bugged. "Just who in the name of the Emperor's crumbling carcass do you think you are to think you can come here with them hoo'ers and try to tell me what to do? Huh? I'm Uriah Mobweed--Guilder Mobweed--and I could give a bucket of sump what you Imperials think. So what do you think of that?"
In the sudden silence, Cracken heard a whisper, like the sound of a razor through flesh, and held up a hand to stop Ethyl before her blade cleared its sheath. Something else had caught his attention. "You said 'they'. There are others besides Barabbas?"
"You heard me plain enough," Mobweed sneered. "Four of 'em. My property." The ugly little man fiddled with the symbol of his office, a large medallion dangling from his neck by a thick titanium chain. Sticking out his bony chest and glaring at the commissar down a hooked beak of a nose, he carefully enunciated each word. "Property of a member, in good standing, of the Cascade City Merchant Guild. That means it is not within your rights to demand their release."
One of the Guilder's toadies giggled nervously and the commissar nodded, a grim smile tightening the corners of his mouth. "Perhaps not." His expression hardened then, eyes locking with Mobweed's. "But know that I will have them, none the less."
Mobweed's jaw worked convulsively and his face reddened. "Pug kill these f--" he began through gritted teeth. His command was cut short by a banshee's screech, as the Möbius juve, Naya, hurled herself at the Phebis ganger from atop the stack of crates where she had been hiding.
As so often happened in combat situations, the commissar's perception accelerated beyond his body's ability to react, so he could only watch as Pug wheeled toward the sound of Naya's war cry and fired from the hip. The shotgun blast cut her nearly in half, her body dropping in a sodden heap at the Phebis ganger's feet. She was dead almost before her killer dropped his weapon, eyes wide and bewildered, hands scrabbling at his throat where Ethyl's hurled blade was buried to the haft.
Mobweed was screaming something as he ran in slow motion toward the shadows. Caught off-balance, some of the Phebans fumbled with their weapons as others sought cover. The Bloodcoats' power swords crackled to life as they drew and charged those who hesitated, Wulf in silence and Osric with a blood-chilling whoop. Exene smoothly vaulted a pile of scrap and waded into the pack of Phebans with her own power sword. With her back to the Bloodcoats, she completed a triangle of misery that the Phebans could not breach. Cracken laid down covering fire for the Bloodcoats with his bolt pistol, and his conversion field flared, dissipating several rounds of autogun fire and dazzling the shooter. Taking advantage, he dashed across the open area toward where he'd last seen Mobweed. He quick-peeked around the edge of a metal shipping tub and ran in a crouch between rows of stacked crates. Stopping to listen, he could hear that the fighting had spread out from the area around the slave pit and guessed that the Phebans had encountered the rest of the Daughters.
Cracken was working his way along the aisle when he was jumped from above, the impact knocking the bolt pistol out of his hand. Brandishing a length of broken pipe and grinning at him past mossy teeth stood Lehri, the slave keeper.
"Oh I was hopin' to catch up with you, mister commissar." He feinted with the jagged club toward Cracken's throat, cackling to himself. "Guess you ain't so much without you got that--" he took a vicious swipe at the commissar's ribs "--big gun to shove in a fella's face."
Cracken didn't respond, never taking his eyes off his attacker. The man was no fighter, his movements clumsy and slow, but the time it would take to draw his own sword might leave an opening that could prove disastrous. Instead, he telegraphed a move away from the club, ducked under and inside the anticipated overpowered swing, and spun, driving the bony spur of his elbow upward and crushing the man's larynx. Lehri dropped as if he'd been poleaxed and lay choking with the futile effort to draw breath through his ruined windpipe.
"A wise man would have left well enough alone," Cracken said. He felt something poke him hard between the shoulder blades and dropped to a crouch, sweeping a leg behind him. Skipping just out of reach, the guilder stood pointing a plasma pistol at the commissar's head.
"Maybe you oughta listen to your own advice," Mobweed said, smirking. "Filthy Imperials. You're all the same, with your tanks and your warp ships and your fancy uniforms. Think you can just show up and do what ever you want."
"It's not a matter of what I want. Those men were never yours to give," the commissar replied, stalling. He could see one of the Möbius women silently stealing up on Mobweed from behind. "Goodbye, Guilder Mobweed."
The question that briefly appeared in the guilder's eyes turned to alarm as Hard Candice placed the barrel of her autopistol against his left temple and squeezed the trigger. The opposite side of the man's face warped like hot wax as skull and brain exploded from beneath it to coat several square yards of an adjacent crate. Even as the corpse's knees buckled, its finger clenched spasmodically on the trigger of the plasma pistol, and Cracken threw himself to the ground to avoid being blown apart by the rapid-fire stream of deadly plasma that tore chunks from support beams and vaporised packing crates. Finally, the weapon had exhausted its charge and fell silent, leaving the air smelling of hot metal and the guilder's singed flesh.
"Thanks," Cracken said to the tattooed woman, getting to his feet.
"You'd have done the same, yeah?"
"Yes," he said. "I would."
She acknowledged with terse nod. "Flush."
"Listen," Cracken said. The shooting had stopped. He jerked his head for Candice to follow, and the two of them made their way quickly back to the pit. At first, it was hard to make out who was still standing, because of all the smoke. Then he saw the red coats and knew that the Phebans had been defeated. As he approached his men, he could see that Osric was bleeding from one leg and was being supported by Wulf.
Osric attempted a grin for his commissar. "You ought to see the other guy, Sir."
"I can well imagine," Cracken replied. He glanced around at the fallen Phebis gangers and to several of the Möbius women who were tending to their sisters' wounds. "And the rest?"
"We lost a couple of the girls," Wulf said. "Naya and Penny. Ethyl's shot up and might not make it. A couple gunshot wounds and some minor stuff. There were more of Mobweed's guys, but Exene's people took care of them. The rest ran off when he stepped in," he said jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
Cracken followed the motion with his gaze. In his concern for the Bloodcoats, he had not thought to look for the marine, but there he stood by the edge of the pit, gore dripping from his chainsaw forearm, motionless, like a golem awaiting command.
"What about Thrush?" Cracken asked.
"Indestructible," Exene interrupted, materialising from the shadows. Like the others, she was blood-spattered and grimy, and half her face was caked in blood from a scalp wound, but she appeared to be unscathed, otherwise. "Mobweed?"
The commissar glanced at Candice, but she volunteered nothing. "Quite dead," he said.
Exene chewed her lip as she considered the news.
Cracken watched her expression, puzzled by her uncharacteristic reticence. "I should have thought you'd be pleased."
"Well, yeah," she said. "Serves the little bastard. But... when the Guild finds out, the Daughters'll be outlawed for sure."
The commissar was about to ask what she meant but was interrupted by a weak cry from the direction of the pit. Lying at Barabbas' feet was Mosel, the one-eyed slave keeper. Cracken had originally passed him over for dead, but he could see now that the man was impaled on one of the long bolts that lined the edge of the pit that had been the marine's cell. The blood bubbling from his mouth as he struggled was bright red, a sure sign that the bolt had punctured a lung.
"Please... help me," the wounded keeper begged.
Barabbas stared at his former tormenter for a long moment, as some internal conflict was being resolved. Finally, the verdict was decided and as the chain saw spooled up to a piercing whine, the condemned knew his sentence.
"No!! Pleee--!!" Mosel shrieked, his voice rising to join in a bone-chilling duet as the marine plunged the keening saw into his guts and twisted. When the saw's teeth finally ground to a halt on the concrete beneath the keeper's spine, his remaining eye stared sightlessly into eternity, and only stunned silence remained.
"Non misericordia, sola Iustitia est," intoned the former slave.
There is no mercy, only Justice.
Commissar Cracken stood with his hands clasped behind his back and gazed out at the surreal spectacle of Lodi's sun setting over the fluid surface of the planet's dense layer of smog. From below this layer all was sooty darkness, but viewed from above, it had a hypnotic fairy-tale quality that was most compelling. The temporary quarters provided him by Governor Zeta did not, in fact, have a true window, located as they were deep within the lower levels of the spire. Still, the illusion provided by the large closed-circuit monitor was convincing and did much to alleviate his sense of being buried alive during the past few weeks he had spent stranded in Cascade.
He was gently shaken from his reverie by the soft chime of the room's door attendant. "You have a visitor," came its mellow alto voice. The synthesis was quite convincing, and he had at first answered the thing, thinking there was a person on the other end. He knew better, now, and waited for the rest of the announcement. "The visitor identifies himself as Hespas DuPontiae and has requested entry," the attendant continued. "The nature of the visit: Personal."
"I'll just bet," Cracken muttered.
"Please respond, 'granted' or 'denied'," the attendant prompted pleasantly.
The commissar paused to smooth his uniform before answering. "Granted."
There were several smooth clicks as locks released, and the door slid open to reveal DuPontiae's beaming face. "Ah Commissar Cracken," the guilder said, seizing the commissar's hand in his own. "How good it is to see you returned safely from your adventures in the darker recesses of our great city!" He pushed his plump lips into a pout, then, and leaned away, examining Cracken as he might a long-absent relative. "I am wounded, knowing that so much has transpired and you have not come to regale me with tales. Why, my knowledge has been limited to such dry scraps of gossip as I have been able to acquire from the street!"
"Has it indeed."
"Yes," DuPontiae said expansively, shouldering into the compact room and helping himself to one of its two padded chairs. "Come. We have much to discuss!"
Cracken took a deep breath and released it slowly before turning to face the insinuating guilder. "Would you like something to drink? I have a bit of brandy"
"Oh no. You're very kind to offer, though." DuPontiae leaned to pat the seat of the empty chair. Now tell me. How are our célébrités de l'heure? Resting comfortably after their long ordeal, I trust. I understand that there turned out to be four of them?"
"Yes, four of them," Cracken said, disregarding the guilder's invitation to sit. "Ten, originally, all part of the same squad from the Cleansing Flames chapter. As I understand it, they were deploying for a military action that took place on Lodi over two decades ago. For reasons of their own, they have staunchly refused to discuss the specific details of their mission. However, it seems that their drop pod malfunctioned, crashing and killing members of the squad. The survivors were found and sold to the Mobweed family."
DuPontiae clucked and shook his head at the horror of it all. "Twenty-eight years of slavery, all over a misunderstanding. Those poor men. And poor Guilder Mobweed. Well" he said, spreading his upturned palms as if to canonise his deceased associate. "Such an unfortunate turn of events. His murderers must be dealt with, of course."
"Meaning what, precisely?" Cracken asked. "That I have some obligation to tell you where to find Dystopia's Daughters?"
"'Poor Mobweed' spent his dying breath trying to blow my head off, so perhaps you can appreciate that I don't share your fondness for his memory. He and his thugs knew exactly where to find my men and me, and when. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that someone in the Merchant Guild tipped him off."
DuPontiae's oily façade fell away like the skin of a molting reptile. "That's a very dangerous accusation, Commissar. That a member of the Merchant Guild should be implicated in anything of the sort is distasteful, and with you and your men so soon to return to your ship... well, it would be most unfortunate if there were some sort of accident."
Cracken considered this for a moment, stroking his upper lip with an index finger. Then he pulled the empty seat around to face the guilder's and sat on the edge so that their faces were separated by mere inches. "Let me explain the facts of your continued existence, DuPontiae."
"The fact that Uriah Mobweed is dead will probably be enough to dissuade the Cleansing Flames from descending on your precious Guild like a plague of locusts. However," he said, his voice low and menacing, "should anything happen to me or my men, I can guarantee with the certainty of the Emperor's grace that Colonel Senekal will drop so many troops and mechanised units on this hive that even should you and other vermin like you find a rock to hide under, there will be nothing of your empire left to exploit when you resurface.
"Further, I will be filing a report with my superiors upon my return. How much or how little of your involvement is reflected in that report will depend entirely upon how successful you are in convincing me that Dystopia's Daughters will remain unmolested by the Guild." Cracken leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingertips beneath his chin. "If you believe nothing else I tell you, know that even dead I can make the remaining portion of your life most unpleasant."
"Do we understand one another?"
Fury, despair, and desperation were only a few of the emotions struggling for control of the guilder's features and voice, but he remained silent and simply nodded.
"Very well," Cracken said. He rose, straightening his uniform, and gestured toward the door. "I believe you were just going."
The stunned guilder slowly stood and moved toward the door, as if sleepwalking. He turned to Cracken as if to say something, but then just shook his head.
"Good evening, Hespas DuPontiae," the automated door said, sensing the guilder's approach. The door slid open, then closed behind him.
Heironymous Cracken stared at the closed door,
pensively running a hand across his smooth scalp. After a few
moments, he turned and crossed the room to the wall monitor
where he stood with his hands clasped behind his back and watched
the last of the day's light disappear below the horizon.
The copyrights of many concepts in this story are held by Games Workshop - all original material is copyright © 1998 by Michael Schwitzgebel.
The following inventions of Mike Major are included with his kind permission: Heironymous Cracken, Arcturan Senekal, Wulf von den Loewen, Osric Fayrehope, Bloodcoats, and 4th Danika.