For three more days, the defenders of Olzetyn endured punishing attacks against their lines, tau missiles falling like rain on their fortified positions and gradually breaking up the defences. After the first attacks had been beaten back, the alien commander quashed thoughts of rash heroics, and every assault was planned with a thoroughness that would have made Roboute Guilliman proud.
The front lines of battle became a meat grinder where men and machines were chewed up in the constant storm of fighting. 'Stratum, once the jewel in the Administratum's bureaucracy, was now little more than a shelled ruin. The dwelling places of the adepts were flattened by tau missiles, and the debris hauled to the front line to build barricades. On the third day of the fighting, the Tower of Adepts was brought down, the austere structure collapsing into the gorge, taking with it thousands of years worth of tax and work records.
Perversely, its destruction gave rise to a huge cheer from the ranks of the defenders, proving that even faced with alien invasion, there were few more hated individuals than those who levied taxes.
The tau continued to attack along the length of the defences, but the twin bastions protecting the end of the Imperator remained impervious. For all that the tau continued to send tanks and missiles against the bastions, the main thrusts were intended to take the Diacrian Bridge. It was clearly the weak point in the western defence, and drew the lion's share of tau attention.
By such logic are battles won, but what an attacker can reason, a defender can anticipate.
Tau aircraft attempted a bombing run along the length of the Imperator Bridge, but Uriel had foreseen such a manoeuvre, and staggered lines of interceptor guns blew them from the sky with their payloads undelivered.
A massed cadre of battlesuits launched an aerial drop on the Midden to seize the rear defences of the Diacrian Bridge and open the flank of the Imperator. Five hundred tau warriors armed with the latest and deadliest weapons their armourers could provide dropped from the night skies amid the reeking shanties of the Midden, only to find seven squads of the 4th Company waiting for them. Supported by Land Raiders and Thunderfires, the Ultramarines turned the landing zone into a killing ground. Lavrentian heavy mortars pinned the survivors in place while Imperial forces withdrew to allow the massed squadrons of Basilisks on the eastern banks of the river to fire.
As though a thunderstorm had been plucked from the heavens and dropped on the Midden, the Spur promontory vanished in a firestorm of such epic proportions that when the sun rose, it was as if the conurbation had never existed. Few bemoaned its demise, for it had long been evacuated and its cramped, over-populated streets had been rife with disease, poverty and crime.
Colonel Loic was proving to be a more than capable soldier, a man who fought with the heart of a warrior and the mind of a scholar. Even the battle-hardened soldiers of the 44th, men to whom the PDF were little more than dangerous amateurs, came to regard the stocky commander as a true comrade-in-arms.
The tau were having the worst of the battle, but each day saw the Imperial lines forced back towards the bridges. Casualties on both sides were horrific, with thousands wounded and hundreds dying every day. Neither force could break the other, yet neither could afford to pull back from the relentless killing. Both defenders and attackers were fighting bravely, but Uriel knew the outcome of the tau attack was as inescapable as it was inevitable.
The defences of Olzetyn were holding, but the defenders were at breaking point.
It would take only the tiniest reversal for the balance of the war to change.
Uriel wiped a hand across his forehead, smearing the blood he hadn't had time to clean from his face. He saw Chaplain Clausel looking at him and shook his head.
'It is not mine,' Uriel said, marching through the controlled anarchy of the Imperator Bridge. Damaged tanks were drawn up to either side of the street, Lavrentian and PDF enginseers working side by side to get them operational again. Supply clerks and lifter servitors thronged the thoroughfare, ferrying ammunition, food and water to the troops fighting to defend the bridges.
'I know,' replied the Chaplain, moving aside to allow a flatbed truck laden with Guard-stamped crates to pass. 'The colour is too dark. Where did it come from?'
Uriel thought back to the last attack on the rapidly shrinking defence lines, sorting through the strobing images of killing filed in his memory, the stuff of nightmares yet to come.
'I am not sure,' he said. 'Maybe the Guardsman whose head exploded next to me during the last assault on the trenches thrown out before the Diacrian Bridge? Or maybe the Fire Warrior I gutted when he leapt from a crippled Devilfish?'
Clausel nodded in understanding. 'Battles like this blur together into one seamless horror of blood and killing. It is war at its most brutal and mechanical, where the skill of a warrior counts for less than where he happens to be standing when a missile impacts.'
'I am bred for battle, Chaplain,' said Uriel. 'My every muscle, fibre and organ was crafted by the Master of Mankind for the express purpose of waging the most brutal war imaginable, yet this unrelenting, daily carnage is alien to me. We should not be here, yet we cannot abandon the men giving their lives to defend this place.'
'Look to the Codex Astartes and you will find your answer,' advised Clausel. 'We Astartes excel at the lightning strike, the dagger thrust to the heart and the decisive, battle-winning stratagem, not this prolonged, static slaughter. For us to leave Olzetyn will almost surely mean its fall, yet might we not be better employed elsewhere?'
'We must be able to do something that will serve this war better, but I do not yet know what it is,' said Uriel. 'All I know is that it sits ill with me to stay and die here, where a hero's life can be ended by something arbitrary. It is anathema to me.'
'Indeed,' agreed Clausel. 'Every Space Marine hopes for an honourable death in battle, one the Chapter's taletellers will speak of for centuries to come. To face death holds no fear for us, but to meet it without honour is something to be dreaded.'
'Then what do you suggest?'
'It is for you to say how we fight, not I,' said Clausel, 'but I suspect you already have a plan in mind, do you not?'
Uriel nodded. 'The beginnings of one, but our allies will not like it.'
'Their likes or dislikes are immaterial to us,' said Clausel. 'You are a captain of the Ultramarines, and the decision of how best to defend Olzetyn and Pavonis is yours to make.'
'I know,' said Uriel.
Uriel and Clausel emerged into the widest section of the Imperator Bridge, which currently served as the triage station for the Imperial wounded. Uriel could never get used to the scale of the bloodshed endured by the Imperial Guard. Row upon row of body bags covered in long tarpaulins awaited removal, and long pavilion tents were filled with screaming men and overworked medicae as they tried to keep the number of dead from growing even larger.
In the aftermath of battle, Space Marine dead could normally be counted on one hand, but the dead of the Guard ran to thousands. It was a scale of slaughter that horrified Uriel, and served, once again, to remind him of the mortal soldier's courage and the honour he earned just by standing before the enemy with a gun in his hand.
Colonel Loic and Captain Gerber were already here, and the two Astartes warriors marched towards them as they conferred over a series of makeshift maps chalked on the side of a ruined structure.
The two soldiers turned at the sound of their armoured steps, and Uriel was struck by how much they had changed in the last few days. He and Clausel were still functioning at the peak of their abilities, but for mortals the strain of battle was all too evident. Both men were exhausted and had slept little since the fighting began. Loic had shed weight, and looked like a solider now, not like an adept playing at being a soldier.
Uriel had only met Gerber briefly before the first attack, but the man's no-nonsense attitude and charismatic leadership had impressed him. Both officers had served their men faithfully, and Uriel was proud to have led them in battle.
'Uriel, Chaplain Clausel,' said Loic by way of a greeting, 'good to see you again.'
Uriel acknowledged the greeting with a short bow and turned to Captain Gerber. 'Any news from the other Commands?'
Gerber nodded, absentmindedly rubbing a fresh scar on his neck. 'Yeah, but they're patchy and hours old, so who knows how up to date they are. Captain Luzaine reports that Banner Command have Jotusburg under control, and that his forces are ready to ride out.'
'Excellent,' said Uriel, glad to hear some good news, 'and Magos Vaal? She claimed the supplies of weapons and ammunition would be flowing in three days, and that time has already passed.'
Loic looked uncomfortable and shrugged. 'She says they're still not ready,' he said, 'something about the machine-spirits of the forge hangars being difficult or being interfered with by some heretical tau wizardry, I'm not sure.'
'We need their ammunition and we need it now!' snapped Uriel. He took a deep breath to calm his rising anger. 'Does Vaal not realise that if she fails to get those supplies to us we may lose this world?'
'I rather think the Adeptus Mechanicus see that as secondary to offending the machine-spirits. Rest assured, Uriel, I have expressed our need in the most strenuous language.'
'Tell me of Sword Command,' said Uriel, nodding towards the maps. 'Tell me that Lord Winterbourne fares better than we do.'
Gerber pointed with the tip of his sword to one of the maps and said, 'Lord Winterbourne and Sword Command are currently engaged in the Owsen Hills. The tau have been halted for now, but they're pushing hard for a breakthrough.'
'Learchus took a great risk in breaking vox-silence behind enemy lines,' said Uriel.
'Good thing he did. His warning came just in time,' said Gerber. 'Thanks to him, our flanks are safe for the moment.'
'That's something at least,' said Uriel, looking at the map of Olzetyn the two men had been studying. 'Now to the matter of our own situation.'
'Of course, Captain Gerber and I have come up with a plan we believe is workable.'
'Tell me,' said Uriel.
'Of course,' said Loic. 'We believe that if we re-task men from the Imperator bastions, we can hold the Diacrian Bridge for at least another week.'
'It's possible,' allowed Uriel. 'Then what?'
'Then we think of some other way to stymie them,' put in Gerber. 'Do you have a better idea?'
Uriel decided there was no point in wasting breath and time with pointless softening of the blow, and said, 'We will not be re-tasking anyone from the Imperator bastions. The bastions will be reinforced and every other bridge will be destroyed. If we try and hold the southern bridge we will fail and the flank of the Imperator will be turned. The tau know the other bridges are the key to the defence of Olzetyn. Truth be told, we should have destroyed them as soon as the fighting started.'
'Destroy the bridges?' said Loic. 'But they have stood for centuries. We can't!'
'The decision has already been made, colonel,' said Uriel. 'I am not here to debate the point, merely to inform you of your new orders. We cannot continue fighting like this. We need this to happen now or we are lost.'
'But with the extra week we could buy, who knows what might happen,' protested Loic.
'The Ultramarines do not make war on the basis of what might happen,' said Clausel. 'Only on what will happen. If we continue this fight as it is, we will lose, and that is not acceptable.'
'Of course not,' said Loic, 'but there must be another way!'
'There is not,' said Uriel in a tone that brooked no disagreement.
Gerber glanced at the map chalked on the wall, and nodded. 'Honour has been satisfied, Adren, and we have shed enough blood for this city. The time to make the hard choice is here and we cannot be afraid to follow it through.'
Loic saw that he had no allies in his attempt to prevent the destruction of the bridges, and Uriel saw the resignation in his eyes.
'Very well,' said Loic. 'You're right, of course, it's just hard seeing great landmarks of your homeworld destroyed in order to save it.'
'We are like the surgeon who amputates an arm to save his patient,' said Clausel.
'I understand that,' said Loic, 'I just worry what will be left of any worth on Pavonis if we destroy it all to defeat the tau.'
Loic's words were like a light of revelation in Uriel's mind, and a plan that had been nothing more than half-formed ideas in his mind suddenly crystallised.
'What?' asked Loic, sensing that he had said something important.
'I know how we can win this war,' said Uriel.
The chase was over.
Hot bolts of pulsing energy stitched a path towards Learchus, and he hurled himself behind a boulder as the two remaining scout skimmers streaked past and arced around on another strafing run. He rolled, and slammed his back against the boulder, bringing his bolter to bear in case the opportunity for a snap shot presented itself.
It had been a risk, sending the vox-signal bearing news of the tau flanking move, and Learchus only hoped that Uriel had made use of the information. Xenos electronic surveillance equipment had clearly detected their brief transmission, and criss-crossing teams of scout skimmers gradually tightened the net on Learchus, Issam and the scouts.
Their pursuers knew there was prey nearby, and had swiftly cut off all avenues of escape, hounding them towards the very edge of the coast. With Praxedes achingly close, it was galling to have to forsake their mission, but the time for stealth was over.
It was time to fight.
They had waited in ambush for their pursuers, and downed one of the skimmers with their first volley of bolter-fire. A second was blown from the air by a lethally accurate missile from Parmian's launcher. The remaining skimmers broke left and right, streaking up and around at amazing speed. They dived back down, pulsing energy weapons ripping through the scouts' position before they could find fresh cover.
Two of Issam's scouts were killed instantly. One died as his head vaporised in a superheated mist of blood and brains when the white heat of the skimmer's fire caught him full in the face. The second was cut in half at the waist by a rapid series of shots that sawed through his torso. Parmian took a hit on the shoulder, and cradled his mangled arm as he took shelter in a cleft in the rocks. Twisted molten metal was all that remained of the missile launcher, and now the last two skimmers dived back down to finish the kill.
'Why only two teams?' wondered Learchus as he watched them separate. An answer presented itself a second later. The tau obviously thought the transmission had come from a spotter team in their rear echelons, two or three men at most, and certainly nothing that required the attention of more than a handful of scout skimmers. Not for a moment had they suspected that the enemy in their midst was far more dangerous than that.
Once again, the tau had underestimated their foes, and they would pay for that mistake.
Behind Learchus, the ocean spread out like a dark mirror, while, to his right, the rocky landscape fell away in a series of graben-like shelves for three kilometres towards the ancient crater in which lay the port city of Praxedes. Learchus heard more shots and saw Sergeant Issam running for cover, firing from the hip as he went. He had no time to aim, and the scout skimmers were moving too fast for such hasty shots.
'Issam! Down!' shouted Learchus.
The Scout-sergeant dived to the side and darted between two tumbled columns of bleached rock as the second of the two skimmers streaked over his place of concealment. They were nimble vehicles, dart-shaped with what looked like a curving roll bar running from the engine nacelles at their prows to their tapered rears. Two tau warriors sat in the cockpit, only their shoulders and heads visible.
Learchus watched the first skimmer's velocity bleed off as it arced up on its turn, and dropped to one knee. He pulled his bolter in tight and sighted along the length of the weapon. A boltgun was no one's idea of a sniper weapon, but a Space Marine made do with whatever armaments were at his disposal. He let out a breath, and waited until the skimmer was at the apex of its turn, its speed greatly reduced.
He pulled the trigger, feeling the enormous kick of the weapon. The mass reactive projectile streaked through the air, its tiny rocket motor igniting as soon as it left the barrel. The shot was true, and no sooner had Learchus fired than he was running towards his target.
The pilot's head exploded as the bolt-round punched through his helmet and detonated within his skull. The skimmer dropped to the ground with a thump of metal on rock, and the co-pilot struggled to release his restraints as he saw Learchus bearing down on him.
A burst of blue bolts streaking past his head told Learchus that the last skimmer had seen him. He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw it arcing towards him. Stuttering blasts of gunfire fizzed through the air, and one struck him low on the hip. Learchus staggered, feeling the heat of the impact burning his skin, but kept running. 'Cover fire!' he yelled.
Issam broke from behind the fallen columns of rock and unleashed a hail of shots at the approaching skimmer. It broke off its attack run and heeled over as it pulled away from the lethal volley. The tightness of the turn bled speed, and the wounded Parmian fired his bolt pistol one-handed at the vehicle's exposed underside. The shot penetrated the lighter armour of its fuselage, and exploded upwards through the pilot's body, exiting in a spray of bone from his chest.
The co-pilot of the skimmer Learchus had brought down was free of his harness, but it was too late for escape. Learchus wrapped a hand around the tau's neck and dragged him from the vehicle. With the bare minimum of effort, he crushed the alien's neck and dropped him to the ground.
The second skimmer came down with a jolt, but surviving the death of his comrade only delayed the co-pilot's demise by moments. The alien expertly disembarked from the skimmer, and drew his sidearm, but it was a futile act of defiance. Issam put two expertly aimed shots through his chest, and he fell back.
Learchus let out a long shuddering breath as Issam jogged over to him, his bolter cradled close to his chest. Parmian followed him, and the last surviving scout, Daxian, formed up on their sergeant.
The battle had lasted seconds at most, but it felt like longer.
'We were lucky,' said Learchus. 'If they had come with the proper amount of force we would be dead.'
'This is simply a reprieve,' said Issam. 'These scouts will be missed soon, and future hunters will not come so ill-prepared.'
Learchus turned his gaze to the south, to where lines of smoke and a haze of energy hung over the horizon. The gleam of the port city's towers was so close that he felt he could reach out and touch them.
'Praxedes is only three or four kilometres away,' he said. 'It is so close.'
'It might as well be on Macragge for all we can get near it,' said Parmian, pointing to where the sunlight glinted on what looked like leafless ceramic trees in the distance. 'There are ring upon ring of drone sentry towers guarding every approach, and our camo-capes won't fool them.'
Learchus looked down at the corpse of the tau co-pilot at his feet. Then he looked at the skimmer vehicle. An idea began to form in his mind.
'You are correct, Parmian,' said Learchus. 'We cannot get through as Space Marines, but the onboard systems of these skimmers are no doubt equipped with the correct identity codes to pass between the sentry towers unharmed.'
Parmian frowned. 'But how can you retrieve the codes? You don't know how these machines work.'
Learchus dropped to his knees and removed the tau warrior's helmet. The alien's features were twisted with the pain of his last moments of life. Learchus turned the head onto its side and took the combat blade a grim-faced Issam handed him.
He placed the long, serrated edge against the skin of the tau's temple and began sawing.
'Not yet I don't,' he said.
Koudelkar Shonai poured another glass of the warm tisane from the plain cylindrical pot his tau facilitator had provided him with that morning. The drink was sweet and had a deliciously fragrant aftertaste, about as far removed from the bitter taste of caffeine as it was possible to get. He set the pot down on a round tray, and settled back in the contoured plastic of his chair to read.
Like everything in his quarters, from the bed to the ablutions cubicle, the chair was simply and functionally designed, moulding its form to match his seated posture. It provided comfort that the most gifted human ergonomic designers could only dream of producing.
Koudelkar sipped his drink and returned to the device he had been studying all morning.
It was a flat rectangular plate, not unlike an Imperial data-slate, though it was far lighter and didn't keep shorting out every ten minutes. A wonderfully crisp display projected picter images of people at work and at play. They were ordinary men and women, and though there was nothing special about what they were doing, where they were doing it was quite remarkable.
Everyone in the moving images inhabited wondrous cities of clean lines, artfully designed boulevards, parks of vibrant green and russet brown, all set amid gleaming spires of silver and white. Aun'rai had told him that this was Tau, cardinal world of the empire and birthplace of the tau race. To see human beings in such a place was incredible, and although Koudelkar knew that images could be manipulated, this felt real and had a ring of truth to it that he felt was totally genuine.
Every man, woman or child in the films was dressed in more or less identical clothing that bore various insignia of the tau empire. Koudelkar had heard the rumours of defections to the tau empire; such stories were told in hushed whispers, for to entertain any notion of aliens as anything other than vile, baby-eating filth was punishable by death.
Everything Koudelkar had seen since his capture gave the lie to the idea of the tau as murderous aliens hostile to humanity. He had been treated with nothing but courtesy since his arrival, and his daily discussions of the Tau'va, the Greater Good, with Aun'rai had been most illuminating.
Each morning, Aun'rai would join Koudelkar in his quarters and they would speak of the tau, the Imperium and a hundred other topics. Much to his surprise, Koudelkar had warmed to the tau ambassador, discovering that they had much in common.
'The Greater Good is a fine idea in theory,' Koudelkar had said upon first hearing Aun'rai talk of it, 'but surely unworkable in practice?'
'Not at all,' said Aun'rai with a soft shake of his head.
'Surely selfish desires, individual wants and the like would get in the way.'
'They did once,' said Aun'rai, 'and it almost destroyed our race.'
'I don't understand.'
'I know you do not,' Aun'rai had said. 'So let me tell you of my race and how we came to embrace the Greater Good.'
Aun'rai had placed his staffs of office beside him and wove his hands together as he began to speak, his voice soft and melodic, laced with a wistful melancholy.
'When my race took its first steps, we were like humanity: barbarous, petty, and given to greedy and hedonistic impulses. Our society had branched into a number of tribes, what you might call castes, each with its own customs, laws and beliefs.'
'I'd heard that,' said Koudelkar, 'four castes, like the elements; fire, water and suchlike.'
Aun'rai smiled, though there was something behind the expression Koudelkar could not divine. Irritation or sadness, he couldn't tell.
'Those are labels humans have applied to us,' said Aun'rai at last. 'The true meanings of our caste names carry much complexity and subtle inferences lost in such prosaic terms.'
'I'm sorry,' said Koudelkar. 'It's what I've been told.'
'That does not surprise me. Humans have a need for definition, for yourselves and for the world around you. You struggle with concepts that do not easily sit within defined boxes. I know something of your race's history, and with everything I learn of you, I grow ever more thankful for the Greater Good.'
'Because without it, my race would be just like yours.'
'In what way?'
Aun'rai raised a hand. 'Listen well and you will learn why we are not so different, Koudelkar.'
'Sorry,' said Koudelkar, 'you were speaking of the castes.'
Aun'rai nodded and continued. 'The tau of the mountains soared on the air, while the plains dwellers became hunters and warriors of great skill. Others built great cities and raised high monuments to their craft, while those without such skills brokered trade between the different groups. For a time, we prospered, but as time passed and our race grew more numerous, the various tribes began to fight one another. We called this time the Mont'au, which in your language means the Terror.'
Aun'rai shuddered at the memory, though Koudelkar knew he could not have been there to see any of this. 'The plains dwellers allied with the tau of the mountains and took to raiding the settlements of the builders. Skirmishes became battles, battles became wars, and soon the tau race was tearing itself apart. The builders had long known how to fashion firearms, and the traders had sold them to almost all of the tribes. The bloodshed was appalling, and I weep to think of those days.'
'You're right, that does sound familiar.'
'We were on the verge of destruction. Our species was sliding towards a self-engineered extermination when we were saved on the mountain plateau of Fio'taun. An army of the air and fire castes had destroyed vast swathes of the land, and now laid siege to the mightiest city of the earth caste, the last bastion of freedom on Tau. For five seasons, the city held against the attacks until, at last, it was on the verge of defeat. This was the night the first of the Ethereals came.'
'I have not the words in this language to convey the true meaning of the concept, but suffice to say that these farsighted individuals were the most singular tau ever to walk amongst my people. All through the night, they spoke of what might be achieved if the skills and labours of all castes could be harnessed and directed towards the betterment of the race. By morning's light, they had brokered a lasting peace between the armies.'
'They must have been some speakers,' observed Koudelkar, 'to halt a war like that so quickly. How did they do it?'
'They spoke with an acuity that cut through the decades of bloodshed and hatred. They showed my people the inevitable result of continued war: species doom and a slow, moribund slide into extinction. None who heard them speak that night could doubt the truth of their words, and as more of the Ethereals began to emerge, the philosophy of the Greater Good was carried to every corner of the world.'
'And that was it?' asked Koudelkar. 'It just seems, well, a little too… easy.'
'We had a choice,' said Aun'rai, 'to live or die. In that respect, I suppose it was an easy decision to make. Your race has yet to face that moment, but in that one night, my people saw the truth of the Ethereals' words with total clarity. Almost overnight our society was changed from one of selfish individualism to one where everyone contributes towards our continued prosperity. Everyone is valued and everyone is honoured, for they work towards something greater than they could ever achieve alone. Does that not sound like what happened when your Emperor emerged and took the reins of humanity? Did he not attempt to steer your race's path from destruction to enlightenment? That he failed in no way diminishes the nobility of his intent. What he tried to do is what the tau have managed to do. Now, does that not sound worthwhile, my friend?'
'Put like that, I suppose it does,' agreed Koudelkar, 'and it really works?'
'It really does,' said Aun'rai, 'and you could be part of it.'
'Of course,' said Aun'rai. 'The Greater Good is open to all who embrace it.'
That thought was uppermost in Koudelkar's mind as he set the display unit down and sipped his tisane. The idea of renouncing the Imperium sent a chill down his spine and made his hands tingle. Men had suffered the torments of the damned in the dungeons of the Arbites for far less, and Koudelkar's mind recoiled from the thought, even as he relished the idea of a society where he was not constrained by petty bureaucrats and restrictive legislation: a society where he was valued for his contribution, not held back from advancing a better world for his people.
His good mood evaporated as the door to his quarters slid open and Lortuen Perjed entered. The adept wore a serious expression, and Koudelkar crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap as he waited for him to speak.
'Good afternoon, Lortuen,' he said.
'I'll keep this brief,' said Lortuen.
'That will be a refreshing change,' replied Koudelkar.
Lortuen frowned, but pressed on. 'I have news of the progress of the war, and we need to talk about fighting the tau. The men are ready and we have a plan.'
Koudelkar sighed. 'Not this again. I told you before that you were wasting your time. There's nothing we can do, we cannot escape.'
'And I told you that it is not about escape. Damn it, Koudelkar, you have to listen to me!'
'No,' said Koudelkar, 'I don't. My eyes are open now, and I think I misjudged the tau. As matter of fact, I think we all did.'
'What are you talking about?'
'I mean that for all your fine talk of the Imperium, it is clear to me that it is a corrupt institution that no longer even remembers why it was created or the ideals for which it once stood.'
'You have gone mad,' said Lortuen. 'It's that Aun'rai! Every day he fills your head with lies. And you're falling for them.'
'Lies?' said Koudelkar. 'You were the one that told me the Imperium would not mourn our passing. We are already dead men, Lortuen, so what does it matter what we do?'
'It matters even more, Koudelkar,' said Lortuen. 'If we can abandon our beliefs in the face of adversity, then they're not beliefs at all. Now, more than ever, we have to fight these degenerate xenos!'
'I will tell you what is degenerate,' snapped Koudelkar, surging from his seat. 'Even as we face enemies from all sides, our race still fights amongst its own kind. We are told that the galaxy is a hostile place, and everywhere we turn there are foes, but does this unite us or bring us together? No, for we are so self-absorbed that we forget what it is to belong to something greater. Mykola was right, she knew that—'
'Mykola is dead,' said Lortuen.
Koudelkar felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He sank back into his chair and struggled to think of what to say. 'What? How do you know?'
'The same drop-ship that brought Aun'rai back also brought Jenna Sharben in.'
'The enforcer chief?'
'Yes. She was badly hurt, but the tau have treated her wounds and she's conscious again. She told me what happened.'
'Does my mother know?'
'No, I thought it would be best coming from you.'
Koudelkar nodded absently. 'How did my aunt die?'
'Does it matter?' asked Lortuen. 'She is dead. She paid the price for her treachery.'
'Tell me how she died,' demanded Koudelkar. 'I will find out, so you might as well tell me now.'
Lortuen sighed. 'Very well. She died in the Glasshouse. Prelate Culla beat her to death to learn what information she had given the tau.'
'Culla murdered her? I knew that bastard was insane!'
'If it's any consolation, Culla's probably dead too,' said Lortuen. 'The tau killed him before they escaped from the prison.'
'The Imperium killed Mykola,' said Koudelkar with an awful finality.
'No, her choices killed her,' said Lortuen.
'Get out!' roared Koudelkar. 'Get out and never speak to me again. I will have nothing more to do with you or your petty plans of resistance, and I will have nothing more to do with the Imperium!'
'That's the grief talking,' said Lortuen. 'You don't mean that.'
'I mean every word of it, Perjed!' shouted Koudelkar. 'I spit on the Imperium, and I curse the Emperor to the warp!'