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TWO

The enforcers were closing in on her, and she didn't have many places left to run. Her legs were tired, the air burned in her lungs, and her shoulder-length blonde hair was damp with sweat. She'd been on the run for nearly three hours, but Jenna Sharben wasn't going to be brought down without a fight.

She blinked dust from her eyes, wishing she hadn't lost her helmet in that tussle with the slab of muscle who'd tried to pin her to the wall with a net-caster. Jenna had dodged the projectile net and busted her pursuer's ribs with two quick blows of her shock maul. She'd put his lights out with a swift blow to the throat. Amateur.

Their orders were to take her alive, and that gave her the advantage.

The black of her armour was grey with dust, and she pressed herself flat against a tumbled wall as she heard a pair of enforcers run past the roofless portion of the collapsed structure she was sheltering in.

This had once been the Imperial Armoury and Arbites Precinct, but little survived save for crumbling ruins, fallen slabs of rockcrete, and precariously balanced walls and twisted gantries.

Jenna shifted into position beside the doorway and reached down to grab a handful of rock chippings. She skidded them across the ruptured floor timbers. Instantly, she heard the enforcers turn and make their way back towards her hiding place.

Jenna heard the clicking of their micro-bead vox and waited.

A grey-uniformed figure darted through the doorway, and Jenna let him go. The second enforcer immediately followed the first, and she surged to her feet, slamming her shock maul into the side of the enforcer's thigh. The man yelled in pain, and dropped to the ground, losing his shotgun and clutching his deadened leg. A second blow put him out of the fight.

Jenna followed up her attack by diving forwards as the first enforcer brought up his shotgun. She rolled beneath his shot, and slammed the butt of her shock maul into his groin. He grunted in pain, but stayed upright, which was more than she'd expected.

Jenna sprang to her feet, agile even in armour, and whipped her shock maul around and into the mirrored faceplate of the enforcer's helmet. The metal crumpled, but held, and the man dropped. Without power, the shock maul was simply a solid lump of plasteel, but there were worse things to have in your hand when trying to put someone down.

Jenna heard the sound of a shotgun being cocked, and looked up to see a lithe enforcer in a grey body-jack kneeling on a splintered stub of floor slab a few metres above her. Even with the reflective visor of the helmet down, Jenna knew the identity of this enforcer.

'Clever,' said Jenna.

She tightened her grip on the shock maul, her muscles tense and ready for action.

'You always run here,' said the enforcer. 'Why is that?'

Jenna didn't answer, twisting and hurling her shock maul at the enforcer as the barrel of the shotgun erupted in flames.

A shock maul wasn't designed with aerodynamics in mind, and her missile flew wide of the mark. Jenna tensed in expectation of pain, but she laughed as she realised that the enforcer had also missed. The solid shot had blasted into the creaking wooden floor.

The slide of the combat shotgun racked once more.

'You missed,' said Jenna, raising her hands in surrender. 'Going to have to work on your aim, Enforcer Apollonia.'

'I wasn't aiming at you,' said the enforcer, lowering the shotgun.

Jenna looked down, seeing where the impact of solid shot had destroyed the end of the joist supporting the portion of the floor she was standing on.

'Oh, hell,' said Jenna as the splintered timbers cracked and gave way beneath her.

She dropped through the floor, crashing down onto a pile of fallen stone and smashed plaster-work. Her armour took the brunt of the impact, but the breath was driven from her as she rolled over onto her side.

'Don't move,' said a breathless voice beside her, and Jenna looked up to see a tall, powerfully built enforcer standing over her, his shotgun pointed at her chest. Blinking away the lights in front of her eyes, she looked up through the billowing cloud of dust her fall had thrown up to see another weapon aimed at her through the hole in the floor.

'Nicely done, Enforcer Dion,' said Jenna, between heaving gulps of air. 'I had a feeling it would be you two that caught me.'

She pushed herself to her knees, one hand pressed to the old gunshot wound in her stomach.

'Are you all right, ma'am?' asked Dion, flicking up the silvered visor of his helmet.

'Yeah, I'm fine,' said Jenna, reaching up and unclipping the vox-mic attached to her armour's gorget, 'just a bit winded is all.'

The enforcer nodded and made his weapon safe.

'All units,' said Jenna Sharben, Commander of the Brandon Gate Enforcers, 'the exercise is over, I repeat, over. Everyone assemble in Liberation Square for debrief.'

Jenna led her trainees from the ruins of the Arbites precinct, following a winding route through mossy piles of fallen plasteel and granite facing stone towards Liberation Square. A high wall of reinforced rockcrete, topped with razor wire and studded with gunports had once surrounded the precinct, a grim, foreboding edifice in the heart of Brandon Gate that served to remind the populace of their duty to the Imperium.

Clearly, it had not been a strong enough reminder, thought Jenna.

Those were bloody days, when the influence of the cartels that were the industrial backbone of Pavonis had reached a critical mass of power and ambition, and Virgil de Valtos had attempted to overthrow Imperial rule.

Jenna had only seen the opening shots of that revolution fired.

While attempting to evacuate Governor Mykola Shonai from the Imperial palace, an aide in the pocket of de Valtos, a worm named Almerz Chanda, had shot and almost killed Jenna. An Astartes healer had saved her, and, though she had fully recovered, the phantom pain of it still troubled her, now and again.

Jenna climbed over the fallen slabs of masonry that were all that remained of the wall. A shiver passed through her as she thought back to the sight of squadrons of tanks blasting their way through the wall, their guns mowing down the surviving Judges as they crawled from the wreckage of the bombed structure.

No one had ever figured out how the agents of de Valtos were able to smuggle an explosive device inside the Arbites precinct, but however it had been managed, the resulting blast devastated the entire building, effectively ending any meaningful resistance to the de Valtos coup from the ranks of the Adeptus Arbites.

Virgil Ortega, her former mentor, had died in the fighting; a Judge of rare courage and honour, and a man whom she felt could have taught her a great deal. She dearly wished he were here now, for the training of an entirely new cadre of enforcers was not something she had anticipated when she had been posted to Pavonis.

In the days before the rebellion, each of the cartels had raised and trained its own corps of enforcers, resulting in numerous private armies that were loyal only to the cartel that paid them. These enforcers were little more than corporate sponsored thugs, who enacted the will of the cartels with beatings, coercion and scant regard for the rule of Imperial Law.

One of the first acts of the Administratum, upon establishing its presence on Pavonis following the coup, had been to disband these private militias, putting thousands of men out of work. Mykola Shonai had protested at such drastic measures, but she had been serving out the last months of her term of office and her concerns were ignored.

As the last remnant of an Adeptus Arbites presence in Brandon Gate, the task of recruiting and training a new breed of enforcer had fallen to Jenna Sharben, a task she had quickly realised was more complex and demanding than anyone had imagined.

Anyone with strong cartel affiliations was suspect in the eyes of the Administratum, and Jenna had been forced to turn away many promising recruits for past associations with blacklisted cartels. Such restrictions were galling, and cared nothing for the fact that anyone who wanted employment before the rebellion had to have been attached to one of the cartels.

Despite such setbacks, Jenna had persevered. With help from Lortuen Perjed, the Administratum aide to the governor and former acolyte of the late Inquisitor Barzano, she had managed to recruit nearly two hundred enforcers, secure them weapons, uniforms and training, and had established a headquarters in a secure facility on the edge of the city.

Their base of operations was a rundown prison facility that had been burned out and looted in the wake of the rebellion, but which had been brought back to basic functionality in the last year. Its official name was the Brandon Gate Correctional Facility, but it was known locally as the Glasshouse.

It was a far from perfect base from which to police an entire city, but it was a beginning, and every endeavour had to start somewhere.

Jenna shook herself from her gloomy thoughts as she and her trainees gave a wide berth to the blue walls of the Ultramarines battle fortress. Under the watchful gaze of its guns, they approached a checkpoint manned by Guardsmen of the 44th Lavrentian Hussars. Each of the approach routes leading into Liberation Square had such a checkpoint, a staggered emplacement of piled sandbags and rockcrete beams that housed a squad of Guardsmen in polished silver breastplates and emerald green breeches.

Banners depicting a heroic golden soldier on a rearing horse hung limply above each checkpoint, and a Chimera AFV was parked threateningly behind it.

Jenna knew the Lavrentians were tough soldiers, hardened fighters who'd spent the better part of the last seven years fighting greenskin marauders on the Eastern Fringe. Being rotated to Pavonis, far from the front lines, was a cushy number for them, yet Jenna had seen no let up in their training regime or discipline.

She heard the cocking of heavy bolters as they approached the checkpoint. The turret-mounted multi-laser on the Chimera tracked her every move, despite them having passed the same checkpoint only four hours earlier en route to their hunt/capture exercise. A captain and protection detail emerged from the emplacement, and Jenna knew he would be as thorough in his ident-checks and counts as before.

The captain, whose name was Mederic, scanned her transit tags with a wave of a data wand, and repeated the procedure for each of the enforcers as they passed beneath the watchful gaze of the gunners manning the heavy bolters.

'Good exercise?' asked Mederic, as the last enforcer was cleared.

'Could have been better,' admitted Jenna. 'It took them three hours to run me down, but they got me in the end.'

'Three hours,' said Mederic with a roguish smile. 'If I set the Hounds of the 44th on you, I'd have you bound, gagged and at my mercy in three minutes.'

'You wish,' said Jenna, reading Mederic's lingering glance at her athletic figure, which her Arbites armour did little to conceal. 'I'd have your Hounds chasing their tails.'

'Yeah?'

'Yeah.'

'I'll have to put that boast to the test sometime, Judge Sharben,' said Mederic, waving her through. 'Our scouts are the best in the sector.'

'That's pride, Captain Mederic,' said Jenna defiantly. 'It doesn't suit you.'

She turned and made her way past the Chimera to catch up with her enforcers.

'I'll be in touch,' chuckled Mederic. 'Count on it.'

Mederic had irritated her, having done little to conceal his attraction to her. She told herself it was his obvious desire and disparaging of her skills that had annoyed her, but it was more than that. It was the fact that he didn't belong here. He was an outsider.

Never mind that she too was not native to Pavonis, this was her world because she had fought to defend it. Though the Lavrentians were here to safeguard her adopted home world, their presence was a visible symbol that the Imperium did not trust the people of Pavonis.

'Everything all right, ma'am?' asked Apollonia, glancing back down the street.

Apollonia was a petite woman, with cropped dark hair and wide, almond shaped eyes, who had proved to be one of Jenna's finest recruits. Many people, including Jenna, had underestimated her, but she had proven to be an object lesson in not judging people by their appearance. She was tougher than she looked, and had excelled in every area of training.

'Yes, it's fine,' replied Jenna. 'Just Guardsmen being Guardsmen.'

'The sooner they're gone the better,' said Dion, dropping back to walk alongside them.

'Secure that talk, Enforcer Dion,' warned Jenna. 'That's the kind of sentiment that will keep them here longer. Understood?'

'Understood, ma'am,' said Dion with a crisp salute.

'Apollonia?'

'Yes, ma'am. Understood.'

Jenna nodded, putting the incident from her mind as the approach road widened out and she stepped into the central plaza of Brandon Gate.

Liberation Square had once been a meeting place popular with the wealthy of Brandon Gate, a place to gather, perambulate and gossip, but since the uprising it had largely been forsaken.

Too many memories, Jenna supposed. Too many had died here.

Even now, she sometimes woke with the hate and fear-filled shouts of the Workers' Collective ringing in her ears, the sounds of booming shotguns, the screams of the wounded and dying, or the urgent sound of her pounding heartbeat.

Instead of a gathering place for the people of the city, Liberation Square was now a symbol of the planet's past failures. Some citizens still passed through it, but not many, although Jenna saw a few hundred people gathered at the centre of the square.

Looking closer, she saw why.

The crimson-painted Rhino of Prelate Culla was parked at the foot of the great statue of the Emperor from which the traitor Vendare Taloun had been hanged. Braziers burned from ebony skulls fitted to the glacis of the tank, and curling bronze organ pipes rose from behind an onyx pulpit, broadcasting hectoring words to the crowd gathered before him.

Standing tall atop his mobile shrine, Culla was a fearsome-looking preacher with an enormous fiery chainsword and bolt pistol raised to the heavens. Robed in the emerald chasuble of a predicant of the Lavrentian 44th, Culla trained for battle with the soldiers to whom he daily preached. He was a man whose appearance looked quarried from rock instead of crafted by birth, and his forked beard and tattooed, shaven head gave him a threatening appearance that was entirely deliberate.

Choral servitors in hooded smocks sang uplifting hymns, as golden-skinned cherubs, trailing prayer banners, hovered in the clouds of devotional incense that billowed from the Rhino's smoke dispensers.

In the wake of the rebellion, ships from the Ministorum and Administratum had brought hosts of new clerks, scribes and preachers to restore spiritual and bureaucratic stability to Pavonis, but none had been zealous enough for Culla, who had taken to the streets to preach his own fiery brand of the Imperial Creed.

From the sound of the crowd, Culla was already in full swing, and Jenna paused to listen.

'It behoves us all to cast out the unbeliever. Such creatures have no value whatsoever as human beings. In fact, you must not even consider them human, but as inhuman animals, since they are nothing but miserable liars, cowards and murderers!'

Culla's devotees, mainly indigent workers and itinerant labourers, were cheering at his words, and Jenna couldn't deny that the prelate's words were affecting.

The preacher swept his arms out, the fiery sword leaving bright afterimages on Jenna's retinas. 'Do not cry for the unbeliever who lives amongst you, though they may be your friend or a member of your family. No one should weep over the rotting corpse of a worthless unbeliever! What else is there to say? Nothing at all. There should be no last words, no rites and no remembrance. Nothing. Every time an unbeliever or alien dies, the Imperium is better off, and their Emperor-forsaken souls will burn forever in the depths of the warp!'

'Looks like we'll need to find another place for debrief,' noted Dion.

'Yeah, we'll head back to the Glasshouse, do it there,' said Jenna, the words of Prelate Culla and the cheers of his audience ringing in her ears.


The two Rhinos travelled south as far as Olzetyn, the City of Bridges, before turning eastwards, and then following Highway 236 northwards along the river towards Brandon Gate. The highway was well-maintained, since it was the major arterial route connecting the planetary capital and the coastal port-city of Praxedes, and the Ultramarines made good time as they completed their patrol circuit. What traffic there was on the highway gave the Rhinos a wide berth, the cupola mounted storm bolters tracking any vehicle that came too near until the driver hurriedly pulled away.

The outer suburbs of Brandon Gate were heavily industrialised belts of manufacture, sprawling districts of production, assembly and distribution, a great deal of which was now sitting idle. Some of the manufactorum still churned with the sound of machines, but many more sat empty and abandoned, their workers deprived of employment thanks to their previous cartel affiliations.

Stopping only to transfer the tau prisoner to the custody of the enforcers at the fire-blackened compound of the Glasshouse, the Ultramarines drove swiftly onwards. They passed the sheet steel walls of Camp Torum, the headquarters of the 44th Lavrentian regiment, before entering the city proper via the northern Commercia Gate.

The manufacturing hub of Pavonis had changed a great deal since Uriel had last seen it.

The city walls were reinforced with Lavrentian Hydra flak tanks, and armed patrols of green-jacketed Guardsmen in silver breastplates roamed the streets to keep the peace that Uriel and his warriors had won.

Their route took them through the financial heart of the city, where much of the trading that had made Pavonis one of the economic powerhouses of the sub-sector had been done. Uriel had time to admire the elaborate architecture of the Carnelian Exchange House, with its high towers and gilded arches, before it was lost to sight as they crossed Liberation Square.

Imperial Guardsmen controlled entry to the vast space, but the Ultramarines vehicles were not stopped, rumbling past awed soldiers making the sign of the aquila. They skirted around the giant statue in the centre of the square, where a preacher atop a crimson Rhino hectored a gathering of the faithful. Uriel's heart sank as he saw that this place, which had once been dedicated to the glory of the Emperor, was now home to the ugly practicality of roadblocks and checkpoints.

The Ultramarines had set up their base in Belahon Park, a once pristine area of greenery, lakes and rarefied beauty, but which was now an overgrown wasteland with a stagnant lake at its heart. On the park's southern edge, the spires of the iron-sheened Templum Fabricae dominated the skyline, overshadowing the more modestly constructed Library of Deshanel.

The Rhinos drove towards a modular defensive fortress of high blue walls, angled bastions and defensive turrets. Designated Fortress Idaeus, it had been constructed by the company's Techmarines and servitors next to the ruins of the former Arbites precinct. As the Rhinos approached, codex-pattern recognition protocols passed between the vehicles and the gun towers before the gate rumbled open.

The two Rhinos swept inside the fortress, and no sooner had they ground to a halt beside a trio of massively armoured Land Raiders, the most powerful battle tank in the Space Marine arsenal, than the assault ramps dropped. The drivers revved out the last of the journey from the engines, and Uriel stepped from the vehicle, rotating his head on his shoulders to loosen his muscles.

Prefabricated structures were spaced at regular intervals within the compound, the basic necessities of a Space Marine battle company at war: command centre, armoury, apothecarion, refectory and barracks. Groups of Space Marines practiced targeting rituals, while others trained in close-quarters combat in small groups under the supervision of their sergeants. Techmarine apprenta worked on the engine of a Land Raider, while tower-mounted Thunderfire cannons scanned the surrounding urban landscape for threats.

In the centre of Fortress Idaeus, held by an unmoving warrior wearing the full battle dress of the Ultramarines and a cloak of brilliant green, the 4th Company banner flapped in the wind. Depicting an iron gauntlet clutching the icon of the Ultramarines against a golden laurel, it was a symbol of courage and honour to all who fought beneath it, and Uriel felt great humility at the sight of so noble a standard.

An immaculately maintained Chimera, painted in the colours of the Lavrentian 44th, was parked beside the command centre, together with an altogether less impressive half-track, emblazoned with the white rose of the Pavonis PDF.

'Looks like we have guests,' said Learchus, coming over to join Uriel, his stride sure, and looking like he'd just stepped from the parade ground.

'Looks like,' agreed Uriel. 'Lord Winterbourne and Colonel Loic by the vehicles.'

'Do you wish me to join you?'

'Eventually,' said Uriel, 'but we must honour the banner first.'

Uriel and Learchus marched towards the centre of the company fortress, and stood before the warrior who bore the standard. His name was Peleus and his title was Ancient, a rank only ever given to those who were pure of heart and soul, and who had won the right to bear the company's banner through the fires of countless battlefields.

Peleus had carried the banner of the 4th for over thirty years. The eagle on his breastplate shimmered, and the white wings of his helmet were dazzling. Scarlet cords secured the cloak around Peleus's shoulders, and a host of oath papers and purity seals were affixed to his shoulder guards. Sunlight caught the silver and gold threading on the banner, and the pride that filled Uriel as he took hold of the fabric was like a panacea.

'The banner is a credit to you, Ancient Peleus,' said Uriel. 'It has never looked so good.'

'Thank you, my lord,' replied Peleus. 'I am honoured to bear it.'

The Space Marines Uriel had led on this latest patrol mission formed up behind him without any orders needing to be given. Uriel dropped to one knee before the banner, and his warriors followed suit, heads bowed as they acknowledged the awesome weight of its legacy. Never in its history had the banner been allowed to fall, though enemies of every stripe had sought to bring it low.

'In the name of the Emperor and primarch, whom we serve, I offer you my life and the lives of these warriors,' said Uriel, his hands clasped across his chest in the sign of the aquila. 'I offer our devotion, our skill and our courage. To the service of this banner, our Chapter and the Emperor, I offer you our lives.'

The warriors behind him spoke their own oaths, each one personal to the man that gave it, and Uriel waited until the last had finished speaking before rising to his feet. As Uriel gave his oath to the company standard, he felt a warm sense of acknowledgement swell within him, as though everything it stood for welcomed him back into the ranks of 4th Company.

He turned to Learchus. 'Set the men on their post battle ministrations and join me in the command centre when you're done.'

'Yes, sir,' replied Learchus with a crisp bow.

Uriel turned on his heel, and made his way towards the oblong structure that served as the command centre for the company. Its sides were deep blue, and a surveyor dish rotated amid a bristling forest of vox aerials on its armoured topside. The symbol of the Ultramarines was stencilled on its side, and two Space Marines with their blades unsheathed stood at attention to either side of the entrance.

Both warriors hammered the hilts of their swords against their chests as Uriel punched in the access code and entered the command centre.

The interior was lit with a soft, green glow from the numerous data-slates fitted to the walls. Cogitators hummed with power, and, though spinning fan units on the ceiling dissipated the heat from so many machines, it was still uncomfortably warm. Binaric cant chattered in the background, a companion to the hiss of machine language burbling from the mouths of output servitors.

Techmarine Harkus sat upon a silver-steel throne at one end of the command centre, connected to the workings of the various logic-engines via hard-plugs in his arms, chest and cranium. Flickering light pulsed behind his eyes as he collated the myriad data streams being gathered by the surveyor gear on the roof and the Vae Victus in orbit.

A handful of Chapter serfs attended to incense burners, anointed the guardian of the company's technology with sacred oils and recited mantas pleasing to the spirits of the machines.

At the hub of the command centre, a hololithic projection table of dark stone was lit by the translucent holo-map that bathed the three figures gathered around it in a lambent glow.

The nearest figure to Uriel was Colonel Adren Loic, commander of the local defence forces. Since the rebellion, partial control of the armed men of Brandon Gate had fallen to an officer chosen by the Administratum, a man selected as much for his lack of cartel affiliations as for his competence as a soldier. That he was a political appointment was clear to Uriel, but what was less clear was whether he had any merit as a leader of fighting men.

The collar of Loic's cream uniform jacket was open, and his florid skin was beaded with perspiration. The man's bullet scalp was shaved bald, and he dabbed at his forehead with a wadded scarf before standing to attention at Uriel's arrival. He carried a pistol and duelling sabre at his side, though Uriel doubted he knew how to use the latter with any real skill.

Beside Loic stood two senior commanders of the 44th Lavrentians. Uriel had met them on a number of previous occasions, and both officers had impressed him. Their first meeting had been when the Ultramarines had made planetfall, the second when formalising the chain of command, and the latest when delineating sectors of responsibility.

The regiment's colonel, Lord Nathaniel Winterbourne, was a flamboyant nobleman with genteel manners and a respect for etiquette that at first made him appear effete. After their first meeting, however, Uriel quickly realised that there was a core of iron to him. Winterbourne was a commander who demanded and got the best from his Guardsmen, no matter that there was precious little glory or honour to be gained on this assignment.

Tall and rakishly thin, his emerald green frock coat seemed too large for his spare frame, yet there was an undeniable strength to the man that Uriel liked. His features bore all the hallmarks of good breeding, careful juvenat work and the eager hunger of a career soldier.

Two richly dressed aides stood discretely behind Winterbourne, one holding the colonel's emerald-plumed helmet, the other the long leashes of two wolf-like creatures: slender beasts with glossy black and gold fur, vicious looking jaws and predators' eyes. One of the creatures was missing its left foreleg, yet appeared no less aggressive for its loss.

Winterbourne was the fiery heart of the regiment, but his second in command, Major Alithea Ornella, was all business. Unsmiling and hard to warm to, Ornella was meticulous and precise, as dedicated as her colonel in ensuring that the regiment's soldiers upheld the fine tradition of the Imperial Guard. Like her superior officer, she was dressed in a long frock-coat, though she came without pets or an aide to carry her helmet.

'Lord Winterbourne, Major Ornella,' said Uriel, unconsciously addressing the soldiers in order of respect, if not proximity. 'Colonel Loic.'

'Ah, Uriel, my good man,' said Winterbourne. 'Damned sorry to drop in on you like this, but we got word that you'd had something of an encounter with alien trespassers.'

'That's correct, Lord Winterbourne,' said Uriel. 'Tau Pathfinders and their vehicle.'

'Call me Nathaniel,' said Winterbourne with a dismissive wave of the hand. 'Everybody does. Or at least I tell them to, but they never listen.'

The three-legged hound nuzzled the colonel of the 44th, and he stroked its ferocious-looking head, which was more than Uriel would have done had it come near him.

'Anyway, to business, to business,' continued Winterbourne, patting the beast. 'The damned tau infest the Eastern Fringe like burrow-ticks on old Fynlae here's hide. We've fought them before and they're slippery buggers, got to keep an eye on them or they'll be behind you in a flash. I remember once on Ulgolaa they—'

'Perhaps we should concentrate on the matter at hand?' suggested Major Ornella, smoothly forestalling her colonel's reminiscence.

'Of course, yes,' agreed Winterbourne, shaking his head. 'Talk the hind leg off a grox if Alithea didn't bring me to heel every now and then. So, these tau, where did you encounter the scoundrels, Uriel?'

Winterbourne appeared to take no offence at his underling's intervention, and Uriel stepped up to the hololith table that was projecting an image of the environs around the command centre to a radius of three hundred kilometres.

The major cities were shining blobs of light, the geographical features projected as stylised representations of mountains, rivers, forests and hills. Brandon Gate sat in the centre of the map, with Praxedes on the western coast and Olzetyn roughly at the midpoint between the two cities. Madorn lay just south of the Tembra Ridge Mountains, a great saw-toothed barrier three hundred kilometres to the north.

Further east, Altemaxa nestled amid the sprawling Gresha Forest. The Abrogas cartel had once maintained sizeable estates in this area, but a malfunctioning magma bomb from the Vae Victus had fallen there during the rebellion, obliterating many of them, along with whole swathes of forest that burned in the subsequent fires.

To the south, the slum city of Jotusburg sat isolated from the other conurbations, shunned like a reeking plague victim. The city was a blackened sump that housed the tens of thousands of Adeptus Mechanicus labourers who toiled in the Diacrian Belt, a hellish region of smoking refineries and drilling rigs that blackened the eastern and southern reaches of the continent. Where other cities had ghettoes, Jotusburg was a ghetto.

Uriel detached a light-stylus from the table, and drew a holographic circle around the Owsen Hills, sixty kilometres west of Brandon Gate. 'Right here,' said Uriel.

'Damn, that's close,' said Colonel Loic. 'That puts them practically right on our doorstep.'

'You're not wrong, Adren,' agreed Winterbourne, ignoring or oblivious to Loic's discomfort at the more senior officer's familiarity. 'Damned aliens will be sitting at our dinner table soon. What do you make of it, Uriel?'

'I think Colonel Loic is correct,' he said. 'The tau are too close and too bold for my liking. Given what I observed, they appeared to be plotting a route for a larger force.'

'Preliminary groundwork for an invasion, eh?' said Winterbourne. 'Think they can just take a world of the Emperor from us, do they?'

'We've heard nothing from sector command about a renewed offensive,' said Alithea Ornella. 'After your Chapter's victories at Zeist and Lagan, Imperial Strategos are of the opinion that the tau have withdrawn to their previous holdings.'

'The Masters of the Ultramarines came to the same conclusion,' said Uriel, 'but the fact that tau forces are on Pavonis is undeniable and unacceptable. If they are scouting routes for an army, then it follows that they are planning to invade. Perhaps not soon, but eventually. It is our duty to deny them any intelligence that will aid them in any aggression towards this world, whether the threat is imminent or merely theoretical.'

'Of course,' agreed Ornella. 'So that's what you think this is, a scouting mission?'

Uriel considered the question. 'No, I think there's more to it than that.'

'Oh?' said Winterbourne. 'So tell me, Uriel, what do you think these xenos are up to?'

Uriel looked back at the hololithic projection and said, 'I think they are here in far greater strength than encountered numbers might otherwise suggest. It wouldn't surprise me if the tau have been on Pavonis for quite some time.'

'I assure you, Captain Ventris, my PDF long-range patrols have found nothing to support that suspicion,' said Colonel Loic.

'I'm sure they haven't, colonel,' said Uriel. 'I'd be surprised if they had.'

Loic's face reddened, but Uriel held up a placating hand. 'I mean no disrespect to your men, colonel. Even we were only able to locate the tau thanks to information gained at the cost of Astartes lives on Augura.'

'I'm all for soldier's intuition, Uriel,' said Winterbourne, 'but you'll have to do better than a suspicion. Lay it out for me. Why do you think the tau are here when cleverer thinkers than us all say they've gone home to lick their wounds?'

'It's this world,' said Uriel.

'What about it?' asked Loic defensively.

'I think the nature of Pavonis makes it an attractive prospect for the tau,' said Uriel, circling the table as he gathered his thoughts. 'Before the de Valtos rebellion, it was the hub of the sub-sector trade networks. As much as the cartel system placed a dangerous amount of power in the hands of individuals unsuited to wield it, those individuals were formidable merchants as well as producers. Trade is in the blood of this world. Look at how it's ruled; the central hall of governance is called the Senate Chamber of Righteous Commerce and its chief official is the Moderator of Transactions.'

'So, how does that make it a prime target for the tau?' asked Loic.

'It fits how these aliens work,' said Uriel. 'In practically every instance where Imperial forces have fought the tau, it has been on worlds where xenos diplomats or traders have first made secret overtures to the planetary leadership through its mercantile concerns, offering co-operation and commerce. If the planet's leaders are foolish enough to accept this offer, trade links are quickly forged, and the tau influence grows as the planet's rulers become wealthy. Soon after, the tau establish a military presence, which transforms into a full-scale occupation within the space of a few months. By the time the populace realise what is happening, it is already too late, and an Imperial world has become part of the tau empire.'

'Despicable,' said Winterbourne, shaking his head in disbelief. 'To think that Imperial citizens would lower themselves to treat with xenos.'

'The tau aren't like other races you've fought, Lord Winterbourne,' said Uriel, choosing his words carefully. 'They are not like the green-skins or the hive fleets. They do not lay waste to worlds indiscriminately or seek destruction for destruction's sake. Their entire race works for the good of the species, and, in fact, there is much to admire about them.'

'But they are aliens,' protested Winterbourne, 'degenerate xenos with no regard for the sanctity of human life or our manifest destiny to rule the stars. Intolerable!'

'Indeed, and any world the tau set their sights on that does not welcome their advances will be attacked with all the fury their armies can muster. The tau offer a simple choice: either join their empire willingly, or you will be conquered and made part of the empire.'

'And you think that's what's happening here?' asked Winterbourne.

'Yes. The tau will believe that the commercial mindset of this planet's leaders makes them receptive to their advances when the time comes to begin the assimilation of Pavonis.'

'If it hasn't already begun,' pointed out Ornella.

'Exactly,' said Uriel.


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