The knock at the door was firm but not frantic. I looked up from inspecting the tumbler of my favourite amasec and my eyes narrowed. Nobody knocked on my door at this time of night unless it was urgent. With a tiredness I didn’t have to feign, I rose from my chair, deposited the glass on the table and walked to the door of my surgery. The knocking started again just before I reached it. I slipped the chain on, gripped the laspistol I had acquired in lieu of payment from one of my less reputable clients, and then opened the door. In the narrow gap between the door and frame I saw a young man I didn’t recognise, probably twenty Terran standard, shivering in the snow.
‘Yes?’ I asked.
‘Doctor Aloysius?’ said the man. I nodded, and the man continued. ‘I need you to come quick. My grandmother—Arna Blassow—she needs you.’
I considered the young man for a moment. I knew Arna Blassow well; she was one of my first patients, which unfortunately meant she probably didn’t have long left. ‘What’s the problem?’
The man hesitated. ‘We can’t wake her. She’s in a deep sleep, but she’s not really sleeping. She’s mumbling and fidgeting, but she’s also going cold. My mother wants you to come and visit now. She…she doesn’t think that grandmother will survive the night.’
I nodded slowly. ‘Not unexpected.’
The man nodded. ‘Please, will you come and see her?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I will. Wait here.’ I closed the door and went to collect my medical bag. I pulled on my travelling coat, slipped the laspistol into my pocket after a moment’s reflection, and then went back to the front door. I stepped out into the cold night, my boots crunching on the compacted snow, and turned back to lock the door.
‘Please lead,’ I said to the young man, who stared at me with undisguised discomfort. ‘Of course, thank you,’ he replied. ‘My name’s Wilhur and…’
‘Let’s just go,’ I said. Wilhur frowned but set off in the direction of St Sebastian’s Square and I followed a couple of paces behind. Wilhur tried to twist round to talk to me again, but I cut him off immediately. ‘Please keep going.’
We headed south, through St Sebastian’s Square and towards the district known locally as Rockcrete Gardens. Fashionable once, like so much of the area, it had never been fully rebuilt after the revolt against the Governor eight years ago. I had lived there once but hadn’t been there in years – the people who lived there now could rarely afford my services.
Snow had begun to fall again when Wilhur brought me to a tenement block on a side-road I didn’t remember, although with extensive cloud cover and no street lighting since the power station had been destroyed, I couldn’t see much of the building anyway.
‘She’s in here, on the third floor,’ said Wilhur. I indicated for Wilhur to lead again and followed him up the steps to the front door of the block. Wilhur paused to light a candle at the entrance to the building, and then pushed the heavy door open. Without glancing back, he headed for the stairs and began climbing. Behind him, I automatically counted the steps. One, two, three… twenty and the first floor. Twenty-one, twenty-two… forty and the second floor. Forty-one, forty-two… fifty-nine and the third floor. Fifty-nine? I stopped and looked back down the staircase, but Wilhur was already unlocking one of the doors leading from the landing. ‘In here,’ Wilhur said.
I turned to look at him, shrugged and then crossed the bare floorboards to the open door. There was a single patch of carpet still clinging to the floor in front of the door, not ready to surrender to the inevitable just yet, and I took care to avoid standing on it whilst entering Arna Blassow’s apartment.
Inside was much as I expected. A large room for living, sparsely furnished and lit by candles, now occupied by several relatives in various states of distress, the majority of whom turned to stare at me. Wilhur pointed to one of two doors leading off, and I paused before it. I considered knocking, but then dismissed the idea and pushed the bedroom door open. Again, sparsely furnished and lit by candles, the room was barely big enough to hold the small bed, cluttered dresser and battered chair. Arna was lying on the bed, peacefully. Another woman was sat on the chair, her hands clasped together as if in prayer to the small shrine to the Emperor above Arna’s bed. I recognised Arna’s daughter but couldn’t remember her name.
‘Doctor Aloysius,’ she said, ‘Thank the Emperor you’re here.’
‘Of course,’ I replied, but before I could say more, the daughter continued.
‘You probably don’t remember me,’ she stammered. ‘When I was a child you used to look after me as well. I’m Yulie, mother’s daughter.’
‘I remember you,’ I noted.
‘I’ve been gone for over seven years, but when I heard mother was dying, I knew I had to come back.’
Seven years; nearly twenty-five Terran standard, so at least I wasn’t responsible for bringing Wilhur into this world. ‘Tell me what’s happened,’ I said.
‘Well, I left home after the third uprising in ‘42,’ began Yulie, ‘and moved to Corporth City after a man. I knew I…’
‘With your mother?’ I asked, unable to stop a hint of a glare from beginning to form on my face.
‘Oh,’ said Yulie. ‘Of course, what’s happened with mother. You don’t want to hear about me.’
‘Correct,’ I replied, slightly harsher than I intended, but Yulie didn’t seem to notice.
‘She’s peaceful now,’ said Yulie, ‘but earlier she was shouting and …’
‘Not mumbling?’ I asked.
‘Your son said Arna was mumbling, not shouting.’
‘She was mumbling and shouting,’ said Yulie. ‘Does it matter?’
I resisted the temptation to shout. ‘Yes, please continue.’
‘So mother was mumbling and then shouting and became very agitated. She was waving her arms in the arm and seemed to be trying to do something with her hands. I’m not sure how to explain… it looked like she was trying to do a puzzle or something.’
‘Unusual,’ I commented. ‘May I look at her?’
‘Of course,’ replied Yulie, and stood up to let me move closer to the bed.
I looked down at Arna and noted how frail she seemed. She had lost a lot of weight since I had last seen her. I put my bag down on the floor, then checked her pulse, which was weak, and listened to her breathing. I grimaced slightly as I heard the tell-tale sign of a patient unable to clear her throat. I looked at Yulie.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said simply, and was surprised to see Yulie smile weakly back towards me.
‘Don’t be,’ she said and drew her arms about herself. ‘Sorry, that sounds terrible. I may not have seen mother for several years, but we kept in touch. I knew she was dying when I got here this morning, and just don’t want her to be in any pain.’
‘I understand,’ I said, taking off my coat and folding it into a pile. In the absence of anywhere else to put it, I rested my coat at the foot of the bed, and then lifted my medical bag up onto the bed, opened it and peered inside. I frowned as I realised that there wasn’t quite enough light to see what I was looking for and bent closer to try and find my tools.
‘Turn the lights on,’ Yulie said.
I paused, wondering whether Yulie was really that stupid, but then came a shout of ‘TURN THE LIGHTS ON NOW!’
I looked up, intending to berate Yulie, but stopped when I saw that she was staring at her mother. Moving my head to look at Arna, I was shocked to see Arna was mouthing the words. ‘FIRE!’ she roared.
‘Well that’s unexpected,’ I said, a moment before the bedroom door burst open and Wilhur and the others came into the room. As they saw me rummaging in my back bag, Yulie stood against the wall, and Arna lying on her bed shouting, they stopped.
‘Is Auntie Arna hallucinating again?’ asked one of the women.
‘Yes,’ replied Yulie. ‘Same as before.’ I watched as Arna began moving her arms, lifting them up in the air, one hand close to her face, one further away, before putting them down again. Yulie quietly ushered the other family members out of the small bedroom.
‘What’s she doing?’ I said quietly and was surprised when Yulie replied.
‘It’s like what she was doing before. Maybe the arm movements are a bit more exaggerated.’
‘What words did she shout earlier?’
‘It wasn’t really words,’ said Yulie, ‘just noises.’
‘What noises did she make earlier?’
‘I’m not really sure,’ replied Yulie. ‘They didn’t make much sense.’
‘Please try to describe them.’
‘They were just noises. Maybe some could have been part of words, but it didn’t make any sense.’
Arna suddenly sat up in bed, her body looking even frailer than just moments ago.
Realising that my hands were still in my bag, I straightened up and moved closer to the head of the bed. ‘Arna,’ I said, ‘Can you hear me?’
Arna’s lips were moving but no sounds were coming out now. Likewise, her arms had stopped moving and were now clasped to her head. She collapsed back on the bed, but turned sideways, facing away from her daughter and towards the peeling paint on the wall of her bedroom.
‘It’s uncommon,’ said I, ‘but I think she is reliving memories of her past.’
‘She never really talked of what she went through during the wars,’ replied Yulie. ‘I guess she thinks she’s back in those days.’
I nodded and returned to my bag. ‘I’ll give her something to help her sleep, then come back in the morning.’
‘Thank you,’ replied Yulie, as I brought my hands out from the bag, one holding a small syringe and the other a dark bottle. I carefully drew liquid from the bottle into the syringe, then injected the liquid into Arna’s left arm, still clasped to her head.
I carefully placed the syringe into a metal container in my bag, and then returned the bottle to the same place. Closing the bag, I reached for my coat at the foot of the bed. ‘Try and get some sleep. Your mother will.’
Yulie watched as I slipped my coat on.
‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGGGGH!’ came the next scream from Arna, closely followed by the smell of burning flesh. We both looked back at her as the door burst open and the relatives came back in. Just below where I had injected Arna, her flesh was burning in a straight line. A second later, the flare had gone, and she had a wound across the width of her upper arm. The wound cut a groove down to the bone through what little flesh she had; the flesh cauterised. I spun left and right trying to work out what had caused the burn, but there was no other sign of damage anywhere. Stepping closer to Arna I examined the wound as her relatives began shouting and jostling, all trying to see what had happened.
‘Las wound,’ I said. ‘She’s been shot.’
More screams, running and shouts: ‘Help Arna!’ ‘I’ll get the protectors!’ ‘Get down!’
I remained where I was. What had just happened? Wounds didn’t appear without a cause, but there was nothing I could see which could have caused this wound. After a few moments, instinct took over and I turned my attention to the patient, who hadn’t moved since she screamed. Ignoring the relatives, particularly Yulie who was still screaming, I cleaned and dressed the wound, confident that it was caused by a las weapon or cutter of some description. After a few minutes of relative peace, my work was complete and the relatives appeared calmer, including Yulie.
‘She’s comfortable, and still sleeping,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing else for me to do.’
‘You need to stay here until the protectors arrive,’ said another woman who hadn’t spoken before. I was quietly amused that this was a family with the naivety to believe the protectors would still protect them.
I nodded. ‘I’ll wait here and keep an eye on Arna.’
‘I’ll stay with you,’ said the woman. ‘I don’t want you to be on your own with Arna.’
I nodded again, unsurprised at her hostility. The rest of the family began to file out of the bedroom and back into the living area. The other woman picked up the chair which had been knocked over in the rush and sat down next to the bed. With nothing else to do, I leaned against the wall and waited.
The entrance bell rang once, twice, three times. The sergeant raised his head and looked at me: ‘You’re closest.’ I scowled back at him and examined the vidscreen showing the front of the compound. A single man, average height, average build. Too much snow was falling to see if he was carrying any weapons, but only a fool would come on his own to a protectors’ compound to cause trouble. I pressed the button to allow the front gate to open, then closed it behind him to ensure that he was on his own. The man ran straight through the yard to the front door of the largest building and began knocking frantically. I shrugged on my flak armour and strode over to the door. The man practically fell through as I opened it, and immediately began gabbling at me.
‘Please come quickly! My grandmother’s been shot! We need your help!’
‘Slow down and take a deep breath,’ I told him. ‘What has happened?’
The man made a token effort to catch his breath, and I had the opportunity to examine him in a bit more detail. He looked about the same age as me, but obviously hadn’t had the same upbringing as mine. Despite the snow melting into the worn fabric, his clothes were still functional, and there were no obvious signs of weapons underneath. His eyes were slightly guarded, but that was common for many people when they came here for the first time. My initial feeling was that whatever he was trying to tell me was true.
‘My grandmother’s been shot. She’s doing poorly and in bed at her home. The doctor was with her, and she’s been shot.’
‘Do you mean the doctor shot her?’
‘I don’t know, I just need someone to come and help us.’
I glanced over at the sergeant who had been listening with obvious boredom. ‘Off you go,’ he said, before adding ‘and take the truck.’
Maybe this wouldn’t be a waste of time after all.
After about fifteen minutes of crashing through the snow, I slid the truck to a stop outside a drab hab block in Rockcrete Gardens. The man guiding me glared with undisguised hostility as I checked in with base on the vox. ‘We got you on the tracker,’ came the voice of the sergeant. ‘I’ll make sure there’s mobile support in the area in case you need it.’ Satisfied, I jumped down to the ground from the armoured cab and waited for the man. He got down more slowly and seemed relieved to be out of the truck. ‘We got here quicker than walking,’ I told him, as I reached back up and retrieved my equipment. I pulled my half-helmet onto my head and holstered my heavy stub-pistol. After a moment’s pause I also took my riot shield and shock maul. With the crest of the Governor’s house prominent on my flak armour, I knew precisely the image I projected and was content.
The man lit a candle and led me into the hab block. I noted that the front of the building was relatively well-kept, which indicated that gang activity round here was probably low. The interior was dark, as were all buildings at night which didn’t have their own power supplies. The man took me to the third floor, and then down a side corridor to apartment III-XV. He opened the door and was about to enter the apartment when he paused and turned back to offer the lead to me. I cocked my head and used my shock maul to indicate that he should go first. Shrugging, he entered the apartment and said, ‘Protector’s here.’
I followed him into a large room lit by candles. Closing the door behind me, I swept the room. Two chairs and one table, plus a food preparation area. Two doors, one on the right-hand wall. Five men, three women, plus three juveniles. No immediate threat, and no weapons visible. For the scene of a shooting, it looked remarkably calm. A middle-aged woman stood up and addressed me.
‘Thank the Emperor you’re here. I’m Yulie Blassow, and it was my mother who was shot.’
‘Where is your mother?’ I asked.
‘In there,’ she replied as she pointed to one of the doors. ‘The doctor and Saxha are in there with her.’
I nodded and walked to the door she indicated, before using my maul to push it open. Inside was a bed, chair and dresser. Three people were in the room – an elderly woman lying on the bed, a young woman sat next to the bed, and a large man leaning against the wall. I closed the door behind me and stood in front of the dresser. ‘You’re Saxha,’ I said to the woman, who nodded, ‘and she’s Arna, the victim.’ Saxha nodded again. ‘You must be the doctor,’ I said to the man. ‘Correct,’ he said, coming away from the wall and looming over me. That movement changed his appearance dramatically. He was a hunchback, with a scarred face and unbalanced features which would no doubt scare the majority of his patients. Although I had never met before, I knew of him by reputation.
‘Doctor Aloysius,’ I said.
He smiled, or tried to. ‘My reputation goes before me.’
‘Please tell me what happened here.’
‘I was called out tonight…’
‘He shot her!’ said Saxha.
‘I didn’t,’ said Aloysius.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Saxha, I’ll ask you to explain what you mean first, but I’d like Doctor Aloysius to just confirm the status of the victim.’
That smile again. ‘The las wound is cauterised, but Arna has existing medical conditions which mean she will soon go to the Emperor’s side. She is very old and very ill.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘Now Saxha, please tell me what you think happened.’
‘I was in the main room when we heard Arna scream. We rushed in here and saw the wound to her arm. The only people in the room were Yulie and the doctor. It must have been him who shot her!’
‘So, you didn’t see him shoot her?’ I pressed.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘but who else would have done so?’
I looked round the room, then picked up one of the candles and moved it around the walls and ceiling, trying to find any drafts through a hole which might have been caused by a stray las-shot. Nothing appeared.
‘Okay doctor,’ I said as I concluded my search. ‘Your turn.’
‘I was in here with Arna and Yulie. The wound just appeared. I cannot explain it.’
‘So, you didn’t shoot her?’
‘No. I’m a doctor, not a killer.’
‘Do you have a las weapon with you?’
Aloysius stiffened. ‘Yes,’ he replied. I whipped my stubber from my holster and pointed it at him.
‘Where is it?’
‘In my coat pocket.’
‘Please use one finger to bring it out. If you make any attempt to grab it, I will shoot you first.’
Aloysius nodded, and dipped one long finger into his pocket. Very slowly, he brought an old laspistol out and held it in front of him.
‘Drop it on the bed and step away.’
Aloysius complied. Without taking my eyes or gun off him, I grasped on the bed and picked up the weapon. It was old, and clearly hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. My eyes snapped to the power pack in the handle and flicked the indicator lever to check on the amount of energy present. I pointed the laspistol at Aloysius and squeezed the trigger. A thrill ran down my spine as he flinched, but then looked up in puzzlement as nothing happened.
‘That pistol’s old and useless. It didn’t cause this wound.’ I tossed the weapon back to Aloysius. ‘Something else is going on.’
I tried to look at Arna herself, but she was facing the wall with her arms over her head and I didn’t want to disturb her. The dressing on the wound was prominent on her skinny arm.
I looked round the room, searching for clues, but nothing was obvious. Even the Emperor in his shrine offered me nothing. On the cluttered dresser I saw a pict of a young man and woman, in clearly happy times. ‘Is that Arna when she was younger?’ I asked.
Saxha nodded, ‘That’s right.’
‘Is the man her husband?’
‘No, that’s her twin brother Ander. He was in the PDF, but then got conscripted into the Militarum in the early stages of the Crusade. He didn’t come home.’
‘Ander,’ moaned Arna suddenly. ‘It’s Ander.’
We moved closer to the bed, and I encouraged Saxha to talk.
‘Auntie Arna, it’s Saxha. Can you hear me?’
‘Need to retreat,’ whimpered Arna. ‘Need to pull back.’ She moved her arms in a complex pattern which seemed both familiar and bizarre. But it wasn’t random.
‘She’s been confused for a while,’ said Aloysius.
‘Confused in what sense?’ I asked.
‘She’s been talking and making arm movements which suggest she is remembering experiences from her past. Her brain is making her think she is somewhere else in place and time.’
Somewhere else in place and time. Wherever and whenever she was, it didn’t sound like it was a happy experience.
‘Was your aunt PDF as well?’ I asked Saxha.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘She tried to join but was unsuccessful. I’m not sure why, but Yulie might.’
‘Was she involved fighting the rebellions?’
‘I don’t think so, no, but again Yulie would know more.’
Something was nagging me. Somewhere else in place and time. ‘Can you ask Yulie to join us?’
Saxha went into the other room and returned with the middle-aged woman who had spoken to me earlier.
‘Saxha told me you were asking about my mother’s past?’ Yulie said.
‘That’s right,’ I replied. ‘What military background did she have?’
‘None that I know of. She was never in the military, and during the various rebellions she was looking after her children.’
‘But she seems to be remembering some military activity. Where do you think those memories come from?’
Somewhere else in place and time.
‘I don’t know. Ander was the one who served in the military, not mother, and she’s not seen him since he left on the Crusade.’
Somewhere else in place and time.
‘Were they close?’
‘What do you mean?’
I grimaced. ‘Were they close as twins? Did they share a special connection, did they finish each other’s sentences, did they know what the other was thinking without asking?’
‘I don’t really know,’ Yulie said. ‘None of us ever met Ander; he left before we were born, and mother only talked of him rarely.’
At this point Aloysius spoke up. ‘I understand where you are going with this, protector. It’s one explanation.’
I wasn’t sure that support from the hunchback was really what I wanted, but I didn’t have much else to work with.
‘I need to call in and seek further assistance. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Please all stay here.’ As I left the apartment and headed downstairs, my thoughts were racing. If what I thought was true, then I needed specialist help. But if the sergeant thought I was talking nonsense, then he’d make sure everyone knew about it. The easy option would be to pretend that nothing serious had happened here; the right option would be to go with my gut instinct. I walked back out to the truck and swung into the cab. Grabbing the vox transmitter, I called back to base.
The knock at the door was firm but not frantic. I tried to rouse myself from sleep and failed. The knocking resumed a moment later.
‘Sir, it’s the duty orderly. I need to speak to you.’
‘One moment!’ I called back automatically and tried to open my eyes. Looking at my chrono I groaned. It was well past the middle of the night, and I hadn’t been in bed that long. I turned on the side light, padded from the bed to the door of the duty officer’s room, and opened it. Suddenly, I became conscious of the shape which could still be seen under the sheet on my bed.
‘What’s up soldier?’ I said to the messenger.
‘Sir, we’ve been contacted by the local protectors,’ he replied. ‘They’ve requested military assistance.’
I groaned. Calling out the stand-by platoon in the middle of the night was not what I wanted to do. ‘What’s happened? Another rebellion?’
‘No Sir, not at all,’ he said. ‘They don’t require guns and boots; they’ve asked for someone to provide them with information about one of the Regiment.’
‘Someone been a naughty boy, have they?’ I joked.
‘I wouldn’t know Sir,’ he replied, with no sense of humour whatsoever. ‘I’ve had the duty clerk prepare a dataslate for you with details of the individual requested.’
‘Very good,’ I said. ‘Who is it?’
‘Not one I’d ever heard of before. Name of Ander Blassow. Joined up over half a century ago, then was conscripted into the Crusade soon after and hasn’t been back since.’
‘Really? Why are the protectors interested in him?
‘I wouldn’t know Sir. There will be a transporter waiting for you outside in a few minutes; the driver will have the dataslate. I’m sure the protectors will tell you what this is all about.’
‘Of course, I’ll get ready now.’ I closed the door and considered my bed. If I handled this correctly, I might be able to finish this and get back to my room quite quickly. The thought spurred me on, and I dressed quickly in my fatigues. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ I said and left the room.
It took almost an hour to find the address we had been given. I had never been to this part of the city before, and even in the dark and snow I could tell why. An armoured truck was parked outside the slum dwelling and my driver parked our Cargo-8 behind it. I jumped out of the transport holding the dataslate and looked for the protector who was supposed to meet me. From out of the darkness a slim figure appeared bearing the equipment and markings of a protector.
‘Lieutenant Janner?’ she asked.
‘That’s correct,’ I replied. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Protector Hasblow. I’m the one who asked for PDF support here.’
We started to move towards the building and Hasblow picked up a candle. When the light shone on her face, I was surprised to see that it was still young and pretty.
‘And what support do you need? I mean, I know you’ve asked about Blaggow – ‘
‘Of course, my mistake, Blassow. I know you’ve asked about Blassow, but I don’t see how a man from fifty years ago can help with your work.’
Hasblow was about to start climbing the stairs, but instead she turned to face me properly. Blassow’s sister is upstairs. She’s dying, but she’s exhibiting significant signs of unexpected behaviour. I think there’s a connection with her brother.’
‘What does ’significant signs of unexpected behaviour’ mean?’
‘I think in the last moments of her life she is experiencing whatever her brother is doing.’ Hasblow looked at me so earnestly that I almost burst into laughter.
‘Whatever do you mean? Do you think she’s a witch?’
‘It’s not impossible for latent psychic activity to be triggered as a result of a traumatic event. Arna Blassow is dying. I imagine that the process of dying is fairly traumatic.’
I stared at the young protector, and she held my gaze. Inwardly I groaned. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be as quick I had hoped for.
‘Come on,’ Hasblow said. ‘Let’s go and meet the family.’ She turned and began to march up the stairs. Three floors later, she walked down a decrepit corridor to a door which was barely worth the name. She walked through the door and into a crowded hovel filled with dirty people. I instinctively recoiled from them. Contact with the common people of the world was still a rare opportunity for me, and not one I enjoyed. Still, I could tell they were impressed by my martial bearing and uniform; they all stared at me as I followed Hasblow across the room and through another flimsy piece of wood dividing one room from another.
The second room was even worse than the first. A bed, a chair and a dresser. A near skeleton on the bed, a near mutant giant standing in the corner, and another peasant on a chair. With Hasblow and myself in the bedroom, it became very cramped, and I was forced to get closer to the hunchbacked giant to find myself some space.
‘Doctor Aloysius,’ he said to me.
Physician, heal thyself, I thought..’Lieutenant Janner,’ I replied.
‘And I’m Yulie Blassow,’ said the other woman. ‘My mother is Arna.’
‘The lady on the bed,’ added Aloysius.
‘Thank you for coming, Lieutenant,’ said Hasblow. She was stood next to the dresser, from which she picked up a pict of two young people. ‘The male here is Ander Blassow, twin brother of Arna. We believe he joined the PDF decades ago and was then conscripted into the Indomitus Crusade. Can you provide more information about what happened to him since?
‘Of course,’ I replied smoothly. I had reviewed the dataslate whilst on the way here and hadn’t been surprised at the lack of data.
‘Ander Blassow joined the PDF in 23.M42 and was one of those conscripted into Fleet Primus in 30. We don’t have much data on what happened to him as an individual afterwards, but we know that he was in the 3rd Hallvan Armoured Regiment. We have received sporadic reports of the Regiment since then, but nothing for the last ten years.’
I paused and noted that all in the room were staring intently at me. For many ordinary citizens, news of what was happening on the Crusade was strictly rationed, and to hear details of the local regiment was incredibly rare.
‘We do know that due to time spent travelling between worlds, only about twenty Terran standard years have passed for the Regiment whilst fifty years have passed back home. From the records we have received, we know that Ander was still alive ten years ago and had received a battlefield commission due to both his ability and the number of casualties taken by the Regiment. But I don’t know where the Regiment is now or where it’s going next.’
The others said nothing for a few moments, clearly expecting me to continue saying more. When they realised I had finished, they each looked disappointed.
‘I’m not sure whether that’s what you wanted, but that’s all I’ve got on Ander.’
‘Ander,’ wailed the near-skeleton on the bed. She rolled onto her back and began moving her hands and arms, whilst opening and closing her mouth without making a sound.
‘Do you recognise those arm movements?’ asked Hasblow.
‘I do,’ I replied. ‘She’s operating a pintle-mounted heavy weapon.’
‘Is that something which Ander might do in an Armoured Regiment?’ asked Hasblow.
‘It’s certainly possible.’
‘What are you saying?’ asked Yulie. ‘You think she is connected to Ander somehow?’
‘Possibly,’ said Hasblow. ‘I think she’s fighting a battle in her mind, but I don’t know whether it is a recollection of something she experienced herself, or whether it is something which is happening somewhere else in place and time.’
‘But how could she be shot if she’s reliving her past?’ pressed Yulie.
‘The human mind is still a great unknown,’ added Aloysius.
‘I’ve never seen military effect achieved by wishful thinking,’ I stated. ‘It normally takes bullets and blades.’
‘Is there any way to work out what she is saying?’ asked Yulie. ‘She’s been talking a lot since I got here, but I can’t understand her.’
‘She is audible and coherent at times,’ stated Aloysius, ‘but I know of no way to influence her.’
‘Take cover!’ suddenly shouted Arna, although in truth her body had little strength left to shout. I watched in amazement as this tiny figure clearly fought in a battle somewhere in time and space. My respect for the ordinary citizen crept up slowly as I recognised the effort made by her to fight something somewhere. What did she think she was involved in?
As I watched, the skin on her left cheek suddenly sliced open and Arna began to bleed slowly. I froze, unable to understand what was happening in front of me. I could hear a gasp from Yulie, and both Aloysius and Hasblow got even closer to Arna.
‘Definitely not common,’ said Aloysius quietly.
Hasblow straightened up. ‘Whatever is happening to her must be happening now, to someone else somewhere else.’
‘I agree,’ said Aloysius.
Yulie burst in tears.
I nodded in amazement. ‘But what do we do now?’
I knocked on the door firmly, but not harshly; I came to assist, not to condemn. It was opened by a young man, probably twenty Terran standard, wearing worn clothes and with an air of melancholy. He clearly wasn’t expecting a visitor at this time of the night. He clearly wasn’t expecting a visitor to announce himself by displaying the insignia of the Emperor’s Holy Inquisition.
‘I am Inquisitor Jonto Frawn,’ I began.
‘Wilhur,’ the young man stammered back.
‘Hello Wilhur,’ I replied. ‘May I come in? I believe your grandmother lives here.’
‘Of course,’ Wilhur said and stood to one side to allow me to enter.
I indicated to my retinue to wait outside and stepped into the home of Arna Blassow. The room I entered was filled with love and sorrow. Arna’s family were waiting for something to happen, expecting the worst but hoping for the best. They had heard my introduction and stared open-mouthed at me a typical mix of curiosity and fear. I used a gentle nudge of force to dispel the fear and reduce the curiosity.
‘She’s in there,’ said Wilhur, pointing to a door which led off the living area. I walked towards it, taking care not to disturb a sleeping child with my force staff as I stepped over him. The door was opened by someone on the inside, and a young woman in uniform who was just about to step out stopped when she saw me. I showed my insignia, and she struggled to maintain her composure.
‘I am Inquisitor Jonto Frawn,’ I began.
‘Karo Janner,’ the young woman stammered back.
‘Hello Karo Janner,’ I replied. ‘May I come in? I believe your grandmother lives here.’
‘Of course,’ Janner said, then stopped herself. ‘She’s not my grandmother. I’m PDF; our assistance was requested by the protectors.’
I arched an eyebrow at this, but of course I knew who she was and why she was here. I stepped into the small bedroom, and my eye was instinctively drawn to the shrunken figure on the bed under the household shrine to the Emperor. Physically frail, she burned with an internal light that I could see with my other sight. I struggled to take my eyes off her but was able to do so after a few moments and examined the room’s other occupants. There were three women, including the one who let me in, and a hunchbacked man. With me in there as well, the room was now crowded and as the others tried to get away from me, the space was insufficient to do so.
‘Doctor Aloysius,’ said the man.
‘Protector Hasblow,’ said the second young woman.
‘Yulie Blassow,’ said an older woman.
‘My thanks to you all for what you have done this night,’ I commented, and then addressed Yulie directly. ‘I have heard much of what has happened to your mother tonight. Can you tell me in your own words?’
Yulie nodded and summoned the remains of her emotional strength. ‘My mother is dying,’ she began. ‘Like many people on this world, the environment has slowly poisoned her. I arrived expecting to hold her hand as she passed to the Emperor’s side, but instead I’ve had to watch and listen to her doing things I can’t explain. I don’t know what is happening to her, but I just want her to be at peace.’
‘I understand. Will you allow me to examine your mother?’ Yulie looked at the others, not sure what to say, but then shrugged and nodded her agreement.
I approached Arna, taking time to look at the physical wounds visible on her body. After a moment, I handed my force staff to Aloysius and said, ‘Please hold this.’ Aloysius looked shocked and his hands struggled to take hold of the staff. I took my hand off it and the staff fell into Aloysius’s hands. The look on his face as he struggled to comprehend what was happening to him was priceless.
I returned my attention to Arna. I carefully took off my gloves and placed them on the bed near Arna’s head. Leaning over Arna, I touched my fingertips to her temples and let my mind flow into her body. The initial feeling of resistance was normal, and I could have pushed aside her paltry natural defences without any significant exertion. But rather than demonstrate my strength, I wanted to let her see my compassion. I chose to fill her mind with a pleasurable warmth, and a brief hint of the support I could lend her at this time. Then I was in.
Please help me!
Of course, Arna. What can I do to help?
I don’t want to lose Ander. I’ve just got him back after fifty years and I don’t want him to leave me again.
I understand. Why are you afraid of losing him?
Ander is talking to me, but he can’t hear me, and my body is growing weaker. I need more time to be able to make him hear me.
Of course, Arna, I can help you. Are you sure you can hear him though? I don’t want you to be disappointed.
Yes, I can hear him. He’s telling me about the battle he’s involved in now.
That’s fantastic, Arna. Has he told you where he is? Or how he’s getting on?
I’m not sure where he is, but he’s doing well. I think he’s a little busy and doesn’t quite have the time to tell me everything that’s happening.
That’s okay, Arna, don’t worry. You’re doing very well to hear him at all with everything he and you are going through. Have you done this before?
What do you mean?
I mean have you and Ander talked before since he left home?
Of course we have! We’re twins. We’re very close.
That’s lovely, Arna, how wonderful. I must go now and get more help, but I promise that I’ll be back.
Thank you, please hurry! I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on for.
I broke the connection and withdrew my fingers from her face. I momentarily felt disjointed, as I often did after merging with another’s mind, but this time it was different. There was something different about Arna Blassow.
I looked at the others – at the doctor, the protector, the soldier and the daughter. For a moment I wondered how they would view me later – saviour or executioner?
‘Yulie, your mother is dying, but I think I can save her. I need your permission to move her to a facility which specialises in cases like these.’
‘What do you mean? How would you save her?’ asked Yulie.
‘She won’t survive a move,’ said Aloysius.
‘She will,’ I replied. ‘I have a means of stabilising here and now, prior to movement.’
‘Why are you even asking?’ said Hasblow. ‘I imagine that there’s very little we could do to stop you if you decide to move Arna.’
‘True,’ I admitted. ‘The reality is that I do so much without opposition that it does me good to practice humility every now and again by asking.’
‘In that case, no,’ said Yulie firmly. ‘I want mother to be at peace. I don’t think you want the same.’
I sighed, and instinctively Hasblow and Janner both tensed. They knew what was coming. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and prepared to impose my will on them, when suddenly Arna sat bolt upright in bed. All eyes turned instinctively to her and watched as she screamed a scream of intense sadness and loneliness. Our ears rang, and the doctor and Yulie both recoiled from the aural assault. She vomited blood, and then collapsed back on to the bed.
From outside the apartment I could hear my retinue charging in, but the relatives in the living room were ahead of them in entering Arna’s bedroom. A crowd of people pushed into the room, and the protector was bowled off her feet in her attempts to stem the flow. Aloysius moved with surprising speed, dropping my staff and pushing past Yulie to reach Arna, who was now convulsing. He tried to reach his medical bag, but it was too far away. Arna had now gone perfectly still, and Aloysius tried to resuscitate her. I joined his efforts, grasping Arna’s temples with my fingers and trying to find her mind.
Arna, are you there? Can you hear me? Arna, I’ve got the help you need, don’t leave me. Can you still hear Ander? Ander, are you there?
But there was no response.
I tried harder, forcing my will upon Arna. There should have been something there, there should have been something for me to find.
But there was nothing.
I took my hands away from Arna’s temples and realised that Aloysius had also stopped his attempts to bring her back. He looked at me and shook his head.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said to Yulie, who burst into tears.
‘We should leave,’ said Hasblow, who had managed to find some space to stand up again.
‘Agreed,’ replied Janner, and she began to push her way out of the bedroom. Hasblow and Aloysius followed, the latter grabbing his medical bag as he went past it.
I held out my hand and the force staff jumped into it. The relatives didn’t seem to notice. I followed the others out of the apartment and onto the third floor landing. We paused there, the doctor, the protector, the soldier and the inquisitor. Arna Blassow’s final visitors.
Janner broke our silence. ‘If she was in contact with her brother, what happened to him?’
The others looked at me.
‘I don’t know,’ I said and followed my retinue down the stairs and into the light of the new day.
About the Author
Mark Butterworth lives and works in the UK.