‘What is the T’au?’ the new auxiliary asks me.
He chatters while we work, when he should be focused on his task. I do not know why he has been assigned to my cadre, but I’m sure there must be a good reason. All will be revealed as required by the Tau’va.
We are in the armoury of the H’tol’tor Igolt, or Notions of Authority, and we should be checking the functioning of the cadre’s weaponry instead of engaging in inane conversation about the elementary and the obvious.
‘We are the T’au,’ I tell him.
I fit a power cell to the boxy plasma pulse rifle in my hands, and check the status indicator. A complete circle is displayed; the perfect shape, just like the T’au.
The human’s furry features contort. They are almost as hirsute as the Nicassar, with their mouths always hanging open as if addled by some mysterious aroma. Ah but no, their olfactory orifices are there, in the centre of their heads.
‘No, the Greater Good,’ he repeats. ‘In your language, don’t you call it that: the T’au?’
‘Ah, I see your confusion.’ I remove the power cell, replace the pulse rifle in its cradle, and take the next one down. ‘No, what you call the Greater Good is not T’au but the Tau’va.’
‘Right. So, what’s the T’au?’
‘We are the T’au.’
The face crumples again. I am learning this indicates annoyance or irritation. Au’ei! I am a simple firewarrior–let him speak to an Ethereal and be enlightened. That is their role. Mine is to inspect the weapons.
His name is long and difficult to remember. Balts’zar? Bal’A’Zar? Balt’haz’ar? Balthazar. Yes, that is it. Balthazar.
‘Hey Vak’thas, did they tell you which system we’re going to?’ Balthazar asks me.
‘Any idea what the op is?’
‘Don’t you wonder why I was assigned to your team?’
‘No.’ Well, perhaps a little, but there would be no harmony if I admitted this out loud.
‘Aren’t you even a little curious?’
I huff in reproach at the question, though I think he misses the gesture. ‘No,’ I say. Again, my curiosity or lack thereof is irrelevant–only what is good for all matters. ‘We will be told about the mission at the most appropriate time, in accordance with the Tau’va.’ I make the sign of a circle within a circle. ‘We shall receive instructions and execute them to the best of our abilities. All else is a distraction. Now, have you completed your inventory of the grenades? This is important. They could save your life in battle.’
Balthazar makes another face I am unfamiliar with, involving raising his eyes to the ceiling for a moment. He returns to his review of the grenades. Of course, they are all there, in the exact number and location expected. The earth caste logistics team that loaded the ship with supplies did so in perfect accordance with regulations, just as it is regulation that we should review and confirm their work.
Shas’Ui’Skel’shi, our team leader, enters the armoury. He is older, a veteran scarred from glory in many battles. ‘The ship drops from light speed in 30 rai’kor. The cadres will meet then.’
Skel’shi looks at the weapons rack, then back to me in silent rebuke for my lack of progress. A human might blame their colleague for talking, but arguments and excuses do nothing to aid the Tau’va, so I spread my hands in contrition and acceptance of correction.
At the precisely appointed time, a chime sounds to summon us to the war council. Balthazar leaps to the armoury door and waits there, shifting his weight from foot to foot as I replace the last of the weapons, close the door and secure the lock. There is no rush. I have walked many times to the assembly hall and know precisely how long it will take. But Balthazar is forever three steps ahead of me, looking over his shoulder, silently urging me to go faster. I smile to reassure him but maintain my pace. Sadly, this does not improve his mood.
Au’ei! I am just a simple soldier.
The hall is a great round chamber, the largest inside the Notions of Authority. Soft lights are embedded in spiral rings in the ceiling, like stars across the galaxy, and the walls and floor are of pale, delicate pink and dusky purple. The hall is already filled with gold-armoured warriors when we arrive. Each team forms a circle about its shas’ui team leader, the teams themselves circle about the shas’el cadre commander, the six cadres a circle about the central dais.
In addition to Balthazar, I note that each of the other teams also has at least one Gue’vesa human auxiliary. In addition, there are several teams of tall, gaunt, quill-fringed Jikita’la, belonging to a kindred with gills and webbed appendages, probably the result of a diet of aquatic life-forms. The Jikita’la, or Kroot as the humans call them, absorb the DNA of those they eat and meld it directly into their own genomes. I do not think there are any sentient aquatics, so the tribes with us today are walking a dangerous path–go down it too far, absorb too much of the fish, and they risk becoming more animal than thinking, sentient beings.
Such thoughts are soon driven from my mind as Aun’Kaba enters the chamber, every cell of my being vibrating in unison. His gold-robed form sweeps among us, a hand raised in benediction and blessing. Aun’Kaba is … perfection. Every word he speaks is neutrino-precise and photon-bright, piercing through ignorance with illuminating insight.
Beside him stands the commander, Shas’O’Brek’tal, as solid, present and real as Aun’Kaba is numinous. Her movements are as inevitable and unstoppable as gravity, her presence draws the eye as inescapably as a black hole does light. I feel nothing but pride to be allowed to share this space with them, to become the instrument of the Tau’va.
Above Brek’tal’s head, a hologram of a planet springs into being. It is a blue-grey globe, covered in thick, striated bands of grey and white clouds. The hologram’s point of view moves, dips down towards the planet, pierces the clouds, revealing endless waves in every direction.
‘We are in orbit above a human world called Tumult,’ Brek’tal begins. ‘As you can see, it is a water-world, with the human population concentrated into a handful of floating complexes. This planet was first discovered 16 T’au’cyr ago by the cruiser Merdg’daga’j, or Willing Compliance, and after contact and negotiation, its rulers requested membership in the empire. An Integration and Adjustment Command under Aun’O’Vei was left on the planet.’ The portrait of a female Ethereal briefly overlays the image, her face grave and serious. It fades into the planet’s mist as Brek’tal continues. ‘Progress reports from Aun’Vei were promising, until all communication abruptly ceased two T’au’cyr ago.’
The view shifts again, skimming across the tops of the waves towards a cluster of distant black needles. As the view draws closer, I see that each needle is a smooth, black tetrahedron the size of a dozen sept-homes, high as a mountain, with a fringe of landing pads, docks, wave generators and station-keeping engines at the waterline.
‘Our mission is to confirm the status of Aun’Vei and Integration and Adjustment Command Tumult and to investigate the cause of the blackout. One cadre will be sent to each of these four complexes, with two in reserve,’ Brek’tal continues. ‘Each team has been assigned a Gue’vesa to assist with contacting the local population. Jikita’la teams will be inserted at the waterline and investigate the sub-levels of each complex. Report to me immediately upon confirmation of the nature of the blackout and the fate of the Integration and Adjustment cadre. Questions?’
Of course, there are none, for to raise a question would imply the briefing had been less than perfect and that we were somehow dissatisfied with it.
Brek’tal makes a flat, smoothing motion, the T’au gesture of completion. ‘All teams will be issued plasma carbines and photon grenades,’ she says. ‘AX-5-2 Barracuda fighters will escort the dropships and provide air cover. The deployment of TX-7 Hammerhead armour and XV-88 Broadside battlesuits is contraindicated by the restricted terrain inside the city-ships. However, we do not anticipate any resistance or hostilities, so this will likely be more than sufficient. That is all.’
The cadre files from the hall and marches down to the armoury. The standard fire warrior combat armour includes an enclosed helmet with communications equipment and vision enhancement. There is an enlarged shoulder guard on the left arm, as all T’au shoot with the right hand, bearing the sigil of my sept, Fi’rios. I take my plasma carbine from the rack I inspected earlier, taking pride in its polish and readiness. The carbine mounts a grenade launcher under the barrel, and I stow a brace of photon grenades across my belt.
Balthazar’s world has more recently joined the Empire, and he has yet to be issued the standard gear. The Gue’vesa wear bulkier, hard-angled carapace armour and have brought their own lasguns, rather than using our more powerful plasma weaponry. Balthazar clanks when he walks. My eyes crinkle with amusement, but he cannot see behind my helmet.
The team of webbed and scaled Kroot stride past, shouldering their long, jagged guns and clacking to one another. They are tall, taller even than Balthazar, and their eyes hold no warmth or friendliness.
‘They give me the heebie-jeebies,’ Balthazar confides, watching them clatter away. ‘I don’t get them.’
‘They are not so strange,’ I say. Unlike the slavering Be’gel or paranoid fanatics of the Imperium, we seek peaceful coexistence with all other species. Harmony. ‘If you wish your two species to grow closer, perhaps you should allow them to eat a few of you.’
‘The more humans they eat, the more human-like they will become.’
Balthazar shudders. ‘Sounds pretty inhuman to me.’
‘Perhaps only a few aged and infirm then,’ I suggest. ‘Surely the sacrifice of a few is worth greater amity and cooperation between your two species.’
Balthazar looks at me, head tilted to one side. ‘Vak’thas, sometimes I wonder if you … Would you let them eat you? If you were ordered, I mean.’
‘If necessary for the Tau’va, of course I would. I could no more refuse to obey an order than I could shoot a member of my own team. But that is a foolish question. I am more valuable to the empire as a warrior.’
Balthazar looks again after the disappearing Kroot. Quietly, he says, perhaps to himself, ‘Oh yeah? You sure about that?’
Of course, I am sure. How can anyone doubt their place on the road to the Tau’va? But I hold my peace. Patience. The humans will learn, in time.
There are four AX-4 Orca-class dropships waiting in the launch bay to transport our cadre to the surface. The Orca is a bulky oblong shape, with two pairs of directional thrusters, both fore and aft, built for speed and manoeuvrability.
About three-quarters of the dropship is taken up by the rear troop compartment. Eight teams of six can fit, seated in four lines of 12, each warrior strapped in and secured against any sudden manoeuvring, our weapons carefully stowed by our sides. As a junior member of the team, my position is closest to the cockpit and furthest from the rear exit doors. From the cockpit, I can just hear Skel’shi talking with the air caste pilot. At my side, Balthazar rattles in his armour as he fastens his restraints.
‘What do you think, Vak’thas?’ he asks me as he places his lasgun in the rack at his side. ‘Think the greenskins attacked? What if it’s Space Marines, Astartes? We’re going to be outgunned without combat suits.’
I listen to him chatter without comment. As in the armoury, he seems to feel the need to fill calm and rounded silences with streams of jagged-edged, rapid-fire blather. I suspect he is merely nervous, perhaps a little afraid.
‘I am sure Shas’O’Brek’tal has considered this, and is ready to respond to any scenario,’ I say when Balthazar’s stream of words finally sputters out. ‘Trust the commander. Trust in the T’au.’
A warning klaxon signals our departure. There is a brief moment of lightness as the dropship leaves the protective shell of the Notions of Authority’s artificial gravity, quickly replaced by the growing pressure of acceleration and a steady hum as the engines thunder to life.
Soon, the dropship begins to shudder and bounce as we drop through the outer layers of the atmosphere. I feel relaxed, trusting our kor’ui pilot to bring us down safely.
The shaking grows more violent, and even through my armour I feel myself thrown against the restraints. The cabin blurs somewhat, vibrating too fast for my eyes to follow. There is a dull, metallic thud from somewhere on the outer hull of the dropship. This has never happened in any previous drop. Perhaps our pilot is new. Balthazar looks troubled.
‘There is no cause for alarm,’ I reassure him quietly. ‘Trust in the–’
The dropship lurches heavily to one side, tilting almost vertical on one wing, and the tone of the engines changes from thunderous boom to wailing scream.
Balthazar yells something, probably unflattering about the pilot, but fortunately it is lost in the peal of the thrusters, and I am saved from having to correct him. Instead, I gaze at the opposite bulkhead, which has now become the floor, and wonder how far we are above the waves of Tumult’s ocean, and how long before we hit them.
From the cockpit access hatch, I can hear the honking of an alarm.
Trust in the pilot, trust in the Tau’va, trust in the shas’ui, I must trust in the kor’ui pilot, trust in the Tau’va, I must …
With a jerk, the dropship rights itself, and the scream of the thrusters slowly fades to their normal growl. I let go a breath I was unaware of holding.
‘We are through the storm layer,’ Ui’Skel’shi announces over the team communications channel in our helmets. His voice is calm, flat, reassuring. To acknowledge the terror of our flight would invite disharmony, so it is ignored. ‘Approaching the landing zone. Prepare to disembark.’
The tail of the dropship dips slightly, and the lighting inside the compartment changes from white to orange. At this signal, I depress the release stud on my restraints. There is a symphony of clicks as the other T’au firewarriors all do the same, followed a beat later by an erratic staccato clatter as Balthazar and the other humans unclasp their own harnesses. I retrieve my carbine from where I stowed it, activating the power cell.
The rear of the dropship swings open. There is only darkness beyond. The interior cabin light changes from orange to yellow.
‘Go, go, go!’ urges Skel’shi.
We leap from the Orca with weapons ready, spread out across the landing pad. The rain is nearly horizontal, the wind howls and batters. Overhead is indigo and ash, split by sheets of lightning that fill the sky from horizon to horizon. Each flash illuminates the landing pad, as well as a cluster of towers, hangars and other buildings that surround it, and the vast mountain bulk of the pyramidal complex beyond it. I sweep my plasma carbine across the doors and windows of buildings surrounding the landing pad, grey shadows and silvery highlights in my helmet’s display. No lights shine from within, nothing stirs.
The landing pad is located at the edge of the floating city. Far below, the great grey ocean undulates, pulses like a thing alive, hammering against the base of the city in wordless, frothing fury. A handful of rotund gun drones float above our heads, each mounting a pair of linked plasma carbines that twitch back and forth, as though scenting the air like Kroot hounds. Out to sea, another dropship stoops over the waves, and scatters a line of Kroot divers like tiny black eggs, plopping into the sea with tiny white blisters that are immediately swallowed by the churning waters.
Above us rise the steep, sloping sides of the tetrahedral complex itself, mirror-black and rain-slick. My helmet amplifies the pulsating lightning that flashes among the clouds, and I see there are gaps in the pyramid’s cladding, panels smashed or broken away. A shard of one flaps frantically back and forth in the gale winds, as though beckoning, or signalling distress.
The dropship rises into the air on four pillars of wavering heat, leaving the teams on the landing pad. Alone in the dark, save for the wind and rain and wordless ocean.
Skel’shi and the other team leaders announce each sector clear and secure. Like our inspection of the weapons, this is unnecessary, as each warrior carries a module that monitors their position and vital signs, and allows the shas’o to remotely monitor all visual and audio data, even high above in the Notions of Authority–but it is good to do, calming, reassuring. An echoing chorus of readiness rises from the teams on other landing pads about this complex and the other three hives. Everything is proceeding as planned.
‘All cadres, leave one team to guard the landing pad, other teams enter the main compound and begin your sweep, one team per level,’ Brek’tal orders.
Our team is the closest to the compound, so it falls to us to take the lead. The landing pad is separated from the complex by a long, thin walkway, barely wide enough for two warriors to stand shoulder to shoulder, suspended above the waves. At the far end are the great arched doors to the complex, easily twice my height, ornately carved from some dark and lustrous metal, firmly shut.
We advance cautiously in a staggered double line, weapons ready, trained on the doors before us. Skel’shi in the lead, then Balthazar and myself, followed by three others. Out here, away from the protecting bulk of the landing pad buildings, we are exposed to the full force of the gale. Our slow advance becomes more necessity than caution–I must nearly bend double just to stay on my feet. The walkway vibrates in sympathy with the howling wind.
The great doors rear before us. Skel’shi points to Balthazar, then the door. Balthazar nods, slides slowly forward, standing sideways to the doors to present a smaller target. He holds the lasgun in the crook of his arm, and reaches out with the other hand and presses it against the right-hand door. Five plasma carbines are trained on the faint line that separates the two doors. Balthazar leans forward, and pushes.
The door swings easily, soundlessly inward.
Balthazar, surprised at the lack of resistance, stumbles forward a step, catches himself, goes to one knee with his lasgun ready. After a moment, he signals the all clear, and slips inside, swallowed–just as the Jikita’la were–by the shadows of this place. One by one, we follow after.
On the other side is an entry hall. It is typically human in its brutal and baroque architecture. There is a double row of black columns. The main overhead lumens have either failed or been turned off, though there is a faint, sodium glow from emergency lumens built into the bottom of each wall. A thin layer of dust covers the floor, stirred now by the wind gusting through the open door.
On one wall there is a bas-relief sculpture of battle. A giant, haloed figure drives back a mass of writhing, corrupted nightmare enemies. Twisted humans with tentacles and horns and claws wither before the radiance of the human hero.
I notice Balthazar is looking up at it.
‘A god?’ I ask him, pointing to the radiant figure.
Ah, of course. ‘How terrible to be forced to worship the one that enslaved you,’ I say, sadly. ‘How terrible life must have been here, before they joined the T’au.’
‘Yeah,’ Balthazar agrees slowly. ‘Must be hard when you have no say in how to live your life.’
‘It is lucky for you that your world joined the T’au Empire.’
‘Sure is,’ Balthazar nods, but I do not detect any enthusiasm in his voice.
‘Quiet,’ Skel’shi barks, and we turn our attention back to the team leader. He points down to the far end of the hall. ‘We will begin our sweep.’
Beyond the entrance hall is the main thoroughfare. Here, too, the lighting has mostly failed, save for a few emergency lumens at ground level, exaggerating the shadows of the many carvings and relief sculptures. A few air circulators, as furry as a Nicassar from lack of maintenance, wheeze and rattle.
Smaller corridors branch off to either side at irregular intervals. The walls are pocked with doorways leading to businesses, communal areas and sleeping units.
We enter a housing unit. There is an entrance hall with a reception desk, unmanned, a bank of security monitors, blank and layered with dust. Beyond is a corridor, utterly dark, lined with doors to the individual sleeping units. This far down the pyramid, these will belong to menial labourers, the human equivalent of the earth caste. There is no differentiation or decoration, merely an insectile march of identical doorways.
Skel’shi silently points to me and Balthazar, then to the corridor. I give a fist clench of acknowledgement. With a sub-vocalized command, I turn my helmet’s light amplification up to maximum. Slowly I step forward. Even treading as silent as I can, each footfall echoes like a thunderbolt.
We stop in front of the first unit, Balthazar against the wall to one side of the door as I take up position against the other. The door is of a sliding type, and stands open the width of two fingers. There is no light on the other side.
There is an activation stud on the wall. Balthazar presses it, but the door is without power and does not open further. Balthazar shoulders his lasgun, braces one hand against the door frame, the other against the edge of the door, and slowly forces them apart with a falsetto screech of metal on metal.
As soon as it is wide enough, I pounce through. Beyond the door is–nothing. A room. A plain, ordinary room. Tables, chairs, an entertainment unit, a food preparation area. I wait for Balthazar to join me, then head further into the unit.
We find them in the sleeping room. Four individuals, two adults, two juveniles. Each one lies on a bed, facing upward towards the ceiling, dressed in everyday clothing, shrouded in sheets from the waist down. Their hands are clasped to their breasts.
They are dead.
I know this without checking. There are no marks of violence, no signs of struggle in the room, but I do not doubt they are dead. They make no movement, no sound.
Balthazar rushes forward but I restrain him with a hand to the chest. ‘Infection,’ I tell him. ‘This may have been disease, or something more insidious.’
Balthazar hesitates, then nods, a human gesture of understanding.
Skel’shi has been watching on my helmet’s visual feed, and now his voice fills my ears. ‘Possible, shas’la, though it is unlikely that all four would have succumbed at the same time, and so peacefully. Search the unit for weapons, poisons or–’
His broadcast is interrupted by Aun’Kaba. ‘Cancel that order. The fate of human colonists is of secondary importance,’ he says sharply.
This is … startling. Of course, it is the Ethereal’s right to intervene and countermand orders. However, it is. Unusual. Have we displeased the Ethereals, disturbed the Greater Good?
‘Our first priority is Aun’Vei and the Integration and Adjustment Command. Continue your search until they are found.’
Skel’shi mutters consent. He is unhappy, but voices no objection, does not disturb the T’au. I take solace in Skel’shi’s acceptance, and strive to follow his example and master my own misgivings. I motion for Balthazar to follow me out of the room. He gives the family a long look, before he begins to follow in my steps.
We move quickly through the other housing units in the compound. Many are empty. In the rest, the same pictograph is reproduced, over and over: adults, juveniles, even household pets, sometimes alone, other times with their families, lying in bed, sprawled in chairs, collapsed in hallways, all dead. No wounds, no signs of violence at all, yet every last one of them dead.
This housing complex has become a mortuary.
After a double handful of such scenes, I lose count of how many humans have died here. Thousands, in this complex alone. This is but one of hundreds on this floor, one of thousands in this hive. The implications stagger me. Millions dead, tens of millions.
And what about the others? For all the dead, there are many missing, too. Where have they gone? There is a stench here, not of decay, but of madness. Though I cannot say so out loud, I am afraid. Not for myself, but for the T’au.
A new voice speaks in our helmets.
‘Attention, La’rua team Skel’shi.’ It is Shas’O’Brek’tal. ‘We have lost contact with your cadre’s Kroot team. Proceed to sub-level four and re-establish communications.’
‘As you command, shas’o,’ Skel’shi acknowledges. Then to us, he says: ‘You heard the commander. Let’s move. Vak’thas and Bal’ta’zar, you take point.’
Us again? I could understand having Balthazar in the lead during our sweep of the housing area, but this is getting–but no, the shas’ui must have his reasons. Obedience is enough. We find a stairwell, shine our lights down into its depths, and slowly work our way down, down, down into the belly of the hive.
We pass landings, with exits marked S1, S2, S3 in blocky, black Low Gothic script. We must be below the surface of the water now. The air feels different, smells different, salty, humid, thick, making sound move sluggishly. The walls seem closer.
At S4, the internal lighting has completely failed. A little faint, weak light filters down from the upper levels, but beyond the stairwell doorway even that falters. Our helmets’ Black Sun filters adjust, pulling in thermal imaging, magnetic and motion sensors, even high-frequency echolocation pulses. The helmet screen builds up an image, monochrome, plastic-smooth in places where data is lacking, but enough for us to proceed.
The sub-level is crammed with desalination, sanitation, recycling, station-keeping and power-generating machinery. Power cables and tubing worm just overhead in a confusing mass. Here and there, thick black coolant or some other viscous liquid has leaked, and drips from overhead in fat, echoing drops, pooling into grubby puddles on the surface below. The engines hum, whine and chug, some smoothly, others labouring, all the sounds combining into an aural sludge that fills the air.
‘Team halt,’ Skel’shi calls, and we settle into a ringed, defensive circle. Skel’shi stands still, head tilted slightly upwards. Finally, he looks down and tells us: ‘I have lost contact with the shas’el cadre commander and the shas’o.’
That is disquieting news. ‘Should we return?’ I quickly ask.
‘No,’ Skel’shi says. ‘This is doubtless what the Kroot encountered. Some anomaly, perhaps in the construction, structure or material of this place, which blocks communications. We must investigate.’
Skel’shi orders us to pair up and spread out. Of course, Balthazar is assigned as my companion. I am getting used to having this human as my shadow, though I still wish he could be as quiet as one.
‘Everyone dead or vanished, and now the Kroot have disappeared?’ he whispers to me as we duck under cabling and around stagnant, foul-smelling puddles of chemicals. ‘There’s more going on than Aun’Kaba is telling us.’
I stop for a moment. ‘That is both probable and normal, Bal’ta’zar.’ I try to remain calm. ‘Aun’Kaba is the leader, we are mere soldiers. We do not need to know everything. Perhaps doubting your commanders is common among you fractious, selfish, undisciplined humans, but we are T’au. Now, silence please. Your jabbering is interfering with the sensors.’
‘Jabbering?’ he mutters, but falls silent.
We enter a larger opening among the water desalination machinery, an irregular rectangle of space that served as a meeting point for the labourers and technicians on this level.
I get a ping on my helmet sensors. Motion, and sound, coming from the corridor up ahead. The helmet tries to fill in as best it can, paints an amorphous and blurry shape, vaguely humanoid, moving this way. It amplifies the sound—clacking. Scraping. I motion for Balthazar to hold. He hesitates, then hears the sound too, and hunches down. The lasgun trembles in his hands.
‘Contact, shas’ui,’ I find myself whispering, even in the confines of my helmet.
‘Human? Jikita’la?’ Skel’shi barks.
‘Uncertain. It is moving this way.’
‘We are on our way. Stand by.’
The clacking and scraping sound comes again, louder now. Organic sounds, I feel sure, bone or chitin on the metal of the floor. Definitely something alive. A human survivor or one of the Kroot we are searching for, it must be one or the other. It is drawing closer, closer.
A shadow moves.
I am ready. My finger beside the trigger of the carbine. ‘Halt!’ I call, in Low Gothic. ‘Identify yourself!’
The figure lurches forward another step. It is tall, gaunt, covered in scales save for its head, from which springs a long mane of black, shiny quills. I relax, take my finger from the trigger. It is one of the Jikita’la, the Kroot. We have found the team. It appears unhurt. We have been worried for nothing! ‘Shas’La’Vak’thas, of Skel’shi’s team,’ I say to it, almost giddy with relief. ‘Shas’Ui’Skel’shi, I have found the Kroot. They are all right.’
The Kroot regards me, but there is no recognition. Instead, it snarls. ‘K-k-kyew!’ The voice is high-pitched and echoing, animalistic. Like the sonar of some underwater creature. The Kroot crouches, whipping around the long, spiked barrel of its Kroot Rifle. The cry of ‘Kyew!’ is taken up somewhere behind this Kroot, and there is the clatter of more approaching footsteps. Five more Kroot charge into the room, weapons at the ready.
‘Uh, Vak’thas,’ Balthazar says, ‘I got a feeling they might not be 100 percent all right.’
‘You know, I think you might be right.’ I crouch, bringing my carbine up. At the same time, there is a sound from behind me. Skel’shi and the rest of the team have arrived. Skel’shi immediately understands the situation. The squad spreads out, facing the Kroot, their own weapons pointed at our allies. Five T’au and one Gue’vesa face six Kroot across the length of the room. Nobody moves.
‘This is Shas’Ui’Skel’shi. Stand down,’ he orders. ‘Lower your weapons and report your team’s status.’
The Kroot mutter to one another. Their voices are sibilant, hard to follow. They seem to repeat the same word back and forth to one another. It is–yes, I can make it out–they say: ‘Murder.’
‘I repeat, stand down. Put your weapons down.’
‘Put them down. Down. Now.’
‘Yes, murder. Murder.’
‘Drop them. Last warning: Drop them or we open fire.’
Both teams open fire at the same time. The Kroot Rifles are modified for underwater combat, coughing, barking, firing shards of crystalline ammunition that form a disintegrating haze that sweeps over us. I’m firing, the rest of the squad is firing, the brilliant blasts of our pulse carbines turning the deep gloom of the room into blinding, strobing daylight.
At this range, we cannot miss. Nor can they. Splinters of crystal smack into my shoulder guard, my thigh, my shin, like being beaten by a hundred tiny hammers. The gyrostabilizer in my carbine keeps it level even as I am knocked back. I fire and fire, not bothering to aim. The Kroot opposite me is kicked back by the impact of the plasma burst, thrown off its feet and it flies, smashes into the wall behind it, bounces off and falls to the ground.
Silence. Darkness returns.
All six Kroot lie broken, blasted and burnt. Their faces are still twisted masks of rage and pain. Thanks to our armour, we have fared better, though two of our number lie dead, and a third thrashes weakly on the ground, a twinkling shard of crystal jutting from his neck. Ui’Skel’shi, Balthazar and I have survived.
‘What just happened?’ Balthazar stands in the middle of the room, looking alternately at the dead Kroot and our own losses, his lasgun dangling forgotten from one hand.
‘It is as I feared,’ I explain to Balthazar. ‘Atavistic. These Kroot have regressed too far, become too animalistic.’
‘They seemed okay before. What triggered them?’
‘Who knows? Some shadow, some sonar echo or sound-shape beneath this hive drove them mad, perhaps, the way pods of some aquatic species are driven to beach themselves. As I said, they became unthinking, wild and dangerous.’
Skel’shi says nothing, but moves to stand over our slowly dying comrade. He bows his head a moment, passes a hand over his eyes, then raises his carbine and fires a single pulse. The burbling moans stop.
‘It is for the better,’ Skel’shi says. ‘He would not have lived.’
‘It is for the better,’ I agree.
Balthazar shakes his head. Instead of agreeing, he says, ‘Well, we found them. We know what happened to them. Do we head back topside and report?’
Skel’shi considers, then makes a vertical chopping motion with his hand, the T’au gesture of negation. ‘No. Vak’thas may be right, but we must be certain. We must retrace the Kroot team’s footsteps, find what they found.’
‘What they found drove them mad,’ Balthazar says, quietly.
‘Bal’ta’zar!’ I admonish. ‘The shas’ui has spoken.’
Skel’shi touches his forehead in appreciation at my words, then waves towards the corridor the Kroot appeared from. ‘Bal’ta’zar, you lead–’
‘No,’ Balthazar says.
‘Gue’vesa,’ Skel’shi growls, ‘I am ordering you.’
‘I’m sick and tired of being your stalking horse,’ Balthazar returns. ‘Report me or whatever you like, but right now there’s just the three of us, with no support, no backup, no idea what’s out there, and if you want to face it with two people rather than three, go ahead but I’m not taking point, not again. You want to find whatever-it-is so bad, you lead.’
‘Bal’ta’zar’s armour and weaponry are inferior to ours,’ I interrupt quickly. ‘Shas’Ui’Skel’shi, I recommend that I lead.’ It is an excuse, patently wafer-thin, but it preserves harmony and the T’au by giving both of them an opening to back down.
Skel’shi grunts, Balthazar nods. Crisis averted, for the moment. Now all I need to do is to lead our trio into an abyss that has already claimed the sanity of an entire squad.
We have not travelled far when I notice a trail on the floor. A dried liquid of some type, smeared in long streaks as though it was scraped or dragged away. I crouch down, rub my fingers along the crusted trail and hold them up before my sensors. The helmet’s chemical sniffers analyse it for a moment, and spit out the results: Blood. Human blood.
The trail leads to a small, square chamber, with only one exit. Desalination machinery fills one wall, but it is silent, stilled. There are bodies on the floor, hundreds maybe, too many to count. They are human. They lie in almost orderly rows. None of them are armed. My first thought is, so this is what the Kroot meant by ‘murder.’ They found and murdered the human survivors.
As I kneel by one of the bodies, I feel a second wave of unease. This human has been shot by a plasma weapon. The burn marks on his body are unmistakable. The Kroot were armed with splinter guns, which leave wounds that look completely different. I look over at the next human. This one, too, has been gunned down with plasma fire.
‘Not the Kroot then,’ Balthazar says out loud. He has seen the marks as well. ‘Murdered, by your people.’
‘Impossible,’ I say immediately. ‘We T’au do not murder. A civil war among the population, perhaps …’
In response, Balthazar gestures towards the wounds. ‘You might try believing the evidence of your own eyes,’ he says. ‘That’s what the Kroot meant by ‘murder.’ The murder of these people.’
‘The Kroot were crazed, devolved–’
‘That’s an easy, convenient thing to think, isn’t it?’
‘You are mad. Irrational. Think logically–’
‘Closing your eyes, stuffing your ears and loudly proclaiming that everything is okay is not the ‘thinking logically,’ Vak’thas! Look at them. Look! The team your Empire left behind went berserk and massacred everyone. That’s why the Kroot turned on us–because they discovered what Aun’Vei has done. Maybe they thought they’d be next.’
‘You are over-excited,’ Ui’Skel’shi interrupts. ‘Remain calm. We will return to the surface and report what we have found. We must trust in the wisdom of the Ethereals to unravel this mystery.’
Balthazar hisses in laughter. ‘Let the Ethereals investigate a crime committed by the Ethereals?’
‘Wait,’ I say, forestalling another argument, perhaps a more deadly one. ‘We have a crime, but no criminals. Murder victims, yes, but no murderers. If the T’au truly did this Bal’ta’zar, as you believe, then where are they? Why the communication blackout? Where is Aun’Vei? Where is the rest of the Integration and Adjustment Command team?’
Balthazar, Skel’shi and I are silent for a long time, there in the dark. Somewhere, coolant drips, blip, plop, like a metronome keeping time.
Finally, Balthazar says, ‘Up.’ I wait for him to explain. ‘Your people are led by the Ethereals, they see themselves as first among equals. The highest caste. Aun’Vei, if she’s alive, would see herself as the top. She’d go up. To the peak of the hive.’
I force myself to nod like a human. It is as good a theory as any.
‘Agreed,’ Skel’shi says, as though it were his idea. ‘We will head to the top of the complex, and find Aun’Vei. She will reveal the truth.’
‘One condition though,’ Balthazar raises a hand. ‘Turn your vox and data link off. We’re cut off from the ship now, nobody will notice. If we do this, then we do this as a team of just us three. Maybe you’re right, maybe I’m paranoid, but this is the only way we find the truth without interference.’
I am sure that Skel’shi will tell him not to be ridiculous. It comes as a shock then, when the shas’ui makes the air-smoothing gesture of completion. ‘Very well, human. If it will avoid conflict and help us achieve our mission. However, when this is over, I will report your insubordination to the shas’o.’
‘Hell, if I’m wrong, report me to the Emperor himself,’ Balthazar shrugs. ‘What are we waiting for? Yeah, yeah, Skellie. I know, I know. I go first.’
It is a long and wearying climb. The power lifts are all dead, of course, and we must trudge up the stairs. The complex is huge, the other teams are few in number, and we easily slip past them. I feel guilty for making them worry, for doubtless we have been reported missing. I feel like a criminal. Worse, I feel naked, exposed without the link to the other teams, the cadre and O’Brek’tal. Alone with nothing but my own thoughts inside this helmet.
After hours of climbing, we come to a halt. The stairwell is blocked. Human furniture has been assembled into a crude barricade, reinforced with metal plates, some which appear to have been taken from the hive’s exterior.
The barricade is burned in places. Round impact marks, like the remains of ancient craters, surrounded by ejecta of half-melted plastic or metal. The marks of plasma fire. There is a discarded T’au shoulder guard among the debris. It has cracked down the centre, marring the sept sigil. There was a battle here. The T’au fought, and lost. Yet I see no evidence of any other types of weapons, no kinetic shell casings, no splinters of crystalline shards, nothing but plasma burns.
I push such thoughts away, consider how to get through. There is no telling how thick the barricade is.
‘Clear it with grenades?’ I suggest.
Skel’shi makes the hand-chop of negation. ‘Too time-consuming and of doubtful effectiveness. There is an emergency exterior walkway.’
The way is narrow and treacherous. Violent winds buffet us from every direction. It keens and whistles through the gaps in the metal, a banshee dirge that follows us with every step, higher, higher, coiling about the pyramid. We are perhaps 500 tor’leks or more above the sea level. Peering down, helmet sensors magnified, I can just make out the microdots of the landing pad and remaining team members on guard.
Seething rain batters against my armour. Balthazar slips, going down on one knee. Ceramite meets the steel of the walkway with a ring like a hammer on an anvil. We freeze, weapons ready, fingers on triggers. After a double handful of heartbeats, Skel’shi motions us forward again.
At the very top, almost the very peak of the pyramid-hive itself, is a wide viewing platform of metal, smooth and shiny as black ice. The metal is marked with plasma burns, scratched and scored, the signs of battle. There is a waist-high railing, and a sweeping panoramic view of the trackless, grey sea.
Aun’Vei stands at the railing, her back to us.
Her gold robe is dirty, tattered, and flaps frantically about her spare frame in the wind. She turns as our armoured footsteps clatter upon the platform. ‘Ah,’ she says, sadly. ‘There you are.’
‘I am Shas’Ui’Fi’rios Skel’shi,’ our team leader says. ‘Ethereal, where are the others? Where is the rest of your command?’
Aun’Vei gestures towards the waters. ‘The humans were unhappy, rebellious. Always demanding exceptions and special treatment, always thinking they knew better than us, always concerned with nothing but their own selfish desires. It was clear they would never truly accept the T’au. When I ordered the earth caste to poison the water supply, some objected. I had the firewarriors eliminate them, along with any human survivors.’
‘The water …’ I mutter. It would be easy enough, here, on an ocean world. The hive’s drinking water all came through the same handful of desalination plants in the bowels of the complex.
‘Some of the firewarriors refused my orders, and their bodies joined the earth caste.’ Aun’Vei is calm, as though she is discussing the weather. Cloudy today, chance of showers, sunny tomorrow, I ordered my own warriors to kill our people. ‘Other firewarriors were distraught, afterwards, about what had happened. They chose to end their own lives. I realized none could be trusted, not even the other Ethereals, and so liquidated them.’
‘Your own command,’ I whisper. ‘You killed your own command.’
‘Never mind that,’ Balthazar rages. ‘The planet. They murdered the whole damn planet, poisoned the water supply. That’s the crime they were trying to hide.’
Aun’Vei gives him a look that is almost pitying. ‘That is no crime.’
I place a hand on Balthazar’s arm. ‘Disharmony,’ I say to him. ‘The fact that T’au sided with humans against their own, and that T’au fought against T’au. For the T’au, that is the greater crime. That is what she sought to hide. Imagine the repercussions, should the failure of an Ethereal become known.’
Balthazar shakes his head, speechless.
Behind him, I have the glimpse of Skel’shi raising his plasma carbine. ‘We must ensure that never happens,’ he says. And fires. Violent blue-white light pulses.
Aun’Vei is thrown backwards against the railing by the impact, flips over it and tumbles from view. I race to the railing, knowing it is too late, far too late. Only to catch a glimpse of a tiny, gold-leaf shape, like a scrap of foil, tumbling, bouncing from the side of the pyramid, dwindling into nothing before hitting the waves with a tiny splash.
‘Shas’ui!’ I breathe, astounded. I cannot believe, cannot conceive of what has happened. An Ethereal. He dared to shoot an Ethereal. ‘We should have taken her back to the ship, to atone for her actions.’
I turn back from the railing, and hear Skel’shi say: ‘You are right. None must know.’
There is another pulse of light. I flinch, and save my life. The helmet takes a glancing hit from the plasma burst. The helmet display dissolves into static, the communicator fills the helmet with a piercing squeal then falls silent. The smell of burnt metal and plastic is everywhere. I cannot breathe.
I claw at the seals, tear the helmet from my head. Skel’shi stands before me, plasma carbine ready. Balthazar stands to one side, unseen behind Skel’shi, with his lasgun raised, but his weapon will likely be useless against the fire caste armour. I grope for my weapon, blinded by the rain, knowing it is too late.
‘For the Tau’va,’ Skel’shi says.
Balthazar tosses something, slides it along the platform, between Skel’shi’s legs. The dark round puck of a photon grenade. I squeeze my eyes shut, throw a hand in front of my face. Even then, even through my eyelids the detonation of the grenade is a brilliant, searing, miniature supernova exploding across the platform.
I open my eyes, blinking fiercely. Skel’shi staggers, his sensors blinded by the blast. The carbine is in my hands. I do the impossible. I fire. I shoot my own commander. My own commander. The gun hurls comets of starfury into Skel’shi, sending him spinning, sprawling across the platform, before coming to rest against the far side in a smoking, burning heap.
He struggles to rise. Looks directly at me. ‘Good,’ he says. ‘That is good,’ and falls back, dead.
Balthazar slowly comes to my side, keeping his lasgun trained on Skel’shi’s unmoving form. He extends a hand and helps me to my feet. I need to grip the railing with what little strength I still have. I can barely stand, struck by the enormity of what I have seen, what I have heard. What I have done.
Balthazar starts to laugh. Not a happy laugh, not a joyous one. Despairing and bitter. I look at him in question.
‘Don’t you get it?’ he says to me. ‘Don’t you see the irony? It was the humans who went to their deaths meekly, like good little T’au. It was the T’au that rebelled and went crazy.’
I do not trust myself to answer. Thinking: He is right. Thinking: Skel’shi was also right, it must never become known that Balthazar is right.
‘What happens now?’ Balthazar asks the sea, not looking at me. ‘They’ll kill us.’
The answer, like the T’au itself, is simple. Perfect.
‘We already have our villains. The Kroot massacred Aun’Vei’s command team and the human survivors. Nobody is left to say otherwise,’ I say, sadly. ‘Nothing happens.’
‘This…’ I gesture to our dead commander, then sweep my arm to take in the waves, the bodies that lie beneath the surface, ‘…This never happened. It cannot have happened.’
‘We let Aun’Vei get away with it? We lie?’
‘We preserve the Greater Good.’
Balthazar is silent for a long time. He looks at the waves, he looks at his lasgun. I wonder if he will follow the firewarriors, and shoot himself. I wonder if I should stop him. He lifts the gun–and with a convulsive heave, tosses it from the platform. It is snatched away by the winds before it hits the water.
‘That is the T’au,’ I say.
He nods. ‘That is the T’au.’
About the Author
Giles was born in England, grew up in Canada, lives in Japan and has no idea how to answer the question “Where are you from?” He writes professionally about the car industry, and extremely unprofessionally about science fiction, fantasy and 80s tabletop wargames. His passions include Tolkien, Monty Python, Iain Banks books of all flavors of M-ness, A.A. Gill articles, late 90s William Gibson and talking rubbish about 80s tabletop wargames.