The first time he saw her he turned to Cassius and said, ‘I’m going to marry that woman.’ They were in the mess hall; he had a spoonful of grox stew halfway to his mouth. He was struck by her skin – so smooth, so white. It was like marble. He imagined it being cold to the touch.
He imagined taking her home to meet his parents between their shifts in the agri-domes. How proud they would be.
The grox slipped off his spoon and smeared grease down the front of his uniform. He spat on his fingers and tried to scrub at it – what if the Commissar came by? When he looked up, she was gone.
‘You’re dreaming,’ Cassius said. ‘She’s a sergeant – and she’s gorgeous.’
But somehow he knew it was fated. He could almost feel the heavy hand of the Emperor settling on his shoulder to guide him. But it was weeks before he saw her again.
He was crouched in a foxhole with Cassius waiting for the greenskins to attack. A Chimera rumbled past, churning the fresh snow. She was in the turret, peering into the dark.
The biting wind had died and the fat snowflakes seemed idle in the air. He forgot his frozen hands, the snot that had become ice at the base of his nose. All his thoughts were of her.
There was something cold about her, too; something sad, he decided. As though life held no pleasure for her. Well, he would change that. He would make her smile.
He heard the popping of distant lasgun fire. ‘They’re coming,’ Cassius said. He prayed to the Emperor: keep her safe.
The ice world was lost and in the weeks following their redeployment he saw her often: in the troop ship’s corridors, in the chapel, in the mess hall. He tried to time his meals so he could look at her as he ate.
He ate alone; Cassius was dead. She was never alone. There was a clique of them, all officers, all somehow beautiful humans, though she was the fairest of all.
He was too frightened to approach them. What if he said the wrong thing? The future he had mapped out in his mind would collapse.
He slept poorly. He knew that he needed to talk to her; he knew that if he did, he risked ruining everything. He prayed to the Emperor for strength. He prayed for guidance.
One night he rose to pace the deserted corridors of the troopship. He came upon her at one of the viewports. In the starlight her pale face was almost luminous. She was staring out at the void. He felt again the Emperor’s embrace; surely, this was the chance he had been praying for.
‘Cold out there, I hear,’ he said, standing beside her.
‘Cold as death,’ she said. ‘All that separates us from it is a few feet of armoured glass.’
He rapped his knuckles on the viewport. ‘Seems pretty solid to me,’ he said. He grinned.
Finally, she faced him. His heart soared like a troopship heading to orbit. ‘I love you,’ he told her.
‘Some of the officers are having a get-together tomorrow,’ she said. ‘You can be my guest.’
When he returned to his bunk he fell to his knees and wept with happiness. He clasped his hands and thanked the Emperor. In his mind he saw the Emperor’s warm smile.
The next day she led him deep into the deserted bowels of the troopship, where the air was hot and stale and even the tech-priests rarely came. He waited for her to explain but she was silent. He didn’t mind. He imagined her in a white dress with the Emperor in stained glass above her.
Finally, she stopped before one of the thick metal doors and cranked the wheel to open it. A sweet perfume met his nose before it swung wide, revealing a room that swam with amber light. Silks in purple and pink hung from the walls. He followed her inside.
He realised they were not alone. Bodies swayed in and out of the soft shadows at the edges of the room. He heard moans of pleasure – or pain, but how could pain exist in a place like this?
She handed him a crystal flute filled with a fizzing liquid. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever held. He gulped greedily. The drink was so sweet it almost caught in his throat.
He realised she was smiling. He wondered if a heart could burst. ‘Hot in here,’ he said. His hands were sticky. He undid his top button.
At the back of the room was a shrine unlike any he had seen before. He took a step towards it and stumbled. The drink had gone to his head. The statuette on the shrine was female, naked, its arms curling into sinuous tentacles, or claws – or was that just the room spinning?
Suddenly his legs collapsed. He looked up at her from the floor. Everything was slipping away.
When he came to, he was bound to a hard, flat surface by the wrists and ankles. He had been stripped of his clothing and blindfolded, gagged. He thrashed around but the bindings only tightened.
‘He’s awake. We can begin.’ It was her. He tried to call out but the gag stifled him.
Voices around him began to chant in a language he did not know. There was a metallic sound and a searing pain in his lower leg as a blade inscribed something – some kind of symbol – in his flesh. He screamed and writhed. Blood ran down his ankle. The bindings held.
The chanting rose in pitch. The blade made another incision on his knee. His sweat ran into the wound and made it sting. A numbness crept up his body like frost on a window. He prayed for the Emperor’s warmth and found nothing. Only cold. A void. A chilling, red-lipped smile.
About the Author
Jack is from New Zealand’s shakiest city, Christchurch, and enjoys painting grey plastic and stumbling around in the grimdark.