Is Someone There?

5/5 (1)

Norvan Taram had a problem.

This was not an uncommon position for a scholam headmaster. Familiar roads that led here, though they usually had more to do with budget, turnover of staff, and the mysterious vanishing of prayer wine. These were familiar because they were real problems, involving real people in the real world.

Taram knew how to deal with real things. You didn’t claw your way up through the murky politics of public institutions without knowing how to handle reality. It was when he encountered the unreal that he found himself at a loss.

He picked up the sheet of parchment from his desk. He looked. He put it down again. He took a slug of prayer wine straight from the bottle.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t encountered children with overactive imaginations before. Indeed, it wasn’t that they hadn’t seen more than one ‘gifted’ student called from class into the company of very severe, very silent women in black. It was a fact of life in the Imperium. It was just how things were.

Really, it shouldn’t have come to him at all. It should have been stopped in Room Three, swift corporal punishment issued by the instructor and a discipline notation in the class log. Taram should have remained blissfully unaware.

Unfortunately, it involved flowers. Room Three had a small grow-lumen and a box of soil in which bloomed a strain of mother-shade. The students were rostered to keep the shoots watered and pruned as a duty-and-mindfulness exercise, with the added benefit of a splash of colour amongst drab and peeling browns. The protection of their little project was fierce: had another class even been suspected of tampering, there would have been fighting in the halls.

 

Yet a petal had been plucked without anyone seeing. The class had been set to drawing heroic figures of the Imperium – revered Saints, holy generals, and local governors. Each sketch was done on butcher’s parchment with rough charcoal. Most children drew what they had glimpsed in stained-glass windows or mouldy tomes.

One picture, however, had been of something that would never be in a book of Imperial scripture. Certainly nothing from the scholam’s own librarium.

One picture had been coloured something other than black. The mother-shade petals had been crushed onto the paper, a blue as rich and dark as poisoned berries, spread carefully to fill the space between lines. Like blood beneath the skin…

Taram shook his head. Those were thoughts from another life.

That was the heart of the problem. The thin-lipped instructor had sent the girl responsible home before bringing the picture to the headmaster. The instructor hadn’t recognised it for what it was.

A strange lightness in his hand. Was the bottle empty already? How late was it? The candles in the office were burning low. 

The headmaster took a small copper key from an inside jacket pocket. It fitted the top drawer of his desk, opening with a click. He pushed aside yellowing school reports. Beneath was a bottle of the good stuff: a fine vintage he’d been gifted as a retirement present. Next to it, less well-loved, was his lieutenant’s rank pins – and the worn grip of his service laspistol.

Taram had his suspicions on why they let officers keep their guns when they mustered out. But perhaps it was just to be a memento. Something to be proud of, something that proved he’d been there, that he’d survived.

And he had survived. Hadn’t he?

The things he’d seen – the things he’d killed – they were part of another life. They were out there, out in the cold and dark, far away from civilised worlds. They weren’t allowed to be here. It had taken Taram a long time, and many visits to a patient ex-Militarum medic, to be able to sleep a full night under the unfamiliar ceiling of his hab-block. Without a regiment of soldiers around him, to protect him from the things out there…

Taram’s hands shook as he uncorked the bottle. A little of the alcohol splashed across his desk. 

He recognised the picture.

Not in the way other officers of the Astra Militarum would. They would see it and say, ah yes – the fabled Adeptus Astartes. They would say: yes, this is clearly a mark of powered armour, imagine the weight of all that ceramite! Could stop a tank round, one would say, and then the rest of the night would be spent in argument over whether they could, how one of them had seen a Space Marine grazed by a shell and run on to dismantle the tank with his bare hands.

But they would be wrong.

They would say: close attempt by the young lass, eh? Rough around the edges. Can’t blame her for accuracy. Hard to sketch off the memory of some grainy prop-vid. It’s a wonder she didn’t colour it in black, rather than Ultramarine blue.

His mouth was dry no matter how much he drank.

They would be wrong.

The colour, the mother-shade, the darkest blue, the blood beneath the skin, the promise of screams to come – she had been right. She had been exactly right because Taram still saw that colour in his dreams. The ones he woke from, unable to breathe, knowing – knowing – what happened to those who made a sound.

Silence hadn’t been a friend. It had been the second of enemies, trumped only by the dark of that damned world. Silence bore down like a weight, a vice-hold that made you so utterly alone that you could not help but to speak, to ask, to hear anything but the sound of your own panicked heartbeat.

‘Is someone there?’ Taram whispered into the shadowed corners of his office.

The candles flickered, guttered.

The fine hairs on arms and neck rose.

The darkness hummed.

‘Yes’, it whispered back.

The candles winked out. 

Death came, in midnight clad. 

About the Author

James is a long-suffering tech-priest from Hive Victoria, Australia. Between performing the Ritual of Cycled Power and adjusting for noospheric interference, he has found some small measure of peace in creative writing. Ave Omnissiah!