My name is Quintus Atticus Agrippa. A name long on words and short on meaning. I’m just a man trying to get by in His Imperium like everyone else. I make what little money I can by providing a service in constant need: finding out what people want to know and dealing with problems they don’t. There are sewers full of men like me, but I do my work the most honest way I can. Especially the dishonest work. In His Imperium, on this planet of Illis, in the backwater Hive of Wiscin, I’m just another man trying to get by, and mostly succeeding.
My job is to investigate lovers, business partners, missing persons; sometimes, I even handle negotiations. While these are necessary services, my clients can’t often pay much. That’s fine. A good service leads to good rewards, I always say. That’s how I ended up with a blonde woman sitting across the desk in my office sobbing her story out. Dressed in a thick black overcoat and large hat, she looked every bit the respectable mid-30s middle hive wife that she was.
‘He hasn’t come home for three days,’ she sniffled, and blew her nose into the handkerchief I had given her.
‘I know this is difficult Mrs. Jenkins,’ I replied, trying to keep my voice as gentle as I could, ‘but is it possible he left you for another partner?’
‘No!’ she protested. ‘Herond lives for his job. He barely has time for anything else.’
‘Even his wife?’ I asked. She nodded slowly. I sighed. ‘Would you like something to drink? Tea perhaps?’
Mrs. Jenkins nodded again. Reaching over to push a button on my desk vox-caster, I said,
‘Cassia, can you bring Mrs. Jenkins a cup of tea please?’
We waited in near-silence with only the sound of occasional sniffles. It was broken when Cassia, my secretary, entered with a cup of tea on a saucer. She was older—well, maybe not. Working out here made one look old when they were young. What spoke that she might be old was not the hunch, gravelly voice, or milky film over her eyes, but the rictus in her hands. Cassia was a rare one who could use a cogitator to fill forms. Her hands, however, had a hard time moving as they should. Rictus would end a clerk’s career early. As such, she was intensely focused on keeping the cup and saucer still as she handed them to Mrs. Jenkins. Giving me a sidelong glance, she departed without a word and shut the door.
‘You said he was acting suspiciously?’ I asked as she took a sip of tea.
‘Yes. He was staying out late and acting paranoid. I think he was nervous about something at work. He wouldn’t tell me anything, but he kept poring over the intake logs from the warehouse where he is an overseer for shipments.’
‘Have you reported this to the Constables?’
‘Well…’ she looked away. ‘Because…what if I’m wrong and he did leave me? I wouldn’t be able to stand the humiliation.’
I stood up and walked around my desk to hold out my hand to her. She looked at it for a moment with wet eyes before taking it. Giving her my best reassuring smile, I put my other hand over hers and said,
‘I’ll take the job. I can’t promise I’ll find your husband, but I’ll do my best.’
‘Thank you,’ she sniffed.
Reaching behind me, I pulled an auto quill and writing pad off my desk and handed them to her.
‘Can you write down any places he was known to frequent?’
She nodded and quickly started scratching out names and coordinates on it. When finished, I tore it off and put it in the front pocket of my suit. My other hand went out to help her up. As I escorted her to my door and held it open, she stopped to look back at me. Over her shoulder, I could see Cassia’s pinched face. Mrs. Jenkins sniffled, dabbed her eyes, and asked,
‘How much do I owe you for taking the case? I can’t pay much without Herond finding out, but I’m sure I could find it somewhere.’
‘Don’t worry about paying me upfront,’ I replied, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘We can sort it at the end.’
‘Thank you,’ she sniffed. ‘You’re a good man.’
‘I try,’ I said, ignoring Cassia rolling her eyes. I watched Mrs. Jenkins leave before looking at Cassia. ‘What?’
‘You men are all the same,’ she retorted. ‘A pretty crying woman tells you some sob story, and you trip over yourselves to help.’
‘So you agree she’s pretty?’ I smirked.
‘Ugh.’ She pointed one gnarled finger at me. ‘Don’t complain to me when you find her husband with another woman – or man! – and she skips hive in embarrassment without paying. All I’ll say is I told you so.’
‘If that happens, you’ll have every right to.’ I glanced at the chrono on the wall. ‘I’m going to get a head start on this. Lock up after I leave. I don’t want anyone coming in when you’re by yourself. You can go when your work is done.’
‘You’re the boss.’
‘Sometimes I wonder,’ I laughed.
Walking back into my office, I took my wide hat and long dark jacket from the coat rack in the corner. Both were caricatures of my trade. Unfortunately, they were necessary to keep the constant rain off. Most days it was harmless, but every so often, a piece of machinery blew and it could burn the skin. The thick jacket and hat kept me safe. Its bulk also hid the patchwork flak jacket sewn into the lining and the stubpistol strapped under my arm. It may have been patchwork, but it worked.
I stepped out into the ever-present mist. The dirty white clouds and towers of the Hive Centre broke the light from Illis’ sun into hazy streams. Glancing around – one could never be too careful – I made my way towards the Saint Cinnatus tram stop that would take me to my first destination.
Wiscin was a hive city because of its sprawl. It consisted of three rings separated by thick walls and heavy gates staffed by armed Regulators. Transportation consisted of a system of raised railcars that webbed their way through the rings. At its centre were the towers and domes of the Upper Hive. That was ringed by the Middle Hive, which contained residences and offices for Hive officials and Constable Watchstations.
Further out, the Lower Hive was home to manufactorums and menials. These ramshackle buildings of faded rockcrete were as durable and depressing as the Imperium itself. There was no underhive, just the slow decay and dissolution of habs until they surrendered to overgrown wilderness.
The streets were almost empty as I walked them. Even in the late afternoon, most were still working their luxurious ten hour days. Needed for the manufactorums, the various worker’s guilds had grown strong enough to pry concessions from the Nobles. One was a five, ten hour day work week.
Not that there was even much work; the manufactorums basically ran themselves. Water and waste purifiers for the nearby Hives, their fusion and geothermal reactors provided the heat to clean the dirty water pumped in before pumping it back. Constant leaks were why it was always humid.
The system had been here as long as Illis had been inhabited. No one knew who built it. The water network was the reason a small hive like Wiscin had an actual Arbites presence—as much as this backwater planet off no trade routes could. For any member of the Adeptus Terra, it was a dead end or punishment. I would know.
As I boarded the near empty tram, I checked for anyone overly suspicious. You never know when someone might hide amongst the ordinary menials. Seeing none, I stood in the corner and looked at the city going by. The dirty glass gave a hazy reflection of a man with enough to eat but not much more. The shadow cast by my hat nearly obscured my muddy brown eyes with bags underneath. Seeing nothing interesting in my reflection or outside, I turned back to the tram car and went over the case in my head.
Most of Mr. Jenkins’ haunts were close to the warehouse where he worked. That was good because more people would know him there. That was bad because they might be more inclined to protect him. However, there were always ways to get people to talk.
The local menial bar that was my first stop was nearly empty when I walked through the door. It was a dark, grimy dump that probably never saw better days. At the chime of the doorbells, a bleary eyed barman looked up from his futile wiping. The cracked pict screen in the corner had on a replay of a local scrumball match. I eyed the other sole occupant, a man in the corner with his head bowed over his drink. Not seeing anything of concern, I walked over to the bar.
‘Never seen you around before,’ he said. ‘I’m guessing you’re not from around these blocks.’
‘I’m not,’ I replied in a low voice. I pulled a fifty dolgrom bill from my pocket and laid a pict of Herond Jenkins on top of it. I slid both across to the bartender. ‘I’m looking for this man. Herond Jenkins. Seen him around?’
‘Hmm. Looks familiar. Can’t say when I’ve seen him, though,’ his volume matched my own. He paused and tapped his chin. I slipped another fifty across the counter. ‘Ah, yes. Jenkins. Haven’t seen him in the last week.’
‘Was he acting strange at all?’
The barman looked away, but tapped his two fingers on the counter. I slid two more fifties across.
‘Yeah,’ he continued, reaching under the counter to pull out a bottle and glass. He started filling it. ‘Muttering to himself and the like. Being twitchy, overly paranoid. We’re mostly warehouse menials here. Ain’t nobody who don’t know what your business is about.’
‘Would anybody know what his business was about specifically?’ I asked before throwing back the shot of brown liquid. Throne, that was awful.
‘Nobody I can think of,’ he answered, not tapping the bar.
‘Thanks,’ I replied, standing up and pocketing the picture.
‘What’s this all about?’
‘His wife thinks he’s cheating on her.’ It was an easy enough lie.
‘Wife?’ the barman chuckled. ‘Never knew he had one. Too ugly.’
‘There’s someone out there for everyone, I guess,’ I said as I walked away.
‘If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, feel free to come back,’ the barman called at my back. I looked over my shoulder and gave a nod before pushing out into the eternal dreariness.
My next stop was a food truck near the warehouse district. The converted Cargo-8 had faded picts of different noodle dishes on its side. I timed my visit so I was late enough to miss the lunch rush but early enough to beat dinner’s. Stepping up to the counter, a servitor jerked into motion at my approach, leaning forward.
‘Wha-wha-what would you like-eee-e to order-er-er…’ it buzzed harshly at me. I glanced around it to see if anyone else was there.
‘I’m not hungry,’ I told it. ‘Is there anyone else-’
‘No-no-no free-ee-ee-ee…’ it twitched violently, trying to get the next word out. A woman came up from the back.
‘Piece of junk. Even as a servitor, he’s still worthless.’ she snapped, hitting a button in the back. The light in the servitor’s eyes went out and it hung limp. Looking at me, she asked bluntly, ‘What can I get you?’
‘I’m not hungry,’ I repeated. My stomach decided to betray me at that moment by letting out a large growl. I hoped she hadn’t heard, but her raised eyebrows told me no such luck. ‘On second thought, a number seven, mildly spicy.’
‘Alright, give me a minute.’ She disappeared into the back, and I could hear the sound of sizzling water. Returning, she said, ‘That’s fifteen dolgroms.’
‘And a can of water, please.’
‘Make it twenty,’ she replied. I slid two twenties across the counter. The woman raised her eyebrows again, but put one in the drawer while pocketing the other. She dug out a can of water from under the counter and handed it to me. ‘If I didn’t know you weren’t from around here by your outfit and speech, I’d know for ordering your noodles at any other level than inferno. What are you doing in these parts?’
‘I’m wondering if you’ve seen this man before,’ I answered, placing the pict on the counter. The woman leaned down to get a better look as I took a drink of the water.
‘Yeah. He’s an overseer at one of the warehouses around here.’ She stiffened and shot me a narrow eyed stare. ‘Are you a Constable?’
‘Are your kneecaps broken?’ I retorted, taking another drink to let my answer sink in.
‘Does he owe you money?’
‘No. His wife thinks he’s cheating and wants me to find out if it’s true.’
‘That guy has a wife?’ she asked rhetorically. I nodded anyway. ‘Well, I guess money makes anyone look better.’
‘I suppose,’ I replied. She disappeared into the back again and returned with my order.
‘Here’s your food.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied. Manners are important to ingratiate yourself with people. I popped open the container of noodles and then asked, ‘Have you seen him recently?’
‘Yeah, seen him yesterday after his shift. He works the overnights, so he hits us right as we open.’
‘What time does his shift start?’
‘In about six hours.’
As I walked away, I heard the woman swear at the sevitor before striking it with a loud bang. Sittin on a nearby rockcrete wall to finish my noodles, I ran over the information in my head. He hadn’t been home, hadn’t been to his favourite drinking spot, but had gotten dinner. That did seem like a man preoccupied with something more interesting than his everyday life. It didn’t bode well for poor Mrs. Jenkins.
Dropping my trash into a nearby refuse bin, I pulled out my pocket chronograph. I had just enough time to get to my office for supplies and back. It was going to be a long night.
Most people think a private investigator’s job is exciting: talking to informants, tailing leads, and getting into fights. Truth is, most of the work boils down to one thing—observation. Watching what is going on, finding something or someone who doesn’t fit, and following that to a new place to watch. The trick was not getting seen. In a place like the warehouse district, it was easy to find a spot to hide. The hard part was not getting knifed in the back in the process. That’s how I ended up perched on top of a modular container – the kind that could be carried by train or Cargo-8s – that looked like it hadn’t moved in a decade.
I placed my magnoculars to my eyes. They were new – to me at least – bought after a recent case that paid off big. Besides having features like photovisor which let me see in dark, this model came with a pict-recording function. Particularly useful for someone in my line of work. A few hours in, I still hadn’t seen my target but was watching the routine of the workers. You never knew when a shift schedule or patrol route timing might save your life.
The warehouse menials were fairly standard. Some were crew leaders who directed the work; some were operating heavy machinery; and some were there for brute muscle. This last group was different from most of Illis and the Imperium. Another concession to the guilds was jobs normally done by servitors were reserved for guild members. In this case, hereditary Guild Labourers – genebulked with crude exoskeletons grafted onto their bones – were used for manual labour. Their lives tended to be short; if the hormones didn’t kill them, augmetic malfunctions did.
Most of the massive containers that they were hauling were fairly standard tanks of water. These were stacked near large cranes to be placed onto waiting railcars, which would ship them to farther away Hives or to the Hive Chago starport to be sent off world.
A familiar face caught my eye—Herond Jenkins. In standard menial overalls wearing a hardhat and with a slate in his hand, he was checking each container’s ident number. Over the next couple of hours, I watched him go about his work. It helped me appreciate how boring the man must be. I started having second thoughts about him cheating on his wife. If a woman that pretty falls for a man that dull, the man tends not to push his luck.
That was until a tall woman walked up to him. He tensed and looked around at her approach before forcing himself to relax. As they started talking, I gave her a look over. She was in the standard menial overall and hardhat. Her sleeves were rolled up, revealing scarred, muscular forearms. One had a tattoo on it, but I couldn’t see what it was. Her face was hard and angular, and may have had some deformity. The distance made it unclear if it was natural or not. After a moment, Herond jerked his head in a direction, and the two disappeared behind a container.
That basically closed this case. All that was needed now was to get recorded evidence. When he got off work, I would follow him, get the proof, and go break the poor woman’s heart.
Herond Jenkins had checked himself into a surprisingly clean motel that looked like it had once been shops. Unfortunately, it was nestled in a hab block which gave me no good vantage points. I briefly considered the hab unit above a burned out shop across the street, but if it wasn’t already inhabited, it wasn’t a place I would want to sleep.
After lingering outside, waiting for the woman to show up for as long as I could without drawing suspicion, I went to the front desk. Walking up to the scuffed and hazy slug-proof glass, the clerk gave me a bored look. As seemingly required in every place like this, he was a heavy set young man. I wondered if the Administratum had a rule on the books about that. Probably.
I slipped money through the slot, and he slid the metal room key back out. I took a detour on the way to my room to hide pict-recorders near Jenkins’. Those would pick up any visitors he might have. I placed a third looking at my own door and then locked it behind me. Spying the cheap plastek chair synonymous with these places, I lodged it under the handle. One could never be too careful.
Throwing my overcoat and hat on the table, I pulled out my dataslate. All three pict-recorders were casting fine, so I turned on movement notifications and set the dataslate down on the table next to the bed. My underarm pistol holster joined it, but the suit and tie were tossed on top of my hat and coat.
Kicking off my shoes and flopping onto the hard bed, I closed my eyes. Now it was just a matter of time.
Eight hours later, I groggily rolled over and scowled at my dataslate as if it was its fault that it didn’t wake me up. I flicked it on to see the expected pict-cast of Jenkins’ illicit rendezvous. All I saw was Jenkins leaving for work.
‘Piece of junk.’
Dragging the pict-cast all the way to the beginning, I scrolled through it on fast forward. I glared as the hours went on, and nobody appeared. All the way to the end, there was only Jenkins. A quick check of my own pict-recorder didn’t reveal anything.
‘Well, that’s groxshit.’
Grabbing my holster off the dresser and my clothes off the table, I quickly got dressed. Walking out my door, I retrieved my pict-recorder. Making my way to Jenkins’ room, I retrieved the other two before trying the door handle. It was locked.
Glancing around, I pulled out a box no bigger than lho packet. Pressing a button on its side, a thin spike popped out. People with money might have an auto-unlocker. Mine was much cruder. Inserting the spike into the lock, it heated up, and so did the lock. After several seconds, the door clicked open. I withdrew my device, making sure to keep the dripping hot liquid metal off me.
The first thing that struck me was the lack of any signs of long term stay. There were no clothes or bags piled into corners. I looked around the bed before lifting up the covers. Still not finding anything, I headed to the bathroom. It was bare as well. Putting on a glove, I picked through the garbage in the little refuse bin in the main room. A bottle, a food container, and some disposable eatware. Nothing that told me anything.
Outside, I shook my head. There was nothing in the room that suggested a hideaway from his wife to meet another woman. He must be using different motels every night. A bit paranoid, but then again, his wife did hire a private investigator to look into him. He probably knew what type of woman she was.
I sighed again. It was just my luck that he didn’t meet with her last night. Of all the nights to abstain, it had to be when I was watching. That meant it was back to the container so I could follow wherever he met his mistress tonight. Checking my pocket chronograph, I had enough time to make a trip home and pick up food before Jenkins’ shift really got going. It was going to be another long night.
I was perched on a different container overlooking the warehouse. Now knowing Jenkins’ pattern, I set up to have a better vantage point. Of course, watching a man check ident numbers off a list was intensely boring. I thought about saving the recording after this case in the event I ever needed to torture information out of someone.
Jenkins rechecked an ident number on his list, then a container. Even such a tedious man obviously succumbed to the mundanity of the task and became distracted. He checked the next container twice as well—the one after he scribbled something down.
I saw the tall woman approach before Jenkins did. Like yesterday, she was in overalls with her sleeves rolled up. Today I could see the tattoo on her forearm; it was some sort of symbol of a snake or dragon wrapping around itself. It looked like a gang marking, though one I’d never seen before. That was odd; I made an effort to know who belonged to who as in this business offending the wrong group would get you killed.
Jenkins finally spotted her. His face flushed red, and he began gesturing wildly with his free hand. I didn’t have to hear his words to know they weren’t happy. I would be too if I got stood up after renting a motel room. The woman was gesturing now as well, chopping the air. Both were becoming more animated. Workers were giving them sidelong glances but neither noticed. I was embarrassed for them but wondered if the woman was having second thoughts and calling off the relationship. Odds were she had a partner as well. The woman said something, nodding her head in the direction of a warehouse. Jenkins stalked off that way and the woman followed closely behind.
I swore and started shimmying down the container. I didn’t have nearly enough evidence yet. If they were breaking it off, I needed to record their conversation for proof of a relationship. My boots hit the pavement and I quickly slunk from container to container, making my way towards the warehouse. I tried to be as quiet as possible, though my former life in Lex enforcement didn’t exactly emphasise stealth.
It was easy enough to find a hole in the wire security fence to slip through. Once near the warehouse, I encountered another locked door. This one had the telltale signs of a smoker’s refuge with lho butts scattered around. That meant it wouldn’t be alarmed or observed. I pulled out my lock melter, glancing around while it did its business. The door clicked open, and I slipped in.
I expected the sound of machinery or the scuffle of people, but it was eerily quiet. Something about this made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. In the Schola, we were taught that it was the God-Emperor warning us that something more was going on. I didn’t believe that. The God-Emperor was our Protector, but He was busy protecting His whole Imperium and not looking at one person. Especially me. But I still trusted that feeling. Something was not right here.
‘What’s the problem now?’ I heard a woman’s sharp voice from far away. This warehouse must have been larger than it looked. Glancing around, there was no one else to be seen. Staying in a half-crouch, I quietly crept over towards the sound of voices.
I caught sight of them both at the junction of a group of massive storage racks. Seeing some crates with big steel bottles on top and inside, I hid behind them. I didn’t care enough to read the bottles to see what they contained. I had a job to do. Grabbing my magnoculars, I zoomed in and hit record.
Without her hardhat on, the woman’s deformities were easy to see. Her head was ridged, the skull too thick in some areas, with a long jaw and higher cheekbones. It reminded me of a cyber-mastiff. Perhaps the hereditary Labourers passed on some of their traits? I didn’t know and really didn’t care. Probably the only reason she had a job was because she was a guild member and could cover most of them up. Still, now seeing her up close through the magnoculars, there was some sort of strange allure to her. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it must exist to lure Jenkins away from his beauty of a wife.
‘You have even more cargo than before!’ replied Jenkins.
‘And? I thought we had gone through this. Just ignore them and move on.’
My mind raced putting together the new information. They weren’t lovers. Jenkins had become involved in or discovered something illegal. His wife had said he was poring over the intake logs, so probably discovered.
‘I can’t just ignore them! Any deviation of more than five percent will get noticed.’
‘There’s not that many containers.’
‘It’s not the number of containers but their mass. They’re way over.’
‘The Guild doesn’t care about the weight that has to be moved. It’s fine.’
That made sense. The guilds’ hands weren’t clean in this city. Most illicit trade goods moved with their tacit approval – if not help – as long as they got a cut. Keeping the nobles in check costs money. They also had to provide benefits to their members, including protection; although that protection wasn’t always voluntary or free.
‘The Guild might not but my overseer does.’
‘You’ll deal with your overseer if you know what is good for both of you.’
‘Look, I don’t want trouble,’ Jenkins said. That confirmed it. Whoever that lady worked for was dangerous. He hadn’t gone home to keep his wife safe. ‘Just tell me what is in them so I can compensate on the logs.’
‘You want to know what’s in them? Fine.’ She pulled a stubpistol and put it into his stomach. Jenkins instinctively froze and so did I. ‘This is what’s in them.’
‘W-what?’ Jenkins stammered, putting his hands up. ‘I just need to know the density!’
‘You idiot,’ she hissed. ‘That wasn’t a lie. There’s guns in them.’
‘You’re smuggling guns? I thought it was jewellery or drugs!’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘The difference is the servitor sniffers!’ he replied, aghast. ‘I don’t know how you haven’t tripped them.’
‘What in the warp are those?’
‘They’re servitors that scan the containers in case there is something dangerous in them. Like explosives.’
‘Good thing there’s no explosives then.’
‘There’s no gunpowder in any of them?’ he asked. The woman scowled. ‘Gunpowder is an explosive.’
‘You’re getting on my nerves,’ she snapped.
‘Look, I just want to make sure that the Constables don’t come down on us.’
‘Oh, it’s us now? Quite a change of tune.’
‘They’re not exactly known to discriminate.’
That was an understatement. The Constables would round up everyone in the warehouse and beat confessions out of them. Jenkins was true and well stuck unless there was some way they could be caught without involving him. I checked the recording on my magnoculars from earlier. The container ident numbers were clear. I doubted that it would be able to help him out of the situation he was in. It would probably actually get him killed. Turning the recording back on, I continued to watch.
‘-Guild approved this,’ Jenkins was saying.
‘We didn’t tell them there were guns. They’d have wanted a bigger cut, and probably their own people to sell them.’
‘You’re moving them without their knowledge?’
‘Yes,’ she gestured with the pistol. ‘And it’s going to stay that way.’
‘The Guild Labourers-‘
‘Are taken care of. Right, Teron?’
‘Yeah,’ came a gruff reply. A heavy set man in overalls came into view. Not one of the hereditary Labourers, he was still a big man of muscle and fat. ‘The boys know if they keep their mouths shut, there’s a little extra in it for them. Any that don’t, well…’
That explained that. Everybody was on the take in this hive—even from their own. I was sure the Guild would love to hear about this. That might be the way Jenkins could get out of this mess. Either way, I got what I needed. As I pulled my magnoculars away from my face, a few more men came into view including one with the bulk of a hereditary Labourer. That sold it; time for me to leave. I stood, but one of my legs cramped and gave out. Falling back onto the crate, several of the bottles scattered loudly to the floor. I looked up to see them glancing in my direction. The woman looked back at Jenkins. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine it.
‘Now wait-‘ he managed to get out before she shot him twice in the stomach. He cried out in pain, but I wasn’t sticking around to watch him die. His death moans gave me cover to get out of there.
‘Find whoever that was!’ I heard the woman yell.
‘Get the boys on the vox and start looking!’ the man snapped.
I sprinted through the maze of crates and tanks towards where I remembered – I hoped – the exit was. Voices now were raised and lumens started coming on. Thank the Throne that the big warehouse lumens take a little bit to warm up. Still, the darkness was fading into a light gloom. If I didn’t want to be spotted, I had to move fast. Another mutant menial stepped around the corner of a stack of crates.
As I slugged them on the run and felt something in their face break as they dropped, I noticed they had similar cranial deformities to the woman. While that was intriguing – and probably important in some way – I didn’t have time to slow down and investigate if I wanted to live.
Racing around a corner, I slipped in a puddle and crashed into a group of metal tanks. They wobbled but didn’t fall over. I got up, wheezing and holding my ribs. That was going to hurt tomorrow. Throne, it hurt right now. I saw the exit and sprinted towards it.
Slamming through the door and into the slowly lightening world, I swore. Was it too much to ask for some darkness? Either way, I made for the gap in the security fence. As I got there, a grunt from behind warned me to duck and turn. The pallet missed me by inches. Barreling towards me was the hulking form of a hereditary Guild Labourer. I didn’t know how I made the God-Emperor angry at me, but resolved to go to vigil in penance after I got out of here.
I dodged the first punch while digging in my coat pocket. Trying to box it would get me killed. Lucky enough for me, those exoskeletal augmetics worked really well for lifting, and not so good for dancing. Which I did just out of range of its next punch. Flicking open the shock baton from my pocket, I dodged the next punch and struck the exoskeleton.
Electricity surged through the augmetics. The Labourer seized, eyes rolling back and drool dripping from its clenched teeth as servos popped and smoked. I didn’t let up because if I didn’t fry it, I would be in big trouble. After another few seconds, the Labourer’s leg servos gave in, and it dropped to its knees. Withdrawing the baton and stepping back, it fell face first to the ground.
‘There!’ I heard someone yell.
I pivoted, saw a man coming through the door, and whipped the baton at him all in one motion. The man ducked back as the three feet long piece of metal rang off the door frame. By the time he came back out, I was ducking through the fence and on my way to freedom. Then an angry buzz zipped past my head. I ducked for cover and drew my own stubpistol. Looking for the shortest distance out of the district and finding it, I stood and returned fire. The few menials that had been pursuing – interestingly, no mutants among them – took cover; to my amusement, one literally just dropped straight to the rockcrete. I ran towards a stack of crates that were on my way out of there.
More bullets whizzed past me, the echo of gunshots ringing off warehouses. Crates splintered around me, forcing me to shield my eyes. Turning the corner, I ran across the street into the shadow of another building. That was the dividing line between the warehouse district and the neighbouring manufactorum district. Different guild, different rules, different enforcement. They wouldn’t dare start a firefight in it.
As bullets cracked off the manufactorum next to me, I realised I should probably stop being so certain about things. I started running again, weaving to present a harder target. If my memory served me well, another few blocks would be the Saint Elise tram station. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be that brazen near something so public. As I ran through the manufactorum district, feet pounding off the pavement and my breathing off the alley walls, another scenario spun in my mind. If they knew who I was, they would come after me. That meant there was only one way to keep myself safe—get to them first.
Rounding a corner, the station came into view. So did the heavily armed, hunched menials surrounding it. In the moment before they saw me, my mind took in the similar features to the mutants I saw back at the warehouse. However, these deformities were even greater. Their eyes held the unnatural sheen of those adapted to the dark, and even through the overalls, the knobby bones that gave them their stooped posture were visible. One gestured in my direction and started speaking into a handheld vox-caster.
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ I muttered.
They raised their autoguns, but I was faster, sending a trio of rounds at them. Even at that range, all of my bullets hit. I took off as the survivors sprayed bullets in my direction. Checking my stubpistol’s ammo, there wasn’t much left. Raised voices came from all around. The net was tightening, and I had a small gap to make it out. After that, I’d need to evade or outrun my pursuers. Unfortunately, that tram was the only one useful to me. None of the others went where I needed to go.
As more voices started coming from behind, I realised I must have slipped past them. Now they were going to try and run me down. I weaved through alleys, never giving them clear shots or sights. My office was several miles away. I wondered if they were going to chase me the entire way there. It was fine if they tried. My endurance was still good. It was even better when someone was trying to kill me. And if they followed me with their autoguns drawn like that, it could draw the eyes of the Enforcers, which would make my life a lot easier.
Brick cracked, and I ducked my head. Well, it would make it easier if they didn’t kill me first. I focused on weaving and running.
By the time the sun was peeking through the Hive Centre spires, I made it to my office. My pursuers stopped when I crossed into the commercial districts. The commerce guilds hired private security forces, and they likely didn’t want to draw that much attention. This early the streets were deserted, but I looked around anyway as I slotted the familiar key into the door. Bolting it behind me, I tossed my sweat soaked suit jacket onto the client’s chair and plopped into my own behind my desk. Exhausted, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
My shirt and vest were sticking to my clammy skin, and now the chair. In a place like Wiscin, I was going to be moist until I could take a shower. Throne, I wanted to take one but didn’t have the luxury of time. Opening my eyes with a groan, I reached into my desk to pull out the ring of contact cards there. There was someone I needed to see in a hurry. Finding his name, I reached over to my vox-caster and started punching in the numbers.
A short call later, I was on the street again to make my rendezvous. I loathed putting back on my jacket as I hated being dishevelled in public. Didn’t give the calm, cool image I worked so hard at. But this was a person you didn’t arrive late to meet.
‘So you’re Agrippa, eh?’ said the man as one of his massive bodyguards patted me down. ‘From how you’re described, I expected someone more handsome and put together. You look like just some guy.’
As the bodyguard – who looked like someone had crossbred an Ogryn – emptied my pockets of the various tools of my trade, I gave the Guild Boss a look over. He was average height and wiry, but the dark of the bar’s cellar combined with the dark of his skin and suit obscured his other features. Most people expected Guild bosses – especially the Labourer’s Guild – to be big men, but they got where they were through cunning and violence, not brutality. That was what the two hulking forms shadowing him were for.
‘It was a long night,’ I replied. ‘Besides, in this business, looking like just some guy has its advantages.’
‘That’s true, so true.’ The bodyguard patting me down pulled out my stubpistol and showed it to his boss. He looked at me, and I shrugged. The Boss waved it away, and the bodyguard put it with the rest of my equipment. ‘So what is it you wanted to talk about? Normally I don’t see people on such short notice, or this early, but you helped my cousin’s boy out of the situation last year, so I made an exception.’
‘Thank you for your generosity.’ One had to be respectful even if they didn’t mean it. ‘I have information about some arms smuggling that might interest you.’
‘Why not go visit your friend, the Constable?’
‘Because I’d rather not make it easy to find out it was me who discovered it and,’ I pulled out my magnoculars, ‘they’re using your people to do it while not giving you a true cut.’
‘How generous of you to think of the Guild,’ he replied while taking them. I had the pict-cast queued to play, and watched his face change from feigned to real interest. Finishing it, he handed the magnoculars to one of his bodyguards. I guessed I wasn’t getting them back. ‘You’re right. That is something the Guild would be interested in looking into.’
‘I’m glad I didn’t waste your time.’ I paused for a moment before saying, ‘If you move on this, I can trust you to keep my name out of it?’
‘Yeah,’ the Boss waved his hand. ‘It’ll keep them all on their toes, not knowing how I found out.’
‘Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.’ He flicked his hand at his bodyguard. ‘Josiah will see you out.’
After the Labourer’s Guild raided the warehouse, I tried to contact Mrs. Jenkins. My call went to a shut off line. Fearing the worst, I hurried over to the address I had been given. All I found was a darkened hab unit. A quick bit of force and the lock gave way. I expected to find a crime scene; instead, I found nothing. It was empty.
Shaking my head but keeping an eye over my shoulder, I went back to my hab unit.
A week passed. I took on other work. Bills don’t stop after all. However, the case still plagued my mind. Needing additional information for another client, I made my way down to the Constable Watchstation to meet Aetius.
Sextus Aetius, or Constable Minoris Aetius, glared at me from behind his desk while I leaned against a file cabinet. Even sitting, he was a large and imposing man. Shaved head with a pair of well-kept sideburns that travelled down his chin and jaw, he was everything the Imperium hoped for in their law keepers: fair, honest, dogged in pursuit and ruthless in his pronouncements.
His office, on the other hand, would have given an Administratum Clerk fits. File stacks crowded corners while others lay open all over. Balanced haphazardly nearby were half-full mugs of old recaf. There was usually a single seat clear, but right now even that had files on it.
‘You’ve got nothing on the reports of break ins on Capistan block?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ he growled. ‘No reports.’
‘Well, guess that means I’ll have to do some digging on my own.’
‘Guess you will,’ he replied, looking back down at his reports.
‘Were you part of the clean up after the Labourer’s Guild raided the warehouse that was smuggling arms?’
Aetius glared up at me over his glasses.
‘How do you know about that?’
‘I have my ways.’
‘Uh-huh,’ he replied, looking back down. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Off the record?’
‘The record is closed already.’
‘I was on a case for the wife of a shipment overseer named Herond Jenkins—well, widow now. She thought he was cheating on her. Instead, he was being extorted to cook the shipping logs. He was killed by one of the smugglers—a woman who had some facial mutations.’ I paused. ‘I hope you got her.’
‘There were a lot of mutants at that warehouse. According to the Labourer’s Guild, they were offworlders recently brought in to undercut them. Supposedly the mutants and some of their compatriots didn’t go quietly, and the Guild had to kill them all.’
‘You were fine with that?’
‘Saved me the paperwork,’ he shrugged. ‘All we did was bring in the flamer teams to burn the stack of bodies.’
‘Efficient,’ I replied, then sighed. ‘At least there’s some justice for her husband. Now I’ve just got to let her know. I’ve been trying to reach her for a week, but she probably went into hiding after the raid.’
‘And I was wondering if you had some other information on her that could help me track her down.’
‘Hm,’ Aetius answered distractedly. He started looking for the file, lifting up a dozen or so before finding it under a recaf mug. He eyed the cold brown liquid before downing it. I grimaced.
‘Jenkins…Jenkins…’ Aetius muttered as he rifled through the file. He slammed his finger into a page. ‘Here it is.’
‘You’ve got in contact with her?’ I walked over.
‘No. Agrippa…’ Aetius frowned, shaking his head. He looked up at me. ‘Herond Jenkins didn’t have a wife.’
After leaving Aetius, I went back to my office and poured myself a drink. The swig of amasec burned as it went down.
Sometimes in this town, not everything and everyone are what they seem. I would know. But that’s just the way things are here. In His Imperium, on this planet of Illis, in the backwater Hive of Wiscin, I’m just another man trying to get by, and mostly succeeding. I put the bottle back in the cabinet and went to the door.
‘Forget about it.’ I said to myself, flicking the lumens off.
About the Author
Writing out of the US Midwest, Andrez Beltran is a long-time fanfiction writer who has been trying his hand lately at 40k Fiction.