Prisoner XC14 was going to escape. Again. The thought had started as a hunch, a gut feeling of the sort that had served Judge Saul Hax so well in his long Arbites career. Over the past day, however, it had congealed into a cold lump of uncertainty in the pit of his stomach.
‘We should have killed him,’ he muttered into the collar of his greatcoat.
Judge Dhaeron, standing next to him on the rain-lashed landing pad, glanced over.
‘We should have killed that thing when he had the chance,’ snarled Hax. ‘Last time he escaped, he burnt down half the damn subhive. This time round, he’ll finish off the rest.’
‘Well, there won’t be a “this time”, will there?’’ sneered Dhaeron. ‘That’s why I’m here. You may have let him escape before, but my troops and I work to higher standards. We certainly won’t be stupid enough to transport the deadliest pyromancer seen in the last 200 lunar cycles straight past a promethium sump.’
Hax grunted, scratching unhappily at the burn scar on his arm. He’d have liked to give a pithy retort, but verbal sparring wasn’t really his forte. He generally preferred to spar with his fists, ideally when the opponent was tied helplessly to an interrogation chair. Besides, for all his preening arrogance, Dhaeron was right.
After years of Hax scrapping his way up the Arbites ranks, fighting his way past cleverer colleagues by sheer bloody-minded hard work, he had thrown it all away in a moment of careless idiocy. He would receive no further promotions, no advancement up the greasy pole. A glittering future career, one day perhaps even the golden Aquila Badge of Lord Marshall, all burnt to ash before him.
‘It’s our duty to kill abominations, not to keep them safe for some Inquisitor to collect and experiment on,’ Hax said.
Dhaeron snorted. ‘And you’re going to turn down a direct Inquisitorial request, are you? Just do your job and stop questioning everything. If you carry on like this, you’ll get sent down to HR.’
The much-feared HR—Human Remains—department was where deceased prisoners, and occasionally soon-to-be deceased Arbites who had asked too many questions, were sent to be processed.
‘It’s my job to question everything. A suspicious mind is a healthy mind,’ said Hax, quoting today’s Thought for the Day.
‘A questioning mind betrays a treacherous soul,’ retorted Dhaeron, quoting yesterday’s.
A metallic screech cut off their conversation, as heavy doors scraped open behind them. The prickling hairs on the back of Hax’s neck told him that the psyker had been brought out.
‘Switch on. The Inquisitor’s lander is two minutes out. Let’s keep this handover clean,’ said Dhaeron in clipped tones, fingers drumming a pattern on his holstered pistol. Even his usual self-assurance seemed to have deflated a little.
Hax didn’t respond, lost again in his own thoughts. Behind him, a squad of arbitrators slowly led the manacled prisoner forward.
The sound of every clanking step crashed through him, melding with his hammering heartbeat into a symphony that drowned out the heavy hiss of rain on rockrete. The sounds jarred Hax’s mind, pushing a forgotten, clouded memory into view. In it, he stood hunched against the rain on a landing pad, chained prisoner behind him. He was, in other words, here?
A bolt of dread shot through him. The memory was from last night, he now recalled. He had dreamt all of this, exactly as it was now happening. The rest of the dream began to materialise in his mind’s eye: the psyker brought forward, one of the arbites troops placing a hand on his shoulder. At that moment of contact, a spark, then fire; hellish emerald psychic fire; the sizzling of skin and the crack of superheated bone and the rictus grins of skulls as melting flesh sloughed from bodies.
Hax abruptly turned to face the prisoner transport party. Fifteen arbitrators, snub-nosed shotguns held at the ready, surrounded the hunched form of prisoner XC14. His arms and legs were bound in heavy chains, and a thick ward-inscribed null collar circled his neck. Although his mouth had been sewn shut to avoid the spreading of foul heresies, his milky pupil-less eyes seemed to mock Hax. ‘I will soon be free,’ they told him, ‘and you will soon be dead.’
‘Take him back inside. We’re not handing him over,’ Hax ordered the arbitrators.
They gave him a confused look. ‘Sir?’
‘I said take him back!’ he roared.
‘Ignore him!’ shouted Dhaeron, anger flaring in his eyes. He squared up to Hax. ‘The Lord Marshall has put me in charge of this operation. If you try to impede it, I’ll have you relieved of command and sent to the cells. Now step aside.’
After a moment’s pause, Hax slowly stepped back.
‘Good,’ growled Dhaeron. ‘Now, for Throne’s sake, if you’re so worried, I’ll check his restraints myself.’ He strode over to the prisoner and reached out a hand to check the null collar.
Hax’s heart dropped from his chest as he realised that this was the moment of which he had dreamt. If Dhaeron’s outstretched arm touched the prisoner, they would all die. There was no time to think, only to act. In one well-practised movement, he whipped his bolt pistol from its holster, thumbed off the safety and loosed a shot at the prisoner’s head. Before he could fire a second shot, a searing heat shot through his arm, and he dropped the weapon to the floor.
Ahead of him, he saw that his shot had ripped off the right half of the pyker’s jaw but left him standing. A spray of sparks from the null collar indicated that it had been critically damaged. ‘Thank you,’ the pskyer’s kindly pale eyes seemed to say, before a wave of green hellfire engulfed them all.
About the Author
M. D. Nugent is a software engineer living in London. His longtime love of Warhammer 40k has left him with a happy heart and an empty wallet.