Next bit of the boarding action;
From the memoirs of Caiaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium, etc, etc;
Now, if I could believe it- and I couldn't- I had a small army. There are many problems with small armies, a mercifully large proportion of which I usually managed to arrange to be someone else's to deal with, but the main one as far as I was concerned right now was their tendency to lose to big armies.
For my own astonishment, I caught myself actually being nostalgic for the halcyon days of frantic 'Nid- dodging and running round in fear of my life with the artillery. Then looked back at this shower behind me and realised I actually meant it.
This is why the Imperium can never rest, why there can never really be peace with the xenos; they're unpredictable, unreadable, there's no gut sympathy there, being from literally different worlds you don't know how they're going to react, can't- daren't- trust them. We have enough trouble with the bloody Cogboys.
Not to flatter myself overly, but if I'm stretching to keep up in terms of grasping what the forces of otherness are up to, there are many more who will be a damned sight further behind.
Which this lot, of course, literally were. There were perhaps a thousand of them following me, and I was feeling very exposed; they were vulnerable, wide open to the powers of darkness, had already been touched, and I was left feeling very like the cork in the bottle.
I was the only thing keeping them sane. Not being entirely certain what their version of sanity looked like, this was surprisingly tricky. Where's a good rock to hide under when you need one?
Certainly not lumped about the corridors of an almost brand new spaceship, that was sure. I was doing my best to be bold and inspiring and a pillar of leadership, feeling even more of a fraud than usual and wishing it was someone else's turn at the sharp end, when the background noise of the ship subsided a little and I heard many voices rhythmically chanting, not far off.
Too damn' close, in fact. I turned to the black bodygloved medic for a translation, and found her almost collapsed with laughter, shaking uncontrollably and so far gone that she was actually propping herself up on Jurgen, who looked as if he didn't quite know what to make of it.
'The best possible thing for you,' she managed to splutter, 'is that we take this boat in sufficiently good condition that the intsec system keeps the records of all of this. The Empire would run away screaming. Stormtroopers unionising and going on strike...'
Now normally, this is exactly the sort of thing I wouldn't want to know, and he wouldn't ask, but this was as close as Jurgen had been in years to a real live female who didn't object to him, and it was making him jumpy. He knew he had said the wrong thing as soon as it was out of his mouth but he asked 'What are they chanting, anyway?'
I've never had an answer to that question that I liked, even when as an official hero (yet further proof of the Emperor's twisted sense of humour) they were cheering for me, and this was certainly not so.
' "What do we want? We don't know. When do we want it? Then." ' she said. 'Shame you can't actually see what's going on in their heads, it's...I think I may have crossed some kind of personal callousness event horizon.
Either that or I'm seeing it through their eyes, and what little of their psyches are still self aware have reached the state of incoherent hysteria. Stormtroopers are generally a fairly callous lot, but this is hilarious in a skin- crawlingly terrifying kind of way.
Yes, hysteria, it's the only way they can deal with the fact they' re trapped prisoners, strangers in their own heads, and they're doing things they have no grasp of, no idea why, they're a randomness bomb waiting to go off.'
She had stopped laughing by this point, and I braced myself for the oh,crap moment I knew was coming. 'You can do it, Commissar.' she said, total sincerity and earnestness evident in her eyes. To shift moods that fast- I have had a fair few heartstopping up and down moments, but this had to be something to do with being a psyker.
Evidently she wasn't happy with it either, if she was prepared to stand that close to Jurgen to mitigate the effects of it. She carried on, looking quite prophetic as she did. 'You can be their rock, Commissar. Save them from the madness they've become. Appeal to their sense of order. Save them from themselves.'
My first reaction was "frak that", but there were a lot of voices chanting. Too many to safely ignore, and with this lot behind me, too many to safely sneak by. Trained gunmen, even local gunmen, crackbrained and deranged though they were, would cut my followers to pieces.
Besides, if ever there was something that practically came with a label saying "this is a job for the commissariat"- and as so damnably often in my long career of attempting to hide in obscurity and failing, the boldest move would actually be the safest.
Walking into a brawl between guardsmen was one thing. A thousand chaos-tainted alien troopers? Dangerously insane. I resolved not to complain about the next perfectly ordinary suicide mission that I got sent on by my own command structure. Then realised that was practically handing Grim Destiny an engraved invitation and decided that I would bitch about it after all.
If we- not forgetting Jurgen, who might be worth more than his smell in gold in the next few minutes- lived that long. I set my cap to a slightly more official angle than usual, strode in boldly- and saw instantly what she meant.
The place was an exercise ground of sorts, girder-built obstacles, foamcrete and their equivalent of flakboard, some of which had been at least partially blown up, and the place was full of white armoured locals trying not to march and failing.
It would have been funny, if it wasn't terrifying. for once they actually looked as if they lived up to the name of stormtrooper, but the chaos they had been exposed to, attacked by, had done strange things to their heads.
They were trying to be individuals, but watching them it was obvious that they had been so intensively trained and practically brainwashed that whenever they tried to do something disorderly and random, they all did the same thing. At the same time, or only a beat or two behind.
They were trying to pace up and down, but it had turned into marching up and down. They tried to break step, and did it in simultaneous, kinesthetic unison. Break formation, and it looked like a perfect drill movement. They were all desperately- and identically- frustrated by it.
Were they dangerous? Frak yes. Mainly to themselves. For that matter, if I did manage to restore them to a proper sense of self, they'd want to shoot me anyway. Wishing I hadn't thought of that, and that I had paid more attention in the schola- or, considering that I had ended up here, less- I strode in radiating self- confidence, acting for my life and trying not to show it. Well, at least I had a lot of practise.
'What's the problem, troopers, change not all they told you it was going to be?' I said in command voice. They didn't know who or what I was of course, all they knew was what they could see, which was what I was projecting.
And hopefully not what I was trying not to project, which was the worrying thought that anyone pigheaded enough to believe they had a right to succeed at this would be far too stupid to pull it off.
They all turned to look at me; not particularly intimidating, considering that I've been intimidated by experts, but hardly a gesture of welcome. 'Who's in charge here?' I demanded.
Quite deliberately, of course- had to be confrontational enough to jolt them, knock them back on their heels, get them thinking. Which was interesting to watch, too, especially in the other direction. Within ten seconds I was trying hard not to wish for a tub of popcorn.
Or to laugh, which would have probably got me quite severely killed. Not actually much worse than being gently and considerately killed, from the viewpoint of a minute afterwards at least, but either way, I didn't think it would suit me.
They were very largely without a sense of humour, I had to remember that when dealing with them; I've met guard regiments like that, coped with the business of killing the Emperor's enemies by taking it all so prim-and-properly and seriously that they were head-bangingly frustrating to deal with and, worse, not very good at it.
I could have pushed harder, but I wanted to let them realise that they really didn't have answers of their own, for the confusion to reach maximum intensity, for them to hit bottom, and bounce, and to catch them on the way up.
They wanted to shoot me, because that was what they were supposed to do, but Chaos really had been desperately unsubtle with them- had hit them with the telepathic equivalent of a two- by- four across the back of the head.
They weren't supposed to be what they used to be, were supposed to be before, so they couldn't shoot people any more because that was right and right was wrong.
But, as I pointed out, what they were supposed to be now was also a supposition of the exact same kind that they had had before, so they couldn't be what they were supposed to be now either. Jurgen was looking absolutely blank at this, only faint glimmer of intelligence was his belief that somehow I would get it all straightened out.
Personally I was more than half intending, if things went wrong, to get him to melta- blast the nearest cluster of them and run for it in the confusion. They were arguing with each other in a fantastic way- not like children, that would have been too easy, but like brainwashed adults.
They knew things, and didn't quite know why they knew them or what else the fragments they had connected to; long, complicated, rambling arguments, all of which strangely mirrored each other- I couldn't let them wander off completely.
Had to keep prodding, keep stirring, knock them out of their new ideas and back into their old ones. Right was wrong, and wrong was right, but wrong was self- evidently wrong as well, and right that was was right as it was, but this was now, and now was wrong- I was starting to get somewhere.
Of course, I just thought I was arguing for my life. I didn't make the obvious connection that their helmet voxes meant the entire troop complement of the ship was listening in.
Just as well, really. They were all trying not to agree with each other despite the fact that they all thought so alike they kept finishing each others' sentences, and if they really were that humourless, that immune to irony- and how the frak did the Galactic Empire brainwash it's troops that thoroughly from the kind of culture they represented?
Was their natural state that I was trying to return them to actually a damn' unnatural thing in itself? That was a doubt, and an itching in my palms, I could have done without. The more I thought about it, the truer it seemed, and the less I wished I had thought about it.
It was probably still an improvement on where they were now. 'What are you, where does your right and wrong come from?' I challenged them, once I judged they were confused, frustrated and angry enough to be ripe for it.
Before they could come up with the wrong answer, I forged ahead. And "forged" may be exactly the right word. 'It's the same question; what your right and wrong and good and bad are come from what you are and what your sense of fitness is, and what I see before me are soldiers- Stormtroopers- of the Empire.'
Which touch of relativism was fearful heresy that I would have to confess to in the extraordinarily unlikely event of my being anywhere near the inside of a confessional in the next, oh, hundred years, but how to reach into the water and rescue a drowning man without getting wet?
With the sort of long arms you usually need to drink with the daemon, was another thought I wish I hadn't had. 'You are fighting men of Order, you know that, you know yourselves- who told you otherwise?' Not actually a question.
'You were attacked. If the Ruinous Powers who tried to tell you to change had come at you with gun and claw, you'd have known what to do about it, wouldn't you- you'd fight.' I said, managing to sound as if I was sure of them. They gave little away in body language.
'Instead they attacked you inside your own heads, in your sense of self, in your sense of right and wrong. Do you think they wanted you to be shiny happy people as a result of this- or do you think they were trying to get you to serve their ends?' I was yelling by now, rabble- rousing.
'They set out to turn you against each other, against your brothers, against yourselves- they attacked you, and you know what to do about it, the solution hasn't changed. Fight back.'
They were starting to make noise now, mutter, rumble, grumble- but they were listening at least, and the black- bodygloved medic was standing half- dazed, astonished; she looked to me and said 'It's working, but the- ruinous powers, I had better say, aren't going to let them go without a fight.'
'Right,' I said, hating myself for doing it and knowing exactly what I didn't want would happen, knowing that I would, that it was the right dramatic moment for it, 'let them come.'
Waited half a beat, drew and activated my chainsword and turned to lash out behind me- and to some surprise found less than half a daemon, a neonium-coloured blob starting to solidify into form; not fully formed, trying to push it's way past whatever Jurgen does to these things and struggling.
I motioned Jurgen away from it, thinking if it really does materialise that size, this is going to look frakking ridiculous, I might as well be trying to kick a puppy because that's about as tall as it's going to be; it has to be a trick, Chaos simply doesn't have that warped a sense of humour. Subtle temptations like cuteness are usually completely beyond it.
Usually. I looked at it, and decided I knew the script now. The thing coalesced, and if the usual Tzeentchian greater daemon looks like a giant flightless bird with claws and a severe dislike of it's surroundings, this was clearly one that had only just hatched. It was tiny, and fluffy, and it cheeped at me.
For a moment I wondered if it was genuine, if in the peculiar minds of the white- armoured troopers this really was what a mind- affecting daemon ought to look like; if so, they were even more alien than I had thought.
I was well within Jurgen's area of effect, so it wasn't in my thoughts, it really was being ridiculously cute and innocent- cute in more than one sense, although the innocence was only and entirely fake. Sucker it in, pretend to fall for the ruse and hope it wasn't a step ahead of me-
'Is that it?' I announced loudly, stepping- stamping heavily on the tiny downy thing. 'Is this the thing that tried to steal your minds, this child- thing that wouldn't fool a raw recruit?' Obviously it wasn't, but it didn't know that I knew. It faded away with a despairing peep.
It didn't know it's audience, though- the white-carapaced troopers seemed rather to approve of the squashing of small helpless things. I glanced at Jurgen and hoped he was keeping up; he had the melta out and ready, although not pointed at anyone. Yet.
I stepped forward into what I thought the chaos thing about to happen would think the killing zone was, waited half a beat- and then I felt the air fill up behind me and the sick- headache feel of sorcery swarm out of the no longer empty space. Mother Doomchicken had come out to play after all.
Irreverent? Perhaps the crew of that ship of madmen had been rubbing off on me. Also a damned sight (literally) better than giving it the respect it thought it deserved. I understood it's plan; make me look like a clumsy butcher, squash me, win them back, flood their minds on the riptide of destroyed hope. Playing games of - hah- chicken with the locals' souls.
Not for the first time, and hopefully not the last, I was being treated as more than a man, as a symbol. Which I supposed I had been doing for a long time anyway as a Commissar, but that doesn't make it any more fun or any less dangerous.
I crouched and rolled backwards, between it's legs and under it's snapping beak, twisting out of the way of a claw- lashing out at it with a chainsword sweep into one of it's drumsticks, drawing blood- well, spreading ichor.
It looked at me with malice in its' eye; was it the same one that had had attacked Inquisitor Nkrumah - and myself- on the Quaestio Abstrusa station, what seemed like a very, very long time ago? Could it be? The damned things came back; they could be got rid of but they always came back.
It was very large, and very hard to kill, and I had more help then that I could count on; I still had Jurgen with me, but he had had to leave the really big gun behind.
There was no shortage of stray gunmen about the place, but could I depend on them? If I couldn't I was probably dead anyway, and even if a probability is better than a certainty- taking down a greater daemon of the chaos lord of change with a chainsword and a laspistol was a tall order.
'Where do I shoot it?' the black- clad medic had her gun aimed at it, and shouted at me.
'Anywhere, it doesn't matter, it's got no real anatomy, it's just a congealed idea.' I shouted at her, and dived out of the way as it pecked at me, charged at me and tried to run me down.
It flapped a wing at Jurgen, just as he fired the melta at it; the creature writhed back, diverted from me, but there was enough momentum to hit Jurgen in the face with a shower of burning feathers. He yelped, stepped back, shook the blazing bits off- didn't get them all, his hair was still smouldering, which would add an overtone of carbonisation to his usual stench.
He noticed me looking worried and said 'I'm all right.' Many soldiers would be in line for the Emperor's Mercy after that, it would be enough to start them mutating, but he probably would be all right. He looked a bit dazed though- the daemon actually looked worse, looking down at it's wing in horror and clawing at it, trying to rip out the pieces of itself that had touched my aide.
Picking him up and throwing him at it might work, I thought crazily, but it wouldn't be fair; it might be enough to overcome his resistance at last, and he deserved better than that- I depended on him too much for that.
'If it's just an idea, shouldn't we mock it?' the bodygloved medic shouted at me, although not taking her own advice- snapping off a sequence of short, controlled bursts at the thing's neck and head. She was a fair shot for a noncombatant, but the hits she did score achieved nothing- splashes, ripples in the thing's form that soon subsided.
It turned to me again, screeched, raised it's arms wide, I fired four lasbolts right down it's mouth and Jurgen melta- blasted it in the chest, but it was too large and too strange to do down from that- showed that it was hurt, but spread it's wings and claws wide and launched a fantastic surge of eldritch sorcery at me.
A blazing purple sun scattering lightning bolts rippled at us, Jurgen crouched and I dived behind him, the thing seared past us out of the door - the lightning falling perilously close on either side. I yelled back at the medic, once the thunder had subsided enough to hear myself scream, 'That might be how it is in your neighbourhood of reality, but around here chainsaws are considered perfectly acceptable.'
'I have an idea.' she said, picking herself up from where she had ducked.
'Does it have claws?' I shouted back, standing up and squaring off to the thing.
She turned to the boggling, soul- posed stormtroopers, 'Well? You saw that- Order 66 is still in force- enact it! Shoot it!'
What the hell she was on about I had no idea, but whatever it was I could feel it work, didn't need to be a psyker to read what coming to firing stance and aiming on meant.
The chaos thing turned to them, it could feel and fear the rigid determination in their heads. 'No- you know what I can make you, you can be whatever you want to be-' but it said it as it had done in the station, every word in a different tone, different accent.
'There is only one, right, thing to be,' I replied to it and to them- 'Decide where you stand.'
I have never been so happy to be standing twenty feet away from the target of a thousand gun volley in all my life. Nor, please the Emperor's twisted sense of humour, will I ever be again.
The sheer heat caught and reflected off that thing felt like being caught in the middle of a lance barrage; I was bowled over by it, found myself dazed up against one of the athletic obstacles, and the thing gone entirely, not even a stray feather.
One of the stormtroopers helped me up, as Jurgen came walking over to me, trailing a faint pall of smoke, ready to rescue me from them; 'Seems to be our day for being on fire, Sir.' he said, maintaining poise and calm a damn' sight better than I was at that moment as he picked up and handed me my cap.
'And not over yet...well,' I addressed the stormtroopers, deciding not to ask whether they would follow me or not but take it on trust that they would, visibly trusting them precisely in order to seal the fact that they would; 'we have your brothers in arms to save and a ship to cleanse.'
I led off, and felt the crawling skin on my back subside as the rhythm of marching feet formed up behind me. A million questions and worries still, such as what the special order she had shouted at them about was, and why it had worked; but at least not the one about having a small army.
The only purpose in my still being here is the stories and the people who come to read them. About all else, I no longer care.