The Valkyrie assault carrier roared to life as Inquisitor Saw jumped onboard, with what little remaining of her personal team following closely behind. Demicus’ metal jaw clicked furiously from vibration as the large metal ramp clamped shut, and transport took off full speed, shooting out of the shuttlebay toward the metropolis. Off to his left, Henriq began checking the scopes of his long-las for the fourth time, deliberately averting the gaze of his master. Mara’s death had taken a toll on him, that much was apparent. However, this was also an issue Saw would have to resolve at a later date.
Loud sounds of metal striking echoed around the ship as the door to the cockpit slide open, and an enormous humanoid figure clanked toward the trio. The 8-foot tall giant ducked under the door frame as he passed, and held out a dataslate with the latest intel logs.
“Our scanners have observed unusual traffic activities inside the city, reports of vehicles completely vacating certain roads,” shared the Grey Knight.
The maps on the dataslate revealed usual traffic patterns snaking North East from the Southern city gates. A huge armored finger pointed toward a large building complex inside the city slums. “It is likely the heretic is heading toward that hospital complex,” the knight added.
Demicus leaned toward the map, and tapped his finger against his cheek in thought. “She is likely injured by our bombardment… The question is… why that hospital? That one in particular caters to the lowest caste.”
“With her powers, the city center would have been the best bet. If she could turn the high caste personal guards against us, we would be under considerable pressure, perhaps giving her enough time to reach the governor's palace…” Saw paused, and looked solemnly towards the Grey Knight.
Captain Firion was one of the most decorated space marines in his chapter, and the sigils and accommodations that lined the right breastplate of his power armour more than vouched for his experience. But even the rare ceramite, the materials durable enough to render space marines almost immune to even light artillery fire, would fall under the heavy ordinances of the Planetary Defense Forces.
“Indeed.” The marine nodded. “That would be the most optimal strategy. There must be some factor we have yet to consider.”
“If I might interject.” Demicus raised his right hand. “The heretic has never acted with much strategic intent. Most of her movement were devoid of planning, seemingly driven by the basic instincts, be it survival or otherwise. This particular turn of events, though certainly interesting, doesn’t deviate enough from her past behavior to necessitate discarding our other data.”
“Thank you,” Saw nodded, agreeing with her savant. She then turned to the Grey Knight. “I defer to your expertise, Captain, in this assault.”
“Heavy bombardment by our capital ship will cause mass panic, potentially masking her movements even further. We should descend and give chase in lower elevations. Considering her likely injury, we should be able to reach her despite the resistance of those she can turn against us. Once we have a lock on her location, my battle brothers can deploy via drop pods in a full circular formation, blocking off her escape routes.”
The inquisitor pushed on her com bead. “You got all that?”
“Yes, my lord,” replied the pilot.
“Set course, fly low, as the Captain said. Patch me through to Impetus.”
A few moment of static came through as the Valkyrie exchanged security clearance with the Cruiser. “Yes, Inquisitor. Please hold as we confirm that your Psy Jammer is still active.” The naval officer fumbled slightly with the controls, his agitation understandable considering the earlier scene on the bridge. “Confirmed, go ahead.”
“In the case that our ground strike force is overwhelmed, you are authorized to fire upon our location. This action will be supported by the authority of Ordo Hereticus of Emperor’s Holy Inquisition.”
“Understood,” came the solemn reply.
It was rare to see Mother lose her composure, but after circling the gigantic lot for the 6th time, she began tapping her fingers furiously against the steering wheel. Luckily for us, and for the hapless wheel already worn down from years of use, she managed to wiggle into a spot relatively close to the main entrance.
“Still not late,” Mother grinned proudly, flashing a smile reminiscent of the triumphant war heroes I’ve seen on the holovids. Mumbling her praise to the emperor, she hurried to open the trunk.
The seatbelt clicked loose as mother lifted me out of the mobile and lowered my shivering frame into the wheelchair. Carefully and thoroughly she wrapped a blanket around me, tucking behind my back and under both thighs. “Are you cold?” She asked. Before I could answer, she took off her scarf and wrapped it around my cheeks.
I did my best to suppress my coughs, but to no avail.
Another bloodstain that would never completely wash out of her cloth...
“I’m warm.” came my muffled reply.
Satisfied, mother took the familiar yellow bottle from her purse and handed it to me, relaxing her grip only after making sure I had it firmly in grasp. Painkillers…
“Take them if you feel the pain coming again, just in case,” she reminded me.
The pain never stops… I wanted to say, but held my tongue. The pills rattled in the bottle, so close to empty I could almost count the pellets without uncorking the cap. Once again, I resisted the urge to indulge myself in the temporary bliss. From the way she handled the drugs, I knew it was something she struggled to afford.
Wheels began to spin, as Mother pushed me up the ramps. The scanners came to life as we approached. “Nadia Zuren.” Mother’s name flashed across the screen as the green light washed downward over her face. As it was at every other clinic, the beam passed me by without any response. “Access level Z, you are restricted to the first floor of the basement.”
A lone security guard approached as the door slide shut behind us, the laspistol swaying around his hip as he walked.
“Look Nathaniel, our own escort,” Mother remarked cheerfully, for my benefit. From the looks of pity shot toward us by the large crowds that gave us a wide berth, I knew the man was here to keep us from mingling with others.
With a respectful bow, the young man grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and began pushing me toward a small elevator. “I can take him down, madam, while you pay at the counter,” He offered.
“Yes, that would be best.” Mother agreed. “I’ll join you downstairs.”
A new hospital, a new treatment, yet I held no expectations of success.
An unnatural darkness began washing over the lobby, draining color from all around me. I scanned my surroundings, expecting the usual specters to appear. “Leave me alone.” The words came out of my mouth louder than I anticipated, yet all around me, no one seemed to react.
Eerie silence washed over the crowd as people stopped in their track. My wheelchair slipped out of the guard’s grasp, and quickly grinded to a halt.
Did time stop? I wondered, and struggled to rotate myself. Pushing my arm muscles to the limit, the wheel managed to turn just enough for me to see my mother frozen in her path toward the counter.
“Mother?” I called out, but she did not respond.
The glass on the front side of the hospital exploded as a large van crashed through, sending countless shards flying toward an unfortunate couple walking toward the exit. Though their bodies collapsed without any sound, there was no doubt they had died immediately. Front wheels of the van spun rapidly as the driver attempted to press forward, but the vehicle was thoroughly stuck.
With a loud crack, the passenger door bursted outward, flying off its hinges. A childlike figure came out of the vehicle, but somehow its feet never touched the ground. I blinked my eyes, attempting to clearing my vision. “Leave me alone,” I demanded once again, and the darkness vanished.
As the color returned, the newcomer twisted its head, and a pair of glowing eyes fixated on my location. To my horror, the glowing orbs grew larger, as the entity began its steady approach. With the darkness subsided, I could finally make out the newcomer’s face. It was the face of a young girl, barely ten years old. The right side of her face seemed freshly charred, and something was dripping down her right arm. The crowd around me began moving in unison, heading toward the entrance. The security guard had unsheathed his laspistol, but there was something unnatural in his eyes, swirling maelstroms of colors that replaced his pupils.
Mother! I turned to her, as she began joining the masses. “No! Mother!” I cried out, helpless to stop her march. Mother’s scarf fell from my lips as I screamed, her familiar scent giving way to the smell of burnt rubber and old medical equipment.
“Stop.” The girl spoke, and mother stopped in her tracks, her arms falling to her side, relaxed.
I turned back to the girl, only to find her swatting her arms wildly, fighting off enemies that weren’t… No… I see them now… the familiar specters that haunted me my whole life, hounding her, circling her, nagging her.
She placed both hands over her ears, forcing them shut. “I said no…” She whimpered, and continued her flight. “Please…”
Who was this person? Why was she haunted by the same spectors? And… They talk to her?
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I felt your presence… it was so faint.” She stopped barely a foot from me, and shuddered. “They put something inside your head.”
Now that she was close, I finally identified the liquid dripping down her right arm. It was fresh blood, and the blotted spots on her tattered and charred blue dress traced a path toward a strangely shaped bulge on her right shoulder.
“They hurt me…” She explained, as tears trickled down her cheeks. “Something went into my shoulder… when the explosions happened.” Her brows furrowed in concentration, as if shutting off other voices. “The machine in your head, it keeps the voices away?”
The girl hovered closer, and began losing altitude. Her feet touched the ground, and she almost fell over. People all around us stopped in their macabre march, and at once, collapsed onto the ground.
I looked over to see mother’s chest moving slightly as she breathed, unconscious but otherwise unharmed. Before a sigh of relief could leave my lips, something pressed against my lap and caused me to turn back toward the girl. She had collapsed on top of me with her torso pressing against my legs for support, yet I barely felt her weight. The glow from her eyes fizzled and died out.
“It really does,” she sighed. “But,” the girl reached up to her nose, just as it began to bleed. “It makes you sick… doesn’t it.” Her words began to slur as her teeth clattered together.
“Yes,” I answered without thinking, and began wrapping mother’s scarf around the girl. My hand brushed briefly against her shoulder and felt her shivering form devoid of heat.
“It hurts…” The girl whimpered, and pressed her face against my stomach, desperate for warmth.
I had so many questions swirling in my mind. What did she mean that she felt my presence? What was the machine that kept the monsters away? What was she doing to Mother? But instead of asking her, I found myself reaching for the yellow bottle, and emptying out the last four pills.
This is what mother would do. I pressed the painkillers into the girl’s mouth, and she swallowed them with much difficulty.
“I just wanted them to leave me alone.” She whispered.
“Who?” I asked, and gently stroked her hair, taking care to avoid the charred tissues.
“All of them. The voices, the people in big ships. I just wanted to find you and the others.” The girl closed her eyes. “It’s so quiet. Finally quiet. The pain is going away.” She reached out a trembling hand.
I clasped her hand with mine, our fingers intertwining. Just as Mother had done for me countless times before, I leaned my head forward, and huffed against the back of the girl’s hand.
“That feels nice,” She said, her voice barely audible. “Thank you.”
And so I continued on, until the girl exhaled for the last time.
I didn’t get the answers I sought, but at least her last expression was a peaceful one.