"Answer me or I'll have a Primaris rip the answer from your mind!"
Disjointed memories. Tiny fragments of lucidity in an ocean of swirling, treacherous words and feelings. The past shattered like a mirror.
"So what did you do to end up in this Emperor-forsaken job?"
"Are you afraid?"
"If I had the choice, I would not sully our family's name by asking you to bring honour to it. You are incapable of such."
"No-one will know."
And then the sick feeling of waking up.
Twenty hibernation capsules whirred open on old, tired hinges. Grigor, as always, was the first to wake up. Of all the team, he was the only one who was never affected by hibernation. Always the first awake, on his feet in seconds with no nausea, no dizziness, no disorientation or temporary amnesia.
Lieutenant Nirvana Kale watched him out of the corner of her eye, keeping otherwise still on her hibernation bed to combat the urge to vomit and the feeling that her skin had rotted away during the sleep. She knew it was just an after-effect of the waking - in five minutes she'd feel perfectly normal - but whenever she woke up from a sleep in the capsules, the first thing she wanted to do was die.
Grigor's damnably calm voice echoed around the otherwise silent pressure bay.
"Imperial Sector Patrol vessel Acheron sending to system navigation. Respond please."
There was a crackle of static, which made Nirvana wince. She heard a slight movement to her left, where her sergeant was equally pained by the sudden, loud noise. Then the speakers went dead for a moment, until a faint electronic rattle signalled contact with the automated navigation beacons.
"Mission profile gamma by two by five, sub nine nine three," Grigor said mechanically, "issued sector command via patrol beta, destination Ionia Lesser. Copy to Ionia Greater flight control. Acheron out."
Nirvana took a deep, slow breath and manoeuvred herself upright on her elbows. Sickness or no, she always forced herself to be on her feet before the rest of her team. Grigor excepted, of course - she remembered all too clearly what happened when she had tried to force herself to move before her body had shaken off the hibernation effects, just because Grigor could do it. Bent over on hands and knees, her nails broken from blindly trying to claw through the plasteel deck plating, blood trickling out of her throat as she tried to throw up. It had taken Matthews, the team's only med-tech, twenty minutes to stabilise her. Stupid thing to do.
Her father's shouting voice drifted through her mind, left over from her chaotic hibernation dream. Yes, he'd have been satisfied with that. Died in hibernation - no medal, no note on the honour roll, nothing that would have to be dutifully, if reluctantly, entered in the family's history. He could pretend she'd never existed, just like he'd wanted to ever since the day the household master-at-arms found her and-
"Stop," she whispered to herself. None of the others ever complained about this sort of thing, but it happened to Nirvana every time. There was a border zone between hibernation and complete waking, just as the sickness began to ebb away, when memories took on the strength of thundering tidal waves. If she let herself, she would be back there again, in the map room, hearing - against all reason - the door open, looking up to see old Perus standing in the doorway, horrified, and then he'd be chanting condemnations over and over-
"Stop it," Nirvana told herself sternly. She could control it, she'd found. Whatever memory plagued her would try to insinuate itself back into her conscious mind, but if she was careful she could keep it at bay for the moment it took for her mind to return to normal. She glanced at Grigor, hunched over an ancient binary console, laboriously tapping out a data sequence. She envied the way he could just wake up from hibernation and get on with things. No nausea, no memories...
'No memories,' she thought sullenly, 'that'd be nice.'
Half an hour later the team had woken up, showered, eaten, and checked their weapons. When everyone was ready Kale called for quiet and keyed in her authorisation to the heavy airlock on the far side of the pressure bay. The door rumbled back loudly, echoed by its twin on the other side of the lock, and Zero walked slowly through.
Nirvana hated Zero, but that didn't matter because Zero was incapable of knowing, or caring, whether he - it - was liked. It had been a man once, a navigator, until the man had committed some crime that the Navis Nobilite didn't think was worth the trouble of concealing. Navigators were too valuable to simply execute, so they were turned into Zero units, servitors with navigator ability. In theory, they were capable of storing as much information as a data hive, as unable to disobey as a machine, and as reliable at steering a ship through the warp as a human navigator. So the Adeptus Mechanicus and the Nobilite claimed, at any rate - it was common knowledge that a ship piloted by a Zero was far more likely to go missing in the warp than one with a real navigator.
No Navy ship would use a Zero, nor would any merchant captain with enough credits to afford a real navigator. The Nobilite charged a fraction of the usual cost for their services, but anyone with sound business sense could see that the saving wasn't worth it. The Sector Patrol administration used them because they were cheap, and it considered its ships and crews to have less value than the credits it would cost to outfit them with real navigators. Just like the substandard warp shielding, that necessitated the use of the outdated hibernation capsules. Just like the primitive auto-rifles the team had to use, because lasguns cost more. Just like their life, one system after another, checking outposts and mining stations, sending back reports, always wondering whether the next jump would be the one that took them to a real emergency, where they would be outgunned and outnumbered - because Sector Patrol admin didn't think it worth the effort to make sure they weren't being sent to their deaths. If a Sector Patrol vessel vanished, then they would take note, and hand the matter over to the Imperial Guard, or the Adeptus Astartes if it looked serious enough. Sector Patrol weren't expected to fight - only to live long enough to report danger.
Nirvana found it generally easier to just hate Zero than think about her life rationally. Zero didn't care - couldn't care, in fact, not since most of its brain had been surgically removed and replaced with inorganic cogitator valves. And thinking rationally, allowing herself to focus on the inescapable fact that her life had no more value than a bird in a cage breathing deadly gas... she had been raised to do more than that. She should have been in the Guard, at least. By now, age twenty-five, a major. Only one of millions, perhaps, in the great Imperial Guard, but nonetheless making a difference in the great war - making sure the lives of her soldiers were given only at great cost to the enemy. Everything she had been taught since she was old enough to remember rebelled at being next to worthless - it was all she could do to keep herself focused on one routine mission after another.
It was easier to hate Zero than think of the real cause of her anger. She had learned that the hard way - when she had used not to be so successful at ignoring her own life, and one day had found herself almost regretting that one moment of happiness, for what it had cost her. She couldn't afford to regret it. She knew if she did, then she would end up hating that too. It was all she had left, really - lose that, and if she was lucky she'd be killed in some quick, one-sided battle. That at least would be cleaner than having to pull the trigger herself.
Without bothering to suppress her childish glare at Zero, she motioned him to the centre of the pressure bay, where her team was waiting. He took his place and began speaking, in his patient, lifeless monotone.
'They don't even bother to brief us in person,' Nirvana thought bitterly, 'just transmit the information to the ship's Zero, and let a machine send us out to die.'
"Ionia the Lesser," Zero droned, "delta-class satellite. No indigenous life. One Imperial facility located at coordinates 952.03 by 783.10 by depth 128. Prefabricated excavation module, crew twenty-nine, five servitors. Contact lost on the third day of the new year."
"Details on the prime world," said Nirvana. Zero answered, though there was no outward indication it had even heard her speak.
"Ionia the Greater, phi-lamda-class world. Population approximately one billion. Negligible technology level, no spaceflight capability. Most recent sociological analysis conducted fifty-three years ago, indicates primitive grasp of proper worship for His Holiness the Emperor. No Imperial personnel stationed."
"Cavemen," said Sergeant Valt emotionlessly. Zero remained silent.
"Details on Ionia Lesser facility," ordered Nirvana.
"Information suppressed by order of Adeptus Mechanicus archaeotech retrieval protocols." The team was suddenly paying attention - even Nirvana felt her interest stir. Valt leaned over to her.
"Mechanicus, ma'am?" he asked.
"That's what it said," she answered mildly.
"Are we authorised for this?" Valt asked. Nirvana frowned. Valt was a good man and a good sergeant, but his apparent blindness to the contemptible use Sector Patrol put them to frustrated her. Then again, they had lived very different lives - Valt's childhood had been spent on a frozen wasteland, hunting small animals for food and living in a hovel made from skins. He could still barely read, and his painstakingly textbook-perfect speech patterns gave way to a primitive, slurred accent whenever he wasn't concentrating. He hadn't been raised to lead regiments in glorious battle.
"This is where Sector Patrol sent us," Nirvana said, waving Zero back to his isolation unit, "so this is where we're going. Get ready," she raised her voice, getting her team's attention, "we deploy in fifteen minutes! Go!"
The activity of preparation was a slight relief to her - it allowed her to think without anyone really noticing. Archaeotech... under normal circumstances, a Sector Patrol vessel wouldn't be sent anywhere near an archaeotech site. Loss of contact would automatically merit a Navy vessel, with Imperial Guard on board - maybe even Marines, if the site was important. But these were not normal circumstances. None of the team knew much about what was going on, but Nirvana still had a few friends from homeworld, and still heard things. Vast fleets were pulling out of conflict zones all over the Imperium, streaming into the Segmentum Pacificus, where the War of the New Emperor was raging. With so many soldiers drawn away from their usual assignments, perhaps Sector Patrol was all that was left to investigate a loss of contact scenario. Maybe this was a real mission.
'Probably just means we'll get killed,' she thought bitterly.
Lieutenant Kale led her team through the labyrinth of tunnels inside Ionia Lesser, keeping one eye on her tracker and one eye on the shadows that shifted as shoulder-mounted spotlights swayed across the smoothed rock walls. Every mission was a struggle, of sorts - to stay alert, to follow procedure, to resist the temptation to do things the fast, sloppy way because almost invariably there was no danger, and no-one cared if their job was done right or not. Valt was a godsend in that regard - he always kept his squad in formation, and insisted on protocol. He made it easy for Nirvana to keep her frustration in check, in that regard at least - all she really had to concern herself with was the way her ill-fitting pressure suit chafed at the bulky shoulder and hip joints.
Twelve men followed Nirvana through the tunnels. Two more were back on Acheron, keeping an eye on the ship's accident-prone auto-pilot, and three more had landed on Ionia Greater to check the unmanned surveillance equipment that the last survey team had left in a wasteland the natives kept away from.
The tunnels were natural - the moon was a giant honeycomb - but they had been smoothed out by the Mechanicus' borer robots to create a safe passage between the landing platform on the surface and the habitat more than a hundred metres below. Nirvana noted the slight marks in the rock beneath her boots, where heavy treads had scoured the ground. The rock was soft - in some places there were already ruts where vehicles had moved back and forth enough to leave them. The platform up above looked brand-new - the Mechanicus couldn't have been here long.
The tunnel spiralled down, occasionally branching out other tendrils through the rock, jagged and unused. Finally they came to the habitat, inside a vast cave. Stalactites hung down low enough in places that the pressure dome had been built around them. They must have been ancient - there hadn't been water on Ionia Lesser in millennia. Nirvana waved her scouts away, and as they moved to either side she led the rest of the team directly towards the main airlock.
It was slowly moving by itself - closing, jamming on a grey shape on the threshold, pulling back and trying to close again. Nirvana knelt down and prodded the shape. It almost looked like a body, but it was too small, too wasted - more like a lump of ash. She gently rolled it over, and leapt back in shock. The eye sockets of a corpse stared back at her.
"Matthews," she said, gulping down a breath of stale air and composing herself. The med-tech knelt by the body and ran a scanner over it, then gently pushed a thin probe through its cracked skin. He looked up after a moment.
"Gene profile reads Mechanicus," he reported, "technician third class. I can't tell more without a personnel database."
"How long?" Nirvana asked. Matthews looked uncomfortable.
"Hard to s-say," he answered, stuttering slightly. "Out here, w-without atmosphere, he should have b-been preserved better, not... like this." He twisted the tiny levers on the end of the probe for a moment, then gave up and pulled it out of the body. A tiny cloud of skin dust floated down in the weak gravity. Nirvana watched it settle, then glanced at Matthews.
"Can you give me a cause?"
"Sorry ma'am," he said, "this is out of my league."
She frowned, then turned away from Matthews and the others, so that the boxy frame of her suit's helmet hid her face.
"We go in," she decided. Valt called the scouts back and rolled the disintegrating body out of the way of the airlock door, keeping a boot firmly planted against it until the rest of the team was inside. The door rolled closed, there was a hiss of air, and Nirvana's suit clung to her as the outside pressure reached planetary sea level, overpowering the half-pressure the suit provided. The inner airlock opened.
Something hit her on the back, and she fell. There was a confusion of sound, hollow and distant, like voices heard from underwater. Nirvana struggled to her knees and looked around. She was alone.
"Valt?" she called through her suit's vox. "Valt? Grigor? Anyone? Damn." Grigor was the communications tech - if he couldn't hear her, no-one could. How long had she been out? She didn't know. She didn't feel as if she had been unconscious at all.
Inside the airlock the pressure dome was open and silent. Large, low buildings were spread around a courtyard. A light in one of them flickered on and off. Nirvana took a breath of her suit's stale air.
"Hell with this," she muttered, twisting her helmet's connector ring. There was a quick breeze against her neck as the clean air rushed in, and she took a deep breath and held it for a moment. 'Still alive,' a little voice said in her head. At least part of her wasn't disappointed. She considered leaving the uncomfortable pressure suit, but common sense told her not to. Something had gone wrong, she'd lost her team - no time to take things for granted. She shouldn't have breathed the air. She silently berated herself as she walked towards the nearest building.
Things moved. She was closer, at the thin door of the building. It sensed her presence and slid open. She stood still for a moment - with no motion, the tiny glowing sensor clicked off. Inside was a body - one of her team, perhaps. Wasted, shrivelled, just like the corpse outside. There was another one, in alien armour. A sleek rifle lay by its side, and a thin silver blade rested in its disintegrating stomach.
Someone was behind her. She spun around, and everything else seemed to spin as well. She ended up facing the doorway again, but the bodies were gone. Now a robed figure stepped out of the shadows. Delicate hands pulled the hood down, revealing a gentle face framed with auburn hair, tiny braids woven together like ivy. Her eyes were extraordinary - green from edge to edge, like the most perfect emeralds.
"Who are you?" demanded Nirvana.
"You know me," the woman said.
"No. No, I've never seen you before."
"I've seen tomorrow," the woman said, "then you will have always known me."
Nirvana's head spun - it felt like the hibernation sickness again.
"What have you done to me?" she said, her voice slurred.
The sickness was gone. The woman's hair was loose, falling over Nirvana's hands as she held her face in her palms. Her weight slowly rested on top of Nirvana. There was sunlight from somewhere.
"You didn't want me to lie to you," she whispered in Nirvana's ear.
"Where are my men?"
They were standing opposite one another again. Nirvana staggered, disoriented.
"Stop fighting it," the woman said.
"Who are you?"
"Dusk," she answered.
Nirvana ran from the building, across the courtyard. She looked to either side desperately as she ran - everywhere she looked her team was dead. Blood glistened wetly, only to fade away. Flesh shrivelled and became dust. She reached the safety of another doorway, and turned back. The ground was clear of bodies.
"Why aren't I dead?" she gasped. She was on her knees, the woman - Dusk - lying beneath her, eyes closed, hair spread out like a halo.
"Ashes to ashes," Dusk said.
"Dust to dust," Nirvana answered, without really knowing why. They were standing in the shadow of a great tree. Dusk pulled her close to whisper a secret in her ear.
"What if you're more than ashes and dust?"
There was a laboratory at the heart of the excavation facility, a huge building the size of a warehouse. Nirvana's memories of how she got there were fragmented - she could remember corridors, a slow, clanking elevator. And also green fields, driving rain, lightning in the black sky, calm oceans. Parts of her memory didn't fit.
The technicians were slumped over their desks, desiccated husks. Nirvana ignored them - dust to dust. The centre of the laboratory was open, even the floor plating giving way to the base of the crater that had been laboriously lasered out of the rock. A great steel cage was there, with isolation fabric stretched between the bars. There was only one way in, an airlock protruding from the billowing fabric. On its surface were warnings in a dozen languages. Do not enter. Danger. Unknown.
"Yes," her father said, "you will serve the remainder of your life in a Sector Patrol regiment. Let that be a reminder to you of the pain you have inflicted on those who... hah, thought we were your family."
"My commission in the Imperial Guard-" Nirvana protested. She knew she had lived this moment before, but the words fell from her mouth just as she remembered.
"Revoked," her father had said, "I will see to it."
"You can't!" she had protested - she felt the angry tears running down her face again.
"You give me no choice!" he thundered.
"I'm your daughter!" she had cried. The blow caught her completely off-guard. He had never laid a hand on her before, and never touched her again. She fell, the sting of his open hand burning her cheek. Gasping for air, sobbing, she looked up to see him staring at his hand as if it were something distasteful.
"You are no daughter of mine," he said, completely without emotion.
"He never spoke to me again," Nirvana said after a silent moment. She and Dusk sat on the bank of a river, the autumn sun still bright and warm enough.
Her father had stood by as household servants methodically destroyed all her possessions. He wanted to make sure it was done properly. He was standing over her as the master of letters erased her name from the house's books. He was a grim silhouette against the dying light of sunset as a servant swung a sledgehammer, cracking in two the ornate tombstone that should have stood over her grave. He was there when the recruiters took her away - she hadn't put up a fight, because she knew it would do no good. But he had said nothing.
Dusk put a gentle hand on her back, and Nirvana leaned onto her shoulder, letting the tension drift out of her.
"What did you do?" Dusk asked. "Why won't you regret it?"
"I've told you," Nirvana said, confused.
"No," said Dusk, "not yet. We aren't alive yet."
Nirvana stood with her back against the curved wall of the airlock, one hand on the door control - keeping both ends of the chamber closed - the other keeping Dusk at the point of her autopistol.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
Things moved again. Nirvana felt Dusk's soft robes against her skin, saw herself glaring at her over the barrel of the autopistol. Then she was holding the gun again, glaring at Dusk.
"Will you kill me if I lie?" Dusk said. They switched places again, in the blink of an eye.
"You know I won't," Nirvana heard herself say.
On the other side of the airlock there were no lights. Only the faint illumination filtering through the isolation fabric cast a glow over the strange shape half-buried in the rock. Its metal skin was torn and buckled, exposing wired, shattered fragments of glass, steel that had melted and frozen in strange, organic shapes - or maybe been fashioned that way.
Nirvana saw a way in to the strange ship, and followed it.
"Your clothes," Nirvana said quietly, "they're... alien?" She and Dusk were sitting cross-legged in the pressure bay of the Acheron.
"Eldar," said Dusk. She stretched a leg across Nirvana's lap, flinched then relaxed as Nirvana ran her fingers across the fabric - smooth like silk.
"But you're human," she said.
"Have you heard of Commorragh?" Dusk asked after a brief silence.
From the balcony they could see for miles, across the twisted city coiled in its warped dimension. Fragments of the blood sky peeked through gaps between jagged towers.
"A cruel place," Dusk said, "a strange place to find kindness."
"Did you?" asked Nirvana.
"No," said Dusk, "perhaps. I don't know. Enough to live on."
For a moment they were elsewhere, deafened by screams and the din of war. Nirvana held Dusk helplessly as she shrieked and cried, blood streaming through the fingers she held to her face, covering her eyes.
"They are not a kind people," said Dusk quietly, "but she is not truly one of them. She has kindness within her. And cruelty. She asked me once if I wanted her to hurt me."
"Did she?" said Nirvana quickly, glancing around - they were quite alone.
"I said no, so she didn't," answered Dusk.
"No, I don't think so," Dusk said.
Nirvana's father held his laspistol in a steady hand, glaring down at her. She stared back, and tried not to cry.
"Did you do it?" he asked in a low, dangerous voice. Nirvana's eyes flickered away from him for a moment, to where Loria was cowering in a corner, too terrified to even move.
"Answer me," her father demanded. When she looked into the corner again Dusk was there. She uncurled herself and walked behind Nirvana's father. He didn't seem to notice her.
"You don't have to tell him," Dusk said.
"I can't lie," Nirvana pleaded. Her father seemed frozen in place.
"You can," Dusk soothed her, "if you want to, this time you can."
"Did you?" barked her father, finally raising his voice.
"No!" Nirvana shouted. Dusk took her hand and led her away, as her father's finger moved on the trigger. Nirvana watched, not without some fascination, as the lasbolt coalesced in the gun's firing chamber, drifted out of it, slid through the air.
"He really would have done it," she whispered to herself. As she watched, the bolt made contact with the floor, and slowly scored a blast out of the stone.
"Do you trust me?" asked Dusk. Nirvana turned to her, open-mouthed, her mind whirling. She tried to pull away, to get back to her father, but Dusk held her hand.
"It's alright," she said, "later. There'll be another time."
She found the bridge of the ship, all curved surfaces and smooth panels. On the wall, behind one of the gravity couches, there was a golden plaque, blackened with age, half-melted by some heat that hadn't been quite intense enough to damage the surrounding wall.
The master-at-arms was dragging Nirvana roughly through the hall. She stumbled to keep up, twisting futilely at his iron grip on her arm.
"Your father will hear of this," he kept saying, "Emperor have mercy on the poor soul that was cursed with being born into you."
"Let go!" Nirvana pleaded.
"You shut your mouth!" he shouted.
"Are we the sum of our memories?" murmured Dusk. She and Nirvana were on the edge of the forest, watching the sun rise slowly above the distant mountains. A little way away their horses, loosely tied to a tree, munched contentedly from their nosebags.
"What if we are?" asked Nirvana in return. "What if I'm losing myself?"
"But there's no memory here," said Dusk, tracing circles with her fingertips on Nirvana's back. "Only time. Are we the sum of our time?"
"I remember this place," Nirvana said, sighing gently. "I was... twelve? Thirteen."
"No," said Dusk, "you don't remember."
"I know this place," said Nirvana with a frown.
"This is the place you don't remember," whispered Dusk, soothing her. "No memory, only time."
"Why are you here?" Nirvana was cradled in Dusk's arms, back in the airlock. Her pistol lay discarded to one side, unused.
"She sent me here," Dusk answered.
"Was that kind or cruel?"
"Her kind are cruel," said Dusk, "your people are dead. I'm sorry. I would save them if I could."
"I know," admitted Nirvana.
"She knew you would be here," Dusk said to herself, "she knew I would be here."
Nirvana held the plaque in her hands. It glistened, bright as the day it was made. She read the words:
'Earth Dominion Vessel Wells. Launched 18,099.'
And below that, in italics, proudly:
'Time Explorer. First of her kind.'
"What happened here?" Nirvana asked. Dusk looked at the pulsing reactor at the ship's heart and shrugged.
"Who knows," she said, "something that wasn't meant to be. Maybe they weren't ready."
"How could we be otherwise?"
Nirvana's father held the laspistol aimed between her eyes. Her eyes flickered to Loria, cowering in the shadows, terrified by the old man's fury. For that reason alone, Nirvana almost regretted what she had done. Almost.
"Did you?" her father barked. Dusk was standing behind him.
"I did," Nirvana said, "I kissed her."
Her father closed his eyes, and slowly lowered the gun.
"If you had lied-" he began, then he clamped his mouth shut and turned his back on her. His voice had had just the slightest trace of gratitude.
"What happened to her?" asked Dusk. She and Nirvana were sitting in the silent pressure bay. Strange, Nirvana thought - she had never been here without having to endure the annoying hum of the ship's engines.
"She was just a servant to them," she explained, "she was expelled from the household, but nothing more. My father... didn't think she was worth punishing. I was the one he had held hopes for."
"You never wished you hadn't?" Dusk was behind her, whispering in her ear.
"Almost. Many times. But never."
"A perfect moment," said Dusk.
"All I had," answered Nirvana.
"All you need," Dusk answered back.
She was in the map room again. So far as she knew, the house was empty - she was safe. Dusk was beside her, leaning against the back of the solid oak table, her hand gently exploring beneath Nirvana's loose blouse. Nirvana looked up, and Dusk smiled shyly.
"Is it perfect?" she whispered.
"Yes," said Nirvana, "no memory."
"Do you want to stay here?" Dusk asked.
"How long can it last?" Nirvana wondered aloud.
"All the time in the world," said Dusk. Nirvana shrugged her shoulders free of her blouse and kissed the woman.
The final decay of the vessel's reactor obliterated Ionia the Lesser, and the Sector Patrol vessel Acheron. On Ionia the Greater, the primitive humans searched the night sky for their moon, and found nothing. The three members of the Acheron's crew stranded there speculated, once they grew tired of waiting for a rescue that would never come, as to why there had been no debris from the moon burning up in the atmosphere. Beneath their feet, buried under the accumulated soil of twenty-two thousand years, the last remaining fragments of Ionia the Lesser remained undiscovered.