He wrinkled his nose at the acrid mix of gun oil, mold, mildew, sweat, backed-up toilets, cigars, and after shave tainting the air, as bits of rust and dried paint flaked from the ceiling onto his black synthetic blanket and his olive-drab fatigues. Unconsciously, he rubbed his nose and then scratched a freshly inked tattoo of a raven with wings extended on his right shoulder and rubbed his left hand over three healing wounds, neatly stitched, on his stomach, the remains of the surgeons’ latest treatment.
Eighteen year old Markus Raben perched on a metallic rack screwed into an interior wall of a Gothic arch supporting the lowest passenger bay of the Germania battle-barge, Kaiser Wilhelm, cleaning his sniper rifle. His mates’ mundane thoughts floated up from the adamantine deck, irritating and intruding upon his order sense.
Experience told him something was about to happen he wouldn’t like.
Raben, a marine, fresh from hospital on the hive-world Germania, had not yet been re-assigned to a recon squad. In the interim, he trained under the iron tutelage of Sergeant Mannix, who never tired of reminding him he was teen-age trash from the lowest level of the acropolis La Ciudad, the largest city on earth, and his conversion into either a lobotomized android or space detritus was imminent. Raben knew otherwise. He had measured his fate through the Tarot and rationalized it had a purpose for him: after all, he had survived fifteen years on La Ciudad’s lowest levels by using his wits and his knife; and, just recently, he had escaped with minor wounds from a brief police action on Neu Hessen, his first fire fight.
As expected, he felt a psychic twinge of pre-cognition and nausea, greater than the usual irritations, jolting him from his reverie, alerting him that his nemesis from boot-camp was returning to the passenger bay. Anthony Drussus arrived as predicted, wearing a black dress uniform and exuding a greenish aura, an aura Raben could not articulate. All he could say, if asked, was that it, like the dried paint and the odor and chaotic thoughts of four thousand marines, soaked in testosterone and crammed in the tight confines of the battle-barge, disturbed him. What was patently clear to him, however, was that if he had met Drussus on an elevated passageway in the lower levels of La Ciudad a year ago, he would have split him from groin to throat with his knife.
As Drussus waded through the bunks on the deck, Crassus Ancillus looked up from his game of dice and called out in a rough patois, a variation of Low German: “You been stealing from the sailors again or selling our weapons to the Kaiser’s Marines?”
Drussus turned toward Ancillus, and his hooded eyes narrowed as he smiled: “Neither, Ancillus; I have been to see your sister.”
Ancillus stood slowly, scratching some dry skin beneath his left eye and growled, “That’s impossible because there ain’t no brothel on this ship.”
Drussus grinned and said, “You are right brother; I was gambling with the Ciudad Black Robes.” He pulled a hand full of Imperial scrip from each of his pockets and threw them onto his rack. Drussus’ aura immediately darkened and Raben felt his hatred and fear directed toward Ancillus, who simply shrugged and returned to his game, oblivious to malice that Drussus felt toward him.
At that moment, a boatswain’s whistle sounded in the arched corridor outside their bay and the men jumped to attention, as Sergeant Mannix squeezed through the narrow hatchway. Seeing him enter, Raben sprang from his upper rack and landed lithely next to Drussus, as the sergeant barked: “At ease.”
Raben relaxed with the others and surveyed the sergeant’s black fatigues covered with sigils, runic prayers, and unit insignias. He then turned his attention to Drussus, who stood next to him, and noticed to his chagrin that the man was wearing make-up.
The sergeant pulled a data-plate from a pouch on his belt and punched in a code with a minute metallic stylus; and, after a quick survey of the encoded messages scrolling on the tiny screen, read out loud to the men gathered around him: “Orders from Command. Drussus and Raben are to report to Major Catullus, Intelligence Officer, in full dress uniform at Cabin 6363 at 09:00.”
With the message delivered, the sergeant snapped his computer off, surveyed the room like a bird of prey, and said with a sneer, “This place smells like a toilet, gentlemen. I suggest you grab some toothbrushes and get busy. I‘ll be back for inspection at 12:00; and, if you intend to eat in the near future, this place better smell like a Mexia Rose Garden in spring.”
As the sergeant disappeared through the hatch, Ancillus asked: “a Mexia what?”
Raben shrugged, grabbed a towel from his locker, and hurried to the showers. Later, dressed in his black dress uniform, with jump boots shining like polished coal and his ebony hair pulled straight back and pinioned flat to his head, he waited at the hatch for Drussus. After a few minutes, he glanced at his watch, shrugged, and set off alone through the dark labyrinthine decks of the Kaiser Wilhelm.
Thirty minutes later he discovered Drussus sitting at attention in a metal chair locked down by rusting bolts outside the Major’s cabin. A bead of sweat rolled across his sallow cheek, carving a furrow in his face powder. Raben, too, wiped sweat from his brow and examined Drussus’ aura; its green tinge had deepened and he intuited an incipit fear leaking from the ragged edges of his aura.
Neither man spoke to the other as they waited.
At precisely 09:00 the hatch opened and a staff Sergeant in gray fatigues appeared and beckoned them to follow him into a small cabin. Upon entering, Drussus and Raben quickly snapped to attention in front of a drab-green metallic desk, where a huge man in full dress sat behind the desk. Like Raben he had olive skin and thick black hair, which he wore long and pulled straight back. A tattoo denoting membership in the Black Robes marked his left cheek and a jagged scar creased his right.
Raben repressed his desire to examine the Major’s aura; however, his will was weak and he caught glimpses of a reddish brown light emanating from the man’s frame. Suddenly, he became aware that Major Catullus was eyeing him like a crow over a nut and he suspected he sensed the illegal use of his psychic ability. The Major leaned forward, raising his left brow, and Raben squirmed, trying to suppress his powers before the Major caught him in the act of psychic projection and heresy.
Suddenly, the Major slapped his hands together, which made Drussus jump, and said, “I have excellent news for you. I think I have found a recon squad for you. As you know the Kaiser’s Marines on Camarones have been retreating for three weeks. The enemy performed a brilliant pincer attack at Hawthorne Ridge and enveloped the Governor’s armor, but, with our help, the rout has ended and the Kaiser’s Marines are now preparing a counter-attack.
“To assist them and create a diversion, we will drop behind the rebel’s lines. But before we drop, our scouts must establish listening posts and gather intelligence.
“II Squad lost two men during the retreat; you two will replace those men.
“The reason I am talking to you personally is to make it clear that II Squad is reporting directly to the Black Robes. II Squad is dropping into the Tresor River Sector to establish a listening post at the Attis Chapel. This location is vital to our interest and when I say ‘our interest,’ I don’t mean the Kaiser’s but the Black Robes’. I am talking to each member of the squad to emphasize the importance of our taking and holding Attis Chapel until relieved. Do you understand?”
Raben didn’t understand but he shook his head in the affirmative.
“All right, report to your squad, gentlemen, and good luck.”
They snapped to attention, saluted, and turned on their heels. Once outside the Major’s cabin, Raben noticed Drussus’ aura had changed from dark green to a bright yellow. He wondered why and expressed a guess. “Are you happy about the assignment?” Drussus stared at him for a moment and then said between gritted teeth: “I am ecstatic about getting off this tub and down to the planet.” He turned and huffed off in the opposite direction of II Squad; Raben, however, chose not to point out his mistake and set off in the opposite direction.
An hour later, Raben stood at ease in front of Sergeant Minor’s desk. The Sergeant’s augmented right hand whirred softly as he inserted Raben’s record chip into the miniature data-plate on his desk. As the Sergeant reviewed the records, Raben examined his pale blue aura, infiltrated by flashing burgundy lines that popped in the ether like tiny bolts of heat lightning.
Minor looked up, catching Raben’s intense gaze, and surmised he was staring at his hand. “I lost it last year when we landed on Schola Beach. A rebel wielding a sword whacked it off before I had stepped completely out of the Heinkel.” He paused and then said with a chuckle: “I gutted him; and before he died, I chopped off his hands, feet, and ears.” He opened the top drawer of the desk and pulled out a dried ear, which he threw across the desk.
“That is enough talk about the good old days. We have a new assignment. You have an excellent record so far but you could fail tomorrow and end up an android. Do you understand?”
Raben nodded and then swallowed. The loud gulp surprised him and the Sergeant smiled. “There are two things to remember: Our motto is Victorus aut Mortus-Victory or Death-and our orders are to hold until relieved. Got it?”
He nodded and Minor continued: “We drop in tomorrow morning at 04:00 so go next door and get squared away. Corporal Bleak will help you select your gear for the mission. You have any questions?”
He shook his head.
“Welcome to II Squad.”
He exited and turned right toward an open hatch, where several men were talking at the same time. A dark blue aura with a twinge of green emanated from the cabin and Raben realized that Drussus was already there throwing off the equilibrium of the group, adding a germ of instability to the squad’s order.
No one looked up when he entered so he worked his way to an empty bunk next to the outer wall of the ship and lowered his synthetic duffel bag and sniper rifle onto the bed. Ritually, he reached out and touched the metal skin of the ship just as he did when he lurked through the lower levels of the hive-city from which the Ciudad policia extracted him three years ago. Unlike the lower levels of the battle-barge, these walls were freshly painted and dry. With his hand splayed against the wall, he sensed the ship’s vibration, which he hadn’t been able to accomplish below, and felt the far reaching, undulating waves of hyperspace. A shiver ran down his spine.
He sat on the bunk and watched nine men milling around the room; members of his recon-team. Field packs littered the floor, their woven metallic fabric glistening in the florescent lights of the cabin, along with scattered stacks of ammunition, grenades, anti-personnel mines, field rations, trip wire, detonators, Gelignite, a plastic explosive, and a single com-pack programmed for communication with the ship and the men’s micro-cells. Through the mess, a tall red head with thick red moustaches, his arms covered with colorful tattoos, depicting primitive warfare in a primal forest, strutted about the room, wearing nothing but a pair of government-issued black boxers. A large cigar hung from his mouth with a few centimeters of gray ash dangling from its end. He stopped and stood with his legs wide-spread over a case of Gelignite and Raben swallowed, waiting for the ash to drop and ignite the explosives.
The red head scratched his crotch and called out: “Has anyone seen my machine-pistol? I had it here just a minute ago.”
A stout black man, his head shaved clean, wearing jump boots, battle fatigue pants and an undershirt, held up a machine gun. “Cioran, is this filthy piece of hardware what you are looking for?”
Bleak handed him the gun and then turned to Raben: “You had better join the party if you intend landing with us.”
Raben jumped up and opened his duffel, as Bleak continued in his lilting Low German: “Pick out a field pack and then help yourself to the supplies. Required equipment includes three hundred rounds of ammunition, six anti-personnel mines, four sticks of explosives, two detonators, a camouflaged parka, a shelter half, three days of dried rations, which we call iron rations, a micro-cell keyed to our com-pack, personal data plate, and an emergency medical kit. Anything else you want to carry, pick it out. Some of the men carry a shaving kit, toilet paper, extra weapons, extra ammo, hats, gloves, pictures, you name it. Just remember, we move on these.” He slapped his legs. “What you choose, you carry; what you carry, we either bring back or burn it. We don’t leave technology for the rebels, nor do we supply them with weapons or ammo. Got it?”
“Got it,” he answered.
“Do you have your personnel chip?”
“The Sergeant kept it.”
Raben shrugged his shoulders.
Bleak stood up and waved to a thin man with thick brown hair, cut short, that stood up like iron spikes. “Doc, come here and meet our sniper.” He turned to Raben and said, “Doc’s been chosen to train as a Surgeon. This will probably be his last mission with us.” The man worked his way across the room. “Doc, give him his shots and then issue him an emergency kit.”
The medic dug around in a black synthetic medical bag and removed five syringes, each separately wrapped in a clear plastic. Bleak said, “Camarones’ fauna and flora are tough. The animal life evolved from reptiles, dragons in particular, so there are scorpions, lizards, wasps, all spitting poison, fire and acid. Because the insect and reptile population is so tough so is the plant life. The water is all right to drink in most cases but drop a pill in it first just to be safe. The first humans that colonized the planet discovered the soil was a rich volcanic ash that would grow almost anything so the planet has been a bread basket ever since. The settlers killed off most of the indigenous animal life but there is still enough around to bury you. O’Connor, our sniper, was stung by a hornet. He had been hiding in some bushes and he lay down over the beast’s nest. Killed him instantly; stopped his heart.”
Bleak’s micro-cell buzzed and he pressed it and said, “Yes sir, he’s here. I will send him right up.”
Father Kavka wants to see you on the double.”
“What?” He must have blushed because Bleak said: “Don’t you worry, I am sure it is nothing.”
A trip to the Priests always meant trouble and Raben dreaded his encounters with them. He feared he would slip and the Black Robes would discover his secret and disintegrate him as a warlock. He was not due to see the Priests or the psychologists yet; he had just undergone some psychological tests two weeks before, but more troubling to him was the fact he had never met Kavka, a Seneschal of the Black Robes.
“He is on Level Two, Bay 4, cabin 2372,” said Doc, as he jabbed the hypos into his left arm just below his tattoo.
Thirty minutes later he stood before the Seneschal’s cabin and recited a mathematical litany: “Two plus three is five, seven plus two is nine, five plus nine is fourteen, one plus four is five--the pentagram.” He shuddered at the conclusion of his numerology and then whispered a few lines of a High Gothic poem his mother used to recite: “The pentagram thy peace doth mar?/To me, thou son of hell, explain.”
He knocked and a deep baritone called out for him to enter. Kavka sat behind an anachronistic wooden desk, dressed in the black synthetic battle armor the Black Robes wore in combat. Tattooed like the major, a black ink pentagram marked his right cheek and a raven with its wings extended covered his left. His long hair, black like Raben’s and the Major’s, was pulled tightly into a knot at the top of his head.
Raben scanned his aura: dark gray, like fog rising from a frigid lake on a winter’s dawn.
“I sense you are nervous. Just relax, you have nothing to fear.”
Raben took a deep breath and tried to calm his mind.
“You are an interesting one, Raben. We found you in a ruthless gang rampaging at the bottom of La Ciudad but your aura radiates a darkness, nay, a blackness, that showed your inherent order and your kinship to the Black Robes. Do you realize that if a truly corrupt being came close to you, you would retch in disgust?”
Raben did not know what to say. He was shocked a Black Robe could perceive his aura. They obviously had discovered his secret, or maybe they knew all along.
“Did you know your DNA reflects a distant relation to the founder of Germania, to Raben himself? We suspect your ancestors were part of the genetic program Raben introduced in 2103 to strengthen the genetic matter of his settlers on the Moon.”
He stuttered: “sir?” He had not understood one word the Seneschal had said.
“Amazing isn’t it?”
“Yes sir, it is.” Inwardly, Raben shuttered.
“Raben, you have just received your first posting to a secular unit that serves as an auxiliary of the Black Robes. We selected you because we have watched you carefully since your induction and we know you have certain psi powers. The Black Robes, unlike other military orders, do not fear seers; they cultivate them. Now that you are in the system, we will be spending more time together. Don’t repress your powers but don’t discuss them with anyone except me. Do you understand?”
Although confused, Raben shook his head in the affirmative.
“When you return, if you return—I can’t quite see your fate lines yet—I will want you to report every sense or intimation you receive of hyperspace or any sniff of contagion you find on the planet or within this ship. We suspect there is daemon interference behind this rebellion; we just haven’t found it yet.”
Raben immediately thought of Drussus.
“You are dismissed and good luck.”
At 03:00, 10th Company stood in formation in Hangar Bay Two before ten ancient Heinkel landing craft. Flight Sergeant Orlando Kleinthaler in full battle regalia directed the action of seventy-five androids who rushed about the hangar, making last minute adjustments and repairs to the machinery.
Sergeant Minor stood before his squad and repeated their orders. “II Squad shall land on the Hawthorne Ridge at coordinates 6984.7456. They will then proceed southeast to coordinates 7361.9863. Once there, they will take control of Attis Chapel and hold until relieved by Black Robe units only. They shall not relinquish control to the Kaiser Marines or any other authority of the Kaiser.”
He, then, stepped closer to the men, lowered his voice to a whisper, and said, “Men, you know the chain of command. If I am killed, then Bleak takes over. If Bleak falls, then Doc and after Doc, Cioran.” He coughed and said with a laugh, “If Cioran falls, may God guide your steps to hell because you stupid mugs don’t have a chance.”
II Squad laughed in unison.
A Tech sergeant ordered I Squad into its landing craft. Once they marched inside and secured themselves into the webbing, an android closed its hatch and a hydraulic lift raised it onto the first servo-launcher. A Navy tech called out the coordinates, which an android entered, and the countdown for launch began. As soon as the launcher belched out a Heinkel, Sergeant Kleinthaler called out for II Squad to mount up and to enter its designated craft.
The ten scouts entered in a column of two and sat on metal seats, their legs, shoulders, and arms touching the one next to them. Cioran’s right elbow dug into Raben’s left side, just below his chest armor, while Jean-Pierre Corbeau’s knee worked itself into his thigh and his automatic’s barrel bounced off his crotch. Raben flexed his muscles and willed his body into a comfortable position.
The command to close the hatch came and he felt the lifts raising and inserting the ship into the launcher. Cioran’s head lolled against his shoulder as soon as the pressure valves clicked and the countdown began and he began to snore.
A blast and then a thrust preceded Raben’s head slamming against the metal wall of the Heinkel glider and Corbeau’s machine gun burrowed deeper into his groin. The fall only lasted a few minutes but to Raben, whose eyes watered with pain, it seemed to go on forever. At one point in the controlled fall, he looked over at Drussus, who sat between Minor and Doc. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be praying, his aura flashing with green and yellow sparks. Raben once again felt revulsion; it was a physical reaction he could not control.
He shook his head to clear it, as the Heinkel rushed toward the planet. Suddenly, he had a pre-cognitive vision; they always arrived unbidden and usually at the most inopportune time. In his mind’s eye he saw Sergeant Minor floating in a watery grave. To clear his mind of this troubling image, he instigated a technique he used in the Hive World to sublimate his most dreadful visions; he opened his mind to all immediate physical sensations. Time slowed for him and he heard Cioran’s breath near his ear; he smelled Corbeau’s sweet aftershave lotion; he saw the tanning powder on Drussus’ face; and he tasted the oil in the air and the ozone seeping into the transport.
Then they hit hard. The Heinkel slammed into the rich black loam of the planet and something exploded; steam erupted from a severed pipe and blood geysered into the bay, stinging Raben’s eyes and filling his mouth with treacle-sweet liquid. Someone was screaming and someone else was dead.