Heretics and Aliens

With the best will in the sector, the settlement of Noto was a one horse-analogue kind of town thought Magos Achaikos Pallus as he leaned out the Civil Transport train engine's window and scanned the area for life signs. Apart from the occupants of the platform in front of him, his augmetic senses presented him with a data-picture of 168 human life signs in 37 buildings. Only a few further life signs, riders mounted on the backs of the giant lizard like beaked bipeds the locals used to range about off-road instead of Terran horses, seemed to be moving, mostly along the byways leading out of the little hamlet.

In fact the signs of people and their cold-blooded steeds were considerably outnumbered by the contacts his senses were registering from the wider area's many breeds of sauropods. These roaming herds belonged to the region's many lease holding farmers, who most lived beyond the tiny settlement's outer limits. Noto's existence depended on those herds, and the fact that the local bureaucratic representatives from the Imperial Sub-Sector Ministry of Agriculture, Bureau of Animal Husbandry, needed a convenient way to reach the region's cattle markets for inspection, tax and socialising purposes; hence the rail link from Port Ispica, the island of Aeolia's main export area on its south-eastern side.

Achaikos had absorbed all this through the briefing his partner Enforcer Dexicos Ioannou had requested from Sharrab, the savant their master Inquisitor Stannos Kellman, of the Ordo Xenos, used for his research requests whenever he needed to sidestep Adeptus Administratum bureaucracy; and, since Sharrab had all the security clearances required to belong to an Imperial Inquisitor's retinue, his briefings were correspondingly more interesting than the typical Administratum documents in any case.

Most of the savant's document had focused on the slight figure of the moustached man waiting for Achaikos and Dexicos on the platform by their train carriage, surrounded by five carapace armour clad figures, wearing black full face covering helmets. Around these Adeptus Arbites was a second ring of armed guards, a score of local men hastily deputised by the area's terrified sheriff (as law enforcement representatives on Genthar Secundus were generally known).

Apothecary Michele Nostru was a man of many interests according to Sharrab, who had drawn deeply on the files kept on him by the local Adeptus Arbites office on the second planet of the Genthar system. A medical physician by training and inclination, Apothecary Nostru was a man in good standing with the wealthy landowners who ran things in his district. The man was the head of the region's cattle association and supplemented his medical income through his position as director of the Noto Truckers Guild.

By good fortune Apothecary Nostru was also the official medical advisor to the local Civil Transport Authority, whose Aeolian branch seemed happy to stick to transporting foodstuffs, veterinary and medical supplies to Noto, plus the occasional passengers, over fodder and livestock that might but into the Guild's revenues. Normally therefore, a minor local dignitary like Michele Nostru would never have come to the attention of servants of the Imperium like Achaikos and Dexicos, and the magos would even now be continuing his important research into Hrud migration patterns and exploring their possible weaponization in these trying times.

Unluckily for Nostru, the apothecary had come to the attention of a Inquisitorial colleague of their master, Jubal Santos of the Ordo Hereticus, who was still unpicking the tangled knots of heretical conspiracies which had recently helped enable Chaos raiders abroad the space hulk Floating Metal Death-Trap to launch attacks across the Tarnoth sector. Tarnoth itself had so far escaped the worst of the troubles currently tearing at the rest of the Segmentum Obscurus and the wider Imperium, thanks to its position high on the roof of the galaxy, but the Archenemy was on the move here as elsewhere. Some malign hand was even convincing the followers of the different Ruinous Powers to aid one another's efforts, an almost unheard of event in the normal run of things according to Santos.

But then in the normal run of things neither the Arbites nor the Inquisition would have been interested in a character like Nostru, the head of the Noto branch of the "Little Brothers" crime syndicate. The group had branches across the island of Aeolia and both the northern and southern land masses that marked the habitable zones on Genther Secondus; Nostru himself was a fair-weather friend to the mutie bandit tribes in the island's central mountains, a sauropod rustler and a narcotics trafficker whose business interests fuelled addiction, robberies and murder across Aeolia and the northern settlements — but only among the commoners. As long as the agri-planet met its tithes in foodstuffs, medical supplies and sulphur the Imperium of Mankind would have left him to the local authorities to kill or conciliate as they chose, until that is, his other life had come to light…

"Achaikos, let's go," his partner Dexicos muttered. As a former planetary law enforcement agent back on his own home world, the enforcer was taking their latest assignment a lot more seriously than the magos. But then Dexicos had always been the more diligent of the two of them, which was why Achaikos gratefully entrusted the paperwork their endeavours generated to his partner.

"A moment," the magos said, enjoying the sight of the locals stirring restlessly; it was fascinating to watch how each individual's heart rate reacted under stress. After all, until yesterday more than one guard on that platform had been in their prisoner's indirect employ, right up until the arbites squad had arrived at the Noto jail and shown the trembling sheriff there the detention order with the inquisitorial seal of Jubal Santos on it. Not even Nostru's criminal and establishment connections had wanted to shield him from charges of heresy from a renowned witch-hunter.

"No, now," Dexicos said, suiting words to action and handing Achaikos a belt and holster containing a loaded autopistol. The enforcer didn't wait for the magos but set off for the train carriage door and the set of steps leading down it onto the platform. Stepping off, he smiled unpleasantly down at the prisoner they had come all the way from Port Ispica to collect at the request of their master Inquisitor Kellman's fellow Tarnoth Conclave member.

"Citizen Nostru, you are charged with consorting with the Archenemy, heresy and treason against the Imperium of Man. How do you plead?"

The five arbites and the local gunmen waited silently as the ancient ritual question was asked, but Nostru did not reply. In equally time-honoured fashion the suspected Chaos cultist had been bound and gagged to prevent him calling upon any Warp-cursed powers his dark patrons might have gifted him with. To make doubly sure, his mouth had been stuffed with blessed wafers and his bound body bedecked with charms said to be effective against sorcery. Dexicos waited the prescribed five heartbeats and then answered for him. "Silence is an admission of guilt. The prisoner pleads guilty to the charges against him."

Dark eyes glared at the enforcer and magos as the condemned man was hustled onto the train carriage by four of the arbites. They would be physically guarding the renegade apothecary on the journey northwards to the regional capital Borsch, where Nostru would be loaded onto a shuttle at the city's spaceport and taken off world, never to be heard from again. The only other carriages, in front and behind the prisoner's, would be filled by the local posse.

These men were considerably less reliable than the arbites, but a known element whose families would be held accountable should either carriage be commandeered by cultist sympathisers. The train itself was a wonder of the Omnissiah, an elegant piece of machinery carefully selected by Achaikos himself from the Civil Transport engine pool for its ancient rugged mechanical simplicity and thus complete lack of cogitators and logic engines vulnerable to heretical scrapcode or other forms of data attack.

"Magos, Enforcer, welcome to Genther Secondus," said the fifth faceless arbite, Chastener Malcos Gardean, the arbite squad's leader. Achaikos had detected no transmitted commands between the Chastener and his team as they marched Nostru aboard the train engine; each squad member already knew what was expected of them without having to wait for orders. It was an impressive display of unit cohesion.

"Thank you Chastener Gardean," Dexicos replied formally. "Your men have performed their duties well. We heard about the attack on the jailhouse over the vox this morning, during our journey up to your position. Has the sheriff's widow been informed?"

"Yes, certainly," the arbites' leader replied, sounding surprised that an Inquisitor's man would take the time to enquire about such trivial matters. "The remains of Sheriff Jonas and all of his deputies have been sent to the local chapel until they can buried with full honours. Fortunately, my squad were then able to repel the attackers with only the loss of Donnie, our cyber-mastiff."

"And the enemy's casualties?" Achaikos asked as the trio reboarded the train without a backwards glance towards the silent settlement that had seen so much gunplay the night before. After such an incident, Noto and its environs would be receiving a punitive visit from an Arbites Judge and a couple of arbitrator patrols, something would account for the subdued atmosphere about the place the magos thought to himself.

"Two dozen enemy dead were left behind in the streets after dawn broke," Malcos said as they swung into the carriage proper and seated themselves opposite the prisoner and the two arbites sat on either side of him. One of the Chastener's men stood at each entrance to the otherwise empty carriage, combat shotguns held loosely in their hands and they waited for the train to pull away on its journey northwards to Borsch. "We believe that around sixty gunmen took part in the attempt to storm the building. There was a lot of small arms fire, but they seem to have lacked anything bigger than a than a heavy stubber or two."

"Well, that's something at least, praise the Emperor," Dexicos said. Neither the enforcer nor the magos knew much about the Friends of Friends, as the local cult Santos was investigating was called, but both had faced the blind berserker rage of the followers of one Chaos power onboard the Floating Metal Death-Trap and neither were impressed by the thought of fighting ones with serious firepower. Being onboard a Civil Transport engine, even one where they and the guards with them were the only passengers onboard, would have left them intensely vulnerable.

"Yes, the local cells of the Friends of Friends will be licking their wounds for now," the chastener told the two off worlders. "But my men and I won't be relaxing our vigilance until the doors of the precinct house on Lexicus swing shut behind us. This whole island reeks of heretics and their treachery. I'll be recommending a full investigation upon my return to the capitol personally to my commanding officer."

Which didn't say much about the earlier witch-hunting sweeps of the local arbites thought Achaikos, but he remained silent. The enemies of the Imperium were legion in numbers and form, and if it hadn't been one foe here it would have been another. He remembered his own near-catastrophic brush with a genestealer cult on Ashar IX far too clearly to point his mechadendrites at Chastener Gardean and the Lexicus precinct house.

XXXXX

The formalities now over, the conversation between the three men gradually lapsed as the journey wore on. The magos turned his attention to the landscape rolling past them, as the train sped them across Aeolia's dry and scrubby landscape. The bandit infested central mountain range loomed away in the distance, but the railway line itself wound through the gentle hills of the island's pleasant farming country.

Herds of sauropod breeds wandered the landscape here, gorging themselves on the island's abundant conifers, moss and flowering plants. Around the gigantic beasts where tiny groups of riders, supervising the herds and making sure they didn't stray off the jealously guarded estates of one absentee landlord and onto another's. Such incidents tended to be settled with gunplay, and gunplay was bad for business. Achaikos pondered which local crime figure would try and take over the rackets that Nostru had managed on behalf of the Little Brothers, and whether any of the crime syndicate would be left after Santos had finished probing their ranks for the heretical influence of the Friends of Friends.

The magos took advantage of the lull to study their prisoner, a career criminal Jubal Santos thought to also be high up in the hierarchy of the local cult. But then the inquisitor had been busy purging members of the Friends of Friends from every institution on Genther Secondus, from the sanitation department in Borsch to the head of the planetary governor's customs service. Nostru stared back over the thick crimson gag that had been stuffed down his throat and the magos was glad he wasn't privy to whatever warped thoughts were passing through the social deviant's head.

The cult leader's eyes were dark to the point of blackness and their pupils seemed huge against the whites of his visual organs. The man's face was lean and pale to the point of albinism, only the neatly trimmed chestnut moustache and hair of an Aeolian gentleman serving to lend him some colour. His clothes, which were what he had been arrested in the evening before, where the elegant formal dining wear of the island's upper-class country set.

Instead of the fear and rage one might expect, his expression was relaxed, even a little dreamy the magos thought. A quick check of the prisoner's vital signs and body temperature revealed a typical relaxed resting heart rate of a man with an efficient heart function that suggested excellent cardiovascular fitness. Apothecary Michele Nostru was clearly a man used to operating calmly in high stress conditions, a telling sign for a man who claimed to be no more than a country physician. Achaikos made a mental note to ask Inquisitor Santos for his autopsy notes, supposing any were conducted after the execution.

"Its too bad the prisoner didn't live on Paxos," Malcos said finally breaking the silence, and naming the planet's northernmost settled continent as he broke the silence. "A riot skimmer from the Lexicus precinct house, or even a couple of civilian flitters borrowed from the nobles there would make me much more relaxed about this journey. This route is much too predictable for my liking while we still lack air cover."

"That is precisely why Inquisitor Kellman agreed to secretly dispatch us upon Lord Jubal's request for aid," Dexicos told the younger arbite. "No one knew we were on our way until we commandeered this service when Nostru was only arrested last night. Besides, the heretics in these parts don't seem that sophisticated; we've seen much worse than their kind. Frankly I'd be more worried about this ancient engine breaking down and stranding us all out here."

As if the galaxy had just been waiting to hear someone say those words, the was the dull crudd of an explosion up ahead of them, and a moment later the trio were nearly shaken off of their seats as the train screeched to a halt; either the train guard or one of the crew must have thrown the emergency brake. As one the arbites were on their feet hefting their weapons warily. One of Nostru's guards took the precaution of bringing the stock of his shotgun down sharply on the back of the prisoner's head, sending him sprawling slackly to the floor of the carriage.

There was nothing to be seen out of their own carriage windows, but the sudden rattle of autogun fire from the carriage ahead warned the party that the local guards had spotted some danger. Then another explosion rattled the windows on their carriage and broke most of them, sending razor shards of glass flying across the compartment to rattle off the armour of its occupants. Nostru had been fortunate he was no longer sitting down, or his head and torso would have been punctured and sliced by dozens of the lethal fragments. Achaikos wondered if this was a rescue attempt by the cultist's confederates or an assassination.

The gunfire from the carriage up ahead had almost ceased after the second explosion, which to Achaikos suggested their attackers had laid hands on some form of heavy weapons a little more potent than the heavy stubbers that had hosed down the unfortunate Sheriff Jonas' jailhouse during the night. A portable missile launcher or a mortar team probably. Achaikos resolved to have a word with whoever was in charge of the local PDF base on Aeolia after this was all over. This was firepower that no illicit civilian arms dealer would be able to source for his ganger clientele without inside help.

Whatever weapon it was their ambushers were using they didn't fire it into the second carriage; perhaps they still thought that Nostru was more useful to the cult alive. Instead the magos heard a flurry of shots in the carriage up ahead, presumably as the enemy boarded the wrecked lead train carriage and disposed of the few posse survivors there. He didn't have much time to speculate further as las bolts began to fly through the shattered windows of their own carriage and Achaikos had to join everyone else in finding cover. Perhaps a minute had passed since the first explosion.

Chastener Malcos Gardean and his men were lined up along the carriage and returning fire with consummate professionalism, the boom of their shotguns contrasting oddly with the lethal hiss and crackle of las bolts from their enemies. Dexicos was crawling on his front with dogged determination down the length of the carriageway towards the connecting door to the wrecked carriage up ahead, which it didn't take a tactical stimulator programme to recognise their enemies were gathering behind and preparing to storm their own.

But even as Achaikos drew the bulky autopistol from its holster at his waist and prepared to flood his body with combat drugs before joining his partner, sounds of struggle from the train compartment behind them drew the attention of his artificially enhanced senses and he turned his head towards the rear of their carriage as the back door was thrown open. There, instead of the second half of the posse, stood a trio of men in the blood splattered uniforms of the train crew, toting pistols of their own; Achaikos supposed he didn't need to wonder who'd thrown the emergency break and cut off the engine's ability to roll backwards any longer.

The magos levelled his own weapon as the three traitors stumbled over one another in their haste to get inside and find something to hide behind, and his gun barked as he sought and found targets to kill. The first man, clad in the uniform of a Civil Transport ticket inspector, took most of the pistol's clip on his torso and head, the latter exploding like an overripe melon over his companions. The man behind and to the left, whose oil stained robes suggested he was the train's enginseer, staggered backwards and fell back through the door behind him as a bullet clipped his shoulder and spun him around. The third cultist was able to reach cover and start shooting back; fortunately, his pistol, a cheap knock off stub pistol variant, was unreliable and jammed on the second shot. Tossing his own empty weapon aside, Achaikos took advantage and moved towards him at a crouching run, and triggered his combat mods.

His metal jaws distended as steel fangs burst from the gums of his mouth, while from the tips of the tech-priest's fingers curved steel spikes slid out to tear and rend. The uninjured cultist barely had time to raise his face with an expression of ecstatic terror, before Achaikos reached for him with two of his tendril-like mechadendrites and pulled the traitorous fleshbag close enough for his metal teeth and claws to ripped his unarmoured target apart. A whoop of appreciation disturbed the magos as he crouched over his kill, and he looked up to the injured cultist in the next carriage grinning at him insanely as he leveled his own stub pistol at Achaikos. Reacting at the speed of thought the magos struck the barrel of his enemy's gun with the tip of a mechandrite, just as the weapon discharged. The ploy saved Achaikos but at the cost of the artificial limb itself, whose upper third length was rendered useless by the impact of the weapon's round.

"The Prince of Pleasure will welcome your soul," the man in front of him said dreamily, sighting down the barrel of his pistol for another shot. Only the drug induced glaze in the man's eyes and his own fury at the damage this wretched creature had done to one of the miracles of the Omnissiah gave Achaikos the speed he needed, but this time his mechadendrites struck at the cultist and not his weapon, and the magos was drenched in the man's blood. He stood up, his artificial senses giving him an exact breakdown of the cocktail of narcotics the dead cultist had been on. "Go visit him yourself, traitor."

"Good work Magos!" called out a voice, identified with 98.765 percent probability as that of Malcos Gardean, and Achaikos turned away from the scene of carnage in the final carriage and looked back to see the arbite squad leader dragging the semi-conscious body of Michele Nostru towards him, with Dexicos firing away through the windows of their train compartment as he covered their retreat. At the far end of the carriage a knot of arbites were struggling against a seething mass of giggling cultists with wild eyes and wilder clothes. Here and there an obvious mutant could be seen sported a claw, tail or some other blasphemous deformity. As Achaikos watched, one opened its mouth and a long pink tongue shot out to wrap itself around one of the unfortunate arbites, dragging him to his knees and starting to choke the man.

"Magos, with me!" Malcos shouted, pulling Nostru past the tech-priest by one foot. The cult leader's head was now coated in blood, either from the earlier blow to his head or the glass fragments he'd been dragged through. Achaikos clacked his jaws together in frustration and followed the arbite squad leader through to the next train carriage, Dexicos following in their wake and blasting the mob of demented mutants and madmen behind them one final time before Malcos turned and stabbed frantically at the carriage door to close and seal them off. The sprawled bodies of the rear-guard posse, riddled with shots from the traitorous members of the train crew, were their only companions for the time being.

"So much for our easy trip together to Borsch," the arbite leader panted, using his security code to activate the door's locking mechanism. "We should kill this one before they overrun us too."

Achaikos and Dexicos looked at each other uneasily, wondering what Santos would say if they told him they'd had to execute his prized prisoner. "Unfortunately for you lawmen, I'm not so easy to kill," said Michele Nostru indistinctly from somewhere about the arbite's booted ankles, and he spat a blob of blue coloured ichor at Dexicos.

XXXXX

"Golden Throne!" Dexicos swore as he jumped sideways.

Fortunately, the enforcer leapt aside agilely enough from his prisoner's sneak assault; the difficulty of spitting far when lying on one's chest after a couple of beatings probably helped him evade the cult leader's bright blob of ichor, which splashed against the metal floor of the carriage instead, which promptly began to bubble and melt as the acidic splittle burned through it.

The cult leader squirmed on his side to look up at his captors, who had reacted instantly to the unexpected speech by leaping backward and training their weapons, or in the case of Achaikos, his claws, at the Chaos leader. The remnants of the cultist's gag, and what looked like a ball of half chewed blessed wafers lay on the train floor, melted by the same blue coloured ichor still dribbling from the corner of Nostru's mouth.

"Kill the traitor!" Malcos snarled and sounded as if he was about to carry out the job himself before Achaikos stepped forward and restrained his enthusiasm by curling a tentacle-like mechadendrite around his gun hand.

"Unfortunately, we can't kill him yet," Dexicos said, sounding genuinely regretful at the fact. "Not without at least trying to get him off of this train. His secrets are too valuable to lose so lightly, at least that is what the Lord Inquisitor will say."

Through the door the sounds of combat ceased and a chorus of giggles and whoops broke out as the Friends of Friends made their way merrily down the next-door train compartment towards the door sheltering the denuded party. "Perhaps we can use him as a hostage?" suggested Malcos uneasily. "At least that way his mouth will be facing the enemy."

Before either of his companions could reply, Nostru looked up into the blank helmet eyepieces of Chastener Malcos Gardean and his dark gaze seemed to strike the arbite officer like a mental hammer. "Surrender now lawmen," the twisted physician croaked through his stained lips. "Slaanesh has many pleasures to offer his children, and I can show them to you all. There is no need to die here, now, like this. You can learn all the secrets there are to learn about the true nature of the galaxy."

Though the cultist's bloodied gaze was directed at Malcos, the weight of his words still wrapped themselves around the minds of Dexicos and Achaikos like a fog. The magos felt as if he were standing looking out over a great desert, where hidden truths shimmered before him, just beyond reach. All he would have to do to reach out and grasp them was take the hand that Nostru was offering him…

A hammering sound brought the tech-priest back to himself, as the cult leader's confederates began their attack on the door of the stalled train. The portal groaned and began to buckle in places under the blows of the drug-addled boarders, whose frenzy lent them unnatural strength and persistence. Malcos still stood like a statue over his prisoner however, apparently a prisoner of the man's unholy powers of persuasion. "Free the prisoner and live," he mumbled. "We must…"

Malcos began to fumble at his belt where the keys to the prisoner's chains were located. "Stop what you are doing Chastener," Dexicos warned, turning his gun to point at their erstwhile ally. "Remember who you are and in whose name we are all fighting here today."

Malcos slowed his fumbling and turned his helmet to look at the enforcer. "Death to the drones of the Corpse-Emperor," he said in a strange tone. A twitching hand started to turn his combat shotgun in the direction of the enforcer.

Dexicos shot the arbite in the head and brought the stock of his shotgun down once more upon the battered and bruised head of the Slaaneshi cultist, breaking his teeth and drawing an unnatural howl from Nostru before a second blow silenced him once more. The battering noises from the door redoubled at the sound of the shotgun blast, the weird whoops and yelps of the cultists making it sound as though they

"Achaikos, the mission is failing," Dexicos said, stating an assessment of their tactical situation that Achaikos had reached around the moment the cult had blasted their lead guard party to pieces. "Does your technosorcery have any solutions to offer us?"

Achaikos shook his head; he'd already run a diagnostic and his tactical subroutines showed him that whether they stayed aboard the crippled engine or abandoned it to run the gauntlet of the ambushers outside, their survival chances swiftly fell to zero (within the margin for error, obviously). He supposed an unaugmented individual would have called this "common sense". Before he could vocalise this in non-Binary, a hole appeared in the door where an enthusiastic axehead crashed through the thin metal at about shoulder height.

Before the enemy could exploit this advantage, the enforcer had put the barrel of his shotgun against it and pulled the trigger once more. Achaikos wasn't sure which type of ammunition the enforcer was using, but the chorus of shrieks and howls broke out on the other side of the door told him Dexicos had bought them some time. He took advantage of the moment to scoop up the weapon for their former companion and prayed whatever corruption had taken Malcos from the Omnissiah's light had spared shotgun's machine spirit.

The pair pressed themselves against opposite sides of the train compartment as an autogun barrel was poked through the narrow hole and the enemy tried a few lucky shots in turn, though their rounds hit nothing, passing harmlessly over the unconscious form of Nostru, who still sprawled bonelessly at the feet of his captors. Dexicos had begun a chant to the Golden Throne as he reloaded his weapon, one the innumerable arbite battle hymns about smiting the heathen and trampling them beneath the black boots of justice, when Achaikos noticed an alert from his tactical subroutines pinging away at the bottom of his situational priorities matrix. An auspex scan from his internal augmetics had picked up several hard returns moving swiftly towards their position; to be seen at this range it had to be something large and full of metal.

"Dexicos," the magos said, "I am picking up what could be a column of enemy vehicles moving in this direction. I believe they are intending to use them to retreat on once they have extracted the prisoner. I know Kellman's instructions were to deliver him alive to Borsch, but we must conclude the mission has failed."

"Agreed," Dexicos nodded, "I'll kill the traitor and try to torch the body, you hold them off here as long as you can. With any lucky we can deprive them of whatever they were seeking from Nostru."

Achaikos acknowledged his organic partner's words with a wave of one hand, but in truth his attention was fixed on the two, no, three signals he was receiving now. They were moving far more quickly over the rough terrain of the hills around this part of the train-line then tracked or wheeled vehicles would normally manage. Either their drivers were redlining the engines, not unheard of for heretics with their blatant disregard for the sacred machine spirits, or something else was going on…

With a roar that rattled the remaining windows along the length of the crippled train, a garishly painted blue jetbike swooped past the Inquisitorial agents' position. Lethal undercarriage armaments that a file from Achaikos' tactical database identified as twin-linked shuriken catapults spat their lethal payload at the unseen enemy positions outside the train, and Achaikos and Dexicos glanced at one another in confusion as enemy shrieks drifted down to them from the nearest hill above the line. The noise of the bike's engine was deafening to Achaikos' enhanced hearing and he swiftly dialed his aural sensitivity downwards.

"Eldar?!" Dexicos shouted at him, the enforcer's bewildered expression accurately capturing Achaikos' own sense of confusion about this latest turn of events. "What are they doing here?"

The new arrivals had attracted the attention of the heretic boarding party as well, who turned to meet them with energetic squeals and shouts of excitement rather than the bellows of rage and appeals to their patron deity that Achaikos might have expected given his experiences aboard the Floating Metal Death-Trap. As the rattle of autoguns and the barks of stub pistols from the neighbouring train carriage revealed the nearest enemy were now trying to engage the elusive jetbikes, Achaikos reflected that his behavioral modeling programs definitely lacked sufficient data when it came to the crazed followers of the Dark Gods. Clearly a patron deity had a marked influence which type of irrational behaviour traits its followers displayed.

Before the magos and the enforcer had thought to do more than drag the silent form of Nostru further down the train compartment in search of the furthest door away from the firing that would let them exit the engine, another one of the xenos machines (there seemed to be a squadron of three present) swooped past their compartment and fired a long burst of its shuriken catapults into the neighbouring compartment. The gunfire and the sounds of the cultist boarders ended swiftly as the alien warmachine sprayed the neighbouring compartment with hundreds of razor sharp plasti-crystal discs capable of shredding metal and bone with alike.

The eldar machine turned its nose away as it neared the end of its devastating run past the last cultist infested train carriage and accelerated back up towards its squadron mates who were mopping up the chaotic boarding party's allies on the hill above the train. As the jetbike engine's scream faded into the distance somewhat, Achaikos and Dexicos exchanged glances. The only noise on the train was the occasional tinkle of glass as an overstressed window finally gave way, and the dying gurgles of one of the cultist boarders in the neighbouring compartment.

"Should we-," Dexicos started to say when he was interrupted. Someone was knocking politely but insistently on the door out of their carriage.

XXXXX

Achaikos watched Nostru as Dexicos walked over to the rear door and hit the exit rune to open it. The ancient metal door hissed open slowly, juddering slightly as the mechanism negotiated with the battered frame of the train carriage itself. The portal's machine spirit was as sturdy as the larger engine itself however, and after only a few heartbeats it moved aside to reveal a knot of armoured figures who moved with the typical flowing grace of the xenos known to humanity as the eldar. The aliens were clearly unconcerned about camouflage; their tall helmets were scarlet, and their body armour a rich mixture of red and gold.

In the centre of what were presumably his bodyguards stood a tall helmeted alien carrying a elegant blade in one gauntlet, a red gem glowing above its hilt. Unlike the xenos around him, who were carrying an infantry version of the shuriken catapults mounted on their jetbikes, the swordbearer also wore a curvaceous alien-looking pistol on his hip. In a curiously slow and exaggerated human gesture, it seemed to beckon to the enforcer and the magos, inviting them to step off of the train carriage with their cultist prisoner.

It seemed they had stepped from the cultist frying pan into the xenos fire Achaikos thought sourly; at least his acerbic partner seemed to be taking this turn of events in his stride, turning back to help the magos cart the now-stirring Nostru off the train and dumping him unceremoniously in front of the eldar with a curt instruction to keep his mouth shut or join Chastener Gardean. The eldar did not stir at the sight of the cultist, but Achaikos could calculate no other reason for their sudden appearance on Genther Secundus. Doubtless whatever scheming the Chaos wretch had been involved in had attracted the attention of the xenos as well as the Inquisition.

The outward nobility of the alien creatures did not fool the magos; he was all too aware that the necrotic remnants of the eldar race would sacrifice a thousand Imperial citizens to save the lives of just one of their own. Unsanctioned psykers ruled them and the dead spirits of eldar powered their unholy machinery; even if these were representatives of the untainted breeds, no accord with the knife-eared humanoids could be trusted to last long before one side or the other broke it. These xenos represented everything that was twisted and false about the galaxy before the Omnissiah's glorious crusade to win it back for mankind.

"Enforcer Ioannou, Magos Achaikos" the eldar leader said, speaking Gothic in a lilting accent, "We meet face to face at last. I see you have the mon-keigh I was sent here to collect."

"Alairos Brightstar of the Void Corsairs," Dexicos said, still keeping his weapon trained on the now-conscious cultist in front of him. "Didn't I threaten to hang you from the nose of your own starship if I ever caught you in a human star system again?"

The eldar captain affected a laugh, one too mellifluous to come from a human's throat, and nodded his head. "I see you are still upset at how the Void Corsairs escaped your clutches at the battle of Saltic Minor Enforcer. But surely our generous rescue has softened your heart towards our poor little band?"

"Happily, not all of the Corsairs escaped the Inquisition's trap at Saltic," Dexicos said, "I'm still happier to see you here than the friends this warpspawn filth summoned to save his wretched hide though. Inquisitor Santos would have been very unhappy if we'd had to execute him before he could be interrogated. He didn't say anything about handing him over to a punch of eldar pirates."

"We have traveled here today on the commands of one far greater than he," Alairos said. "The tainted one belongs to a power far greater than your simple mon-keigh minds can comprehend. Its capture will seal the return of the Void Corsairs back to our people as heroes. Just think, your little merchant ships will be safe from us for good once we hand him over to the Farseer."

Achaikos flinched inside at the casual mention of the unholy eldar witches, but he had an urgent question for the xenos before matters escalated out of hand. "How in Holy Terra's name did the Void Corsairs know where to find us all the way out in this backwater? Don't tell me your eldar witch is personally tracking the rail journeys of the Emperor's servants."

Alairos Brightstar casually returned the sword he carried to its sheath and tapped a part of the armour covering his arm. A green-tinged holo-pict formed over the alien's limb, showing a familiar face; Inquisitor Stannos Kellman of the Ordo Xenos and the master of the magos and his partner.

"Dexicos, Achaikos, if you are watching this message then you will already have met up with the xenos Alairos Brightstar, and the escort of the heretic Michele Nostru will have been ambushed in the Bara highlands as the eldar claims. I know their psykers have formidable predictive abilities; if this has indeed happened I authorise you to hand over the prisoner to them immediately. Alairos has brought a message from their farseers which pledges there will be an immediate end to the attacks by the Void Corsairs against Imperial shipping in return."

"Deluded Imperial fools," Nostru sneered through his ichor stained lips, straining at the chains which still prevented the use of his arms and hands, "You think this changes anything? The eldar will never hold me, and when I escape them, my master will-"

Whatever point or threat the Slaaneshi cultist was trying to make ended abruptly with a surprised gurgling noise, as the prisoner's eyes bulged in sudden surprise. More ichor spilled from his lips and his expression took on a tranquil look as he sank down into blissed out unconsciousness. Alairos had shot him with what Achaikos registered as the eldar version of a Jokaero digital needler. "That should keep him quiet for a few hours," the eldar corsair captain said, with just a hint of smugness.

"Take him then," Achaikos said. "And get out of Imperial space xenos. Your kind aren't welcome here."

The eldar corsair captain made an elaborate hand gesture which seemed to combine command, apology and careless insouciance all in one. At once his men advanced and seized the recumbent form of Michele Nostru under his arms, dragging him away to wherever the xenos had concealed whatever grav-vehicle had carried them out to this isolated spot. Achaikos watched as the eldar turned away and began to move off, their trio of jetbikes roaring overhead as if summoned by some unheard command. The impression of silent perfection from the xenos was infuriating, just as it always was.

"Inquisitor Santos is going to be furious you gave away his prisoner to a bunch of eldar space pirates," Dexicos said thoughtfully, inspecting the train as if the engine's machine spirits might have unfrakked it while he'd been conversing with the xenos. "And since we can't really tell him that we did it with official permission it mean a tribunal."

"We'll just tell him that Nostru broke free and ran during the firefight, and they grabbed him up from a jetbike before we could do anything," Achaikos said. "People will believe anything when you tell them an eldar did it."

"I suppose so," Dexicos said, "Well, the Void Corsairs were a nasty bunch, and one I'll be glad to see that back of when they return to their craftworlds; not to mention that running convoy duty on the civilian shipping was bleeding the sector navy dry when we need every ship in the fight right now. The Archenemy is everywhere right now. I'm beginning to think I joined the wrong Ordos to defend the Imperium."

"The eldar have been sniffing around the Friends of Friends for months now. Sharrab thinks the cult was probably on the trail of some daemon prince's hidden prison or some other horrible and forgotten galactic secret. You know how nervous that sort of thing makes the eldar," Achaikos said.

"And me," Dexicos said thoughtfully, "So, you don't think Kellman was just doing it to pay Santos back for not warning him that the Floating Metal Death-Trap was going to drop out of the Warp and dump a bunch of Chaos raiders into his lap?"

Achaikos thought carefully for a moment as his social subroutines parsed the implications of the enforcer's last question. "Frankly, it's impossible to calculate," he said, activating what an organic would have called his 'tact' behavioural protocol. "When we get back to the capitol perhaps you should ask him."

The End