Alaster watched the interrogation. He was stood over the strange scene with chainsword and bolt pistol, along with the other Space Marines.

'He was called Tobias,' Inyre was saying.

'The traitor's contact?' the Inquisitor asked, looking intent. They were sat in the Thunderhawk's main troop-bay. The former priest was perched awkwardly on a marine-sized seat. The Inquisitor was sat on the row directly opposite Inyre. For all that her feet didn't quite reach the metal-grill decking, she still managed to project a sense of power and authority. Harsh lights glared down from overhead and the metallic space echoed with the intermittent sounds of the Thunderhawk's machinery.

'Yes,' the priest said.

Alaster listened carefully. Maybe they would finally get some clear answers about whatever had been going on here. The only people not present were Magos Kelso and the pilot – they were in the engineering compartment, having a look at a pump that had been giving some slightly odd readings just before landing.

Kodos was with the interrogation. He was stood closest to Inyre, plasma pistol to hand. The flicker of light along the cooling vents played across the side of Inyre's head and was reflected in his eyes. Kodos wasn't wearing his helmet and he also wasn't missing an opportunity to glare at Inyre. His disapproval of the Originist heresy was on very public display.

Overhead, the ventilation fans whirred quietly behind their gratings.

Rather surprisingly, Inyre was completely ignoring the massive Space Marine stood just to his left. With some reluctance, Alaster had to acknowledge that apparently the priest did apparently enjoy some measure of bravery, whatever his other faults. Or possibly the man was just completely focused on the questioning. It wasn't every day that one might find oneself personally quizzed by an Inquisitor, Alaster supposed, and that was bound to be something that would catch one's attention. Perhaps even a glaring Space Marine paled into insiginificance next to that?

'Tobias,' Father Inyre continued, 'kept Phelonas in the cellar. Under St Teeleks. Or perhaps Phelonas let Tobias think he was keeping him in the cellar. Frankly, I'm no longer sure.'

Under the decking, there was a nest of pipes. Alaster could see them through the metal grill. Presumably they all played roles in the functioning of the Thunderhawk. He noted the light reflecting off of the dull metal.

'Did this Tobias ever see what he had down there?' the Inquisitor was asking.

'Not as far as I know,' Inyre said. 'The cellar – it was always badly-lit. We kept meaning to get more bulbs put in. But before Phelonas, we didn't use the place much. Except for one thing. So we never got round to it.'

'What was the one thing?' she asked.

'The gun-running,' he said.

Alaster noticed that Nasty suddenly stood a bit straighter and turned toward the tableau in front of them. Alaster caught two miniature versions of the scene, reflecting in Nasty's eyelenses. For some reason, the lightning-carrying raven on Nasty's shoulder looked particularly angry today. Its single red eye seemed to burn.

'Guns?' the Inquisitor asked.

'The ones that I'm guessing they're using, down south,' he said. 'That is the Originists, isn't it?'

'You know about that?'

'There was a mention of it on the news,' he said. 'I supposed the censors are on strike too.'

The Inquisitor nodded. 'Possible,' she agreed.

One of the pipes below the decking chose that moment to make a chug-chug-chug noise. Alaster felt it vibration through his bootheels. Inyre twitched in surprise at the sound. The man looked calm but clearly he was tenser than he appeared.

'We had a gun-running operation,' he continued. 'You understand this isn't really anything new. The Church has been planning an uprising for years.'

'And you didn't tell anyone,' Lady Sharrow remarked, a dangerous glint in her eyes.

Inyre shrugged. 'My lady, I believed it all back then. No offence to present company-' he glanced at the Space Marines, once more showing remarkably little nervousness toward them, at least '-but I genuinely considered marines mutants. Particularly dangerous, heavily-armed ones, at that.'

Alaster felt as much as heard the low growl at the back of his throat. This was dangerously close to fighting talk. For a moment, his mind flashed back to the Originists they'd encountered in that street back on Minoris. He remembered the one-sided fight that had followed. It had certainly been necessary – the Originists had started it, and Space Marines just weren't going to walk away from a fight – but Alaster hadn't then and still didn't feel any sense of pride in the slaughter that had followed.

He tried to still his righteous anger.

Then something occurred to him; Inyre's behaviour was somewhat odd. He seemed remarkably at ease around the Space Marines, given his previous affiliation, but Alaster detected a sense that he was more nervous of the Inquisitor. Idly, Alaster wondered why that might be. On the face of it, surely the Astartes should be the more-obvious immediate threat?

The moment or two of idle speculation did much to cool his temper. However, it didn't appear that everyone felt equal equanimity.

'Some of the present company,' Kodos growled, 'can't say that we take kindly to being called mutants.'

To Alaster surprise, Inyre didn't quail. Instead he looked straight up at the sergeant, doing the best the priest could to look the Storm Raven in the eye. 'No,' Inyre said. 'I'm sure you don't. But like it or not, that's what Originists think. And that's why we – they, I mean – are doing what they're doing.'

'Delusional as it is,' Lady Sharrow said, 'within a certain twisted context, their actions do make sense. Carry on.'

Kodos fell quiet but carried on glaring at Inyre.

Inyre nodded, looking back at her. 'We'd infiltrated certain weapons factories, Snook a few of our people onto the staff. They were doing quality-control stuff. Rejecting a certain number of bolt-weapons, ones that were actually fine. And then sneaking them out of the disposal piles before they were removed. So they were finding our way into our arsenal – only because they were listed as destroyed rejects, no-one was any wiser.'

The Inquisitor nodded. 'Okay. And this scheme – how did it go?'

Nasty, Alaster noted, had moved slightly closer.

'Mostly okay,' the priest said. 'But we did have one big hiccup, near my parish.'

'Go on.'

'There was some girl. Seemed quite young, not more than sixteen. Blond hair, I remember. She posed as one of the faithful, joined the congregation…'

'Not called Natalya?' Nasty interrupted. 'About five foot six, green eyes?'

Inyre blinked. 'Yes. Yes, that's her. You, err, knew her?' He was clearly surprised by the interruption.

Nasty growled. 'She was,' and he emphasised the was, 'my girlfriend. Until you skaks killed her.'

The pipe chose that moment to chug again.

Inyre stared. 'She-? But- That means you're the one! That kid who killed a dozen of ours!'

'The very same,' Nasty said. 'What do you think got me into the Ravens? And you know what, I'd do it all again.'

'You'll probably get your chance soon,' Alaster said, breaking his silence.

Inyre still looked astonished. He paid Alaster's remark no attention. Nor did Nasty. Inyre said, 'You knew Natalya? But she .. she … Tobias said she was a psyker!'

'And just how,' the Inquisitor said, 'did Tobias know that?'

'I – uh – I don't know!'

'Was Tobias a psyker himself?'

'Well no, no he wasn't!'

'Then why were you so quick to believe him? How could he actually know?'

Inyre said nothing, but looked troubled.

'Phelonas?' Kodos asked Lady Sharrow.

She nodded. 'I can't prove it, but it'd fit. He could very likely sense the presence of other psykers. And if he was in the basement, under the congregation…' She exhaled slowly. 'So this Natalya. In between making Nasty's day, she was poking around the gun-running, was she? And you didn't think there was anything ... unusual about that?'

Inyre frowned. 'I don't understand,' he said.

'No, you wouldn't,' Lady Sharrow agreed. 'For the record, I suspect this Natalya may have been more than she seemed. Nasty, she actually was a psyker, I take it?'

Nasty nodded. 'A telepath. But she never hurt anyone. I was with her six months. I'd've seen if she did.'

'Never hurt anyone,' Lady Sharrow mused. 'Well, isn't that interesting. Of course, we all know that stable psykers are very much in the minority. Least of all raw ones, out here in the wild and all untrained. The Warp isn't a healthy place and nor is its influence. Without strength and focus, its voices will quickly make the unprepared mad.'

Alaster was once more very glad of his helmet. With his face covered, it wasn't obvious that he was struggling not to look at Patreus. Nasty, he knew, would be feeling exactly the same. Deception didn't come easily to Space Marines.

For his part, Patreus didn't appear to react. He just stood there, watching the scene play out. He was the furthest back from the group, toward the closed main doors of the compartment. He was stood half in shadow; the illumination fell somewhat short of the edges of the compartment.

'So,' Lady Sharrow mused, 'it does seem rather odd that this Natalya was apparently immune to the perils of the Warp.'

'What are you suggesting?' Nasty said. His voice grated. He didn't sound too happy, Alaster thought.

'Battle-Brother, I'm sorry to break this to you, but I suspect your girlfriend wasn't all she seemed. In fact, I'm guessing that Natalya wasn't her name. I'm also guessing that she was actually rather older than sixteen. In fact, I suspect that she was some sort of Imperial agent.'

The pipe chug-chug-chugged again. Nasty staggered almost as if he'd been shot. His boots clanked on the decking as he stepped backward. 'An Imperial-?' He sounded astonished.

Lady Sharrow shrugged. 'I can't prove it, but it fits, doesn't it?' To Inyre, she said, 'Your gun-running scheme. It sounds well-planned, but people would have noticed something. If only that several factories had a higher-than-average quality control rejection rate. They'd want to know why that was. Maybe also that not enough metal-mass was reaching the recycling centres, too. No-one would want to rock the boat, but I imagine just a bit of quiet sniffing around might start to happen. Maybe that was the real reason why Phelonas-and-Tobias moved against her – they got a whiff or two of what she was up to! The psyker thing sounds suspiciously like a convenient cover. For them to off her. I mean, no-one at the church noticed anything for months, until it became useful. Suspicious timing, just a little?'

Inyre looked worried. 'That could be true,' he conceded.

'So, going back a bit … You were keeping the guns in the same cellar as the traitor?'

'Uh, no! Just before Phelonas was to move in, we shifted our cache up to a room behind the vestry. From then on it was just Phelonas's lair. We had to put a lot of expensive comms gear in there. And then we weren't allowed to go down there. We were told that Phelonas was a mutant, so we wouldn't want to see him.'

Kodos said, 'Okay, I'm calling hypocrisy there. You detest us as mutants, but you keep mutants under your churches!'

'Actually,' Inyre said, 'Tobias told us that Phelonas had been mutated. By yourselves. That it was your doing. He implied it was a botched geneseeding.' Inyre shuddered at that word. Clearly he wasn't quite past all of the dregs of his earlier revulsion.

'No,' Kodos said flatly. 'For the record, we euthanize those. We don't leave them running – or flopping – around. That would just be bad for everyone. Unfortunate victim included.'

Inyre shuddered again. One of the pipes below the decking groaned loudly.

'Okay,' Lady Sharrow said, 'so you had the traitor in the basement. You couldn't really see him because it was badly-lit down there. What was your role in all this?'

'I had to leave food for it,' Inyre said. 'There was this wicker basket. It had to be filled up, and left at the top of the stairs to the cellar. Once a day, every day. I'd come back an hour later, and the basket would be there. Empty.'

Lady Sharrow looked questioningly at Kodos.

The Space Marine shrugged. The lights gleamed on the golden eagle across his chest. 'Marines do eat,' he said. 'Every now and then. Presumably this traitor has to as well.'

Satisfied, she looked back to Inyre. 'But you have seen Phelonas,' Lady Sharrow said.

He nodded. 'That was later, though. After he abandoned the cellar. And after Tobias – well, after Tobias disappeared. But it was before then that I – I went into the cellar.'

Now something changed. Inyre's composure suddenly reduced. He seemed to withdraw into himself. Alaster was oddly put in mind of water in a drying streambed, sinking into the ground. The man drew his arms in, hugging them toward his chest. He didn't seem to notice that he was doing it. The gesture made him seem smaller somehow, as if the contraction was physical as well as emotional. A shadow of old fear was in his eyes. Inyre hugged himself, shivering a little. He said, 'I found the door ajar one day. When I had my basket. So I went in and had a look. And – there was just enough light. I saw it.'

From somewhere in the plumbing beneath their feet, there was a noisy clunk. Once more, Alaster felt the vibrations through his boots.

'Saw what?' the Inquisitor asked.

'An altar,' he said. 'It would have been directly underneath the main one, upstairs. As if it had just been put there to mock us. And it was marked with the Star – the Star of Chaos! That's what caught my eye. The metal was gleaming, in the weak light. I think normally he kept it covered under a cloth or something, but maybe it had fallen off.'

He shivered again, looking haggard. His trenchcoat, Alaster noted, was a washed-out grey in the stark overhead light of the Thunderhawk's interior.

'What did you do when you saw this?' Lady Sharrow asked.

Inyre looked around the room, taking in the silent and heavily-armed shapes of the Space Marines. The priest swallowed. 'Frankly, I panicked,' he said. 'It – seeing that, it, I ...' He shook his head, as if to clear it. Alaster noted he was breathing faster than before. 'It was like I was there again.'

'Where?' Lady Sharrow asked.

'Jenneko,' he said. He swallowed. The sound was surprisingly loud in the enclosed space.

She nodded. 'I'm supposing that you had a flashback, yes? Triggered by the altar? To something that happened there? For a moment or two, you felt like you were back there? All the images and sounds, bubbling up in your brain, and you couldn't make them stop?'

He nodded. 'It was to when…' He trailed off for a moment.

'When?' Lady Sharrow prompted. Behind them, the air ventilation carried on its quiet, steady hum. Alaster breathed in, idly half-noticing the familiar smell of his respirator-mask.

'The Word Bearers. On Jenneko. They captured a few of our comrades, once. They had us pinned down in a foxhole. And they set up an altar, right where we could see it. And they … and they…' Inyre made a choking noise and started shaking. He hugged himself tighter. Water glinted in his eyes. His body was twitching from side to side.

'Okay,' Lady Sharrow said, moving quickly to arrest the incipient flashback. 'I think we can take a few guesses. No need to revisit the full horror.'

The she dug into a pocket on her coat. Alaster heard an oddly-familiar sloshing noise. He wondered what it was. Then she withdrew her hand, and she was holding something happened that sent a spike of alarm through Alaster's gut.

Clutched in her hand was a small, silvery flask.

'Here,' she said, 'have a shot of this. It'll help. Believe me!'

She handed it to Inyre. He took it with a shaky hand. The cap made a quiet squeaking as he unscrewed it. The contents sloshed again. As the cap opened and Inyre removed it, a potent scent of alcohol wafted into the air of the compartment.

Alaster stared at the flask. Now where in the name of the Emperor had the Inquisitor got that from? Weren't they supposed to be keeping her away from this stuff? He knew all of the other marines were staring too, Kodos included. The sergeant looked appalled – and no wonder! They'd thought this was one problem dealt with!

'Medicinal, of course,' Lady Sharrow said to Inyre.

Was that an attempt at a joke? Alaster boggled. The inappropriateness was staggering.

Inyre drunk from the flask. Its contents glug-glug-gluged as he consumed a portion of them. Then he lowered the flask with a sigh. 'Do you know,' he said weakly, 'that was nicer, I think, than Rock Bottom?' Mechanically, he screwed the cap back on. It squeaked as it turned. Then he handed the flask back to her.

She pocketed it with a final quiet slosh from inside.

'I assume Rock Bottom is a local drink?' the Inquisitor said. Her voice was level but Alaster became aware of that tick above her eyebrow, present once more.

Inyre nodded weakly, a look of gratitude on his lined face. 'Yes, it is.' He seemed not to notice the subtle but frightening change in her manner.

Alaster was also struck by the recent change in the priest's own demeanour. It was quite the contrast. A couple of minutres ago, this man had been remarkably calm and composed, even in the face of an angry Space Marine. Not many people would be able to stare back at Kodos's truculent glare, without quailing, but Inyre had. But then this, this unpleasant recollection, it had all but unmanned the former priest.

Whatever he had seen on that damnable planet, it must have been horrific. And if that was the only encounter the man had ever had with any sort of Space Marine, then no wonder he had taken to such extreme views …

For a moment, Alaster was staggered to realise that he had almost done it again. Almost made the cardinal error of trying to empathise with the enemy. He felt a burst of shame, wondering what sort of a wretched excuse for a Space Marine he was. He recalled his similar error of thought back on Minoris and was once more glad of his helmet- he could feel an angry, embarrassed flush working its way up his neck.

The priest was speaking again; Alaster focused back in. A faint aroma of alcohol lingered in the air.

'Anyway,' Inyre said, having composed himself somewhat, 'the altar I saw in Phelonas's den – it reminded me a lot of those! So I panicked, and I ran. I didn't go back there again.'

She nodded. 'That's certainly understandable. But what of this Tobias? You said he disappeared?'

Inyre nodded. 'It was when the Church was banned, for a while.'

'If only they'd stayed banned,' Kodos said, sounding sour. His eyes, however, were troubled. Alaster noticed he kept glancing in the direction of Lady Sharrow's coat, as it expecting to see that ominous little flask reappear again. He was no longer merely glaring at Inyre. A different source of concern had intruded.

The pipes quietly rumbled under foot once more. Above, fans whirred. Momentarily, some tiny droplet of moisture in the air encountered Kodos's plasma pistol. It hissed quietly against the vents as it boiled. No-one but the Space Marines heard its demise.

The priest said, 'The Hierarchs ordered all the arms caches hidden. The police were coming to arrest everyone. It wouldn't do to have those found.'

'No,' Kodos said. 'Because you'd all certainly be shot if they were.'

Inyre winced but didn't dispute the accuracy of the remark. 'Yes,' he said, 'I suppose so. Anyway, the caches were all emptied. I'd been gone by then, but I came back that day. I saw it happening. I found out later that was the last day anyone saw Tobias.'

'He hasn't been seen since?' Lady Sharrow asked.

Inyre shook his head. 'No. No-one's seen him. Anywhere.'

'Where could he have gone?'

'I think,' Inyre said, 'although I'll admit I'm not wholly sure, that he had some sort of bolthole somewhere in Creekside. He got drunk a couple of times, while visiting St Teeleks. And he rambled while he was like that. I sort of got the impression from what he was saying that he had a back-up plan.'

Lady Sharrow nodded. 'Okay, so no sightings in many months. We probably can assume he's dead, then. But what about the traitor? What did he do next?'

'Hierarch Janessa was arrested in the purge,' Inyre said, 'but Phelonas sprang her from the prison. Only when he did so, he injured her somehow. Bruising all over the skin, lung damage – like she'd been in space!'

Lady Sharrow lifted an eyebrow. 'Oh – well that's an interesting data-point, isn't it?'

'What is?' Kodos asked.

'This traitor,' she said, 'seems to have some sort of ability to teleport himself. Or something. Walls don't reliably keep him out. I wonder if he tried that with Janessa?'

'Yes,' Inyre said suddenly, an excited gleam in his eyes. He leaned forward. 'That's what he said! I remember it now! When they were ranting at each other! He said she had decompression sickness.'

'It would fit,' Lady Sharrow said. 'When he teleports himself, or wherever it is he goes – I don't suppose he teleports the local atmosphere with him, does he? Now, you said they were ranting. Who was ranting? When and where?'

'I went back,' Inyre said, 'when I heard Janessa was alive. I – I knew her man had fallen in with something sick. But thing is, I thought she might not be complicit. Tobias always was a schemer. He attached himself to Janessa because he thought she was good for his career. Not out of any loyalty, any true loyalty! So I went to talk to her – beg her! – to desist from this folly!'

'You're very loyal to this Janessa,' remarked Lady Sharrow.

The manic energy faded a little from Inyre's face. He leaned back. His coat rustled around him as he shifted his weight. 'When I left the Guard,' he said, 'when I was demobbed – I was a mess. A mess! I know I staggered around for ages – days! – with barely any idea where I was. Or even who I was! I ended up at her mission – she wasn't a Hierarch then, just a parish priestess. But she took time for me. Looked out for me, along with all the others there. Helped me back. Helped me find myself again. If it weren't for her, I doubt I'd be alive now.'

'Okay,' Lady Sharrow said. 'Sounds like some sort of post-traumatic fugue state, then. Hardly a surprise, I suppose. And she nursed you through it, so of course you're very loyal to her.'

He nodded. 'Yes, your ladyship. Anyway, I went to talk to her. But when I got there – it was like she wasn't there! No, worse then that. When she talked, I wasn't hearing her. It was like she'd become him. It was like his taint had just rotted right through her. Cored her out, like an apple.' He shuddered.

'Chaos can do that,' the Inquisitor observed. 'It's hardly a toy.'

'I visited there twice,' he said. 'The first time, I wasn't suspected. I think. The second time, the traitor actually caught me.'

An eyebrow rose on Lady Sharrow's face. 'You look remarkably alive, then,' she said. She shifted herself on the seat. Her coat rustled.

Inyre shrugged. 'Believe me or not – your choice! Anyway, I've fought Chaos Marines before. I knew what to do.' A moment of humour glinted in his eyes. 'Turns out the evil skakkers aren't wholly-immune to furniture.'

Alaster frowned. Furniture? What the skak?

'Anyway,' he said, 'while I was there I overheard some stuff. Turns out Phelonas has an ally. A mad doctor. Some woman, she works at one of the Creekside hospitals. I don't know which. But I do know her name. She calls herself Leora.'

Lady Sharrow said, 'This Dr Leora? Why is she working with a traitor? Why would a securely-employed, well-paid professional like a doctor risk throwing all that away? Consorting with Chaos is treason. And treason never ends well.'

Inyre sighed. He looked around the room, visibly taking in the Space Marines. The pipes made a faint glugging noise and the fans whirred on. He said, 'That's simple. I think she was maddened by grief.'


'I heard some of her story. Apparently she had a son. And he got recruited by the Storm Ravens.'

Alaster felt a chill. Suddenly he realised where this was going. As he breathed he noted the remaining faint hint of the alcoholic scent, mixed in with the sterile and synthetic smell of the spacecraft's interior.

Evidently the Inquisitor felt an apprehension too. 'Oh,' she said. 'I have a feeling I know what's coming. But I want you to say it, anyway.'

Inyre nodded. 'The son apparently became a training casualty.'

'We can check this,' Kodos put in. 'Look for any deceased recruits on our books, with that family name.'

Lady Sharrow sighed and rolled her eyes. 'Brother-Sergeant,' she said, 'remember your earlier remark – what was that line? Something like being an Astartes not an Arbites?'

Kodos frowned. 'Yes, and?'

'And,' she said, 'you've just proved it. Do you really think this Dr Leora would be working under her original name? Particularly if she's planning treason?'

Kodos said nothing, but his scowl deepened.

'Yes, exactly,' she said. 'For the record, check anyway. Of course. But you won't find anything.' She turned back to Inyre. 'Anyway, carry on, Father, if you would. These traitors. What were they conspiring together for?'

He nodded. 'They were conspiring two things,' he said. 'Apparently the traitor seeks some sort of transcendence. He wants to manipulate the Inquisition into declaring Exterminatus against this planet – so he can offer it up as one big human sacrifice. Apparently this will somehow assist his scheme.'

The Inquisitor tilted her head to one side. 'A four-billion-person sacrifice would be rather impressive, certainly,' she mused. 'Although I'm unsure as to the exact calibration. Or how he expected to get it past all the opposition that would stir up.'

'They used Janessa,' he said. 'To engineer the current political crisis. Paralyse everyone and everything. Then launch the insurrection. It probably wouldn't have happened otherwise.'

'Just how did they do that?' the Inquisitor asked. 'Engineer this crisis, I mean.'

'The last election,' he said, 'wasn't really decisive. But some of the ruling party were actually closet Originists.'


'And Phelonas used Janessa to persuade them to split. So the Assembly was hung. That's what Traditional Front is. It's not really a real thing – just a confessional façade, masquerading as a proper faction. It takes – or took – its orders straight from the Council of Hierarchs. Or rather, Janessa. And so really, they were being told what to do by Phelonas. And he told them to vote no to everything. So they did, and the planet started to fall apart.'

The Inquisitor said, 'And Phelonas was able to exploit the disorganisation. To stop anyone from doing anything that would help resolve the current crisis. Well, that does explain a few things. It had seemed rather odd that Delta's constitution decided to fall over just now. Historically, this planet's been rather stable.' She took a breath. 'Anyway, this Dr Leora. What was her oar in all this?'

'She wanted – wants! - the Storm Ravens destroyed,' Inyre said.

'Destroyed?' It was Patreus who spoke. He sounded baffled, as if the basic idea didn't quite compute. 'How would that work?'

Kodos's scowl had vanished. He was intent. He was watching the priest closely again. The overhead lights reflected off of his chest-eagle, and glittered against his metallic eye.

'Their plans,' Inyre said, 'seem to dovetail, at least a bit. They were working together on something. A – they described it, but I didn't understand all of what it was. I think they were making some kind of poison.'

'Poison?' Kodos snorted. 'We're pretty resistant to poison!'

Inyre looked up at him. And then the priest dropped a verbal bombshell.

'It wasn't for you,' he told the Space Marine. 'It was for the geneseed.'

The temperature of the room seemed to drop a few degrees. Once more, the main pipe made that chug-chug-chug, slightly vibrating the decking as it did. Alaster heard and felt the slight rattle in the plates.

'The geneseed?' Kodos asked.

'Could that be done?' the Inquisitor asked him. Her face was composed and calm, but the tick in her eyebrow, Alaster noted, had got faster.

Kodos was frowning. 'I don't know,' he confessed. 'I'm a marine, not a Tech-Priest!'

'There was stuff about mutation and viroids or viruses,' Inyre said, 'or something. I got the impression they wanted to flood the geneseed tanks with some sort of substance. It would make them all mutate or die or something. I'm not a Tech-Priest, either, though. I didn't follow much of it. But apparently she – the mad doctor – was going to use some of the gear at the hospital to make it.'

Lady Sharrow actually looked a little worried. 'It sounds possible,' she said. 'You could maybe do something like that. If you had access to a state-of-the-art hospital's facilities. I've had to clean up after some insurgent groups, here and there. They do things like that – go to town with a bit of bargain-basement biowarfare. As weapons of mass destruction go, tailored diseases are cheaper than most others! Thing is, that's all baseline-human stuff. Geneseed I don't know much about.'

'I think,' Kodos said, 'it sounds like we're going to need to consult the Magos.' He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The decking under him creaked just a little.

'Yes,' Lady Sharrow said, 'that could be wise.' She turned her attention back to Inyre. 'Did they do it?' she asked. 'Did they make it? Do they have a geneseed antagonist? A working one, I mean?'

'They had something,' he said. 'Whether it works, I don't know. Hey, you seem more worried about that than about the Exterminatus thing.'

'Of course I am!' she snapped, an abrupt wave of anger flashing over her face. 'If this skak-wit heretic is cooking up geneseed-wreckers, this just went to a whole new level of awful!' She looked around the room, scanning the marines present. 'Don't you understand? Can't you see the implication? Damn it, it's staring you in the face!'

Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard. She was shaking, just a little. The tick above her eyebrow was frantic now and there was a wild look in her eyes. The lights reflected in her widened pupils, two stark, sharp, small white glares. Her breathing rasped past her nostrils. Alaster could hear it quite clearly.

Taking a deep breath, she composed herself. She spoke again. Addressing the marines, she said, 'I know your geneseed is basically Ultramarine, bar a few minor issues. So if it works on you lot … it'll probably work on most other Space Marine chapters too! Imagine that … a plague of dying geneseed!'

'We don't know,' Alaster heard himself say, 'that it's infectious.' Given this little piece of news, he noted that he sounded remarkably calm.

'And we don't know,' he heard Kodos say, 'that it isn't infectious, Brother-Marine.'

'Can we say the words, major security crisis, perhaps?' The Inquisitor took a ragged breath and wiped a hand along her brow. There was a hint of sweat gleaming there, Alaster saw. She said, 'We've just transitioned to a whole new level of awful here. This isn't just one single little planet's problem. This could be the beginning of a major, galactic-level crisis.'

'Skak,' Alaster heard Nasty say. Nasty had, Alaster thought, summed the whole situation up quite succinctly.

'This is – this is monstrous!' Patreus said, sounding deeply offended at the whole basic concept of the antagonist.

'This traitor,' the Inqsuisitor said, 'and this mad doctor, they have to be stopped! Before they can implement this – and before they have a chance to tell anyone else what they've got! If word of this gets out…' She shuddered. 'Every xeno empire, every insurrectionist maniac and every Chaos warlord everywhere are going to do everything to get the formula! If the news gets out … give it a year and everyone, everywhere will have it! This is a disaster! By the Emperor, a disaster!'

'Not all chapters have Ultra-derived geneseed,' Alaster felt the need to point out. Again, he surprised himself by sounding so calm. 'It may give us a problem – but not everyone else, surely?'

'Something like two thirds of them do,' Kodos said. 'If two thirds of its chapters became inviolable, what would that mean for the Imperium's defence?'

Alaster's mind momentarily flashed back to that bus ride back on Gamma, what seemed like a lifetime ago. He remembered his discussions with Patreus. Trade in the Imperium as a network, with worlds as nodes. Civilisation as a sort of gossamer web, beautiful but so dreadfully fragile. He recalled that chilling mental image of the web fraying, unravelling, falling as critical failure-points were reached, exceeded. He shivered.

Lady Sharrow shook her head. 'No, but that's not even the worst-case. Worst-case scenario, they've knocked out a generalised antagonist, and what does that mean? It means geneseed enhancement becomes basically useless!'

'By the Emperor,' Patreus said, 'an end to the Space Marines! That's - that's monstrous!'

'Is that possible?' Alaster heard himself ask.

'We have to find out,' Lady Sharrow said. She looked grimly determined. 'Somebody go and get Kelso!'

The Magos was promptly summoned. She arrived a few minutes later. Her robe was stained with some machine-grease and she had a bag of tools slung over one shoulder. 'What is it?' Kelso said as she entered the compartment. 'I'm a bit busy right now.'

'This is important,' Lady Sharrow said to her.

Kelso sighed. 'So is the Number Three fuel line. And the starboard back-up pump.' At that moment, a sort of banging-knocking sound started echoing out of the door. It was loud. 'And talking of which, there it goes! I didn't have a chance to seal it properly. Hang on.' She reached down and dug something out of her bag. As the red sleeve of her robe slid back, Alaster got a good look at her hand. It was, he saw, completely robotic.

Inyre was staring at the gleaming metal with an expression of revulsion. He shuddered. Then he seemed to catch himself and he forced himself to sit still. He glanced around, as if looking to see if anyone had caught his little moment of emotion.

Kelso was holding some sort of small box-like device. She tapped a couple of buttons on it. Moments later, the sound declined and then was silent. 'Okay,' she said. 'That'll do for a few minutes. Hopefully there isn't too big a puddle of fuel sat in the bottom of that compartment! Now, what is it?' Her hood turned toward the Inquisitor.

'We've just been told a rather disturbing story,' Lady Sharrow said.

'Oh,' the Magos said. 'Well, I'd suggest not eating any cheese before bedtime, then.' A long sigh echoed out from under her hood. 'Look, I'm sorry, but honestly, is that all? The modern galaxy isn't short on scary stories.'

'Please don't try my patience, Priestess of Mars.' Lady Sharrow was glaring at Kelso. 'It is not infinite. And anyway, where's your curiosity?'

Kelso said, 'For the record, I don't intimidate. At all. I turned that reaction off about a century ago, as a little neurological experiment. And I've never seen any reason to turn it back on again. But anyway, I suppose we may as well get on with this. What do you want from me, Lady Sharrow?'

'I'd like to seek your professional opinion, actually,' the Inquisitor said.

The Tech-Priestess actually twitched with visible surprise. 'Really? A science question? Well, why didn't you just say so?'

Somewhere in the bowels of the Thunderhawk, something fell to the floor with a clang. The Magos's head turned briefly in the direction of the corridor.

'Because,' Lady Sharrow said, with an edge in her voice, 'you didn't seem keen on letting me get a word in edge-wise. Anyway, all that aside, we do need your opinion – your scientific opinion, as it were.'

'Well,' Kelso said, sounding surprised and pleased, 'okay then. But bear in mind that my speciality field is biology, in particular practical genetic enginnering. If you need to ask me about, oh I don't know, quark-gluon plasmas maybe, or high-redshift cosmology – well, I'll do what I can, obviously, but they aren't really my area.'

The Inquisitor said, 'This is right up your street, I can assure you. Just hypothetically, Magos, do you consider a geneseed antagonist possible?'

'An antagonist? In what way?'

'At the moment,' Lady Sharrow said, 'we're not entirely sure. I suppose what I'm asking is – geneseed. Is it killable? Can it die? Can it be damaged?'

'Can it be damaged? Of course it can! You have to store it quite carefully! And this is something I keep having to beat into Space Marines' heads all the time! Just because they're almost bombproof doesn't mean it is!' Then she paused and twitched in an embarrassed. 'Oh, sorry, that was a bit of a rant, wasn't it?'

A hint of a smile played on Lady Sharrow's face. 'Just a bit,' she said. 'You were saying, store. How do you do it?'

'Geneseed isn't senescent,' the Magos said. 'It doesn't age, the way normal human tissue does. In some ways, actually, it's a bit similar to cancer cells. They don't age either – they carry on replicating forever, if a suitable supply of nutrients is allowed for. So as long as they're fed and watered, if you will, and kept warm, geneseeds don't ever go off, as it were. You can store them more or less indefinitely.'

'Okay,' the Inquisitor said. 'Now, you say if nutrients are provided. So am I right in thinking that geneseed can be, uh, killed?'

'Oh yes,' Kelso said. 'It's living tissue. It might not age, but it's not inherently-immortal.'

'What sort of things can hurt it?'

'Well, fire will get it, of course.' The Magos shrugged. 'Although that's not really a surprise. If it lives, fire can kill it! Umm, what else? Well, if the nutrient supply fails, then the geneseed will die too.'

'Can it be poisoned?' the Inquisitor asked.

'Poisoned? Of course! The chemistry of the storage environment has to be monitored very closely! The last thing you want is a load of free radicals, say, getting loose in there!'

'Okay. Now, here's what might be an odd question. Can geneseed get sick?'

'Can it get sick?' The Magos considered that one. 'Well, I suppose that a microbial colony could establish itself, if the maintainers were dumb enough to let it. Geneseed in a tank isn't a complete organism by itself – it doesn't have it own immune system! So I suppose hypothetically, a microbial infection is possible. Although the system operators would have to be pretty dumb to let it.'

'Does that happen?'

'Not really, no.' She paused, then added with just a hint of pride, 'I've done this work for six different Chapters now. And in all that time, there hasn't been one bacterial incursion on my watch.'

The Inquisitor nodded. 'All right. Now – one more question. Mutation. Is it possible to induce mutation in geneseed?'

'Well of course it is! It's a physical, organic system. It has physical, organic weaknesses. It contains genetic material – that's the whole point! And like all chemical structures, that material is vulnerable to radiation, cosmic rays, even mechanical stresses on the molecules themselves. Sometimes even just random copying errors. Codons can get knocked about. We do a lot of stuff to control those things, though. At the Ravenholme it's stored behind a dozen feet of stable-isotope concrete.' Alaster remembered the forress-within-a-fortress of the geneseed repository. He recalled his brief visit there. She continued, 'Also the geneseeds talk to each other. Through the culture medium. A chemical communication.'

'Like pheromones?' the Inquisitor asked.

'Uh, no, your Ladyship, not really. Not at all. But if that model helps you, then by all means think of it! But anyway, the point is, they're exchanging genetic data all the time. So it stops any one geneseed from wandering too far from baseline. It's all very clever and it works wonderfully! I mean, look at the Ravens.' She gestured at the Space Marines. 'Apart from that initial cock-up, we haven't had a single unplanned mutagenic event in five thousand years.'

The Inquisitor was frowning. 'So in theory … so in theory, geneseed isn't subvertable?'

'Subvertable? Uh, I didn't actually say that. What I was trying to say is, we have it as under control as we can. But stuff does happen sometimes. Unfortunately, no natural process is ever wholly mastered by us. Things do go wrong sometimes.'

Overhead, the fans carried on turning behind their grates, rotating with that now-so-familiar quiet whirr.

The Inquisitor took a long, slow breath. 'Okay. Now, a moment ago, I asked you if you thought a geneseed antagonist is possible. And you've spent the last few minutes trying to divert us away from the question. Which I don't actually mind, because I reckon I need the wider background. But, Magos, I'm sorry but I need a yes or a no. Which is it? Can there be such a thing as a geneseed antagonist?'

'If you mean could an agent be introduced into the culture medium to kill stored geneseed,' the Magos said, 'then – yes. Except that would be easy to spot and trivial to stop before much damage was done.'

'We can assume, then,' Lady Sharrow mused, 'that isn't what our traitors are doing. I doubt they're going to go in for stuff that's easily stopped. It's hardly their style. But is possible to injure geneseed, in some more subtle way, I mean? Perhaps so it looked healthy, stayed alive, but just … I don't know. Didn't work properly, maybe? A way to make a whole batch defective? Taint it somehow?'

'If you mean could the geneseed be damaged in some way, mutated maybe, so it always fails…' The Magos trailed off, lost in a thought for a moment. After a few seconds' pause, she spoke again. 'Well, now there's a question. Except … That would be a major project. A very major project. Almost up there with creating the geneseed in the first place. But, but … Purely in terms of possibilities, I suppose, I guess I have to say yes.'

The pipes chugged again. The Inquisitor said, 'Yes, your answer is yes? You're saying it could be done?'

'I think … yes, I think it could be done. Why – are you suggesting that someone has?'

Then the Tech-Priestess appeared to finally notice Inyre.

'Oh,' she said. 'So they have, have they?'

'Purely in terms of possibilities,' the Inquisitor said, with a hint of mockery in her voice, 'I suppose, I geuss, I have to say yes.' She even managed to match the Magos's tone of voice.

The Magos winced. 'Well,' she said, 'perhaps we should all have just stayed in bed today, then.'

'One more question for your professional knowledge,' Lady Sharrow said. 'What sort of facilities would you need for this?'

'It would depend,' the Tech-Priestess said, 'on how much you knew at the start. If you went in there knowing nothing at all about geneseed beyond it's existence … well, then you'd be looking at a huge project. The kind of thing that needs a big, wealthy, industrial government shovelling money into it. Over decades. I mean, obviously it can't be done easily! Otherwise half the galaxy would be at it – and would've been at it for millennia!'

Alaster took a deep breath. He noticed that the scent of alcohol had now entirely dissipated. The chamber just smelt of the usual cleaning agents and the metals and plastics of the Thunderhawk's structure.

The Inquisitor chewed on her lip. 'But if you went in there already knowing a lot about geneseed? If you had a strong knowledge-base to start from? In that case … could you do it with, say the facilities at a modern hospital?'

'A modern hospital? This is starting to sound like you've got a suspect.'

'Well? Could you?'

'Could I? No! I wouldn't! But could someone else? Possibly. If they had access to, oh I don't know, you'd need a scanning-tunnelling microscope. For starters. And you'd need centrifuges, of course. You always need centrifuges! And some pretty serious cogitators, to do all the protein-folding analyses. In fact they'd be one of the most important bits. At least if you want to be done before the Universe folds up and dies, anyway! And you'd need loads of other kit. It'd be an impressive shopping list. But a modern hospital's genetic-medicine suite – it would have all of that stuff.' Magos Kelso thought about it for a moment more. 'In that specific case, then yes, maybe you could do it. Maybe. You'd have to be starting from a rather superhuman knowledge-base, though.'

'Superhuman,' the Inquisitor said, 'unfortunately, may just be the right word.' She was staring right at Kelso.

'My lady?' Kodos asked. 'What is it?'

Alaster shifted his weight. He heard and felt the decking-grill underneath him grate as it scraped a little against its neighbour.

'Something else I suppose you should all know,' Lady Sharrow said. 'In the Inquisition's records, there's a little note that's drawn some attention. There was a Tech-Marine. Who studied on Mars.' She took a breath. 'And he was of the Alpha Legion. And he was called – guess what? – Phelonas. And this was ten thousand years ago. Pre-Heresy. And he studied on Mars. We don't know precisely what he studied – those records are gone. But he might just have that knowledge!'

It was Inyre who spoke first. 'Dr Leora and the traitor,' he said, staring away toward infinity. A tone of appalled awe was in his eyes and his voice. 'Working together. He – that slate! The one he gave her, with the specifications! It must've been full of other data! And if he studied on Mars…'

The Tech-Priestess was considering this scene, hooded head cocked to one side. 'Okay,' she said, 'I think it was about time I was filled in. Something's come up, hasn't it?'

'Oh yes,' Lady Sharrow said. 'By the Throne, it has! And I think there's a hospital somewhere in this city that we need to pay a visit to.' Her voice sounded with grim determination.

'My lady,' Kodos said, 'what if this is the false lead? That we talked about?'

'Brother-Sergeant,' she said, 'that's an excellent point. And it may well be true. But this is too important. We cannot pass this up. We cannot! It is actually not an exaggeration to say that the security of the whole Imperium might rest on this. Damn it, the evil bastard studied on Mars!'

'So,' Kodos said, 'what are your plans? I assume you'll want to do some fact-checking.'

She nodded. She looked at Inyre. 'Father,' she said, 'am I right in thinking that the power's out across the city?'

Inyre nodded. 'It went out a while back.'

'Okay,' she sighed. 'That complicates things.' She turned back to Kelso. 'Magos, is it possible to rig up some sort of portable generator? That could be linked to a building's power supply?'

Kelso sounded surprised. 'Possible? We're carrying one right on board! Emergency generators are standard field kit.'

'Good,' Lady Sharrow said, 'because we're going to need one. First up, we're paying a little visit to the offices of the City Government.'

'Why them?' Kodos asked.

'Simple. They'll have a register of all the doctors who're registered to practise in this city. Now that is a starting-place!' She then turned and hit Inyre with a sudden, angry glare. 'Just one thing, Father Inyre.'

He looked up. 'What would that be?'

'In the event that you've told me lies,' she said, 'I can assure you that you'll hang.' She smiled, her mouth curling into a cold arc. It wasn't a friendly gesture. 'I just thought we should be clear on that.'

Inyre was once more surprisingly composed. He just shrugged. 'That's about what I would expect,' he said.

A few minutes later, an odd delegation left the Thunderhawk. It consisted of Alaster, Nasty, Patreus, Kodos, the Inquisitor and the Magos. Eorvan, Sandrer and Fegust were left behind, partly to guide the Thunderhawk and partly to keep an eye on Father Inyre. Until it could be entirely confirmed, his story still merited some suspicious caution.

The delegation left the Thunderhawk on foot. However, they quickly acquired a van. Lady Sharrow, with Kodos stood threateningly behind her, had turfed its unexpecting driver out. It had simply been a case of grab whatever came to hand. Whilst the former driver had stood there, alternating between impotent fuming and boggling at the presence of Space Marines, they had loaded the portable generator into the back of it.

Then the van's engine had coughed into life, and they pulled out.

They arrived at the city hall about an hour later. With the traffic signals down, it was fair to describe Creekside's roads as being in a state of total chaos. The journey should have taken twenty minutes.

The city hall sat at the back of a sizeable public square. The square was bordered with trees. The streets around it were marked with elaborate wrought-iron lamp posts and the houses and shops in this area were all built in the highly traditional 'New Gothic' style that had been popular about six hundred years previously, when this part of the city area had first been laid out. They were all steep gables and peaked windows with polished sandstone casements. Drainpipes were marked with elaborate, leering gargoyles. The roofs of the houses were tiled in dark slate. Buildings in Deltan cities generally had electrical heating, including these, but that hadn't stopped the architects here from building in decorative chimneys as an extra stylistic flourish. As they were decorative only, many of these chimneys were constructed in manners different from more functional ones. There were tapering chimneys and twisting, spiralling chimneys and thin spike-like chimneys, as well as the more-conventional brick-cuboid variety. The mass of chimneys gave the roofline of the streets an oddly organic look, as if a forest of sinewy stalks was rising from them. Behind them rose the glass-and-steel towers of Creekside's business district and the peaks and spires of the city's many churches. In one of them, somewhere in the middle distance, a bell was tolling. The low, sonorous sound rang out over the streets and houses.

Having never been to this area before, Alaster drank all of this in as the van pulled up in a vacant parking space near the square. The engine fell into silence and the doors clicked and scraped open. Alaster stepped out onto the pavement, his boots clanking against the cold stone.

'Alaster, Nasty,' Kodos said, 'go and get the generator.'

'Yes sergeant!' they both said.

Alaster shouldered his chainsword. It rattled against his cuirass as its weight settled over his shoulders on its strap. He then slid his bolt pistol back into its holster, so that both his hands were free. The shadow of a tree, planted nearby, fell over him. He looked up. The sky was still a brilliant, clear blue. Bright sunlight shone over the scene.

He and Nasty walked to the back of the van. The door clicked open. Inside was the generator. It wasn't as big as Alaster might have expected, being a roughly-rectangular apparatus about a metre long by maybe two thirds of that high and two thirds deep. It was a collection of cylinders and pipes and bolts and brackets, with a big readout panel at the front. There was a length of red electrical cable, all coiled up into a neatly-stored bundle, on the left-hand side.

On top of the biggest cylinder was a wooden candle plate. Awkwardly glued onto it was a creamy votive candle, with a metallic cog-and-skull token tied to one side of it by a black string. On the other side the string held a small piece of amber. Alaster wondered what that represented for a moment, then he dismissed the irrelevant thought.

Behind them and all around them, Alaster could hear the sounds of an inner city. Cars, traffic, horns, human voices blurring together in the middle-distance – it was a medley of urban sounds.

'You take that side,' he said to Nasty. He pointed to the opposite end of the device.

Nasty's helmet nodded. 'Okay, Brother.'

The generator was sat on a flat, rectangular carrying-plate. Two sort metal poles, handles for carrying the pallet and its cargo, emerged from each end. Alaster leaned down and grasped his two handles. Nasty did the same at his end.

'Ready?' Alaster asked.

Nasty nodded. 'Let's go.

They lifted each of their respective ends, raising the generator up on its pallet. They carried it out from the back of the van. Quietly and without fuss, the doors automatically closed and locked themselves with a clunk and a click.

Alaster twisted round a bit so he could see behind him, walking awkwardly backwards as they rejoined the main group at the front of the van.

'Okay, you've got it,' Kodos said. He looked at Lady Sharrow. 'I guess we follow you now, my lady,' he said.

She nodded. 'This way!' She pointed toward the city hall.

The road was between them and the square. However, this side of it was quiet. They made it across without any hesitation. Then it was up onto the pavement and through the square. They passed under the enclosing row of trees. They passed a couple of park benches and then they passed the ornamental fountain in the centre of the square. Moments later, they were ascending the stairs in front of the colonnade that bracketed the city hall's main entrance. Above them loomed the clock tower, a brick and sandstone spire pointing defiantly into the sky. Near its peaked roof, little gargoyles gurned and glowered down. The tower cast a long, needle-like shadow across the square in front of the hall.

The clock, Alaster noted, had stopped at three minutes to six. That meant the time it displayed was off by about four hours. He wondered what day it had stopped on. Overhead, some birds were circling. They added their raucous calls to the sounds of the city around them.

'Skakking gulls,' Nasty muttered. 'Skakking downside of living on a skakking estuary!' Then he grunted as, for a moment, his foot caught one of the steps. The boot scraped against the stone.

'Hey,' Alaster said, 'careful! We don't want to drop this!'

'Here's the door,' he heard the Inquisitor say.

Moments later, they entered the cool relative darkness of the main lobby to the civic building. The floor was polished marble, white and pink blocks set in a tessellating pattern. The walls were lined with decorative columns and far overheard, an elaborate electrical chandelier descended from the ceiling. Its light was entirely extinct today. Its crystal sconces glittered in the half-light leaking in through the door. The gloomy interior was quite the change from the bright, blazing daylight outside.

There was a creak and a muffled expostulation.

The contrast in light was steep enough that it took Alaster's eyes a moment to catch up. When they did, he saw the presence of a reception desk up ahead. And miracle of miracles, there was actually someone at it! A woman, sat behind it in the semi-darkness. She had been leaning back nonchalantly – the creak had been her chair as she'd abruptly sat up. She was staring at the Space Marines with a look of confused puzzlement on her face.

In front of her was an expensive-looking cogitator, as lifeless as the huge chandelier above. The sole illumination within the room was provided by several fat, dribbling candles sat on the surface of the reception desk. They were of a rich yellow tallow and they gave off a sooty creamy-orange flame. The flickering light picked out deep shadows on the woman's face.

'Who are you?' she demanded, sounding incredulous.

The Inquisitor strode over. Her boot-heels clicked loudly on the marble floor. The sound echoed in the cavernous space.

She was brandishing her rosette. It glinted golden in the candle.

'Inquisition,' she said. She glanced over her shoulder at the marines. 'And Astartes,' she added. To the woman, she said, 'Who are you, and who's in charge here?'

'Uh, I'm the receptionist,' the woman said. 'Mela Cairy. That's my name. I guess who's in charge – that would be the Mayor! But she's not in today.'

'It's a pretty poor show,' the Inquisitor said, 'when the city's chief executive can't be bothered to turn up for work.'

'Uh, there's no power,' Cairy said awkwardly. 'Nothing's working.'

'Well,' the Inquisitor said, 'that's what contingency plans are for! But anyway, I guess that's above your pay-grade. Tell me, Miss Cairy, where is the junction room?'

'The junction-?' Then the receptionist noted the device that Alaster and Nasty were carrying, and the presence of the Magos. 'Uh, down the corridor over there, second on the left and down the flight of stairs! It's the door at the bottom!'

Lady Sharrow nodded. 'Okay. Thank you.' She looked at Alaster, Nasty and Magos Kelso. 'I take it you can guess what to do?' she said.

'We'll get on it,' the Magos said.

After a few minutes and some hasty jury-rigging, the electric chandelier in the reception had blazed into life. The entire building was filled with the sound of previously-dormant electrical and electronic systems as they returned to life. Radiators clicked and pinged as they warmed up. Cogitators and processors clicked and beeped as their computational spirits were stirred back into sluggish life. Air conditioning units rumbled and grumbled and hissed as fans and convectors were suddenly roused from their unexpected slumber.

'The lights went off, I take it,' the Inquisitor was saying to Cairy as Alaster and the others returned, 'because the money ran out?'

Cairy nodded. 'Basically yes. The Authority missed its bill.'

The Inquisitor sighed and shook her head. 'If nothing else,' she said, 'there are going to have to be some changes to the way public utilities are run around here. When all this is done, I mean! But anyway, in the meantime - where is the central finance office?'

'Upstairs,' the receptionist said. 'Second door on the left and straight down the corridor. Only no-one's there.'

Lady Sharrow shrugged. 'Then there's no-one to get in my way then, is there?'

The central finance office turned out to look exactly how one might expect. Rows of desks, bearing cogitators and screens and keyboards. Lines of chairs sat in front of them. Little votive candles were dotted here and there on the desks and on top of processor-stacks, bearing the seals of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Like pretty much all administrative facilities in the Imperium, the room had a corner set aside as a small shrine to the Emperor. There was a small gilded statue on a marble pedestal, and in front of it were three vases of flowers. They were wilting, Alaster noted. It had been a while since they'd been watered.

Of the room itself, the floor was covered with a bland carpet, coloured in that particularly-monotonous shade of beige that only large public institutions seem to be able to source. The walls and ceiling were simply painted in a bland, boring white. Lighting was supplied by rows of striplights overhead. One side of the room was also a bank of windows, looking out over the street beyond.

'Imagine working here,' Nasty said, helmet turning as he surveyed the room.

'I don't have to,' Alaster said. 'Don't forget, I practically almost did!'

It was a weird thought, but if he'd stayed in Colvin, Alaster realised that he would almost certainly have ended up somewhere like this.

Patreus was eyeing the shrine. 'Sergeant,' he said suddenly, 'could I, you know, go and clean that up? It's looking a bit neglected.'

Kodos looked toward the shrine. There was a patina of dust visible on the statue of the Emperor. 'Yes, all right,' he said. 'Nasty, I want you to keep watch on the door. Alaster, go to the windows. Let us know if anything interesting happens out there. Not that it probably will, of course!'

'Yes Sergeant,' Alaster said. He walked over to the window to take watch. Patreus and Nasty moved off to their allocated tasks.

Lady Sharrow, the Inquisitor and Kodos gathered at what appeared to be the master-cogitator. It was sat on a desk out by itself at the end of the room. The desk was larger and the chair behind it visibly-nicer than any of the others. Everything about it suggested senior management, including the little name-plaque on the desk that said, ERIO FEL – SENIOR CITY ACCOUNTS AUDITOR.

'Now, just give me a minute while my rosette cracks its way in,' Lady Sharrow was saying. She was doing something to the cogitator with her rosette. 'It's such a clever little thing. It'll have us logged into the main system in no time.'

'What are you doing?' Alaster heard Magos Kelso say.

For his part, he was looking out over the street beyond. The window he was looking through was frustratingly narrow, offering only a limited field of view. From the outside, their casements all conformed to the New Gothic façade of the city hall as a whole. Although the entire wall on this side of the room was windows, the steeply-pointed-arch style meant that each window was quite narrow.

Something beeped. Lady Sharrow said, 'Aha! Here we go!'

The street below was tree-lined. It looked like it was primarily residential, lined with a long rank of terraced dwellings. The houses were in a similar style to the ones around the square. They were all four stories high, tall, thin structures with prominent bay windows and peaked roofs and more of the decorative chimneys. Each house was separated from the road by a very narrow garden, really not much more than a postage-stamp of land. Still, despite their smallness, the neatness and the well-maintained facades suggested this was an affluent part of town. Alaster supposed that the lower-level citizens would only be suffered here as cleaners or servants.

'What are you doing?' the Magos said again.

Many of the houses, he noted, appeared to be subdivided into flats. The give-aways were the presence of multiple buttons on the door-bells and the varying styles in drapery and furniture visible here and there through the windows. Just visible above the peaked roofs were the towers and spires of the rest of the city.

Behind him, the office was filled with the hum of idling cogitators. Lady Sharrow was saying, 'Normally what I'm about to do is frowned upon.' She paused. Fingers clacked on a keyboard. Alaster heard what sounded like something being pulled from a pocket. There was a rustle of fabric. As per his orders, though, he kept his eyes on the street below.

'What are you about to do?' Magos Kelso sounded increasingly exasperated. 'Whatever is that card for – oh. I see. An unlimited platinum.'

'Yes,' Lady Sharrow said. 'Nominally it draws off an Inquisitorial account. Unlimited expenses and all that. Today, we're going to push that until something falls out.'

'I think I have a glimmering now,' Kelso said. 'Of what you're going to do.'

A man was walking along the street below. Alaster focused on him. To his surprise, the Space Marine noted that the man wasn't richly-dressed. He was wearing fairly standard Creeksider tunic-and-trousers, but they were in a lower-level style and the colours were drab. He had a pair of plain black boots on his feet. Alaster wondered what the man was doing here. He obviously didn't live in this part of town. Alaster doubted the City Government would give lower-levels a residence-pass for this area.

Something else caught Alaster's attention. The man was carrying something. It looked roughly tubular, but the man kept it in the hand on the other side of his body. It swung back and forth as he walked and was mostly in his shadow, so Alaster had trouble getting a clear look at it.

Lady Sharrow was saying, 'If we did this too often, it would be rather destabilising! But to be fair, I think Delta's already been quite thoroughly destabilised. So this won't make things any worse – and it may even help! Let me just put these numbers in…' Some more keys clacked.

'You're re-floating the city, aren't you?' Kelso said.

'Indeed I am.' The Inquisitor sounded pleased with herself. Keys clacked and something beeped. 'There. Two billion Octalian crowns sounds like a nice round number, doesn't it?'

'Two billion-?' The Magos made a sputtering sound. 'Yes, I'll say! That should be enough to run this place for months!'

'Once we're done here,' Lady Sharrow said with satisfaction in her voice, 'a phone call to the power plant's management should get the electric back on. Particularly if I offer them the chance to decorate a streetlamp!' She followed that with a short, sarcastic laugh. The sound had an edge of bitterness in it, as well as amusement.

Alaster was watching the man down there intently. He felt a sense of unease. Something wasn't right about this. He stepped back from the window a little way, drawing back into the partial concealment of the stone frame. The man's movements weren't idle or random. He wasn't some bum who'd wondered in from elsewhere, or a striker going for a walk or something like that. Just as equally, though, his advance had a stealthy, furtive air, as if he had something planned. His movements were measured and purposeful. He kept looking from side to side, surveying the houses and buildings around him. It was as if he was looking for something.

The man was moving along the pavement, in the shade of the trees. As Alaster watched, the man stepped into a patch of unobstructed sunlight.

'Well,' Lady Sharrow said, 'that's the Creekside Authority pretty comprehensively de-bankrupted.'

'Hey,' Kelso said, 'can't you just do this for the planet as a whole?'

'A two billion refloat is one thing,' Lady Sharrow said, 'but an eighty thousand billion refloat is rather another matter. I'm drawing on a big account here, but it's not bottomless. Besides, if I did that – well, unless we're in a liquidity trap, then I've just popped Delta's money-supply. I don't think anyone's going to thank me for runaway inflation!'

'So if you're not doing this for everywhere,' Kelso said, 'what was the point?'

'The point,' Lady Sharrow said, 'is that with the city's public institutions coming back online, it'll make the stuff I need to do here a whole lot easier. Plus with any luck it might start getting people off the street and back to work. And given what's going on elsewhere on the planet, we could really do with the masses being distracted! Now, just let me crack into the Authority healthcare databases…'

Alaster was still watching the man in the street below. Something glittered and caught his eye. Alaster frowned, squinting to try to see what it was. It was small, at this distance too small even for his enhanced eyes.

'That doesn't look promising,' he heard the Magos say.

'Oh, how annoying!' the Inquisitor said, sounding exasperated. 'The finance department has budget-only access! We're segregated from the personnel files. Honestly, have these people never heard of joined-up government? Oh well, nothing I can't deal with.' Fingers clicked and clacked on the keyboard. 'It'll just take extra time.'

'I suppose,' the Magos said, 'this is another of those bungled public-sector cogitator projects we're looking at here.'

'I have wondered,' the Inquisitor said, fingers still clacking, 'if Machine Spirits are allergic to Administratum types!'

Alaster vaguely heard Kelso make a non-committal noise in reply to that. He briefly remembered Kelso's peculiar scepticism toward the widely-accepted idea of Machine Spirits. Even for a Tech-Adept, she was a bit strange.

He turned up the magnification on his eyelenses. The man's face and chest zoomed into view. There was a pendant hung around his neck, on a short brass chain. The pendant was a metal symbol. Alaster looked at it. It was-

His breath caught in his throat.

He remembered the spaceport on Gamma, all that time ago. He recalled the woman behind the desk, with her damnable neck-decoration. Alaster was looking at exactly the same symbol! An eagle, clutching the sacred double-helix of Human DNA.

Originist – the man down there was an Originist!

As he saw that, realisation clicked inside Alaster's head. The odd tubular thing the man was carrying - it was a club!

'Sergeant,' Alaster said, without taking his eyes from the street below, 'I think we've got trouble on its way.'

'What is it?' Kodos asked.

'There's an Originist wandering around down there,' Alaster said. 'And he's armed. Not much, just a club, but he's acting like he's looking for something. And – skak, here's another one!'

Following the previous man, another shabbily-dressed Originist walked into view.

'I thought they were all down south,' Kodos said. 'Skakkers! Apparently not, then. Are there any more out there?'

Alaster risked leaning forward a little, to try and peer past the window's stone embrasure. He was able to see a bit further down the street. And what he saw amongst the tree-lined pavement and the New Gothic houses did not reassure him. 'Sergeant, there's a mob,' he said. He attempted a quick headcount. There were ten of them on the front row and the crowd of people appeared to be about five rows deep, so … 'About fifty, I think.'

He could hear them now. They weren't making any effort at stealth. They were singing some sort of church chant. There was a man walking at the front, wearing what looked like ecclesiastical robes. They were embroidered with eagles clutching at helices. He was holding up some kind of book in one hand and was swinging a golden incense-censer in the other. The demented procession made for a bizarre contrast with the residential ordinariness of the street.

The ecclesiast at the front, Alaster saw, had a bolt pistol hung from his belt.

'Weapons?' Kodos asked promptly.

'Hard to tell,' Alaster said, 'but I can see some of the front rank have pistols. Bolt ones, I mean.'

The two who'd walked into view before must have been the advance guard, Alaster supposed. The chanting procession appeared to be the main body.

'Well,' Kodos said grimly, 'I doubt this is coincidence. Where are they going?'

'This road leads to the square at the front,' Alaster said. The finance office was located along one of the sides of the city hall complex.

'Your ladyship,' Alaster heard Kodos say, 'how long are you going to need?'

Her fingers were still clacking on the keyboard. 'At least a few more minutes, Brother-Sergeant. The database-structure is a mess! Honestly, I could puke a better system than this! I'm trying to do a search of the hospitals for a Dr Leora, but it's not set up to handle structured queries! How they administrate anything in this place is beyond me!'

'I wonder if that's kind of the idea,' Kelso said. 'There do seem to be rather a lot of desks in this office. Perhaps more than is needed. I wonder if there's a bit of make-work going on?'

'All right,' Kodos said. 'I'm going to go join Karo, have a look what's out there.' Alaster heard the sergeant walk over. The floor of the office creaked faintly under his heavy footsteps.

A moment later and Kodos was at the embrasure beside Alaster. He took one look out then stepped back, swearing angrily. To Alaster he said, 'Pull back from the window - no point letting them see you!'

'Yes Sergeant,' Alaster said, stepping back. 'Do you think they're after us?'

'Yes,' Kodos said. 'It seems too convenient they'd be here right now by chance. I wonder if they saw us land, at the port – or did that man tip them off? Anyway, it doesn't matter yet. Karo, Patreus, I want you down at the main entrance. Get that receptionist woman out of the way and cover the entrance. If they try to enter – stop them! By whatever means necessary.'

'Yes Sergeant!' Alaster and Patreus said. They both moved toward the door, breaking into a sprint.

Behind them, Alaster heard Kodos say, 'Shepherd, you're staying here with me. Just in case they get in by some other entrance! I'll cover the door, you stay near Kelso and the Inquisitor. Anyone tries to do anything clever to them, you hit them with that axe!'

'With pleasure, Sergeant!' Nasty's voice said. He sounded excited.

Alaster and Patreus sprinted into the corridor outside. Now that the lights were back on, it was well-lit. Like the office it was a bland institutional space, plain walls and a deadly-dull carpet. They ran down it, their booted feet thumping on the floor. Alaster could feel the boards rebounding under him.

Moments later they were in the main hall, pounding down the stairs. For a moment Alaster wished he had his jump pack, so he could just leap straight down from the stairs to the floor. Instead he gritted his teeth and sprinted down the stairs, feet clattering from riser to riser.

Down below, the receptionist looked up, startled by the noise. She noticed the two Space Marines as they sprinted down to the floor. 'What-?' she began.

Alaster cut her off. 'Get inside somewhere!' he barked. 'Trouble's on its way, and it's armed!'

For a moment he wondered if the woman had been the one who'd tipped the mob off. But the look of genuine confusion and then spreading panic in her eyes convinced him that she hadn't. She clearly was not at all prepared for what was about to happen. She leapt up from her chair and bolted toward an inner door. A moment later and she had vanished from the reception.

The door banged shut behind her.

Alaster quickly surveyed the space around them. The best cover for keeping watch on the door, he surmised, came from two thick columns, one on either side of the door. They were wide enough that a fully-armed Space Marine could comfortably fit behind one. They were close to the door – close enough that the intruding heretics could be attacked while they were still at the point of bottleneck. That would make controlling the crowd much easier.

'Patreus – that one, on the left!' Alaster's chainsword was in his hand now, and he gestured with it, toward the leftward column. He didn't even recall drawing it, or his bolt pistol, but instinct had done its thing and they were back in his grip.

Patreus's helmet turned toward the column. 'Right away, Brother!' He pounded over to it and dropped into a firing crouch beside it.

Alaster moved over to his designated column.

The main door was still half-ajar, as they'd left it. A rectangle of blue sky-light spilled in, reflecting on the marble. Through the gap Alaster could see part of the square, and the fountain. He could hear the tinkling noise the water was making – it had come back to life, he noted. Perhaps its pumps ran off the hall's electrical systems? From beyond it, the city noises he'd heard earlier were leaking their way into the hall.

With them there was now a faint but unmistakable sound of heretical chanting.

For a moment Alaster considered closing the doors. Then he realised that would cut off their view of the approach. Probably best to leave them open. Perhaps with luck the mob would just think no-one was home.

He looked down to give the polished metal shape of his bolt pistol a final check-over. With a quiet snick, he slid the safety off. He took a deep breath. The air inside the city hall smelt of floor polish and dusty carpet, with a slight aroma of city scents coming in through the door.

The chanting was louder now. Alaster caught sight of movement outside the door. It was the man with the club and the pendant! He was looking up at the open door. He didn't seem to have noticed the lurking Space Marines yet, although Alaster supposed the contrast between bright daylight outside and the dimmer interior was probably not helping the man.

The man turned and shouted, 'Door's open! Someone's in there!'

'Worst stealth attack ever,' Patreus muttered. He didn't speak loudly, of course, but Alaster's Astartes ears heard him clearly over the distance. Alaster was entirely in agreement.

To Patreus, he said, 'Stay back behind the column. When they come up, I'm going to give them one warning. After that, if they don't back off, I want you to step out. Maybe a show of force will scare them off.'

Patreus nodded. 'Yes Brother. And if they keep trying to get in?'

When, Alaster thought cynically. Aloud, he said, 'Then we stop. Whatever means necessary. Down south they're attacking the Ravenholme. That means this is a war situation, and they're part of it. I expect we'll have to kill several of them before the rest bolt.'

Alaster had half-expected Patreus to offer some resistance to that idea. Instead, he sounded enthusiastic. 'Yes Brother!' Alaster remembered Patreus's discomfort with the assassination of the Loser governor back on Minoris. The contrast in his reactions was quite notable. It seemed that Patreus viewed this as belonging in an entirely different category to that earlier operation.

Either that or they were all starting to get jaded toward killing.

That, Alaster knew from the sermons he'd listened to during his training, was one of the great moral perils faced by Space Marines. Killing came very easily to Astartes warriors – indeed it had to, or they wouldn't be anything like as effective as they needed to be. However, there was such a thing as too easy, and it was something they had to watch for. Proportionate force must never be allowed to decay into indiscriminate slaughter. A hard-earned satisfaction in a job well-done was one thing, but a demented, maniacal joy in murder was a step on the path to Chaos. And, Alaster remembered Chaplain Fellack repeatedly telling the recruits, sometimes the line between the two had the thickness of a shadow.

The chanting was louder now.

'Go in!' a voice cried out. 'Brethren – go in! We must ensure this place is untainted!'

Alaster heard a sound that was unmistakeably that of many feet swarming up the steps, just out of sight of the narrow aperture offered by the door.

He stepped out from the column and planted himself in the middle of the space, where he was in full view of the door. They weren't being subtle, so nor would he, Alaster decided. He brandished his weapons in a very visible manner. His trigger-finger rested close to the trigger of his pistol and his sword-hand was wrapped firmly around the hilt of his chainsword.

The priest hove into view. For a moment he was silhouetted blackly against the sky, framed by the rectangular opening. He was still swinging his censer. A puff of heady, aromatic smoke billowed from it. His mouth was open as he chanted some Originist drivel.

Then he noticed Alaster.

The priest stuttered in mid-sentence. He twitched with surprise. The twitch rushed down the censer's chain, making the bronzed links clink and rattle. Its smooth arc of oscillation disrupted, the censer spasmed and crashed into the door. It smacked into the wood with a metallic thud and careened away. A plume of scented ash sprayed out of it.

The priest, Alaster noted, was a man apparently in his mid-sixties. He was bald on top with thin, greying hair around the bald patch. His sallow skin was marked with several scars, including a long, jagged one that ran across his face. It just missed one of his eyes. Oddly, it reminded Alaster of Nasty's facial scar.

The priest raised a hand and pointed. 'Muh-muh-muh…'

Alaster wondered for a moment where the man had got that scar from. Then it occurred to him that Inyre might not be the only ex-soldier amongst the Originists. He wondered for a moment if that had been one of their strategies. He wondered if the cult been able to grow so fast by recruiting amongst Guard survivors, particularly those who were survivors of engagements with Chaos Marines? That would be a radicalising experience, Alaster had to acknowledge. It veered close to his earlier musings, but he supposed acknowledging obvious fact wasn't the same thing as sympathising with the enemy.


Alaster cut him off.

'My name's Brother Alaster,' he said, 'of the Storm Ravens. As you've probably gathered.' He glanced briefly at the lightning-raven symbol on his shoulder. He continued, 'And we don't want you in here. Save everyone a lot of trouble and just go away. Take this chance; I'm not offering twice!'

A look of holy rage wobbled over the cultist prelate's face. 'Abomination!' the man shrieked. 'Mutant! Monster! Faithful brethren, to me!'

The man dropped the censer. It clanged on the floor, the chain rattling down around it. Even as it fell the priest fumbled at his belt for the pistol.

'Patreus,' Alaster said into his helmet microphone, 'step out, please.'

'Heard and understood,' Patreus said. Alaster heard footfalls from the other pillar. Patreus was now stood in full view and the way into the city hall was blocked.

There was movement outside. A mass of Originists poured into view behind the doors. Their faces were distorted into ferocious leers of maniacal hatred. Some of them had guns but most of them were gripping clubs of various sorts. Some looked like proper, made-for-purpose weapons but others were clearly improvised. Chair- and table-legs were well-represented amongst the throng. The throng seethed, pushing and shoving to get in through the door. There was no evidence of any organisation or any kind of plan of action.

The heaving mass of fanatics was so obviously unprepared for any kind of battle that Alaster actually hesitated a moment more. The priest was still fumbling at his pistol.

'Just go away,' Alaster said. 'For once in your miserable lives, be reasonable!'

That seemed to incense the priest to a new plateau of crazed rage. 'I'll never yield to a mutant!' the man screeched. Giving up on the gun, he threw himself physically at Alaster.

His outstretched hands clawed at the air.

Alaster's bolt pistol kicked hard in his hand. Its bark echoed in the big space. The priest's head exploded as the bolt tore into his skull. The rest of his body toppled, spasming and lifeless, to the marble floor. Brains, fragments of bone and blood sprayed over the crowd of fanatics behind. The air smelt of blood and gunsmoke.

The crowd of demented cultists exploded.

Instantly the entrance way was turned into a frothing mass of kicking, shouting, screaming, clawing, hysterical people. The Originists had erupted into a heaving mass of disorganised violence. Clubs sailed through the air, fists swung and where they were held, guns barked. Most of the swings and shots went nowhere near either of the Space Marines. In fact, the Originists were doing more damage to each other with their farcical display of indiscipline.

Alaster and Patreus moved into the throng.

Alaster's chainsword howled as he swung it, its howl dropping into a loud growl as it met flesh and bone. The teeth tore through both with equal alacrity. Originist would-be attackers wailed and staggered, clutching at the stumps of severed limbs.

Even as his chainsword bit at limbs and bodies, Alaster's bolt pistol barked at various targets. Unlike the barely-trained fanatics, Alaster's shots mostly found their targets. Originist after Originist went down clutching at unexpected wounds. Few if any of them would ever get up again.

An ineffectual small bullet bounced off Alaster's left shoulder pad, doing no more damage than a streak of paint. He felt a club impact on his right arm, but the club's head connected with his ceramite vambrace and it did no damage to him. The club, however shattered.

Alaster whirled, sweeping the chainsword low as he did so. He caught a glimpse of an enraged, dyspeptic, shouting face, the countenance of the heretic who'd just attacked him. The shout turned briefly into an O of surprise as the chainblade tore into the man's flesh.

Moments later, the Originist's top and bottom halves splashed to the ground, having been rudely divorced from each other by the blade's growl.

Alaster felt a weight behind him. It pulled him back and for a moment he staggered. Then he felt something collide, hard, with his helmet. It was enough that for a moment his ears rang. He turned but the weight stayed with him.

This time he saw the club as it flailed. It just missed his head, cracking into his right shoulder instead. Tilting his head and leaning it back, he saw what was going on. An Originst, possessed of some demented fit of bravery, had managed to haul himself up onto Alaster's backpack and was trying to attack the Space Marine from above.

'Patreus!' Alaster shouted. 'Headshot, please!'

'Gladly, Brother!' he heard Patreus say.

The heretic clinging to Alaster's backpack visibly experience a moment of panicked surprise as his dreadfully-clever scheme disintegrated. Then Patreus's bolt ripped through his head.

The corpse let go of Alaster and flopped to the ground. Unfortunately, Alaster noted he was now drenched in Originist gore. He shuddered. Being covered in Originist felt unclean somehow!

There was a momentary calm around Alaster. He quickly surveyed the surroundings. There seemed to be a lot fewer moving Originists than there had been a moment ago. Alaster caught a glimpse of Patreus's blue-black form performing some sort of odd manoeuvre on an Originist. It must be some Way of the Leaf thing, Alaster supposed.

His supposition was proved correct when a wailing Originist was sent flying through the air. The man's hair streamed behind him like a sort of crazed human comet. Then the man slammed bodily into a cluster of four more Originists. They were all sent flying ad tumbling down to the ground. They smacked into the marble and the wall behind with bone-jarring thuds. Two of them flopped lifelessly, necks broken.

One of the others reached for his club. Alaster's bolt pistol spoke and put a stop to all of that. A spray of blood re-decorated the wall immediately behind.

The remaining one appeared to be alive but unconscious. 'Leave that one!' Alaster told Patreus. 'We'll need one to interrogate!'

Patreus nodded. 'Yes Brother!'

They turned to seek new targets and then they made an unwelcome discovery.

It appeared there had been a sliver more strategy in the Originists' attack than Alaster had given them credit for. A stream of them had got past the two Space Marines, and were fleeing across the floor, toward the far side of the room. Their feet slapped and flapped on the marble floor.

'Skak!' Alaster swore. 'After them! Patreus, you go left, toward the stairs! Herd them away! I'll take up the rear!'

'Yes Brother!' Patreus sounded like he was enjoying himself.

As he ran, Alaster realised what had just happened. Mentally, he kicked himself. The Originist plan had been quite simple. Although they knew - they must have known – that fifty poorly-armed, untrained fanatics were never going to take down two fully-equipped Battle-Brothers, they could tie them up for at least a few minutes. For all his superhuman powers, a Space Marine did only have two hands, after all, and if he was in the middle of a heaving mass of attackers, that would limit the speed with which he could dispatch them all. And while the two marines had been busily bogged down in a mass of demented fanatics, another group had used that as a chance to slip past, into the main hall.

They didn't seem to be too clear where they were going yet. Alaster was catching up as he ran – he was, of course, faster than they – but they did have a good few seconds' lead-time. That was enough to put a substantial gap into the pursuit.

The arc of cultists was starting to curve toward the stairs. Alaster realised that needed putting a stop to. He fired off a shot at the front-runner. The bolt clipped the man on the shoulder. A plume of blood sprayed out and the man's arm was ripped off. The rest of him spun and collapsed to the floor.

Two more Originists tripped over the fallen comrade and were sent skittering down to the marble themselves.

The rest, seeing this, flocked away from the stairs. Alaster breathed a quick sigh of relief as he closed on them. His plan now was simple – close with them, bottle them in near the wall and finish them off. The two Space Marines had their designated survivor and weren't in need of any more. Patreus was coming in from the side, Alaster noted. Just as planned - the Originists would shortly be a solved problem, at least in this building.

Just as it looked as if the small battle was all but over, something more happened. One of the Originists found a door.

It creaked loudly, its hinges protesting as it opened. 'THROUGH HERE!' a hoarse voice shouted.

'Oh skak,' Alaster groaned. Of course – it was the door the receptionist had bolted through! In the heat of combat, Alaster had forgotten all about it.

Even as realisation set in, a tide of panicking fanatics was pouring through the door. Just as Alaster and Patreus closed the tide ebbed, the last frantic cultist escaping through the door.

'Pursuit time,' Alaster told Patreus. 'Let's just hope they don't get lost in the building!' He had a vision of chasing a dispersing mass of Originists through the big maze of corridors and offices that this building contained. It might take hours to flush them all out!

The door banged shut. There was a rattle and a click as a lock-bolt was hastily thrown on the other side.

For just a moment, silence descended over the reception area.

Alaster glared at the locked door. 'Oh no you don't, skakking heretics!' He raised his bolt pistol and shot the lock.

The shot certainly removed the lock. It also removed a lot of the door. What was left flopped backwards. Alaster reached down to his belt, tucking his bolt pistol under one arm – yes! He had one! His free hand came up gripping a grenade.

He pushed the button, then tossed it through the door.

'One,' he said. 'Two. Three.'

There was a thud and a rumble from beyond, accompanied by several ahort and abrupt screams. A puff of smoke billowed out through the door.

'NOW!' he barked.

Alaster first, than Patreus next, the two Space Marines piled through the wrecked door. Their bolt pistols barked, spraying off rounds to each side to disorient any awaiting attackers.

The room, Alaster discovered, was another large one. For an instant he blinked, puzzled by what he was seeing. A semi-circular arc of rising tiers of seats, a bit like an amphitheatre, with a stage and a lectern at the front. Behind the stage was a big gilded Imperial eagle mounted on the wall, with a pull-down display screen above it. The entire room was panelled in rich woods and the carpet under foot was of much higher grade than the ones upstairs. The seats in the amphitheatre, Alaster noticed, existed at the luxurious interface between office-chair and leather-bound home armchair.

'We're in the council chamber,' Patreus said.

Alaster realised they were. This room was where the City Council would meet for debates and votes, under more normal circumstances. That big plush seat up at the back of the stage, the one that almost looked like a throne, was presumably was for the Mayor. The others in the tiers must be for the councillors themselves.

But these were not normal circumstances. There was a big ragged hole in the carpet and the floor beneath it, the hole dug by Alaster's grenade. Several dismembered and shredded bodies were splashed around its periphery. The rest of the room was part-filled by two dozen or so would-be Originist escapees.

They were looking around with a sense of imminent panic. Alaster realised they'd miscalculated by coming in here. The door behind the two Space Marines was the only way in! The cultists had just trapped themselves in here!

'Patreus,' Alaster said, 'block off the door! I'll start sorting this lot out!'

'With pleasure,' Patreus said. Alaster's fellow Raven planted himself in the doorway, legs apart, and contrived to look entirely immovable.

Alaster turned to the Originists. He could hear feet rustling on the carpet. Realising that they were trapped, several of them had decided it was time to charge the Space Marines. It wasn't an entirely-mad plan – they didn't have any other chances of survival at this stage. A quick rush and a bolt for the door was about the only chance they had.

Alaster raised his bolt pistol. He sighted. He pulled the trigger-

And nothing happened.

Cursing, he realised the magazine was empty. There was just time to realise it needed changing before the first of the cultists piled onto him. Alaster reversed his grip and clubbed the first on-comer with the side of his pistol. It made a satisfying crack as it connected with bone. A swing and howl of the chainsword finished off the first Originist.

Once more Alaster found himself the centre of a melee. His chainsword swung and growled and bit through flesh and muscle. He could hear Patreus's pistol barking in the background. Patreus was shooting where he could, but not aiming too close to Alaster for fear of accidentally hitting him.

Alaster felt hands grabbing and punching at him from all sides. In search of some extra advantage he fought his way toward the stage. Moments later he was at the side of it. Alaster vaulted up onto it. He landed on the wooden platform with a floorboard-shaking thump. Quickly he shoved his pistol into its holster, so he could put both hands on the housing of his blade. He'd have more control that way, and more power to his thrusts.

He had just a moment to himself up there on the stage. He found he was stood next to the lectern. Then suddenly a mass of Originist fanatics came boiling onto the stage after him. Frenzied shouts and cries billowed from their lips.

Alaster was interrupted in mid-gesture as he reached for his blade with his free hand. As an Originist swung at him he frantically killed out. Astartes ceramite boot connected with human knee, with predictable results. The attacker collapse, yowling with pain and clawing at his ruined leg. But the kick unbalanced Alaster. He staggered to one side, his free hand clutching at the lectern.

He quickly regained his footing but as he pulled his hand away, something shifted under it. Instinctively he grasped it, even as his chainsword removed another Originist head.

Alaster drew his hand back and was surprised to find that he was holding a leather-bound, hardback book. Underneath a bold and shining golden Imperial eagle, silver Gothic lettering on the front of the volume declared,



(Returning officer must retain at all times)

Alaster blinked in momentary surprise. He didn't know what he'd expected to see, but that wasn't it! But then, he supposed it was a logical enough thing to be kept in the city's administrative building.

Then more Originists were on him. Acting on instinct, Alaster took a swing – and an Originist skull was cracked by its collision with 'Procedures'. The hardback, Alaster was surprised to find, survived its unorthodox use rather better than the Originist did.

One more Originist swung a club at him. Alaster's chainsword ripped right through it, spraying shards and splinters out. The top of the dissected club flew through the air, landing with a clatter some distance away. The Originist boggled for a moment at his decapitated weapon. The man's momentary distraction gave Alaster a chance to decapitate the man as well.

He heard Patreus's bolt pistol bark twice. Then, all of a sudden, silence fell over the room. Alaster whirled, looking around. He was alone on the stage, except for a heap of broken cultist corpses. The stage was battered and there were blood-streaks all over the place. The air smelt of blood, gunsmoke and the unpleasant excrement-like scent of torn bodies.

Alaster looked down to the door. Patreus was still stood there. He was surrounded by an arc of dead Originists. As Alaster looked, Patreus was calmly and methodically changing the magazine in his pistol. Alaster scanned the rest of the room he saw lots of furniture with bullet-holes, he saw lots of broken bodies and he saw lots of dropped and abandoned clubs and a few guns, but he didn't see any other living people.

'I think we're done,' he said.

Patreus nodded. With a click, the magazine slotted into place in his pistol. 'We got them all,' he said. He looked up. 'Hey, what's with the book?'

Alaster realised he was still clutching at 'Procedures'. 'This? Oh, I just crocked a couple of the skakkers with it, that's all.' The book's spine was now a bit bent and the cover was splattered with blood, but it looked like it was otherwise still intact. Alaster carefully replaced it on the lectern, which was still standing amidst the chaos.

'We'd better go and check on the survivor,' he said.

He vaulted down from the stage, landing with a thump. A few nearby loose items rattled under the force of the impact. Alaster followed Patreus from the room. As he did he set about changing the magazine on his pistol. He slotted the empty one into a space in a pouch.

They exited the council chamber. The reception beyond had been transformed into a scene of destruction. The marble floor-tiles were cracked and scattered. The walls were pocked with bolt-craters. Plaster and debris was strewn across the floor. And everywhere there were cultist corpses. The place stank of torn meat and gunfire.

Alaster saw no sign of the receptionist. He realised he hadn't in the council chamber either. Since they hadn't seen her, presumably she hadn't stayed there once the shooting started. She was probably somewhere else in the building, hiding in some convenient bolthole.

A moment later and they were beside the designated survivor. The Originist was still unconscious, but something about his breathing suggested that he was about to come round. Alaster nudged him with a boot. The man groaned.

Alaster and Patreus levelled their bolt pistols at him.

The eyelids fluttered and blearily opened. A momentary look of confusion on the man's face gave way to sheer terror as he saw the two Space Marines.

'Don't move,' Alaster said, flatly.

The Originist wet himself. A sharp stink of urine was added to the now-unpleasant aroma of the wrecked reception. He cowered against the wall behind him, all the fire and the resistance gone.

Behind them Alaster heard feet on the stairs.

'Hmm, looks like someone's been busy,' he heard Kodos's familiar and sarcastic voice.

'Sergeant!' Alaster said, twisting round. 'We've got one – a live one!'

'Whatever for?' Kodos asked. He was halfway down the stairs. Lady Sharrow and the Magos were behind him and Nasty was taking up the rear.

'Interrogation,' Alaster said. He knew Kodos was being sarcastic, but he answered anyway.

'Yes, I know that!' Kodos growled. 'Well gather it up. We need to be on our way.'

Alaster looked back at the Originist. 'You,' he said. 'On your feet. And don't do anything clever. Keep your hands where we can see them.'

The terrified Originist shakily did what he was told.

'Out,' Alaster said, gesturing to the door.

Shaking, the man complied.

Moments later, they were all outside, in the fresh air and the bright sunlight. The tinkling of the fountain was heard before them and the sounds of the city surrounded them. They moved toward the van.

'We have a destination,' Lady Sharrow said, quickly filling in Patreus and Alaster. 'Northquarter General. It's the main district hospital for that side of the city.'

'I've been there,' Nasty put in suddenly. 'Got patched up there, the first time I got myself skakked up in a fight. They were skakking crap, though. Stitches fell out after a week!'

Ignoring him, the Inquisitor said, 'There's a doctor on their rolls. Splits her time half-and-half between A&E and – guess what? – genetic medicine. And she's called Dr Leora.'

'Wow,' Patreus said. 'Bang on!'

'It will be if we catch up with her,' the Inquisitor said grimly.

They were most of the way across the square now. The fountain was behind them. Alaster could still clearly hear the tinkling of its jets.

'Will she be there?' Alaster said. 'I mean, with the power being off and everything.'

'I made a couple of calls while you were busy,' the Inquisitor said. 'I may just have put the fear of the Emperor back into the civic power company.' She sounded smug. 'The power should be back on in an hour or so.'

'She threatened to replace all the streetlamps with human candles,' Magos Kelso remarked.

They were crossing the street now, toward the van.

'No,' Lady Sharrow said, sounding pleased with herself. 'I didn't threaten. I just made clear there'd be consequences for further misbehaviour.'

'This Leora might have scarpered by now,' Alaster said.

They mounted the curb on the other side of the street, passing into the shade of the trees that lined it.

Lady Sharrow shrugged. 'The woman very probably has. But it's not really her we're after. It's her lab that we need a look at. That might give us the proof we need.'

They reached the van.

'Everybody on,' Kodos said. 'Alaster, Patreus, keep that skakker with you. We'll deal with him when we get to Northquarter.'

The Originist wet himself again and went as pale as a sheet.

The squad, the Inquisitor, the Tech-Priest and their prisoner loaded up into the van. The doors clunked shut and the engine rumbled to life.

The van drove off, on the next leg of their critical journey.