Ariel Abel; a child of Krieg, daughter of an Imperial Commissar, and unofficial pupil of the one of the greatest men to ever serve the Commissariat. Once when I was a child, I got into a fight with a girl almost twice my size over a doll. When my father asked me what happened, I said I got attacked by a pack of thugs. I was too scared to admit that I had lost a fight, even if I was the obvious underdog. When I was twelve, I became a commissar cadet despite the insistence of tutors that I should follow the other 'little' girls into the Adepta Sorotitas. I told my detractors that my honour and dedication would not accept any other placement. The truth was, though, I didn't believe that I fitted in with the Sororitas initiates and I was convinced that they would never accept me. Even though my best friend was an initiate, I feared my faith would never be strong enough to satisfy the Ecclesiarchy. When I was fourteen, I was told by my tutors that my physical aptitude scores were so bad that they would have little choice but to fail me and transfer me to a different program, most likely the Adepta Sororitas. I bought myself breathing space by making up a story about how I had to join the Commissariat in order to avenge the death of my uncle, a fellow commissar who had been left to die by the cowardly general he had been working alongside. I think my tutor was so impressed by my gall and stubbornness that he gave me a second chance. That night I managed to convince my roommate and best friend, Verity, that it was her 'holy quest' to get my combat skills up high enough to pass. We would train long into the night practicing hand-to-hand combat and target shooting, often breaking into the training facilities or stealing dinner plates for targets. She drove me like a rented mule, hitting me with a shock maul whenever I missed a target. In retrospect, all the late-night stalking and early-morning aches were probably how the rumour about us being lesbian lovers got started. Within a year, I was the top of my class in marksmanship and fifth in hand-to-hand combat. It pulled my grade from the abyss and made me a model student once more. My tutors praised me for my grit and determination even though it was equal parts determination and intimidation. My refusal to give in and Verity's refusal to let me fail. Then, a twenty-three-year-old commissar with almost no little combat experience confronted a daemon while travelling in the warp. Through a combination of tenacity and dumb luck, not only did she survive but saved the life of a governor's daughter and possibly the entire ship. They called me a hero but I was perfectly prepared to throw every single soul on that ship into the daemon's path in my attempt to save my life. They praised me, gave me a pat on the back, and then shipped me off to aid the empire. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep for a couple of weeks.
And if at any point during those formative years anyone had somebody told me that I would one day be strolling into the heart of a cult of Chaos worshippers like I was walking to a Sunday School picnic, all at the behest of His Majesty's Inquisition, I would have had beaten them to within an inch of their miserable, ignorant lives for spouting drug induced lies about my intelligence and judgment. I had zero experience in espionage and as far as I was aware, neither did Cain. I felt as qualified for an undercover operation as an Ork for a ballet recital. So while accompanying an Inquisitor on a mission could be classified as Level One in the Stupidity Scale, having no training, experience or natural skills in subterfuge while being entrusted to employ those talents in order to successfully complete a vital stage of the operation was Level Ten Stupid. Exponential Level 10. Using the Logarithmic Scale.
Despite Hakim's repeated objections, Vail made it clear that her decision had been made. She had an odd smirk on her lips when she said that Cain had plenty of experience making people into believing falsehoods. I tried to voice my concerns, phrased so delicately that they would've shattered from a stiff breeze, but she dismissed those concerns and told me that she would take care of me. Not surprisingly, that only added to my worries rather than detract them. Vail then instructed Cain and I to return in a few hours so she could make the necessary preparations. For some odd reason I felt like the grox waiting for the butcher to finish sharpening his knife. Cain suggested I get something to eat but my appetite had gone AWOL. Instead, I sat in my quarters with a glass of amasec, trying to think of the right way to tell Inquisitor Vail that picking me was a horrible idea without making it obvious that I was petrified of failing. Failing her, failing Cain, failing myself. I had been given difficult assignments before but in most cases they were military objectives - take and hold a position, eliminate an enemy hold-out, escort a convoy, or repel invaders. I was always willing to be the hammer or the anvil in any operation. Undercover work required subtleness, charisma and creativity. Without the scarlet sash and hat, I felt as powerless as an unarmed Tau.
Perhaps it was unnerving to have an accomplished Inquisitor, one that held Cain's respect no less, expressed such a degree of confidence in me. And I have always felt that I held a reputation that was unworthy of possessing. The thought of disappointing a tutor or even a senior Commissar was stressful enough but worrying over an Inquisitor was going to burn a hole through my gut. For a moment I wondered if Cain was as nervous as me but when I thought about what Vail said. She seemed to imply that he had plenty of experience in the field. Perhaps he had done some undercover work during one of his previous joint ventures with the Inquisition. I made a mental note to seek his advice at my earliest convenience, which would have been immediately had somebody not knocked on my door.
Given my current state of mind I wasn't certain if entertaining guests of any kind was a good idea. The Emperor himself could land on my doorstep and I would probably still be too distracted to care. I had hoped if I remained silent they would go away. No such luck on that prospect however. "Commissar, open the damn door already. I know you're in there," echoed Vail's unsettlingly familiar voice. Begrudgingly I pulled myself away from my glass and opened the door for the Inquisitor, who wasted no time in inviting herself inside. "We've got a lot to do if we're going to get you ready," she announced as she walked past me, dragging behind her a pair of large suitcases.
"I think we should make that our new team motto," I remarked with complete disregard for tact. "Surely you've got somebody better qualified for this on your staff."
"I usually handle my own undercover work and the only other women in my retinue are either too strung-out or too green to handle this," Vail said. She sounded a bit annoyed that he had to explain herself or perhaps she was as uncomfortable with the idea as I was. "Listen, I appreciate modesty as much as the next person but I don't have time to nurse your confidence back to health. I picked you because you're the only person that Cain trusts and he's going to need somebody to watch his back."
"But what about N'hila? She's tailor-made for this kind of work."
"Tempting...but her gifts are best utilized assuming pre-existing identities rather than confining her to an entirely fictitious one. If necessary, we can have her assume Sinstre's identity but not until we know what he knows," Vail explained in a rather hurried fashion as she tossed her suitcases onto my bed and started unpacking. "Now if you're done with playing twenty questions we get back to saving this Emperor-forsaken hellhole"
"At least if things go wrong I'll be too dead to say 'I told you so,'" I said jokingly. The Inquisitor didn't appear to appreciate my humour. "So...what's with the luggage?"
"If our plan is going to work, we need to make you into a woman," Vail explained as she started laying out various dresses, blouses, and skirts across my bed.
"Oh Okay. No, wait. I already am one," I remarked with a touch of indignation.
"Could have fooled me," Vail quipped sarcastically, flashing me a quick smirk to let me know that she was just messing with me. "If there's one important thing to know about rich scumbags, it's that they'll follow their penis off a cliff."
"How quaint," I commented as I took a moment to examine the things that Vail had taken from her suitcase. Damn near everything seemed to be a bit, well revealing would be an understatement. I wasn't sure how my pasty-white, scrawny butt was going to attract the eye of some rich bastard who could order call girls like a junior officer orders artillery strikes (in large numbers and at the slightest bump) but I didn't have the luxury of doubt. Vail had me trying on various dresses and outfits for almost an hour while she tried to figure out how to best 'accentuate my assets,' which was as daunting of a challenge as fighting a tyranid with a wooden ladle. I hadn't worn anything resembling a dress in almost a decade and the absence of a weapon's belt and armour left me feeling unbalanced and exposed. Thankfully, I was able to at least talk my way out of high heels since no right-minded person would wear those given the planet's current condition. To put it politely, my figure was non-existent and dressing me up was akin to throwing on a lampshade and calling it a day. Vail decided that my best bet would be to go for the overly prim, proper, puritan look - I could dress a bit more comfortably plus it would hopefully make me a tempting target to an overly lecherous heretic fool. If Vail could have made me into a convincing 'sheltered schoolgirl,' she probably would have. The frilly white dress that Vail eventually decided upon was at least tasteful and none too revealing. The layered skirt was a touch oversized but I liked the idea of how many laspistols I could hide under it.
"So how does it feel?" Vail asked as she laced up the back of the dress for me.
"It's a bit tight and stiff. It feels unsettling...yet strangely liberating," I remarked while I inspected myself in a nearby mirror. The stiffness apparently was due to the dress having a bit of protection woven into the fabric. The dress was lined with a thermoplast weave, which according to Vail would take most of the heat from lasgun shot. I also noticed there were a few hidden pocket stitched into the interior of the dress. Like Vail, the dress was more combat-ready than its appearances suggested. Still, I had trouble wrapping my head around the idea of not wearing any pants, especially in a fight, and despite there being a thick curtain around my hips I could not shake that feeling that I was naked. And also that my legs were in terrible need of a shave. Now don't get me wrong, I was far from some kind of unkempt, cave-dwelling savage but the battlefield was rarely a suitable location for taking care of such grooming issues. Plus it wasn't as though I was attempting to impress anyone or would need to. For the men in the Imperial Guard, if you could get the pants off of a woman you didn't care about what state her legs were in so long as they were still attached. And speaking of hair issues, once my dress had been selected Vail took me aside to have me properly groomed. I'll skip the details but by the end of it I don't think there was a hair on me from the neck down and I felt as though I had just been worked over with a power sander. Whoever thought up of the concept of waxing needed to be loaded into a torpedo tube and launched into the nearest star.
Then came the hair styling and make-up, two more concepts that were as foreign to me as Gellar's warp theorem. Again, the battlefield wasn't the time or place for such things unless you count tucking your hair into a bun or applying a stick of camo paint. It was a good thing that Watz wasn't present to witness any of this; I would have never heard the end of it. I wasn't certain how foundation, blush, or eyeliner was going to help in the mission but Vail insisted, stating that it was the little details that spelled the difference between amateurs and professionals when it came to espionage. I still thought it would take a lot more than little details to elevate me above the status of rank amateur. The learning process was going poorly at the start - I managed to jab myself twice in the eye when trying to touch up my eyelashes and my first attempt with blush left me looking as though I was suffering from a commutable skin disease.
"I think I need some help here..." I groaned..
"No, Lord General Kuster needed 'help,' you need Divine Intervention," Vail replied with restrained disappointment. She told me to wash my face and we'd go over the instructions again. It was painfully awkward being a grown woman being taught things which I imagined were a rite of passage for most young girls in the Imperium. Obviously I missed out on such important life lessons since the closest mother figure I had during my childhood was Terri the mess cook and the administration would have frowned upon him teaching me such skills. Now despite the horrible awkwardness of make-up 101, fixing my hair was an even more painful affair, literally in this case. Combing through my hair was like combing through a minefield since gasmasks and peaked caps tend to be hostile environments for those yearning for a luscious head of hair. My hair had enough knots to double as a velcro strap and brushing them all out was a torturous affair. I suspect it was no coincidence that she chose that moment to grill me about a few issues that I imagine had been brewing in the back of her mind.
"I take that you have no issues or concerns with taking the role of Commissar Cain's wife?" Vail said as she picked up the hairbrush and got to work.
If I had any intent on trying to embellish or conceal the truth, I was far too preoccupied trying to keep my hair from becoming uprooted by Vail's vigorous combing. "I don't see why I need to be his-ow! Do you really need to pull so hard?" Vail shrugged off my remarks and continued unabated. I figured if I answered her quickly she might ease up a bit. "I don't see why I need to be his wife. Is that really necessary?"
"Well you need to be someone with great significance to him in order to make the cover story work," she explained plainly. "Wife is the most logical option and hopefully it'll add to the temptation and compel Sinstre to keep working alongside Cain. You will be the bait and hook that will keep Sinstre where we need him. You don't need to pretend to be a good wife...in fact it'll work to our advantage if you feign dissatisfaction with Cain when you get the opportunity."
"Ah, the unhappy, ow, hausfrau," I murmured in agreement.
"You'll still need to be convincing. I hope that you and Cain have a good working relationship," Vail continued, the brush strokes becoming notably firmer at the same time. "I imagine the two of you have had to work quite closely in the past."
"It is as professional as it is harmonious," I replied. "We work well together because we share similar philosophies and goals. Is there something about us that trouble you Inquisitor?" The saying goes that the best defence is a good offence so I figured a bit of counter-questioning might be prudent. It would hopefully take some of the heat off of me or I would learn firsthand how to kill somebody with a hairbrush.
"I need to make sure that this operation goes without a hitch," Vail said in an expert deflection. "I can coach you and Cain beforehand but once you two on in the field you'll only have each other to rely upon. Failure will mean the death of both of you and I do not intend to lose a valuable asset of the Imperium." I assumed the 'asset' meant Cain since a Hero of the Imperium wasn't something you could just requisition from the Munitorium. I, however, pegged myself as being part of the 'acceptable losses' category. "Your hair is an absolute mess Abel. Haven't you ever heard of shampoo?"
"The last time I had a bottle of shampoo somebody used it to degrease engine components."
"I saw a bottle in your bathroom."
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to maintain authority when your head smells like a bouquet of calliums? It came with the room, that's all."
As to be expected, Vail told me to make use of it at my earliest convenience. I still disliked the idea of having my head smelling someone's garden but I reminded myself that my new mission required me to become someone starkly different from my usual self. I made a mental note that if at any point in the mission I became confused as to what I should do, I was to think of what I would normally do in that situation and then do the exact opposite. How hard could that be?
After some more hair tugging and a few more pointers about how to be 'lady-like,' Vail told me to shower up and get properly dressed. A mission briefing was going to be held in the conference room in about an hour and, for a change, it was important that I attended. Apparently the former occupant of my room had a number of soaps and washes and beauty products that she must have left behind in her haste to get away from the warzone. Many of the items in question were things I had never even heard of, let alone fathom how people thought up of them. One of the body washes had in big, bright letters 'made with the essence of gaocomolle,' which I suspect was the weird, gangly purple fruit that was displayed on the bottle. It was moments like those that made me thankful that I was in the commissariat and not a civilian. True, there was the constant threat of being disintegrated or digested but I couldn't imagine how dull life could be if your selection of fruit essence was an important decision in your day. It was bizarre, almost alien, how they could be of the same species and yet their world seemed so inconceivably foreign to me. And now I was required to pretend to be one of these flat-faced, slack-jawed, inbred, vapid humanoids. It gave me something to think about as I lathered, rinsed, and repeated. Normally I spent more time cleaning my laspistols than my hair so I found myself forcing myself to keep grooming. I didn't even put in that degree of effort when I prepared for parade inspections and again I was left wondering how normal people could put so much effort into something so fleeting.
I emerged from the shower smelling like a combination of a fruit salad and a flower bush. Perhaps if my olfactory nerves hadn't so confused by my new fragrance I wouldn't have missed the distinct aroma of fresh tea in the air. I did not, however, miss the Eldar sitting on my couch.
"Morning Ariel, I must say I love what you've done with your hair."
"Your pistols are over there if you want to make a run for it," he said, gesturing to my belt with the tea cup he held.
"Should I even bother at this point?" I sighed in defeat. I was certain that even if I did manage to make it to my pistols without being knocked out he probably had the power cells removed or the triggers sabotage or he'd simply be gone. He was taunting me because he knew there was nothing I could do wearing only a pink bath robe. I noticed that Kael happened to have a second cup of tea sitting on the table in front of him so at least he was nice enough to pour me a cup in the meantime. "What are you doing here anyways?" I asked as I took a seat on the couch and picked up the tea.
"I figured if you were going on a dangerous undercover operation I would give what help I could given that I do have some experience in the field," he answered with a friendly smirk.
"How in the warp do you already know about that?" I exclaimed, almost spilling my tea in the process.
"Simple, I bugged your hat when I delivered the flower," he said nonchalantly.
"You son of a bitch! You've been spying on me?"
"It was the only way to ensure your safety." Unfortunately, I wasn't sure which fact annoyed me further - the fact that I had been used unwittingly as his informant (an act that I would execute a soldier over) or the fact that I probably would've been killed had it not been for the bug and his intervention. I was half-tempted to throw my tea at him but all I would have accomplished was leaving a brownish stain on my couch that I would have trouble explaining to people later. Obviously, I refrained from telling anybody about Kael's little spy device. Cain and Kasteen might have been forgiving but I knew with almost certainty that Vail or Hakim would not extend the same leniency. No point in volunteering for the firing squad, especially when there was still a mission to accomplish. "Now would you like your gifts or are you just going to keep waving your tea at my in anger?"
I simply let out a defeated sigh and sank into the couch. There was no way I was going to talk my way out of this so I figured I might as well hear him out. "Fine...what is it?" I asked despairingly.
"Well I must say you can certainly pull off the rich socialite look but you are lacking one of the things I've seen on every rich tourist that I had in my shop back on Magnus Viridis," Kael explained as he set his tea down and reached into the depths of his cloak. "And that is shiny metal things adorned with big, honking stones," he said as he set a jewelled necklace and bracelet on the table. "Frankly I don't quite see the appeal but apparently women go nuts for these things."
"Is there a point to these?" I asked as I picked up the necklace. It consisted of a tear-shaped blue gem about the size of my thumb suspended on a gold chain. Obviously I knew little of jewelry other than the correlation between its cost and how shiny it was. And this little rock was very, very shiny. I did not, however, think that Kael had picked these up at any ordinary jeweller. "I assume it's more than, just because they go well with your eyes."
Kael merely chuckled as he directed my attention to the stone on the end of the gold chain. "As you might recall me mentioning earlier, my ability to delve into the sea of fates is being mired by a potent psyker. I don't know the full extent of his abilities but if he's a potent telepath as well then your mission could be jeopardized. That stone projects an aura of...well, let's call it the psychic equivalent of white noise. It'll keep your thoughts from drifting away without making it obvious that you're interfering with his abilities. Most experienced agents can learn how to keep their thoughts disseminated but you obviously don't have the time to learn that skill. It doesn't offer complete protection because that would tip-off a skilled psyker."
"But it will keep a psyker from looking at me and realizing that I'm lying to his face?" I asked for clarification. "Shouldn't Commissar Cain get one as well?"
"Cain has that...skill. He's capable of keeping a psyker from catching his surface thoughts so don't worry. Plus do you really think Miss Vail would permit my assistance?" Kael did have a valid point there. Cain might give the Eldar the benefit of the doubt if I made a strong case for them but with the Inquisition present then I'd have to keep Kael's assistance a little secret. Cain's sense of duty would demand that he inform the Inquisition of Kael's offer and I couldn't put my fellow commissar into such a compromising position. "Also, the pendant will warm slightly when you're in the presence of psychic energy which you can feel for yourself."
Though I did not doubt his words, Kael placed the pendant into the palm of my end just to demonstrate. True to his word, the stone was reacting to his psychic energies and possessed a subtle warmth to it, like a warm flush after a glass of amasec. "And the bracelet?"
"Think of it as a lighthouse in the psychic fog," Kael explained even though it served poorly as one. "You and Cain will walking alone into the heart of madness itself. It will help me watch over you." He paused monetarily when I shot him a skeptical glare and quickly picked up on what was bothering me. "I realize that it's a bit...inappropriate given that I've just admitted to spying on you and your colleagues but...well, I will do whatever it takes to uphold my duty to prophecy and my people. Surely you can understand the importance of duty." Once again the master manipulator knew exactly which buttons to push with me as I found myself nodding silently almost immediately. Considering how well Kael was able to run rings around both the Imperial Guard and the Tau back on Magnus Viridis, there was a slight degree of comfort in knowing that the same brilliant mind would be helping me out. Talent, however, was never an issue with the Eldar in my opinion for what they lack in numbers they compensated with technology and warpcraft. The issue with any Eldar is that you can depend on them like you can depend on your intelligence officer - at least going in alone you won't wind up disappointed.
"I guess I can use whatever help I can get at this point," I said reluctantly. Many would argue that it was very naive of me to accept help from a xeno based solely on that reason but my instincts with Kael rarely steered me wrong. If anything, the only thing I underestimated was the magnitude of what Kael's protection entailed. What I had seen of Kael's abilities was limited and though what Vail described was impressive, it was hard to fathom that kind of power purely by word of mouth. What one of the most lasting lessons I learned on Erebus was that beneath the calm, controlled exterior of the Eldar seer masked by a whimsical, almost jester-like attitude, was an ocean of distilled rage. And with a whim, he could drown all of Erebus with it. Yet every time I saw the man I was still intent on trying to put a laser bolt between his eyes. I would have been safer using an unexploded earthshaker round as a dinner bell.
"I suppose I should take my leave so you can return your mission," Kael suddenly announced before finishing off the last of his tea. With any other person I would have been puzzled by the sudden departure but with Kael it was to be expected. Most likely his narrow window of safe passage through our territory was closing or he had some other absurd prophecy to chase after. I neither knew nor care since he wouldn't have given me a straight had I asked.
"Any last second advice for a novice who can barely pass off as a credible commissar?"
"A change in career perhaps? Have you considered hotel doorman, you've already got the coat and hat."
"I meant for the mission you pointy-eared twit!"
"Oh right," he replied jokingly. He paused in mock contemplation, likely just drawing out what would have otherwise been a quick response. Clearly he was simply trying my patience in his usual, irritating fashion. "Despite it being the 'enlightened' forty-first millennium, a rich merchant is still little more than an egotistical misogynist who indulges in childish whims. Universally they always assume the same two things about women: that they are helpless and that they will be attracted to him."
"So I have to seduce the bastard? I'm not sure I'll be able to keep my lunch down," I groaned at the mere thought of what I might have to do. Asking me to die for the Emperor was one thing...but seducing a heretic? I would rather be violated by a lictor.
"Play innocent," he answered as he headed for the door. "And suffice to say Miss Abel, please do be careful. Psykers are always a wild card."
Politeness dictates that I should have said 'thanks' to some extent but even if I had Kael did not stick around to listen for it. He departed as quickly as he came, leaving me with my thoughts and some jewelry of questionable value and sanctity. I would have little time to dwell on either matters, however, as a few minutes later I received a call from Commissar Cain to report to the briefing room.
As with most meetings involving the Inquisition, there were only a handful of us present - the two Inquisitors, one stern and grim-faced as always and the other enjoying what appeared to be some freshly made pastries; N'hila, who I was slightly relieved to see back in active service; my new 'husband,' freshly shaved and sporting a very expensive silk-lined trenchcoat; and myself, feeling quite out of place wearing a dress in the middle of a military installation.
"I must say Commissar Abel I almost did not recognize you for a moment," Cain said, being the first to notice my arrival. I'm certain that he was simply trying to be polite since process of elimination alone made it obvious who I was. "That's an interesting pendant you have by the way. I wasn't aware you could afford something like that on a commissar's salary." I knew any hope of nobody noticing the new jewelry I wore would be short-lived, especially as the blue stone stood out against the white fabric.
"Watz found it in one of the empty rooms in my building," I lied. The building I was using was once an Administratum hab-spire so there it was entirely possible somebody who once lived there had expensive jewelry. Part of me suspected Cain didn't quite believe me but he didn't press the issue further. If he did suspect Kael, he wasn't going to out me in front of the Inquisitors or he'd have to start doing his paperwork again. "Now I know Commissar Cain and I are newly-weds but I imagine there's more to our brilliant plan than that. Mr. Sinstre lives in a fortress, not a hotel."
"The plan is fairly straight-forward," Vail began, wiping a few pastry flakes from her lips with a napkin. "Sinstre is too cautious to leave somebody as important as Flavius drifting in the wind. He'll make a move when an opportunity presents itself." At first I thought it would be a simple matter of baiting Sinstre into the open but that didn't fit with the need for cover identities. Secondly, Sinstre wouldn't be dumb enough to come out into the open. There was no way we'd be that lucky either. "Our friends in the Adeptus Arbites have arranged for Flavius to be transported with minimum security as to avoid drawing attention."
"I'm guessing that our Arbite friends have made sure only the right people were informed," Cain remarked with a subtle smirk. Those 'right people' would be members of the local law enforcement that were suspected of being in Mr. Sinstre's pocket. Again, being the cautious type meant that even with half of the world in ruins, Sinstre would make sure he still had ears on the inside to protect what assets he had remaining. Since the only other people who knew Flavius was in our custody were either dead or xeno, it was easy to falsify the necessary documents to make it appear the accountant had been brought in by the locals. Vail made it sound a bit more complex than it actually was but the basic plan was for Sinstre to ambush the prison transport while on route but instead of Flavius they would find me.
"And how exactly does finding me help?" I asked with understandable concern. Without Flavius, whoever ambushes the transport might not be too pleased with the outcome.
"Because you're Lady Abigail Winchester. You're young, pretty, rich, and most importantly, very gracious to whoever springs you loose from the horrible fate that awaited you at the hands of the Adeptus Arbites," Vail explained as though the answer should have been obvious. At least the name was decent enough. "With any luck, you'll be taken back to his fortress or at least to a secondary hide-out."
"And where is my darling husband during all of this?" I asked, playing with the words in order to get used to my new relationship.
"Lord Horatio Winchester the Third will be launching his own ambush on a prison transport in hopes of rescuing you but will instead find Flavius," Vail answered. "With both sides in possession of something the other wants, we have our way bringing Cain and Sinstre together. From there you might have to improvise a bit but basically Lord Winchester is noble merchant from a nearby sector also looking to capitalize on the recent turmoil. Unlike Sinstre, who has to keep a low profile, Winchester is free to use his merchant fleet to move goods in and out of the system. No doubt the presence of more Imperial Guard is stressing Sinstre's supply lines and will thus make Winchester a desirable asset." The key obstacle with Sinstre had always been making first contact. He would be too paranoid to just waltz up to him so the guise of a chance opportunity that makes it seem like Sinstre is in complete control will make it easier for us to get close.
"As you both know," Hakim began, "time is not on our side. Until we know for certain, we have to assume that Sinstre is closing in on his main objective." An objective that we also had no clue as to what it was. Again, the Eldar made it sound like it had something to do with Erebus' Titan legion but an astropathic message with the words 'don't go to Erebus' would solve that problem. There was still a piece of the puzzle missing and it left an uneasy feeling in my gut. Despite not having a precise timeline, Hakim was adamant that we move forward with our plan as soon as possible in order to gather as much intelligence as possible. "Once inside, you are to earn his trust and gather as much information as to the exact nature of their plans. If possible, work yourself into a key position in his plan or disrupt their plans when the opportunity presents itself. Once sufficient information has been collected, Commissar Cain will send a signal using a transceiver in his belt. Upon receiving this signal, a combined force of Inquisitional stormtroopers and elements of the 597th will launch an assault on the compound to purge any heretics and apprehend Sinstre if possible."
"Might I inquire to N'hila's role in our mission? Her skills seem ideal for this sort of mission," I asked as the question had been lingering on my mind since I had been handed this assignment.
"N'hila is still being vetted," Vail explained bluntly. "I've expedited the process but it'll still be a few days before I trust her enough to let her loose again. If she's cleared, then she'll be sent in to run support. It might take her a few days but eventually she'll infiltrate the fortress on her own and rendezvous with you and Commissar Cain. We also can't rule out the possibility that Sinstre will be expecting a Callidus assassin thanks to the mole in Hakim's entourage." Vail's added emphasis at the end was not missed by her fellow Inquisitor and judging by his clenching fists there was nothing that Hakim could do in retaliation. I knew I had to stop taking pleasure in watching Hakim's reactions but it was difficult not to.
Thankfully, Hakim managed to maintain his composure enough to continue the briefing without letting his annoyance reflect in his voice. "Now I don't need to remind you of the dangers you may encounter. We have no intel on what's inside the compound and you could encounter any number of heretical depravities or rituals. You will have only your faith and willpower to defend yourself against whatever temptations they might throw against you. This planet and your very souls will depend upon the strength of your resolve." Normally I'd say that Inquisitors had a tendency to be over-dramatic about their missions and the potential consequences but in this case he was dead accurate. And I came within a hair's breadth of losing both.
The rest of the briefing was going over basic logistics and ensuring that Cain and I had our cover stories memorized. Cain must have been given a copy already since he had all the details squared away already. At least reading over the profiles gave me something to do while Cain discussed some of the details of his role with the Inquisitors. The profile described Abigail as absent-minded and docile, an admirer of fine antiquities and luxury, weak-willed, and timid. In short, you're average, run-of-the-mill rich girl with more substance within her bosom than her skull. It wasn't quite the role I was born to play but I figured it couldn't be that hard to play an airhead. After all, all I had to do was act and not think about what I was doing. It was like being a spoiled child, which might have been an easier prospect if my childhood had anything resembling that. It's hard to be spoiled when living in the schola on Krieg where essentially nothing belonged to you, not even the clothes on your back.
I was still engrossed in the profile of the vapid airhead I had to become when Vail dismissed us with instructions for me to report to the motor pool. With regards to the plan, I still had my apprehensions but I said nothing on my way out. I had convinced myself that my worries were stemming from the selfish viewpoint that for the next couple of days it was my arse that was hanging in the wind with no support of any kind if things went awry (no Imperial support that is). Besides, as a loyal servant of the Emperor it was my duty to heed the call of the Inquisition, even if that call was just to bait the hook. Vail could have chosen anybody to serve as a snotty-nosed noble brat but she felt that it was best to call upon me for the task. That was something to be proud of, wasn't it?
The correct and short response to that question should have been 'no.'
To say that I was nervous was a gross understatement. My stomach felt like it had just been squeezed and twisted by a dreadnought. I was about to embark on a huge undertaking and I could not feel more unprepared if they had sent me in armed with only a dinner fork. Before my worrisome thoughts could consume me further, Cain tapped my shoulder. "Commissar Abel, are you even listening to me?" he said as he spun me about-face.
In all my worrying, I had failed to notice that Cain had been trying to get my attention since we had stepped out of the briefing room. "What? Oh...uh, m-my apologies Commissar Cain," I quickly replied once I had realized my folly. He must have already knew what had my thoughts so distracted since he didn't take offence to my inattentiveness. "Is something wrong sir?"
"I just wanted to make sure that you were comfortable with everything," Cain said with a hint of concern. "If you don't feel you can handle this mission, I can probably convince Inquisitor Vail to stay the mission until N'hila has been vetted."
"No!" I blurted unexpectedly, surprising even myself. "Er, what I mean to say is that I can handle this. I won't let you down." I might not have been comfortable with being used as bait and having to play buddy to heretical scum but I wasn't about to openly admit to anyone, least all the Inquisition, that I had self doubts. I still didn't like the plan but by Holy Terra I wasn't about to let N'hila and Cain take all the glory. If anything, I felt a renewed sense of determination and I was going to prove myself if I had to straggle the answers out of Sinstre myself. In hindsight, I suspect Cain said those words to me with the intention of provoking those feelings from me. He knew me all too well it seemed, even that early on in our career.
"Good to hear," Cain said, satisfied with my rejuvenated confidence. "Now there is one other little thing we need to address."
"Oh? And what is that?" I asked with a strange sense of foreboding brewing inside.
"Well, we're going to be handing you over the local arbites and they don't exactly have a reputation for being...gentle. In an undercover operation, every little detail to aid a cover identity is important so we need you to look like you have been...mishandled. Authentically.
I was beginning to like the plan less and less but I couldn't go back on my words now. Besides, it wasn't like I hadn't had to endure a little pain in the name of the Emperor before. At the very least I knew that there was no malice behind his actions. "I understand," I said after a small sigh and a curt nod. He nodded in response and silently slipped on some leather gloves so my face didn't commit the audacity of scuffing his knuckles. "Just in case I forget to say this afterwards - ouch."
In my many years of being flung across the galaxy in service to the Emperor I have been involved in a number of unsavoury schemes and plans. And to be perfectly honest, the plan that started with me getting punched in the face by Commissar Cain was hardly the worst plan I've ever been involved with. Once Cain concocted a plan against a pack of Orks that involved me putting on a red floral dress and dancing the Macarian two-step through a minefield. I might not of agreed to his plan so readily had I not been doped up on a cocktail of stims, painkillers, and hallucinogenic plant nectar.
After Cain had finished making me look presentable, I was put in chains and ushered off to be handed over the local authorities for transport. I suspect that few people within the local force knew of my true identity or the real purpose of my transport, otherwise they probably would have been a bit gentler with me. Cain did not exaggerate when he said they had a reputation as I was constantly shoved, prodded, talked down to during the brief fifteen minutes it took from my hand-off to being loaded into the transport. They were also thoughtful enough to shove my head into an old bag that smelled like sweat and vomit so I was stumbling blindly through their facility halls, directed only by the occasional jab by a rifle butt or baton. Before my arrival I had some pangs of guilt that these men were being used as pawns in our grand schemes. My escorts were completely unaware that we were setting them up for an ambush and will in all likelihood be killed in the process. It was a necessary sacrifice, I told myself, to ensure that my rescue was believable. However, that feeling changed by the time I was loaded into the transport truck where I was fully prepared to castrate the next person to poke my arse with a baton. Rarely in my life have I been so relieved to be shoved into a tiny metal box and left in isolation.
Alas, I was soon wishing they had taken the bag off of my head and not just because it smelled like the backside of an ogryn. When you suffer from mild claustrophobia, all it takes is the illusion of being in a tight space for your nerves to start eating away at you. When I was up and walking (and not getting knocked about) it was easy to keep in mind that I was in an open space. The holding cell of a transport truck, however, was a little bit more cramped as the interior was divided into six separate holding cells, each of which was just barely large enough to seat an adult male. Even with my head in a sack, I could feel the dimensions of my new cell with my shoulders and legs. The cell couldn't have been more than three feet in either dimension and about six feet in height. All in all, it was enough to get my heart pacing a little bit but I knew if I remained seated and kept envisioning big, open fields then I would be okay.
"The least they could've done is wash this bag once in a while," I muttered to myself as the truck started on its way. The ride comfort was to be expected from a metal box driving across a half-ruined forgeworld. Thankfully I was able to push against the walls with my legs to keep steady as potholes and debris jostled the truck from side to side. As the minutes dragged by, I pondered how Sinstre's people would launch their assault on the transport. We hadn't given them a great deal of time to prepare so whatever their plan, it would be in haste and quite messy. Their easiest option would be to make an impromptu roadblock and the hijack the drivers or they could disable the vehicle with a few high-powered rounds into the tires. I could have thought of about a dozen other possible scenarios but the next thing I knew the entire truck was upside down, there was a loud ringing in my ears and smoke was coming into the holding cell. Honestly, I was a little disappointed that they went with the crude 'mine on the road' option but that could have been a side-effect of the ear-splitting headache I now had. Being thrown about by explosions tends to be me a tad cranky. Still, I thought it was rather odd they went with such a reckless tactic. I could have easily been killed!
Thankfully, I still had a simple rebreather mask on so I didn't have to worry about choking on the smoke or the atmosphere once outside. I had just finished getting straightened out when I heard a a couple of gunshots from the other side of the cell door, blasting a hole through the lock. The last shot even punched through the door, striking the wall near my head. What kind of rescue operation was this? That was twice now that I had almost been killed by their recklessness. I wondered what insanity was running through their minds and I was considering all the possible reasons for their carelessness right up to the point when the door swung open and someone fired two shots into my chest.
And that's when it occurred to me; this was never intended to be a retrieval.