I woke to someone prodding my shoulder. It was thick finger, dispassionately insistent, and then the bastard flicked the lights on. On account of being the only woman among the security detail I had a private bunk. It was barely side enough for two people to stand side by side and half of that was taken up by my bunk, but it was mine. I'd been serving as the muscle for this particular merchant vessel for about four years now and quite enjoyed my job. My experience in the Guard meant I know how to hold a gun and my days bailing my employer's captain out of bar fights meant I know how to sucker-punch someone. My employer was far too prudent to require such babysitting. Our ship's captain was not. Fortunately, his piloting did not mirror his ground behavior, but I suspected that was mostly because our ship didn't so much as sail through the void as it wallowed. It was a merchant's vessel, after all. Regardless, it was a steady paycheck and far less dangerous. My rifle wasn't blessed by tech-priests, but it worked just fine for my purposes.
I threw my arm over my eyes and blearily tried to peer out with one, willing them to adjust to the sudden light. The man loomed over my bunk, arms crossed, backlit and casting a welcome shadow across my face.
"Shady Bruin. Your record shows you were honorably discharged from the Imperial Guard," he said and his voice fairly boomed in the small room. I couldn't tell if he was angry or if he always sounded like this. "On account of being tampered with by an alien psyker. I require your service anyway and should you prove unreliable, than by the Emperor, I'll put a bullet in your skull. I expect you on the flight deck in an hour."
That was how I met Inquisitor Marrishike.
The Kingfisher – that was our ship's name – sometimes took on passengers. It wasn't meant for such a thing but since we ran with a fairly small crew a number of the rooms had been repurposed for passenger quarters. Our captain was fairly select in who he accepted on-board. It was generally militant sorts, people who understood this was not a luxury ship and wanted to travel discreetly. Unfortunately, that often attracted the wrong types of passengers. They paid well. Criminals and Imperial agents often did. It didn't make for easy traveling company and my only consolation is that those types often stuck to themselves. I knew we had an Inquisitor on-board but as his type was prone to, he did not mingle and no one in their right mind sought him out. I hadn't even seen him until this point and wasn't sure how he'd gotten my name, much less my records. Or why, for that matter.
One did not simply ignore an inquisitor, however. As ordered, I was up and dressed and on the flight deck within an hour. When Marrishike walked over I even snapped to attention. Old habits died hard. The Inquisitor looked to be in his early fifties, still fit, wiry with muscle that came from necessity rather than intent. His gray hair was cut close to the skull in a standard military buzz. He was broad-shouldered and combined with a heavy jacket of black, adorned with Imperial seals, it gave him a formidable air. Everything about him was imposing. He had a gun at his belt, a sword across his back, and a rifle under one arm. His narrow eyes looked me up and down.
"Your captain and your record indicate you have sniper training," he said, "I am requisitioning that talent for when we make landfall. I need to move fast and I don't have the time to find talent planet-side."
In other words: he'd settle for damaged goods. I felt my indignation rising to the surface and frantically tried to quell the rebellious look in my eyes. He was an Inquisitor. One didn't resent an Inquisitor, not if you valued your life.
"Do you have something to say?" he asked. Apparently I had failed in hiding my emotions.
"Sir," I said tightly, "The incident with the elder was six years ago. I think anything they did is long gone."
His eyebrows rose slightly and he assessed me with a cold disapproval.
"If you think that, than you clearly don't understand the eldar."
"It was my impression – sir – that a guardswoman such as myself shouldn't try to understand the alien."
I was sincerely pushing it now. I had lived under the discharge long enough though and even though it had been delivered to me impassively, it hurt. 'We don't want you,' it said, 'We don't trust you. You're broken. You're more than useless – you're a liability.' I had nightmares for almost a year and a half after. I'd wake in the morning, tangled in my bed, and curl in on myself and cry. The eldar had not done this. Anything he had left in my mind had been rooted out and examined by the psyker, who then turned around and declared me unfit for service as a result. No, these scars were self-inflicted from the shock of being used and discarded by both the eldar and the Imperial Guard. They were left to rot and fester they did. I had told no one about what the eldar had done to me.
Marrishike was silent for a moment. Then he laughed. I could only stare in bemusement.
"True," he chuckled, "Very true. That's why Inquisitors exist. You may have been discharged from the Guard, Shady, but you can still serve the Emperor. I will see to it."
Fantastic. He gestured for me to follow and led me to a small ship, one of the few that was docked in the belly of the Kingfisher. It wasn't meant for travel through the warp, but it was fast and Marrishike explained that since we had dropped out of the warp he intended to make the last leg of the journey in his own ship and leave the Kingfisher behind. It'd catch up. He didn't want to wait any longer in his hunt. What, exactly, we were hunting was left unsaid. I wasn't surprised. I was just a stupid guardswoman. We didn't need to know more than what we were shooting at.
The Inquisitor had a pilot who barely looked back at us. The ship was a decent size with a common area and a few doors that surely led to an infirmary or bunkrooms. The Inquisitor hovered over the pilot's shoulder and I hovered in the hall just outside. The pilot was a skinny man, nervous in his movements, but seemingly well-at-ease with his employer. I wondered what sort of person could stand working with an Inquisitor for long. I had barely been around him for more than a handful of minutes and I was twisted up with nerves. He brought back memories I had tried to bury, things I told myself I was over. I marveled at the ease in which I adopted a Guard's mindset. The resignation towards the inevitable, the willingness to go where ordered without question. It made me wonder if perhaps I had never truly left the Guard, if I'd just been killing time all along and waiting to be asked to return, like some abandoned pet that hadn't gotten the hint that it was no longer wanted.
Some Commissars would have had me shot to ensure I couldn't be used as a weapon by the eldar. To ensure I wasn't some ticking time-bomb. Perhaps there was a reason for this – perhaps once a Guard, always a Guard, and death would be a mercy rather than this half-life of mine.
Marrishike watched us depart from the Kingfisher and then gave the pilot terse instructions to notify him when we were planetside. Our destination was one of three hub cities. I found it curious that Marrishike was picking the one that was on the far side of the planet. Whatever he was looking for, it was either in or close to that city. Unfortunately, I didn't know much of this planet and I told the Inquisitor so. He had left the pilot to his job and was now seated in the tiny common area inspecting his weapons.
"It's a standard Imperial world," he replied, "Average tech-level, strong Imperial presence, gravity and atmospheric conditions are close enough to Earth-standard that you won't notice anything different."
"The tech-priests recruit heavily from here. They've done some terraforming."
And the Inquisitor had business here. Business that required a sniper. I felt the flutter of nerves in my belly.
"So what are we looking for?" I asked.
Marrishike only gave me a severe look. His frown could have chiseled marble, for how sharp it was.
"I need to know what to shoot at."
"You'll know," he only replied. It was apparent that was all I was going to get from him. Dourly, I sat down and absorbed myself with stripping down my gun and putting it back together. That one phrase actually told me a lot. If it were obvious, it meant that whatever Marrishike was chasing would not be able to pass very easily in normal society. That meant one of two things: chaos or aliens.
I hated both options.