Shell Case Shorts 2 Winner

The winner of the second Shell Case Shorts was a tough call between two entries. Both were well crafted engaging stories but in the end it had to be Hive Walker by Dave Cahill (@d_cahill). A film noir set in Hive Primus of Necromunda it’s in quite a different vein than one would expect but it still manages to evoke the grim reality of life in the 41st Millennium. It sits nicely alongside last month’s winning entry The Bone Carver by Patrick Burdine, who, as it goes was this month’s runner-up.

Patrick’s story was a great opening gambit to a much wider story and I’d love to see it fleshes out into a novella because all the pieces were there. But, as they say, there can be only one winner, and so I give you this month’s winning entry:

Hive Walker by Dave Cahill

A Watchman pounding on my office door was hardly news. My work as an enquirer sometimes invited attention from the Emperor’s own. Bribes would only get you so far; a new recruit who didn’t yet understand how the Hive functions, a commander freshly rattled by his superiors and so on. Any number of dents could arise in my somewhat grey relationship with the Hive Law, leading to dents in my door.

The look on the man’s face though, that was new. He was young, his armour still sitting heavy on his shoulders, not moulded to his body in the manner of an experienced officer, his eyes lacking the cold, detached look they so prided themselves on – always striving for the far grimmer countenance of the Enforcers. In fact, he looked nervous and almost…sympathetic? Something was up.

“Citizen Mak Talton.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes sir, at the Watch’s convenience and service, as ever.” Pays to fawn sometimes.

The young Watchman just looked embarrassed.

“Sergeant Jarrak sent me.”

Jarrak and I went back a ways, had a good working relationship, so far as an enquirer and a well-bribed Watch officer could. Odd that he hadn’t come himself.

“Ah. What can I do for the Sergeant, sir?”

“I’m afraid it’s your father. There’s been an… incident.”

Ah Throne. What had the old bastard done now?

“Sir, I can assure you, no harm or disrespect was intended – he’s an old man, his wounds, he sometimes has trouble-”

“It’s not-”

“I can redress any damage he’s-”

“Citizen, your father is dead.”

I noticed his left boot was worn, the armaplas plating over the instep dented and scratched where it wrapped down to the armoured sole. Administratum recycling equipment again, few supplies making it this far down-hive. I wondered what had become of the boot’s previous owner. Senior enough to rate fresh gear from a rare resupply? Transferred up-hive? Or just dead?

Dead. He’d said the old bastard was- “Sir, what? Terra.”

I sat down heavily on the nearest hard surface, which turned out to be the floor plating. The young officer’s dented boots shifted uncomfortably in front of me.

“I regret your loss, citizen. Sergeant Jarrak asked me to convey his similar sentiments. Unfortunately he is currently… indisposed.”

“Indisposed? What happened?” Work the details. Focus.

“The Sergeant is in the Infirmary. He was injured in the same incident where your father… ah…” Still nervous.

“What incident? When-”

“There was an accident last night. Down-hive, near TrussTown. A partial dome collapse after a localised hivequake. Your father was fatally injured, Sergeant Jarrak was also hurt”.

What the hell was the old bastard doing that far down? He’d never…

“I see. Thank you, sir.” An awkward pause.

“The Emperor protects, citizen.”

“The Emperor protects.”

The young Watchman cleared his throat, turned and strode back out into the dome.

I sat on the cold metal floor for another few minutes, feeling the thousand tiny vibrations that bled through the Hive’s structure every second of every day. The Hive had a heartbeat – the interplay of layer after layer of tunnels and domes, millions of citizens and vast ancient machinery spilling and singing through the countless billions of tons of adamantium and rockcrete that formed this man-made mountain. In places you could feel it as a tiny background sensation if you concentrated, in some tunnels and shafts the Hive practically shimmered with it. Right then it seemed to ebb and flow rhythmically. Soothing, almost.

******

I still remember the day he left with the Guard regiment. I can’t have been more than thirteen years old, standing in the doorway of our small hab in the lower reaches of Hive City. He placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezed. His flak armour creaked and rustled as he bent close. He reached down and pressed something into my palm. An aquila pendant, one wing broken. His pendant, that I’d seen him clutch in the dome’s Imperial chapel for as long as I could remember. One night, drunk on Wildsnake a travelling peddler had brought up from the Underhive, he told me that pendant had belonged to my mother, long-dead and as much a myth to my young mind as the sky or the Emperor’s Astartes. He never spoke of her again.

“Work hard and stay safe where you can, son. Trust in the God-Emperor. I’ll be back someday.”

Even as a boy, I knew well what the likelihood of that was. I resumed my work in the manufactory, and Hive life carried on, as it has done for thousands of years. Ten years later, I left the reclamatorium supervisor’s post and began work as an enquirer, hunting information and tracking knowledge for those in need. Those in need with access to credits, at least. His face faded and blurred in my memory, though his broken aquila still rested around my neck.

But he did return, twenty years on, almost to the day. A changed man, scarred, grim, still suffering from wounds received in action against Chaos cultists on Terra knew what hell planet. It was obvious to anyone that the worst wounds weren’t physical. The once genial man was prone to dark, silent moods and bursts of disoriented rage.

He settled in the outskirts of the dome, in a ramshackle hab not far from the edge of a void. The isolation and the wide emptiness seemed to suit him, and his meagre Imperial Guard pension kept him in drink. I visited the old bastard from time to time, and we maintained a relationship of sorts. I wouldn’t say that we were close anymore, but he was the only father I ever had, and I his only son. We shape what the Hive leaves us.

 ******

The office door sealed with a hiss as I headed out into the dome. I liked the outdoors. Some hivers were troubled by the emptiness and open spaces of larger domes, but I had always felt a certain peace out in the open, the giant girders and plates of the ceiling almost out of sight overhead, light filtering down from a thousand different sources, the feel of the Hive wind shifting over my face. Sometimes the Hive’s heartbeat felt stronger out in the open spaces, the vibration passing up through my boots and reminding me that I was a part of something larger than I could imagine, much like Necromunda was just one planet of a vast Imperium.

Today though, my mind was elsewhere, more shaken by the news of the old bastard’s sudden death than I’d care to admit. I would have to claim the body and organise a burial slot in a suitable Wall, before the reclamatoria got their hands on him. First I wanted to know what had happened – the Watch hadn’t exactly been forthcoming. TrussTown was some ways down-hive, bordering the upper reaches of the Underhive. I passed through often enough in the course of my work, but he hadn’t any connections down there that I knew of.

Sergeant Jarrak. I had to talk to Jarrak. The Infirmary loomed ahead, sharply arched windows gazing down over the square, the tall edifice framed by two giant ducts that ran up into the darkness. As I neared the building, the Hive’s subtle vibration seemed to shift and become stronger, setting my teeth on edge and making me dizzy. Grief and stress could do strange things to a man’s imagination. The disorientation became worse, and I dropped to one knee, snarling and pressing my palms down into the trash-loam. Then the building exploded.

******

I left the dome and headed down-hive, my ears still ringing from the blast. The Watch had showed up almost immediately, pawing the rubble like armoured rats as they searched for survivors. A glance at the devastation convinced me they’d never find any.

A pair of Enforcers had stood to one side and watched, solid and grim as iron statues behind their armoured face plates. Whatever about the Watch, I had no dealings with Enforcers if I could avoid it. Seemingly incorruptible, no hesitation, no compromise, no remorse. Laying down Imperial law in the Underhive, I guessed that’s how you had to be.

The Watch were talking about a promethium spillage and a fume blast taking out the Infirmary. Ratshit. No accident. From where I’d been crouched in the open, I’d seen the flashing ripple of the krak charges taking out the building’s supports, then a larger blast that demolished its interior. Jarrak wasn’t going to offer me anything now, that was for sure. Coincidence? I didn’t make a living by believing in coincidence. Best stick to what I did make a living from and enquire further.

TrussTown took its name from the giant support it clung to – a vast and ancient part of the Hive’s structure, over a hundred metres long and at least thirty wide, solid adamantium, spanning a yawning void. Popular myth had it that the Shaft led all the way to the noxious Sump lake below the Underhive. I doubted that, but the Shaft was undeniably impressive, a wide and seemingly bottomless black pit with mutated bats swooping and the occasional servitor skull gliding about. The Hive wind whispered up from the depths, carrying strange noises and wafts of foul pollutants. More than a few hivers had met their end tumbling down into that darkness.

Above TrussTown, the roof was barely visible fifty metres up, dimly lit by glowing patches of luminescent fungus. The settlement’s sole street ran down the centre of the vast girder, a lone strip of light in the darkness of the Shaft. Habs and other structures perched several stories high on either side, right up to the edge of the abyss. How half the place didn’t topple into oblivion was a never-ending mystery to me. As one of the safer transit points between this part of Hive City and the beginning of the Underhive, TrussTown was a busy trading and supply post, despite its constrained size.

The Dying Ganger was still going strong, old Harlon behind the bar, scared and affable as ever. Much as TrussTown was a route to the Underhive’s dangers and opportunities, Harlon was my route to the Underhive’s knowledge and secrets. He knew the Houses, knew the gangs and the independents, all the players. I knew the Underhive below TrussTown, could practically walk it with my eyes closed, but he knew the people, and that was always a harder pit to mine.

He sympathised on the old bastard’s death, seemed shaken by it himself, though as far as I knew they’d never met. Good man that way, Harlon – people he cared about, he took their burdens on himself. The destruction of the Infirmary troubled him too – “Bad business, boy, bad business harming medicae and the sick. Emperor frowns on that, He does.” He seemed genuinely upset beneath his usual gruff but genial demeanour. Compassionate man, for a hiver – a rare breed this near the Underhive.

With Harlon’s direction I soon had what I came for. An Orlock juve come up-hive to drink the results of a big score gave me what I was after. The hivequake that killed the old bastard and sent Jarrak to his doom in the Infirmary apparently happened in a small, partially ruined dome not far out of town near the main Underhive tunnel route. The dome was uninhabited as far as I knew, but used as a sometime meeting place and tradepoint for gangers, merchants and others. I’d done occasional business there myself, bartering information.

******

I headed out of town, past travellers, merchants and workers traversing the wide tunnel sloping to the Underhive. A few hundred metres down, I branched off through a large crack in the rockcrete and entered a low metal-walled pipe passage, empty of traffic. Mushrooms squelched underfoot as I entered the dome, pushing past dangling wiring and corroded pipes. It was small, maybe a hundred metres in diameter and twenty high. A large corroded pipe rumbled quietly overhead.

One wall of the dome had collapsed, shattered rockcrete and bent wall plating spilled out across the floor. But there was no sign of the wider damage and buckled floor panelling I’d expect from a hivequake. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. A quick inspection revealed the telltale blackened scars of a melta charge on one of the supporting struts in the dome wall. Somebody had brought down this section of wall deliberately.

I pressed my palms flat against the cold wall, feeling the hive’s familiar hum through my fingers. The news of the old man’s death had gotten to me, and the feel of the hive’s ever-present living bulk increasingly brought me solace, odd as that seemed. The minuscule vibrations almost seemed to flow down the wall like running water. I crouched, running my fingertips along the iron plating, straining to-

The lasbolt struck the wall a half-metre above my head with a blinding flare, searing my back as it passed. A hot-shot round, dangerously overcharged for maximum destructive potential. Sparks of molten metal showered from the impact point, stinging my hands. Momentarily blinded, I threw myself down and rolled behind a large fallen wall plate as another round exploded into the floor. Today seemed to be the day for near misses.

I drew my laspistol, the familiar leather grip moulding into my palm. The second round had come from the entrance to the dome, and I peered around my rudimentary cover, searching for a target. Soon enough, I spotted figures moving in the shadows of the entrance tunnel. Gangers – House Goliath, from the bared bulk of their torsos and flaring, spiked hair. Ambushed by a pack of gangers in an abandoned dome? I should have been more careful, wandering around the edges of the Underhive, broadcasting my presence in TrussTown.

More las rounds and some solid slugs clattering from an autopistol flew my way, less well-aimed than the first shot, flying wide and sparking off the floor plates around me. I returned fire, the pistol twitching in my hand as bright bolts flared into the pipes around the entrance. I wasn’t much of a shot, and I only had one spare powerpack. My situation wasn’t tenable – I didn’t know of any other exit from the dome, I was outnumbered and outgunned, and it was only a matter of time before they worked up the courage to close in and finish the deal. If they tossed a grenade or two…

“Get the bastard!”

“You get him, you ratshagging juve!”

Charming bunch, Goliaths. Another glance over my improvised shelter confirmed there were three of them, crouched around the entrance to the dome. Another solid round ricocheted off the plating I hid behind, whining off into the dome.

“Fellas, maybe we can shape a deal here? Credits for the taking, but you won’t find them in here.” Worth a try.

“Screw you, up-hiver! We’ll get what we came for!” So much for deals.

The las-rounds flew in hard and fast – clumsy but effective covering fire. Sure enough, two of the Goliaths roared and charged forward as their companion laid down fire from a lasrifle. This was it. I glanced around, growing desperate. The pipe overhead rumbled softly again. It was badly corroded…

I rolled onto my back behind the wall plate, sighting carefully down the laspistol’s brass barrel. I heard the crash of the Goliaths’ boots as they charged across the dome floor, their companion’s las rounds continuing to splash and flare around me.

My shot blew out a large section of the pipe’s underside, releasing a corrosive deluge of toxic waste down on the unwitting gangers below. Swept off their feet by the searing flood, they didn’t stand a chance. The wall of waste took them and ate the skin off their bones before they could even scream.

Their terrified companion at the entrance screamed plenty. A few snap shots in his direction had him ducking back down the tunnel. I jogged across the floor, my boots hissing as their thick soles met the toxic gunk, my head spinning from the choking fumes, laspistol up and ready. The bulk of the waste had drained off down some hole, and the flow from the ruined pipe cut off as suddenly as it began, a machine spirit somewhere sensing the damage and sealing valves.

Leaving the dome, I saw the surviving Goliath stagger back out into the main tunnel in the distance. Bastard wasn’t getting away that easily, not if there was a chance he was involved in the old man’s death. I ran through the passage, out into the transit tunnel, down towards the Underhive.

******

The fleeing ganger made it nearly a kilometre further. He didn’t try to turn and fight – fortunately for me, armed only with a pistol. I chased him across a high walkway over a hissing steam-filled void, past a slag pit where curious miners looked on and guards raised their weapons, along the top of a giant waste pipe that poured a waterfall of noxious sludge into a bubbling lake. I ran him down at the far side of a small settlement in an ash-floored dome.

He had nowhere left to go. A large man, massively muscled as all Goliath gangers were, bare-chested but for those chain and webbing harnesses they wore, hair spiked high and stained a bright purple – the flash of colour that had helped me track him all the way from the TrussTown tunnel. He didn’t seem to be armed, his weapon lost when he’d stumbled on the high walkway. I raised my laspistol.

“You’ve run out of tunnel, big man. Talk. What’s the game?”

“I swear man -nothing -just jumping hivers for credits, you know-”

He was lying. I took careful aim down the laspistol.

“OK, OK, them cloaks said you was sticking your nose in, told us to watch that dome, anyone came through was to get the same as the old drunk-”

Simmering, glowing and bubbling like that sludge lake, the Hive’s vibrations in sympathy through the soles of my boots, through the grip of the laspistol.

“The old drunk?”

“Yeah man, just some beat-down old hiver, they said he had something of theirs, we was to get it. Said make it look like an accident, then that Watchman showed up following him. Nearly got caught, but we blew the charges- Hey man, you aren’t mad are you? Just some Watch-rat and an old guy, looked like he was half dead already-”

“Sure, some old bastard. I understand. Business.”

He started to relax. I shot him in the face.

From that range, the lasbolt didn’t leave much behind, just that spiked hair, flaring up an even brighter purple as the chemicals caught fire.

Not a smart move – he wasn’t any use to me now, and whoever hired him and his fellow gangers was still out there. As I neared the corpse, I spotted the mini-frag he had clutched behind his back, his thumb on the grenade’s arming stud. Smart move after all.

Then I noticed the floor hatch just behind where he lay, almost concealed by the ash and dust. About a metre square and solid-looking, it had a brass gene-key locking mechanism attached. Didn’t see many of those lying around no-account domes in the Underhive. Virtually impossible to pick, gene-coded only to those- I glanced back at the sprawled Goliath.

The ganger was still some use after all. The lock clicked open as its machine spirit recognised a familiar gene-key. The hatch hissed upwards, ash falling away as it rose. Warm, wet air and a foul stench spilled up from the dark opening. I dropped down into the hole, knowing what was coming.

******

A girder swamp. These structures weren’t uncommon in the Underhive – the underlying supports of domes, a low-ceilinged expanse filled with vertical girders. They often flooded with a metre or more of stagnant water and waste, and combined with the heat from pipes and Hive tech running through the floors, a fetid swamp developed. Deadly fungus, semi-sentient plants, crawling and swimming creatures of the worst sorts. Unpleasant places, even by Hive standards.

I moved further into the swamp, trying to ignore the stink and the damp heat. Girders rose all around me like the mushroom stalks of a real forest, a dense network of metal, almost completely covered with moss, fungus and creeping plant life growing up out of the filthy water. I passed two more ceiling hatches, both of which had been sealed from the inside with plasma cutters. Somebody wanted this place to themselves.

The swamp was dimly lit by luminescent fungus and occasional glow-strips. As I waded between the girders, I soon spotted a pool of brighter light in the distance, barely visible through the dense forest of steel. There were crude structures of flak-board rigged between the girders ahead, a camp of some sort. A raised platform provided a floor over the swamp. I moved closer, slow and careful.

Figures moved through the light, casting flickering shadows out amongst the girders. At least two more Goliath gangers, and a hooded figure. The dead ganger had talked about “cloaks”. I heard a soft splash close behind me, started to turn-

The cold brass muzzle of a lasrifle pressed into my neck. Make that three Goliaths.

“Move or you’re ratfood!”

“Alright, easy, easy-”

A none too gentle nudge from the lasrifle was my only reply. He herded me in towards the three figures in the camp, the other two Goliaths now covering us with their own weapons. One of them cradled a plasma weapon. Nasty piece of work, sun-guns. A bit cumbersome and prone to the occasional misfire, but those superheated globules of plasma will vaporise just about anything that gets in their way.

Damned expensive though, beyond the average ganger’s trade-power by a long shot. Whoever was hiring these muscle-bound idiots obviously spared little expense. I turned towards the hooded figure.

He wore a dark cloak, containing more than a little flak-weave by the way it hung heavy and stiff. The hood was up, but his soft pale face was easily visible in the light of the glow-globes. From a distance, I’d thought he might be a Delaque – the pasty face and bald head under the hood resembled that House’s trademark  appearance. He didn’t wear their customary dark photo-goggles though, and in any case, the ‘lackers and House Goliath rarely got along. Different philosophies.

A nondescript character, if it weren’t for the scars that crisscrossed his face. I wasn’t a squeamish man by any measure, but that face disturbed me. Not just the ugliness of the scars, but their pattern, something about it- I grew nauseous and dizzy as I tried to grasp the symbol they formed across his face.

I wrenched my gaze from that disturbing visage and focussed on his eyes. They didn’t match the dizzying wrongness of his scars, but they weren’t exactly right either. His left eye was dull and dead – like looking into the eye of a corpse, if it weren’t twitching and moving. His right eye burned with an unsettling intensity, seeming to stare right through my head.

Thoroughly shaken up, I glanced around, concentrating on the bulk and presence of the Hive all around me, grounding myself in its endless layered complexity. My head cleared and the disturbance eased.

“Citizen Mak Talton.” It wasn’t a question. His voice matched his appearance, a slightly too-slow, almost-rasping murmur that still somehow carried clearly.

“Look, whatever you-”

“An enquirer of some reputation. It would seem you have enquired too far, Citizen Talton.”

I waited. The Goliaths didn’t move, still training their weapons on me.

“Like father, like son. Your father enquired further than he should have too. Where is it, Citizen Talton?”

“Where’s what, you Throne-damned freak?”. Pays to fawn, sometimes. Sometimes not.

“The device, Citizen Talton. Your drunken fool of a father did not bring it to the tradepoint, and died before he could… converse with us on the topic.” This with a glance at the Goliaths, who paled and shifted uncomfortably.

I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Any valuables the old man had owned were long ago traded for drink.

“It’s gone. I threw it down the Shaft at TrussTown. Best get your rebreather on, freak. It’s for the Sump now.”

“You are lying, Citizen Talton. Lies are a familiar currency to me, do not think you can barter with them here.”

He turned to the hulking gangers.

“Secure him. We will… talk… further.”

Massively muscled arms took me in a crushing grip. The cloaked man moved forward, reached for my head. This wasn’t looking good.

He placed his palms on either side of my head, his fingers pressing into my skull. His hands were freezing cold, like a corpse in the chiller awaiting recycling. I could feel that cold spreading into my head, numbing my mind. A buzzing seemed to build behind my eyes. A psyker, prying into my head like a man peeling a mushroom stalk.

I reached for something, anything to fend off the alien wrongness of his intrusion. I felt the Hive’s presence all around me, its bulk, its layered vastness, its myriad domes and tunnels and voids, inhabitants and creatures and machine spirits. I felt the Hive’s hum, its vibrations, its pulse. I felt the Emperor’s presence in the Hive, His strength, His power, His will. I let the Hive’s pulse flow around me, through me, into me.

The hooded psyker snarled and ripped his hands from my head, the skin tearing where they’d frozen to my scalp. The Goliaths released me and stepped back, wiping frost from their hands in terrified awe.

“It would seem your roots go deeper than most corpse-worshipping insects in this place, Citizen Talton. Interesting. No matter, one greater than I will bring this conversation to its conclusion soon enough.”

Still dazed from the experience, I had no idea what he was rambling on about. For that matter, I had no idea what had just happened. But I knew exactly what was happening when I dived off the platform and surged through the swamp water, ducking behind the most intact-looking girder I could find.

Back on the platform, the frag grenade I’d taken from the dead ganger in the dome above hit the flak-board with a dull thump. I tucked behind the girder, hunched low in the stinking water.

The grenade exploded with a crumping boom, blowing the platform in two, sending pieces of flak-board flying. Then the powerpack of the Goliath’s plasma gun detonated.

A searing blast of heat sent a wall of water and steam rushing outwards. I emerged from the mess choking and gasping, wiping foul swamp water from my eyes. The platform and structures were totally destroyed, the Goliath gangers torn apart and cast into the swamp. Of the psyker, there was no sign – vaporised or fled?

Either way, I’d had enough. The old man’s killers were gone, and I had barely escaped their fate. Hooded psykers with bizarre scars that made a man dizzy to look at? I’d never encountered it before – thank Terra – but I recognised the taint of Chaos. I knew when I was out of my depth.

I realised just how out of my depth I was when I found the psyker in the dome above, crucified on a crossed pair of iron beams. His facial scars had been cut through and mutilated, deep searing cuts that only a power blade could make. They no longer formed that sickening pattern.

But it was the large, stark “I” symbol branded into his forehead that shook me but good. The Emperor’s Inquisition. A whispered terror in the minds of doubting men, the dark that dark places feared. No one would ever dare carve that symbol who wasn’t-

I muttered the Imperial Creed as I fled the dome, heading back towards TrussTown and the relative safety of Hive City. This wasn’t my business – I’d found vengeance and at least a few answers, and even an enquirer knows some floor plates are best not lifted.

******

I found Harlon pacing the dust in an open area just short of the TrussTown tunnels. He was waiting for me, and he didn’t look happy.

“Boy, what the hell have you gotten into, you rat-brained bastard?”

“You don’t want to know, Harlon. Bad business. It’s done now.”

“The Warp it is. It’s all over the public vox. You’re a wanted man. Enforcers are after you, for Terra’s sake.”

“What?”

“Said you killed that Watchman Jarrak and a bunch of folks at the Infirmary up-hive, murdered Goliath workers and guards down-hive. Even talk of heresy.”

“Harlon, I never-”

“I know, boy, I know. Figured you weren’t the type for those sorts of dramatics. Can’t shoot for shit anyway, how you’d take down half those bodies’d be a fine mystery. What’s really going on? And don’t feed me no ratshit, boy. Knew your father. He may have come back wrong, but he went out right. Good man. Shouldn’t have ended like he did.”

That shook me – I’d only met Harlon a year after I’d begun working as an enquirer, long after the old man had left with the Guard. He’d never told me he knew-

“Come on boy, spill.”

I told him everything that had happened, even the apparent involvement of the Inquisition.

“Well now. Busy day you’ve had, boy. Someone’s set you up for sure. Watch looking for an easy mark? Friends of that hooded thing, Emperor protect us? Or the Inq- well, other parties? Doesn’t much matter anyhow. Hive City ain’t safe for you now. Always did take well to the Underhive, time you gave it a try for real. At least until this business blows off or blows up.”

He was right. I’d been set up good, and whoever was behind it, I didn’t stand a chance against any of the forces involved. I needed trouble with House Goliath or the Enforcers like a hole in the head, and as for the minions of Chaos or the attentions of the Inquisition, Holy Terra…

“Head to Pakk’s Pitfall, look up Martok Half-Hand. Good man, solid. We go back a ways – knew your father too.”

Seemed there was a lot I didn’t know about the old man.

“Those Goliaths won’t have had House sanction, not for this kind of racket – too far even for those meatheads. Still, best avoid their ground for now.”

He was right, but House Goliath was the least of my worries compared to dodging Enforcers and darker threats.

“One more thing, Mak.”

He’d never called me by my name before.

“You told me you could feel the Hive… hum – feel a pulse. Sort of… helped you out of tight spots.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that, it’s just-”

“Sounded clear enough to me, boy. Might have something to do with how well you find your way around down here, too.”

“Guess I did feel something, but that’s just the usual vibrations that run through everything down here – you know how it is, just got to pay attention.”

“I don’t, son. I never felt the Hive, not like that, or at all. No hiver can, that I ever heard of. But they do.”

He turned and pointed. In the distance, on a high platform over a giant smoking vent, ragged brownclad figures moved. Ratskins. True natives of the Hive, worshipping its ancient might, living simple lives largely remote from the dealings of hivers. Unusual to see a group this high in the Underhive, in fact. A primitive bunch of savages, depending who you asked.

“What are you-”

“Down-hive, boy. Follow your path.”

He started walking away, not looking back.

“The Emperor protects, Mak Talton.”

I turned and headed out into the Underhive, my father’s broken aquila around my neck. We shape what the Hive leaves us.

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