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[Ultramarines 6] Chapters Due - Graham McNeill

Graham McNeill



  Ultramarines - 06

  Graham McNeill

  (An Undead Scan v1.0)

  It is the 41st millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods, and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the Imperium for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day, so that he may never truly die.

  Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in his name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless Planetary Defence Forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from aliens, heretics, mutants—and worse.

  To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

  “Pain and death are illusions of the weak mind.

  While his gene-seed returns to the Chapter, a Space Marine cannot die.

  Without death, pain loses its relevance.

  He that may fight, heal him.

  He that may fight no more, give him peace.

  He that is dead, take from him the Chapter’s due.”

  —Master of the Apothecarion, Aslon Marr

  PART 1


  On the Pilgrim Trail

  of Roboute Guilliman


  In an Imperium of a million worlds, what matters the loss of one? The Emperor’s realm stretches to the furthest extent of each spiral arm of the galaxy, his numberless armies holding dominion over them by the might of courage and devotion. To know them all is an impossible task, yet the billion scribes toiling in the dusty, candlelit gloom of the Imperial Aexactory care nothing for the futility of their task. Centuries-old records are updated as scraps of information are drip fed into the blind machine, yet even amid the benighted sepulchres of the Emperor’s counting houses, some worlds shine brighter than others.

  Armageddon, the world named for the end of days; Fenris, home of the savage Space Wolves; Cadia, fortress world at the gateway to the Ocularis Terribus; Catachan, deathworld and home to the hell-fighters.

  Even held against such esteemed names, there are planets whose legacy outshines such heroic worlds. These worlds are known and revered throughout the Imperium, by the nobles of the patrician guilds on Terra to the sump-scum of Necromunda.

  These are the worlds of Ultramar, glorious beacons of illumination that bring the light of civilisation to the furthest corner of the Imperium. Where the Emperor’s radiance grows faint in the darkness, the worlds of Ultramar renew it. Where the frontiers of the Emperor’s realm are weak, they strengthen it.

  Storm-wracked Tallasar; the parched troika of Quintarn, Tarentus and Masali; rugged Espandor and the garden of Ultramar that is Iax. The blasted surface of Calth hides an incredible underground network of caverns as light and airy as any landscape open to the heavens.

  Systems and worlds glitter in the darkness of space, but all are beholden to the glittering jewel at Ultramar’s heart, the azure and emerald orb to which all others owe fealty. Alone amongst the worlds of the Imperium, this world holds dominion over its brethren, its master the ruler of a stellar empire of his own. No other world in the Imperium can lay claim to such status, and only by virtue of secret origins unknown even to the Emperor can such a singular entity exist.

  It is called Macragge, this jewel in the darkness that alone holds sovereignty over others.

  Its glittering seas are as clear as glass and teem with life, though the vast majority of its surface is covered in jagged, upthrust mountains of pale stone that claw the sky. So inhospitable are these mountains that Macragge’s population, hardy as they are, cannot live in them. Instead, they duster close to the fertile lands around the Valley of Laponis and the towering fastness of this world’s masters.

  The Fortress of Hera is carved from the tallest mountains, seven peaks levelled and rebuilt to house the Emperor’s greatest Legion, the Ultramarines. Even among the Adeptus Astartes, the names of Ultramarines heroes are bywords for courage and honour: Ancient Galatan, who raised the Chapter’s colours in the breach of Corinth; Captain Ventanus of the lost 6th Chapter, who held Calth against the forces of the Arch-Traitors of the Word Bearers; doomed Invictus of the 1st who died defending his home world from the Great Devourer.

  The Primarch Roboute Guilliman built Ultramar in ages past, and his warriors hold the frontier of the Imperium against every enemy, hurling them back with bolt and blade to preserve that which their gene-father created from the darkness.

  In an Imperium of a million worlds, what matters the loss of one?

  That depends very much on the world.

  Self-sufficient and prosperous, the worlds of Ultramar are as far from the industrial hells typically found throughout the Imperium as is possible to imagine. Its people are clean-limbed, well-nourished and content. Raised in a warrior society, there is no room for those who do not pull their own weight. Though each world is quite different, each shares an ethos with Macragge a hardy determination to be a valued, industrious contributor to the greater good of humanity.

  At the heart of Macragge, in the most awe-inspiring shrine ever constructed, lies the body of Roboute Guilliman, whose mortal remains sit unmoving within a stasis field that simultaneously preserves his life while preventing any continuation. Droplets of blood from the fatal wound inflicted by a fallen brother hang suspended like the brightest rubies, and eyes that once beheld the Emperor when he walked amongst his people are now stilled and lifeless. Objects of wonder inspire devotion, and ever since the primarch’s body was interred in the Temple of Correction, thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have come to prostrate themselves before him and do honour to his memory. Without Guilliman there would be no Ultramar. Without Guilliman, there would be no Imperium.

  Such a debt of gratitude can never be fully repaid, and so tens of thousands travel the Pilgrim Trail of Roboute Guilliman, walking in his footsteps and breathing the air of worlds he saved. A thousand times a thousand shrines dot the routes through Ultramar, and pilgrims come from all across the galaxy to display their devotion to the legendary warrior who stood against the encroaching darkness when the light of the Emperor was laid low by the Great Betrayer.

  Hundreds of chartered vessels ply the transit routes between the worlds of Ultramar every day, bringing thousands of devotees to pray at the feet of the primarch. To stand in the presence of one of the Emperor’s sons is an honour few will ever equal in their lives, for many will have spent their last credit just to reach this place. Many never leave again and die on Macragge, having fulfilled their life’s dream to bathe in the golden light that fills the glorious sepulchre.

  Every world of Ultr
amar has its own legends, shrines and reason for pilgrims to descend to its surface. Tallasar, for the majestic ruin of Castra Tanagra; Calth for its wondrous caves and ancient battlegrounds from the time of the Great Betrayal.

  The dry, sirocco-swept surface of Tarentus was no different, but the vast star fort entering its orbit had not come to pay homage.

  Nothing ever happened on Tarentus. That universal truth had held true for the six years since Rufus Quintus had been appointed to the post of Praefectus orae Tarentus, and the sixty before that, but if the frantic summons from his Orbital Command Centre was even halfway as serious as Nkiru suggested, the years of peace could be at an end.

  Quintus made his way swiftly along the cloistered walkway that encircled the great Prosperine Tower at the heart of the prefect’s palace on Tarentus, his steps heavy and ever so slightly off centre. Behind him trotted Nkiru, his Quaestor and Master of the Treasury, a stoop-shouldered man with sun-darkened skin who was surely born to be a master of numbers and statistics.

  Quintus wore a heavy blue robe over his gene-bulked frame, complemented by the gold and silver rosette of a Praefectus. The robe was voluminous and exquisitely tailored, yet could not conceal his Astartes physique, nor the limp when he walked. His manner was that of a warrior, though there was a faded quality to his bearing that suggested it had been many years since he had faced the Emperor’s enemies with a bolter in his hands.

  “Any further word on what has Master Unathi so alarmed?” asked Quintus.

  “No, my lord,” said Nkiru, consulting his ever-present data-slate. “He was unspecific as to the nature of his alert. But from his tone, I suspect it may be something serious.”

  “His tone?” queried Quintus. “He doesn’t have a tone. Does he?”

  “He did this time, my lord. That’s what makes me think this is something serious.”

  Quintus cursed. Unathi wasn’t given to issuing false alerts, but he was terse when it came to providing any details regarding them. Succinctness was a trait Quintus admired, but in this case, Unathi’s alert could mean anything from a space hulk to nothing more than unexpected debris.

  He paused in his walk and leaned out over the cloister’s balustrade.

  The city of Axum spread out around him, a wonder of geometric precision, colourful buildings and pleasing lines. Planned out by Roboute Guilliman, it was located at the confluence of three rivers and surrounded by millions of hectares of arable land. High above, the great dome stretched over the city and hundreds of kilometres beyond, shielding the farmland around the city from the arid climate and parched earth that sucked all moisture from the land.

  It was a pleasant enough place, with its people as handsome and industrious as any of Ultramar, but six years was a long time to spend dealing with farmers and civilians. Quintus looked up through the shimmering dome into an ochre sky of sunset, looking to see if there were any signs as to what had caused the alert. He saw nothing, but then he hadn’t expected to see anything.

  So enormous was the dome that it had its own internal climate, and warm zephyrs blew in from the east, honeyed by their journey across the great grain fields. He let the subtle mix of flavours mingle in the sense gland at the back of his throat.

  “Pass word to the Masters of Irrigation that the soil of the eastern reaches is slightly acidic,” said Quintus. “Their chemical additives are too strong. It will reduce the harvest.”

  “Of course, my lord,” said Nkiru, pulling a stylus from the data-slate and making a notation.

  Quintus shook his head with a wry smile.

  “Something funny, my lord?”

  “No, Nkiru,” said Quintus. “Just thinking how quaint it is to be worried about soil acidity instead of the disposition of the enemy or the litanies of battle before strapping myself into a drop-pod.”

  “We all serve the Emperor in our different ways,” said Nkiru dutifully.

  Rufus Quintus had served as a combat sergeant in the veterans’ company of Captain Agemman for over a century, fighting alongside his battle-brothers until the fateful moment on Ichar IV when a tyranid spore mine exploded in the midst of his squad. Virulent bio-acids had eaten away his armour and destroyed his legs while its poisons burned the inner surfaces of his lungs with each pained breath.

  That he had lived at all was a miracle, but live he had, and though his service as a front-line warrior was at an end, he was still able to serve his Chapter. Too whole to be interred in the armoured sarcophagus of a Dreadnought, too damaged to serve as a warrior, Quintus had been restored as well as the Chapter’s Techmarines and Apothecaries could manage. His lower limbs and lungs were replaced with augmetics, and his long service had been honoured with the position of Praefectus orae Tarentus.

  One of three worlds orbiting a common centre of gravity, Tarentus was an agri-world and part of the breadbasket of Ultramar. Billions of tonnes of foodstuffs were produced on Tarentus, and only by such planetary-scale agriculture could many other worlds of the Imperium flourish.

  That his praefecture was a vital cog in the machine gave Quintus no comfort, for he was a man who longed to serve his Chapter in battle. The finest minds of ancient times had crafted the science that elevated him beyond human limits, yet the purpose for which he had been created was denied him.

  Yet for all that, he was still a warrior of the Ultramarines and a man who could be counted on to fulfil his duty and rule with a studious mindset.

  “Come, Nkiru,” he said. “Let us see if Master Unathi can be made to elaborate on why he has called this alert.”

  The interior of the Orbital Command Centre was dry and parched, filled with cloying scents from the recessed cog shrines to the Machine-God. A bank of humming machinery filled one wall, with a row of hardwired servitors plugged into each station. A battered command throne sat in the corner of the chamber, linked to the wall of machinery by a host of cables running across the floor. From here, Master Unathi of the Adeptus Mechanicus kept watch over Axum and Tarentus.

  Unathi commanded the orbital defences of Tarentus, a series of geostationary missile stations, gun batteries and a small fleet of system monitors. Each of these vessels made elliptical patrol circuits of the triple planets, but none were to be seen on the orbital plot displayed on the main picter. Instead, a hazy image of what looked like a fortress of spikes and hateful donjons swam in the sea-green display. Quintus knew of no such fortifications on Tarentus, and wondered where this vile structure was located and why it was displayed on his command centre picter.

  The interior security door slid shut behind him and he said, “Very well, Master Unathi, what has you all riled up?”

  “That,” said Master Unathi, pointing with a waving, snake-like mechadendrite towards the image of the fortress. Quintus returned his gaze to the picter, now seeing a familiar outline amid its jagged crenellations. As disturbing as it was, Quintus saw the outline of something that had once been magnificent and honourable buried beneath the layers of obscene embellishments.

  “Emperor’s blood,” hissed Quintus. “It can’t be.”

  Quintus had longed for something, anything, to remind him of what it meant to be a warrior of the Ultramarines, but this was more than he’d bargained for. A phrase that had been a popular saying of Sergeant Patrobus of the 5th came back to him, a phrase Quintus had never really understood until this moment.

  Be careful what you wish for.

  “My lord?” said Nkiru, seeing the blood drain from his face.

  “Is that what I think it is?” he said, afraid of the answer.

  “Clarification: what do you think it is?” replied Unathi, and Quintus was reminded of the literal-mindedness of the Martian priesthood.

  “Is that the Indomitable?”

  “Affirmative,” said Unathi.

  Quintus marched the length of the city walls with Nkiru at his side. His Quaestor jogged to keep up with him, dodging in between the hurried preparations that had turned Axum from an industrious agricultural centre of trade into a
defensive bulwark. Thousands of men and women manned the walls, each clad in the blue uniform jackets marked with the three bound corn sheaves heraldry of Tarentus. The city’s defence auxilia had responded in record time, the citizen militia answering the call to arms with alacrity and determination.

  Such was the norm on worlds governed by the Ultramarines.

  Quintus wore his battle armour, the plates polished and gleaming blue. The ivory of his shoulder guards and the gold of his chest plate glittered in the sunlight and though his legs were a dull iron colour, he was no less magnificent sight. His bolter was damped to his thigh and an ebonite-hilted sword was slung at his back beneath a cream cloak edged with repeating geometric motifs.

  Word had been passed to the other cities of Tarentus and an astropathic alert hurled through space towards Macragge. Quintus stopped by a projecting redoubt and watched as the gunners spun the cranks to elevate the barrel of a defence turret heavenward. Falling sparks of light dropped through the evening sky, like a distant meteor shower sparkling over the mountains of the north. On any other day Quintus would have enjoyed such a sight but this was no meteor shower.

  The orbital defences were destroyed, blasted to destruction by the unimaginable firepower of the Indomitable, the shattered wreckage falling to the planet below and burning up as it hit the atmosphere. The remaining system monitors were being recalled even now, though Quintus had no expectation that they would make any difference to the conflict he knew was coming. The two monitors in orbit around Tarentus had been hunted down and destroyed by the fleet of vessels that swarmed around the gargantuan star fort.

  With the destruction of the planetary defences, Quintus had no doubt an assault was coming. But whoever these attackers were, they would find that every city of Ultramar had teeth and knew how to fight.