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Tales of the Tigers

Traveller of Both Time and Space: Episode 16 
Synopsis:  Relieved of command for leading his detachment of Fighting Tiger Space Marines into disaster, Shamshir Talatra was marooned on a desolate world that had served as a base for Red Corsairs Chaos Marines. After battling hostile aliens and falling into a fissure, he met Raja Sabeer Ansari, another Fighting Tiger, who had been sent by Inquisitor Varman Kumar to rescue Shamshir Talatra. After wandering through a series of tunnels, Shamshir Talatra emerged on another planet: his homeworld of Veda. 

After walking for several days, Shamshir, Sabeer, and their tiger guide, Panja, arrived at a shrine to the Fighting Tigers’ founder, Shiva Nagordarika. There, “Sabeer Ansari” revealed himself to actually be a rakshasa—a shapeshifting daemon—sent by Kumar to bring Shamshir Talatra back to Veda. Though “Sabeer” attempted to kill him, Shamshir Talatra used the newly-rediscovered Scepter of Shiva and Pelt of the Great Man-Eater to summon other rakshasas and ghostly Great Tygers to aid him. 

Guided by Panja, Shamshir Talatra used the tunnels to move among worlds and times, gathering Fighting Tigers who would have otherwise been killed in action. After collecting arms and equipment from ancient bunkers lost in Veda’s past, Shamshir returned to the present time and to the planet where he had been exiled. There, he encountered the Red Corsairs that had survived the Fighting Tigers’ attack and convinced them to join him. It was then that the “sorcerer” accompanying the Corsairs revealed himself to actually be Inquisitor Varman Kumar.

“You were wrong, you know,” Shamshir Talatra said. The others—the newly-recruited Fighting Tigers and the inducted Red Corsairs—marched a few yards behind them, out of earshot. They were on their way to where the Corsair camp once was, where Shamshir had buried a cache of armor and weapons taken from the bodies of the Tigers he had lost. 

“Wrong about what?” Varman Kumar asked. Panja the tiger trotted alongside him.

“You said I’d never see Veda again,” Shamshir Talatra replied. “But I did. I found an entrance to the tunnels, the ones that connect this world to others. I followed Panja and ‘Sabeer’ to Veda. I found the shrine—Shiva’s shrine.”

“Yes, yes, you did,” Varman Kumar said. “But I didn’t say you wouldn’t ever see Veda again,” he corrected. “I said I didn’t think you would ever see Veda again. And had you continued to act as you had been, you wouldn’t have returned to Veda. In fact, you wouldn’t have been anything but dead.”

“You knew all of this was going to happen, didn’t you?” Shamshir Talatra asked. “You knew the Tau would attack us. And that Talwar Chakram would strip me of my title and leave me here. And that I’d find the tunnels. You planned it, didn’t you?”

“You’re asking two different things,” Kumar said. “Did I know what would happen to you? Not all of it. I knew the Tau were on their way, to rescue an expedition that had been captured by the Corsairs, but I didn’t know how you—or Talwar Chakram—would react. I knew that you would find the tunnels, so I sent Panja and ‘Sabeer’ to bring you to Veda. But I didn’t know what would happen then, though I hoped you would come to the shrine, which I had recently learned about.” He paused. “So did I plan what happened to you? Only a little. And only to help you.”

“Help me? Help me do what?”

“Save lives,” Kumar replied. “Millions of them. And, along the way, become a leader.”

“‘Become a leader?’ What’s that supposed to mean?” Shamshir demanded. “I already was a leader. I commanded half the Figh—”

“No,” Kumar said. “You had authority, but you were not a leader. You were a maverick. You did whatever you wanted, never paying attention to the repercussions of your actions. You jeopardized your missions and you alienated your peers and subordinates. For a long while, you were lucky, and got away with it—I believe Talwar Chakram told you the same thing. But eventually, your luck ran out. Your mission ended in disaster. Men died. You were seriously injured. And your attempts to blame Chandramatie Bahl for your failings didn’t save you.”

“How do you know all that?” Shamshir snarled.

“I’m an Inquisitor,” Kumar replied. “I find out what people don’t want me to know.”

Shamshir Talatra said nothing for awhile. Then, “So now I’m a leader?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Kumar said. “But you’re on your way. You have tools: the Scepter of Shiva, the Pelt of the Great Man-Eater. You have followers,” he added, glancing over his shoulders at the Marines behind them. “You’re hopefully a bit wiser, now that you’ve seen what your actions can do to you and your men. And you have me and Panja,” he said, scratching the tiger behind the ears.

“So I have another opportunity, is what you’re saying,” Shamshir said.

“Yes. And now you have some advice: stop thinking about yourself all the time. I tell you I’m going to help you save millions of lives, and all you do is talk about you, you, you.”

“What do you mean, ‘save millions of lives?’” Shamshir asked.

“Do you remember the meeting we had, when you undertook this mission against the Corsairs?”

“Yes.”

“And do you remember what the others were doing?”

“Khandar Madu was going to Fenris—”

“No, she was going back to Veda, to battle the Ozone Scorpions,” Kumar corrected him. “Here’s more leadership advice: learn to be a good listener. Zaghnal Maratha was going to Fenris, to help the Space Wolves against Abaddon. And Talwar Chakram—”

“She was going to RS 19,” Shamshir said, “to engage Hive Fleet Ravana.”

Kumar nodded. “Talwar Chakram and Chandramatie Bahl set up a defense at the mining camp there. The camp was overrun. There were no survivors.”

“I see,” Shamshir said.

“Ravana is on its way deeper into the system. It’s bypassing the outer planets—apparently, it engaged the Tigers on RS 19 only to test their strength. Having assessed that, it’s headed directly for Veda. Once the strongest obstacle is removed, the other planets in the system will quickly fall.”

Shamshir looked back at the Marines trudging along after them. Counted silently. Shook his head. “We can’t do anything,” he said. 

Kumar said nothing.

“There are too few of us,” Shamshir continued. “We’ve never fought together as a cohesive group. We have limited mobility.”

Kumar remained silent.

“The Tigers won’t take our help, anyway. Once they know it’s me, they’ll turn their guns on us.”

Kumar merely nodded.

“And why should I help them, anyway? They left me to die. It’d be better for us to strike out on our own. Become mercenaries. Maybe retaliate against the Tau. There’s nothing for us on Veda but quick death.”

“What you say is true,” Kumar replied. “And sensible. But remember what I said to you, when I came to you during your battle with the Bloodthirster?”

“What did you say?” Shamshir asked. But he already knew. He had told himself the same thing many times over the last few months.

“‘You will, very soon, have a choice that may have substantial effect on you, your Chapter, and millions of lives. You will—well, at least you should, if you pay attention—recognize the choice when it occurs. And when it does occur, I’m counting on you to make the wrong decision.’” 

Shamshir said nothing.

“‘You must make the wrong choice,’” Kumar said.
 
 



“Fall back!” Librarian Chandramatie Bahl yelled into her comlink. “All units, fall back to the mines!” She fired her bolt pistol again, killing another Termagant as it attempted to squirm through the ragged hole in the command center’s bulkhead. She spared a glance at the Marines with her. “Go!” she ordered. “Go! We’re done here!” 

They had lowered the metal shutters over the command center’s windows hours ago, but she knew, from the reports she received in her helmet and from the second sight she possessed, what was going on outside. The Tyranids had battered the Fighting Tigers, driving them back, and now thousands of alien monsters were converging on the building, surrounding it, swarming over it. Already, they had weakened its defenses: in moments, they would smash and slither their way inside. The only refuge now were the tunnels below—And if they have already been compromised? she wondered for a panicked moment, before remembering herself and her duty and driving the fear from her mind.

“All units, report in,” she said, as she, the last to leave, began her own retreat, sealing an access hatch behind her.

“Rudra 9, Sector C-3.”

“Rudra 4, Sector A-16.”

“Puchan 3, Sector 109. Casualties high, more enemy—”

That’s outside, Chandramatie Bahl realized. Didn’t they get the order? “Puchan 3, come in,” she said.

“Rudra 7, Sector D-7.” 

“Puchan 3, come in.” Static.

“Indra 2, Sector 103.”

That’s also outside, she thought. What in all hells? “Indra 2, do you have visual with Puchan 3?”

“Negative, Raja,” the sergeant of Squad Indra 2—a Terminator unit—replied. In the background, Chandramatie Bahl could hear the chatter of storm bolters and the keening of dying aliens.

“Rudra 2—what’s left of us. Sector E-12.”

“Indra 3, Sector A-16.”

“Puchan 3, come in!” Chandramatie Bahl demanded.

“Tvashtri Gupta, Sector A-15.”

Where is Talwar Chakram? she wondered. “Does anyone have visuals on Puchan 3 or Talwar Chakram?”

“Negative, Raja,” a voice said in her comlink. “Kali 3, Sector 108.”

“Kali 3, you were supposed to disengage and fall back to Sector A-4.”

“Negative, Raja. We must fulfill our vows.”

“Kali 3, disengage immediately,” Chandramatie Bahl replied. Static. Damn them! she thought.

“Puchan 4, Sector C-3. Sorry for the delay. Just made it inside.”

“Talwar Chakram, report in,” Chandramatie Bahl called. “Talwar Chakram, report in.”

“Raja, we have a sighting,” Indra 2 reported. “Explosions at the entrances to E-9 and F-1. Something’s breached the seals on the mines. From the inside.”

“Say again?” Chandramatie Bahl asked. 

“Unidentified units,” Indra 2 replied. Wait—patching visuals to you. Please advise.”

The vidsig from Indra 2’ sergeant showed two tunnels that had been sealed with rockcrete to keep the Tyranids out. Charging through the smoke, firing with bolters and slashing with swords, came Fighting Tigers in yellow and brown armor.

She closed her eyes for a moment, ignoring the vidfeed, ignoring the scratching and pounding of the aliens at the access hatch she had recently shut. Her second sight drifted out, out of the command center, across the battlefield, to see past walls and smoke and armor. To know who it was that had come.

Shamshir Talatra, she realized. Damn him.
 
 

 



“Fire at will,” Shamshir said, but his men needed no urging. It was, as the expression went, a target-rich environment. He advanced steadily, bolter firing, each round blowing off alien heads and limbs or exploding alien carapaces. A Hormagaunt bounded towards him and Panja met it head on, disemboweling it with a single sweep of his claws, his fangs snapping its neck.

Three Termagants that had been worrying something looked up with something akin to surprise as Shamshir Talatra stepped forward, firing from the hip. What have we here? he wondered. He bent, shoving aside what was left of the corpse the aliens had been gnawing. Underneath it was a motorcycle.

He pulled it up, swung his leg over, gunned it to life. Still runs, he thought. He grinned. Slung the bolter across his back. Drew the Scepter of Shiva. Felt its power course through him again.

The bike roared forward. At the edge of the battlefield, the air shimmered green, and as the rakshasas materialized, a few of the more intelligent Tyranids began to turn their attention that way.
 
 



Talwar Chakram lay immobile. Around her, it was quiet; the ground littered with the corpses of Scout Squad Puchan 3 and the aliens they had fought. The battle had swept over her, moved on. The winged Tyranid Warrior had slashed her across the belly, shredding her armor, severing veins and power cables. Even if she had the strength to move, she could not: she was trapped in her armor, able to do nothing more than stare at the dark starry sky as her life leeched from her, her augmented healing abilities attempting, futilely, to stem the bleeding. 

Almost directly above her, a faint white dot was Regulus Secundus, this system’s star, millions of miles away. She strained her eyes, hoping to see, for one last time, the planet Veda. It was a fool’s errand: Veda was too small, too far away—if Regulus was no bigger than any other star, how could she hope to see her homeworld? Still, she tried. And as she did, she recited the Prayer of Passing from the Rigsamayajur Ghuyarashtra:

This life is ending
Another begins
There are no tears
There is no remorse
We live, we die, we live again
Endlessly
Chittering. A sound like a thousand drummers drumming. Rippers, she realized. Coming to clean up.  She scowled at the thought that her life would end like this: devoured alive by roach-like vermin. She fought to raise her head and see the Ripper Swarms’ approach, but could not. They will start where my armor is rent, she told herself. My thigh—where she had been shot by a fleshborermy abdomen. Then they will squeeze inside my armor. They’ll gnaw at me and make room and wriggle a little further inside and gnaw some more and wriggle deeper inside. I will meditate. I will bear the pain. Reincarnation awaits

The screech of a bike skidding to a halt. The crack of boltguns. The keening of the unseen Rippers and the sickening, wet sounds of their soft bodies bursting. It seemed to go on forever. Twice, the rider—outside Talwar’s field of vision—stopped to reload. Finally, the guns went silent. Dead? Talwar wondered. Or has the rider fled?   

“There you are,” Shamshir Talatra said, squatting and loosening the release mechanism of her helmet. “I didn’t think I’d find you.” He pulled off her helmet with one hand, held the back of her shaved head with the other. “How badly are you hurt?”

“Shamshir,” she said, weakly. Her brow furrowed.

“Yes, it’s me,” he said. Something huge and yellow and furry wandered into her sight, inches from her head. It growled, and he looked around. “My friend Panja thinks another wave is coming. We have to get you out of here. Can you stand?”

“I left you to die,” she said, weakly.

Not far away, something shrieked. Screamer-Killer, she thought. A big one. Shamshir heard it, too. Activated his comlink with a flick of his chin.

“Kumar, I have her, but I’m going to need help. Send a squad.” The shrieking came again, closer. Shamshir peered into the dark. “Hurry.”

Above her, the stars started to spin. Slowly, at first, then faster. She felt wet, wet all over, and she realized that her body had given up. Blood seeped from her like water flowing from a broken container. One heart stopped. The other slowed. Slowed. 

“Got to get you up,” Shamshir said, as he reached under her arms. With her last bit of strength, she turned her head and spat, using the Betcher’s Gland. The acidic saliva missed his face, hit the collar of his armor. Sizzled and melted part of it before he wiped it off.

“Should have shot you,” she whispered, “when we left you. Bahl will kill you…if Ravana doesn’t. She’ll be a fine Raja. Better than you. Always knew….”

His red eyes held hers as she slipped into the dark. Gently, he lowered her to the ground.

Panja snarled, and the ground shook, and the Carnifex, all four razor-tipped arms spread, pounded towards him, shrieking its high, undulating scream, and then Shamshir Talatra stood and drew the Scepter to defend himself.
 
 



“It seems you have won,” Inquisitor Varman Kumar said, gingerly stepping over the frozen remains of another Fighting Tiger.

“No, we certainly did not ‘win,’” Acting Raja Chandramatie Bahl said. She stomped on a Termagant corpse, crushing its carapace. The scribe-servitor following her avoided it. “Too many Marines died. Too many miners, too, once the fighting reached the tunnels. Too much damage done to the mine. It will take years to repair.” She looked back to where the fire still burned at what had been the command center. Around them, Fighting Tigers and Ogryns were gathering the dead, Marines and aliens.

“Yet Hivefleet Ravana is headed back out of the system,” Kumar said. “Though the Tyranids are intelligent, they share the same characteristics as many predators: if you hurt them badly enough, they will retreat to find easier prey.”

“Veda is safe, for a while, anyway,” Bahl replied. “At least, from them.” She stopped at the body of a Marine in brown and yellow armor. Squatted. His helmet had been cleaved off. She gripped what was left of his face, turned his head to the side. Noted the Space Shark tattoo that had been crossed out with self-inflicted scars. 

“This one wasn’t mine,” she said. “He was one of Shamshir’s Traitors.” She stood. “No cremation for this one,” she told the scribe-servitor. “Let him rot out here.” The automaton nodded and made a note on its holopad.

“And what of Shamshir?” Kumar asked. “He has returned—with powerful allies. Without him, this battle might have been even more costly. Perhaps negotiation, even reconciliation, would be—”

“Shamshir led almost a hundred Marines to their deaths,” Chandramatie Bahl reminded him. “He lost millions of Imperial thalers’ worth of equipment, including a strikecruiser. He’s a renegade and his followers are Traitors and his allies are daemons.” She looked at Kumar. “Was your question about Shamshir some kind of test, Inquisitor? Because the answer is very simple: Shamshir Talatra must die. And I’ll only be too happy to kill him myself.”

“You are wise, Raja,” Kumar smiled. “I can see that I will have to be cleverer when dealing with you.”

“Acting Raja,” she reminded him. “For now, anyway.” She started walking again, Kumar and the scribe-servitor following her. “Tire tracks,” she said, pointing at the ground. 

“I don’t see them,” Kumar said.

“The ground is hard, so they’re faint,” she replied. “But they go that way.”

“Then so shall we,” Kumar said.

Chandramatie Bahl switched on her shoulder light and trained it on the icy ground. They walked on for a bit, stepping over bodies, moving farther away from the mine, further into the dark. At last they came to the motorcycle. It had been smashed. Frozen blood splattered its frame.

“This could be it,” Chandramatie Bahl said. “Indra 2 reported him as being mounted.” She looked around. More frozen blood. Some of it human. Some not. 

“Look here,” Inquisitor Kumar said, squatting by Talwar Chakram’s stiff corpse. 

Chandramatie Bahl knelt beside her. Took a shattered hand. Closed the eyes, filled with crystals of ice. Kissed her forehead. 

“A grand pyre for Talwar Chakram, most-blessed of all Tigers of Varuna,” she instructed the scribe-servitor. “Three days of mourning for her. Prayers for her soul to ascend to the Brahman’s Light, and that she might attain nirvana and break the cycle of birth and life and death and birth again.”

The scribe-servitor nodded and made a note on its holopad.

“No sign of Shamshir,” Kumar said, standing.

“The last my second sight saw of him, he was engaged with a Screamer-Killer,” Chandramatie Bahl said, also standing. “It’s unlikely that he survived.”

“Yet he is not here. Nor his tiger companion,” Kumar pointed out. 

“We’ll find him—later,” Chandramatie Bahl promised. “When we begin the hunt for Shamshir, we will call it Operation: Fearful Symmetry,” Chandramatie Bahl said. “Are you familiar with that phrase, Inquisitor? ‘Fearful Symmetry?’”

Kumar shook his head. “No, I’m afraid I’m not.”

“As a Librarian, I’ve had to learn many ancient texts. ‘Fearful Symmetry’ comes from a poem about tigers. And fire. And evil. Appropriate, don't you think?”

Kumar nodded and stroked his beard.

Chandramatie Bahl turned to the scribe-servitor. “Make another note. Have Shamshir’s clones destroyed and his name stricken from the Rigsamayajur Ghuyarashtra.”

The scribe-servitor nodded, and entered the order into its holopad.
 
 



“Well?” Shamshir asked.

“Well, what?” Kumar asked.

Across the lake, the funeral pyre for Talwar Chakram blazed, flames leaping dozens of feet into the air, illuminating the Space Marine fortress nearby. Hundreds of voices—villagers and Fighting Tigers—sang hymns for her, but from here, they were only faint murmurs in the night breeze. From the hills nearby, siege guns fired in her honor.

“What now?” Shamshir asked.

“That’s up to you, isn’t it?” Kumar replied.  

Shamshir turned and winced, cradling his arm, which was wrapped in mediplass and swaddled to his chest. Damned if that monster didn’t have to break the same arm that got hurt at Auros, he thought. Gobara, he swore. Panja cocked his head at him.

“I’m all right,” Shamshir said. “It’ll only be a few days, anyway, until it heals.” He looked back at the pyre. “They still hate me,” he said.

“Do you blame them?” Kumar asked.

“No,” Shamshir admitted.

“Does it matter?” Kumar asked.

“No,” Shamshir replied. “Not really. It’s just—never mind.”

“It’s just what?” Kumar asked.

Shamshir closed his eyes. Felt the heat of the breeze. Smelt the grasses and the trees. Listened to the insects and the night birds. Opened his eyes again. “It would have been nice to be able to come back home.”

Kumar chuckled. “Home? You don’t have a home now. But you can go anywhere you want,” he reminded him. “You have your men, you have the rakshasas. You have Panja and me, too—at least, for a while. It’s a new start for you. The question is, what will you do now?”

“I don’t know,” Shamshir said. 

“Think about it for a while. You have time.”

“Yes, you're right,” Shamshir said, scratching Panja behind the ears. 
 
 

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