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Traveller of Both
Time and Space: Episode 9
“I can’t believe this,” Shamshir Talatra growled. “You must be joking.”
The escape craft had been designed for three slender aliens, not two burly Space Marines in bulky power armor, but it wasn’t the cramped conditions that angered Shamshir Talatra.
“No, Raja,” Chandramatie Bahl replied, seated at the controls of the ship. “I assure you, I am not joking.”
Shamshir Talatra shook his head. Outside the viewport, stars whirled madly by. The Tau ships, all weapons firing, appeared, disappeared, appeared again, disappeared again as the escape craft tumbled helplessly. The only constant was the planet’s surface, growing larger and larger as the craft rocketed, out of control, towards it.
“You dragged me in here and now you tell me you can’t fly this pod?” he asked. “What kind of escape is this, Bahl?”
“I had not planned on making a sudden escape, Raja.”
“Well, you should have. There’s no such thing as ‘friendly’ aliens. None of them can be trusted. What were you thinking?”
“The Tau seemed sincere,” she replied. “They did heal you, and—”
“Gods save me,” he sighed. “Why’d we bother getting aboard this thing? We should’ve stayed on the ship and fought.”
“We would be dead by now, Raja,” she said. The planet’s surface filled the entire viewport ahead as the craft continued to spin dizzily. Under her helmet, Chandramatie Bahl chewed her lip. The escape pod had no steering yoke; no switches; no pedals or levers. It only had 8 unmarked buttons and 18 small video screens that displayed a rapidly-changing array of numbers?—words?—in Tau script. She rubbed her palm over what she hoped was a touchpad. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still nothing. For at least the tenth time, she pushed all the buttons, one after the other. The craft still hurtled out of control. Despite her hardy physique and years of experience in space travel, she was beginning to feel motion sick.
Suddenly the craft stopped spinning. It slowed, so that the surface of the planet no longer rushed towards it.
“What did you do?” Shamshir Talatra demanded.
“I didn’t do anything,” Chandramatie Bahl replied. “Perhaps it has an auto-pilot func—”
The 18 video screens activated, each showing a different scene. Explosions ripped through the former camp of the Red Corsairs, killing Fighting Tigers and their renegade prisoners. Tau Devilfish descended, disgorging squads of Warriors who fired point-blank into outnumbered Tiger patrols. Two-man Tau aircraft dive-bombed Tiger emplacements, killing scores more.
“What in all Hell…” Shamshir Talatra muttered.
Chandramatie Bahl ran her hands over the touchpads and pushed buttons again and again. “We’re under remote control. But why?”
Still steadily moving towards the planet’s surface, the escape pod pivoted. Above them, the Tau starship they had fled fired again and again, energy weapons silently lighting up the darkness of space. With each hit, the Tigers’ battle barge shuddered. Then, for a brief instant, space turned from inky black to blinding white. Then the light was gone and the Tau guns halted.
“They have destroyed our battle barge,” Chandramatie Bahl said. “We are lost.”
On the video screens, the last Tigers attempted to surrender. The Tau gunned them down.
“My Marines,” Shamshir Talatra whispered, shaking his head. “All my Marines….”
The screens went blank, one by one.
Silence. The craft turned again. The planet surface’s surface slowly grew larger.
One screen returned to life. The image of Ethereal Aun Elsy’eir Kor appeared.
Shamshir Talatra scowled and leaned over Chandramatie Bahl so that the Ethereal could plainly see him. “You filthy mag—”
“Spare me your childish insults, Shamshir Talatra,” Aun Elsy’eir replied. “You see the logical response to your rejection of the Tau: if you are not a friend of the Greater Good, then you are its foe. Hence, you must be destroyed.”
“Go ahead and shoot. I’m not afraid to die.”
“Killing you would be a mercy I do not care to extend to you,” the Ethereal said. “I would rather you live with the knowledge of what your foolishness has done.”
“You can go fu—” Shamshir began, but the video screen went blank. Shamshir Talatra drew his sword and jammed it into the control panel, shattering two screens and spraying sparks through the cabin.
For several moments, neither of them said anything. Chandramatie Bahl pulled off her helmet and set it on the floor between her feet.
“Smashing the console was unnecessary, Raja. And probably dangerous.”
“All of this is your fault, Bahl. When we return to Veda, I’m having you court-martialed.”
For a long time, she said nothing. Slowly, slowly, the craft descended into the planet’s atmosphere.
“It seems they are allowing us to
land,” she said.
“Trooper Prabhakar Dhall,” he called out. “Shot through the head. Killed instantly.”
He stepped over Trooper Dhall and noted the next one.
“Trooper Neeraj Srinivasan. Shot through the head. Killed instantly.”
He stepped over him and went on the next. This one was lying on its chest. He planted a foot on the corpse’s side and pushed. The body flopped over.
“Sergeant Banerjee Govil. Shot repeatedly through the chest and abdomen. Killed instantly.”
The next one also lay supine. Shamshir Talatra squatted down beside the corpse. The stony soil under the dead man’s armored fingers had been raked furiously, some of the furrows going a few inches deep into the ground.
“Trooper Arthi Dadhamia,” he said. “Shot through the primary heart and the abdomen.”
“Killed instantly?” Chandramatie Bahl asked. She sat on a large, flat boulder and scribbled onto her holotablet.
“Bled to death over several minutes,” Shamshir Talatra replied. That must have hurt like all Hell. Poor fellow.
“That’s all for this squad,” he said.
“Where are all the others from this unit?” Chandramatie Bahl asked. “There should be at least one more.”
“I don’t know,” Shamshir admitted.
“Let me check my records.” She tapped her holotablet with the electrostylus. “Ah. I see. They lost Trooper Sansuma Divaharuni during the engagement with the Red Corsairs.” She tapped again. “He was their flamer man. He was killed when the Bloodthirster formed itself from Clavius’s corpse. As you might recall, you ordered him to move in and fire his weapon.”
“I remember,” Shamshir Talatra said. He clicked on the safety switch of the trooper’s bolter and placed it aside. The man’s combat knife, bolt pistol, and ammunition followed. He began to strip the body: boots, greaves, gauntlets, helmet, and power pack. The torso armor was too damaged to salvage.
Shamshir Talatra stood, hauling up the corpse by its armpits, and dragged him to the pyre. Some Space Marine Chapters extracted their casualties’ geneseed and left them where they fell. Some Chapters gathered the bodies and took them back to their base for proper burial. The Fighting Tigers had a tradition of burning their dead on the battlefield. Grunting, he tossed him into the roaring flame nearby, where dozens of Tigers already lay.
The stony ground was marred with craters, some of them almost as large as a Thunderhawk. None of the Corsair’s flimsy shacks—or even their leader’s bunker—had survived the Tau bombing. He sighed and wiped his brow. Despite surgical and genetic augmentation and decades of conditioning training, he was tired. He and Chandramatie Bahl had been wandering for days, collecting the dead and burning them. Dozens more—here and elsewhere—remained.
Bahl’s holotablet beeped once. She looked at it. Tapped the tablet a few times with her electrostylus. Started scribbling again.
“What are you doing?” he demanded. “Help me take care of the rest of this squad.”
Chandramatie Bahl continued scribbling onto her holotablet. “I’ve just received a message,” she said. “The rescue craft has entered the planet’s system. Talwar Chakram has asked for follow-up information on my initial report. She has marked the request as ‘Top Priority.’”
“Talwar Chakram?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “Her electromessage says that she is aboard the craft and needs the information right away.”
“Talwar Chakram is coming?” he asked. She nodded. “She was deployed to engage Hive Fleet Ravana at RS 19. Why is she en route here?”
“Her message does not say. Perhaps she has come to carry out your order to have me arrested and court-martialed.” She went back to scribbling on her holotablet.
“Never mind that. I’m Talwar’s superior—and yours, too. Come help me with the rest of these men.”
“’Top Priority,’” Chandramatie Bahl repeated. “Even if the Raja objects,’” she read from the tablet.
“What?” He strode over. “Let me have that.”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” she said. “’FYEO.’”
“For Your Eyes Only,” Shamshir Talatra thought. What sort of pigdung is that? “Hand over that tablet, Bahl. That’s an order.”
He drew his black bladed sword.
Chandramatie sat still. “Are you threatening me?” she asked.
Yes, he thought. “No,” he said. “Just reminding you. The Ebon Blade belongs to the Raja of Ghuyarashtra. I have the Blade. I’m in charge.”
“I know that,” she said.
“’I know that—Raja,’” he added.
“I know that, Raja,” she replied.
“Hand over that tablet.”
She set the electrostylus back in its groove on the tablet’s side and handed the device to him. He sheathed the sword, removed the stylus, started tapping on the tablet. Frowned.
“How do you work this?”
“If you will permit me, Raja,” she said, holding out her hand. He gave it back to her.
“Pull up your initial report,” he said.
“You reviewed it before I sent it.”
“I want to read it again,” he said. She pulled up the first holopage of the report and handed the tablet to him.
The report started by describing the attack on the Red Corsairs’ camp and Shamshir Talatra’s decision to abandon conventional cityfight practices in favor of a fragmented, bike-mounted assault. Then the report documented his unorthodox confrontation with Clavius, the Corsairs’ leader; the appearance of the Bloodthirster and Shamshir’s near-fatal injuries at its hands; and Chandramatie Bahl’s quick defeat of the daemon.
The report continued with Bahl assuming command and repelling a surprise attack by the Tau coming to rescue an exploration party previously captured and killed by the Corsairs. It chronicled how Bahl met with the Tau, arranged for Shamshir’s recovery and collected information on the aliens. It described how Shamshir had rejected the Tau’s overtures, how he and Bahl had fought their way off the Tau starship, and the subsequent massacre of the Tiger forces.
At the end of the report was his signature, signifying concurrence with the details presented.
“What questions does Talwar Chakram have?” Shamshir asked, handing the tablet back to Bahl.
“Talwar’s orders were not to discuss her questions with you.”
“And I’m ordering you to tell me what her questions are.”
Chandramatie Bahl tapped the screen of her tablet. “She asked for details on who was killed in which actions—our attack on the Corsairs, the battle with the daemon, the first attack by the Tau. The last attack.”
“She wanted to know details about our strategy for moving against the Corsairs and reacting to the Tau when they first struck. I told her everything about my response when I assumed command. I could only surmise about the raid on the Corsairs because you didn’t share all the details with me beforehand.”
“And?” Shamshir asked.
“She also wanted to know about my interactions with the Tau when you were incapacitated. She asked about the Ethereal, and Varkoo, and…why you killed a Tau physician upon reviving.”
“That was just a reflex,” Shamshir said. “I’m a Marine. Marines kill aliens, unless we have some reason not to.”
“I explained that in my response to her,” Chandramatie Bahl.
“Like Hell you did,” Shamshir snarled, snatching the tablet from her hands. “I’ll bet you’ve been minimizing your failings—trying to make things sound like they were my fault—to get a lighter sentence.”
She shot to her feet. “As a Librarian, I am bound by dharma—sacred duty—to objectively report the truth. You slander me and all Librarians in our Chapter.”
“Are you threatening me?” he growled.
“No,” she answered.
“Good. You’re in enough trouble,” he said. “I’m confiscating this tablet. And while I’m at it, hand over your sidearm and your sword. You’re under arrest.”
She unbuckled her weapon belt and handed it to him.
“Now, sit down.” he growled. “That’s another order.”
She sat down.
“I’m going to sit over here and read
what you’ve been sending to Talwar Chakram,” he said, backing up. “As soon
as her transport lands, both of you will have some questions to answer.”
He sat down on a boulder, releasing the safety on her bolt pistol, and
set it on his lap. “And don’t try any of your mind powers on me. If I get
so much as a twinge of a headache, I’ll empty this clip in you.”
A wind had started to howl and swirl up the stony soil. Tiny pebbles pattered against Shamshir Talatra’s armor as the Thunderhawk landed three score yards from where he and Chandramatie Bahl waited.
The entry ramp slid open, and Talwar Chakram, encased in her white and brown Terminator armor, appeared. Behind her followed more Terminators, in yellow and brown armor. One bore an assault cannon; one a heavy flamer. Two squads of Tigers of Rudra—Tactical Marines—accompanied them.
Chandramatie Bahl stood up. “Don’t give us trouble,” Shamshir Talatra told her. She said nothing. Talwar Chakram and her entourage stopped a few paces from the two of them.
“First things first: take Tiger of Brihaspati Bahl into custody,” Shamshir Talatra ordered. “Then I want a detail to finish the funeral services for these Marines that have fallen. Talwar Chakram, you and I will meet privately to discuss your orders to Bahl pertaining to her report.”
No one moved.
“Shamshir Talatra, Raja of Ghuyarashtra and co-Regent of the planet of Veda” Talwar Chakram said, her voice tense and deliberate behind her skull-like mask, “by order of the Maharaja Shiva Nagordarika, founder of our Chapter and at whose pleasure we all continue to serve, you are hereby relieved of all duties, effective immediately.”
“What?” The first and only Chapter Master of the Fighting Tigers had spent the last 4,000 years inside a Dreadnought sarcophagus after suffering grievous injuries to a Bloodthirster of Khorne. Regents—like Shamshir Talatra—had ruled the Chapter in his stead ever since. “I don’t believe you. That’s impossible. Shiva does not involve himself with the command our Chapter.”
“He has on this occasion,” Talwar Chakram replied, “once Khandar Madu and I read Bahl’s report and spoke to him.”
“I’m dismissed? On what grounds?” he demanded.
“You should know what grounds,” she said. “You signed the report.”
“Are you trying to blame this—” he said, waving his arm toward the corpses littering the cratered battlefield, “—on me?”
“Who else was in command?”
“She was!” He roared, pointing at Chandramatie Bahl. “She’s to blame!”
Talwar Chakram’s skull mask shook slowly. “Khandar Madu and I found no error in Bahl’s actions after you were incapacitated. In fact, we found much to admire in what she did.”
“Thank you,” Chandramatie Bahl said, bowing slightly. Shamshir glowered at her.
“But it was your actions, Shamshir Talatra,” Talwar Chakram said, “your actions—as is your habit—were selfish and reckless. You needlessly endangered yourself and others, just as you have done since before you became Raja. Up until now, you’ve been lucky. You have managed to prevail, even against the most unlikely odds. The truth is that usually some talented subordinate—like Bahl, here—has pulled out victory for you. Or your opponent—like Clavius—wasn’t as smart as you. But luck, as the River Indra back home, is not endless. Your luck has seemingly run out, and now you are no longer Raja.”
“This is insane. Absolutely insane,” Shamshir Talatra announced. “I will not abide this. A Raja has never been dismissed before. It is against Vedic tradition.”
“Since when have you ever cared about tradition?” Talwar Chakram asked. “The Corsairs are our sworn ancestral enemy, yet you initially wanted not to engage them. And that is merely one example.”
Chandramatie Bahl held out her hand. “I’d like my weapons back, please.” He didn’t respond.
“Do it,” Talwar Chakram told him. The Tactical Marines readied their boltguns. The barrels on the Terminator’s assault cannon whirred as bolts dropped into their chambers one by one.
With a snort, he handed Bahl the gun belt, her pistol, her ammo clip, and her sword.
“Now hand over your sword,” Talwar said. “The Ebon Blade.”
He drew the black sword from its sheath, the symbol of his office. Twenty six of them, he thought. Twenty seven, counting Bahl.
“Do not be even more stupid than you already have been,” Talwar Chakram said, leveling her storm bolter at his face.
Fighting—making them take the sword from his corpse—seemed only right. To Hell with them—Talwar, Bahl, Khandar Madu, even Shiva. Then he recalled what Varman Kumar had told him: “You must make the wrong choice. Try to remember that.”
He tossed the sword at Talwar’s feet. This feels like the wrong choice, he thought.
Talwar Chakram kept her attention on the Shamshir Talatra as she spoke. “Chandramatie Bahl, with the endorsement of Raja Khandar Madu and myself, you are promoted to Acting Co-Regent of Jatis Ghuyarashtra, with all attendant privileges and responsibilities. Please pick up the symbol of your office, and may it serve you well.”
Chandramatie Bahl looked from Talwar Chakram to Shamshir Talatra, then stepped between them and picked up the Ebon Blade.
“Good,” Talwar Chakram said, lowering her weapon. The others followed suit. “Salute your new Raja.” Everyone but Shamshir Talatra kowtowed to Chandramatie Bahl.
Impossible, Shamshir Talatra thought. Just impossible.
They rose. “Back to the ship,” Talwar Chakram commanded. “We lift off in five minutes.”
“What of the dead?’ Chandramatie Bahl asked. “It is not right to leave them like this.”
“We have no more time,” Talwar Chakram said. “Even now the Tyranids are closing in on our system. We must make all haste for RS 19.”
The Terminators and Tactical Marines turned and headed back to the ship, leaving the two women Marines and their former commander.
“Now what?” Shamshir Talatra asked. “Am I under arrest?”
“No,” Talwar Chakram replied.
“So, I’m harijan,” he said, referring to Fighting Tigers exiled for crimes and failures to duty.
“No,” she said.
“Then what?” he asked. “Where do I stand? What happens next?”
“We no longer care,” Talwar said.
“You can’t leave me here. You can’t just maroon me on this rock.”
Talwar Chakram raised her storm bolter again. “I suppose we could kill you,” she said. “Certainly, that would be fitting. How many Tigers have died through your stupidity?”
“So that’s it?” he said. “Well, go ahead and shoot.”
“No,” Chandramatie Bahl said. “Dying now would only release you from the burden of your actions, Shamshir Talatra.” She looked around. “I task you with making sure that each Fighting Tiger here receives a proper funeral. While you do that, I want you reflect on those choices you’ve made that have brought you to this end.”
“Don’t try to lecture me,” he snapped. “I’m not some Initiate back in philosophy class. I’m your rightful commanding officer—and you know it.”
“When you have completed this task,” she continued, “I recommend that you throw yourself on the last pyre.”
Talwar Chakram said nothing. They
turned and walked back to the ship and up the boarding ramp. Shamshir watched
them blast off, back into the sky from whence they came.
Posted April 2006
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