A Human Moment [W40K Short]

Author’s Note: This brief scene featuring Codicier Dashiel Gall, Blood Angel, psyker and all-round Nice Guy (protagonist of my much longer Blood Angels piece ‘Life’s Blood’) is based on an idea that came to me from this fantastic piece of artwork, ‘A Human Moment’, by Anarkyman at Deviantart.  I’m actually pretty proud of this piece, too.  I think it does a fair job at catching what it is to be new to the world of the Astartes and still having those last tentative hooks into your humanity.

Hive worlds.

He’d never liked them. He’d grown up on a lush, spacious agri-world. Memories of his childhood, intermittent at best, had ever been of vast tracts of open space, punctuated every now and again by the proto-algae lakes. The air had been clean, the night sky a thing of beauty. Of course, his memories had been scrambled by the dual experiences on-board the Black Ships and the year spent in the sarcophagus, so it was entirely possible that he was deluding himself. Whatever the case, he recalled that Siculi had been a glorious, verdant, lush planet.

Hindsight, Dashiel Gall ruefully acknowledged, was twenty-twenty. He’d hated the place when he’d been growing up.

He’d gone from Siculi to Baal – and whilst not exactly what one could term ‘aesthetic’ – not in any sense of the word – Baal was also notable for its wide open spaces. So the wide open spaces happened to take the shape of radioactive wasteland. But that simply wasn’t the point. he point was that hive worlds made Brother-Codicier Dashiel Gall extraordinarily uncomfortable. The sense of being hemmed in on all sides, with no clear view of the skies above was so claustrophobic.

Peacekeeping was what he and the rest of the squad were here for, apparently. A full scale battle had raged through these streets for weeks leading up to their arrival and it told in the state of the buildings. Some were fire damaged; others had crumbled in on themselves. Here and there, a solitary building would stand proud in defiance of its brothers, having been constructed more solidly, or simply postponing the inevitable.

Peacekeeping.

A curious word. It implied keeping the peace, but truly, Dashiel had never been anywhere that was so eerily, ominously quiet. A heavy expectation seemed to lay over the entire area, as though this were merely the calm before a great storm. But the great storm had already been and gone. The cultists had been purified, the people of the planet freed from their tyranny.

And yet…

Dashiel walked the street with his brother Blood Angels, his bolter in hand, allowing his mind to gently reach outwards. Tendrils of psychic awareness trailed out, searching, probing, investigating. Thus far, they had revealed nothing. No life, not even animal life stirring in this part of the fallen city.

He was surprised, therefore, when after several hours of pacing the streets, one of those psychic tendrils found itself an anchor point and drew him to a sudden halt. Dashiel focused. A human mind. Uncomplicated and simple to surface-scan, it was a young mind that bore no preconceptions. A child’s mind, Dashiel would have guessed.

“You getting something, Data Slate?”

The voice belonged to the squad Sergeant, a grizzled, pock-marked Astartes by the name of Laucian. Amused at the use of his nickname, and the easy familiarity with which the Sergeant used it, the young Codicier tipped his head slightly to one side.

“What makes you think that, sir?”

“You’re lighting up like a bonfire,” came the artless reply as Laucian waved vaguely in Dashiel’s direction, indicating the psychic hood that was now an integral part of the psyker’s armour. Apart from the alterations to his outward appearance; the addition of a red pauldron to his blue armour, showing his rank to the outside world, Dashiel had not changed greatly. His promotion from Lexicanium had seen little variation in his overall demeanour and if anything, he was now even more inclined to quiet periods of studious contemplation than he had been before. He had been willing and ready to accept this assignment, knowing that he needed to get back into action. His superior, Librarian Pallerion, had practically packed a bag for him.

“You’re cluttering the place up,” he had grumbled in his traditionally bad-tempered way. “You’re getting lazy, Codicier. Time for you to get back out into the big wide world.”

He’d not meant anything by it. Dashiel knew Pallerion well enough to understand that this was the Librarian’s way of confirming that the unofficial incubation and observation period was over. He had been confined aboard the Infinitas for a period of time following the incident with the blood daemon of Khorne. He had been carefully observed and studied and questioned over a period of several weeks until the senior council had finally been prepared to accept he was not tainted by his experience. He had been assigned to the Peacekeeping squad and had accepted the posting without question.

“So what are you picking up?” Sergeant Laucian spoke again, pulling the young psyker out of his reverie. Indeed, the psychic hood that rose from the backplate of his blue armour was glinting with sparks of psychic energy. He had only had the device connected a few days previously and was still getting to grips with its operation. He understood its working in principle – and the theory was more than solid. The psychic hood would work in conjunction with his own psychic defences in nullifying attacks. He had been unprepared for its sensitivity, however. He hadn’t yet mastered the art of disengaging his own powers from its receptors. As a consequence, the damned thing reacted to every little twitch of psychic energy he expended.

He pushed the problem to one side and turned his attention to the matter at hand. “A child, I think,” he said in his soft, almost gravelly voice, his lesser height meaning that he had to incline his head slightly to look up at the Sergeant. He closed his eyes briefly and extended the tendril once more. “Hiding,” he murmured. “Scared. No, not scared. Now that’s strange.” His eyes flared open again. “Hiding, yes. Scared – no. Intrigued is the best word I can come up with.”

“Regardless,” said the Sergeant with a slight shrug of one shoulder, “it’s not our problem. A child poses us no threat and it’s not our business. Keep your senses sharp, Codicier.”

“Yes, Brother-Sergeant.” Dashiel knew what the Sergeant was saying. In the wake of such a war, there were displaced people everywhere. It was not the job of the Adeptus Astartes to offer aid and succour to these people. The Imperial Guard were en route to the hive world to deal with the survivors. The Astartes were merely here as a precautionary measure. To pick off any surviving cultists.

It was potentially the most mind-numbing work for a Battle Brother to endure, but it was necessary, and it wouldn’t be for long. And as far as Dashiel was concerned, if he had to spare a few days of his considerably long life to ensure Chaos was no longer present in this pit, then so be it. His only disappointment so far was that there had been nothing to fight.

He walked on through the streets, made dusty by the sheer destruction around them. Ferrocrete still rained down in dusty clouds, metal still pinked where it was cooling. The entire quadrant was totally devastated.

There it was again.

Dashiel’s senses picked up the same curious mind: a bright, sharp pinpoint of light in an otherwise psychically dead picture. It was the kind of mind that was hard to keep a lock on: thoughts skittered everywhere. One moment the thoughts were quite clear, the next, they were dashing off in an unprecedented direction that Dashiel couldn’t so much as hope to keep up with.

“I think we’re being followed,” he said to Laucian softly. The Sergeant halted and turned to face Dashiel.

“The kid?”

“I think so, yes.” Laucian let out an exasperated sigh.

“Deal with it, Codicier.”

“Sir?”

“Find out what it wants. We’re here to sweep the area for cultists, not to babysit some snot-nosed little brat.”

It didn’t take a psyker to establish what Laucian’s opinion of children was.

“Yes, sir.” Dashiel broke off from the main group of Blood Angels as they moved wordlessly down the street and allowed the psychic scent to lead him towards that tumbling mind.

It didn’t take much to home in on the target. The child, when he found it, was standing in the doorway of a ruined building, staring at him with the sort of alarming intensity that only an eight year old can possess. Dashiel was unsure whether it was a boy or a girl: the child was a scruffy urchin, covered in dirt and dust. Closer inspection suggested that the shapeless garment the child wore was a dress. A girl, then.

“Don’t be afraid,” said Dashiel in a low, careful voice as he approached. The girl’s eyes narrowed and he felt the indignation roll off her in a wave.

“’M’not afraid,” she said, defiantly in a voice that shook just ever-so-slightly.

“I’m Dashiel,” he said, in the same tone. Gently, gently. Something the size of an Astartes up against something the size of a child would no doubt generate alarm. He employed diplomacy and tact. “Me and my brothers are here to make sure you and your people are safe. Where are your people?”

The child continue to stare at him, a slight curl of her lip indicating suspicion. She wrapped a lock of hair around her finger and sniffed slightly. Then she pointed at him.

“Why’s you’m blue?”
The bluntness of the question took Dashiel by surprise, but he didn’t allow it to show as anything more than a slightly quirked eyebrow. The girl, unfazed by his silence, persisted.

“All ‘m others is red. Why’s you’m blue?”

“I’m…different to them.” Dashiel tried to figure out a way of explaining the reasons he, as a psyker, was necessarily dressed differently to the other Blood Angels. It was a hard thing, he ascertained, clarifying things to an eight year old. “I…fight in a different way.” It was simplistic, but it would do.

This seemed to satisfy her curiosity, because she nodded curtly and stepped out of the house. By the Emperor, she seemed like such a tiny thing next to the Astartes. She barely came up to his knee. “I know what you’m is,” she said, boldly. “You’m’s Blood Angels.”

“That’s right,” he said, looking down at her thoughtfully. “You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?”

“I’s got brains.” She tapped the side of her head knowingly. “I’s got a big sister, though she’m not big like you’m big, an’ she says, Liselle, you’m got the smarts.” She stuck her little head up in the air and visibly swelled with pride. Dashiel controlled the twitch of amusement, although just barely.

“Where’s your sister now, Liselle?”

“I like blue,” she said, entirely ignoring the question. “Makes you’m look different to all m’others.” Greatly daring, she took a step towards Dashiel and put a hand on his armour. She could only just reach the top of his thigh at full stretch. “You’m got smarts, too, haven’t you?” She prodded at his leg, an ineffective method of attracting his attention, given that he could feel nothing beneath the ceramite and steel. Nonetheless, it was a faintly annoying gesture.

“The smarts. Well, I like to think so,” he said, solemnly. He knelt down so that he could see the girl more clearly. Her dirty little face was tear-streaked as though she had been crying, but yet she was not showing any outward signs of misery or unhappiness. Whilst she was dirty, she did not look injured, or underfed. Dashiel suspected that she was merely lost.

“When I’s growed,” she said, confident and certain of herself, “I’s gonna be just as big as you’m. I’s gonna wear blue. Red’s rubbish. I’s got three Thrones, how much you’m got?”

The alacrity with which the child kept changing topic made Dashiel’s head spin slightly. “Three Thrones?” he said, weakly. “That’s…a lot of money. It’s more than I’ve got, Liselle. Where is your sister now?”

She gave an indifferent shrug. “She told me not to follow you’m. But I’s wanted to know why you’m blue.” She narrowed her eyes at him again. “You’m still not really told me, but I’s liking you, so I’s not push you’m for an answer.”

“Right,” he said, weakly. “Thanks for that. Do you want me to help you find your sister?”

“Brother-Codicier Gall, this is Sergeant Laucian.” The vox bead chirruped into life, interrupting the flow of conversation and Dashiel responded.

“Receiving.”

“Have you dealt with the kid yet? We haven’t got all day.”

“Dealing with it…her…now, sir.”

“Well, hurry up. We want to move out to the east quadrant in the next five minutes, and we need you with us.”

“Received and understood, sir.”

He got back to his feet, unfolding to his full height and looked down at the little girl. He couldn’t help the pang of sympathy he felt for her. Everything she had ever known had gone, bombed away or blasted into smithereens and yet here she was, walking the same streets she’d walked all her young life, with no fear or concern.

They bred them tough on hive worlds. You had to respect that.

“Liselle,” he said. “I have to go with my brothers, but I don’t want to leave you here on your own. Now where is your sister?”

“I’m here. Leave her alone, Astartes man.”

The voice came from the shadows and Dashiel looked over his shoulder, unsettled by the fact that the new arrival hadn’t even so much as pinged his psychic radar. A young woman, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old was emerging from the same building that Liselle had just walked out of. She was tall and slim, with red hair tied back from her face. The style was too severe, pulling tight her young skin and making her look more haggard than she should.

But then…there might just be another reason for that haunted look. A look that Dashiel remembered with vivid clarity. An expression that had haunted his features before he had been taken from Siculi.

A slightly less delicate psychic probe and his suspicion was confirmed. The girl was witch-kin. A psyker – and she had been using her abilities to keep herself shielded from him. He understood. He understood far more than she could ever appreciate.

“I am not hurting her.” The Codicier turned to face the girl and she demonstrated no fear at his direct look. Her arms folded across her waist in a gesture of grim defiance as she studied the young Codicier.

“I don’t care. I’ve seen what you and your kind do. You Astartes. You’re not even human any more.” The girl moved to Liselle and reached for her little sister’s hand. Liselle snatched her hand away.

“This is Dashiel,” she said proudly, introducing him. “He’m blue.”

“I can see that, Liselle,” said the older girl. Her voice dropped imperceptibly. “That’s because he’s like me.”

Liselle goggled. She looked at her sister, then up at Dashiel, then back to her sister, trying to find the logic in what her sister had just said.

“No,” she said, eventually. “No. You’m and Dashiel in’t nothing alike. You’s got more hair’n him for a start.”

Dashiel’s lips twitched again involuntarily and even the hard-faced older sister seemed slightly amused by the workings of the little girl’s mind.

“I don’t mean that, Liselle. I mean…” The girl leaned down and whispered in the child’s ear. Liselle’s eyes gradually widened and understanding dawned.

“You’m a magic man!” She sounded delighted. “Like Kyra! Do you’m do tricks?”

“Liselle…” The older girl, whose name was apparently Kyra finally caught hold of her sister’s hand. “Keep your voice down. Not everyone thinks that people like me and…him…are fun. I’ve tried to tell you that.”

A child, barely into her powers – and already she could muster enough skill to keep a Codicier out of her thoughts. The concept of such power filled Dashiel with both intrigue and a creeping sense of dread.

A rogue psyker. She would need to be reported to the Inquisition. A psyker of such power could spell nothing but trouble if her abilities were not honed and reined in. They would come for her. They would take her, but they would not take the little sister.

They wouldn’t care about Liselle’s fate.

Nothing of this inner conflict showed on Dashiel’s face as he looked down at the two human girls. Liselle was still gazing up at him, a sense of wonder on her innocent little face, whilst Kyra was glaring at him, challenging him, threatening him without words. Go on, she dared him silently. Show me just how inhuman you’ve become.

Several futures unfolded themselves in front of him and he considered each one with careful intent. His decision was critical and whatever he decided, there would be a reckoning. Dashiel Gall may have been an Astartes, but he was also painfully human. Not enough years had yet passed for him to become truly hardened to the cruelties of the world, and so that frail, delicate human part of him that remained surfaced and took control.

He turned his hazel eyes onto Kyra and studied her intently. “Your parents…?” he began.

“Dead,” said Kyra, shortly. “It’s just us, now. Me and her.”

It was all Dashiel needed to hear to make up his mind. He waved his bolter and straightened up, a stern expression coming easily to his scarred face.

“Get out of here. I don’t want to see you again, do you understand me? It’s not a safe place for two children like you. Get off the streets until the Imperial Guard arrive and sort out housing for you. Go to the rescue shelter six blocks down, they will feed you. I have wasted enough time with you already. Go on. Go.” He waved his bolter again.

With that, he hardened his heart against the sight of the crumpled, discarded look on little Liselle’s face, turned away and began striding off to join his Battle Brothers on the eastern edge of town. He didn’t so much as look over his shoulder, but he felt the psychic brush, light as air, on his consciousness. Purplish sparks ran across the length of the psychic hood as her power was filtered by the device. Words formed in the back of his mind.

Thank you.

He paused briefly, then closed his mind to the psychic child and continued on his way. He arrived with the rest of the Blood Angels who nodded their acknowledgement of his arrival. Sergeant Laucian glanced at him.

“Dealt with?”

“Aye, sir. Dealt with.”

“Then let’s move on.” Laucian put a hand on Dashiel’s shoulder, demonstrating a compassion that he had not known the Sergeant possessed. “We’ve all been there at some point, Brother-Codicier. You will learn to deal with it. You must remember that we are so much more than we were. They are still human. We are not. We are Astartes.”

“Yes,” said Dashiel, nodding. “Yes, we are.”

And yet, as they headed into the eastern quadrant, he appreciated the fact that he had lived through that very human moment. It had served as a reminder. He had made a choice based on human feelings and sentiment. He had forgotten his place in the Imperium for the sake of a gap-toothed child.

The next time, he would not be so forgiving.

[END]

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