What follows is the first three chapters of Only War, one of my novel submissions to Black Library back in 2010. I will be serializing the first three chapters in roughly 2,000-3,000 word blocks, posted every couple of days (typically Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The total length of the three chapters of Only War is approximately 21,000 words.
Here is the setting: In the Arcadia Sector, a branch of the Tau Empire is impinging on the Imperium. Depleted due to other conflicts, the Imperial forces in this sector have not yet made a move against the xeno threat. The Tau wish to continue their expansion into a sparsely inhabited section of Imperial Space. In the meantime the two sides negotiate to continue the peace, while secretly making preparations for war. It is only a matter of time before a spark ignites a conflagration...
“This is a groxheap detail, sir.”
Arbitrator Martel ignored the gripe from his subordinate; he’d heard it before. But Trooper Barton was right. The detail was indeed a groxheap. The Adeptus Arbites were supposed to enforce the laws of the Imperium. Their duties encompassed many things, from rooting out heretical cults before they became firmly established to destroying large scale crime rings that the local police forces couldn’t handle. It did not include playing escort to a diplomat. Ambassadors should have their own bodyguards to protect them, or failing that, an escort provided by the local police. The Arbites were supposed to be above all that. But the local police could not be trusted to do this particular detail, and the reason for that was what made it all the more galling. This was no ordinary ambassador from a neighboring Imperial world. This was an Emperor-damned xeno.
The two Arbites waited in their idling armored squad car, another pair of troopers in the back seat. Ahead of them was another nondescript black car with tinted windows--the ambassador’s assigned transport. It was armored, but less so than the menacing Arbites vehicles. Its outward appearance was indistinguishable from those of many wealthy citizens. Parked in front of it was another squad car with four more Arbites inside.
The tau chancery on Anacostia was located on the administratum grounds of Anacostia City, segregated from the population. The wall that was taller than the chancery building and the residence it contained was constructed as much to keep the tau in as to keep the local populace out. The negotiations over the terms of the chancery complex’s construction had been long and painful. The planetary governor flatly refused to allow the tau to have a hand in its construction. The obvious but unstated reason was that it was an attempt to keep xeno contamination on Anacostia to a minimum. The presence in the city of a building constructed by xenos with blatantly non-human architecture was unacceptable. The tau, however, were willing to put up with these indignities. Considering the paranoia of the Imperium of Man, even achieving diplomatic relations at all was a victory for them.
The chancery and the adjacent residence building were constructed out of concrete using a style chosen by the human designers so as to minimize their importance. Vox-thieves and hidden pict-recorders were built into the structures with calculated deviousness, using technology of the highest caliber available to the planetary governor. Once the complex was completed, the tau embassy moved in and conducted a security sweep with their drones. Promptly the advanced tau scanners detected the spy gear, and most of it was removed. A few specific devices were left in place, so as to give the humans the false belief that they had outsmarted the tau. And to pass on disinformation.
The exteriors of the two buildings were without decoration, stark retangular structures with several windows on each floor, looking more like a prison complex than a diplomatic mission. On all four sides, the surrounding edifices of the administratum towered above, every ledge inhabited by gargoyles, every facade lavished with bas reliefs and engravings in High Gothic. By comparison the tau chancery was crude, ugly, and so insignificant as to escape notice among them. Everything about it was designed to demonstrate the inferiority of the tau next to the might of the Imperium.
“There he is,” said Barton.
“Get ready to move out,” ordered Martel.
The tau ambassador came walking out of the chancery with his aide. Martel watched him, simmering. Every fiber of his being said he should blow the xeno abomination’s head off. It would be so easy. He tightened his grip on his combat shotgun.
But orders were orders.
Por’el Nomu’a, the Viridis Sept’s ambassador to Anacostia, did not spend much time outside, so he didn’t have to look at his own building except when he traveled to and from the adjacent residence, or like today, on a visit to the planetary governor’s palace to meet with the foreign minister. It was not that the architectural insult was lost on the tau diplomat, rather, it was irrelevant to his mission, and he was far too experienced to allow something so obvious evoke an emotional response in him. Indignation would affirm the imperial superiority complex, while overt acknowledgment would likely engender further primitive dominance behavior. Nomu’a chose to simply ignore it.
He was allowed a tau driver, but the car itself was human in origin, and was escorted wherever it went. Both in front and behind, a pair of menacing Adeptus Arbites squad cars were always there. Por’el Nomu’a’s aide, a young Por’ui named Asal, walked with him to the front gate, where his assigned ambassadorial vehicle awaited him. The tau was dressed in his formal attire. His floor length gown was a rich burgundy, and the full hooded cape shined a rich shimmering cream in the sunlight, with a brocade of iridescent tau symbology. His shallow domed pol hat perched at a business-like angle upon his head, his dark braids streaming from beneath it.
Asal opened the car door for his superior and climbed in behind him. A simple nod to the water caste driver, and the vehicle, along with its close escort, began to move along the driveway heading towards the adjoining street.
The vehicle’s windows were tinted, so Por’el Nomu’a could gaze out into the city, but no one could see inside. They had an anti-laser coating and were ballistic-proof against most small arms. They would protect him against thrown rocks and autogun fire, but against something that fired heavy caliber explosive rounds like a bolter, all bets were off.
His attaché case in his lap, Por’el Nomu’a relaxed against the seat and watched the city go by. The city was young and extremely small by Imperium standards, with a population of only a few million. The sky was an unpolluted blue, visible between most of the buildings, and lining the wide thoroughfares there was even room for tall, flowering palms. The foliage here reminded him of Viridis, although the fronds here were a darker green, and not quite as vibrant as at home.
The street was filled with cars, the sidewalk with pedestrians. All of them going about their business: administratum adepts in their robes of various shades of grey, ecclesiarchs in their regalia, and the myriad civilians whose stations did not require strict uniforms. Mixing with them all, and universally ignored, were the lobotomized servitors mindlessly sweeping the streets and collecting the litter tossed on the ground. Nomu’a was used to seeing servitors now, and understood the function they performed in human society: the tedious, menial tasks that freed up other humans to perform the more interesting jobs. Tasks that in the Tau Empire that would be performed by drones, not mutilated citizens. Yet in a way, the servitors were contributing in their own way to the human version of the greater good, so at least in that respect it was commendable. And a philosophical bargaining chip, at that. Even so, he found the concept of intentionally lobotomizing members of one’s own species, criminals or not, to be repulsive. It was debatable whether or not execution was preferable, considering that was frequently the only alternative in this backward society.
The citizens of Anacostia went about their business, not taking much notice of the diplomat’s car nor its escort, other than to get out of the way. They were blissfully ignorant of the xenos in their midst. Many of them, on a personal level at least, might not object to having diplomatic relations with the tau. The economic and cultural benefits would be enormous. On a strictly official level, however, consorting with xenos was among the worst of heresies. But sometimes political realities superseded the law. And in this case those political realities were Nomu’a’s way in, the one chink in the armor in the Imperium that he was doing his best to exploit with good will, favorable proposals, and inexhaustible patience.
Once outside the city proper, the car and its escorts turned off the main thoroughfare, heading along a smaller road that wound its way up a large hill to the planetary governor’s palace. The hill was crowned by a classic star fort, its walls ten meters high and thirty thick, and topped by earthen berms dotted with palms and flower beds. Each of the seven bastions housed turreted defense lasers, aimed perpetually skyward. The walls themselves were made of ceramite from the local clay, gleaming a brilliant terra cotta in the sunlight.
As the cars approached, the massive baroque gates swung wide to admit them into the grounds. The main driveway was lined with Anacostian Eucalyptus, their branches vaulting a dozen meters overhead to form a thick canopy. The cars turned onto an access road well short of the palace itself, arcing around the southern wing and pulling up to an entrance to the southeast.
Por’ui Asal hopped out of the car and held the door, and Por’el Nomu’a climbed out under the watchful eye of the arbites, who had already formed around them. The envoy and his escort marched up the steps to the palace, where the arbites wordlessly transferred the escort duties to a pair of palace guards. Rather than the body armor and combat uniforms of the arbites, the palace guards were in full dress. They wore dark blue frock coats with gold piping, riding helmets, and white parade gloves. Their polished black boots clapped and echoed on the equally polished granite floor. While the sabers they wore were ceremonial, Por’el Nomu’a had no doubt the guards knew how to use them, along with their nickel plated laspistols.
Por’el Nomu’a was used to the cold treatment he received whenever he travelled to the palace. His escorts were always strictly correct with him, their faces masks of formality. Nomu’a knew not to attempt to be friendly with them, as such an attitude would likely repel them as ingratiating. The proper attitude was to be civil but unconcerned. He was familiar with some of the palace guards by now, who unlike the arbites did not wear visored helmets that covered half their faces. Occasionally he was able to make eye contact with them, and when this happened he always attempted to convey respectful recognition. Such exchanges were so subtle as to be nearly non-existent, but diplomacy was a game for the patient. Por’el Nomu’a was a perceptive tau, and in the year that he had served as ambassador, he sensed that the demeanor of the guards was beginning to soften.
They entered a outer office, and the robed administratum secretary looked up. “The ambassador is here,” he said into his vox reciever as Nomu’a and Asal approached his desk. Nomu’a noticed a slight change--in previous visits he had been referred to as “the xeno ambassador.” A small victory. “You can go in,” the secretary said a moment later, the first words a human had spoken to him today.
Nomu’a nodded to Asal, who took a seat. Nomu’a felt a twinge of sympathy. His aide would be sitting there, bored out of his mind, for as long he and the foreign minister talked. The secretary would certainly not engage him in any conversation.
The feeling was forgotten when he opened the door to the minister’s office, and saw Adept Darius Carino moving from behind his desk to greet him. Nomu’a walked in and closed the door behind him. In deference to human custom, Nomu’a had removed his pol hat upon entering the building and carried it under his left arm. The tension that had been in the air since leaving the chancery had dropped palpably the moment he entered Carino’s office. Darius Carino was a man of medium build, with thick grey hair that was coming close to match the color of his robes.
“It’s good to see you, Por’el,” said Carino with a genuine smile, gripping his hand firmly. When the two first met, there had been hesitation on both sides; the tau unfamiliar with the human version of the custom, and the human unsure as to how a handshake would be received. The subsequent discussion of greeting customs among cultures had served as an icebreaker, and now it was natural for both of them.
“It is good to see you as well, Adept,” replied the tau formally. He sat down, bringing his attaché case onto his lap. “I have brought some tisane,” he said, producing a pair of small packets.
“Did you? Excellent,” Carino said with anticipation, walking over to a cabinet. He switched on a small heating element under a pot of water. “From Viridis?”
“Yes. The eucalyptus tea you made last time reminded me of it, so I made sure to bring some this time.”
“How is your son?”
Nomu’a smiled. “From looking at the picts of the city he says that your buildings are ‘pointy.’ He says he wants to be an emissary, so he can travel from star system to star system to see new cities.”
“I thought he wanted to be a merchant, trading in spacecraft components.”
“That was last month. Either way, he adores space travel. So whatever he does, I am sure it will end up being related to that.” The tau chuckled, his laugh a throaty warble. “Perhaps he truly belongs in the air caste.”
“Well, I’m sure he will excel in whatever he ends up doing. He leaves for his apprenticeship soon, doesn’t he?”
“When he is seven. Early next year.”
“Ah, yes,” said Carino, preparing two cups and emptying a tisane packet into each. He took the water pot off the heater and filled the two cups. He placed one in front of Por’el Nomu’a and then moved around behind his desk with the other and sat down.
Nomu’a opened his attaché case and retrieved a tau data slate. He leaned forward and handed it to Carino. “My government has made some amendments to their trade proposal. I hope that Governor Siderone will find them more to his liking.”
Carino put on his reading spectacles and examined the slate. “There is still great resistance to making an agreement of any kind,” he said carefully, “but I can assure you the governor will read them.”
Even accepting the data slate was a concession. The Tau Empire’s first proposals had been rejected out of hand unless they were delivered on parchment--yet another draconian demand required of the tau. Nomu’a suspected that the reasons behind it were many, but all related to human xenophobia. Fear of tau contamination, fear that a data slate might have spy sensors embedded within, or even fear that one might contain some kind of bomb or device intended to kill the governor. Yet one day, without explanation, the policy was changed, and Adept Carino began accepting proposals on data slate. Nomu’a had never received any of them back. Undoubtedly the humans decided they could learn from the technology. Nomu’a was happy to oblige. The technology involved was rudimentary by tau standards, and anything to increase the human thirst for tau technology was considered a step forward along the path to expanded relations.
Nomu’a spent well over an hour going over the document with Carino, pointing out the changes and making clarifications. When he left, his aide was still sitting in the same seat waiting for him.
"Let us go, Por’ui,” he said, and Asal got up slowly, stiff despite his youth. The guards escorted them back to the doors, and by the time they arrived, the arbites were waiting for them.
After they were settled in the car, the driver looked over his shoulder. “Where to, sir?” he asked in tau’sia, the tau language.
“Surprise me, Por’la,” replied Nomu’a, completing what had become a running joke. Nomu’a traveled only between the chancery and the palace, except for the few times he been to the spaceport--when he first arrived on the planet, and the time he traveled home to Viridis in person. The diplomat’s car and its two escorts moved as one, leaving the palace grounds and heading back into the city. The view of the skyline against the bay was beautiful, but rapidly became less interesting as the cars descended the hill, ultimately becoming lost among the buildings.
Por’ui Asal turned to his superior. “Did the minister look favorably upon the proposal?” he ventured.
“He did,” replied Nomu’a, “but that doesn’t mean much. He usually does. Sometimes I believe that if Adept Carino was the planetary governor, we’d have had a trade agreement long ago. I’m sure we will be contacted within a few rotaa and told that the proposal is unacceptable.” He sighed. “For the most inane reasons, of course.”
“It is, but every rotaa we remain here and maintain a dialog is a victory. The gue’la need time to become used to us. They are an older race than we, and their prejudices are deeply ingrained. If we are to win them over, we must have patience.”
“Forgive my presumption, but with each rejection I cannot but feel that the gue’la are merely buying time.”
Nomu’a looked at Asal. It was a very perceptive observation, one he had made himself long ago. The humans were trying to buy time, but for what he was not certain. Originally he assumed that it was to allow the population to come to terms with xenos in their midst. The presence of the tau embassy notwithstanding, the exposure of Anacostian society to the tau was extremely limited. The tau had contact with the arbites, the palace guards, the foreign minister, and some minor functionaries. To all but the most curious of civilians--and curiosity had never been encouraged in Imperial society--even the presence of tau on the planet was probably no more than a rumor. That fact had not changed since he arrived. If the humans were serious about making some kind of agreement, negotiations should have progressed further than they had, and with it, the exposure. If the humans did not want an agreement at all, there would no reason to maintain the embassy. They would simply dismiss the tau and be done with it. They were trying to hold the Tau Empire’s interest, but for what purpose Nomu’a did not know.
From his squad car trailing close behind Nomu’a, Arbitrator Martel scanned the streets, suspicious of everyone and everything. Anacostia was rather dull in terms of criminal activity. The population of the world was measured in the hundreds of millions, which made it a backwater planet by imperial standards. Still, like all planets, without the presence of the Adeptus Arbites to keep the populace intimidated, it would fall into heresy given the slightest opportunity.
The worst heresy of all was challenging the rightful authorities, the Arbites themselves. It didn’t matter that the Arbites were escorting a xeno, which some Imperial citizens might consider a heresy in itself. That was not for imperial citizens to judge. If any would presume to do so, they would face the Emperor’s justice, which was swift and merciless.
And so Martel was suspicious of everyone. Every pedestrian the detail passed was scrutinized: from the robed ecclesiarch with a cleft lip, lazy eye, and two missing fingernails on his left hand, to the haughty merchant in expensive finery who was wearing no less than eight rings, to the group of adolescents making game of a refuse-collecting servitor by casually hurling bits of trash at it. All of them were a potential threats, and if any of them so much as twitched in a way that Martel didn’t like, he would see them all arrested and potentially executed.
It wasn’t just the people that were suspect. Every vehicle on the road could represent trouble. Every storefront, alley, and rooftop deserved attention as well. A threat could come from anywhere.
Like a fourth floor hab-block window across the street.
He triggered his vox bead. ”Ambush!”
Stay tuned for Part 2...