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Keep the Freckles

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“What is it like, then? Even if you don’t call it fear, captain, something’s eating you.”

“Is this off the record?”

“It is.” Mersadie nodded – turning the statement into a lie immediately as she blink-clicked Loken’s mournful shrug.

“Did you just..?”

“Off the official record, anyway. The stories that matter most are the ones we can never tell. It’s safe with me – just that I wanted to remember you, like this. Without the distortion of ordinary memory. If I may be candid, captain, I’m frightened by whatever lies ahead. “

It was well into the night by ship-time, not that there were really days or nights here – least of all during warp transfer. Troops and crew kept to a stringent schedule, and even the Retreat grew quiet and emptied out somewhat during this part of the ship’s 24-hour cycle. For sanity’s sake.

Loken squinted at the shoulder-guard he’d been working at with the lapping powder, and finding it burnished within an inch of its life sighed and reluctantly set it aside, the pot of powder and polishing cloth beside it. They were due to arrive on the outskirts of the Isstvan system in just under a week, and he had nothing but bad feelings about that entire plan. He heaved another sigh, and let his hands drop into his lap uselessly.

Mersadie shot him a sidelong look. The deformity of war-geared overgrowth of muscle and bone that marked all Astartes made him look all the more distant, alien, alienated – sitting on the far corner of his cot-bed in his near-empty room, looming out of the half-light like a lonely crag. Unexpectedly, she smiled to herself at the unbidden image of clouds wreathing his head, the miniscule flecks of white sea-birds circling him, making their nests under the overhang of his brow, the ocean lapping at his feet. The kind of thing she’d have dismissed as useless to a documentarist less than a year ago, ill-suited to the mood of the project, to the spirit of the Crusade, to the moment - lacking coherence. But now, she only turned the smile inwards and blink-clicked again – coherence had fallen out of the narrative somewhere around Davin, and laughter at least kept the creeping uncertainty at bay.

The asking of questions too held comfort – inquiring was what she did for a living, after all. The chase after elusive truths was easy to get lost in, the heart of any matter lay so deep down that it was easy to dive into the search and not surface in the wider world again for weeks, to go untouched by it.

“So…”She tried again “What is this not-fear that eats at you, captain? What’s it like?”

“We do our best not to dwell. The Thousand Sons meditate on enumerations and we likewise have our mental exercises, though First Captain Abaddon mostly just tears apart combat training servitors – clearing one’s mind is often a matter of override, of forgetting, of conscious refusal to pay heed to fear and pain. Not that there is very much to pay heed to – there was extensive conditioning”

He paused a moment, unsure how to go on.

“As you see, such coping abilities do leave one at a disadvantage in verbalizing nuanced states of mind. A vague unease, a wrongness rears its head sometimes – it did at the Whisperheads. As for what lies ahead, whatever that may be…” He trailed off.

“You wonder whether even the fortitude instilled in the Astartes in their making will be enough?”

“You could say that, mistress Oliton. We were not bred for uncertainty. Not in matters of trust in the chain of command, not in matters of loyalty to our own. It is natural in times of confusion to long for the purity of combat – but without trust in the soundness of one’s orders, that purity dissolves. And what remains…”

“What does remain?” Mersadie was comfortably on the trail of enquiry, in pursuit of answers. “What do you still experience clearly, without your systems overriding it?”

Loken glanced over at her, then just as quickly looked away. Half closed his rain-grey eyes and clasped his hands together in his lap, his massive fingers interlacing tightly.

“I am made for war. All else is distant. War is where I belong, though I know that this is hard for your kind to understand. When it goes right, it makes sense to me the way nothing else does, it is home. And when it does not, mistress Oliton… Do you know what my least favorite part of it all is?” He did not look up to see Mersadie shake her head.

“The aftermath. We move beyond the reach of fear for the most part, we shrug off despair in the moment-to-moment of our work. There is total detachment, and even fear of death is an alien notion in the face of that numbing peace. But that peace ends. All battles end. It wears off. And what’s left behind, well… “

“Our work” Mersadie noted the euphemism, wondering if it were for her sake or his own that Loken had used the phrase.

“Guilt and regret are bestowed on us in equal measure to the rest of humanity.” He continued, his voice hoarse, subdued “If the orders come from a justified authority, if what all of it was for makes sense, then clarity of mind is easier to retain – and in any case, our next engagement lets us rise above it all on the updraft of the heat of battle soon enough. Killing xenos sits easy with us, killing human combatants is justifiable - but the killing of our own, and of surrendered troops, and of leaders come to parley - everything that happened in our campaign against the Auretians, everything that’s happened since Davin… Faith in the soundness of our orders is the ultimate and only absolution. And Horus...” Loken stopped abruptly.

Even without his armor, dressed only in fatigue trousers, with his freckled shoulders hunched forward, Loken was no small man. Yet looking over at him - his head bowed, hands clasped, one bare foot covering the other - Mersadie couldn’t shake the impression that Captain Garviel Loken was trying his best to disappear.

“But you don’t always need orders to kill, do you?” She asked, startled by the sharp, cutting edge in her own voice. The way he looked up, eyes wide and hazy, almost made her wish she hadn’t asked. Almost. “The civilians on the embarkation deck.”

“I…” He turned to face her, and looking past her with unfocussed eyes said quietly “I was afraid.”

He sat silent and still for a while, staring at what Mersadie guessed was a blank piece of wall just past her left shoulder. A bereft look flickered across his features. Mersadie wondered if she’d just pushed too far – in their own way, her boundaries as a documentarist had blurred. Karkasy had paid with his life for crossing them. Since Davin, the story had fallen apart in her hands, the structures to which she hoped to pin it crumbling as she watched. There would be no documentary, and only questions were left – endless questions without structure or meaning. Questions, and human beings, and confusion and pain which she felt she had no right to inflict. What good would it do now, to grill him about those deaths? Still, she blink-clicked another pict - the disorientation, the guilt, the scars and the freckles hers to keep in the incorruptible stasis of her memory-coils.

She pulled her knees up to her chin, and reached out in the only way she knew – flinging a question out as far back in time, away from all of this, as she could fathom.

“What do you remember of Cthonia? From before you enlisted?”

“Not much.” Loken shrugged, regaining his composure. He looked into her face, as though searching for something. “How much do you remember of your life before you came to make remembrance of the Crusade, Mersadie?”

“Mostly that it seems long ago” She confided, her own first-name strange to her in his voice “Almost unreal. And it’s only been a year.”

“Imagine decades. Add to that our extensive conditioning, that reconfiguring of human flesh and mind. Many never make it through, both minds and bodies break under the strain. Much about some procedures I have chosen not to remember, or recall too closely.” He sighed “And Cthonia, with all my mortal days is even further back than that.”

Her question, cast with so much hope, had failed to illuminate anything that either of them could hold onto, burning its potential out in the distant void of the past. In the quasi-nocturnal quiet of the ship, as it churned its way through the warp, the two were adrift. For a little while, they sat in silence. Mersadie closed her eyes for a moment, imagining that the bed was a raft over dark waters, rocked by moon-glossed black wavelets whose quiet undulations reached out to every horizon.

“I remember the moon.” Loken’s voice was soft, distant. “Cthonia has a single, enormous white moon. You could see it through the night-time smog, clear and bright like nothing could dim it…”

Without opening her eyes, Mersadie smiled “Terra’s moon is nothing like that. It looks small most of the time, sometimes white and sometimes more like bone and sometimes, when it’s low on the horizon, huge and glowing a dim burnished yellow. They taught us about why this happens, but I can never remember much about it other than that it’s unhelpfully called “the moon illusion”. It looks heavy then for some reason, like a strange, golden fruit so full and so ripe that it will fall from the branch…” The sound of someone shifting their weight on the other end of the bed snapped her out of her reverie “I’m sorry captain, I’m babbling. I must be tired, I’m half dreaming. I had better go. I’m sorry to have overstayed my…”

“Don’t…”

Mersadie looked over at Loken. Somehow, between him turning to face her, and her hugging her knees to her chest over the course of their conversation, the distance between them had shrunk considerably.

“Don’t apologize. It was good to listen to you talk for a change.”

She made to get up.

“And you’d best stay here tonight. It’s hardly a good idea for a lone remembrancer to be wandering around this part of the ship at unusual hours, let alone one associated with certain out-of-favour Astartes captains.”Loken smiled, his eyes soft “Besides, I liked hearing about Terra. You’re always asking me questions. Tell me something more of what you remember instead.”

He leaned back against the wall, and closed his eyes with a finality that suggested he wasn’t about to get up and see anyone to the door. Mersadie shuffled backwards until her back was likewise against the wall. Glanced sideways at the impassive form of the captain, his chest rising and falling with slow, easy breaths. Pale, scarred skin flecked with freckles the colour of autumn leaves. Up-close in the dim gloaming of the room he looked almost human – almost. The neat, dark circles of power-armour ports surrounded with the bruise-like discoloration where the black carapace came closest to the skin spoke of something else entirely. She closed her eyes and continued:

“The yellow moon was always my favourite. When it’s only a half-moon it looks like a golden bowl about to tip over, and spill some kind bright, luminous nectar all through the sky. There’s always something unsteady about it, something of falling. I guess it’s because golden moons never last – they rise higher, and then shrink, become ordinary as the night wears on. By the way, shouldn’t I let you sleep? Do you need sleep?”

“Not in any hurry. Eventually. One shouldn’t abuse the ol’ Catalepsean lobe when it isn’t called for. This being said, I can quite comfortably go without sleep for as long as two weeks, should the need arise.” Mersadie detected a note of almost childlike pride in the Astartes’ tone. “Why the moon?”

“Some watch clouds and make up stories about the shapes and creatures they see there. The clouds shift too fast, fading, never repeating – so as a kid, I decided I’d have the moon instead. Home was a tiny place on a high floor in a hive-city, so I saw plenty of the sky. Never dared believe I could end up passing beyond it though, until I made it into the remembrance project. As much as I wanted to be part of this, to be up here, I think I wanted to be out of there more than anything else.”

“I think it’s like that for all who leave their home-worlds so far behind. I guess it must have been that way for me. Growing up on Cthonia is grim business…”

“Where is it not?” Mersadie chuckled grimly.

“The future we were paving the way for, I had hoped…”

 Mersadie opened her eyes, and found herself glad to have held in the bitter laugh that bubbled up inside her at those words – Loken had a haunted look about him. She had hoped to get off-world and write about a Great Crusade and its noble soldiery – that she had been disillusioned with the project over the course of a year was not even a loss of faith. It was certainly in no way commensurate to the crumbling of all foundations Loken was struggling to weather – it was not even comprehensible to him that Astartes could turn on their own, that his adored Primarch, the father and very soul of his Legion, could be anything other than perfect and right, that the chain of command could fail and the Crusade he lived and breathed for could falter in its track, its principles and direction called into question.

Searching for words and coming up short, she brushed her hand across his.

“I’m sorry…”

His skin was warm to the touch, almost feverish.

Loken noted how cool and small the hand that had briefly flitted though his grasp felt. How somehow significant, distantly meaningful.

What do you remember of Cthonia?

“I don’t remember much. No way to interface with places that might have been ‘home’ now, nothing that I could go back to, how I am. And I don’t want to go back. Or remember. Anything.”

His eyes seemed huge in his face, his pupils blasted wide, half with dusk, half with whatever endorphins a body doped its scrambling, lost mind with at times when words crawled too far under the skin, and hands met, however briefly, in the secret handshake of people eager to disappear with one-another’s help. Heavy brow, nose broken several times over and healed a little crooked. Mersadie rocked up onto her knees, facing him – the way he slouched, she was briefly the taller of the two. Hesitated for the fraction of a second, tension and sparking static running between her solar plexus and the pit of her stomach, the sudden shrinking of the distance between them vertiginous. Leant down with a sense of leaping into black water off a tall cliff, to remember nothing.

He tilted his head, his mouth coming up to meet hers, clumsy and expectant and inhumanly warm, bumping teeth for the fraction of a second. The jolt of first contact like biting down on tin foil, or licking a battery. Mersadie pressed herself against him, the perpetual fever-heat of the absurdly fast Astartes metabolism welcome, seeping into her skin. She felt his arms come up around her, slow, as though uncertain, one hand coming to rest – carefully, ever so carefully – on the nape of her neck, his thumb one side of it, his fingers – the other. She felt small enough to vanish in him, her own hands asking wordless questions of where skin met armour-ports along his back, of where a ridge-scar stretched, of where his jaw hinged and the skin was surprisingly soft, vulnerable with a frantic, hammering pulse, of anywhere she could get her hands to. And her mouth, she thought. And then she’d ask him what it all feels like, later, she decided.

Loken lifted the remembrancer into his lap, her robes bunching up around her waist, the carbon-dark skin of her thighs exposed, soft. His hands moved of their own accord as she moved against him, finding everywhere forms that felt long-ago-familiar, but cold to touch now, small in his hands, almost frightening to touch for fear of breaking. Still welcome. What do you remember of Cthonia?  Something like this, nothing like this, he’d have to learn all over again. He’d be happy to learn. Feeling himself getting hard, his twin hearts thudding, her tiny mouth sucking spots down his neck, breath on his skin, in his ear, wet, ticklish. I don’t want to remember anything. Sliding his hands over her buttocks, under her robes, splaying his fingers out over her ribcage. A small breast nudging the palm of his hand, his cock pressed against the inside of her thigh, and then vertigo. And suddenly he can’t move, and there is only nausea, and terror, his jaw locking. A wrongness. Battle hormones flooding his system – its one response to stress, but it’s still not helping, there’s not enough air and his teeth are gritted so tight that it hurts. Backing into the wall, gagging.

There was extensive conditioning.

I don’t want to remember.

Mersadie leaned back, finding the flush drained from Loken’s face as quickly as it had come, his breathing short, rapid, eyes clamped shut. Pressed into the wall like he’s trying to back away from her but can’t.

“Loken? Garvi?”

No response. Only a noise like he’s trying to swallow and can’t. She slipped from his lap, smoothed her robes down, wanting badly, so badly, to reach out and touch him. To brush at his freckled cheek, try and make it better. Knowing better from the way he was almost shaking, tense.

“I’m…” Mersadie stopped herself, hands hanging useless at her sides. Stupidly wondered whether she should get him a glass of water, glanced about the room helplessly. Looked back at Loken, who hadn’t moved. Who’d have ever thought that someone’s stillness could be so frightening, so painful to behold? “There was extensive conditioning” he’d said. What the fuck did they do to you, when they made you? She looked away, knowing her anger would change nothing, no more than touch, or tenderness or any words. Nothing could “make it better”.

She sighed, lowered herself quietly onto the cot next to him, keeping her distance. For some reason it hurt to be unable to touch him, to reach him. Leaned back against the wall. The best she could do was stay.

 “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. Not unless you want me to. I’m here, Garvi.”

Loken turned his head towards her, opened his eyes – remote, almost unseeing, glazed. He drew a ragged breath and did not notice Mersadie blink-click as she looked into his face.

The stories that matter most are the ones we can never tell. All that is left, is to bear witness.

To keep the freckles, and the terror and the pain. Forever.