Small Talk

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The memories were vivid still. He had relived the fall of Lo'su every night for as long as he could remember.

It was the smell, more than anything. The smell of spent munitions, the ozone tang of energy discharge. More than that, far stronger, was the stench of spilt blood, the putrid tang of pulped organs, the retching smear of excrement. His own, in part. He'd soiled himself somewhere between having his legs shattered and losing a finger.

The Space Marine had found him. It was a monster in blue armour, trimmed in black. The flat-faced visor of the helmet locked onto him, and an armoured gauntlet gripped his backplate, yanking him up and off his hooves.
He'd screamed, crying in pain. The Space Marine didn't seem to care.
"This one is still alive, Brother-Sergeant!"
"Let me see him," the Sergeant replied, striding forward into view. He was head and shoulders taller than the Shas warrior, bareheaded with helmet tucked under his arm.
"He is dressed as a soldier." The Marine holding him felt it necessary to state the obvious.
The Tau's bloody lips parted. "This world... belongs... to the Tau Empire..."
The Sergeant slapped him. He hit the ground and blacked out for a moment. A tooth went bouncing away across the war-wreaked courtyard.
"This world belongs to the God-Emperor!" the giant boomed, turning back to his subordinate. "That one is of no importance; a child, nothing more. Let him crawl back to his mother's teat. Perhaps his bawling will inspire some fear in his comrades."
The Giants left. The Shas was crying. Two weeks away from his Trial By Fire, he should have been ready for this. He was not. He had been helpless, he had been humiliated, and even his enemies thought so little of him they even refused to treat him as an enemy, and had dumped him in disgust.

*    *    *

Shas'El Dal'yth Aro showered away the sweat from his fevered dreams, and focused on the day ahead. There was a chance to save this colony; for three rotations, Lo'su had been back under Tau control. Now, as then, the Imperium was sending warriors to take it. The Shas'Ar'Tol doubted the Gue'la had force enough to take the planet this time. Instead, the invaders sought to conquer with words, seeking diplomacy where weapons failed them.

He dressed in a formal parade-uniform, and stepped into the cool spring morning. The sleek, off-white towers of the Lo'su colony were stark contrast to the blue-black leaves of the local flora, but the plants were not the subject of the Shas'El's attention. His eyes were locked firmly on the squatting warbirds of the Imperial delegation.
"Those craft..." he rubbed the scars on his face absently, old memories stirring. Thunderhawk, they called it. The nearest vessel was a Space Marine transport.
He took the long way to the habitation complex, not wishing to be present if it could at all be avoided. He assured himself it was because he was a warrior, not a diplomat. That seemed reasonable; he had nothing to contribute, and simply standing guard was meaningless. If the Gue'la caused any trouble, they would be annihilated by overwhelming numbers. It was sound reasoning.
And yet, it made him feel no better.

He had stalled for as long as he dared, and surrendered to fate, when voices came to him from the nearest stairwell. It led up to a balcony, and by the sound of the voices it was currently occupied by at least two of the Gue'la.
"-a worthwhile session."
A long pause answered. El'Aro crept up a few steps, listening carefully.
"I do not approve."
"Of that I am very much aware... sir."
The disapproving voice was strong. It was quiet, yet even so every word was delivered with great force. The man could whisper in a gale, and all would hear him clearly.
"It is not my place to question your mission, of course."
"Yet you do so frequently. I appreciate you do not like this mission, but I beg patience from you. Please, try to be polite, try to be helpful, and Throne's sake try not to start a war."
The louder voice did not answer straight away. El'Aro was halfway up the stairs now, and struck with a sudden self image of a Tau Commander skulking up the stairs, straightened and pretended to admire the intricate ceramic designs above the handrail.
"I will keep your requests in mind. Go and do as you will."
"And where will you go, sir?"
"Go?" the great voice was puzzled. "I will be here."
"Doing what, exactly?"
"Waiting for you to return. Go, if you would."

Footsteps approached the Shas'El, with slightly more haste than a man who was leaving of his own accord. The aging, hunched Gue'la almost barged into him.
"Oh! My apologies!"
El'Aro tried to recover the situation with a polite offer of assistance, but the Gue'la was already down the stairs and gone. A few moments later, a Shas'La emerged from a shaded alcove and followed at a respectful distance.
Rising up the steps, El'Aro was at once drawn to the remaining man. A Space Marine. He gave an involuntary shudder at the sight of the giant; it was so like his nightmares he thought for a moment he was still dreaming.
The giant was wearing the same blue and black armour as the warriors decades ago. It was stood facing the meeting hall, the fierce helm staring at the doors as though they offended him. It did not seem to react at first, then as he drew closer the giant's head turned to him.
"Shas'El. I was concerned for your welfare."
El'Aro turned from the giant, focusing instead of Por'vre J'karra. She was dressed in a humble saffron robe, wearing a smile that made it clear she knew the Shas'El was on the backfoot.
He concentrated on pitching his voice in the most self-assured manner he could. "I had important matters to attend to. I meant no disrespect."
"Of course. I understand entirely." She cast a glance to the Space Marine. "He seems to like you."
El'Aro followed her gaze. The Gue'la warrior was still watching him.
"It's probably because you are both warriors," Vre'J'Karra said to fill the silence. "You two are in a similar position, both honour guards in these proceedings. I'm sure that's why he has taken an interest."
"I am not." El'Aro answered. He felt like he'd been target locked.

The female Por stepped into the firing line, meeting the metallic gaze of the Space Marine. "Is there anything we may do for you, honoured guest?"
Silence. The giant was staring right through her.
"Forgive me," she said. "I have failed to consider that our cultures are different. On our world, it is considered impolite not to answer a question. I understand you meant no offense, of course."
"No." the giant rumbled.
"I'm sorry."
"There is nothing you can do for me." the giant seemed to think for a moment. "Thank you." it added coarsely.
The Por turned to El'Aro and shrugged. "I'll leave you two alone then."

The Shas'El stepped to the railing, as much to escape the view of the Space Marine as anything. He glanced down at the flowers, pink and yellow planted to provide the most pleasing visual arrangement possible. The market stalls at the north end were silent, but within the hour traders would come and set up their wares, and the day would truly begin. He wondered what onlookers would make of the sight of a Shas'El and a Gue'la Space Marine stood together on the balcony.
El'Aro's spine tingled unpleasantly. "...are you still staring at me?"
"No." the giant answered bluntly.
"It feels like you are..." El'Aro hissed. The giant seemed not to care.
"Why are you so interested in me anyway?"
The giant finally moved something beside his head, turning to face the Shas'El. "I remember your face. I have seen you before."
The giant pointed a finger toward the east end of the market, by the city gates. "There."

El'Aro shuddered. A sudden wash of memories hit him all at once. The sounds, the smells, the sights... for an instant he was a Shas'Saal again, crippled and bleeding on the broken pavement.
"You... were here."
The Astartes nodded.
"Which one were you?" El'Aro looked closely at the Power Armour of his counterpart. "I don't recognise any of your markings."
"I was a Novitae." the giant answered. My Master found you. My Brother-Sergeant spared you. I do not know why."
"Novitae?" El'Aro probed his mind for the meaning of the term. "As in 'Novice'? You were a cadet? A trainee?"
The giant pondered the terms. "Yes, I suppose that is accurate. I believe you were little more than a Novitae yourself."
"I am a Shas'El now. I have come a long way since that day."
The giant removed his helmet with deliberate care. El'Aro watched from the corner of his eye. The giant's face was astonishingly free of blemish, though faint lines criss-crossed his skin, suggesting wounds that had been inflicted, and subsequently healed. His hair was raven black, and tied in a topknot to keep it out of the way.

"You are afraid of me." the giant stated.
El'Aro did not rise to it.
"I can tell." the Astartes continued. "You avoided the meeting, you displayed anxiety, even panic when you saw me, and when you realised I had been present here before. You are afraid of me."
El'Aro growled. "I thought you were meant to be polite?"
The giant smiled. "Eavesdropping is not polite, Shas'El. But yes... I was instructed to be polite. I believe etiquette dictates small talk in these situations."
The Shas'El laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. "Really? You are talking to me here because you think it is polite?"
The Space Marine nodded.
"Well, let us do this properly!" El'Aro extended a hand theatrically. "I am Shas'El Dal'yth Aro, commander of the Hunter Cadre charged with the defence of this city."
Now it was the Space Marine who appeared unsettled. He slowly, carefully, took the Shas'El's hand. El'Aro kept his face straight, despite the fact the giant's grip hurt like hell. "Sergeant Ixo. Supernovan Ninth Company. Escort detail."
"What do you think of this city, Ixo? Be frank with me." El'Aro plunged forth in a strange form of joviality, enjoying this strange new power he had discovered over his childhood horror.
Ixo sighed, turning to rest on the balcony. Servos whirred softly to themselves as the reinforced banister took some of his weight. He was so tall he could sit on it with his feet still on the ground.
"You want a frank answer? I cannot stand this place. I did not wish for this duty. I have dedicated my life to war, yet I am forced to babysit some decrepid invalid who believes your people will abandon this world if he says the right words at the right time."
El'Aro was impressed. He followed suit of his counterpart, resting on the railing. "You know..." he paused, realising how unwise his comments would be. He was being childish, and that had no place here.
"Yes?" Ixo asked.
"No, please. I will not be offended."
El'Aro shrugged, and took the plunge. "I could always have your diplomat shot. That'd get us both out of this duty."
Ixo laughed. The sound caused Tau on the neighbouring blocks to look across at the pair.
"No, no. We cannot have that. It would have to appear an accident." Ixo answered, smiling to himself. "Grendel is an old man. Perhaps he would lose his footing on the stairs?"
El'Aro shook his head. "No, no. He would be in a hospital within minutes and back on his feet by sunset. He would have to leave the city, explore the countryside. He could admire the waterfalls at Bo'sun'ar. They are magnificent."
Ixo nodded. "Yes, the terrain there is quite suitable. I'm sure I could push him off a cliff without anyone noticing."
"I'll arrange a transport to leave within the hour."
"Thank you."

The two stood together in silence, enjoying the shared image of Grendel's untimely death, and strangely bonded by the experience. El'Aro's thoughts progressed to the next logical step.
"There would be war." he stated flatly.
Ixo shrugged. "War happens. War is what we exist for."
El'Aro glanced down at his uniform. It was ceremonial, yet still essentially a fully-functional suit of Shas combat armour. "I would like to think I am more than just an object to be sent to war."
Ixo nodded. "I suppose that is to be expected. I, of course, am honoured to do the Emperor's Work."
"Except when it involves guarding old diplomats."
The Marine grunted. "I walked right into that," he conceeded.

The giant replaced his helmet once again. Grendel had returned, muttering to himself about being stalked by soldiers. He nodded to Ixo, and stepped back into the chamber. The two Shas'La remained outside, watching the Supernovan closely.
"After you," El'Aro beckoned to the door.
"Thank you." Ixo's augmented voice boomed back. "I would like you to know something, Shas'El. I believe there will be war here again. If that happens, and we meet on the field of battle, I will show you no mercy."
"Charming," El'Aro spat back.
"However, it will not be personal."
The Shas'El considered these words. "That... that almost sounded friendly, Ixo."
But Ixo wasn't listening. He had returned inside, and as Vre'J'Kaara stepped onto the balcony from the other direction, El'Aro accepted he too had to suffer in his duty.
"Did the two of you have a nice time?" J'Karra asked, a hint of mockery in her voice.
"Oh yes," El'Aro replied. "You know, I think I will sleep well tonight..."

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