Pax Imperialis (not to be confused with the official comic of the same title) is a Warhammer 40,000 short story by Namewithheld focused on the Imperial Navy (based on space combat from the Rogue Trader role-playing game). This article bears some spelling fixes, additional formatting, internal links, and added section names..
“TO: Commander Vyn, hon. master of Pax Imperalis
FROM: Vice-Admiral Jannik Loren
You are to take your vessel to sub-sector 33.1 A-Obscura. An enemy reaver (DESIGNATED: End of Days) has been sighted in this region and presents an unacceptable risk to chartist shipping. You are to BURN, VENT, or take her as a PRIZE.”
-Transmitted 411.M41 Received by Astropath Krern
At the tail end of the dog watch, the Pax Imperialis was tended only by midshipmen – whose education was better served at night shifts than day shifts – the common voidmen – whose labor never ceased, even at night – and by the tech-priests whose communion with their Machine God was pure enough to transcend the need for sleep. The rest of the ship – the gun crew, the armsmen, the underofficers, the astromancers, the tech-wrights and armorers, the twistcatchers and the able voidmen – they slept in hammocks, by their work stations, in quarters both spacious and cramped alike (depending on their station, ranks in the nobility and various comissional benefits).
However, none of them slept as poorly as her commander.
For, on the tail end of the dog watch, Commander Vyn was trying to strangle her pillow in her sleep.
The harsh percussion of a snare drum snapped her out of old memories and she sat up, her hair a poorly kempt blond explosion that she had to brush aside to see beyond the tip of her nose. The luminators in her quarters came to flickering life and the door burst open as Sub-Ensign 3rd Class Drexler Hue ran in, carrying her coat, gloves, cap, baton, scabbard, monomolecular sword and hellpistol. He tripped over his own foot and crashed to the ground, sending the whole pile clattering across the floor. The only thing that didn’t land on the ground was the cap, which Vyn caught with a tattooed arm and shoved onto her head.
“Ensign!” She glared at him.
Idiot. She thought to herself, walking down the corridor that separated her quarters from the bridge. The alarms that continued to rattle through the ship were as comfortingly familiar as they were worrying: The Beat to Quarters indicated the need be ready for potential battle. The alarm for an actual call to arms-stations was quite a bit more strident. And, at the dog’s watch, potentially lethal: Even the most disciplined crew in the Navy would be hard pressed to ready themselves in less than a half hour.
Hue followed behind her, speaking quickly. “Lt. Desna was on hand as senior watch officer. She sounded off, and so, I fetched you.”
Vyn nodded, sliding her coat on. Crew – mostly underofficers heading from their quarters to their postings throughout the ship – stepped to the side and saluted to her. The new ones stopped to stare: With a crew complement of twenty seven thousand souls, it was easy for even a lieutenant (especially one not assigned to the bridge) to go months into a voyage without seeing their Commander. Vyn paid them no mind.
It is only those who don’t learn to deal with it that I can waste annoyance on, she thought. She came to the door of the bridge. It opened and she took a moment to survey the familiar sight: The command pits, the cogitators, the wall mounted servitor calculance monitors, the sweeping vista-plates. As of now, there was nothing much to see in the void behind, nothing visible to the eye, save for the star of the system (as of yet unnamed) and the pale purple marble that was the system’s major gas giant, the only planet within visual range.
Vyn stepped briskly towards the command plinth – which jutted two meters above the rest of the bridge – and clambered up the side ladder. She arrived and found Lt. Commander Victor Janus already there, drinking a cup of recaff. He looked like death.
“Good morning, Janus.”
“There is something good about it, ma’am?” He asked. Vyn grinned as she stepped to the edge of the command plinth. She looked down at the auspex pit. The curved trench line was entirely staffed by the dog’s watch: mostly twelve and thirteen year old midshipmen, the sons and daughters of officers who had earned their birth commission, noble third-born who had gone into the Navy to get them out of the inheritance struggle, and the Schola Progenium. They stood at attention, looking up at her. Before them was Lieutenant Desna, their teacher (for the moment) and harsh taskmistress (for most of their lives if they did not acquit themselves in battle).
“At ease. Report.” Vyn called down. Lt. Desna did not relax. Instead, she kept her hands behind her back and shouted over the din of the bridge – the weapons supervisors were testing out their vox commands by bellowing at the macrocannon crews.
“I detected a heat flare in the gas giant designated OB-445. It struck me as suspicious.”
Vyn cocked a single eyebrow.
“According to the reports from the ships Carto-Artifex, this gas giant is cold and unusually stable. We should not have been able to detect a heat signature from it unless…” She trailed off.
“Unless a raider was hiding in there. Good work Desna.” Vyn turned to the left, shouting down to the helms crew. “Set course for the gas giant. Auspex’s, keep your eyes open. We don’t want to sail straight into a trap. Lt. Commander, I believe now would be a good time to begin loading the torpedoes.”
Janus barely managed to cover up his yawn, even as he nodded. “Aye, ma’am.” He stood and slid off the plinth, hurrying across the bridge to the knot of officers that distributed orders through the prow torpedo decks. Janus had been promoted from those decks. He had a firmer handle on the titanic projectiles than most of the bridge crew, many of whom had originally served on ships of the line and worldbreaking battleships, handling more traditional weapons of war.
As orders started to filter throughout the ship, Vyn felt the rumbling of the deck beneath her feet. The star field visible through the vista-plates (pitted and scoured they may be) shifted, the gas giant began to grow. The Pax was a good, lithe ship, a Falchion pattern. She was able to take a turn and then accelerate into it without losing a beat. Vyn slid her hand along the railing of her position, smiling faintly.
It took six hours for the ship to traverse the gulf between their initial patrol route and the gas giant. In that time, several members of the bridge crew took cat naps, but most remained vigilant. Vyn herself kept focused by flipping through the daily reports that swarmed her position, delivered by Hue. She kept him busy, partially because she was concerned that if she kept him still for too long, he would drift off to sleep or contrive some way to get himself killed.
She glanced up from one report, catching Hue looking at her tattoos. That was not hard: They covered her from feet to forehead.
“Ensign, do you have a question?”
He shook his head.
“Then I would ask you to remain focused on your task at hand. You are twenty nine years old, Hue. The only reason you’re not still a midshipman is because there is a statute of limitation on that rank.” She glared at him.
“Ma’am!” Hue was saved, for the moment, by the voice of one of the other ensigns: Sub-Ensign First Class Kelvin McConnik. Vyn stood from her throne and looked down at the teenager. “Our auspex array is detecting a minute fluctuation ahead. Lt. Desna is looking into it right now.”
“Is it the End of Days?” Vyn glanced at the lieutenant. Desna, as per her usual idiom, completely shut the rest of the world out of her mind, including – no, especially – other people. She looked as though nothing else existed save the auger terminal she was scrying with.
“No, ma’am, there are no heat signatures to speak of, beyond a few splotches that look like volcanic activity on one of the moons of OB-445. I theorize it might be a-asteroids.” His voice cracked at that last word and he blushed.
Vyn opened her mouth to commend him on his insight. She’d warn the macrocannon crews to be ready to fire on any asteroids that threatened the ship. Then her eyes widened, a realization striking her like a bucket of icy bilge water. The Pax was sailing into a gravity well…and asteroids could be easily mistaken for-
“They aren’t asteroids!” She shouted. “Helmsman-”
The first mine struck the Pax.
The flash and the rumble rocked through the deck and alarms started to whistle – the light, not entirely frantic alarms that indicated the void shields were taking damage. Another flash, another rumble. This one was in the dorsal section of the ship, meaning that Vyn could see it herself: A groundcar sized hunk of explosives, guided by cold gas thrusters and a murderous machine spirit, hurtling straight at the Pax, stopping short only due to the void shield. But then three mines struck at once and the void shield was down, popping like a soap bubble brushing a rusted nail.
This had all taken less than five seconds.
“Yes ma’am, about -“
Before the helmsman even finished, Vyn whipped up her vox, shouting into it. “Enginseer Primus, get that void shield up now or-“
Two more mines struck, these further amidships. The deck rocked and alarms blared in Vyn’s ears. The gas giant – which had swollen to be the size of a proper planet and was still growing – started to shift to the side of the vista-plate. The gravity field also tilted sickeningly to the side. The bridge crew grabbed onto their lecturns to keep from sliding out of their chairs. Hue fell against Vyn’s command throne and she braced, as if she was on a boat in a storm.
“How long?” She shouted to the helmsman. He continued to work the complex controls that handled the Pax’s thrusters and maneuvering jets. More mines burst against the vessel, farther back. A whining alarm whistled – the symphony of sirens, klaxons and bells told Vyn entirely too much about how badly her ship was being pummeled – and almost covered up the helmsman’s response.
“You have one!”
“Enemy ship, fifteen hundred thousand kilometers starboard,” Alvin called out, coughing in the smoke that rose from the lower bridge cogitators.
“On screen,” Vyn frowned, gritting her teeth. The vista-plate crackled and hummed, a green tinted, blurry image appearing on the main window. The enemy ship, the End of Days painted proudly on her prow, was not what had been expected. Communiques from Admiralty had stated she was most likely a frigate or a raider. But Vyn, like the rest of the bridge crew, could immediately tell the make and class of a ship by the lines of the prow and shape of the keel, even if the rest of the hull could be altered by changing weapon loadouts.
The End of Days was a Lunar class, a cruiser almost three kilometers longer than the Pax and sporting a vicious macrocannon broadside. A broadside that, even now, turned to face them as the ship emerged from behind one of the larger moons of the gas giant. Vyn’s thoughts jumbled and then settled out: She has the well advantage. Damn it. Because the Lunar orbited higher above the clutch of the gas giant, her ability to make changes in velocity was unimpeded.
Vyn nodded, to herself. She turned to the helmsman.
“Fire the zenith thrusters! NOW!”
The thrusters started to flare, visible through the bridge’s vista-plates: Tongues of re-routed plasma, rocketing up among row after row of forward facing dorsal mounted macrocannons that dotted the top of the Pax. Slowly, the prow started to dip, and the gas giant swelled below them, starting to fill their vista-plates once more. Janus spoke, his voice pitched only for her to hear.
“Now we can’t fire our torpedoes at him…”
“I know.” Vyn frowned. “Helmsmen, all ahead full. Bounce us.”
The helmsman looked at her, but his hands did as they were ordered. The engine started to groan and the ship rattled as they rocketed forward, all chance of turning aside dashed as the Pax plunged towards the gas giant. But on the vista-plate, the End of Days turned, trying to keep track of the Pax. The Pax’s garboard thrusters fired, now, the helmsman trusting his guts rather than the auspex. The keel of the Pax struck the upper atmosphere of the gas giant.
The End of Days’s broadside fired; flashing and winking on the screen. The entire bridge crew tensed, but Vyn was grinning. A starship had a certain momentum too it, like one of the large predators of her home. Once it decided to do something, no matter how nimble witted its captain, there was always a delay between orders and consequences. Overhead, almost invisible in the night, the macrocannon shells sailed silently through space, to be lost to the void and time. Maybe, in a millennium, they would ruin an inhabited planet’s day.
But for now, they were not an issue.
“We’re heating!” Janus shouted.
“Put all power to the garboard thrusters!”
The garboard thrusters gained in intensity and fury, felt rather than seen, the acceleration pushing Vyn against the deck, as if the gravity field was increasing. The Pax started to rise, rocketing up and away from the gravity well at a narrow angle. Vyn closed her eyes, grinning for a moment.
And then the second wave of mines struck the Pax. This barrage seemed endless, bursting against their restored void shields which, despite the efforts of the Enginseer Primus and his brave priests, folded after five impacts. Mines struck the dorsal ridges, crashing into macrocannon housings. Secondary explosions rocked the ship. Mines stuck the port and starboard armor. Mines struck the command spires, causing a power feedback loop through the bridge. Furious tech sprites exploded out of the forward lecturns.
A mine clipped the prow, bounced without detonating, then slammed into the forward macrocannons.
Then, like the Emperor emerging from Horus’s battlebarge, they came out of the mine field alive but wounded. The luminators were flickering, the air smelled smoky, two lecterns were on fire and being put out by ensigns with fire retardant foam. Vyn sat in her captain’s throne, listening to a wave of damage reports. She cut them off, picking up her vox.
“Enginseer Primus,” She frowned. “Vent some of our drive plasma.”
“What!?” His tinny voice grew positively garbled, a mechanical scream that made her jerk the vox away from her ear. “The machine spirits of this engine can barely sustain us, and you wish to furth-“
“I want them to think we’re bleeding to death, not just bloodied!” Vyn snapped. “And if you clockwork ninnies can’t do, I’ll load you into the fraking torpedo tubes!”
The vox line clicked off.
Behind the Pax, a streamer of boiling plasma spread through the void. The last few mines that they ran into were attracted to it, their flight visible by the plasma disturbed by their passage. Vyn leaned back in her chair, waiting to see just who the captain of this enemy ship was. Was he a mindless thug, who’d chase a dying prey in and get the kill? Or did he have an actual objective, a plan, a target to work towards?
“The…the enemy ship is remaining in orbit around the gas giant.” Desna called out, sounding stunned. She looked like she had been standing quite near one of the tech-sprites, her face blackened with soot.
Vyn stood, to congratulate her crew…
Her voice died in her throat as she looked down and saw the charred body of Kelvin McConnik.
“The butchers bill does not exactly make for good dinner reading, unless you’re more morbid than I thought, ma’am.”
The faint clink and clatter of knives and forks stilled for a moment. Vyn, though, didn’t look up from her data slate, her eyes singling out a name among the others: Kelvin McConnik, wounded (serious). She didn’t even pay attention to the meal. The cook had pulled out a grox from the lower cargo holds and cooked the left leg for them, with spices and garnish and grubweed and broccoli and other assorted sides.
The upper officers – Desna, Janus, Ships Master Kennik, three of the midshipmen who happened to be related to blue blooded naval lineages and the chief chirgeon, Balthezar – all sat around the table. All of them gaped at Kennik, who kept watching Vyn.
“Kennik,” Balthezar said, looking across the table at the scarred Ships Master. “We lost almost four thousand one hundred and forty souls today. Another two thousand and twenty will need new limbs or will die in agony tonight. Show some respect.”
“The question is will we get a chance to pay them back, that’s more important than respect.” Kennik sipped from his grog – he took grog at their dinners, despite there being several selections of wine, amasec and whiskey.
“Aye!” Bran, one of the midshipmen, spoke up. He stood. “That was a coward’s trick! A minefield? Who does that?”
“Bran, sit down.” Vyn said, her voice soft. She looked up at the table. The rest of the upper officers looked back at her. “The enemy is not a coward. Luring an Imperial ship into a minefield, especially in a lubber like a Lunar class, is a dangerous proposition…especially considering the risks of putting one’s back to a gravity well.“
“Can we really call her a Lunar? She’s bedecked in who knows what Chaos filth.” Janus frowned.
Vyn’s looked at her hands, her face still somber. She glanced at the data slate, at the name, once more. Then she looked up and smirked. “We’ll burn the sigils off her and tow her back to Fleet Base Signus. They can consecrate her there and bring her back into the fold.”
There was absolute silence, save for the hum of the air ventilators and the tinkling noise of the chandelier that hung overhead. The room, thanks to its location in the middle of the command spire, had avoided any major damage, save for a few paintings being knocked off the walls.
“You don’t intend to…to capture her. Ma’am, none here doubt your courage, but a Lunar puts to the void with ninety five thousand souls!” Janus looked at the others, then back at Vyn. “We’ll be outnumbered four to one.”
“We’re still conducting basic repairs and they have auspex on the asteroid field. They’ll see us the instant we move.” Desna frowned. “Not to mention our macrocannons are spent. Only by the grace of the Emperor did we keep the torpedo deck.”
Vyn grinned at the lot of them. “You doubt your commander?”
There was a sullen silence.
“We have an ally coming, one that we know about and the End of Days doesn’t,” Vyn explained. “This solar system is a layover point for the chartist trade ships. According to our Navis Nobilite…” She glanced at the empty chair. Their navigator was always invited, as per naval custom. And, as per navigator custom, the navigator refused to arrive. Rumors as to why varied. Vyn herself had actually seen the navigator face to face, and knew the truth: It was remarkably hard for such a…large individual to move beyond his suspension tank. “A chartist vessel will arrive here in one to three days.”
The midshipmen, being newest, and youngest, opened their mouths to protest, but Kennik, being an older hand, glared them into silence. In that silence, Vyn continued.
“But to take advantage of their arrival, we will need to make some…preparations.”
She smirked, her knife cutting into groxmeat. She lifted it to her mouth, slid the meat in, and started to chew.
And then, once she swallowed, she started to lay out the preparations.
The officers started to grin.
Interlude: The End of Days
A purple rent opened in space, showing – for a moment – a howling maelstrom of wild energies and the occasional glimpse of things men were not meant to see: Screaming faces, clawed hands, dark shapes.
From the distant gas giant, it was clear what was going on: A portal to the warp had opened and the telltale flare of a starship’s engine glowed. The engine vanished within the warp…and the portal closed with a snap.
The Imperial dogs were running.
Vyn walked through the medicade bay alongside Balthezar. Balthezar wore a blood splattered smock and gloves, and looked bone tired. Here, the bloody price of the minefield was clear in a way that was easy to ignore in the command decks. Vyn came here to remember the price of…
Of my mistake, Vyn thought.
Most of the men still here were the survivors who had been maimed and were being refitted with augmetic attachments. Gleaming brass legs, whirring and clicking arms, new eyes. They were ugly, brutal, functional attachments, but they would work. Vyn spoke a few kind words to the brave men whose only painkiller was grog dosed with half a syringe of morpha, to extend the ship’s ration in the face of the agony filling her.
“We lost Kelvin McConnik,” Balthezar said, once they reached the noble casualties. There were three midshipmen here: Two had been badly burned in a plasma fire in the mid-decks. They were still unconscious, wrapped in rejuvenating bandages. The third was covered with a sheet.
Vyn closed her eyes. “Damn. Damn it all…”
“I heard that you and the McConnik Clan were close?”
Vyn rubbed her hands over her face, sighing. “The McConniks are a Rogue Trader family. I got my start serving on their ship when I chucked a spear through my half-brother during a negotiation with Kelvin’s grandfather. They wanted to buy Aquiousian whale blubber.”
She nodded. “Apparently, he made a profit on it, enough to send his youngest into the Navy. Figured they’d learn good voidman skills there for when it came time for them to become Traders. Now…now I have to write him and tell him that his grandson is dead. And for what?” She looked at Balthezar. “A minefield and a faulty power conduit.”
“It’s not your fault, ma’am.”
“It damn well is, sawbones.” She shook her head. “But I didn’t just come here to wallow in pity.”
“I am aware,” He spoke very softly, glancing at the beds, then back at her. “I’m not sure if I can, in all good conscience…”
“Sawbones, the enemy outnumber us four to one, you were at the dinner.”
“I know,” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “But we need what you plan to give to the enemy for free.”
“Yes, I know,” Vyn sighed. Then, she smiled. “But we’d enjoy it a great deal more.”
“Warp portal detected!”
“Beat to quarters,” Vyn said to Janus, then looked back at Desna, who put an image of the entire solar system on the vista-plate. The auspex of the ship, combined with astromantic data collated over the past three days, gave them a fairly solid idea of the location of the End of Days and the mine field. The warp portal was marked as being several dozen astronomic units away from the gas giant, as that was the most stable entry point into the system. The warp portal glyph vanished, replaced a moment later by two sigils.
“They are…” Desna sent two runners off, who returned with a huge leather bound tome. “Uh, one moment, ma’am.”
Vyn watched the two glyphs start to move.
“Ah! They are the Wandering Penitent and the Absalom, pilgrim-couriers from the next sub-system over. Most likely, they’re hauling colonists and penitents to the edge of this sector.” Desna went even more pale than usual. “According to this latest, they’re rated to carrying a hundred thousand civilians each.”
The helmsman reached for the controls, but Vyn held up her hand.
The helmsman gritted his teeth.
The End of Days started to move out of the gas giant’s orbit. It picked up speed but slowly. Vyn had served on a transport or two in her days, she knew that they made even a cruiser look nimble. The only thing more sluggish than a transport was a battleship…but the End of Days, she saw, didn’t start to make a turn that would put it between the two transports. That maneuver was the dream of every capital ship captain, to put two prime targets on either side of a fully loaded broadside and the End of Days wasn’t going for it.
Vyn had guessed right.
She picked up her vox. “Enginseer Primus, remember what we discussed?”
“Yes. The supplications to the etheric spirits and vox-caster array has been complete.”
“Very good. Put us on.”
The forward vox-array of the Pax was just slightly out from behind the asteroid. From it shone a shimmering ray, needle thin and packed with information. The ray struck the auspexes of the two transports, entirely invisible to the End of Days.
“Connection made! Praise the Omnissiah!”
Vyn ignored the Enginseer, instead speaking hurriedly into a secondary vox feed, the one that the Enginseer Primus had claimed would be linked to their makeshift whispering array.
“Captain of the Penitent and the Absalom,” She spoke, quickly, confidently. “I am Commander Vyn of the Pax Imperialis. I know you are afraid, but you must listen to me and do exactly what I say. When you communicate, what you say will be picked up by the enemy raider, so speak in code. I need to know what your armament is.”
Then, a panicked, older male voice spoke over the vox.
“We surrender! Don’t hurt us, we will power down our thunderstrike cannons and let you board.”
“Thunderstrikes?” Janus whispered, rolling his eyes. Those macrocannons were fine enough, for, say, dispersing asteroids or scaring low-tech xenos raiders away from your vessel. Against even an intra-system monitor, they were woefully undergunned. Vyn, though, remained focused on the issue at hand.
“We will be sneaking up on the enemy ship. Remain close to one another and when we signal, fire your thunderstrikes. Tell your gun crews that they must land as many shells as they can, it is our only hope. Emperor’s grace be with you.” She set down the vox, sighing softly.
“Permission to speak, ma’am.”
Vyn turned to the side, looking at Hue – who stood beside her, ready to act as a runner if the vox systems failed during the battle. He was also holding her weaponry, readied and oiled and loaded to the brim. She nodded.
“You can’t hide a plasma engine, ma’am.”
She smirked. “Oh, but you can. You can hide it behind a planet. You can hide it behind a sun. Or you can hide it behind another plasma engine.”
Hue’s eyes widened. Desna called out.
“The End of Days has their stern facing us.”
Vyn gestured to the helmsmen. The asteroid they were moored to dropped away and they banked to the left, thrusters burning. They slipped behind the End of Days, separated by thousands on thousands of kilometers, which began to tick down rapidly. But as they drew closer and closer to the enemy, the enemy prowled closer and closer to the transports.
Vyn leaned back in her chair, checking one last thing.
“Torpedo bay…are the modifications complete?”
“Aye,” A tinny voice came through the vox, barely audible against the background noises: Hammering, banging, shouts and calls from crew to crew.
Vyn nodded, slowly.
“Well, then,” Janus sighed. “Once more into the breach?”
Vyn smirked. “Once more.”
“And, I, as per our custom, have to ask…do you really have to lead the boarding action? We need you on the bridge, ma’am.”
“Janus,” Vyn’s smirk faded. “The captain of that ship killed the grandson of a rather dear friend. If I don’t carve Alvin McConnik’s name on his or her face with my own sword, I won’t be able to look myself in the mirror.”
“You always have an excuse…”
The End of Days was now visible without the auspex: A large, glowing splotch right before them. Vyn stood, walking to the fore of the command plinth, grabbing onto the railing. She squeezed and watched the growing plasma fires before her.
“The enemy is turning,” Desna called out.
“We’re in range for a torpedo salvo,” Janus murmured.
“Stay on course.”
The outline of the End of Days started to become clear against the darkness of the stars. Its profile shifted, showing more and more of its length as it turned to ram one of the transports, for the boarding and the capturing that would fill its hold with thousands upon thousands of slaves. Vyn could imagine, for a moment, a look of absolute shock on the face of the captain, shock to see the Pax Imperialis, still here and still fighting.
Vyn picked up her external vox. “FIRE!”
The transports started to wink and glitter as their pitiful thunderstrike macrocannons unloaded into space.
Vyn dropped the external vox, not even bothering to hang it on the proper cradle. She grabbed the internal vox and bellowed into it. “FIRE!”
The Pax shuddered, almost stopping in space as the prow opened and torpedoes launched. Two torpedoes shot through space, their simplistic machine spirits guided to the heat of the End of Days’s plasma drives. Before they were halfway towards the End of Days, another two were loaded. The thunderstrike cannon shells started to land on the End of Days’s void shields, the massive energy barriers crackling and rippling under the pressure, then…
Popped like a soap bubble.
The torpedoes launched, the ship rocking again. By now, the End of Days loomed in the vista-plate, having almost completed its turn, its macrocannon broadside facing them fully on. Vyn grabbed the armrests of her throne, glaring straight ahead.
The torpedoes loaded once more.
Before the third volley finished emerging from the tubes, the first torpedoes slammed home, crashing into the End of Days’s macrobattery decks. A moment later, their warheads exploded, orange lights bursting from around the cannon slots. Wreckage flew off into space, leaving behind burning, tangled decks and thousands of corpses. The second volley crashed home, flying even further into the ship proper.
Those did not explode.
“All power to the engines,” Vyn grinned, grabbing the sword from Hue. “Ram us down their throats. Janus, you have the bridge.”
She stood and turned, hurrying out of the bridge, followed by Hue and Kennik.
The third volley impacted against the void shields, which the End of Days had managed, through hook, crook and sorcery to throw back on the last second. Their explosions ripped the shields down just as the Pax’s prow crashed into the upper decks of the End of Days. The Pax stopped dead, the engines groaning, the prow crashing and banging, the echoing noises filling every corridor. Luminators sparked and the gravity field shuddered and almost went offline. But Vyn and most of the crew kept their feet.
Vyn came to the forward section of the ship, where she could hear the thunk and whump of the boarding tunnels firing. The area right behind the prow was usually a torpedo bay, meaning that it was usually full of torpedo crewmen…but right now, armsmen were passing out weapons to the crew, wearing flack vests and carrying sabers themselves.
Crates of ammunition and grenades were set out and underofficers were calling out orders as the last of the boarding tunnels were launched and affixed themselves to the enemy’s hulls. She stepped up onto a crate, whistling.
Crew looked to her, their preparations falling silent. Vyn did have quite a powerful whistle – but she had also brought a handheld vox, which amplified her voice to fill the entire torpedo chamber.
“Friends!” She grinned. “We stand now in the gates before hell itself. Chaos taints this Reaver…but they have all the disadvantages. Their ship is larger and has bigger, better guns. They used a trap and a minefield, and more, they are outnumbered a mere one to four. It seems almost unfair that we have all these advantages, and yet, ontop of it, we have the glory of the Emperor at our back and our brothers and sisters at our side!” She raised her sword over her head. “Now, for our fallen comrades, for the Navy, for the Emperor…ATTACK!”
The crowd cheered as the boarding tunnels opened. Vyn leaped from the box, ducking underneath a hanging chain that normally connected to a torpedo for loading. As she did so, she slipped a rebreather on over her face. Behind her, Hue did the same – as did the rest of the boarding parties. The boarding tunnel had gravi-plate, so there was no loss of gravity as they hurried down the tunnel. The air grew hazy as Vyn stepped from the tunnel to the enemy ship. The corridor was a mangled wreck. Corpses – most of them not even wearing uniforms, but rather a mishmash of clothes as befitted their insane tastes – strewn the corridor…and she felt a tingling on her skin.
That was not smoke made by the fires that the torpedoes set.
That was the feel of concentrated morpha gas. Morpha, as a painkiller, could put a man to dreamless sleep. Too much could put him into a permanent sleep. And when two torpedoes loaded with an entire ship’s complement of aerosolized morpha slams into the center of your ship…
Vyn called out. “Armsmen, to me!”
Hue was joined by a dozen or so other armsmen, each of them equipped with their own assortment of weapons: Las-carbines, sabers, chainswords, boarding shotcannons, flame pistols, and (of course) an abundance of grenades. Vyn led them, recalling what she had read of a Lunar’s layout. The corridors were filthy and the religious statues and stained-glass windows were smashed or replaced with profane sigils. There were more dead here. The only light was the luminators that were attached to the rifles and pistols of the boarding group: Vyn’s luminator was attached to her hellpistol.
Hue grinned. “So, I guess-“
A man leaned around the corner of the corridor junction up ahead. He wore a gas mask and nothing else save a loincloth, and held a crude las-carbine.
“BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD!”
Vyn snapped up her pistol and pulled the trigger. The blast caught the man in his unarmored chest, blowing his lungs out on the wall. He collapsed as Hue grabbed his grenade from his belt, his eyes wide. The corridor ahead surged with the enemy crew, a teeming throng of howling madmen, each armed and ready. Hue underhanded his frag grenade. Vyn fired again and again, the armsmen to the left and right of her firing as well, their las bolts scything down the enemy. The grenade went off and the front ranks of the enemy went down, leaving a jagged hole of corpses and screaming wounded.
“FOR THE EMPEROR!” Vyn charged forward. Her hellgun barked again and again as she brought her blade around. In this kind of furious melee, she had no time to think of the proper stance or the proper guard. Instead, she looked for enemies whose backs or sides were turned, stabbing at their kidney, their bellies, their lungs, slashing at exposed throats, shooting men and women in the back. Hue took a glancing blow off the shoulder, crying out as he fell to the ground. An armsman was impaled through the heart by an enemy sword. Others were bayonetted, smashed against bulkheads, shot through the face at near to point blank range.
“Keep moving!” Vyn shouted, continuing to advance, slashing left, then right, then kicking. “To the bridge! To the bridge!”
Hue got to his feet, firing in full auto into the crowd as he moved to keep up with Vyn. The corridor spread outward and…yes! There were the elevators. They would still be functioning, if the emergency systems were still alive and aware on the ship. Vyn put her finger to her ear as she heard Kennik over her ear-bud: “We’ve managed to cut off the reinforcements heading towards you. Get up, now!”
Vyn nodded, turning to Hue and the armsmen.
“All right, lets head on up.”
The elevator doors opened and Vyn stepped halfway in, tapped a rune to the lower deck. She stepped back out again, then put her bulky body against the door, keeping it from closing. The elevator started to head down the shaft. It headed down a few feet before suddenly dropping, the brakes completely disabled.
“That answered my unasked question…” Hue whispered. The sounds of gunfire and combat came to the left and right corridors, shouts and howls.
“They’re coming.” Vyn shifted into the elevator, grabbing onto the emergency ladder inside the shaft. She crawled up and up and up, followed by Hue, who was carefully looking at the wall and not up. They had about a hundred meters to go, and Vyn felt every kilogram of her flack vest, mono-sword and hellpistol. They passed an elevator door, which opened with a faint ding. A man with a flamer stood there, wearing a gas mask and a combat vest with several bandoliers dangling with flame tanks. He turned it to burn the ladder.
Vyn grabbed one of his bandoliers and yanked forward. He screamed as he went over the edge, a scream that continued until his head struck the far wall of the elevator shaft. That stopped the screaming with a wet crunch. Hue threw a grenade through the elevator door, and the other reavers became a tad bit distracted. The elevator door closed once more, muffling the sharp, harsh bang. Vyn started back up the ladder, chuckling for the next dozen rungs
Finally, they got to the top of the ladder. “The bridge is just down this corridor!” Vyn shouted down to the armsmen and officers under her. “We take this bridge, we take this ship as prize!”
She pulled the emergency leaver beside the door. It partially opened, she grabbed it, hauled it open, then jumped from the ladder and into the hallway. A las bolt cracked past her ear, then two more struck her chest. The flack vest dispersed most of the energy and she kept moving, shouting. A las bolt struck her thigh, which was protected more by thick leather pants than actual flack weaving, burning her skin fiercely. But then she was among the defensive line. She hacked left, shot right, and then Hue and the other armsmen started to come off the ladder, taking advantage of her forcing a hole in the line.
The enemy fell before their furious assault, the corridor that they were fighting in narrower than Vyn had expected. The first line and the second line fell, the reavers not having enough body armor or training to stand up to the battle hardened armsmen of the Pax. Beyond them, though, was a golden door. What had once been carved symbols of the Emperor and the Saints had become profane symbols and jagged red paintings which themselves hurt to look at. Vyn steeled herself and stepped towards the door, which opened to reveal…
A single man. He was tall, broad shouldered, taller than her even. His skin was a dark gray and his hair was a russet, rusty red. His eyes were narrowed and his muscles bulged and rippled as he cast off his human skin cloak. His left hand ended in a jagged metal claw, which wasn’t even powered or articulated, beyond a simple winch that forced it shut around the hilt of a sleek, elegant blade that looked entirely too well-crafted for his brutish form. His other hand held a grenade. His thumb popped the cap off and he underhanded it. It clattered between Vyn’s legs and she saw it wasn’t the bulbous shape of a frag grenade. Rather, it had the white markings and shape of a-
The grenade flashed. The edges of Vyn’s vision ached and her ears rang, making the enemy captain’s approach eerily silent. Vyn staggered to the side, trying to keep her balance as her head swam. The enemy captain slashed his sword around, neatly decapitating one of the armsmen, his blade crackling with a bluish light. A power sword!
Vyn shifted her stance, the ringing in her ears making her own voice sound distant and muted, like she was underwater. “Face me!”
The man grinned at her, his ugly brick of a face twisting into a smirk as he realized she was the commander of the Pax, thanks to her captain’s cap, her greatcoat, her flack vest, her bearing and her blade.
His lips moved and she half heard his words: “I’m going to rip out your spine.”
Vyn stepped backwards. The bridge of the End of Days looked much like any other battleship’s bridge: A large hololithic table in the center of three terraces that created circles around it like the inside of an amphitheater or a holo-stage, each one with dozens of chairs and lecturns to organize and coordinate the operation of the entire starship. There was no captain’s throne…but then again, Vyn couldn’t imagine a throne that could hold the titan she was facing.
The captain turned to face her, though she noticed her armsmen and Hue were still trying to clear their vision. They had caught the full brunt of the photon flash grenade, so they were out of the fight for the moment.
Vyn brought her sword up.
The enemy captain ran straight at her, his feet pounding on the deck. He swung his sword and she ducked. The crackling arc of the sword’s power field cut through half of a chair and a lecturn. Sparks flew in every direction and furious tech-sprites arched form the damaged lecturn, wreathing the enemy’s blade.
Vyn slipped forward and pivoted, her left hand slamming into the enemy’s face, crunching his nose to the side. Blood spurted from his nostrils and he growled, jerking his blade out of the lecturn. He ignored his nose, then swung at Vyn again, then again. She was able to step backwards from the first strike, but the second swing forced her to catch the guard of his sword and push the blade to the side. The power field flashed and Vyn found herself holding a smoldering hilt, not a balanced mono-blade. The fragments of her sword clattered to the ground, each one smoking.
Vyn swung, using the hilt and the guard as a crude brass knuckle. The enemy captain hadn’t expected that: She caught him in the gut. He gasped and she tried to follow her blow up with another punch, this time to his jaw. He caught her fist, then squeezed, growling as he held her tight. She grabbed his left hook, her hand slipping to the winch and yanking it open. The power sword crashed to the ground.
He brought his open hook up. The hook caught Vyn in the side, digging against her flack vest. He lifted her up, the hook not catching any flesh, but still managing to hoist her up and over his head. He slammed her down onto the hololithic table with a roar. The table cracked and came to sputtering life, its bewildered and insensate machine spirits rudely awakened and showing a random haze of light and wispy images. The enemy captain roared again and brought his hook whistling down, aiming for Vyn’s head. Vyn sat up and the hook plunged into the table. Tech-sprites leaped up the hook and into his arm, causing him to howl in pain.
Vyn slid off the table, using the momentum to kick his kneecap to the side. He fell to one leg, gasping. Vyn grabbed up his power sword. He spun to face her, managing to wrench his hook out of the table. Vyn took the offensive, despite her aching spine and back, swinging her blade for a grazing strike on his chest. He intercepted the blade with his hook hand, the hook sheared off in a crackle of blue energy. But that bought him enough time to grab her right shoulder and body slam her to the ground. She groaned, her bruised and battered back demanding she stay on the ground.
And, like any good Death Worlder, Vyn knew how to take what a body demanded and ignore it.
She rolled to her feet, dodging a jagged metal spike – all that was left of his hook hand – that plunged into the deck plates, where her head had been mere moments before. Standing, she dodged twice more: First, underneath a fist that could have shattered her jaw, then to the side as he swung that still smoldering spike at her chest in a quick, forward jab.
Vyn responded with the tactic that had saved her from many stronger, faster, larger brutes in the seas of Aquios. She stopped thinking two dimensionally. She feinted, so that he started to duck, then leaped forward. Her foot slammed into his lowered shoulder, and then she jumped, landing right beside the dropped power blade.
Her hand closed on the hilt.
The enemy captain spun to face her, swinging his fist. She whirled to face him and his severed hand went flying, the charred stump all that remained. He howled, not even able to grab his arm, for his hook was nothing more than a spike.
“That is for the minefield.” Vyn glared at him. “And this is for the McConnik Clan.”
She swept the blade back.
His head joined the hand.
A Commander's Work Never Ends
With the bridge under Imperial control, it was a simple matter of deactivating the power systems and the air. This had the positive side effects of putting out every fire set by the battle…and the even more positive effect of putting almost ninety thousand heretics, pirates and criminals to death, albeit with cold and suffocation and darkness rather than the purifying flames that the Imperial Cult demanded.
All in all, Vyn could live with that.
She sat in her quarters. They had never struck her as appropriate for a Commander of the Imperial Navy: A large blackwood desk with what seemed like several hundred thousand data slates, papers and parchments that were delivered by an endless stream of errand boys and servo skulls. Around it were the trophies and portraits of the previous captains of the Pax: The bleached Hr’uudo skull from Commander Alkvan, who had been the first captain when the Pax had first launched, five centuries before. The half melted boltgun used by the pirate reaver Skvan Worldbreaker, claimed by Commander Lothen, Alkvan’s successor.
And, from the Commander right before Vyn…the fur rug. The hideous, off-yellow fur rug that ship’s tradition demanded she keep intact and present. Just looking at it made her skin crawl.
But it did provide a wonderful distraction. Whenever she wished to flee, if only for a moment, from the endless flood of paperwork, Vyn could think about just how terrible the rug was. Now, though, she had a trophy of her own to admire: The power sword she had won. She had taken it to the tech-priests and after several hours of careful examination and purification rights, they had certified that the sword remained pure…enough.
A faint knock came at the door. Vyn nodded, still looking at the sword.
The door opened and Janus walked in, smiling. “I come bearing data slates.” He said.
“Don’t tempt me to use this…” Vyn waved the blade at him, the power field inactive for the moment. “I wanted to savor this victory for at least a second.” She smirked. “You know what this means, right?”
“Captaincy for you. Maybe even Lord-Captaincy. Maybe they’ll even give me the Pax. We all know you deserve a second rate Light Cruiser, maybe a Dauntless. Hell, you deserve a Lunar.”
Vyn smirked. “I sure can beat a Lunar at least. If only it was so easy to kill the captain and take a ship. Then I’d just decapitate Vice-Admiral Loren. The Phoenix is a glorious ship.”
“Kill the captain?” Janus asked.
“…yes. I fought him, blade to blade. I decapitated him with his sword.” She held the power blade up.
Janus blinked at her. “Didn’t you read the medicade report?”
Vyn frowned, then brushed back the papers, picking up the data slate. She started to scan through the medicade reports and found the listing for the bridge battle. She skipped the slain armsmen and the report on Hue’s need for augmetic eyes and instead focused on the SLAIN COMBATANT.
“Vat grown meat…his genetics…don’t match any records on the cogitators…no command insignia…ships logs indicate captain is a…female...” Vyn slammed the data slate down onto the desk. “Son of a bitch! Did the End of Days launch any clemency pods?”
“No! We’d have detected-“
A purple flash from the office window cut off Janus’ sentence. Vyn spun and saw one of the chartist vessels – they had been moored nearby, their supplies being shared out to help repair the damage the Pax had taken – vanishing into the warp. The other chartist ship barely managed to avoid being sucked in after her, its engines firing desperately to avoid the grasp of the portal. The portal snapped closed.
Vyn’s face shifted from shock to anger. She looked at Janus and broke the silence stretching between them.
“Janus, beat to quarters.”
“M…Ma’am, if we leave, fleet will take the End of Days back. Our logs say we captured her, but you know your reputation. Unless we actually drag her in ourselves, the admiralty will...” Janus trailed off. They both knew the realities of naval politics.
Then, she grinned, facing him.
“Perk up, Victor,” She said, grabbing her captain’s cap from the desk and sliding it on. “It’s only a promotion.”
She walked to the door.
“Beat to quarters.”