The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Eleven
Continued from The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Ten.
“My Lord Forgefather, the transition has gone well. We are en route,” Ir’Shan’s said. The Master of Ships turned from his console to address his target directly.
Vulkan nodded from the center of the bridge, eyes darting over the displays before him. The tiny Navy Cobra had been transferred to his command only recently, and he wasn’t familiar with its layout yet. “Acknowledged. Enginarium?”
“Transition clean, sir,” an awestruck voice responded. Vulkan let his eyes slide shut for a moment in irritation, then spoke as if nothing was amiss.
“Excellent. Navigator, ETA?”
“Seven days, Lord Vulkan,” the unbelievably dry voice of the Navigator replied, echoing over the bridge speakers from her quarters overhead. Vulkan nodded.
“Excellent. Captain, you have the bridge.”
“Aye, sir,” the ship’s former commander said, moving to fill the spot Vulkan had just vacated. The Primarch stepped aside and turned to look at the set of bright red eyes that had been boring into him since they had left Terra.
“He’Stan, may I speak to you outside for a moment?” Vulkan said, ignoring the death glare the shorter man was giving him.
“Of course, my Lord,” the former Forgefather said, as if he hadn’t been standing behind his Primarch seething the entire time. Fortunately, the Navy crew had never even seen Space Marines before, so they hadn’t visibly picked up on the tension.
Vulkan walked out of the bridge and into the antechamber beyond, where Chapter Regent Tu’Shan stood waiting. He bowed his head respectfully when the two other men emerged. “My Lord Vulkan. We are en route?”
“We are,” He’Stan answered, then winced slightly as Vulkan’s shoulders lifted in a strained sigh. Tu’Shan did not display his Primarch’s restraint.
“Something to add, old friend?” he asked, his voice frigid.
“Only something I have said already, my Lord,” He’Stan said, clearly unwilling to retread old ground.
Tu’Shan persisted. “That being?”
“That this is not something we should be doing yet!” He’Stan said, rising to the bait. “With the greatest of respect, my Lords, Terra is still in the middle of a civil war and we’re at half-strength back home. I, more than any other member of the Chapter, want to see the Artefacts brought home, but this…this is just poor timing.”
Vulkan stared at He’Stan just long enough to see him deflate a bit. “When would you have us go, then, brother? And why were you so willing to stare me down about in front of the crew?”
“For that I apologize, my Lord,” He’Stan said, good grace restored. “I should not have done that. I must reiterate my protest, however.”
The three men broke off their discussion as a techpriest from the ship’s crew walked in, spotted them, and froze solid. The spindly fellow looked from one to another and backpedaled out, mumbling apologies. He’Stan barely even seemed to register it, though, pressing his point like an attack dog. “Lord Vulkan, if you would, what were the Emperor’s specific instructions?”
“To return to our respective homeworlds and rebuild,” Vulkan said, recalling the meeting with the Emperor several days prior.
“Precisely, sir, thank you. We need to rebuild from the losses we suffered at Armageddon, sir. The Artefacts can wait,” He’Stan said.
“The retrieval of the Engine of Woes and the Unbound Flame can wait,” Vulkan replied. He turned to face the shorter man evenly. “The Obsidian Chariot is on our course there.”
He’Stan’s jaw dropped. He took a moment to reclaim his composure, and when he did, his voice was far more respectful. “My Lord, I…did not realize. May I ask as to its location, then?”
Vulkan smiled faintly, his sense of humor peeking around the edge of his bad mood. “Are you sure you want to?”
“I suppose not,” He’Stan said. “I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
Several decks below, a small group of techpriests was huddled around a table. “I’m telling you, he’s HERE! The Lord Primarch Vulkan is HERE!” one of them squeaked in binary.
“Whaaaat? No way, man, you’re pulling my mechadendrite,” another replied. “It’s probably one of the Salamanders that was recalled to Terra on the Emperor’s orders last month.”
“Damn it, I’m telling you, it was HIM! He was three meters tall and his eyes glowed through the lids!” the first one beeped indignantly.
“Suuuure he did,” the second replied, eliciting a few laughs. “Did he shoot lightning out of his ass? Oh, wait, that’s the White Scars.”
“Hah hah hah, very funny,” the first one beeped back, managing to put a tone of huffiness in his twitterings. “But when you see him, you’ll be sorry.”
“Yep,” the second replied, “that’ll happen.”
Back above, the three Salamanders broke up their conversation, He’Stan and Tu’Shan re-entering the bridge and Vulkan making his way down to the quarters he had been assigned. The ship’s Captain had offered him the Commanding Officer’s quarters, but Vulkan had declined, selecting a room in the Enginseer’s quarters instead. He had had his few possessions sent up, save his armor, of course, which was resting in the same armory as the other Salamanders. As he headed down, he found the reassuringly familiar corridors of the ship curiously empty of crew. His chronometer insisted it was mid-day, ship time.
As he passed the ship’s Astropathy temple, however, he found his answer. A trio of Naval Provosts stood at attention outside, escorting out a very nervous telepath. The Telepath halted when he saw the Primarch and bowed. “See? We didn’t need a lockdown,” he muttered sidelong at the guards, apparently forgetting that Astartes and their Primarchs alike have superhuman hearing. “My Lord Vulkan, it is an honor,” he said, louder.
Vulkan nodded politely. “Sieur. I was expected, I gather?”
“You were, my Lord,” the Astropath said, still bent at the waist. Vulkan gestured to him, and one of the provosts eased him back up. “I have a message from the Imperial Palace for you. I was to deliver it the moment we were safely in the Warp.”
“Oh?” Vulkan asked, his curiosity piqued. He stuck a hand out for the message, but the Astropath continued.
“I have delivered it to your quarters, Lord Vulkan. The message was not marked urgent, but it was marked ‘your eyes only.’”
“Thank you, then,” Vulkan said, nodding again and turning to leave.
Arriving at his cabin, he pulled open the door and paused, taking it in. The room was as spartan as he would have hoped – and frankly, preferred – from a Techpriest’s quarters. Aside from a table and a few chairs, the only amenities were a private latrine and a small bed, which he suspected wouldn’t hold his weight too well anyway.
A dataslate waited on the table. Vulkan walked over and tapped it, and a transcribed message appeared.
“VULKAN, I WILL BE BRIEF. I KNOW THAT YOU NEED TO RETURN TO NOCTURNE AND YOU’RE INTERESTED IN RETRIEVING THAT ARTEFACT AS WELL. THAT SAID, THERE’S A GROWING SITUATION YOU MAY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT. THE ASTRONOMICAN DIMMED BEFORE I AROSE IN MY NEW FORM, AND CONTACT WAS LOST WITH SEVERAL HUNDRED WORLDS. THEY WERE NOT DESTROYED OR ANYTHING, BUT THEY WENT OFF THE GRID, AND SOME WERE TOO FAR OUTSIDE THE NAVIGATOR’S CAPABILITIES TO ACTUALLY REACH. UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES, HUGE NUMBERS OF MINOR THREATS AROSE, SOME OF WHICH AGGREGATED TO THREATEN THE CUT-OFF WORLDS. I SUSPECT THAT THE SALAMANDERS WOULD HAVE BEEN INSTRUCTED TO DEAL WITH THEM BY THE MUNITORUM HAD I NOT CHANGED THE PLAYING FIELD. THE ORDER MAY STILL COME THROUGH. FEEL FREE TO DISREGARD IT IF IT DOES.
The Right Emperor of Terra.”
“Alien threats, eh…” Vulkan said to himself as he switched off the tablet. “Well, so be it.” He wandered over to the tiny porthole of the cabin and stared out, seeing nothing but the reflective gold interior of the Gellar projection.
The door chimed. Vulkan turned to face it. “Enter.”
The door slid into the ceiling with a hiss. A member of the ship’s crew entered, and immediately bowed. “Lord Vulkan. Are these accommodations to your liking? The Captain wishes to respectfully remind you that his own suite is available.”
“It’s fine, thank you,”Vulkan replied, glancing around. “If I could trouble you to direct me to the training chapel, I would appreciate it.”
The crewwoman’s back stiffened. “M…My Lord Vulkan, this is not an Astartes vessel. We have only a gymnarium.”
“Of course,” Vulkan sighed. “That will do.”
“As you command, sir,” she said, straightening up. “Please follow me.”
Back on Terra, things were somewhat more tumultuous. Even as a pair of Administratum functionaries addressed the High Lords about the costs of rebuilding the damaged Hives, Raven Guard Primarch Corax was glaring daggers at anyone he could see from his bed. “If it’s not fallen off by now, it’s not going to,” he growled at the chirugeon at his side.
“We have to take precautions where poisons of the Warp are concerned, Lord Corax,” the nervous man said, glancing furtively at the man’s bandaged wrist. “I do apologize, but we must do this.”
“Fine,” Corax sighed, pulling himself up into a sitting position with his good arm and waving the far smaller doctor away. “Just lock the door on the way out. I need some time to think.”
“Of course, my Lord,” the chirugeon said, bowing out. Before he could close the door, however, a scuffle in the hallway caught Corax’s attention. Corax squinted to see who it was, then sighed. Not again…
“Hey, tall, pale, and brooding, how’s the wrist?” his guest asked brightly, pushing past the furiously bowing chirugeon with ease.
Corax ground his palm into his eyes. “Agonizing, Russ, how do you think?”
“Yeah, that’s great,” the Space Wolf said over his brother’s reply. “Hey, did you know Vulkan left already?”
“Yeah,” Corax said, hoping succinct answers would displace his brother.
No such luck. “He was rarin’ to go, he was,” Russ said, nodding with mock thoughtfulness. “Hey, it must be boring in here. Want to thumb wrestle? Oh wait,” he said, making a show of realizing his faux pas.
“Get. Out. Russ,” Corax ground out between clenched teeth. Russ’s shoulders drooped, as if he was so gravely hurt by his brother’s words.
“Fine. Jerk. See if I come to help you get over manglings again.” He walked back out, flashing the chirugeon a grin as he did so.
Corax settled back into the bed with a faint grin. “Asshole.”
The Cobra destroyer, the Swift, was appointed for its usual complement, and thus not to Vulkan’s tastes. More accurately, not to his size. The machines were almost all too small for him, and the collection of free weights were designed for far smaller men. Nonetheless, the sparring simulators and open practice areas felt enough like home that he managed to settle in well enough, pointedly ignoring the stares and quiet prayers o the few crewmen who were sharing the room. After a brief circuit on the weight machines (in which he had concluded that lifting the machines themselves would have been a better workout), he was making for the boxing ring, to the terror of the men in it, when his comm-bead crackled to life.
“My Lord, please report to the bridge IMMEDIATELY,” Ir’Shan’s voice said, with an unmistakable undertone of urgency. Vulkan tapped the bead. “Acknowledged. What’s the situation?”
“It’s the Navigator. Something’s-” Ir’Shan’s voice cut off in a dusty rattle of static. Vulkan tapped the bead again.
“Brother, report. What’s going on?” Vulkan turned back to the door of the gym and walked out as fast as he could without appearing to run.
“Bridge, this is Vulkan. Respond.” Only static answered.
As he crossed the threshold of the gymnarium, the automatic pressure doors of the room started to close behind him. He doubletimed it across the gap and watched in confusion and mounting alarm as the door slid shut, cutting off the baffled looks of the men inside.
Vulkan stared at the blank metal sheet for a moment, then sprinted for the bridge lift, beating the pressure doors by inches. He rolled to his feet in the lift and hit the button for the bridge deck, stilling the impulse to page the bridge again.
Suddenly, the entire ship lurched, and he felt his insides empty out, as if he had been dropped into a blender. Recognizing the first signs of an unprotected Warp transition, he squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears. Seconds later the feeling returned, like a hammer blow to the stomach. He fell to his knees and tried to block it out, but it was too much: the pressure of a thousand trillion screaming souls, near and far, and the laughter of monsters.
The lift reached the right deck and Vulkan tumbled out, scrambling for purchase on the walls. Several crewmen were writhing on the deck ahead, a few visibly bleeding from the eyes and ears.
Just as suddenly as it had started, it faded away to a tolerable level. Vulkan had spent enough time in the Warp to know it wouldn’t last. Ignoring the writhing men on the deck, he stumbled to his feet and ran for the bridge, hoping he could make it before the next assault on his soul.
He burst through the bridge doors to find his worst fears confirmed: the room was in complete chaos. The Captain was down, both legs missing, and several other crewmen were scattered around the room in pieces. Ir’Shan was fighting for his life against a hideous monstrosity of a daemon, which seemed to be made entirely of tangled flesh and hammers.
Vulkan set his teeth and charged across the deck plates, hurtling the downed crewmen, and hefted a chair he passed en route. He hauled off and threw the metal seat as hard as he could into the daemon’s side. The disgusting creature slapped the chair aside and slammed its metal fists at the Salamander, but it was too late. The distraction was al Ir’Shan needed to reach into the tangled mess and discharge his bolt pistol into the creature’s core. The glob of meat and metal flew apart with an unhappy groan, and Vulkan skidded to a halt at Ir’Shan’s side.
“Brother, what happened?” he demanded, searching the bridge for another target.
“The Navigator is dead, Lord Vulkan,” Ir’Shan said shortly, running over to the Captain’s station and shoving the man’s torso unceremoniously aside. “We hit something MASSIVE in the Warp, it shorted the Gellar Field and killed the Navigator. A Space Hulk, a Void Whale, a Craftworld, something. It’s uncharted and moving, whatever it is. We’re past it.”
“Probably a Soul Vortex or something like it, a proto-Warp Storm,” Vulkan said, remembering the chorus of tortured screams he had heard. “Maybe,” Ir’Shan said distractedly, grabbing an intercom microvox. “Enginarium, stabilize and cast the Warp shields. We have to drop out, now.” “IT’S FULL OF EYES! WHY DOES IT HAVE SO MANY EYES?!” a screaming voice came back, before ending in a tortured gurgle. Ir’Shan’s helmet dipped for a moment before snapping back up.
“Master Vulkan, may I respectfully request you don your armor and get down there?” he asked, turning to face his Primarch. “Way ahead of you, brother,” Vulkan said, already halfway to the exit.
Vulkan arrived at the armory in what was probably record time. A full platoon of Naval Provosts were huddled around the entrance, with several crewmen scrambling at the controls, trying to override the pressure door and get in. A single Techpriest from the Naval contingent was hovering beside them, trying to force the door open with his metal limbs.
“Open, damn your circuits, OPEN!” he growled, straining against the metal seal. It opened a fraction, and one of the provosts slid his shock maul into the gap, trying to lever against it.
“Allow me,” Vulkan said loudly, and elbowed the provost aside. The enormous Primarch braced his boots against the decking and threw himself against the weapon. It creaked, bent at the middle, and snapped, but before the door could slam shut, Vulkan managed to drive himself sideways into the gap, preventing it from closing. He locked his legs and hands against the door and the frame, forcing them apart.
“Any time,” he managed, glaring at the gaping crowd. One of the provosts was as good as his initiative, sliding between the larger man’s legs into the room. The Techpriest planted himself next to the door and added his own strength to Vulkan’s, prying the door open another several centimeters.
The provost managed to hit the right runes, and the door slid open fully. Vulkan sagged against the frame, his knees and elbows screaming.
“Ugh. Don’t want to have to do that again,” he muttered.
One of the crewmen approached him in awe as the others ran in, scrambling to outfit themselves. “My eternal thanks, Lord Vulkan,” he started, making the sign of the Aquila. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Vulkan lied, looking around for his armor and spotting it quickly, towering over the other Salamander suits as it was. He walked over and eased himself it, assisted by the Techpriest, who, alone among the others in the room, seemed to realize the gravity of the situation. After a few torturous minutes, the suit hummed to life, and Vulkan bolted for the door, desperately trying to remember where the cargo lift was. He dredged it up from his memory a few moments later, and ran down the corridor, hoping he could make it in time.
The Enginarium was faring no better than the bridge had been. The surviving crew members were running across the spacious Mechanicum temple as fast as they could, dodging the shambling monstrosity that had erupted from a shipmate’s torso. The daemon was slinging its own eyes about like flails, impaled as they were on lengths of chain. The techpriests had tried to fight back long enough to drop the ship from the Warp, but the horrible creature was too determined and had scattered everyone who had tried.
With a shriek, one of the crewmen lost his footing and got slammed for his efforts, the flailing eyes wrapping around his legs and dragging him towards the daemon. The creature cackled with malicious glee as it dragged its meal closer.
Before it could chow down, however, salvation arrived. With a roar, a green and black machine tore from the open hatch, roiling flames leaping from its wrist. The monster released its helpless prey and lashed out at the armored goliath, but there was no chance it could hit it, the flame-spewing angel was too quick. The daemon recoiled as the white-hot flames licked closer, then erupted into the air, over the carpet of fire. It hovered for a second, then dove upon the crewmen’s rescuer, its eyestalks flailing about.
The green titan drew back its flame-spewing gauntlet and held the other arm at its side, clenching its fist. When the daemon got close enough, the armored figure suddenly thrusted the arm upwards, and a glowing blue spike projected from its wrist, neatly impaling the daemon. The creature had just enough time to look offended before it exploded, a massive electric bolt arcing to the deckplates and raising the hair on the surviving crew.
As the squelching noises of the falling eyes faded, one crewman managed to work up the courage to approach his rescuer. “Th-thank you, Lord Astartes. Your timing was divine.”
“My timing would have been divine if I had saved the ones who died before I got here,” the Marine replied. “Now, drop us out of the Warp.”
Back on the bridge, Ir’Shan was listening in on the exchange, and broke in. “Hold that order, my Lord, something’s changing.”
Vulkan held up his hand for pause. “Say again, Shipmaster?”
“Something else is happening,” the younger man replied, looking over his sensors in bewilderment. The Gellar field was holding again, barely, now that the ship had been purged of daemons, but the weakened state of the field had allowed him to see something horrible in their path as they hurtled through the Warp. A shimmering wall of white energy lurked in their path, brilliant and terrible. Ir’Shan examined his sensors and spoke again. “I think the death of the Navigator skewed us off-course. We’re headed for the edge of a Warp stream, a huge one.” “Then we should drop out immediately,” Vulkan said urgently.
“I’m not sure we can, my Lord, not now,” Ir’Shan said, glancing over his shoulder as the other two Salamanders walked aboard, their own armor donned. “The ship is moving between stellar systems now. If we drop out, we’ll never get back, unless the Emperor himself can detect it.”
“A ship this small doesn’t have enough Astropaths to contact Terra from here,” Vulkan said grimly, “but can we survive impact with the Warp Stream?”
“Easily, my Lord,” Ir’Shan said, examining his sensors. “We’ll dire the current and see where it takes us. It more or less has to end on an inhabited planet, thanks to the nature of the Warp. There’s something with souls at the end of this, rest assured.”
“Then so be it,” Vulkan said heavily. He turned to face the expectant crew and tried to compose his thoughts. “Men…” he started. He struggled for a moment and continued. “We are about to enter a Warp stream. We have no idea where it leads yet, save that the system is almost certainly inhabited. I need you to power the Gellar Field up as much as it can be, shutting down everything we don’t need in the process.”
The enginarium staff gaped in horror, so Vulkan added a qualifier. “Immediately, men, we may have only minutes.”
The staff lurched to life, overcoming their understandable fear with commendable speed. Vulkan left them to it, and headed back up to the bridge, joining the other three Salamanders in staring at the sensor panel as if it would change anything. A timer counted down until the ship slammed into the Warp stream, the current in nonreality. As the numbers crawled away, He’Stan sighed and leaned against a nearby console. “No clue where we’re going?” he asked.
“None,” Ir’Shal said. He tapped his armored finger against a tiny rune on his console and the holoscreen at the front of the room flattened against the wall, revealing an image from one of the forward cameras. The sanity-erasing horrors of the Warp were abated by the camera’s machine spirits, which could only show a picture of the outside, after all.
In the middle was a growing ribbon of light, stretching to infinity in two directions. The ship’s lights went dim as the enginarium crew desperately shut down systems and diverted their power to the Gellar field, until there wasn’t much light in the room save that coming from screens and illuminated controls. The ribbon grew larger and larger as the ship swarmed closer, until there was no point in keeping the cameras on any more, and Ir’Shal silently reached over to their controls and powered them down. By unspoken agreement, all four Salamanders made their way to the various control terminals scattered throughout the bridge and relived the surviving bridge crew, who scampered off, no doubt relieved to have a chance to go and pray uninterrupted.
Vulkan could FEEL it when they hit the ribbon. The entire ship was wrenched violently aside, but not physically; he and every other man aboard felt like their souls were being surgically cut from their housings and shifted to starboard ten feet, then rammed back into place by a Painboy. Vulkan felt his vision cloud for a moment, then it cleared, though the feeling of dizziness lingered. He gripped the console until he felt his sense of self reassert, then straightened up. Tu’Shan seemed to have weathered the transition as well as he had, but Ir’Shal and He’Stan were still kneeling, gripping their consoles for support, their armored fingers bending the brasswork on the trim.
With a start, he realized what that meant. With a few pokes of the intercom, he opened a channel to the enginarium. “Enginarium, report in. Are the fields holding?”
“Affirmative,” a shaky voice replied. “We’ve had to shift them to hull mode instead of bubble, though. It’s lower-power, but it won’t get chipped away by the stream.”
“Good thinking.” Vulkan thought for a moment. “Are the viewports proofed against this?”
“Negative, my Lord,” the man on the other said, swallowing a few times.
“Understood. Bridge out.” Vulkan released the stud and switched lines, paging the astropathy temple. “Comms, this is bridge. Come in, comms.”
After a delay of nearly a minute, another voice came on; Vulkan recognized it as the voice of the astropath that had passed along his father’s message. “I’m…here…my Lord,” he managed, sounding even worse off than the enginarium crew had.
“Sieur, this is Lord Vulkan. Is the character of the Warp stream through which we’re moving definite?” Vulkan asked. Ir’Shal looked at him agape, but said nothing. The other two Salamanders looked at one another, confused.
“Negative…I mean, I haven’t…looked,” the voice said. Vulkan nodded slowly.
“Very well. Contact me when you do,” Vulkan said, cutting the channel.
Ir’Shal spoke up. “You wouldn’t.”
“Why not?” Vulkan countered.
“You’re not a Navigator, my Lord!” Ir’Shal protested, as realization dawned on the other two Marines. “You can’t see into a Warp current!”
“I’m not going to try to steer us, brother,” Vulkan said, “just try to figure out what’s causing this.”
“Don’t bother, my Lord,” Ir’Shal said firmly. “Not even a man tempered by your experience can see into the Warp and stay sane.”
Vulkan stared at him for a moment before relenting. “Very well.”
Ir’Shal sagged with relief. “I’m glad I could convince you, Lord. It would have been a terrible loss for the Chapter if we were to lose you so early.”
Abruptly, the ship shifted again. This time, the shift felt more like what a Warp transition should feel like, rather than dropping into the Warp like a stone. Vulkan looked around the bridge for any sign of change, but couldn’t tell what was wrong. Ir’Shal turned back to the Captain’s controls and glanced them over. “We’ve reached the core of the stream, my Lord,” he said. “It’s like the eye of a storm, surrounded by the maelstrom of souls, but not buffeted about by them.”
“Could we drop out safely?” He’Stan asked.
“No chance,” Ir’Shal said grimly. “We could drop out in the middle of deep space, dozens of light-years from a star. We can’t risk it.”
Vulkan turned for the exit. “The ship is yours, brother Ir’Shal. Please unseal the pressure doors on the vessel so the crew can go about their duties.”
“Where are you going, my Lord?” He’Stan asked as Ir’Shal acknowledged his instruction and started working the ship’s life support controls.
“I need some rack time, brother,” Vulkan said wearily. “And I seem singularly useless here. Wake me to take a shift.”
“I don’t…aye, my Lord,” He’Stan said as the hatch slid shut behind his Primarch. He turned to Ir’Shal and shrugged. “I can’t blame him. Those daemons…for all we know, this isn’t even the first time they’ve met.”
“Chilling,” Tu’Shan muttered. “You may be right.”
“I’M TELLING YOU, SOMETHING’S GONE WRONG,” the Emperor roared worriedly, pacing the Hall of the Throne. His massive footsteps shook the room to its high ceiling, until finally he sat back on his huge haunches and stared at his guests. “I WAS TRACKING VULKAN’S SHIP, THEN THEY SLAMMED FULL-BORE INTO A VOID WHALE CARCASS AND I LOST THEM. DAMN IT ALL, I CAN’T LOSE HIM LIKE THIS, NOT SO SOON.”
“Father, I beg your composure,” Ultramarines Primarch Roboute Guilliman said, trying to maintain his own. “The Swift is large enough to survive contact with a void whale carcass. And I assure you the Navy wouldn’t have assigned him an expendable crew.”
“YOU’RE NOT FAMILIAR WITH THE MODERN NAVY, THEN, ROBOUTE,” the Emperor shot back. When he caught sight of his son’s grimace, he sighed. “SORRY. THAT WAS OUT OF LINE. I CAN’T NOT WORRY ABOUT HIM, THOUGH. HE COULD BE LOST TO US.”
“We could find out where his ship was heading from the Navigator, if you can contact him. Or the ship’s Astropath,” Guilliman put in. “I’VE BEEN TRYING!” the Emperor roared. “THE NAVIGATOR’S DEAD, AND THE ASTROPATH IS GONE. I DON’T THINK HE’S DEAD, BUT HE’S NOWHERE I CAN CONTACT HIM. IN A WARP STREAM, OR COMATOSE, OR SOMETHING.”
“We will look for him, then. We can send a ship to his last known coordinates, and have them scan for anything in the vicinity.”
“NO POINT,” the Emperor said dejectedly. “HE’S STILL IN THE WARP. JUST NOWHERE I CAN FIND. DAMN IT.”
The Eternity Gate strained at its hinges for a moment, as it parted just enough to admit a few more people, then slid shut. Leman Russ and Primarch Jaghatai Khan of the White Scars walked in, and each bowed before their enormous father for a moment. At his psychic instruction, both stood at ease.
“Any luck, my Emperor?” Russ asked. The Emperor shook his head.
“SADLY NOT. I WISH I COULD RELAY BETTER NEWS, BUT…”
“Yes. Well. Nothing we can do but hope for the best and trust in his ability to improvise,” Russ said, not even trying to conceal his disappointment. The Emperor took note.
“LEMAN, JAGHATAI, I WANT YOUR OPINIONS ON SOMETHING AS LONG AS YOU’RE HERE. YOU TOO, ROBOUTE.”
“Certainly, my Liege. What is it?” Guilliman asked on their behalf.
“HUMANITY’S EXPANSION INTO THE GALAXY HAS BEEN ONE OF PHYSICAL CONSUMPTION. THIS IS ONLY PART OF WHAT I HAD INTENDED, AS YOU’LL NO DOUBT RECALL. I WANTED HUMANITY’S MARCH FORWARD TO BE AS MUCH AN IMPROVEMENT AS A RECLAMATION.”
“Weaning humanity off of robots and ushering in true, safe psychic power,” Guilliman supplied.
“RIGHT. INCIDENTALLY, WHERE’S LION?”
“En route, Father,” Jaghatai said. “He wanted to make sure Corax was up and about first. His recovery has been slow.”
“For him, anyway,” Russ quipped.
In his cabin, Vulkan was tossing and turning on the mat he had placed on the floor. He had shed his armor and pulled the mattress and padding off the bedframe, since he could never had fit on them anyway. Now he was trying to wrest a few fitful hours of sleep before being called up to the bridge to replace He’Stan. It had bothered him somewhat that the entire crew of the ship had so willingly and completely bowed to his authority in the matter, but he resolved not to let that trouble him until later.
Sleep, however, was slow in coming, fitful, and wracked with dreams. Almost as soon as he fell asleep, he started dreaming, in fact, as vividly as he ever had in his life. Blissful fantasies, horrid nightmares, all swirled together to create a bizarre mélange.
He saw himself hand in hand with a putrid, shambling daemon wearing his brother Lorgar’s face, a beautiful young woman with his eyes embracing a man he didn’t recognize, an aged and scarred Tu’Shan cleaving an Ork clean in half while a Kommando crept up on him. He saw a Princeps walking his Titan into a volcano on Prometheus while his crew screamed at him to stop, a harem of terrified children dragged in chains onto a Salamanders battle barge by a giggling Dark Eldar. Most of all, he saw the girl, running and giggling with other girls her age, panting and writhing beneath the man from before, old and grey and surrounded by others. The visions swirled together, and they all seemed to be so real… He awoke, gasping and sweating, his hand scrabbling at the deck next to him, unconsciously searching for the faithful iron chisel that had become his lifeline to sanity and defense on the unnamed Daemon World upon which he had been trapped for so long. He spotted it on the belt of his armor and sighed, his nerves calming.
His vox beeped and he nearly lunged at it, still tense as a bridge cable from the nightmares. He calmed himself and inserted it back into his ear. “Vulkan here.”
“My Lord, it’s Lieutenant Commander Wilcox, on the bridge,” the voice on the other side said. “Lord Ir’Shal wanted me to tell you that the end of the Warp stream is near.”
“What?” Vulkan asked. He cleared his throat and asked another question before Ir’Shal could take offense. “How does he know?” “I know because the Astropath says he can almost taste it, my Lord” Ir’Shal put in, having clearly been listening. “Please make your way back up to the bridge.”
“Acknowledged, brother.” Vulkan sat on the mat collecting his thoughts for a moment before tiredly heaving himself back up and into his armor, which he blearily fastened on. That done, walked out to see the rest of the crew in frenzied preparation, most of them looking as out of sorts as he did.
As he stepped out on the bridge, he could see why the Astropath had said what he did: the ship’s sensors showed a definite end to the stream, and if they were close enough for the ship’s machine spirits to sense it, the Astropath could have seen it clearly. Ir’Shal turned his helmet slightly to acknowledge his Lord’s presence. “Just in time, my Lord. We will reach the end of the stream in…forty seconds.”
“Excellent work, brother,” Vulkan said, making a quick sweep of the bridge. The Warp-worn crew was performing as well as they probably could under the circumstances, given that their actual Captain was cooling off in the morgue.
“Departing the stream in…twenty seconds.” There wasn’t much else to say, really. Vulkan watched the sensor panels as the seconds ticked by…and then they were out. For nearly every soul aboard, the change was immediate. Every man on the bridge seemed to stand up a bit straighter, and a few flashed nervous grins at one another as the sense of pressure faded.
“Stream is behind us. Lord Ir’Shal, Lord Vulkan, permission to exit the Warp?” Wilcox asked from the maneuvering station, just below the now-empty Navigator’s Quarters.
“Take us out, Commander. Come what may,” Ir’Shal said grimly.
“Aye aye. Opening rift…rift opened.” Wilcox’s augmetic limbs darted over the controls, pulling brass handles and pressing runic buttons. The ship’s hull shook for a bit, and Vulkan felt the familiar brief sense of nausea that always accompanied a Warp transition rile his stomach.
The arrival of a ship on the fringes of the system caused an immediate alert in its inhabitants. First, a tiny unmanned drone in the halo pinged the opening of a Warp rift, and registered its horrifying potency…far more than a ship that would normally visit the system could generate.
That drone dipped into the Warp itself for a fraction of a second. It then reemerged mere thousands of kilometers from the populated moon that comprised the system’s capital. The drone then beamed the data it had collected to a massive antenna on the moon’s lovely temperate surface. The data vanished into a labyrinth of computers, which promptly spat it out onto the holographic screens of a group of started Early Warning Sensor Network operators.
Those operators then passed the warning up the chain of command with the speed of Bad News, whereupon it was deposited on a single, smoothly-curved, almost organic-looking desk. After a few seconds delay, a massive blue hand reached down and casually flipped through the first few pages, before dropping it on the table. The messenger bowed low for a moment, and awaited the command he knew would come. “Shas’O? Your instruction?”
“Assemble the Air Caste defensive units in orbit and arm the surface-to-space rail cannon,” Shas’O Kes’y Fap’tau ordered, his lopsided arms crossing in anticipation. “The Imperium wants a fight. I’ll give them one.”
Ir’Shal prodded the runes on the Captain’s control board until a holographic representation of the system popped into existence in the middle of the bridge. The Master of Ships looked it over quickly. “It’s…not an Imperial system. Star pattern does not match any known stellar system.”
Vulkan heard Ir’Shal’s words, and his heart sank. It was foolish to expect that the Imperium would control the system, of course – less than 15% of the galaxy was Imperial – but he had still hoped. Despite his brother’s words, though, a sense of recognition tugged at his memory. The system wasn’t a human one, but it WAS familiar…somehow.
“Master Ir’Shal, an object has been detected heading in our direction,” the officer at the sensor station reported. “It’s rated at interceptor size, moving under power. Approximately twenty four light seconds away, star-side.”
“Acknowledged. Power down Gellar field and all external lights, activate void shields. Power them as high as you can, Lieutenant,” Ir’Shal said, his authoritative voice cutting though the crew’s nervousness. He knew the crew would need that if they went into combat straight out of hell. Vulkan nodded in silent approval, glad to see Ir’Shal reacting as if the unknown object was a threat.
“Gellar field powered down, my Lord, external lights extinguished. Shields to maximum. Sub-light engines are online, ready for course and bearing,” Wilcox reported from his own terminal. “My Lord, we await your order.”
Vulkan tuned out the chatter on the bridge, the sense of recognition growing stronger by the minute. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he stared at the hologram of the system, focusing on the gas giants near the middle of the system’s orbits. One was orbited by what looked like three planetoids the size of Mars, easily, and nearly a hundred smaller bodies. Something about the planet was stirring memories he hadn’t thought of since…since before he left Nocturne.
He’Stan and Tu’Shan were huddled over a pair of the bridge’s weapons control stations, looking ridiculously large compared to the terminals themselves. He’Stan glanced at Vulkan for a moment, then opened a private channel to him.
“My Lord, was this anything like what you hoped you would find? Do you have any idea where we are?”
“None, except…” Vulkan’s voice trailed off.
He’Stan waited a moment before prompting. “Except what, Lord Vulkan?”
“Except the oddest feeling of déjà vu, brother,” Vulkan said, still staring at the planet in the holofield.
“Have you visited the system, Lord?” He’Stan asked.
“Not that I can remember. But then, I’ve been out of the loop for a while,” Vulkan said with tight sarcasm.
“It’s completely out of the question,” Jaghatai said flatly.
“Utterly. I’m genuinely astounded that you would even consider it,” Lion El’Jonson added.
“I SUPPOSE THAT’S NOT A SHOCK. ALL I ASK IS THAT YOU CONSIDER ITS MERITS BEFORE DISMISSING IT AS IMPOSSIBLE.” The Emperor was sitting behind a massive gold-tinted table he had had installed in the Hall of the Throne to replace the actual Throne itself.
“Humanity stood alone as the Age of Strife began, Father! Abandoned by its alien allies and betrayed by its own creations! We learned from our mistake!” El’Jonson said heatedly. Corax nodded grimly from beside him.
“You remember, Father, they treated us like we were invading them when you were there,” Guilliman said from Jaghatai’s elbow. “Even with all the favors you owed them.”
“THE ELDAR SEE IGNORANCE IN OUR REFUSAL TO SUBMIT TO THEIR MACHINATIONS, BECAUSE SO OFTEN THEIR PLANS AND OURS ARE ENTIRELY AT ODDS. YES. WHAT IF THEY WEREN’T?” the Emperor pressed.
“The Craftworld Eldar are interested only in self-preservation and carefully preserving their superiority complex,” Jaghatai said angrily, “and the Dark Eldar are murderous vermin, one and all, as I damn well know. Yeah, leave them to rot.”
“THE CRAFTWORLDERS ARE WILLING TO COOPERATE WITH US. THEY HAVE IN THE PAST, SEVERAL TIMES,” the Emperor said doggedly. “BEYOND THAT, THEIR GOD OWES ME A HUGE FAVOR. A LITERAL GOD OWES ME. NO WAY I’M NOT CASHING THAT IN.”
“Exchanging favors is one thing. An alliance is quite another,” Russ put in mildly. Jaghatai looked at him, confused.
“Russ, I thought you were all for this. What changed your mind?”
“I’m not in favor of an alliance. I’m in favor of mutual assistance and maybe, possibly, eventually, commerce. Nothing more,” Russ pointed out. “Just playing it fair, here.”
“NOBODY’S PROPOSING AN ALLIANCE,” the Emperor roared from his- elevated - side of the massive table. The structure sloped down nearly fifty feet to a more normal height, where the Techpriests had installed conveniently Primarch-sized seats. “ALL I’M SAYING IS THAT THE LAST THING THAT THE TWO REMAINING SIGNIFICANT EMPIRES THAT OPPOSE CHAOS, TYRANIDS, AND THE NECRONS SHOULD BE DOING IS FIGHTING EACH OTHER. ESPECIALLY NOT WHEN THEIR LEADERS OWE EACH OTHER FAVORS.”
Russ nodded slowly. “Stranger things have happened since I got back to reality.”
“I can’t believe I just heard you say that, Leman,” Corax said. “You of all people.”
“Why not?” Russ countered. “You know me. I’m a practical kinda guy. Beyond that, the Eldar have aligned with us before.”
“It’s a heresy and a crime against the Imperial Truth,” El’Jonson said hotly.
“From what I understand, the word ‘heresy’ has taken on rather new meanings since last I checked,” Guilliman muttered bitterly. “And the Truth has been left to the wayside.”
“TO BE HONEST, THAT’S A DEEPER RUNNING PROBLEM THAN THE ELDAR.” He turned his glowing purple eyes to Guilliman. “ALSO, ROBOUTE, IF ANYONE IN THIS ROOM STANDS TO GAIN FROM THIS, IT’S YOU. THE ULTRAMARINES HAVE MADE DEALS WITH ELDAR AND OTHER XENOS IN THE PAST.”
“They have?” Guilliman said in surprise. “When?”
“RATHER OFTEN, FROM WHAT I HEAR,” the Emperor said. “INDEED, FROM WHAT I UNDERSTAND, THE TAU WOULDN’T BE HALF THE THREAT THEY ARE IF THE ULTRAMARINES AND BLOOD ANGELS HADN’T THROWN THEIR EVERYTHING INTO SLAUGHTERING THE TYRANIDS ALONGSIDE TAU EXPANSION FLEETS.”
Guilliman struggled to find words for a moment, much to Russ’ private amusement. “I…suppose I can’t get angry at the Chapter if I don’t know why they did these things. Are the Ultramarines the ONLY chapter to have done this?”
“HELL NO, EVERY FIRST AND SECOND FOUNDING CHAPTER HAS, TO SOME EXTENT, AND HUNDREDS MORE BESIDES, INCLUDING THE GREY KNIGHTS.”
Guilliman was silent for another few uncomfortable moments before sighing aloud. “I trust that my successors had their reasons.”
“SO DID I. CORAX, YOU LOOK UNCONVINCED.”
“I am, Sire,” Corax said, mustering his thoughts. “The Eldar have no reason to trust us. None. Whatever individual acts of cooperation between us there may have been in the past, they can’t overcome ten thousand years of war.”
“EXCEPT WHEN THEY HAVE TO. YOU AND JAGHATAI BOTH SAID BEFORE THAT THE ELDAR WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO SURVIVE. THEY KNOW FULL WELL THAT THEY ARE A DYING RACE, CORAX; IF ALLYING WITH US CAN BUY THEM A FEW MORE MILLENNIA OF INCREASED STABILITY, A FEW THOUSAND MORE YEARS OF ONLY HAVING TO WORRY ABOUT CATASTROPHIC PROBLEMS THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH US, I GUARANTEE IT’LL PERK UP SOME EARS ON THE WARLOCK COUNCILS,” the Emperor said reasonably. Russ snorted at the mental image that produced, but said nothing.
“BEYOND THAT, ONE OF THE BIGGEST RESOURCE DRAINS ON CRAFTWORLD ELDAR FLEETS IS HAVING TO PROTECT THEIR EXODITE WORLDS FROM IMPERIAL COLONY FLEETS AND ORDOS XENOS KILL TEAMS. IF WE INSTRUCTED THE MECHANICUM AND INQUISITION TO LEAVE THEM ALONE THAT WOULD SAVE THE CRAFTWORLDS MILLIONS OF LIVES,” the Emperor added. “THAT MATTERS MORE TO THEM THAN ANY TRADE PACT OR INFORMATION BROKERING.”
El’Jonson stared at the tiny Aquilla engraved in the table in front of each seat. Very slowly and deliberately, he spoke up. “I find the idea of a resurgent Humanity allying itself with Xenos repulsive. But…I suppose, now of all times, we have…far greater problems to worry about. For now.”
Corax shifted uncomfortably as the throbbing pain in his wrist flared up. He gingerly lifted his arm and set it on the table as Russ nodded. “I agree with Lion. We’ve got bigger fish to murder.”
“Why did you wait until after Vulkan was gone to discuss this, Father?” Jaghatai asked.
“I DIDN’T. I ASKED HIM FOR HIS OPINIONS BEFORE HE EVEN LEFT,” the Emperor roared. “HE SAID HE WOULD SUPPORT WHATEVER AGREEMENT THE REST OF US REACH. TRUTH BE TOLD,” the Emperor confided, lowering his ear-splitting voice by an unnoticeable degree, “HE THOUGHT IT WAS A WORTHY IDEA THAT SHOULD ABSOLUTELY NOT BE PURSUED AT THE COST OF THE IMPERIUM’S CURRENT SURVIVAL. IF WE CAN GET THE ELDAR OUT OF OUR COLLECTIVE HAIR AND MAYBE GET SOME OF THEIR TECHNOLOGY OUT OF THE DEAL, HE’S ALL FOR IT.”
“Gearhead,” Russ said fondly.
“ALWAYS WAS. I SUSPECT MANUS WOULD HAVE SAID THE SAME IF HE WERE HERE,” the Emperor said.
“Are we distinguishing between Craftworld Eldar, Corsairs, Exodites, and Commorragh Eldar here?” Jaghatai asked, determined not to be swayed by nostalgia.
“OBVIOUSLY. THE EXODITES ARE NO THREAT TO ANYONE, AND THE CRAFTWORLDERS WILL BE OPEN TO NEGOTIATION AS I’VE SAID, BUT THE CORSAIRS ARE NO BETTER THAN ORK PIRATES, AND THE DARK ELDAR ARE VERMIN TO BE EXTERMINATED,” the Emperor replied.
“Good answer, Sire,” Jaghatai said, his own hatred of the Dark Eldar flaring up in his memories, undimmed by ten thousand years of cursing their foul race in the Webway.
“If the consensus is in favor, I won’t oppose it,” Corax said resignedly, “if only because the Imperium needs consensus now more than ever before. But I want it noted that I think this is grounded in good intentions destined to fail.”
“DULY NOTED, SON. LION?”
El’Jonson slowly ground the heels of his palms into his eyes and sighed through clenched teeth. “…Fine. I’ve got bigger problems. Much bigger problems,” he muttered darkly.
Russ stared at Jaghatai for a moment before returning his gaze to the Emperor. “I’ll support a mutual non-aggression pact, if it comes to it. I suspect selling it to the wolf brothers will be hard, but…I’ll do it.”
“ALL RIGHT. ROBOUTE?”
Guilliman closed his eyes in thought, speaking slowly. “If it’s not unprecedented, then…I’ll consider it. I suppose I do owe Ulthwé my life, if nothing else.”
Jaghatai shook his head emphatically. “I’m sorry, Father, but I can’t agree to this. I’ve just heard too much about how the Dark Eldar and Craftworlders…hell, all of them, really…they’re just too damned willing to co-operate. My own history aside, if it comes down to aiding Commorragh and aiding Terra, they’ll aid Commorragh.”
“WOULD WE DO LESS?” the Emperor asked. “I UNDERSTAND YOUR RECALCITRANCE, THOUGH, I REALLY DO. IF WE GO AHEAD WITH THIS, WILL YOU SUPPORT IT?”
“If I’m directly ordered to, then I’m directly ordered to, and I won’t disobey,” Jaghtai said simply, shaking his head with a scowl.
“I UNDERSTAND. THEN BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE THRONE – NOT THAT I HAVE ONE ANY MORE – NEGOTIATIONS WILL OPEN VIA THE CHANNEL WE ALREADY OPENED ON ULTHWÉ. I’LL PROBABLY BE TALKING TO ELDRAD DIRECTLY. IN ANY CASE, THANK YOU FOR YOUR INPUT, MY SONS. SHIPS FROM THE STRIKE FORCE YOU AND DANTE BROUGHT WITH YOU, CORAX, ARE BEING PREPPED TO SEND YOU BACK TO YOUR OWN HOMEWORLDS. I’D SEND YOU MYSELF, BUT I NEED TO STAY AND HELP CLEAN UP THE MESS FULGRIM MADE OF HIVE LUCRESTI.”
“Yes, Father,” Guilliman answered for them all as they stood up to leave. Corax remained in his seat, waiting for the others to leave. As Jaghatai crossed the threshold, Corax stood.
“Father, I haven’t really had a chance to ask. You know what I did before I headed into the Eye?”
“OF COURSE,” the Emperor said heavily. “WHAT OF IT?”
“Guess,” Corax said drily.
“Fine. My Liege, I was following your instructions verbatim and failed utterly. I was devastated by the mistake. You know what I felt I had to do in penance.”
“And…have I paid for it fully?”
“OBVIOUSLY, MY SON. FAR WORSE CRIMES WOULD HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN BY THE PENANCE YOU BORE,” the Emperor said, with some surprise. Corax nodded, a weight lifting from his shoulders.
“I would have mentioned it before, but, well…you know. Imminent doom.”
“YOU’LL GET USED TO IT AROUND HERE, SON, BELIEVE ME,” the Emperor said wearily. “NOW THEN. HOW’S THE WRIST?”
“Agony incarnate, but it’ll heal; Draigo’s man got to it in time,” Corax said, hefting the bandaged limb.
The Swift coasted along through space, its shields still locked at full. Whatever the object that had been closing on them was, it wasn’t in a hurry to close, and had drifted into the Swift’s wake without firing. It was keeping a steady distance of a few light-seconds behind them.
“My Lord, the moon of that gas giant is now 1,015 light seconds from our position. Barring catastrophic engine loss, we will reach it in…one day and change,” Wilcox reported from his station.
“Acknowledged,” Ir’Shal said, his own mechadendrite dancing over the controls. “Weapons?”
“Dorsal batteries at ready. Target still out of range, sir. Flank batteries charged, but they can’t target the contact from their position. Torpedoes armed, but no targets in range,” He’Stan reported.
“Master Ir’Shal, do you have anything in the ship’s cogitator banks about this object’s origin?” Wilcox asked.
“Negative, this ship’s sensor package isn’t powerful enough to identify it from this distance,” Ir’Shal replied after checking.
“My money’s on a sensor drone from some xenos race,” He’Stan said over the Salamander’s private vox channel. “We could be outside the Astronomican for all we know.”
“Doubtful, but not impossible,” Ir’Shal replied. “Lord Vulkan, we could deactivate the Void shields, to increase our speed considerably.” “We could. Is it safe? I don’t know,” Vulkan said.
“Nor I. It is simply a suggestion,” Ir’Shal said.
Jaghatai Khan was distracted. No matter how much he tried to look forward to returning to Mundus Planus, all he could hear was his own words in the Hall of the Throne. “Yeah, of course I said that,” he muttered bitterly, “of course I said I would go along with it. Not like I have a reason to disagree, oh no.”
“My Lord, are you asking me something?” a rather terrified Palace servant asked from a few paces ahead, where he struggled to carry the White Scar’s minimal luggage.
“No, no, just being bitter,” Jaghatai sighed. “Forget it.”
“Yes, My Lord. Ah, we’re here, Lord,” the man said, opening the ornately carved door to the small ancillary Palace shuttle bay. The Khan squinted, looking over the small collection of shuttles and fast attack fighters in the bay. He grunted approval.
“At least Father recognizes the need for a quick defense,” he said, quieter than the servant could hear. The servant scuttled over to a cargo servitor and deposited the luggage on the former Ogryn’s frame.
“Your armor and one of the holy Raven’s Attack Bikes has been stored on the second shuttle in line, your Lordship,” the servant said, gesturing at the vessel in question. The servitor rumled to life and waddled aboard the indicated ship.
“Very well, thank you,” the Khan said, walking aboard. A small crew was already busily pestering the ship’s machine spirits to lift as he settled himself in, and soon enough, he did.
The shuttle’s co-pilot poked his head around the door to the passenger compartment. “We’re headed up to the Endurance-class cruiser Temperence, my Lord Primarch. It will bear you to Mundus Planus, as per your request.”
“Very well,” Jaghatai responded, leaning back to steal some sleep.
“Damn your face, I ordered the railgun be prepped TWO DAYS AGO!” Shas’O Fap roared, leveling his massive arm at the terrified Earth Caste builder standing in front of his desk.
“I know, Shas’O, I know, and we’re genuinely sorry for the delay, but the cryocooler was off-line for upgrades, and we can’t re-install it before the Imperials get within range,” the builder said hastily.
“Sorry? You’re not sorry. Not yet. GET THE GUN ONLINE!” the lopsided Tau roared.
“Yes, sir! I beg your forgiveness!” the builder said obsequiously, bowing out of the room as fast as it could. The door slid shut and Shas’O Fap slid angrily back into his seat, fuming.
“Fucking Imperials come to challenge the Greater good in MY SYSTEM, and the main gun isn’t even operative. Unacceptable,” he grumbled, whipping his glove back off. “What does a Tau need to do to get four or five minutes uninterrupted quiet around here?”
“Shas’O, this is Orbital Defense Command, Air 1,” his radio blared suddenly, ruining the building mood. “The ship on approach has been identified. It’s an Imperial Cobra-class destroyer, ID code unknown. It’s armed and its shields are active, but its FTL is giving off an unknown signal. It may be damaged, sir. No escort ships sighted.”
“Yeah fine great,” he managed, slapping the off-switch as fast as he could, before returning to his ‘work.’ “Never a dull moment around here, I tell ya.”
Vulkan slowly paced back and forth in his quarters, stewing the situation in his head. The planet had defenses, that much was obvious from the sensor readings from orbit, but the data the sensors returned was worrying. The ships in orbit looked like nothing the Salamander has ever seen, though they matched the descriptions of the xenos called the “Tau” that Dante had given him.
That was a whole other set of concerns, there. Before he had left Terra, the Emperor had debated with him for some time, on the merits of ignoring or allying with the Eldar. Would the Tau, which the Emperor and Dante alike had described as pseudoegalitarian, be willing to simply assist them in leaving if offered something of value? And why did the system look so familiar when the Imperium had never controlled it? His helmet vox buzzed for a moment, drawing his attention. “Lord Vulkan, this is Lieutenant Commander Wilcox again. We’ll be in range of the outermost orbital weapons soon.”
“Acknowledged. Any signs of overt hostility?” Vulkan asked, as he ceased his pacing and walked into the corridor.
“Negative. Our shields wouldn’t be able to last long against the surface weapon’s fire, though.”
Vulkan froze, one foot hanging mere centimeters above the deck. The formless sense of recognition that had been drifting through his mind since he saw the star map coalesced in a heartbeat, and realization was enough to restart his movement, rather more urgently than it had been before.
“I see, Vulkan out,” he said as quickly as he decently could, then cut the channel. He paged He’Stan at once as he reached the cargo lift that would bring him to the bridge. “Brother He’Stan, join me on the bridge NOW. The situation is more complicated than we suspected.”
“Aye, my Lord,” He’Stan replied. “I’m already on the bridge.”
“Good, stay put. Damn it all, why here, now?”
“Lord Vulkan?” He’Stan asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Recall the prophesy of the Unbound Flame, brother?” Vulkan asked as the lift crept up to the right level.
“ ‘The stars spin twice, ‘round the guarded crypt. The light of a sun shines on the doors, though it is hard to find, and temperamental. Below all sits the Flame, Unbound, Eternal, strong and untarnished. The ground parts and weeps where its bearers walk, as the sky is filled with green,’” He’Stan recited instantly.
“Exactly, brother. Now look at the moon we’re approaching.”
He’Stan looked over the holofield of the ever-growing moon, scanning it for details. The moon was about what he had thought it to be: Mars-sized, and with tiny white dots on the poles where ice caps had formed. Thin blue oceans were spread over the wind-swept surface, with large, blocky continents between them. “I see it, brother.”
“Now look at the sensor output and tell me what it says the most common gas in the atmosphere of the gas giant is,” Vulkan instructed.
“Er…radon, sir,” He’Stan reported, feeling a bit sandbagged.
“Now tell me what color radon emits when it’s subjected to electric current.”
“The Unbound Flame sits in an alien crypt on that moon, and we’re going to retrieve it, come Warp or quake,” Vulkan said with grim satisfaction. “I’d stake my soul on it.”
“You’re stalling, Leman,” Roboute Guilliman said.
“No, just taking my time, brother,” Russ said coolly. They were standing in one of the innumerable luxury apartments in the Palace where diplomats from far-flung portions of the Imperium would stay while waiting to make a case to the High Lords, where he had decided to stay until he could return to his Chapter.
“To what end?” Guilliman asked. “You could go back to Fenris at any time you wanted. All the Astartes forces that Corax and I brought with us have left now, even Dante. Corax left this morning, I’m leaving tomorrow, Lion’s probably half way to The Rock, Jaghatai left last night. Are you even planning on leaving?”
“Don’t get testy with me, Brother, it won’t end well for you,” Russ snarled. Guilliman stared Russ down, completely unafraid of his brother’s posturing.
“It’s Bjorn, isn’t it?” he asked quietly.
Russ kept glaring at Guilliman for a few more seconds before relenting. “…Yes. Fuck. Fuck! What if he was telling the truth? Is that what I want to see when I go home?”
Guilliman nodded silently. “How do you want to handle it?”
“I don’t even want to think about it. But…I should just contact them via astropath and let them know I’m coming. Harald and Grimnir will have told them I’m back, but I didn’t tell them when I would be heading back to Fenris.”
“So go unannounced,” Guilliman said, smiling faintly. “Go without advance notice. See if things really are as they say.” “Surprise my own battle brothers?” Russ asked in confusion.
“Why not? If you’re afraid of what you’ll find, it’s best to see it unadorned and unornamented, isn’t it?” Guilliman asked reasonably.
Russ inhaled deeply, and slowly let it out. “You’re right. Damn it. I should just get this over with.
“Forward, Angels of Death!” Lord Commander Dante roared, the flames of his Assault Jump pack flaring behind him like a miniature sun. The septet of Assault Terminators behind him followed suit, their Lightning Claws gleaming in the sunlight. The eight Power Armored Astartes landed amongst the startled pack of Hrud they had been targeting, ripping several to shreds in moments.
The leader of the shambling herd of xenos clutched a primitive stubber in its filthy claws, and hosed the nearest Terminator down. He may as well have been throwing spitballs; the Terminator was close enough to simply flex his elbow and throw the monster back a pace, toppling the Hrud into its still-standing fellows. Dante sighted the thrashing pile of aliens and incinerated them all with a burst of fire from the Perdition Pistol, grimacing in distaste as he did so.
“Filthy Hrud,” he said, carefully wiping his axe on the shriveling grass next to the pile of ash.
“Permission to ask a question, Lord Dante?” one of the Terminators asked, staring at the aliens’ remains.
“Granted, brother-Sergeant,” Dante replied, glancing back at them.
“I understand that these…’bendies’ are to be exterminated wherever they’re found, my Lord, but why were you dispatched here? Surely, with the Emperor’s personal return, you could have been assigned a more…vital task,” the Terminator said respectfully.
“Because Rordek is a vital agri-world, and I would rather be here sharpening my blade on Hrud skin than sitting in a transport brooding,” Dante snapped. “Besides, it’s between Terra and Baal. More than that, you need neither know nor question.”
“As you will, my Lord,” the Terminator said, bowing his head.
Dante’s vox beeped. “Lord Commander, this is Brother Mephiston. The Hrud infestation source has been located: the sewage tunnels adjacent to the cargo spaceport. They must have ridden in on one of the heavy agri-freighters,” his Chief Librarian’s gravelly voice reported.
Dante nodded with satisfaction. “I guessed as much. Numbers?”
“Disconcerting,” Mephiston confessed. “I would guess nine thousand at least. They’re-”
“Nine thousand?” Dante said in shock. “How is that even possible? There aren’t even ten million humans on the whole planet!”
“The sewer tunnels extend as far as six hundred miles from the starport, my Lord. Sewage plants the size of cities process the grit and shuck from farms that span continental bodies. If the Hrud infested the entire tunnel network, they would have almost unlimited space to breed,” Mephiston pointed out.
Dante was silent for a long moment. “We have only two hundred Marines on this planet, and the PDF is all but spent. If we take each tunnel individually, we could be here for centuries.”
“We may not need to, my Lord,” Mephiston voxed grimly. “The Hrud are congregating at the spaceport. The tunnel walls of the sewage network are visibly crumbling, such are their numbers.”
Dante thought that over. There was precious little available to them here, the Dark Angel and Raven Guard task forces having dispersed back to where they had been before the Emperor diverted them. The rest of the Zargh 3 taskforce was either helping mop up on Earth, or returning to Segmentum Command for fresh instructions. He had only a Strike Cruiser and a few Falchions at his disposal in orbit – not enough to target enemies underground with any degree of accuracy.
“Gather the Sanguinary Guard and whatever Dreadnoughts we have available at the spaceport and set up a cordon,” Dante said. “I am en route. Have we any vehicles left?”
“Two Land Speeders, a Stormraven, and a single Predator, Baal variant,” Mephiston replied.
“Dispatch them to the spaceport as well,” Dante ordered. “They will hold the rear as we advance into the tunnels.”
“As ordered, my Lord,” Mephiston acknowledged, cutting the channel. Dante turned to his Terminators.
“Brothers, the heart of the xenos infestation has been found. The sewers beneath the spaceport are packed with them. We must go to Brother Mephiston’s aid.”
“Acknowledged, Lord Commander,” the nearest Terminator spoke on behalf of the others. “Estimated strength?”
“Significant. Nine battalion strength. Maybe more,” Dante said, signaling for their Thunderhawk to come and retrieve them.
“How could there be that many when the infestation began mere years ago?” the Terminator asked.
“Apparently, there was breeding space. What I’d rather know is how the colonists managed to miss an infestation that large,” Dante said disapprovingly. “Hrud are hard to miss.”
“Hold! Hold, in the Emperor’s name!” Mephiston roared, hurling a frag grenade at the roiling mass of grey flesh and cloth. The grenade detonated a mere few centimeters from the charging mass of Hrud, blasting a hole in their front line and throwing shattered weapons about. A Furioso Dreadnaught next to him took advantage of the opening, spraying his pair of storm bolters at the standing Hrud on either side of the gap. It simply wasn’t enough, though, the gray vermin slid out of the tunnels like water.
“Damnation, the xenos are heading for the fuel depot!” Mephiston snarled, stepping back a pace and focusing his energies.
“Brother, do it now!” the Furioso said, taking a step aside to fill the gap left by the Librarian’s withdrawal. It pivoted at the waist and opened up with both storm bolters again, this time adding its melta’s fire to the effort. The rest of the Marines stationed across the spaceport – which was nothing more than some pipes, flat areas for fixed-wingcraft, a tower, and some VTOL pads – were rushing over as fast as they could, but the Hrud were inexorable.
The Furioso caught a full salvo of bolter fire across the shoulder, and one off its robotic arms flew off in a shower of rubble. Undaunted, the Dreadnought pivoted again, maintaining fire from its other arm. “Hurry, brother! I can’t hold them!”
“BURN, IN THE EMPEROR’S FLAME!” Mephiston roared, sweeping his hands forward as the Dreadnought lurched aside. The Hrud at the front of the pack suddenly halted, gibbering in fear.
Even as they watched, a gigantic golden angel swept down from the sky, brandishing a gigantic blue claymore. Before it could arrive, it raised its free hand, pointing it at them. A black mist erupted from its hands, reaching out towards the tightly-packed front ranks of the Hrud charge. The aliens squealed and split, arresting their charge completely, trying to avoid the mist.
Mephiston and the Dreadnought wasted no time, sweeping the aliens with plasma, bolter, and melta fire. The other Blood Angels from the spaceport added what fire they could as they charged in from their patrol routes, slicing the gray mass apart. With a horrible chittering, the herd of aliens retreated back into the tunnel from which they had erupted, some firing wildly over their shoulders.
“Fire! Fire! Breach the tunnel!” Mephiston commanded, suiting actions to words as he fired his plasma pistol down the tunnel after the retreating xenos. The apparition of the golden angel vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, since it had only been a projection of Mephiston’s.
The walls of the gently down-sloping tunnel evaporated under the concentrated fire of the Blood Angels, spraying concrete dust and chunks of rebar around the grassy battlefield. After a few more seconds, Mephiston raised a clenched fist, and the Angels’ fire ceased instantly. Mephiston concentrated for a moment, focusing his psychic powers down the tunnel, but sensed nothing but the Hrud fleeing.
“They withdraw, brothers,” Mephiston said, hiding his relief. “Lord Dante will arrive shortly. We must prepare for the Hrud’s return. Begin fortifying.”
“Aye, brother,” one of the newly-arrived Marines said, jogging back over to his parked Land Speeder. Mephiston turned to the damaged Dreadnought.
“Venerated brother, see to your injury. Lord Dante,” he added, reopening his vox, “where are you?”
“Two minutes out, brother,” Dante’s voice came back. “What happened?”
“The Hrud saw me scouting the tunnel and attacked, my Lord,” Mephiston confessed. “The Hrud have been repelled – I projected Fear of the Darkness upon them – but they are massing. I sense that most of the nest may be on its way here.”
“Nine battalions of Hrud…” Dante trailed off. He didn’t need to continue, those numbers could overwhelm any standing force he brought with him. The fact that there was only one exit from the tunnel would mean little: the Hrud disintegrate when they die, so even a wall of corpses would not remain an obstacle for long.
Within minutes, the spaceport was looking worse for wear. The ships in orbit had done what they could to drop fortifications, but a few bolter turrets were the best they could do under the circumstances. The other Blood Angels had raced in to Mephiston’s position, reinforcing it as best they could, dragging bits of shattered concrete from the tunnels into mounds they could use as cover. A pair of Techmarines scrambled to repair the damaged Furioso, trying to reattach its severed arm. The vehicles Mephiston had listed to Dante before were carefully driven into place, leaving several dozen meters between the gaping mouth of the breached tunnel and the Marine’s desperate defensive emplacement.
The piles of Hrud corpses had partially dissolved, their putrid remains flowing back down the tunnel in rivulets. The bits of clothes and the weapons they left behind lay where they were dropped, most damaged by whatever had killed their former owners.
Dante himself, accompanied by the members of the Sanguinary Guard, was overseeing the placement of the defenses. The scout contingent that accompanied the Marines were set up on the balcony of the spaceport tower, where they could cover the spread of the entire gap. The gunship was busily retrieving the few Marines who weren’t already present, ferrying them to battle as fast as it could.
“Brother, how long before the creatures regain their courage?” Dante asked quietly.
“Not…long, Lord Dante,” Mephiston said, glancing over at the ominous gap in the pipe. “It will be overwhelming. I can sense the entire brood down there.”
“What’s infuriating is that they will approach all at once,” Dante said bitterly. “If this were a field engagement, with their forces arrayed against ours, we could probably handle 45-1 odds. But all of them at the same time, from a single exit point,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“That single exit point will be our saving grace, my Lord,” Mephiston said. “They can’t exit that tunnel more than ten abreast. We’ll hold them capably until we start running into ammunition problems.”
“Assuming they don’t find another exit nearby,” Dante pointed out. “If they do, they could flank us with ease, since we’ve more or less had to focus our defense in a single spot.”
“Naturally. If there’s another entrance to the sewer tunnels, though, it’s nowhere aboveground, or we’d have seen it by now,” Mephiston said. Before Dante could reply to that, a hideous keening squeal erupted from the tunnel mouth.
“Defensive positions, brothers! The Hrud advance!” Dante said over his vox. The Techmarines ignored the order, fixated on reattaching the Dreadnought’s arm. The rest of the Angels scattered behind the piles of concrete and the bolter turrets, sighting the entrance of the tunnel. For several tense seconds, nothing seemed to change at all. Then, from the tower, the distinct double *crack* of an Astartes scout rifle sounded, and a Hrud stumbled out of the tunnel with a crater in its torso.
That was the signal, apparently. Another several Hrud bolted out of the tunnel, spotted the Marines, and sprinted for their position as fast as their twisted legs could take them.
Even as another four double *cracks* sounded off from the tower, and another four Hrud crumpled around their impact wounds like tissue paper round a brick, Dante pumped his clenched fist twice, and the Land Speeders opened up on the tunnel mouth, shredding the aliens which were starting to emerge. The bolts detonated amongst them, casting the survivors about. It didn’t even seem to slow the rest of the horde down, as nearly a dozen more came running from the gap after a moment’s pause.
“Now!” Dante roared, gesturing at the tunnel. Right on queue, one of the Devastator units in his impromptu group of defenders squeezed his detonator. A pack of satchel charges down the tunnel from where the Hrud were pouring out detonated, breaking the tunnel roof and collapsing it on the Hrud within, crushing them in a burst of viscous gray fluid.
Dante smiled behind his mask at the sight, but his satisfaction was short lived. His Devastator’s calculations must have been off, because rather than collapse the tunnel, it simply blew the roof down, allowing the Hrud to continue to pass. Sure enough, the number of aliens emerging from the tunnel mouth was undiminished.
Dante stared, looking over the gap of the tunnel, trying to see what he was missing. The Hrud weren’t Orks, they had no reason to just throw themselves at their defenses like cattle. So why were they throwing dozens of their troops away?
Within seconds, he had his answer. All of his scouts ceased fire at once, and their vox channel dissolved into panicked shouts. Dante spun around, and watched in horror as a group of Hrud with wicked-looking knives set upon the scouts on their balcony…coming from inside the building!
“Stormraven! Double back and cover the tower!” Dante ordered, turning his gaze back to the tunnel, where nearly a hundred Hrud were now crouched, firing from behind cover. A spattering of stub rounds glanced off his armor, and he ducked back, cursing himself for a fool. Of course the Hrud were throwing themselves at the Blood Angels: they had had the means of denying the Angels their long-range cover from the beginning. Even as the Stormraven whirled about in mid-air to hose down the Hrud now bolting for cover on the balcony over the corpses of the scouts, the tiny hangar on the side of the airstrip next to the VTOL pad erupted in gray-skinned aliens as well.
Mephiston spotted the xenos emerging from the hangar and cursed. There was no way he could have failed to detect the presence of so many aliens so close…so were there tunnel entrances under the hangar and control tower? For disposing of fuel leaks, perhaps? He sighted down his plasma pistol and fired, though at that range he was too far to do more than singe their cloaks. It served its purpose, though, scattering the first line of Hrud.
The Hrud are not artisans, but they can use a stubber as well as the humans from which they steal them. The abruptly surrounded Blood Angels were standing under a veritable hailstorm of stubber rounds now, from the tower, hangar, and tunnel. The armored units were weathering it well, protected behind their plates of ceramite and plasteel, but the lighter units and helmetless Marines were faring poorly. Dante and his men rallied quickly against the sustained projectile assault, but even Space Marines can be vulnerable when outflanked, and indeed they were.
Dante and the Sanguinary Guard were quick to react to their sudden outflanking. They and the other Assault units in their contingent were quick to fan out, attacking the three sites with all the strength desperation can lend. The Tactical forces they left at the barricade they had erected, which now looked dangerously unprotected indeed. The Techmarines were both down, now, though one had managed to repair the Dreadnought before succumbing to the hail of stubber fire. A few shots from what looked like a hunting lasrifle bounced off of the Stormraven’s underside, and its Hurricane pivoted to sweep the gunner with bolts.
Dante ducked the flying debris and swung the Axe Mortalis low, slicing the nearest Hrud apart at the knees. He took advantage of the moment of uninterrupted breathing room to glance over the men at his side. The three members of the Sanguinary Guard at his side were still standing, but Mephiston was down, a pockmarking of bullet damage scattered across his collar and head. He was still breathing, but clearly out of it.
The other two breach points were faring no better by now. The relentless hail of fire from the base of the tower was broadening as the gradually diminishing fire from the defenders allowed more and more gunners to flee for cover and resume their attack. The Stormraven was doing its best, but its ammunition supply was not infinite, and the Hrud were directing as much fire against it as they were the men on the ground.
Eventually, it took its toll. The Stormraven lurched to one side as an impossibly lucky bullet tore through its exposed engine, sending the aircraft into a spin. The pilot struggled with the vehicle’s controls, before a krak missile rose from the packs of Hrud at the base of the tower to slam into the lascannon slung from the vehicle’s underside. The gunship shuddered and sank, plummeting towards the ground.
To Dante’s shielded eyes, it looked like a particularly large flare had gone off. To everyone else, it looked more like a miniature sun, as the aircraft crashed down on top of the Predator, detonating both in a spectacular fireball. Dante and his team at the hanger were far enough away to escape damage, but none of the men at the barricade were: the tank had been parked at the middle of the formation. The impossibly unlucky blast blew the formation apart, with several dozen Angels torn to ribbons on the spot. The sheer size of the blast knocked the survivors off their feet.
Dante gaped at the sight until a patter of stubber rounds off his helmet snapped him back to grim reality. The heart of the Blood Angels’ defense was gone, and unless he did something quickly, the rest would die too, and probably take the planet with them. “Fall back!” he ordered over the vox, managing to keep his voice free of the bitterness he was feeling.
Continued in The Tales of the Emperasque: Part Twelve.