Neil Thompson | Arrival Irregular
The Verdict of Battle crew
Captain Jubal Santos: a chartist starship captain with big ideas
First Mate Joel Santos: an envious hanger-on
Mistress Ava Yaen: an astropath who likes to be able to tell you she told you so
Enginseer Zonia Avila: a woman who needs things to be done the right way
Rune priest Fenx Borsk: a youth with a passion for details
Ensign Castor Vine: a general dogsbody
Major Henrik Shelk: a top armsman who stands out in a crowd
Sergeant Tod Serge: a leader who draws the short straw
Corporal Jed Hinks: a man who carries the burdens of others
Corporal Jenson 'Happy' Voss: a trooper who walks with the Emperor on every mission
The Holy Orders of the Emperor's Inquisition
Inquisitor Stannos Kellman: of the Ordo Xenos, a well-travelled man
Enforcer Dexicos Ioannou: an ex-Arbite who believes in setting the record straight
Magos Achaikos Pallus: a tech-priest of many talents, most of them well hidden
Other assorted individuals
Captain Charnos, captain of the Unicorn, unfortunately deceased
Gravlex, an unknown section leader
Trelk, a vile heretic
Third Fist Martok, an extremely vile heretic
The Imperium of Man:
The Verdict of Battle: a proud armed merchantman and steadfast member of the Tarnoth sector merchant fleet of the Segmentum Obscurus
The Gloriana: Inquisitor Kellman's pride and joy
The Unicorn: an Imperial Navy troop transport long feared lost to Eldar corsairs
The Marchanna: a bulk freighter that's now top of the heap
The Judy: an ex-Navy Shark assault boat that lurks in the shadows
Assorted vile heretics, xenos and pirate scum:
Floating Metal Death-Trap: a fresh entry into the Directory of the Most Accursed Space Hulks and a new arrival in the Tarnoth sector
Warmachine: an Iconoclast pattern raider with a taste for piracy and violence
Conduit of Unspeakable Blasphemies: the Warmachine's less noisy sister ship
Skinflayer: a light cruiser of unknown hull configuration and unfriendly disposition
"The biggest threat to men is mankind."
- Genetor Thrull, Divisio Biologis, executed for tech-heresy 894.M41
"Ah yes, the Divisio Biologis. An extremely valuable part of the Adeptus Mechanicus, but one which requires special watching. For its own good of course."
- Inquisitor Stannos Kellman, Ordo Xenos
'Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only Waaagh!'
- Divisio Biologis xenos 'jest', author unknown
The tech-priests' prayer-chants warbled out over the vox-speakers as the Verdict of Battle's engines dropped it out of the Warp. In his bunk, Magos Achaikos Pallus groaned and tried to muffle the sound of the sacred prayers by pressing his pillow firmly over both ears. At last the droning noises from the speaker cut off, followed by a clear chime. A blue light appeared above the cabin door to signal it was safe to unlock. Achaikos peeled the pillow off his head.
The armed merchantman Verdict had safely made the transition back into realspace without a breach of its Gellar Field; apparently, no ravening Warp-creatures were going to appear and drag the passengers' souls into the Immaterium before they had reached the outer fringes of the Genthar system. Now there would be a gentle, month-long journey through Genthar's twelve inhabited worlds before Achaikos and his partner Dexicos reached Genthar Prime and their master, Inquisitor Kellman.
They would be late for their meeting with Kellman; their first ship had developed engine trouble before leaving the New Thanos way-station, forcing them to pull rank on the local administratum drones, who'd eventually booked them passage aboard the stately Verdict. Achaikos had no doubt that the merchantman could run faster if she had to, but Captain Jubal Santos seemed to enjoy a measured pace and the magos had no intention drawing the captain's attention to his newest passengers any more than their irregular arrival upon his ship already had. He hoped that the captain agreed.
Dexicos glanced up from the floor as he stored his prayer mat back under the bunk on his side of the cabin. With his augmented hearing, and even with the chants echoing in his head, Achaikos could still hear the prayer-beads clicking in Dexicos's jacket pocket where he'd stowed them away. The former Guardian of Senna was still scrupulous about his ritual absolutions to the Emperor before and after every warp jump. Achaikos had seen him go through the rituals on a battleship and even on an ore-scow; the gaunt man's routine never varied.
"This jump is over, Magos," Dexicos pronounced. "Praise the Emperor, we have safely returned to realspace and may resume our work."
Dexicos's pious tone was as irritating as ever. Achaikos briefly considered pointing out that if he hadn't heard the chime through the pillow, he wouldn't have heard Dexicos's solemn amen, either. It wasn't worth rising to the bait; the enforcer was just needling him for being petty at the slowness of the Verdict's drift through realspace. He gave Dexicos a wordless grunt of acknowledgement and used a mechadendrite to pick up the data-slate he'd been reading from the time the countdown to re-entry had begun. He was grateful that the ship's tech-priests had granted them access to the ancient vessel's library.
Achaikos's squat, augmented frame sported both a standard servo-arm and several snakelike manipulator mechadendrites of his own design, all the better for keeping a grip on the slippery slate while finding his way around the screen. He scanned the glowing green text as he tapped the surface gently with the tip of one of his tendril-like prosthetics, scrolling it down to where he'd left off. It was Grey's Xeno-Anatomy, a classic account from the early 39th Millennium, covering the dissections carried out on captured xenos natives by the Magos Grey during the Cleansing of Rixthrax III. With the local gravity set 1.75 times stronger than Sacred Terra's, the creatures' ladder skeletons were truly fascinating pieces of biological adaption. Of course, reading the slates was an inefficient way to absorb the information but Achaikos found that practicing such routine human tasks kept him adept at interacting with the unaugmented humans he so often encountered in his work for the Inquisitor. For a magos, he seemed almost human from the outside, but that only went skin deep. It was good to keep those inquisitorial connections alive.
Achaikos watched Dexicos out of the corner of his augmented eye as the man turned back to his own task—updating both their reports from the Ashar IX incident. Writing such routine paperwork bored Achaikos silly on space-flights so he'd palmed it off onto his partner again, claiming the need to brush up on his knowledge of high-gravity life-forms for when they finally reached Genthar Prime. As a former local planetary law-enforcement officer on Senna, Dexicos was used to all the form-filling anyway, and in the course of their various assignments together had never openly called out Achaikos on his dilatory approach to keeping their joint master informed. Inwardly, the magos suspected that the former Arbite enjoyed fiddling the after-action reports a little too much to change things; Dexicos, even after all his time away from the Guardians of Senna, still loved deciding the official verdict of things.
Of course, this time he would have to make sure he read it before it was ever turned over to the Inquisitor. With his black and white outlook, Dexicos might believe that Kellman would appreciate the initiative they had used in their disastrous last mission, but Achaikos had browsed both through his own stored memories and the ship's files far faster than any organic could, and the information he had gathered on precedents of this nature was not encouraging. With the galaxy wide catastrophes currently engulfing the Imperium of Man perhaps reaching even this isolated backwater soon, failure was tolerated even less than normal. Achaikos didn't know if he should be wishing the meeting with his master already over or thanking the Omnissiah that a random sequent of events had delayed its arrival. It was a puzzling frame of mind for a servant of the Machine God to find himself in.
Another chime, this time a sharp, buzzing one, sounded from the cabin speakers, interrupting Achaikos' train of thought. The speaker-panel spat and crackled a moment, and then there was a muffled thump from the other side of their door. Achaikos remained on his bunk but inched a free mechadendrite over to the holster he'd left in the top corner. Dexicos got to his feet and stood sideways to the door, strapping on his weapons belt. Neither man was in the mood to take chances with their safety on this return leg of their mission.
The speaker cleared. "Frething thing," a voice at the other end spat out, followed by another clanging noise from outside the door.
"Who's there?" Dexicos called sharply.
"Oh!" a young man's voice came through briefly, crackled into silence, then came back to life. "Ensign Vine and escort party, sirs! Here to bring you both to the bridge. Captain Santos requires an immediate audience with you!"
Dexicos glanced back at Achaikos, his hand loosening the flap of his shot-gun holster. "What do you think Santos wants?"
Achaikos shrugged up at his terse partner. "How should I know? I'm augmented, not telepathic." He looked to the door, where the sound effects suggested that young Ensign Vine continued to struggle with his magnificent entrance. The Verdict's crew had access codes which should override any lock on their cabin door. "What did you do?" he asked Dexicos.
"An extra layer of security. Inquisitors of the Imperium should never be interrupted."
True enough, Achaikos agreed. There should be no reason for them to be summoned. Perhaps the chartist captain had gone a little space-mad and mixed them up with some long-departed previous passengers he'd once carried. Centuries of life on a floating metal box drifting between the stars would eventually make anyone a bit fuzzy about the head, Achaikos was certain. "Oh, let the boy in."
Dexicos palmed the entry button. The door hissed open to reveal a short, nervous-looking youth with an ensign's twin beads on his shoulder, and two older, muscular men standing at ease behind him. They both wore caps and the simple black slacks and navy shirts of deckhands, and seemed slightly bored. Vine seemed startled to find Dexicos almost entirely blocking his entrance. Achaikos surmised he hadn't met many enforcers before, or other passengers, for that matter. The crews of the merchant navy often lived their entire lives in the void, rarely setting foot on the planets they shuttled between.
Achaikos swung off his bunk and got more-or-less gracefully to his feet. "Well, Ensign. I suppose we'd better go and see what the captain wants then, hadn't we?"
The bridge of the Verdict was a scuttling hive of activity; crew and servitors moved around each other or sat silently at instrument panels, doing the tasks that kept the huge ship up and running from moment to moment. Gleaming copper-plated wires snaked across the floors and walls and the air was filled with the hum of cogitators and the smell of incense and burnt wax. Luminators studded the ceiling and the scene was further lit up by the multitude of cogitator screens and data-slates. Achaikos was glad of the escort party that kept them separated from the general hubbub and which guided them cleanly towards the upper deck.
Their host was waiting for them with a small group of others, the party arranged in a semi-circle on elegant leather-backed seats around a circular table. The seats seemed bolted into the deck and in front of each, on the desk, was a screen glowing with data. Above the sleek wooden-topped desk, a hidden hololith projected the razor-sharp image of a large metallic clump semi-attached to a far smaller one, the conjoined pair moving against a background of stars.
The captain was a sleek, plump man with wavy black hair and the pale tan of a void-born. With the Juvenat treatments available one could never be certain of a noble's true age, but to Achaikos' eye, Jubal Santos looked young for his station—in his middle thirties, perhaps. The captain had an energy about him that people into their second century lacked. He smiled at his guests as they arrived and waved at a pair of empty seats.
"Magos Achaikos, Enforcer Dexicos, welcome. Take a seat, please."
Achaikos and Dexicos took their places at the captain's table between a broad, ferociously muscular man and a slim, dark-haired woman who sported a number of discreet augmetics about her robed body. The others at the table were bridge crew, but these two were different. Neither looked up at Achaikos as he sat, their gaze fixed on the floating projection above the desk.
The man wore the grey uniform of a House Santos armsman, with the three stars of a major on his shoulder. Pictorial tattoos ran from his wrists into the cuffs of his jacket, and from his thick neck to beneath his uniform. A feral world human, almost certainly, Achaikos thought: maybe short and broad due to high gravity. Although an organic, the man's musculature and combat experience would make him a formidable enemy, which was doubtless how he had ascended from a feral world to his present rank abroad an Imperial commercial vessel.
The woman was a head taller, but less formidable about the arms and torso. Achaikos's glance took in cropped black hair, pale brown skin, and a small burn mark by the right eye, where something fast and hot had struck her in the face. One of the void-born then, like the captain, or a hiver perhaps. She wore the robes of the ship's ranking enginseer and four mechadendrite arms of various configurations appeared over her hips and shoulders, confirming her status as a mid-ranking member of the Adeptus Mechanicus.
She seemed otherwise remarkably unmodified for an adept of her rank, though doubtless her brain was full of as many microprocessors as she could cram inside. Achaikos couldn't fathom why it was becoming perversely fashionable among some junior mechanicus members to cultivate a nearly unaltered organic appearance, though he suspected their comparative humanity served to better show off the subtle rareness of those few active modifications that they could manage to acquire. He'd never paid much attention to theological fashions, not even years ago, before his assignment to Inquisitor Kellman.
"Your hololith projection is most amazing, Captain," he heard Dexicos say admiringly. "It must be a family treasure. Is it very old?"
The captain and several of his crew exchanged amused glances.
"Actually," Santos replied, running a careless hand through his hair, "it's less than a hundred shipboard years old. Most of the cogitators and logic-engines aboard are fairly new. After my brother passed, the captaincy came to me and I had the Verdict extensively refitted with the best systems my agents could find across the Twelve Worlds."
Dexicos narrowed his eyes at the captain's startling words and even Achaikos felt a pang of jealous awe. What kind of technosorcery could give an image as clean and crisp as this? Even at the Ordo Xenos substation on New Thanos, he'd had to resort to the Litany of Percussive Maintenance to persuade their hololith machine-spirits to function at half this definition.
Jubal must have caught the expression on his guests' faces, or perhaps he was just used to this particular revelation disturbing high ranking Imperial visitors. He spread his hands in a gesture of appeasement.
"Please don't be alarmed. I assure you all the systems are theologically sound. Their precursors were developed in partnership between my House and some of the more forward-thinking members of your order. All the proper unguents and blessings were used."
"Original technotheological research?" Achaikos queried, intrigued despite himself. Cogitators were not his area of expertise, of course, and it had been a long time since reading basic Information Theology as an acolyte. Most servants of the Omnissiah sought to extend the knowledge of mankind through digging up the lost secrets of the distant, greater, past, but this was not the case with all—as was evident with Jubal. Finders of new knowledge, and the untamed machine-spirits their new creations brought with them, were regarded with fascination and suspicion.
"Precisely," Jubal answered crisply. "Most of what mankind conducts today is just applied technotheology, Magos. We cross the Milky Way galaxy surrounded and cushioned by inherited technologies. It's tame and comfortable because we know how to work them and how to placate their machine spirits when they break down. We can still, generally speaking, repair, build or duplicate almost anything based on known STC archeotech templates."
Achaikos stared. This recycling of knowledge could represent a wonderful approach to making the most of inherited technologies, or it could represent the steep top of a slippery slope. Overt enthusiasm over new—thus unknown—technologies came close to committing xenophilia, a Schedule One heresy according to Inquisitor Kellman.
Jubal wittered on cheerily.
"We can train our people to make use of them, or just burn the skills into their brains. This gives us a lustre of competence, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find a yawning void of ignorance. We don't truly understand how any of these marvellous toys we've had handed down to us to play with were originally acquired."
Dexicos smiled thinly. "Perhaps the Emperor will share the knowledge of these secrets with you when you finally go to meet Him before the Golden Throne."
Jubal smiled back at the enforcer's sally. "Even with faith like yours, Enforcer, there's no denying that with every passing millennium, humanity's sacred knowledge diminishes a little further. In any fixed system, if there is no fresh input, losses leading to eventual collapse are inevitable. No, the future of the Imperium lies in theoretical research theology, I am convinced of it!"
"Really," Dexicos murmured, glancing at his partner. Jubal's mercantile search for profitable local opportunities seemed to have grafted itself in an odd way to the wider Adeptus Mechanicus quest for knowledge, a quirk which the two agents would have found harmless enough in normal times but now seemed to be tilting the captain's thinking in dangerous directions. News of Captain Santos' views would bear mentioning to Kellman once the Verdict of Battle finally reached its destination, Achaikos thought. It was a crumb to pique the Inquisitor's interest, and perhaps turn it away from thoughts of Ashar IX.
"We have a whole technotheological research division running on my home void station of Braxtra, turning out new developments all the time. Why, on our last run through there, just ten shipyears back, they'd built a model generator capable of wireless energy transmission. Now, just imagine a ship's bridge without copper cables strung about everywhere!" Jubal seemed to note their startled expressions. "Apologies, this subject is something of a hobby-horse of mine. Void-born or not, we nobles can't all be rogue traders dashing off chasing lost archeotech hoards to raise the family fortunes. Although that does bring me back to the reason I asked you to the bridge."
The captain nodded significantly up at the holo-image floating above the desk and the two Imperials turned to look. Two shapes were displayed floating in the Void together, a metal lump and a dot nearby it. Within the hololith's scale, the ugly metal lump was about the size of a large potato, and the smaller dot more like a pea, and marked with the identity glyph signifying it represented the Verdict. The other mass floated serenely over the table-top. Looking closer at it, Achaikos could see what looked like ridges and dents. At first, he assumed the potato was a singular mass, perhaps a particularly huge asteroid. But he quickly realised that the detail of the larger object showed a solid clump of smashed star-ships, all conjoined by the force of collision and localised gravity. The pea-sized dot tagged as the Verdict was moving slowly in its direction.
Achaikos' quick glance at a frowning Dexicos showed that the enforcer, too, was beginning to wonder about Jubal's reasons for showing this to his Imperial passengers.
"Unidentified space object 003-AX-1," Jubal said from the other side of the projection. "In plain language, a space hulk, albeit a rather small one. This one's barely the size of a couple of large asteroids."
"Doesn't it have a name?" Achaikos asked uneasily. "I thought these things were all assigned a warning label to help keep track of them—Spawn of Damnation or something ominous and threatening to discourage greedy or treacherous boarders."
"We've searched the files for this thing's specifications and come up with nothing."
"It could be relatively newly formed," one of the more heavily-augmented crewmembers said suddenly. "Or even an old hulk reordered or reshaped in the Warp."
"Thank you Fenx," Jubal murmured, his twinkling eyes showing tolerance of the unfeigned enthusiasm creeping into his young subordinate's voice. He gestured an introduction to the Imperial agents. "Fenx here is one of our best rune priests. We've had him searching the records of hulk sightings since we dropped out next to this thing."
"In any case," Fenx chirped, apparently proud to be entrusted with the task of tracking the hulk's origins, "the records are unreliable. Half these floating junkyards have a different name in every sector they jump into. It gets hopelessly confusing trying to track their history."
Achaikos regarded him dubiously as more evidence of xenophilia loomed large in the young rune priest's cheerful manner towards the lump of damnation displayed in front of them. "Have you assigned it a name yourselves then?"
Santos smiled. "Not yet, but after you and your partner—"
"Pending reassignment upon our return to Inquisitor Kellman, my duties are strictly planet-bound, Captain," Dexicos said crisply. "I'm simply on secondment with the good Magos as his security advisor, and together we're returning to our illustrious employer, who's currently orbiting Genthar Prime aboard the Gloriana, and awaiting our safe return. A return which is being delayed while we still sit around discussing this floating metal death-trap of yours—"
"There!" Fenx snapped his metallic fingers loudly at the enforcer's words. "The 'Floating Metal Death-Trap'. That's a suitable name for a brand-new entry in the Directory of the Most Accursed Space Hulks if I ever heard one, Captain."
"Are you sure it's never been used before?" Achaikos asked curiously, though already certain the obsessive young rune priest would've run a search through his cogitator glasses.
"I've just run a check against ten-thousand entries. Of course, that's not a completely exhaustive list—"
"Thank you Fenx," Jubal cut in, gloved hand raised, "but I believe that's enough information for our guests right now. I'm sure they'll be happy to pass the suggestion along to the Inquisition at a later date."
Dexicos sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between two black gloved fingers. "Captain, I do hope you're not really trying to suborn two Inquisitorial agents into helping you board an unknown vessel of questionable origin, carrying Throne-alone knows what hostile abominations on it. A treason-against-humanity charge carries so much paperwork with it if there's no Inquisitor around to pass summary judgement."
Jubal spread his hands wide in one of those expressive gestures he was evidently fond of. "Not at all, my dear Dexicos. However, saving myself, you two are the ranking Imperial members on board this ship, and I thought it politic of me to keep you informed of our situation."
"What about it?" Dexicos spoke impatiently to whole group now, "It's a cursed hulk, probably part-xenos or heretic in composition, possibly carrying some terrible alien infestation. Flag its position, resume your flight towards Genthar Prime, and notify the local System Defence boats when you make orbit. They can destroy the thing, if it's still here when they arrive."
"We don't want to," rumbled the muscular armsman.
Dexicos goggled so vigorously at this open display of contempt to the Imperium's position that Achaikos felt obliged to step in. He held and kept the nay-sayer's eye. "And why not?"
"Well for one thing, it's been broadcasting out a call for emergency aid in plain Gothic since we arrived."
"It's actually an automated distress beacon," explained Jubal after the pregnant pause that had followed his armsman's announcement, "identified as coming from the troop transport ship 'Unicorn'. It's been missing in action, presumed lost in the Warp, for almost sixty years. I understand that there were groups of Eldar corsairs operating out of nearby star systems around that time; the transport's loss was written up back then."
"Is it coming from the hulk's surface or from its insides?" Achaikos asked, squinting anew at the mysterious mass.
"No, though we've identified the ship above it as the Marchanna, a relatively recent loss. The beacon's call seems to be coming from an embedded point within the mass. We'll probably need to pass through the Marchanna to get to the Unicorn."
"Well, it's probably the safest path—the freighter is more likely to have redeemable life support systems."
Achaikos sighed, having a good idea of where this discussion was going. "So you want to land a search and rescue party? Don't you think enough time has passed to give those guardsmen the Emperor's Peace and move on?"
Dexicos made small sucking noise through his teeth and narrowed his eyes. The magos looked at the enforcer, whose elevated bio-signs showed piqued interest with this news of the beacon's broadcast. Achaikos read curiosity, fear, and a little supressed excitement. Dexicos could never resist his sense of curiosity for long; it was one of the reasons Inquisitor Kellman had added him to his retinue.
"Hmmm…" he offered eventually.
"What?" Achaikos enquired, irritated. The enforcer's natural curiosity was such a recurrent, predictable behavioural pattern in their social interactions that he'd programmed an amber alert to appear on his internal vision-stream whenever Dexicos was about to suggest taking another action over sticking to a pre-arranged goal. Two alerts were flashing now; he cleared them with a mental prompt.
"The power's still on," Dexicos mused. "There could be survivors; they could be in stasis. Or there could at least be a recording of what happened to the ship. It might be something the Lord Inquisitor needs to know about in our final report."
Arbites, Achaikos thought to himself, will always want to poke at a mystery if you dangle it in front of them. Captain Santos was either lucky at the direction this conversation had taken, or cleverer in his choice of conversational bait than Achaikos had assumed when they'd sat down. But Dexicos had a point about warning Inquisitor Kellman; thorough and dutiful agents were also much less expendable than over-zealous ones who had nothing to show for their efforts. Perhaps this accursed hulk's appearance was a message to him from the Omnissiah that He was not yet finished with Achaikos…?
"These were Imperial merchantmen," Captain Jubal said, pressing his point while he could. "It's important we at least make a token sweep. After all, Throne forbid, if our positions were reversed, we'd want the same from them. It will be popular with the men if we stop and mount a search and rescue, even if it turns nothing up."
Achaikos wasn't so sure of that, or convinced by Jubal's pious tone. He sat back, wishing the tips of his mechadendrites would stop crackling so much. Captain Santos would investigate with or without them, drawn in by curiosity or the desire for Imperial credits, Achaikos was sure of it. Perhaps Dexicos and his organic instincts were right; it could be better to keep a personal eye on this situation. After all, the merchant navymen might think they were tough, but that didn't mean they knew anything about stealers or even any of the hundreds of deadly local xenos life forms the Divisio Biologis had catalogued out here in the Tarnoth sector. And at the very least, Inquisitor Kellman would send out his own expedition once he'd found out about the existence of a hulk in the sector.
This time taking the initiative might actually be the right course of action.
Achaikos just hoped the Verdict's first officer wasn't the kind of ambitious man who'd drop his curious captain off on a cursed hulk and hightail it with the ship at the first sign of the expeditionary team running onto trouble. He'd seen enough of the Captain's cousin, First Mate Joel Santos, to register the mutual dislike between the two organics.
Achaikos felt the slight jolt as the forward docking tunnel extended and locked with the Floating Metal Death-Trap. Jubal had dispatched the expedition from the Verdict in the Judy, an ex-Navy Shark class assault-boat in order to reach the best entry point on the hulk, and after analysing the data Fenx had squirted through the noosphere, the Magos and Dexicos had agreed to take their places onboard. The enforcer's point that it was their sworn duty to ensure quarantine beacons be placed aboard to broadcast over the Unicorn's calls for aid had finally swayed his partner with their logic. That, and the knowledge that Inquisitor Kellman would approve of a crisis averted.
The Judy had been assigned an entry by Fenx near the top of the Death-Trap, since scans had revealed that the Marchanna, the nearly-intact bulk-freighter of recent Imperial design, remained the best entry point relative to the Unicorn's own position within the hulk. Both wreck's power-cores were still functioning intermittently, and their machine spirits could probably be roused to provide air, light and heat for the explorers according to the best guess of the Verdict's tech-priests.
Still, Achaikos determined to keep his own survival suit on at all times in case that changed. Despite his modified internal architecture, he wouldn't survive more than half an hour unprotected in a vacuum. Personally the magos was just relieved that the landing route for the Judy's complement put the landing party so close to the embedded Unicorn; he'd calculated that having a short, direct path to the beacon through the hulk, together with a direct line of retreat to the boat, increased individual survival rates by 23.475% in stimulated xeno-contact scenarios with known species. Their team would also keep the clearest pic-vox links with the Verdict and its powerful sensoria as they moved into the hulk, which would help in any emergency retreat.
As their party began to file through the tunnel into the hulk proper, the magos took a moment to assess his companions. Jubal had dispatched each team with three full squads of House Santos armsmen. Most were ex-Guard, and it showed in their age and posture. There was little chatter as the first squad swept in at the double and the others waited their turn. Each man wore the loose transparent sack of a void survival suit over their flak vests and helmets, yet their movements were sure and swift. Captain Santos had issued them with hellgun lasrifles, and their ammunition satchels bulged with spare power packs. Grenades or plasma weapons had been ruled out in the cramped corridors and high pressure atmosphere of the mashed together conglomerate of star-vessels, but each squad carried a flamer or meltagun. Jubal hadn't stinted on his men's equipment, at least.
The leader of the Judy's expeditionary team was the tattooed feral-worlder from the briefing room, introduced finally as Major Henrik Shelk, the head of the ship's complement of armsmen. Shelk's command team had been issued a vox-pack and the magos intended to stick very close to it. Dexicos had insisted on wearing his beetle-black carapace-armour under a transparent guest suit. The enforcer's full-face helmet was still painted white under its aquila, giving the armoured-and-suited Dexicos a skull-like appearance. He carried his combat shotgun over one shoulder, and had strapped a bolt pistol to his hip over the Verdict's thin void suit. Several of the armsmen cast envious glances at the former Arbite's equipment as they moved past.
To Achaikos's surprise they were then joined by three others; Jubal, the youthful rune priest Fenx, and Zonia Avila, the void-born crewwoman from the briefing. Zonia's small facial burn marked her out as an enginseer who'd risen up from the factorium floor, or rather its shipboard equivalent. Both she and Fenx had kept their noosphere exchanges with him to the minimum mechanicus protocol demanded, but Ensign Vine had told Achaikos that Avila was in fact the Verdict's chief of operations. Jubal, it seemed, was taking quite a few of his senior staff with him on his private rescue effort. Major Shelk certainly hadn't seemed too appreciative of his employer's insistence on joining them rather than delegating the exploratory mission, but Achaikos understood Jubal's action; Inquisitor Kellman had always made a point of never giving an order he wasn't prepared to carry out himself.
Achaikos' thoughts were interrupted by the hiss of releasing air as the Judy's docking bay opened its doors.
"Litany of Fault Diagnosis complete," proclaimed a crewman. "Light-Gravity-Air prevails in the Marchanna. Permission to proceed?"
"As far as the Marchanna's docking bay, if you would," Jubal voxed back.
The two Imperial agents followed Jubal and his entourage off the Judy and into a vast metal hangar whose emptiness served to emphasise both the tiny size of the assault boat that had delivered the expedition to the hulk and their own smallness of number. Beyond the hum of the Marchanna's surviving automated functions, Achaikos heard nothing. He strode over to Fenx.
"Any news of what became of the Marchanna's crew?"
"No, the machine spirits have been silent on that matter. And the Unicorn's for that matter."
Achaikos doubted any had survived a Gellar Field breach of even limited duration. The Immaterium was deadly to even the righteous among mortals. Until they knew more about the crash, he was wary of moving too far from the docked Judy, but Jubal didn't seem concerned; the chartist captain's eyes gleamed with excitement as he moved with energy to organise the speedy movement of his men from the bay to within the deeper part of the hulk.
"From this moment," Jubal said, "we will split into two groups to cover more ground. There will be one command squad around Major Shelk and one around myself, and each squad will be covered by two fireteams." He paused and looked around to ensure that every member of the expedition was listening. "The bridge crew on Verdict are in touch with the boat and our expedition and will coordinate our exploration, serving as our hub while we map this part of the hulk."
Achaikos nodded agreement. It was more than likely that interference would be too thick for the Judy to communicate with the landing party independently.
"In the meantime, Major Shelk and myself each have a member of our personal squads assigned a vox caster. Check that your personal vox channels can link to your own squad's and to the public channel. If anyone discovers anything of interest, they're to contact me, Shelk or their respective squad leader immediately. Are we all understood?"
A chorus of assent rang out, which Achaikos and Dexicos supplemented with nods in the captain's direction. Jubal grinned widely at the two Imperial agents.
"Enforcer, Magos, you are cordially invited to join my personal squad."
"We wouldn't have it any other way Captain," Dexicos said blandly.
The major's group left first, following the Judy's cogitators' guidance on where the Marchanna's bridge—and thus its ops room—was most likely to be. Shelk's group climbed the stairs from the bay, their mission to interrogate the Marchanna's cogitators for any information its scans had picked up about the interior of the hulk before it had collided.
Jubal had reserved the more exciting mission of exploration for himself; his squad was to venture through the corridors of the Marchanna, searching for both signs of life support and a viable route towards the Unicorn, which lay embedded even deeper inside the twisted bowels of the Death Trap's hulk.
"Now we begin our move on the prize," Jubal said almost gleefully. "Perhaps if we discover anything of value within while looking for the beacon, you would care to fix your signatures to my claim of salvage?"
"We are merely here as observers Captain," Achaikos said over the public vox, "Though I am sure the crew of the Unicorn will thank you for your concern on their behalf."
He heard Dexicos chuckle; even Zonia Avila, the burnt-faced enginseer, gave a wintery smile to the two agents from over Jubal's shoulder. The captain had still not bothered to formally introduce her to his guests, which made Achaikos a little curious. Jubal also seemed to favour Fenx for tasks for some reason. Perhaps the rune priest's skill with cogitators simply put him in greater touch with senior officers than Zonia, whose deeper understanding of the practical disciplines like mechanics and electronics would only be called upon in a ship's emergency.
As Fenx opened the first door, closest to the best viable route to the remains of the Unicorn, a chime sounded inside the magos's helmet, indicating a public address being made over the vox network.
"Emperor in His mercy, preserve us as we go about Your work this day," boomed Dexicos, "and we shall go forwards knowing that as we walk these dark halls, we bring with us the Light of Holy Terra and all who stand against us will be purged. Forwards!"
Achaikos had to suppress a smile as one or two heads turned in the direction of the enforcer's skull-faced helmet. They encountered his flat, black-eyed stare and turned hastily away again as the advance began. Jubal and his men would have to learn, if they didn't already know, that working directly with agents of the Imperium of Man came with a price. That price was submission to the agents' judgement and supervision. Fear and faith were the twin glues that held together the million worlds of humanity in the face of the threats from the alien, the heretic and the mutant; Dexicos was very good at inspiring both, especially within an unwilling audience.
Still smiling, Achaikos checked that his void suit's vox button still glowed active in the left corner of his helmet's faceplate, then scrambled after Dexicos and the rest of Jubal's command squad as it marched along behind the two fireteams covering the captain's advance into the depths of the hulk. Everyone kept their void suits' helmets on for now: none among them fully trusted the systems aboard the damaged freighter Marchanna, nor the structural integrity of the larger hulk.
As the group finally filed out of the freighter's port-side bay doors and deeper into the vessel's guts, Achaikos turned his thoughts towards an inspection of his personal sensors for signs of life, a deadly atmosphere, or the dozen other hazards a half-spaceworthy hulk offered. Nothing registered immediately, but Achaikos trusted his own built-in equipment and Divisio Biologis bio-senses over the merely human ones of the armsmen, or even the fancy auspex sensor wand that Captain Santos was carrying. Perhaps the sense of extra security that came with a magos's technology was why the captain had so readily sought out their supervision.
And supervision was certainly needed here, Archaikos thought to himself, as the expedition wound its way slowly through the dusty internal corridors of the Marchanna. They paused whenever they encountered another sealed blast door while Fenx whispered the machine spirits in the locking mechanisms back to life. Oh, for sure, Jubal Santos was no greedy rogue trader, slyly dealing in forbidden xenos items for profit behind the Imperium's back. Had that been the case, Santos would simply have flagged the hulk's presence for later investigation when it registered on the Verdict's instruments and flown his two inconvenient passengers to the Gloriana, none the wiser.
Jubal had clearly concocted this thinly-veiled humanitarian mission as an excuse for his own miniature archeotech search, bringing along a high-ranking member of the Adeptus Mechanicus for official sanction. However, even as he bent the rules in search of gain, the chartist captain's behaviour still showed the loyal thinking of a true Imperial citizen. Back on the Verdict, Jubal had even displayed an uncommon breadth of vision, and good intentions mixed in with his own self-interest.
Regrettably, Achaikos reflected, it was very often this combination of qualities that had led so many earlier searchers down the path of tech heresy and eventual damnation.
The magos's musings were interrupted by Fenx, who raised an augmented hand with digits tipped with a number of different prongs, bits and connectors. He'd been using them, together with the appropriate litanies and incantations, to open the emergency blast doors sealing off the party's path. His gesture indicated that they'd arrived at the final set of doors, which was temporary good news. A quick exchange on the vox net relayed the bad news: the Marchanna's machine spirits had informed the young tech priest that the boundary between the two wrecks remained unstable. The connecting corridor beyond the next door was currently open to void space. They would have to empty their present chamber of atmosphere as they filed out, and open the first set of Unicorn's doors in a vacuum.
"Things were bound to get more difficult as we pressed deeper into the hulk," said Jubal, "Frankly I'm surprised we made it through the Marchanna with as little trouble as we did. Everyone engage their mag-boots. Fenx, I want you to open the door on my mark, then take Zonia with you and study the blast doors to the Unicorn. I'll have a fireteam cover you from here while you open it. Everyone understand?"
There was a chorus of assents and a metallic clattering as people moved clumsily into place with their heavy mag-boots, bracing themselves as best they could. The doors opened with a rush of air and Achaikos felt his upper body swaying as the chamber vented its thin atmosphere. Somewhere in the maze of compartments behind them an ancient alarm blared, warning a long-dead crew that decompression was occurring.
The last of the air left the chamber and the siren stopped.
With practiced ease, Fenx and Zonia disengaged their boots from the metal floor and shot off along a dead straight corridor towards the next set of doors, along with five members of the forward fireteam. Further down the corridor, along the left-side wall, Achaikos saw the rupture that opened the enclosure to the void. The breached wall was edged with jagged, sharp splinters of metal peeling away and out into space. Some ancient explosion or systems overload had blasted energy outwards, piercing the vast hulk's skin in this one tiny location and turning the corridor into a vacuum zone. Achaikos wondered how many more such spots they would find as they ventured deeper into the Floating Metal Death Trap's composite realm.
"The doors here are barely damaged, Captain," Fenx called cheerfully through the public vox channel. "Zonia—I mean Enginseer Avila—thinks she'll have them open momentarily! Once she restores power I'll interrogate their access panel and discern the state of the rest of the systems in this part of the hulk!"
Achaikos winced at the volume of the young rune priest's voice; clearly Fenx's habit of speaking loudly and enthusiastically carried over into public broadcasting. More than one armsman involuntarily lifted a gloved hand to his helmeted head and the magos nodded in sympathy. Normal humans lacked the ability to tamp down their hearing the way a magos of the Divisio Biologis could in the presence of an overly bumptious junior tech priest.
"Excellent news Fenx," Jubal replied drily, "to be relayed with slightly less volume next time, please. Let us know the moment Zonia has them ready to open, and the first team will follow across and enter with you."
"Yes sir…" Fenx replied, sounding distracted. "Zonia has already restored functionality to the last doors, Captain. I'm integrating with the ship's systems now… air, power, light all reported to be functional—there must still be a power source operational somewhere. Decks 23 to 37 have been sealed off because of a hull breach."
"A meteorite strike or something, perhaps?"
"Perhaps, Captain. I don't know. The door's machine spirit is a very low level one and can't really give me the details. But it's outlined a route to the Unicorn's bridge for us to follow. If the ship's sensoria are still functioning, we can use them to search for life signs when we get there. It'll be much faster than crawling around the decks, waving auspex scanners."
"Agreed," Jubal said immediately, with a glance back at Dexicos and Achaikos to see if they were listening in.
Achaikos nodded his agreement; the Unicorn's bridge would most likely contain the beacon they'd detected, and perhaps the surviving technology could tell the story of what had caused the Unicorn to become compacted into the floating ball of dead ships that made up the Floating Metal Death Trap.
With one fireteam ahead and their squad mates bringing up the rear, Jubal and the two imperial agents trooped after the enginseer and rune priest as the exploration team entered the Unicorn. As soon as Zonia had sealed the doors behind them again, Jubal gave the order to remove helmets but to keep them handy.
Archaikos and his partner sniffed the air appreciatively; it seemed fresh enough, though with the slight staleness of any atmosphere that had constantly been put through air scrubbers and a ship's recyclers. The Unicorn's Adeptus Mechanicus complement had obviously done a good job of maintaining the troop ship's environmental controls before their disappearance. Even the ship's illuminators still cast a wan glow throughout the narrow metal corridor in which the team stood.
"Seems in good condition for a derelict," Dexicos remarked in a low voice. "I half expect to turn the corner and run into a maintenance servitor polishing the pipes."
"You're thinking of that ship in the Thema belt again, aren't you?" Achaikos smiled. "That rogue trader who'd resorted to trafficking in xenos goods out on the edge of the Polk system?"
"Why does the Unicorn's condition remind you of a man like that?" enquired Jubal, who'd moved behind the pair, waving his auspex scanner back and forth in search of recent life signs.
"The smuggling captain had a trick," Dexicos said. "He'd disguised his ship as a derelict and would set it to drift passively past customs posts in the Polk system's Thema belt. If it was ever boarded and scanned, he and his crew would hide in a shielded compartment beneath the floor of the main hangar bay. He'd been pulling that trick for nine Sol years before Inquisitor Kellman caught him."
"What happened to him then?"
"Oh, the Inquisitor had him executed for unauthorised contact with non-human sentients," Achaikos said, smiling inwardly as Jubal paled. "Well, we can't have the sacred worlds of humanity polluted with dangerous xenos or their technology. But it's interesting that the Unicorn's systems are all still functioning without mechanicus personnel to oversee the rituals of maintenance. We should move with caution."
The auspex scanner in the captain's hand gave a soft bleep and twitched in the leftwards direction of the corridor.
"It seems your suspicions might be right, Magos Pallus," Jubal said nervously. "Our equipment has detected signs that a humanoid life form passed a point ahead less than two hundred metres from our position."
Achaikos frowned. "Ah. Dare I ask when?"
"The traces are less than an hour old."
The group proceeded with caution along the corridor that Jubal had indicated, the men in the lead fireteam covering each other as they moved down the passage in short, cautious rushes. Behind the imperial agents and the command crew, the second fireteam watched carefully at the rear. Despite Jubal's stated desire to respond to the Unicorn's emergency beacon, no-one really expected to encounter human life signs aboard the ship's remnants. The possibilities were unsettling; Achaikos didn't need his enhanced senses to tell the armsmen around them were getting a little spooked.
Just three turns of the ship's corridor later, the lead fireteam's squad leader signalled Jubal over the public vox channel while the senior officers and their imperial guests sheltered round a bend.
"Captain, there's definitely something moving in the junction about twenty metres ahead. It almost has the shape of a man, but it isn't acting like one. It's just jerking and moving around in circles."
Jubal nodded. "Hold position, Corporal Hinks. We're coming to take a look. Magos Pallus should be able to classify the lifeform."
Achaikos glanced at Dexicos and rolled his eyes in a human gesture for his partner's benefit; non-mechanicus beings often held a touching faith in the speed and clarity of the Omnissiah's servants' diagnostic abilities. But he did not contradict the chartist captain and voxed back over the public channel, "Affirmative, Captain Santos. Corporal, tell your men to make no aggressive moves."
Jogging around the corner with the Verdict's senior officers, the magos and the enforcer found the advance fireteam spread out along the walls of the next corridor, covering the junction up ahead with their hellguns. Just ahead of the armsmen the lights were failing, flickering on and off and throwing shadows into the metal walls of the ship which vanished a moment later.
Achaikos felt his pupils dilating and his audio-implants moved automatically to compensate for the difficult light conditions. The scene ahead expanded and leapt into sharp focus. The magos stared ahead at the limping grey humanoid circling the crossing point of two ship's passageways in fits and starts. One arm ended in a cybernetic claw and the other had been torn off at the elbow. Rusting wires trailed from the end of the stump and stretched upwards to the thing's neck, where they fused with several other heavy cybernetic augmentations covering what had been the technical servitor's biological head and shoulders. Frankly, the servitor didn't seem in much better condition than the lighting in this section.
"Tell your men they can stand down, Captain Santos," Achaikos said calmly. "This is a just a malfunctioning maintenance servitor. Somehow it's still up and about — some of its subroutines must still be inputting commands, even after all this time alone."
A palpable sense of release swept through the men around him; shoulders relaxed and breaths released. The barrels of the lead fireteam's hellguns were not lowered, however.
"Fenx, Zonia, come with me please," Achaikos called out. "Let's see what condition that drone's in. If we can access and reset its command routines, we might be able to get it to lead us to its maintenance hangar, or even an auxiliary command point."
"We'll come with you," Dexicos began, but the magos waved the enforcer and the rest of their companions back.
"Please stay here. The servitor might accept our command codes, even if it struggles to recognise us as Adeptus Mechanicus, but its simple programming might react badly to unmodified human strangers. I expect it's fallen into mindlock whilst halfway through some task or another. We'll probably hear a lot of mindless babbling while we try to restore it to some sort of awareness."
Zonia and Fenx pushed through the crowd and followed Achaikos as he walked the length of the corridor to where the servitor was stumbling around in its endless circular dance.
A crackling sound emerged from the thing's mouth grille as the trio of techpriests approached. There was random feedback at first, but Achaikos could soon hear faint words.
"Deck 13 environmental controls systems reporting fluctuations… negative negative… unit unable to complete assigned task… unit unable to complete assigned task… negative negative… Deck 13 environmental controls systems reporting fluctuations…"
Drawing closer to the drone Achaikos glanced over at Zonia, who was studying the thing's twitchings closely.
"What do you think?" he asked her in a burst of the binary cant the Adeptus Mechanicus used to communicate among their own. He didn't often get to use the speaker circuits that transmitted the static bursts of the lingua-technis anymore and suspected the cybernetic implants responsible for those functions were starting to degrade from lack of use.
"This thing's logic circuits are fried—it's stuck in an interrupting loop." Zonia pursed her lips in a very organic human gesture. Clearly Achaikos wasn't the only one who spent too much time around the non-mechanicus. "If I were back on the Verdict I'd liquidate it and order the remains stripped down for parts."
Fenx tilted his head and a mechanical eye whirred audibly as it zoomed in on the damaged servitor. He seemed to be studying its upper body, where the back of the servitor showed a handful of crude sockets for plugins.
"I might be able to access its long term memory functions and pull a schismatic from the datacurrents," he transmitted doubtfully. "If this thing was on maintenance and repair duties until recently, then its ship's environmental data would be more up to date than anything our cogitators generated with their holo-sims."
"Good idea. Try a direct linkup, then."
Gingerly, Fenx approached the malfunctioning servitor, which had ignored their attempts to shut it down using standard mechanicus datavised and verbal command codes. An awkward dance ensued as the young rune priest tried to anticipate the drone's meandering movement and plug one of the universal interfacing tools from his augmented fingers into one of its cybernetic sockets.
As Fenx grappled with the rogue drone, Achaikos saw Zonia look over at him. Another quick smile crossed the senior enginseer's pale face; for a middle-ranking techpriest, she was positively expressive when it came to showing her personal feelings. Perhaps this was why she'd ended up working for a wealthy private employer like Jubal; most Adeptus Mechanicus personnel at her grade had long since left their expressions behind with their human bodies.
"Got him, Magos!" Fenx transmitted triumphantly, neatly slotting his middle finger into the third plug socket down in the maintenance servitor's neck. It promptly froze rigid, leaving Fenx looming behind it in an uncomfortable half crouch. "Link establishing now. Let's see what this thing has to say."
"Intruder alert… intruder alert… unauthorised access to critical systems attempted Deck 13… all guards to section 67… intruder alert… intruder aler—" BLAM!
Dexicos holstered his bolt pistol even as the servitor's head hit the corridor floor. Though the wave of current passing through Fenx abruptly ceased, it took him a moment to stop trembling. Jubal rushed to the rune priest's side and pulled his fingers out of the decapitated servitor's neck.
Achaikos patted Zonia's arm as a light hint that she might now let him go. She'd gripped onto his arm with holy strength when he'd started instinctively towards Fenx. He approached, zooming in on the unconscious rune priest's injuries. Fenx was still breathing despite his burns, thank the Throne, though Achaikos didn't know whether the metal components of his augmented physiology had saved him from succumbing to organic tissue damage, or left him more vulnerable to the machine's attack.
He posed his queries out loud for everyone's benefit. "What happened, Enginseer Avila? Has some tech-heretic used scrap code to infect the drone's machine spirit?"
"I don't think so, Magos. This is a standard Imperial anti-intruder measure designed to prevent outsiders accessing a ship's datacurrents. Perhaps we tripped the Unicorn's security systems when we came in—"
"No…" croaked a voice.
Achaikos glanced down to see Fenx had opened his eyes while the captain and the armsmen's squad medic fussed around him.
"Ship was already in state of alert…" he wheezed. "It fooled me…"
Zonia straightened. "Why would an Imperial Navy troop ship set its emergency beacon after activating its internal security measures?"
Fenx did not answer her but slumped back down and closed his eyes instead.
"A good question that we'll answer later," Jubal interrupted. "Magos, Zonia, we have to get Fenx back to the assault boat. There's an auto-medical chamber on board for serious casualties. It should be able to stabilise him if we're fast."
Achaikos was about to agree with the captain when the conversation was broken off by the chime of the Verdict's comm cast, this vox being broadcast on a private channel from the ship's bridge to the captain, the agents, and the senior crew.
"Captain Santos, it's the astropath." The comm officer's voice was uneasy and brusque. "She's breathing down my neck, demanding we call you. The First Mate agrees."
"Patch her in then," Jubal said warily.
Achaikos bit back a smile at the pained expression on Jubal's face as he stood back to allow the Corporal Hinks' fireteam to place Fenx in a cloth stretcher. He couldn't help but sympathise: pyskers rarely called with urgent good news for their employers.
"Captain," began a melodious voice from the other end of the line, "are you aware that that a strong psychic beacon has begun to emanate close to the portion of the hulk you're presently investigating? Our exact location is being broadcast into the Warp. Loudly."
"What?" Jubal said, stunned. "We've not even reached this wreck's bridge yet. When did this start?"
"Only a few moments before I called you," Yaen's voice sounded both smug and accusing. "I came at once to warn you, of course. There's a strong historical correlation between wandering space hulks and unknown psychic phenomena like this."
"Yes, thank you, Yaen."
"And this was why, when you proposed your expedition to myself and the senior crew, I specifically drew your attention to the guidelines propagated by the Adeptus Astra Telepathica, which covers encounters like th—"
"Yes, thank you, Mistress Yaen." Jubal glanced at Dexicos and Achaikos briefly then turned his back, lowering his voice. "Your warning has been gratefully received. I will take it under advisement while planning our next move."
"Take it under advisement? Do you know what kinds of creatures that broadcast could summon right this instant? This isn't like that mechanical squawking that drew you onto the hulk, this signal can be sensed anywhere."
"Captain," a man's voice, whom Achaikos took to be the infamous Joel, "I think we should consider what the witch has to say here. The Verdict could be in danger because of our boarding party's activities. You should return at once so we can depart from here."
"Nonsense, we must continue to search until we find the source of the psychic transmission," the captain said. "Who knows what could be causing it?"
"Cousin, this is madness…" Joel began.
"Verdict, end transmission," Jubal ordered. "Hold further calls unless the event of possible enemy action arises."
"Captain! Now wait a mo—" Yaen's voice started to say.
The line went dead abruptly. Jubal scratched his head as if suddenly tired and waved silently at Hinks' squad to return with the unconscious Fenx back to the assault boat they'd arrived on.
There was a long, awkward silence as the remaining fireteam took up positions around them. Achaikos was impressed in spite of himself. Astropaths were not known for allowing themselves to be interrupted, let alone cut off. He glanced at Jubal, who gave the agents an embarrassed grin.
"Curious," the chartist captain remarked. "I wasn't completely sure the crew would obey that order."
"Happily, it turns out you have a well-disciplined bridge team," Dexicos murmured. The First Mate would have to stand by his captain for now it seemed.
Jubal blinked. "You mean you agree with my decision not to immediately abandon ship and retreat to the Verdict?"
"That would be the cautious choice," Dexicos said, "but Inquisitor Kellman doesn't pay me to be a cautious man, Captain Santos. Our arrival here has triggered something dangerous, and Magos Pallus and I will be staying here until we determine what it is and how to contain it. Once that's done, we'll need a fast way off this hulk."
"Agreed—on the condition that our party alone continues the search. I want to pull the other team back to the boat in case we need to make a fast exit. Or they set off another trap the way poor Fenx did."
Dexicos glanced at Achaikos, and seemed to infer no objection. He nodded at Jubal. "Very well. But all the boats are to stay grounded on the Floating Metal Death Trap until the order to evacuate is given. If any of them attempts to leave without orders, it is to be destroyed at once. We can't risk anything getting off this hulk. We now have to assume we're not alone."
"Major Shelk can secure our ride back to the Verdict," Jubal said, "but we need to press forwards to the Unicorn's bridge as soon as possible. I want to know who set this wreck's emergency beacon to broadcast a distress call—if the ship was boarded before it crashed into the hulk, then even with the attackers long gone, we could face other traps like that servitor."
Much the same thoughts had already occurred to Achaikos—and the enforcer, if his frown was anything to go by—though neither said anything to alarm the rest of the group. As Jubal voxed the other teams their orders and warned Major Shelk that he had a casualty inbound, Achaikos addressed Zonia in lingua-technis.
"Did Fenx share the data he used to map our route to the Unicorn's bridge?"
"He shared enough to confirm our early scans from the Verdict," Zonia replied the same way. "I can lead us there—the Unicorn's layout seems to follow the standard pattern from what I've seen here so far. The only question is if the route is safe. I would have liked to get my hands on that maintenance servitor's data!"
"At least we're away from whatever's wrong with the lower decks on this wreck. Remind me to interrogate the bridge's cogitators about that once we have access."
"Of course, Magos," the enginseer said. Then added out loud, "shall we push forwards then, before the Captain gets another frantic call from Mistress Yaen predicting our doom?"
Achaikos smiled and waved his hand towards the junction ahead as a few forced chuckles spread through the boarding party's ranks.
Achaikos stood on the Unicorn's ruined bridge, looking around. Though over six decades had gone by since the ship's journey through the Warp had ended, the signs of struggle were still there. Three times en route they'd come across bundles of rags and fragile bones which crumbled at the touch of a gloved finger, and there were more here on the bridge.
The magos didn't need to be a biological specialist to identify the remains as human but while he couldn't recognise the decaying rags enshrouding them, the voidborn members of the group quickly picked out several bodies as being Navy men or women. The distinctive brass buttons of their jackets were tarnished and dull, but not yet unrecognisable.
There was no question of how they'd died; the walls and doors of the bridge and the rooms around it were scarred with blast marks from energy weapons and lasgun beams. Sidearms and spent shell casings near the bodies of one-time senior officers showed evidence of a firefight rather than a massacre of prisoners. Either the bridge had suffered minimal damage during the fighting or the attackers had managed to effect repairs afterwards, because the consoles and banks housing the Unicorn's vital systems were still operational.
"Whoever did this was good," Dexicos said, turning his head around as he studied the scene. "There are very few marks from missed shots and it's all from small arms. They left the special weapons back in the corridor and took out the skeleton bridge crew with precision shots."
The armsmen posted around the room were murmuring and nodding their agreement with the enforcer's words. Jubal and Zonia looked around the bridge, perhaps noticing the scorch marks near the ruins of the captain's chair and the Unicorn's community system, but had nothing to add. They'd all seen the spots where the Navy crew had made their last stand. Few had been left to hold the bridge when the attackers had finally broken through.
Zonia returned to her work interrogating the central cogitator housed near the captain's station, whose machine spirit was proving resistant to her Litanies of Opening. Behind her, Jubal shuffled impatiently as he waited for information, doubtless considering the eerie call being broadcast out into the Empyrean, perhaps now worrying who else the call might bring to the Floating Metal Death-Trap.
Beyond morbid curiosity, Achaikos wasn't really sure why the chartist captain had overridden his Astropath to continue their mission here. Perhaps having gambled by coming here in search of archeotech and finding danger instead, he now hoped to court favour with the Navy or the Inquisition by remaining on board to help the agents get to the bottom of any heretic plots. After all, the Unicorn's datacores might reveal a lucrative tale of treachery or an auspex reading hinting at how to easily destroy the hulk.
The magos strolled over to the enginseer and her anxious boss. "Any progress persuading the machine it is back in the presence of loyal servants to the Omnissiah?"
Zonia barely glanced at him; her mechadendrites continued to stab at the cogitator's input ports. This gave him answer… of sorts. Achaikos waited patiently.
"It is difficult, Magos," the female tech-priest said finally. "I lack the proper unguents and oils, or even the time for a respectful ritual of greeting, and the central cogitator has been abandoned alone here for decades. It has grown sullen and questions my supposed authority here on its bridge."
"Oh dear. Has it told you anything at all?"
"Only a little more than we learned from poor Fenx. The lower decks were sealed off by order of Captain Charnos of the Unicorn, who activated internal security measures and the emergency beacon shortly afterwards."
"I would be very surprised if the pull of the Floating Metal Death-Trap hadn't severely disrupted Captain Charnos' planned journey through the Warp," Jubal said, "but why would he order the lower decks sealed?"
"Insufficient data for a conclusive answer on that," Achaikos told him. "though if its holds were full of Guardsmen, then an Imperial Navy troop ship seems a foolish choice for pirates to board—human or xenos. But do we even know if the ship was carrying a regiment on board when it was attacked? Perhaps boarders were pouring up from empty chambers below the main crew areas."
"Magos, Captain, the device has finally agreed to grant me privileged access to its data currents," Zonia interrupted. "Where would you like me to begin?"
"Full system scan for status of and changes to the ship's major systems," ordered Jubal. "I want to see what's keeping the air and lights on this wreck switched on. Skip the sweep for life signs—we know the crew's gone, one way or the other. Find me the captain's log or some other record that can tell us what happened to them. I'm going to vox Major Shelk and the Judy for status reports."
Achaikos caught Jubal's arm before he moved away. "Call Mistress Yaen as well. Ask her if she's been able to see any changes in the Warp currents around us, or even pinpointed the location of the Warp beacon aboard the Floating Metal Death-Trap."
Jubal grunted an acknowledgement, but didn't look pleased at the prospect of another conversation with his formidable astropath. Achaikos shrugged to himself and began to look for his partner, who'd wandered off somewhere.
He found the enforcer standing by himself in the main corridor. Dexicos had removed his skull shaped Arbite helmet and was pensively watching the main entrance to the Unicorn's bridge.
"Something doesn't feel right," Dexicos said, his voice loud in the empty passageway. "The ship's emergency beacon continues to broadcast well after auxillary power reserves should have been spent. My gut says this is all a trap."
"Oh? And what does your elbow tell you?" Achaikos murmured.
"That multi-limbed aliens are going to explode out of these walls and try to devour us all," Dexicos replied seriously. "That's what the pict dramas always show happening. Sometimes they're right."
Achaikos repressed a shudder at the gaunt enforcer's allusion to their previous encounters with genestealer broods on Ashar IX, but shook his head.
"No," he said slowly, "The more I see here, the more I see human hands at work. And I'm beginning to think they had a very specific aim in mind. I begin to fear we are dealing with some very dark forces outside our particular areas of expertise—"
A shout cut through the air behind them. Zonia appeared in the doorway to the bridge, her burnt face brimming with fury. She was so distraught that she actually spoke out loud in Gothic while reporting to Achaikos.
"Oh, Magos Pallos!" she cried, "It's heresy! Heretek or xenos deviance most foul! When you see what their unclean hands have done to this ship—"
"Enginseer Avila, calm yourself and report in an orderly fashion," Achaikos snapped. "You're behaving organically."
His reprimand had the intended effect and Zonia schooled her expression into a simulacrum of detachment, as befitted a messenger of bad tidings to a higher-ranking servant of the Machine God. It occurred to Achaikos then that he knew very little about Enginseer Zonia Avila.
"Magos, this wreck is not the natural space phenomenon we took it to be from the Verdict of Battle. I have completed the scan on the Unicorn's environmental controls and found its power lines have been linked to a generator deeper inside the hulk – to earlier wrecks of unknown provenance. The Unicorn has been positioned here deliberately… as I think you suspected?"
"I've had my doubts this wreck was a natural phenomenon since we sat together on the bridge of the Verdict," Achaikos agreed. "But what makes you think we're dealing with the unnatural and unholy works of tech-heresy rather than xenos?"
"It's the generator, Magos. I believe it is tapping into the Immaterium to recharge itself whenever the hulk jumps. Then once the Floating Metal Death-Trap enters realspace, it spends the energy it has collected on running the Unicorn's systems. It is even boosting the emergency beacon's signal to expand its range."
"Do the generator or the couplings show any signs of bioengineering?" Achaikos enquired urgently. "Could you say if either was human technology or could it be xenos in origin?"
Zonia frowned at him, disturbed. "Magos, I could barely begin to speculate on the generator. The power couplings at least are mostly standard Imperial components—some possibly salvaged from vessels in hulk—but no tech-priest ever blessed those arrangements, I'd stake my circuits on it."
"This is where you at least attempt to speculate on the generator," Dexicos pressed.
"I think that generator is the source of the Warp signal that Yaen warned Captain Santos about. Or at least it's a real coincidence that there's one device drawing power from the Immaterium, and a second signalling into it—both in the same general area of this hulk."
"Humans can still be the Emperor's deadly enemies," Achaikos said. "Did you find out anything from the ship's manifest or its logs? Where it was going and who was on board when it encountered the Floating Metal Death-Trap in the Warp?"
"We haven't confirmed that the hulk had anything to do with loss of the Unicorn," Dexicos objected.
"How could it not? The ship's as good as embedded in the Floating Metal Death-Trap."
"Yes, following an invasion that had already taken place on the Unicorn—hence the crash." Dexicos paced. "In fact, now it's obvious that whoever killed the ship's crew has turned it into a lure for other vessels—"
"Is it obvious?" Achaikos demanded.
"Well it is to me, so I'm wondering why we're standing here and talking instead of retreating as fast as we can to the Judy. That Warp beacon's been calling out to the void for almost an hour now. Who knows who might be hearing its call?"
Achaikos sighed. The mechanical wheezing sound echoed in the passageway. "So, your theory is that the Unicorn was seized by force after somehow encountering the hulk, and that their emergency beacon was used to lure in other vessels, who were then trapped by whoever created the warp signal. Would that not be a complicated and convoluted plot?"
Dexicos sniffed. "The vigilance of the Imperium forces heretics to adopt complicated and convoluted plots. Also I think some of them enjoy the plotting for its own warped sake."
"Fine. Either way, whoever set up the generator, we took their bait when we answered the Unicorn's distress call." Achaikos turned to Zonia. "Report on the passengers, please, and the ship's destination."
"The Unicorn's destination was the Charnos prison system," the enginseer said distastefully. "According to the captain's logs, the holds contained a scratch regiment of three penal battalions—the remnants of three Guard regiments who had mutinied on Devos Secundos. The journey's purpose was to deliver them to Charnos for reinforcements, so they could form the cores of three new penal regiments."
"Not your usual collection of criminals, heretics and social deviants," Dexicos said. "They must have been desperate to transport so many veteran mutineers together. What were those Departmento Munitorum hacks thinking when they arranged for those battalions' passage together on only one ship? Was it another of their fuel-saving measures?"
Zonia coughed uncomfortably, both surprising and delighting Achaikos by reminding him she still had a mouth and throat to do so with, then said, "there appears to have been a clerical error made at the sector headquarters of the time. Although the captain's logs make clear these units were comprised of convicted conflict veterans, the Administratum's orders keep describing them as a regiment of Mordian Iron Guards traveling to provide security to the Unicorn during its passage to pick up penal units at Charnos."
"Find me the name of the adept who authorised that shipping order," Dexicos told her. "If he's still alive, I'm going to have him shot for criminal incompetence, resulting in the loss of a valuable Navy troop ship. No wonder the Unicorn's captain sealed the lower decks with that rabble on board. I knew no ordinary pirates had seized this ship from its crew. They must have planned a rising from the moment they came on board and saw how weakly it was held!"
"It seems likely," Achaikos agreed, "though I doubt we will ever know what exactly went wrong. Perhaps the passengers just took advantage of an unexpected drop out of Warp when the ship crossed paths with the hulk. You know how those things can twist travel through the Immaterium."
"Or the presence of the hulk caused a Gellar Field breach," Dexicos said darkly, naming the greatest fear of all void travellers. "If anything got through from the other side, it could have found plenty of willing servants—"
"Let us not talk of such things in this place," Achaikos said, cutting the enforcer off. "The Emperor protects all his true servants."
"The Emperor protects," the other two murmured back.
"Return to Captain Santos and inform him of your findings," Achaikos told Zonia. "We must see if we can locate and destroy this generator. Perhaps doing so will disable the Warp beacon, perhaps not. But our duty now is to make sure the Unicorn never again lures another Imperial ship onto the surface of this Emperor-forsaken hulk. Afterwards, we can return to the Verdict and I shall order Mistress Yaen to contact Inquisitor Kellman and the Gloriana."
Even if Genther's System Defence boats couldn't reach the hulk before it dropped back into the Warp, he thought, the Inquisitor might wish to track its progress and arrange a more permanent solution.
"Magos, Enforcer, I applaud your courage," Jubal said respectfully. "Major Shelk was most displeased when I told him of your demands but I have overruled him. He wanted me to return directly to the Verdict as soon as we confirmed the deaths of the Unicorn's crew. Alas he now insists on accompanying us to the Warp generator's site."
"Frankly we could use the Major's extra men," Dexicos told the chartist captain. "If there's anything left guarding this bundle of wreckage, the generator is the logical spot to leave it."
"How long will it take Shelk to get here?" Achaikos asked.
"He's on his way up now and bringing a full squad with him." Jubal replied. "It shouldn't take him long to reach us, but I worry that the boat's left a little under guarded, truth be told."
"If there were any hostiles aboard this section of the Floating Metal Death-Trap, then either the Verdict's scans or our own auspex sweeps would have detected them by now," Achaikos assured him. "Zonia and I are both augmented with senses far beyond the normal human range and neither of us have sensed anybody disturbing this place in decades—"
"Apart from the servitor."
"Yes, apart from the servitor, but that's an anything, not an anyone. We might be the first humans here since the Unicorn encountered this hulk and fell to its mutinous passengers."
"Well I hope so, Magos," Zonia said. "In space the battles are brutal but they're quick. The conditions on this wreck have me jumping at shadows. I feel like a spy in some villain's lair, sneaking around and hoping he won't return before I've found what I'm looking for."
Some of the armsmen standing around the Enginseer smiled nervously at her words. The bridge was quiet apart from the low hum of power cables bringing life to the machine spirits of the Unicorn's mighty logic engines. At Achaikos' bidding, the armsmen had gathered around the main cogitator's viewing screen so that the enginseer could show them the route she'd from the bridge to the part of the hulk where their best guess put the concealed generator.
Jubal paced in the background. Achaikos had noted with surprise his strange enthusiasm for the search for the mysterious power source; he'd thought that the captain's interest in possible archeotech finds would wane once he'd learned the power source keeping the Unicorn's luminators on was Warp-based. No sane man wanted anything to do with such a cursed object.
"Major Shelk reports that Fenx has been safely installed in the medic unit, and that he's now on his way to join you with a small team of his own," Ensign Vine voxed from the Verdict's bridge. "He's reached the opening to the Unicorn."
"Acknowledged Verdict," said Jubal. "We'll press on as soon as his men arrive."
"Confirming now," came the ship's crisp reply. "One moment… What's that? Throne help—!"
"Verdict? What's going on?"
Behind Jubal, the armsmen stirred and exchanged uneasy glances. Achaikos could hear the accelerating heart rates of standing closest to him.
"Sir, its Mistress Yaen. She's gone crazy, or having some kind of fit. She keeps raving nonsense and… get the Medicae in here now!"
"What's she saying? Answer damn you!" Jubal ordered.
There was a confused hubbub of voices in the background before Vine, who seemed to be manning the coms, answered his captain again.
"Sorry sir, they're sedating her now. She was very confused. It took a moment to restrain her and answer your call. She was screaming something about shadows in the void? And blood sir, she was shouting about us all drowning in blood. Emperor save us all, what did she see coming?"
"I hope that wasn't some kind of realtime psyker vision," Dexicos murmured quietly to Achaikos.
"Calm down Vine," Jubal told the panicky ensign. "Tell the crew I want an immediate scan of space around our position. Every scrap of the void is to be looked at twice. If something's trying to sneak up on us, I want no surprises."
"Yes sir! Um…"
"Ensign Vine, if I have to wait a second time for an emergency report, I will cross the void between these two ships and strangle you with that communicator!"
"Contact, sir! Two… no three ships are dropping out of the Warp at the edge of the system."
"Can you identify them?"
"Holy Terra…" Vine's voice over the comm channel was quiet and trembling. "We have a match all right, Captain. Two escort vessels and a larger capital ship of unknown design. The big ship has the hull size for a light cruiser, but—"
"Don't sit there speculating! Tell me what you do know!"
"Oh! Sorry, sir. The escorts are easy—Iconoclast pattern raiders, sir. The ship's cogitator pegs them as Warmachine and Conduit of Unspeakable Blasphemies."
"Traitors," whispered Achaikos to Dexicos. "They're known pirate vessels from seventy years ago. I knew that Warp beacon was set up by more than just simple mutineers—the followers of the dark powers cast their nets widely."
"For myself, I prefer it when it's the other way around," the enforcer murmured back. "But they've not caught this fish yet. My soul's not to go to as a sacrifice to the Ruinous Powers if I can help it."
"Let's hope at least not before you've finished my reports to Kellman anyway," Achaikos said wryly. "I still need to read what you've said about the incident with the Cardinal's niece."
"What do you mean the cogitator says they're renegades?" Jubal was demanding of Vine in the background. He seemed to expect the ensign to change the Verdict's sensor readings by willpower alone.
"Sir, these are ships of the Enemy," Vine's voice shook slightly before he could still it. "The followers of the d… of the dark…of the dark powers. Oh Throne—they're going to drag our souls off to serve them up as a banquet for their masters in the Warp!"
"Stow that soft talk behind your teeth, Ensign Vine!" Jubal barked. "That's an order. No one's soul is being eaten today. Now, how far out did those pox-ridden scum drop out of Warp? I need an estimate of their time to intercept this void-cursed hulk, and I needed it yesterday!"
Carried out on the public channel, the captain's sharp words stopped the first stirrings of panic among the armsmen and, from the sound of Ensign Vine's steadier voice, on the bridge as well.
"The navigational logic engine says twenty minutes before lead escorts are in firing range of us, Captain," the young crewman said. "First Mate Joel has ordered us to use thrusters to put the mass of the hulk between the Verdict and their sensoria systems but that only buys us a few extra minutes before those two Iconoclasts can acquire a targeting lock. Holy Terra, but they're fast."
"Thank the Emperor those things don't mount torpedo launchers at least," Jubal muttered. "But that doesn't give us enough time to reach the boat and blast off back to the Verdict."
The comm channel crackled as another transmission was patched in to the public vox channel—this one local.
"Captain," Major Shelk began, his Gothic heavily accented. "My men and I have reached the command deck of the Unicorn. We were proceeding towards the bridge, but we must evacuate—now."
"No," Jubal gripped his head. "There's no time. Henrik, relay an order to the Judy to take off and find a good place to hide on the surface of the hulk until it's safe for us to return to the Marchanna. We'll head deeper into the hulk for now—try to shield ourselves from the renegades' auspex scans."
"That puts the boat in jeopardy, Santos," the Major growled.
"She should be fine, she's got a small profile," Jubal insisted. "Besides, those raiders will be chasing the Verdict."
"What about us, Captain?" asked Vine. "First Mate Joel says he wants to know what your orders for the Verdict are."
"Burn with everything you've got to get to Genthar Prime, you idiots!" Jubal snapped. "Emperor's balls! Scream out as loud as you can on every channel that there's a Chaos raiding fleet loose in the system. Maybe you'll wake up some of those inbred lackwits in the System Defence fleet fast enough to scramble the Twelve Worlds' planetary defences and save our hides in the process."
"Yes, sir! Hope so too, sir!"
"Good. And Vine?"
"We have enough supplies in that Sharkclass boat to last us up to eight weeks. You tell that cousin of mine to bring me my ship back before then in one piece, or Mistress Yaen will know and mindblast him from her quarters once she wakes up."
"Very good Captain."
"Well done Ensign, you'll make Lieutenant yet."
With four fireteams and both Major Shelk and Jubal's command squads, the boarding party's exit from the Unicorn's command deck was a lot slower and more crowded than it had been going in. They headed downwards, towards the Unicorn's sealed lower decks and a hoped-for path through the next wreck in the ball of crashed starships that made up the Floating Metal Death-Trap.
Zonia led them, sharing the data she'd leeched from the Unicorn's main cogitator with Achaikos in a few bursts of data. Terse instructions were placed over the vox by Jubal and Henrik as they guided the armsmen in the fireteams to the tech-priests' chosen break-through point — a sealed hatch in a corridor whose angle matched the route of the power cables feeding the Unicorn's systems. Zonia claimed the hatch led off the wreck and into the next section of the hulk. Tracking the route of the energy grid feeding power to the fallen troopship would ultimately lead them to its source.
"Captain Santos, once we leave the Unicorn, we should head directly towards the Warp beacon," Dexicos said. "Chaos worshipping bastards or not, whoever joined the wreck of the Unicorn to the rest of the Floating Metal Death-Trap needed a breathable atmosphere. Now, we could rely on our void suits, but our air reserves will only last a day or so. We should keep that in mind."
Zonia and Achaikos glanced at each other and then at the chartist captain to see what he said to the suggestion of heading directly into possible danger or damnation. They both knew another perfectly sensible choice would be to order the boarders to scatter themselves throughout the hulk until contacted by their commanders to regroup.
"I'm aware of our air supply situation, Enforcer," Jubal murmured. "And in fact, I agree with your suggestion. The generator's energy signature might mask any power output or life signs the renegades can detect. If they find traces of the boat where we docked, they might assume we were all present when it lifted off again."
The chartist captain turned away from Zonia and the two Imperial agents and began searching the ranks of the armsmen for his tattooed second in command. Spotting Major Shelk, Jubal beckoned to him and the savage Feral Worlder shouldered his way through the press of bodies lining each side of the tight ship's passageway.
"Major, report," Jubal ordered him. "Did the boat launch in time?"
"Yes Captain, but before the Verdict left, it voxed a warning to our Shark assault boat," Henrik said softly. "The crew relayed it over to my squad on a tight beam channel. The Verdict's flight has drawn the smaller Chaos ships in pursuit. But the cruiser is still on an intercept course with the Floating Metal Death-Trap. It's likely they intend to mount a search of the hulk for any boarders."
"Well then Major, we must do our best not to let them find us," the captain said jovially. "Let's make use of whatever head start the demon-worshippers have left us. Zonia, I think you'd better work on getting that hatch open."
The enginseer did not take long to complete her orders, and if she felt any pressure from the thirty pairs of eyes watching her while she did so, she didn't show it. There were sparks from her mechadendrites, then a long metallic groan and finally a series of clangs and crashes as long-unused mechanisms swung reluctantly once more into action. The hatch unsealed itself and swung open. A musty smell filled the corridor as air from the two sections' environmental systems met and mingled.
Achaikos wrinkled his nose, regretting that he had allowed his boosted olfactory senses to activate along with his hearing and sight. Still, it beat walking into a pocket of dangerous gas. However, in the meantime, neither his senses nor Jubal's auspex scanner showed any hint of Chaos troop movements in the corridors they'd left behind.
The Verdict's boarding party shuffled and pushed their way through the opened hatch and into an arched ship's passageway of strange design. Green metal walls came together in a triangular point at the ceiling, illuminated at their peak by a series of glowing blue strips which ran the length of the passageway. Though eager to escape a part of the hulk which would soon be filling with the minions of the dark gods, the boarders nonetheless slowed their pace as they took in their new surroundings.
Achaikos, Dexicos and Jubal watched as Zonia sealed the hatch behind them shut once more, cutting off the danger of pursuit but also their only line of retreat. Then they followed her as she walked to the head of the column of armsmen, her mind busy as she interrogated the auspex scanner and routefinder her internal systems contained. Jubal watched his chief tech-priest, occasionally consulting his own handheld scanner dubiously.
"Magos, Captain, the machine spirits say this corridor parallels the route of the energy grid linking the Warp signalling device and the wreck of the Unicorn," she said at last. "If we continue in this direction for at least a kilometre, we'll will be moving closer to the generator, and the source of the Warp disturbance that summoned those Chaos ships."
The other members of her team nodded their understanding, and Jubal summoned a fireteam to screen them as Zonia took the lead once more. With a reluctant Major Shelk's squad bringing up the rear, and with two full squads of reinforcements in the centre of the boarding party's column, they resumed their advance into the guts of the Floating Metal Death Trap.
As they moved down a flight of greenish metal stairs to a double-door sized entrance, which led in its turn into a T-junction, the party's troubles began.
There was a faint bleeping signal from the auspex scanner in Jubal's hand as the first armsmen approached the empty doorway. A stale smell of musk, sweat and fur struck Achaikos full in his nostrils, making him flinch and pause. He opened his mouth to order the armsmen ahead to hold their position, but it was too late.
As the first pair of armsmen moved into position to cover the corners of the entrance at the base of the stairs, they virtually collided with a small crowd of foul-smelling creatures filing through the central passage directly ahead. In the blink of an eye—the window of time Achaikos had before the shooting started—he saw eight figures in total. Dull brown robes stained with darker colours covered twisted bodies, which he supposed had once been human. One of the leading creatures carried a long black pole topped with an eerie blood red triangle with four arms running out from it, and a leering skull symbol at its centre. The pole bearer, a dog-headed humanoid mutant, gave an incoherent screech, levelled a crude stub pistol at the nearest armsman, and fired.
The melee was as bloody and chaotic as it was brief. The pole-bearer's stub pistol had barely spat two rounds before its owner found himself vaporised from the waist up by two hellgun beams. The armsman fell to the floor, clutching his torso armour, where two holes leaked scarlet fluid. The sight seemed to goad the collection of robed mutants in front of Achaikos into a frenzy of collective fury. Instead of scattering down the nearby corridors, the creatures hurled themselves against the humans head-on in a chorus of bestial howls and shrieks.
Two were incinerated in a gout of melta energy as the fireteam's special weapon caught them in its blast. Achaikos was splattered with blood as an autogun opened up at point blank range and its shells chewed into the armsman by his side. His audio implants automatically dampened his hearing as Dexicos's shotgun boomed in the confined space of the corridor. The mutant firing the autogun was blown backward from the force of the impact, his stained robes billowing around him as he skidded across the floor.
Then a human-looking face with stone-grey skin loomed in front of Achaikos, its mouth open in a snarl of hate.
Achaikos leapt backwards over the body of the fallen armsman as the creature lunged at him, saving himself from the point of a wicked knife. The jump sent him blundering back into the fireteam behind, but before he could gather his legs to spring back into the fray, Jubal snapped off a shot with an elegant gold laspistol. Stoneskin's right eye popped and sizzled as the bolt entered his brain, and the Chaos worshipper dropped like a puppet with slashed strings.
Rough hands seized Achaikos from behind, hauling him back and away to the side of the passage. At being manhandled, the magos had to forcibly interrupt his combat subroutines from activating, realising the fireteam behind him was merely clearing a line of sight for their comrades. Six of the enemy and three of the lead fireteam were down, and the survivors were engaged in a pitched hand to hand combat. With a yell, members of the squad behind Achaikos abandoned any pretence at finding targets with their lasguns and simply pitched headlong into the scrimmage.
In moments, the fighting was all over. One mutant went down under a hail of blows from three different armsmen. The final survivor, a brown-furred humanoid with startlingly human blue eyes, screamed out an unintelligible challenge and swung an axe at Dexicos. The enforcer stumbled as the weapon's edge crashed into a shoulder pad, but his thick carapace armour did not buckle. With a roar of his own, Dexicos smashed his glove into the creature's face. As it reeled backwards, he levelled his shotgun and blew its head open. The half-headless corpse crashed to the ground and the humans paused, eyes frantically searching the different branches of the hulk's corridors for more foes.
But the eight fallen Chaos worshippers and their bizarre skull-faced emblem were the only ones around, or so it appeared in the minutes after the clash. Frantic whispering broke out until Henrik Shelk stilled it with a curt chopping hand gesture. The mutants and the three fallen armsmen were dragged to the base of the stairs, and anything useful was stripped from the fallen men. The equipment carried by the dead beings from the Chaos forces was left unclaimed. No man wanted to run the risk of carrying such tainted things into battle and much of it was junk in any case: primitive stub pistols, a few rusty autoguns and a heap of blades or other crude hand to hand equipment.
Though Jubal urged the column on, Zonia made sure to bless the equipment of each surviving armsman as an extra precaution against the corruption of the machine spirits. She once again took the lead, albeit fully screened by armsmen, following the projected route to the Warp generator. Left unspoken was the question of why they had encountered the forces of Chaos here, within the depths of Floating Metal Death-Trap, and not before. That, and how many more they would find down here, were questions which troubled Achaikos; he suspected it would be troubling the rest of the command team, too.
"What's up ahead next?" Achaikos asked Zonia in Techna-Lingua as they both regarded the partial map displayed on her wrist-mounted mini-cog. The pair stood a little ahead of the rest of their party, in front of the first sealed set of doors they'd encountered on this level of the hulk. The door was triangular, like the corridor, with a black metal gate.
Zonia's device was currently beaming a miniature three-dimensional replication of their route through the hulk into the air. The device was an impressive feat of technosorcery for a tech-priest of her rank, calling to mind the equally impressive hololith imager on the Verdict's bridge. The enginseer was certainly spoilt for choice when it came to enjoying the bounty of the Omnissiah.
Of course, Achaikos reminded himself, if this had been an official Inquisitorial mission for Kellman, then each member of the boarding party would have had access to a shared tactical net inside his helmet, with realtime vox access and live pict recordings beamed to each member of the command team. Instead the whole expedition had scrappy, with different parties stumbling around feeding each other information through ship relays and other assorted inefficient methods of sharing. Working with non-mechanicus could get very frustrating sometimes. Fortunately, however, they hadn't encountered any further hint of Chaos forces in this section of the hulk, and there had been no indication the crazed followers of the dark gods bothered with basic tactics such as coordinating their movements.
"I believe that we're nearly at the site of the Warp generator Magos," Zonia sent. "The data from the Unicorn stops after the next chamber, which is clearly marked by ship's machine spirits with the binary codes for 'power' and 'source'."
Achaikos almost smiled at her furtiveness; it seemed that despite her surface organic appearance, when it came to the secrets of the Adeptus Mechanicus, Enginseer Avila was still a most diligent member of the machine cult. He wondered where Captain Santos had found her. If they both survived this mission, he would have to ask her.
"Good enough," he replied out loud in Gothic. "Then let's get this gate open before any more heretics arrive and see what we find. If we want to keep breathing in here we'll have to leave the generator running until we're ready to pull back to the assault boat, but I want us to be the last loyal Imperial citizens sucked in by this thing. Perhaps we can mine it before we pull back to the boat."
"Exploding the enemy's devices, Magos?" asked Jubal, coming up from behind them. "Should we not leave that to the guns of the System Defence ships? My goal was to hide down here, not mess with tainted technosorcery. What if they have defences around either that generator, or the psychic beacon? We'll be alerting the enemy to our presence in this part of the hulk."
"No, Achaikos is right to think ahead." Dexicos said, overruling the captain's objections. "That troop of monsters we butchered will be missed sooner or later. Not even commanders as careless about spending the lives of their troops as Chaos worshippers will fail to notice they're missing a squad forever, Captain. The enemy will know soon that there is someone else aboard, and then they will start to hunt."
"You sound like you have an intimate understanding of the heretic's thought patterns, Enforcer," Jubal said sourly. "I thought that you and your colleague were more focused on the xenos threat?"
"Xenos infiltrators often use very similar methods to the Great Enemy," Achaikos interrupted smoothly. "And Dexicos was once an Arbite. He's investigated the operations of Chaos cults before, I'm sure."
Perhaps aware now that his authority was being ignored by his Imperial guests, Jubal frowned but nodded curtly. Achaikos began to wonder again on his motives; for a man seemingly obsessed with gaining possession of new or better forms of technology, Jubal had caved into the possibility of destroying the Warp device rather easily. Perhaps he was just more orthodox about his devices when they might eat his soul.
"Well then," Jubal said slowly. "Perhaps you should tell me what you've decided to do once we have gotten this door open?"
"We will need to assess the situation inside the next chamber. The information gleaned from the Unicorn only shows a blank space with the symbol for power-source marked upon it. This room might not be the last one we have to sweep. I suggest myself and Dexicos take a fireteam in there and have a scout. Yourself and Major Shelk can stay here to guard our backs in case more Chaos worshippers arrive."
"Henrik, did you hear that?" Jubal called across to the major.
Shelk shrugged. "It's easier to keep an eye on you here," he said. "More guns too."
Jubal clapped his hands decisively. "Then it's settled. I'd send Corporal Hinks' team, but I'm afraid they got out on the boat with Fenx. Sergeant Serge and his boys will just have to do instead."
Achaikos nodded at the chartist captain and turned to Zonia. "How long until you can open that door? Or do we need to blast it down?"
"I am already done. This portal recognised the codes I used to interrogate the Unicorn's cogitators as soon as I applied them. Will you be needing me to come with you on your mission?"
Achaikos hesitated but then shook his head in a gesture that the other humans around them would understand. "The fewer of us who go in there this time, the better."
"I understand, Magos. May the Omnissiah protect you all."
"I certainly hope so," Achaikos said as Sergeant Serge and his four armsmen moved over at their captain's signal. "We could use some holy blessings right about now."
"The door is open," Dexicos said. "Let's activate it and be on our way."
Achaikos turned to the fireteam's leader. "Sergeant Serge, are your men ready?"
"Yes sir," the sergeant replied coolly. If he or his team felt any fear at moving into a den of Chaos heresy they didn't show it, and Achaikos experienced a deep sensation of gratitude that Jubal was the kind of man to recruit only the best into his security service. The next part would need skill and steady nerves.
"Then let us begin," he said. "Zonia, open the door."
With Sergeant Serge and his men spread out in front, Dexicos and Achaikos moved stealthily though the Titan-sized holding bay. The entrance they had come through had led to a passageway and finally some stairs, bringing the reluctant explorers out into a techno-magi's paradise of machines. Strange, arcane devices Achaikos didn't even try to understand the purpose of sat in neat rows up and down the vast chamber. Some towered over their neighbours, forts of dials, pipes and conduits, whilst others were stranger still, green and black upturned tubs which hummed and throbbed with energy. Other machines scattered around the place in small squares of space, standing by themselves, but their odd cones, cylinders and pipes still provided the Imperial agents and armsmen with some cover as they advanced. Both the magos and the enforcer had drawn their guns, though firing them would have sent a wave of echoes crashing around the cavernous space.
Right at the centre of the whole chamber was a vast blue ribbon of energy cascading up to the bay ceiling, where it vanished into an inky black hole. The hole was rimmed with thick black metal; strange runes had been burned into the metal rim, their vast red shapes standing out garishly on the green metal ceiling. There was a strange charge in the atmosphere of the chamber, like an undischarged electrical current, and the air tasted metallic—the taint of sorcerous power. Whatever this part of the hulk had been once, it had clearly been repurposed to serve a darker need. One Achaikos was determined to stop, even if it jeopardised their own escape from the hulk.
A martial shout and the crash of marching boots on metal hull plating warned them it was time to fade once more into the surrounding machinery. A squad of tattooed Chaos warriors marched down the main space between two rows of the chamber's strange devices, their blank eyes fixed straight ahead of them, set on some unknown destination. This was the third group which had marched out from this direction in the past twenty minutes. Achaikos was desperate to find out where the heretics were coming from. Unless they'd already been encamped within the hulk, there was no way these forces would have been able to beat the Verdict's boarding party to the chamber. But if so, how had the Chaos troops' presence escaped the auspex sweeps? Such a large concentration of lifesigns should have screamed its presence out to the ship's advanced machine spirits.
They waited until the Chaos patrol had disappeared around the side of a particularly bulky conduit before resuming their advance. Achaikos didn't like the look of those troopers, though they still seemed mostly human. Dressed in red and black uniforms, these heretics wore bulky carapace armour like Dexicos's, and carried military issue lasguns with practiced efficiency. He much preferred to face a rabble of poorly trained and armed mutants than followers of the dark powers who might have once fought in the Omnissah's armies and still remembered their discipline.
"Captain Santos," he voxed quietly over the command channel, "another squad of the enemy has just passed our position. They're headed in your direction."
"Acknowledged," Jubal's reply came through faintly. "No encounters at our end yet, though. We've set up a watch at the entrance to your chamber. Keep us informed of any other enemies you come across before your return."
"Acknowledged," Achaikos said and broke the contact. He was still wondering how many more squads of Chaos creatures they were likely to encounter when he stepped around a pillar into the middle of the aisle behind the advancing Chaos troops and found himself face to face with a startled-looking grey, furred goat-headed creature. It stood looking around itself in confusion, holding a rusty autogun in two surprisingly delicate, human-looking hands.
Without thinking, the tech-priest struck out with a mechadendrite. The sharp metal point of his main mechanical arm sank into the goat creature's flesh and delivered an instant electrical charge, sending the the beast to the ground, quivering like jelly.
The stench of scorched fur filled the area and Dexicos appeared around the pillar. He cast a look at the cloven-hoofed corpse and gave Achaikos a silently reproachful glance before turning and beckoning the rest of the squad to join them. The armsmen appeared by his side, their lasguns still sweeping the ground around them for other sentries. After a tense moment, Dexicos pulled the magos close.
"I think this one was a straggler but there could be more out there," the enforcer hissed into one augmented ear, making Achaikos flinch. "We've got to press on before the enemy find that thing's body. Their camp must be close. Let's get a head count of the number of men they have there, and fall back to the captain. Perhaps we can crush the heretics here before they can get reinforcements from that Throne-cursed cruiser down here."
Achaikos gave him a nod of agreement and turned to Sergeant Serge to pass on the enforcer's instructions to the rest of the armsmen. Achaikos waited for the sergeant to brief his men and then urged them forwards with a curt wave of his hand. Creeping now, the scouting party picked its way forwards, sticking to the shadows cast by the largest blocks of machinery rather than marching straight down the middle of the spaces, advertising their presence the way their Chaotic foes had.
A few minutes' walk took them to their destination — the vast blue energy ribbon that seemed to mark the spot from which the heretic patrols were moving off. Cautiously, Achaikos' group slipped behind the final row of machinery that could serve as cover, a series of oblong steel shapes linked by narrow tubes at each end. The barrier the Imperial infiltrators hunkered behind formed just one side of a large square space lit by the gaudy blue glow given off by the vertical river of power running from the floor to the ceiling. Though at the top of the chamber the energy ribbon seemed to disappear into the shadows, its emergence from the floor was different. It streamed in a shade of purest, clear blue from a basin set into the green metal of the floor. The basin's sides were covered in similar arcane wards and runic markings to those on the ceiling, presumably channelling the energy of the Warp in such a way that it didn't devour the hulk and drag all the souls aboard it into the depths of the Empyrean.
Achaikos had no doubt they were looking at the technosorcerous device the heretics had been using to power the wreck of the Unicorn, and doubtless to generate the subsequent Warp cry that had lured the Chaos squadron to the Verdict of Battle's location. Strange pedestals and lecterns stood arranged about the glowing basin, doubtless control stations linked to the machine spirits of the various sensoria and cogitators scattered throughout the hulk. He wished that Zonia were here to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the technological set up, though Achaikos had no doubt that, like him, the enginseer would also be instinctively repulsed by its tainted connection to the unholy energy of the Warp. No one but Zonia would be able to grasp the way the device was rooted inside the metallic body of Floating Metal Death-Trap, its connections spreading out like the veins and arteries of the human frame.
"Well, we're here," Sergeant Serge sotto-voxed over the fireteam's designated comm channel. "Anyone see any heretics?"
There was a strained silence as no one spoke, their eyes scanning the square in front of them for any sign of life, mutant or otherwise. Bizarrely there was nothing and no one to be seen. Achaikos was just about to his free hand—the other gripping his bolt pistol—when a loud crack sent everyone ducking back behind the steel tubes. A squad of eight robed mutants appeared right in front of one of the larger lecterns, next to which a small box of glowing lights, tubes and switches had been placed.
The scouting party looked at each other in amazement as the enemy formed up in good order behind another banner bearer carrying the four-armed triangle of their particular Chaotic faction, another skull hanging at its centre, and then marched off. Achaikos was glad he didn't know enough about the Great Enemy to identify which God the dark ones were invoking with that tainted symbol, but the sight of it still made his augmetic eyes ache, despite the lack of optical nerves to feel such a sensation. The Great Enemy specialised in inflicting such illogical contradictions.
"Did you see that?" one of the armsmen whispered, shaken despite his years of service. "They just appeared out of nowhere!"
"Quiet back there," hissed Sergeant Serge, but the fireteam's senior NCO sounded spooked himself, barely hiding it by taking refuge in the role of squad disciplinarian.
"The enemy must have a teleportation device on that cruiser of theirs," Dexicos said, sounding impressed. "I knew that ship was trouble as soon as the Verdict's crew had trouble identifying the design."
"Yes," Achaikos agreed, "and they've placed a teleport homer by that control station, unless I'm very much mistaken. I wonder what other functions are run from this site?"
Dexicos rolled his eyes and Achaikos didn't need his enhanced hearing to hear the enforcer's muttered appeal to the Golden Throne for strength. Dexicos found Achaikos' fascination with all systems as difficult to understand as the magos did his need to abandon all order of priorities the moment a new byte of data caught the enforcer's attention.
"If we survive the next few minutes, you can poke around to your heart's content," the former Arbite contented himself with saying. "Those mutants are almost on us, and I want to drop them as they pass our position. No more reinforcements can come this way, or Captain Jubal and the rest are going to be overwhelmed."
Achaikos nodded, but kept the most worrying issue to himself; if the enemy cruiser had a teleporter aboard, the best they could hope for would be to destroy the homing device by the generator's basin. That would magnify the danger of any further attempts to teleport into the heart of Floating Metal Death-Trap, but nothing, Achaikos knew, would block the ancient transporting technology entirely. That was why possession of it was such a highly-treasured resource within the Imperium. It would complicate his plan to destroy the Warp device in front of them.
An armsman's murmur sounded over the vox. "They're getting closer—about halfway to us now. Get ready."
"Pick your targets as soon as you're sure of a hit," Dexicos said. "Now rise!"
As the armsmen and the two agents rose to their feet behind the row of bulky oblong machinery, Achaikos was almost sure the mutants wouldn't see them until it was too late. But just as he levelled his bolt pistol, one of them, a three-eyed mutant looking uncannily like a Navigator, looked straight over at the scouting party and opened his mouth to draw in a lungful of recycled ship's air: "Blood for the Blood arrrggghhh!"
Three-Eye's face disintegrated as a round from Dexicos's shotgun struck the centre of his forehead; an Executioner shell at that range, if Achaikos knew anything about Arbite munitions. The boom of his partner's first shot was scarcely dying away as the enforcer turned and dropped a second charging enemy with a round to the torso just as the degenerate cultist tried to get close enough to use the rusty bayonet attached to his autogun.
The chamber filled with the bark of firearms and the sizzling of las bolts as Achaikos and the armsmen joined in slaughtering their foes before they had a chance to take cover, or close in for hand-to-hand combat. For all their militant appearance, these fighters were as poorly armed and ill-disciplined as the first patrol they'd encountered: mutated cultists carrying little more than a handful of stubbers and autoguns between them, with little sense of tactics or even personal survival. Incoming fire was limited to all but the closest armsman.
As Achaikos watched, that unlucky man ducked back under cover before setting his hellgun to full auto and muttering the Litany of Suppressive Fire. The armsman then raised his weapon over the oblong barrier and sprayed the unseen chamber with a burst of las bolts. One bolt snagged one curved horn of a pair sprouting from both sides of a mutant's head and vaporised it, sending the erstwhile owner diving to the ground. A second took the thing's neighbour, a three-armed creature holding two axes and an autopistol, straight through the throat. The thing sank to its knees with a gurgling noise and its now one-horned squadmate rolled gratefully behind the body for cover until Achaikos took its head off with a carefully sighted bolt pistol shot just seconds later.
Moments afterwards, the battle was over. As before, the mutants fought to the last creature whereas less warped beings might have fallen back; their insane bloodlust had worked against them when it came to assaulting defenders fighting from a protected position. Achaikos hadn't seen any of them carrying vox equipment of any sort and guessed there wasn't any to be found. The cultists and mutants were being unleashed from the cruiser above like so many packs of hounds to hunt down the Imperial boarders. Whoever was in command of the cruiser beaming the creatures aboard was clearly sending over their expendable troops first, not much caring what happened to them.
Achaikos moved urgently through the sprawling bodies of the slain mutants to examine the control station by the teleportation homer. He had to hurry before another group of cultists were beamed aboard. He was no enginseer or rune priest, but vaguely recalled that teleportation required enormous energy output from the ship performing it. The heretic captain aboard the peculiar cruiser would have to wait between sending more groups of his men across to the hulk. Which was good. But Achkaios had no idea when the next lot would show up.
"Cover the teleport homer," he called out to the armsmen as he began his interrogation of the control station, seeking to divine its functions. It seemed similar to the ones he'd used on Imperial vessels, albeit more complex. There was no incense to burn to placate the device of course, but its association with the powers of Chaos rendered that a moot point, rather. The machine spirit was corrupted and would warn its warped masters about his actions if it could. He would have to work carefully.
"Zonia," he sent in binary over the vox net. "Link to my eyes' pictcast. What functions do you read on this control station?"
"One moment…" Zonia sent back, and Achaikos detected the sound of firing on her end of the vox channel. "We're presently being engaged by several squads of enemy cultists. Just a moment—Got you!"
Achaikos tried not to wince as the enginseer's exultant yell travelled through the vox to his augmented hearing. He adjusted his internal volume to compensate and spent a few more minutes browsing the station's controls, familiarising himself with its basic operations while the sound of firing mixed with Zonia's cursing carried on in the background. Here there were opticon visuals from parts of the hulk, these were functions for scanning and regulating the energy ribbon being drawn from the Warp, and this was a sub-routine that diverted power to what could've been the psychic signal that had terrorised Mistress Yaen…
"I've been scanning the feed from your eyes. Was there a comm unit function built into that thing?"
"Let me see… ah, you're right. I wondered how the heretics were planning on getting back to their ship afterwards. I suppose they just signal from here and their ship homes in on the teleport homer."
"A teleport homer?" Zonia voxed back, awe shading the subtle binary twittering of her techna-lingua transmission. "I've only heard of those—never seen one."
"The enemy ship's been beaming down squads of cultists and mutants to search this part of the hulk. I expect the auspex on their ship's main sensorium has been able to pinpoint our general location, even through the interference of the intervening layers of metal and the shadow from the Warp generator. But they aren't making a very thorough job of it."
"The ones we've encountered here seem dangerous enough," the enginseer replied coolly. "We've taken casualties beating them off."
"Can you reach our position? I believe I have a plan to rescue us from our current predicament."
"I'll consult Captain Santos about pushing forwards," she voxed back. "But he might take some persuading after that last attack. The cultists almost broke through our lines in two places. Major Shelk is hurt and we've lost ten men."
"Try to hurry," Achaikos told her. "We don't know how long we have before the enemy sends someone else down here."
"Throne be with you, Magos."
"And with you, Enginseer," Achaikos said, casting a wary look at the teleport homer as he settled down to wait.
Dexicos and the others remained where they were, looking around warily for unexpected arrivals.
When it came however, the crack of displaced air was the only warning the magos and his team had that the enemy had teleported another party aboard. A blast of hot air, rank with sweat and the smell of heated bronze washed across the noses of the waiting humans. They blinked and stared, uncertain at first of what their eyes were showing them.
There were no mutant or human cultists, this time. Beside the teleport homer stood a twisted shape of red and black skinned muscle perching on three thick, cloven legs. A fourth limb ended in a curved bone scythe-like claw, and the rest of the creature's body was festooned with spikes and horns running down a broad back to the tip of a powerful looking red tail. Plates of bronze covered its chest and flanks, covered in sigils that blurred the vision and hurt the eye to look upon. The creature's head was eyeless, flat and wide, holding only a mouth wide enough to hold rows of serrated teeth.
Achaikos froze by the control station, paralysed by the monster's unnatural shape and sudden appearance. Had the abomination attacked the magos there and then, he might have been caught despite his augmented body and enhanced reflexes. Instead, the creature turned its head away, facing one of the armsmen a few paces from Sergent Serge. Screaming in panic, the armsman raised his hellgun to fire at it wildly. The bolts splashed against the deck plating where the monster had stood a split-second earlier; the thing had gathered itself in a powerful forward leap that carried it across the chamber in an eyeblink.
The monster's charge sent the members of the fireteam diving away, all trying to track the creature for a clear shot and stay out of its way at the same time. The man who'd fired first was unfortunate; the bone scythe tore open his torso as the creature landed, sending gouts of blood arcing into the air. The man's death scream was silenced as the thing's jaws closed around his head with a crunch.
"Kill the frething thing!" Sergent Serge shouted, suiting action to words by backing up and blazing away with his hellgun at the Chaotic abomination.
Achaikos ducked deeper behind the control station and risked a shot with his bolt pistol. He was still trying to establish whether the bolt had struck the creature or not when Dexicos, with his unshakable faith in the benevolence of the Emperor (and perhaps also the thickness of his carapace armour) drew the beast's attention.
"Death to all the spawn of Chaos!" he screamed through his skull-helmet, and fired several shots from his combat shotgun as he fell back towards the passageway where Jubal's party remained on watch.
There was a heartbeat pause as the artificial guidance system for his Executioner shells sought its target, and then the flesh around the thing's head and neck rippled and pulped as the shots found their mark.
A natural beast would have fallen under the weight of those hits but the spawnstuff from which the monster was made was profoundly unnatural, as Achaikos could have told anyone stupid enough to stand around asking. The thing was a nightmare mass of mutation spawned by some malign intelligence of the Warp, and its injuries only roused the creature's blood. With a tortured howl, it rose on its two hind legs and pivoted itself towards the retreating Dexicos. Almost as an afterthought, its spiked tail whipped out behind and lashed Sergeant Serge, sending him cartwheeling into the air in a fountain of red.
Fewer las bolts struck the creature's armoured hide now, each armsman concentrating on redoubling the distance between himself and the Chaotic creature chewing its way through their midst. With a throaty roar of rage that sounded eerily human, it sprang towards the bulky, armoured figure of the enforcer. Black rivulets of some foul liquid leaked from the holes punched in its front and flank but the creature still began to close the distance with uncanny speed.
Achaikos mounted the control station and jumped after it, robes and mechadendrites spreading out behind him in a weird halo of cloth and metal. The magos activated his body's close combat functions even as his boots left the metal edge of the station terminal. A cocktail of combat drugs flooded his body's nervous system, slowing down his perception of the arc his leap towards the creature was taking him on. With a drug-induced serenity, Achaikos felt his metal jaws distending as steel fangs burst from the gums of his mouth. As he flew through the air, cruel curved spikes slid from the tips of his fingers, puncturing the tips of his gloved hands.
The creature roared as the magos landed neatly on its back, stabbing and puncturing any vulnerable spot along the spine and neck that his teeth, hands or mechadendrites could find in his drug-induced frenzy. Achaikos left a deep, five-fingered furrow in the creature's neck, seeking to spill as much of the black bile as he could. A rush of air warned him to get a mechadendrite up in time to block a swipe from the thing's deadly tail. Then the creature leapt into the air, bucked, and seemed to twist. Achaikos found himself falling away from its snapping front jaws and parrying a swipe of the bone scythe claw that would have broken a normal human's arm.
Two of his tendril-like mechadendrites blocked his fall and he landed on bent knees as the Chaos abomination sprang towards him once more, its three cloven hooves clattering on the metal of the deck plate. Even through the dreamy time-slowing haze of the combat drugs, Achaikos was alarmed at its speed and ability to keep on fighting despite its wounds. He reached for his bolt pistol, realising he'd discarded it in his leap from atop the control station. There was only a confused impression of fangs and horns in front of him as his body took over from his mind and defended itself from the creature's enraged attacks.
"For the Emperor!" a familiar voice screamed, and the Chaos beast shrieked and shuddered as a flurry of las bolts and shotgun blasts announced that Dexicos had formed the armsmen back into something resembling a fireteam. The beast backed away from the magos a moment, as though to attack another foe, and Achaikos seized his chance. Mechanical tendrils shot out to touch the bronze armour plates covering the creature's red and black hide and the magos triggered every electrical charge in every tip, all at once. Another strangely human scream emerged from the beast's throat as the holy power electrocuted it where it stood. It toppled with a crash of metal, leaving Achaikos confronting the disbelieving faces of the three surviving armsmen and Dexicos.
"Its alright," Dexicos assured, "the Magos has merely assumed a form better suited to killing the beast we've all just bested." The enforcer put his palms up in peace as the armsmen's fingers tightened on triggers at the sight of the magos's hideously altered appearance. "Achaikos, turn off the drugs. You don't need them anymore."
Achaikos blinked at him and complied, then sagged inside his robes as the rush of stimulants was cut off. His gums, jaw and fingers burned, as did some ribs where a horn had grazed him. The teeth and spikes vanished back under the skin as the magos massaged his aching jaw with one hand. There were times, he wondered wearily, why he hadn't just followed others of his calling and abandoned his meat body entirely.
"We need Enginseer Avila and the others here now," he grumbled to his partner. "Omnissiah forbid we have to be here for whatever those heretics send through their teleport next."
"I suppose we should be grateful to the Golden Throne just for missing it," a familiar voice said from behind the enforcer.
Achaikos and his partner turned to see Jubal Santos standing with a gaggle of armsmen at the mouth of the passageway leading between the rows of odd-shaped machines cluttering the chamber.
"Many thanks for your warnings Magos," the chartist captain continued. "We were well prepared when the first of the enemy found us. It was a hard fight but we've killed most of them for now. I see you've stopped any more from getting through." He gestured at the bodies of the slain mutants and grimaced when he clapped eyes on the charred corpse of the creature that had followed them through the teleport. "Enginseer Avila was most insistent we come to relieve you, and since I don't suppose my hope of avoiding attracting the enemy's attention has worked, I'm eager to hear what you have to say."
Achaikos noticed more armsmen arriving behind Jubal, with Zonia moving among them, and gestured her over. "I do have a plan," he said once she'd safely arrived. "But listen carefully, Captain—you're not going to like it."
"You're right, I don't like it," Jubal said at the end of the impromptu conference between himself, the two agents, Zonia and Major Shelk, whose head now sported a thick bandage that also covered one eye. "What if they slaughter us all the moment we teleport up there? And who's to say we'll even make it? What if we scatter mid-stream?"
Achaikos exhaled slowly, triggering his glands to remain calm. There would be no escape transport to the Enemy cruiser. His chances of actually managing to duplicate the homing device's return signal and teleporting them all back to the cruiser were next to nil. Still, as Kellman always said, 'above all, give them hope'.
"Do you have anyone with a history of working with explosives?" Achaikos asked him. "I could rig a crude charge with a bandolier of frag grenades but I'd much rather leave this to someone capable of precision work. We won't have time for mistakes once we get started with this."
The magos held his breath a moment in a mechanical echo of his old body's tension displacement mechanisms.
But instead of asking any more awkward questions, Jubal shot a covert glance at Zonia and gave a mirthless grin. "I believe I know just the man," he said. "If our enginseer agrees, of course."
Achaikos saw Zonia touch the burnt patch on her features before she nodded.
"Indeed," she said. "Corporal Voss would seem most suited to this task. It will be fitting that he employs his Emperor-given talents in the destruction of our enemies' blasphemous devices instead of the blessed property of the Omnissiah's loyal servants."
"Is there something we should know about this Voss?" Dexicos asked dubiously.
"He used to hold some specialist guardsman rank back in his old regiment," Jubal said breezily. "Bombardier, breacher or what have you. He likes to keep his hand in with the jerry-rigged bomb-making business, so we used to let him loose on the scrap pile whenever Verdict was in dock. Sadly, his last attempt was considerably more powerful than he anticipated. Fortunately, no lives were lost but a number of servitors and other useful systems were destroyed when the subsequent fire swept through Zonia's workshops."
"A tragedy the Captain has still not quite adequately grasped the scale of," Zonia said grimly. "Though I will wear the scars as a badge of my supervisory shame until my upgrade to magos."
"Yes, well… if I'd let you mindwipe Voss and turn him into a sanitary systems servitor, we wouldn't have him with us now to blow up this Warp generator, would we?"
Achaikos sensed that here was an old squabble between the chartist captain and his ship's ranking tech-priest. It amused him, but he had no time for amusement. "I'm certain this man makes a useful contribution to the good of the Imperium within his narrow area of expertise, but we're going to need to hurry—we don't know when the next monster's coming through the teleporter. Zonia and I need to work on fixing that while you brief Corporal Voss about his latest mission."
While Jubal hurried off to find the corporal, Dexicos gave Achaikos a wry look and left to supervise the fireteams watching the teleport homer. Fortunately, neither Zonia nor his sharp partner had given the magos away to the chartist captain. When Jubal had queried him on how he intended to get them on-board the Chaos cruiser after the explosives around the Warp generator had been set, Achaikos given him some waffle about searching the control station's memory buffers for transmission echoes to duplicate the codes used by the enemy to beam them back aboard. It was all nonsense of course, a string of syllables which sounded meaningful to an uninitiated ear.
In truth, only Fenx might have had an idea about how they'd be able to send a convincing signal to a Chaos warship to beam the survivors of the Verdict onto their ship. Achaikos had even less of a clue what they could really do when they got there except die heroically. But the Floating Metal Death-Trap was damnation in space and stuffed with the sort of heretical technosorcerous trinkets that had to be kept out of the hands of the more radical factions of the Inquisition or the Adeptus Mechanicus, no matter the cost. And taken away from the enemies of mankind too, obviously.
"Magos," Zonia said in binary cant as they walked back to the control station together, "Do you know what you're doing? I mean, even if Fenx were here, it would be difficult to spoof a command code to a ship whose systems we're only barely aware of. I don't think what you've promised the captain is possible. Of course I'll follow your lead as protocol dictates, but shouldn't we be preparing a way to contact the boat secretly instead?"
"We're three wrecks deep into the skin of the Floating Metal Death-Trap's mass and the enemy has a cruiser covering this section of the hulk," Achaikos pointed out. "The enemy captain would have to be blind not to see the access point we used to gain entry to the Marchanna."
Zonia gave a very human-sounding sigh. "And even if we somehow did get off alive, we couldn't outrun a cruiser in an assault boat. Not that we would make it to the nearest planet before our atmosphere or fuel supplies ran out. I'm sorry Magos, I just wanted to explore all the options before deciding that getting blown to pieces along with the hulk was our only choice."
"There's always a choice," Achaikos said. "Now, perhaps we should take another look at this control station just in case we can come up something before the enemy sends an army through this homer, or we inadvertently trigger the explosives Corporal Voss is undoubtedly setting up."
"Are we likely to?"
Achaikos gave her a grim smile; he liked this stern but witty woman; she would have made a good agent of the Inquisition. "You're the one that likes examining all the gloomy prospects."
For a long moment, they stared together at the control station's main consul in silence, as if waiting for something to happen. Achaikos supposed that at least this way he would be spared debriefing Kellman on the disastrous consequences of crashing that wedding party on Ashar IX. Plus, his actual last mission for the Inquisitor would have a heroic, if not a happy, ending.
Then, much to Achaikos's surprise, a chime sounded from a speaking grille set in the bottom part of the station's terminal and an impatient voice growled out of it in Low Gothic.
"Gravlex, you snivelling spawnsucker, this is Trelk. Report! Third Fist Martok has called the transportation chamber personally. He's demanding to know if you've finished hunting the corpse-botherers yet. We have a glorious battle around that mudball ahead of us and you're holding the whole ship up!"
Zonia stepped back from the control station as though it had suddenly sprouted a tail with a venomous-looking stinger. Even Achaikos noted his cybo-fluid systems having to compensate for an accelerated heartbeat and elevated levels of adrenaline. He'd never heard an actual heretic speaking before, unless interrogation sessions counted. For a brief instant the fallen human had sounded almost normal, if you allowed yourself to forget you were hearing a soulless puppet of the Ruinous Powers.
"Gravlex is dead," Achaikos said with sudden inspiration. "The cursed corpse-botherers killed him in the last battle. I've taken his place."
Feeble stuff if they'd been dealing with a fallen member of Achaikos's order, of course, who would have undoubtedly possessed the techno-skills to identify an unknown speaker. But the magos knew he was dealing with an unaugmented meatbag, and a lowly and impatient one at that.
"And who are you?" the voice of Trelk snapped at the other end of the line. "What news for the Fist?"
"Victory!" Achaikos shouted as deep and powerfully as he could, aware some of the nearby armsmen were giving him strange looks now. "We have slaughtered the enemy and now stand ready to return to you to help wage the next part of the eternal war against our accursed enemies."
"All right, all right," snapped the Chaos crewman at the other end. "You're new at this, aren't you? The talkative ones are always new. Well, get some of your mob good and close around the teleport homer, then we'll start extracting you. No fighting in the transport chamber, remember, or the Fist will decimate the squad involved. If any of you want to squabble over precedence, settle it over there."
"It won't be a problem," Achaikos promised.
"See that it isn't," Trelk said. "The Skinflayer will leaving in ten minutes. Be aboard or be left behind. Trelk out."
The connection with the Chaos cruiser was cut off abruptly and Achaikos found himself holding the control station's edge in a crushing grip. Shaking off the surprise that his gamble had actually worked, he pivoted and pushed past the gaggle of goggling armsmen and cast about for Jubal.
"Captain! I have urgent news…"
Achaikos stepped onto the deck of the traitor vessel Skinflayer in a white flash of light, feeling as though he had first been spread in all directions at once before brutally coalescing back on a spot where the ground had gone missing. His internal chronometer readings had briefly duplicated themselves and his system now released a burst of nausea suppressors into his remaining organic parts as it compensated for phasing between two localities in overlapping warp space.
Happily, all of Achaikos seemed to have arrived intact inside the same kind of oblong green metal chamber he'd teleported from, and the other seven members of the Imperial boarding party had also materialised safely around him.
Achaikos raised his arm and shot the blubbery looking human standing gaping at them from the front of the teleport pad's control station. The human clutched his ruined chest and slumped to the floor, bleeding messily through the remnants of a black naval jump suit which still sported a crudely defaced Imperial aquila. Achaikos guessed that had been Crewman Trelk and wondered briefly how such a man had come to be abroad a ship like the Skinflayer.
All around the teleportation chamber, jolted by the sound of the shot, cultist crewmembers and their mutant brethren stood up from consoles to see what was happening. Major Shelk and his fireteam didn't wait for the enemy to recover; six hellguns set to full auto spat out a blizzard of las bolts that swept the chamber clean, blowing smouldering holes in consoles, chairs and light fixtures along the way. Achaikos quailed at the damage before reminding himself sternly that the machine spirits aboard Skinflayer were enslaved in the service of the dark powers just as much as the Chaos ship's crew.
Zonia stepped daintily off the teleportation pad as Shelk and his men moved around the circular chamber, dispatching each member of the enemy with clinical shots to the head. Using a mechadendrite to push Trelk's corpse away from the foot of the teleport's control station, the enginseer went to work on deciphering the traitor machine's functions so she could beam the next complement of their comrades up.
Achaikos found the small chamber's vox station easily. The body of its former operator was sprawled messily in front of the machine, which was fortunately undamaged by the hellgun bolts. Seizing the black-and-red-clad body by one ankle and dragging it aside, Achaikos seated himself in the dead man's place and activated the vox, whispering a threat to the station that he would initiate the Rite of Disassembly if it betrayed them to the ship's crew. Thankfully the machine was so traumatised by its long enslavement that it reacted without question to his every command.
"Captain Santos, we hold the teleportation chamber for now," he voxed down to the Floating Metal Death-Trap, using his flesh voice. "Has Corporal Voss set the timers for his explosives yet?"
"It's good to hear your voice," Jubal sent back. "Corporal Voss is fixing the last of the detonators in place now and is giving me a double thumbs up signal. I'm assuming that's bombardier military code for 'good to go'."
"We'll begin transporting the rest of you aboard at once," said Achaikos. "Remember to position yourselves with the safety zone around the homing device or the results could be… messy."
Organic words were so imprecise sometimes, the magos felt. It would have been much easier to convey the explosive reality of the warning in the precise data transmissions of the lingua-technis. Still, Jubal seemed to absorb some caution from his words, limited and crude as they were.
"Yes, we'll come aboard in groups of less than ten, as you directed. I'm voxing the boat and ordering them to move to the coordinates you gave me. Jubal out."
"Throne be with you Captain," Achaikos said, and terminated the transmission.
"Magos!" Shelk appeared from the entrance to the corridor leading into the rest of the Skinflayer. "We've sealed the access corridor to this part of the ship. The doors have been fused together and we're making a barricade with what we can. Do you need this seat?"
"Not at all, Major." Achaikos stood back from the vox station. "Use the dead heretics while you're at it. Organic material can be a useful partial barrier against small arms fire in the cases of 54.8 percent of the 237 designs of such weapons that I'm familiar with."
"Very good, Magos," the feral worlder said approvingly. "You'd make a promising candidate for a Guard regiment with that attitude. I'll tell the men to add the stiffs to the pile. That'll give the heretics something extra to think about when they're climbing over it to get at us."
Achaikos nodded and moved a few steps away, intending to check on Zonia's progress with the teleporter controls. Judging by the materialisation of a second group of eight armsmen in the chamber without loss of life or limbs, she was proving a skilled manipulator of matter. An angry voice booming from the vox control station stopped him in his tracks, however.
"Trelk, you incontinent grox-fondler! I don't care if those animals in your charge are back yet or not. The First Fist insists we break station and join the others. The ship they're pursuing is on course to be joined by another Imperial vessel and soon there will be others. Beam the teleport homer aboard at once and signal me as soon as you're done. We'll leave any corpse-worshippers in the hands of Gravlex and his mutants."
"Praise the Emperor, Gravlex is dead, as is Trelk," Achaikos said, speaking slowly into the speaker's grille so his words were simple and clearly audible. "It seems that you're running out of meat puppets to send against us, slave of darkness. Perhaps you can come yourself next time?"
There was a pause. Zonia stared at him in horror, but he had not time to explain, even in binary, that to insult a leader of the Chaos forces in front of their underlings was the best way to bring them running.
The unseen speaker at the other end of the vox replied with icy calm. "I don't know who you are, corpse-botherer, but I believe you. Even if you're lying somehow, I will offer Trelk's head to the Blood God for letting this channel be compromised. Keep praying to your false Emperor, and know that when your own head is lifted from your neck and sent tumbling down before the Skull Throne, that it was Martok, Third Fist of the Skinflayer, who sent you there."
"Excellent, Third Fist," Achaikos said. "I am Magos Pallus, seconded to Inquisitor Kellman of the Ordos Xenos, and my colleagues and I are very much looking forward to your arrival down here at the ship's teleportation chamber. We can't tell you how refreshing it has been slaughtering you heretics for a change—the aliens we usually encounter are so much more of a challenge. Of course, they do want to implant us with their genetic material, hijack our reproductive systems and spawn a hunchbacked army of degenerate soulless filth… but enough about your parents. When will did you say you'd get here, again?"
His only answer was a bellow of rage and the shriek of metal on machinery. The vox channel began to crackle and stutter as the connection with the other station was abruptly cut off, most likely by the repeated application of Martok's nearest hand weapon to the surface of the bridge vox control station. Presuming of course, he'd been speaking from the bridge.
Achaikos gave a mental shrug and turned to view the teleporter pad as half a dozen more figures materialised successfully abroad. The magos waited a moment as the rear-guard patted themselves down to make sure no body parts had gone missing in transit. This group, Dexicos and Jubal among them, were the last to be teleported off the Floating Metal Death-Trap.
"Welcome to the traitor ship Skinflayer," Achaikos greeted his partner and the captain. "I trust everything went well with the bombmaking?"
"Very well Magos, and my congratulations on ensuring such a smooth journey for my first transportation," Jubal said, stepping off the pad with only a little wobble. "Is there anything happening here I should be aware of?"
"I've publicly insulted both the military prowess and paternity of a Chaos Champion over the vox."
"What?" Jubal spluttered, while Dexicos grinned alongside him. Jubal blinked rapidly. "Won't… won't that just speed up their counter-attack as someone with authority takes control early?"
"Absolutely." Achaikos felt like rubbing his hands together. "Based on our previous interactions with this particular Chaos sect, I predict with a 78.54 percent degree of certainty that his next move will be to collect a force of warriors and arrive here shortly, intending to repel our boarding party in hand-to-hand combat, with myself as his priority target. This is a very satisfactory state of affairs."
"By the Golden Throne! How can that possibly help?"
"From repeated observation, I have deduced that participating in active combat plays a significant role in preserving social status among this Chaos force. In other words, all and any sub-commanders will be forced to delay their response until their offended leader reaches our position. Moreover, their leadership's emotional response will probably cause a direct attack on our position, distracting them from deploying other more sensible strategies to destroy us, like venting this entire deck into the void."
Jubal blinked again, seemingly silenced by Achaikos's display of precise logic. The magos was about to go on, elaborating the factors that had led him to this sudden improvisation, when he was interrupted by a metallic crash from the direction of the teleportation chamber's exit corridor.
"Captain, Magos," Shelk's voice growled over the vox. "The enemy has begun trying to open the doors to the chamber. They're using some kind of battering ram by the sound of things. Guess even their mutants know better than to use grenades in a star ship's atmosphere."
"On our way, Henrik," Jubal replied. With one last odd look at Achaikos, the chartist captain hurried off with his entourage and Dexicos to reinforce the barricade in the corridor. Achaikos saw the enforcer give him a brief nod as he strode past, and knew his gambit had met with the former Arbite's approval.
Achaikos turned to find himself face to face with a small, bald man in dirty grey fatigues that had once been a House Santos armsman's uniform. Oil, grease and other unknowable substances had stained it over time, creating a perfect camouflage pattern for urban warfare. A corporal's stripes showed through the grime on the left shoulder, though the man did not seem to be in charge of any fireteam. A large satchel hung from one shoulder, bulging with things that gave off a strong chemical reek.
The man sketched a vague salute in his direction, but the corporal's stare was glassy and distant, as if his eyes had focused on something far away, or that only he could see.
Achaikos had the impression it was almost certainly the latter. "Corporal Voss?" he guessed.
"At your service sir," the little corporal replied. "Corporal Voss reporting on the status of the explosives, sir."
"And are you ready to detonate?" Achaikos asked the man, who seemed to quiver at the word 'detonate'.
"Yes, Magos. I rigged the timer on an automatic countdown, just in case we all die horribly up here," the explosives expert replied, pausing to wipe sweat from his brow with one slightly shaky hand. "Those bombs will go off in about ten minutes. Should punch a hell of a hole into that hulk."
Voss thrust his arm out, showing a crude digital chronometer strapped to a grimy wrist. On its scratched surface, glowing red numbers steadily ticked down to the four zeros that would signal their time was up. The magos began a countdown on his own internal chronometer, synchronising with the corporal.
"Excellent work Corporal," Achaikos said, because that was the kind of thing Jubal would do at this point. Unfortunately, Voss seemed to take this as a signal to continue their conversation.
"Between you and me sir, some of the lads as helped me lay the charges were a bit nervous about blowing up anything connected to the Warp like that generator was. We don't mind getting killed so much as having demons dragging our immortal souls down into the Immaterium. Wouldn't be good for morale if that happened, sir."
A rattle of gunfire from the entrance to the chamber interrupted Achaikos as he opened his mouth to reply to Voss, followed by the sizzling crackle of lasgun fire from the Verdict's crew as they defended whatever breach had been opened in the teleportation chamber's door. Garbled shouting about some Blood God deity echoed from out of the corridor before all noise abruptly ceased with a whoosh of flame.
"Your concerns are duly noted Corporal," Achaikos said gravely, trying to replicate the kind of paternal tone he'd heard among actors playing Guard commissars in the action picts of his long-ago boyhood. "But as you can hear, even if there were better alternatives, we're completely committed to this course of action. Perhaps you can help our men seal that door? I have work to begin."
"Very good sir," Voss saluted and turned away, fears for his immortal soul temporarily forgotten now he'd been reminded of the Chaos enemy in front of him. The little man hefted his satchel and began to rummage around inside it as he headed to the teleport chamber's exit.
Achaikos raced back to the vox station as the sound of lasgun fire coming from the chamber's entrance redoubled. The enemy was rushing the barricade in the chamber's entrance passage again, howling their strange war cries as they came.
Since Jubal's vox message, the pilots of the Judy had been frantically putting as much distance between themselves and the Skinflayer as they could, while keeping the metallic bulk of the Floating Metal Death-Trap in between. Luckily, the Enemy was fixated on the in-system fight taking shape between their ships, the fleeing Verdict of Battle, and whatever System Defence Fleet boats the shambolic Genthar naval command had managed to scramble in response to the Verdict's electronic shrieks of warning. They weren't bothering to look for a tiny blip like the Judy on their sensoria when there was real fighting to be done.
"Magos Pallus to the Judy, are you in position?" Achaikos voxed, not even bothering to hide the urgency with which his flesh voice freighted the question. Static crackled emptily through the station's speaker for a moment and Achaikos felt his implants release a mild sedative into his cybo-fluid system to check rising tensions.
"This is the Judy," a man's voice said finally, "we are in position and ready to receive emergency boarders as instructed."
"Standby," Achaikos voxed back. "Emergency boarders imminent."
He shut off the vox before the laggardly pilot could reply and looked back at the entrance to the chamber. Jubal and a knot of armsmen were positioned on either side of the inner chamber doors, covering the passageway from the teleportation chamber while a few stragglers ran past them under the cover of their comrades' suppressive fire. It looked as if the corridor barricade had fallen to the enemy.
"Zonia, the boat is ready," Achaikos sent in a burst of lingua-technis. "Begin sending the survivors across as soon as they reach the teleporter pad. There isn't much time."
"Magos!" the enginseer sent back in a squeal of indignant code. "I've barely had time to reset the teleportation transporter functions to beam outwards. The dials and levers still need to be anointed with sacred oils. Why, I haven't even begun to dust off the filth coating the screen and switches yet!"
"There's no time to perform the proper safety rituals," Achaikos broadcast in emphatic burst of binary as he ran past her. "Just enter the coordinates and program the pad to automatically beam out to there once every minute. Hopefully we can all evacuate before the device fries its circuits. It's the only way any of us can evacuate before the enemy overrun this place or we all get blasted into the Warp!"
Through the noospheric links, Achaikos felt Zonia suppressing a shudder at the abyss that lay behind those words but she complied. The machine spirits of the traitor vessel were so broken by being endlessly whipped along by the minions of darkness that they might just obey without questioning. Of course, treachery might occur at any moment from such unreliable devices, but their party would have to trust to the vagaries of the teleporter or be destroyed along with the Skinflayer when the Floating Metal Death-Trap went critical.
The magos joined the surviving defenders at the unsealed metal doors to the chamber, searching for Dexicos among the faces of the men firing into the corridor beyond. But his partner was not there, and neither was Major Shelk. The magos pressed himself against the metal of the bulkhead and called over to Jubal.
"Captain, it's nearly time to go. The Judy is standing by to receive us but it may not go unnoticed for long."
Jubal grunted and leant quickly around the edge of the door, sighting carefully down the elongated barrel of his gold-plated laspistol. He snapped off a shot before ducking back behind cover as a las bolt struck the space his head had been a moment before.
"Freth, that was close!" the captain swore with feeling. "How much time do we have? Your partner's still in there, holding the barricade. He covered our retreat."
Achaikos extended one of his snakelike mechadendrite tendrils, a limb with an embeded pict-recorder, up to ceiling height and snaked it around the corner. He had no intention of risking his braincase to enemy fire the way the captain had. The corridor was a scene of carnage with mutants, monstrosities and distorted human figures littering the far entrance where the Chaos worshippers had forced the sealed doors apart. More scorched bodies lay in front of a heap of chairs and equipment that Major Shelk's men had piled up in the middle of the corridor.
Dexicos stood halfway between Achaikos and the abandoned barricade, battling a Chaos warrior who Achaikos assumed to be Martok of the Third Fist. Corpses in the red and black armour of the enemy sprawled messily around their boots, mixed in with the forms of the House Santos armsmen. One was Henrik Shelk, missing his head but still recognisable from his elaborate tattoos.
Chaos troopers had mounted the barricade, but at least the relative narrowness of the corridor had stopped Dexicos from being flanked. A second blessing was that none of the troopers were firing at Dexicos lest they shot the man he was fighting.
The Chaos leader was a warrior: that much was clear from his posture and movements. Like some of the troopers he wore black and red carapace armour, but there the resemblance ended. Human bones decorated the torso of his armour and twin brass skulls leered from its two shoulder pads. The man's face was hidden beneath a full-faced horned helmet bearing the same blood red triangle with four arms that had decorated the enemy banners aboard the Floating Metal Death-Trap.
In one hand, the champion carried an old-fashioned looking chainaxe and in the other a battered looking chainsword, such as an Imperial commissar might carry into battle. Above the man's horned helmet rose a grotesque chitinous tail, tipped with a lethal-looking stinger. The man advanced towards Dexicos, who retreated from this vile opponent, trying to keep his distance from the warrior's close combat weapons without exposing himself to fire from one of the heretical troopers.
"Magos!" Voss called out behind Achaikos, "Get Dexicos out of there and then duck!"
Achaikos glanced behind to see Jenson Voss kneeling down and sorting through the metallic clutter in his bag to pull out what looked like half a dozen tiny purple coloured metal eggs. Something about their shape and colour sent a coded alert to Achaikos from his pattern recognition sub-routines, but he didn't have to check it before matters were taken out of his hands.
"Good man, Happy," Jubal called out from his spot by the corridor entrance. "Men, cover the Magos!"
Achaikos didn't remember agreeing to follow any of the corporal's directives but he knew that a victory in battle depended on all the parts of a formation moving with the precision and harmony of one of the Omnissiah's blessed creations. With a sub-vocalised oath to the Golden Throne, he flung himself out from behind cover as a torrent of las bolts suppressed the fire coming from the Chaos troopers atop the barricade.
Dexicos had already closed the distance to the exit by several metres, deflecting the lighting fast blows of his Chaos opponent with a combination of luck, feints, the barrier of his weapon, and—in one memorable instance—the shoulder pad of his armour. Achaikos didn't try to match his organic partner's skills as he charged across the distance between them, firing his bolt pistol wildly fast. He was only needed to act as a distraction after all, not deal out righteous justice via bolter rounds.
Most of his shots went sailing over the barricade but the final shell took off one of the Chaos leader's horns. The helmeted face of the enemy turned to stare blankly at Achaikos, looking for all the world like an animated statue at an Imperial propaganda rally. This statue didn't stay on its float, however; Martok's giant fist struck Dexicos in the chest, sending the enforcer sprawling to the ground in the same instant its other arm swung the whirring blade of the chain-axe in Achaikos's direction.
The sacrifice of two of his snakelike manipulator mechadendrites saved Achaikos from having his cyberneticised head sheared in two by the teeth of the axe. The magos checked his first impulse to trigger his drug glands and instead twisted away, avoiding contact with the traitor leader. Now was not the time to get lost in a biomechanical killing frenzy; he would need a clear head to operate the teleporter controls in just a few minutes.
Having rolled with the blow that had sent him sprawling, Dexicos came to his feet in a low crouch. His shotgun was now a battered length of metal from Martok's chain-sword but still functioned as a club. The enforcer swung it flow at the champion's legs, forcing him to parry the blow. The two agents began to work together as they had so often before in Inquisitor Kellman's service, harrying their enemy's flanks in turn so the Chaos warrior could not bring his full might to bear on either.
A sizzling hellgun beam striking Martok full in the chest showed they had nearly reached the Imperial position. But instead of falling over and clutching his ruined torso, the champion merely let out a bellowing roar and pressed his attack, as if seeking to break through the pair of agents and charge the shooter head on. At the sound of his war cry, heads began to appear behind the barricade. The Chaos troopers galvanised themselves for a charge in their leader's support now the suppressive fire had switched its focus.
"Nice to have you back with us!" Jubal yelled over the sound of small arms fire, sounding startlingly close to Achaikos's ear implant.
Jubal swept smoothly round the edge of the door to the teleportation chamber and planted a las bolt through the eye piece of the frothing Chaos warrior with needle-like precision. The champion pitched forwards to be with his god, dead before he hit the floor. The two agents scrambled through the entrance to the chamber as the maddened troops let out a scream of rage and began to charge over the barrier, their guns blazing on full automatic.
"Now men," Jubal shouted. "Let them have it!"
Instead of a hail of las bolts, the armsmen around the edges of the door drew back their arms and flung the purple metal eggs into the corridor. The corporal must have passed them out while he and Dexicos were occupied. Achaikos braced for explosions but none came; instead his enhanced audio-senses picked up the faint hiss of released gases before Jubal's renewed bellowing drowned it out.
"Zonia, shut the door! Shut the Throne-damned door now!" the chartist captain called. The heavy bulkhead slammed down, cutting off the Chaos troopers who'd been rushing towards their position. Right before the door cut off his view, Achaikos's pattern recognition sub-routines finally unfurled their analysis of the objects thrown over his head: hallucinogenic grenades, made to Delta IV Forge World manufacturing specifications.
"That ought to keep them pretty busy," said Voss.
The magos turned to see Corporal 'Happy' Voss staring at the bulkhead's surface as though trying to peer through it. The sounds of steel on flesh and weeping sobs were now faintly audible through the steel. "Lucky I had the last of my stash on me, really."
Achaikos ignored the strange little man and checked his internal chronometer. There were few precious minutes left before the Skinflayer was caught up in whatever reality-tearing blast about to occur aboad the Floating Metal Death-Trap. The only thing left for them to do was take the jump. On the other side of the bulkhead came more blasphemous shouts and the sounds of chain-weapons tearing through flesh and metal.
"Corporal, Captain, if you would lead your men onto the pad, the enginseer and I will begin your emergency transfer to the Judy," Achaikos said.
"You heard the Magos," Jubal snapped to his handful of surviving armsmen, "Smartly now lads, no hanging back to admire the scenery. Go!"
The chartist captain and his men scrambled for the teleporter pad and as soon as their boots had touched its worn and dented metal surface, Zonia stabbed the controls with the tip of a mechadendrite, dematerialising them from this dimension of existence. The wild screaming and the sound of whirling metal teeth on the other side of the door to the access corridor faded ominously. Achaikos heard the scuff of boots on metal and a sinister whispering coming from the enemy side instead. Certain this portended nothing good, the magos gestured urgently at the Zonia and Dexicos to climb up onto the transporter pad.
From the other side of the door, a muffled humming sound was followed by the roar of what sounded like a plasma weapon firing. Achaikos jabbed at the control panel with mechanical precision, setting the device to beam its cargo off the cruiser after a five-second delay.
The door to the teleportation chamber was glowing cherry red now and Achaikos really didn't want to meet whoever was on the other side. Springing up from behind the control station, he made it onto the teleport transporter pad just as the machine's hum reached its reassuring climax. There was a small chime from the pad's control station and the tech-priest and his two companions vanished in a blaze of light.
The Skinflayer never reached its escorts to join the chaotic battle developing in-system between the raiders, the Inquisition vessel Gloriana, the fleeing Verdict of Battle and the hastily-scrambled planetary defence ships of the local SDF. Though it had travelled some distance from the Floating Metal Death-Trap, the cruiser was not nearly far enough away to escape the devastation of its implosion.
Purple and crimson streams swirled in the black vacuum of the void as the explosives obliterated the arcane wards channelling the raw Warp power to the technosorcerous device, and Reality tore at the seams. Half the hulk was pulled into the Immaterium with the wreck housing the Warp power generator; the rest fragmented into thousands of metal pieces. Shrapnel the size of hab-blocs hurdled across the void of space and it was one such piece that struck the Skinflayer amidships right after its void shields failed. The ship's explosion was just one more source of light in a system already full of them.
The cruiser's death barely registered with the crew of the Judy, who were busy putting as much distance between themselves and their original coordinates as the little assault boat's engines could muster. Without knowing where the fighting still was taking place, the crew remained tense and fearful that the worst was not yet over.
No sane voidborn wanted to be in the same system as a Warp rift in a vessel without a Gellar Field, and though the one caused by the Floating Metal Death-Trap's demise was already healing, the Judy's crew kept her nose pointed firmly away from the site of the implosion and the vessel's thrust at maximum. Behind it, a cloud of wreckage began to spread gently out as the remains of hundreds of vessels formerly packed together began to drift slowly though the black space of the Genthar system. It would take a long time to turn this particular shipping lane back into a reliable route for interstellar travel again.
Stannos Kellman finished scanning the data slate containing Magos Pallus' after-action report on the Floating Metal Death-Trap incident and tossed the expensive slate on the table in front of him, heedless of the wince that crossed the face of Jubal Santos. The Inquisitor and his guest were both sitting in private comfort in the ward room aboard his ship the Gloriana, so Kellman could afford to let some of his feelings show.
Inquisitor Santos raised an eyebrow and took a sip from his steaming cup of Taralian tea. "So, what did you think?" he asked Kellman.
"I think that the next time you need some assistance, you should approach me through the proper channels instead of poaching two of my assets under false pretences."
The guest shrugged his shoulders. "Sorry, but time was pressing. Besides, we weren't sure you'd miss them after that nasty incident on Ashar IX. A bad business all round, that."
"Just leave the disciplinary matters of my staff to me," Kellman replied icily. "Ashar IX was an Ordos Xenos problem and none of your lot's business. Besides, the cardinal's niece was fine once the cult's substitution of her genetic profile for a dead hybrid's on the screening database was discovered. Why, they'd barely assembled the firing squad."
"Still," his unwanted guest said, "to have that happen on the day of her wedding, it must have put a dampener on the celebrations."
Santos threw up his hands defensively. "You're right, it's absolutely none of my business. Forget I brought it up, Anyway, your men showed commendable zeal. Magos Pallus in particular showed great initiative, especially considering how far he was operating outside his area of expertise. He and that enforcer were quite ready to blow us all to the Warp to stop the Enemy's schemes. Personally, I'd put them down for a commendation."
"Your high opinion of my agents' talents is noted for the record. Now, do you mind telling me why you needed them in the first place?"
"Well Fenx was reasonably sure that the hulk's recent appearances in so many Imperial systems weren't just random coincidences. The thing wasn't drifting along in the eddies of the Warp, it was being artificially directed somehow. Of course, we weren't sure just who was behind it—human pirates, Eldar, genestealer hyrids—until Genthar confirmed the presence of the Great Enemy. So, I decided to bring along some xenos expertise just in case."
"And you knew my ship was around to provide some muscle to the Genthar System Defence Forces," Kellman added sardonically. "Remind me to reclaim that favour one day."
"Throne forbid that I had to rely on just the local SDF to contain a squadron of Chaos raiders! Especially with the times being as they are."
"That's what's supposed to happen. And the galaxy is always teetering on the edge of some great crisis or another. We'll survive these ones."
"You sound so certain of that for someone as old as you are," Santos snorted. "In any case, once those raiders dropped out of the Warp, any of those tiny SDF boats would have been blown to pieces—especially when strung out the way naval protocol demands. It would've been a shoo-in for Chaos. The Twelve Worlds would have been wide open to them."
"Indeed," Kellman conceded. "I'm having the admiral shot for dereliction of duty, even if he is the governor's cousin. At the very least, his ships should have been put on a state of heightened alert as soon as that hulk dropped into the system's outer halo."
"I would do the same in your shoes. I'm sure diligence over the monitoring of Genthar's known Warp fissures will be redoubled by his grateful successors."
"I'm glad you approve," Kellman said drily. "I suppose you'll be scouring the system for planet-side traitors and any Chaos sympathisers in the SDF after my departure?"
"And then start working my way backwards through every system the hulk jumped into," Santos agreed, sipping his cooling tea again. "Unless something more urgent comes up of course. But generally, I feel you can never be too careful about these things. I want to know why the hulk picked the systems it did to appear in, and just who was directing those Chaos ships. If those raiders had intelligence on soft targets to hit, my Ordo needs to find who gave it to them."
"Well you won't have to worry about it jumping elsewhere," Kellman told him. "The governor is just itching to prove his loyalty to the Imperium by unleashing the SDF's full firepower against what's left of that thing while it drifts through the Genthar system. It could take a month or two, but they should be able to finish what Achaikos and your man Voss started and pulverise the wreckage into void-dust."
"How did the local mechanicus temple take that?"
"Badly at first," Kellman said. "I thought their archmagos was going to explode his circuits. You've never heard such a storm of static and twittering in binary cant between cogboys before. Fortunately, they all calmed down once I explained that the hulk's machine spirits had undoubtedly been corrupted by their exposure to the Warp and only traitors would store any such relics from there next to sanctified machinery."
His guest chuckled and finished his tea, putting the delicate cup down on the low table in front of him. "Well it seems that you've got everything in hand here," his guest said. "I'll head back over to the Verdict and see how Fenx is getting on with his convalescence."
"Someday Jubal, you really are going to have to tell me the story of how you knew where that hulk would be appearing," Kellman said. "Even if it is Ordo Hereticus business for now."
Jubal Santos of the Tarnoth sector Inquisitional Conclave nodded at his colleague and stood, stretching. "Of course, Stannos, it would be my pleasure. Perhaps in another hundred years or so."
"Safe journeys until then… 'Captain'."