Space. Cold, vast, and desolate. Utterly devoid of life. The only things that broke the monotony of the black expanse were the stars, those colossal nuclear furnaces that drifted throughout the void, even their titanic power reduced to tiny sparkles against the black shroud of the void.
The light from one particular star glinted off the prow of the prison ship, highlighting its jagged edges as it coasted through space, drifting towards the icy prison moon. Beneath its stark and uncaring visage were hundreds of souls, some the brittle and uncompromising lives of the Adeptus Arbites law hounds, fierce and relentless as they patrolled the ship, and others were the souls of their charges; the twisted, depraved minds of those convicts sentenced to death on the penal colony.
Four minds were different. Four minds bore neither the rigid discipline of the Arbites, nor the utter insanity of the inmates. These minds bore the scars of pain and suffering, of sights that no man should ever have to see. Yet, paradoxically, they also contained bonds of brotherhood and faith to rival that of any Space Marine. Currently, they also bore the dark tinges of men who were fully prepared to kill.
The flashlight on the end of the shotgun pierced the darkness, its harsh beam picking out every detail of the carnage ahead. Impassive behind its reflective visor, the Arbite advanced, sweeping its weapon back and forth as it scanned for targets. A stencilled white sign on the wall next to it declared this to be holding level J, yet another row of cast iron cells packed close together and stuffed with the scum of the universe. There were twenty different levels within this section of the ship, and fifty more sections like it in the rest of the vessel. Not a large craft, by Imperial standards, but plenty big enough to contain all manner of nooks and crannies for scum to hide in. All the other levels were working as normal, but not five minutes ago this level had been subjected to a depressingly familiar event: a breakout.
This was by no means unexpected, and the ship was well equipped to deal with such occurrences. The flashlight beam swam through the misty residue of the gas that had flooded the level, and in each of the cells the Arbite had seen the petrified corpses of those prisoners caught in the purge. The Arbites should have been safe enough, in their hermetically sealed outfits, yet the guards on this level had not reported in after the purge. Now, the investigators knew why.
The guards were dead, all six of them, fatally wounded by what must have been a large, blunt object. All of them were grouped around a single cell, the bars of which had been torn free. The Arbite frowned. Whatever had been contained in those cells, it had ripped off the bars and used them to beat half a dozen heavily armed guards to death. Surely only humans were on this voyage?
The Arbite went to consult its data-slate, bringing up the list of all the prisoners that had been contained in this cell. There were four of them, all from somewhere called Dalith IV, and all marked with the gold imperial eagle that denoted highest level security. The Arbite reached for its vox-link.
Something clattered down the length of the hallway and rolled to a stop at its feet.
The dull crump of the grenade echoed weirdly throughout the twisted labyrinth of corridors. The shadowy figure looked up from its work, ducking into a side cavity as a procession of armoured feet thundered by. The figure cocked its head, listening, and then turned its attention back to the control console in front of it, and the bundles of wires hanging out of its rent sides. A few more slices did the trick, and a whole section of the ship suddenly descended into darkness.
The figure moved on, sub-consciously rubbing the massive burn marks that covered its hands.
Blood dripped from the three corpses as the final pair of escapees looked around the control room. None of the workers had managed to get off a warning, of that they were sure, and now they never would. The weapons in their grasp gleamed softly in the low light as the two prisoners checked that they were alone. One of them pitched a corpse out of the control seat and sat down, wincing as the bruises on its chest flashed in pain. He ran his fingers over the keyboard, entering the precise series of commands that would de-activate the ships turret defences. With another series of taps he opened all of the compartment doors separating the escapees from the escape-pod bays.
In the distance, sirens began to whoop.
The four figures met up in the pod bays, stepping carefully over the blasted corpses of the squad of Arbites guards. Normally they would all have felt remorse at killing imperial servants, but their own survival was paramount. Each of them nodded at the other and they all clambered inside one of the large escape-pods, casting nervous looks at the doorway. Even through the six inches of steel they could hear the sound of industrial cutters.
The last figure swung closed the hatch and stabbed down on the launch key. With a sickening sense of acceleration the pod shot out of the launch chamber and into the cold expanse of space. For a moment nothing happened, and then the pods retro engines kicked in, guiding the escapees to the nearest planet with a breathable atmosphere.
Secure in his seat, Pollo checked the guidance computer. The name of the target planet flashed up on screen and he grinned.
What, you didn't think they were actually dead, did you? Anyway, thank you to everyone who reviewed and offered advice as I finally managed to complete my first full story. Right, now where's that list?
Right. Thank you to all of the following: (deep breath)
Vain-Kn1ght, Eristarisis, WedgePalmer, Inquisitor Soarn, Mimus corleone, Kerosene12, DarkElf, Uriel Ventris, Quaker Nuts, W00sha, Jedi Master Sabbath, PlaugeXRoamer, Mala[chaos, Extartius, Death Korps, Riddleindisguise, Ravenor, Ethan56, Tau, Thefallenheart, The Mindwarrior, Fruitcakesofloveandpeace, Tankmaster, Changer of ways, Lasserith, Julian, verystrangest and finally ben.
Also I would like to give special thanks to the following:
Extartius and Riddleindisguise for their constant support and sensible tips.
Thefallenheart for his valued input and ideas.
Finally Eristarisis for his useful tips and support when this story looked like it was going to die.