An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by Darren Davies
Reading Time: 34 minutes
The ship was quiet. Not silent, for it creaked and groaned as power was withdrawn and whole sections of it slowly cooled under the dull red of emergency lumens. She was named the Blade of Hetekon, and she was a wounded beast driven into brooding exile, now just another piece of inert material amongst the rings orbiting the desolate waste of the planet below. Endlessly tumbling pieces of rock and ice occasionally impacted against her cliff like sides as she drifted, though the scratches they made could not be compared with the scars inflicted by recent battles.
Above the bridge, on a dorsal tower standing higher than all but a few on the kilometres long warship, Captain Goronwis of the Shade Reivers Adeptus Astartes stood on a viewing gallery with his arms folded, his dark eyes blinking as he watched rocks glide past. He was unarmoured, dressed in hooded robes over a bodyglove in the indigo blue of the Chapter colours.
All was darkness. No lights dotted the hull of the starship; she was clothed only in slow, creeping shadows. The engines were dead, its corridors and halls filled with hushed quiet. The void beyond echoed the ships state; this far out towards the edge of the system, its star was little more than a pale dot blending in with other faint pulses of light, too weak to illuminate the hard angles of the ships prow or the lines of its stern. For all intents and purposes the ship was alone in the eternal night.
Goronwis heard the whisper of the elevator doors opening and registered a minute increase in illumination, though he didn’t acknowledge any other presence until he saw the faint reflection of the new arrival stand next to him.
“My Lord,” said the newcomer. His breath condensed into mist.
Goronwis pulled back his hood and turned. If the light had been better his skin would have shown up as paler than usual, tinged blue with sustained exposure to cold. “Good eventide, brother Sengredd.” He frowned, then remembered he had requested regular updates. “How goes the repairs?”
“Very well, brother-captain. Considering the damage we sustained, and the requirements to be met, we are currently exceeding the set parameters.”
“None that the enginseers can’t handle.”
“My thanks.” He turned back to their reflections, hazy in the glass, where each looked as if they were children’s ideas of materializing ghosts, indistinct in their dark robes. For a few moments neither moved nor said anything further, until Sengredd made to leave.
“I am curious, brother Sengredd,” said Goronwis. “How did you know where to find me?”
“An educated guess, brother-captain,” said Sengredd. The dim light hid his discomfort quite well. “I was previously attached to Seventh Company, under Captain Vex. It is said amongst the shield-host that you and he are close, and not dissimilar in outlook…”
He stopped when he saw the captain’s mouth twist. His amusement was a quick thing, there for brief seconds before becoming weighed down with the frustration of failure.
“You figured out we’re both miserable bastards who would want somewhere quiet to brood on our defeat, and where would be the best place to do that? The highest, coldest tower on the ship.” He blinked slowly and turned his head away, though the bitterness lingered.
“I mean no slight, brother-captain,” said Sengredd.
“And I took none, brother.” He paused and then spoke again, “Has there been any word from Captain Vex?”
“None, my Lord, but I have complete faith in him.”
Goronwis glanced at him, his eyes like dark, glittering pearls. “As do I. My thanks again for the update. Leave me now.”
Sengredd inclined his head and retreated in soft whispers of robes and quiet feet. The elevator slid shut on his departure, and Goronwis returned to contemplate the silence.
His thoughts drifted and he wondered how long the tower would remain habitable now that power had been redirected elsewhere. He breathed out and watched his exhalation frost in the air before dissipating.
Patience. A chance will come.
His hands bunched into fists at his sides, the only outlet for his anger until he took his next turn in the practice cages, though he stayed where he was until the cold began to bite. When he moved his limbs were stiff and his skin had a brittle feel to it, and he knew it was dangerous to remain. Frost coated his robe, bleaching the cloth so that he appeared luminous.
There will be a reckoning.
As the elevator doors closed about him, it was not the smooth steel that he saw reflected back at him, but empty screens in his mind’s eye that searched for flickers of reaction, while in the cold, cold dark of the void, sensors cast outwards in the hope of detecting a signal.
The Thunderhawk rocked slightly as the atmosphere began to thicken. Far below, the planet was a study in serenity, a glimmering pearl of blue and green wreathed by white cloud across its equatorial latitudes.
At the controls, the pilot adjusted course, and from where he stood at the rear of the cockpit, Alchion Vex blinked as the shadow of the aircraft’s wings briefly obscured his view. As the Thunderhawk levelled out, the velvet black of the void came back into his sight, then began slowly diminishing like a fading dream.
Vex clutched at a grab handle and leaned towards the glass, his expression unreadable. Watching planetfall was an indulgence, he knew, but a harmless one. In all his years in service, the sense of majesty on seeing a new planet for the first time had never left him. If anything, it had grown as he got older and the campaign and battle tallies crept ever upwards. Now, each planetfall came with a shadow that whispered, ‘is this your last?’
They were still too high up for man-made features to be visible, not that there would be many in any case; Almizan III was only recently settled, and through the front viewport of the descending ship, it looked like a perfect model of creation’s art. The blue glow marking the hazy boundary of the atmosphere grew more intense with each passing minute, the fragments of clouds more pronounced. Features of topography became easier to distinguish; the dry ochre of deserts, shadows telling of jagged mountain peaks, the jade mass of vegetation, alluvial fans guiding rivers into oceans. It never ceased to be astonishing, even for one who had seen more than his fair share of bewildering sights.
If asked, he explained that it was a gesture of respect towards the planet he was about to set foot on, and the people he was sworn to defend. It was usually enough.
Vex watched the world grow larger until it filled the viewport entirely, holding his gaze steady and allowing the ghost of a smile to pass fleetingly across his face. When he finally turned away and walked out of the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot exchanged a glance, through both refrained from comment.
In the rear compartment, Vex rode the bumps of atmospheric entry until he reached his seat and strapped himself into the re-entry harness. The seventh company Astartes present were mostly lost in their own thoughts, preparing themselves for what lay ahead, muttering blessings to the machine spirits of their weapons, or completing final equipment diagnostic checks. Few looked up as he passed. Even in the dim light of the aircraft bay they were a magnificent sight as he walked along their ranks, humanities finest warriors resplendent in indigo blue; dutiful and devout, though they were all aware of what awaited them on the surface. Their armour was burnished to a high sheen, reflecting the amber landing lights from every section of ceramite plate. There would be no glory here, but the path before them was a necessary duty they would not shirk.
Vex reached for his helm and placed it on his head. Seals gripped, for a moment isolating him completely, and he bowed his head forward. Yes, it was important to mark each new world, to revel in that beauty even for a few moments, especially a world that would soon be damned forever more, and irretrievably lost.
Governor Foudeln ver Relvin was a large man with narrow features clustered at the centre of a wide face. He slumped in a proportionally sized chair styled much like a throne, running thick fingers across his forehead, before sending them through the thinning hair of his scalp. He gave the impression it was a constant irritation, though he had refrained from shaving his head despite the juvenant treatments required to soothe his vanity not being readily available on the frontier. His robes were rich and flowing, an aspirational choice of attire in line with the growing, bustling city outside. The title he carried, that of First Citizen, was a conceit, both a shroud to truth and duplicitous encouragement to new settlers regarding their potential prospects, and while the title had not been made hereditary, there were few with enough wealth and connections to challenge the established status quo.
Beside the throne First Citizen Foudeln lounged in, the Chief Secretary to the governor waited with apparent patience, listening to the rhythm of approaching boot heels against the wooden boards of the corridor leading to the chamber. Servo skulls hovered close by, their dead gaze swivelling to follow any movement. She watched the shadows of late afternoon stretch across the walls, taking in the indistinct, pleasant scent of drifting pollen while trying to ignore the sour smell of industry worming its way in through windows not quite sealed shut. There were only a few invited to the gathering, and fewer still who could attend at such short notice, but even so, they were not swift in arriving.
“Who are we waiting for, Secretary Narjiam?” asked the First Citizen.
“Major Tyslov of the Astra Militarum,” she replied after consulting with her notes, thankful Foudeln hadn’t started at the khet leaves and barley spirit early today. It seemed he retained enough sense to stay sober until after the council meeting.
Foudeln grunted and rose from the throne. The servo skulls followed diligently as he swept through the meagre congregation to a window, waving a hand to indicate he didn’t wish to be disturbed.
Narjiam followed his gaze across the foliage surrounding the palace into the pale blue of the sky. In the short span of its life as an Imperial World, Almizan III’s small population had begun to peel back the wild layers of the planet, establishing their version of civilization with a speed born of unfettered ambition and a fortitude derived from duty. Walls and dwellings replaced grasslands, smokestacks took the place of trees, transportation links pushed ever further outwards. Almizan was a system desperate to achieve, to become a fully integrated world of the Imperium, rather than a frontier backwater with all the attendant dangers overhanging that state.
Through tumbling years and across generations, the First Citizens had been able to report back to the sector Administratum officials a steady, upward curve of progress and achievement. That had stopped six months previously, when the first earthquake had ripped through the outlying mining settlements of the Western Reach.
“Enough waiting,” said Foudeln abruptly. He turned back to the room, and Narjiam took her cue to activate the hololith table. A slowly turning schematic of the planet flickered into life, disappeared and then struggled back into faded being, casting the assembled faces in sickly green light.
A rumble from the Adeptus Mechanicus delegate, Chymestes Rho-13, indicated a metallic clearing of his throat.
“Latest reports from the Altair Gulf indicate a tsunami has decimated the onshore facilities supporting the rig platforms there, while another earthquake in the Reach seventy three point four hours ago is hampering efforts to….”
“Negative. Most are deceased, and there has been no improvement in astropathic communicative ability from those that remain.”
A stir at the table revealed the arrival of Major Tyslov. He was breathless, and his face was a blotchy mix of flushed exertion and shocked colourlessness.
“My Lord,” he said. “Apologies for my late arrival, but I have received news that couldn’t wait to be confirmed.”
The First Citizen raised his eyebrows in curiosity, though the set of his face indicated irritation. He was chewing at the inside of his mouth, Narjiam noticed, which was usually an indication that his addictions were gnawing at his resolve.
“Speak up then, Major.”
Tyslov cleared his throat. “I’ve just received word the Astartes have landed.”
For a moment, perhaps even less than that, the table went completely silent. Then it erupted into a cacophony. Narjiam moved away from the crowd and tapped the vox bead in her ear, talking rapidly.
“This wasn’t expected. You must have been misinformed, Major, surely we…”
“They landed less than an hour ago, according to the starport officials,” replied Tyslov.
Foudeln swore. “Why wasn’t I told? We must prepare.…”
“That will not be necessary,” said a voice, rumbling deep but clear. With it, everything stopped again. It sent a chill through Narjiam down to her marrow, and she knew who spoke before she turned around.
The speaker emerged with a quiet burr of servos, striding towards the hololith table trailing shadows of evening light from the indigo blue of his ceramite. Heads swivelled up towards him, for with the possible exception of the Mechanicum delegate, he was taller than each of them by a foot and more. His armour reflected the green light from the one source in the chamber, picking out the angles of his plate in sharp relief, and turning the depressions black as night. He lacked a helm, and there were lines on his face and crow’s feet around his eyes that showed geneforgery losing the war against time, and when he spoke there was a weariness in the depth of his voice.
“I am Captain Alchion Vex, Seventh Company, Shade Reivers Chapter, Adeptus Astartes, and I have the unenviable duty of telling you that your world is about to die.”
At the outer reaches of the system, millions of kilometres distant from its star, beyond the heliosphere on the edge of interstellar space, the suffocating black of the void distorted. The darkness rippled as if it were a still pool reacting to a stone being cast into it, the curvature of time and space bending and warping as things emerged at incredible speed from an unimaginable distance. First one, then a dozen more, on and on until tens became hundreds and the hundreds were a horde numbering a multitude of thousands.
They lived, these things.
They were not constructs of cold metal worked by machine or artificer, nor bonesinger coaxed wraithbone grown with psychic precision. They were creatures born in the frigid night between stars and nebulae, some perhaps birthed somewhere in the insane distances between galaxies, their mandibles and tentacles sensitive to stimulate beyond human caring or concern. They were alive, though they did not breathe, and they were a legion numerous enough to block the light of the stars themselves.
There was a uniformity to some of the creatures that Imperial scholars would have used to classify and categorise them, as humans had done with things living and not living since they first walked on two feet, though in truth they were divergent, each unique in its own way as the ships of the God-Emperor were. Some bore scars on their hides from exploding macro cannon shells and lance strikes, while others still leaked fluids that froze in the cold of space.
The vanguard ships were blind, snout nosed things studded with appendages and antennae that writhed as the gravitic forces they had unleashed dissipated into the darkness. As if exhausted from their labours, these creatures slowed and were engulfed by the following hive ships they had dragged along in their wake. Surging ahead like a shoal of fish came the gigantic void whales of the main fleet, leviathans greater in size than even Imperium capital ships, attended by creatures gestated and bred for the specific purpose of killing the metallic vessels of the galaxy they meant to devour.
The hive fleet’s arrival had been foreshadowed. The effects of inbound gravitational waves had disrupted the system in a multitude of ways, though initially none but the Astartes were aware of the cause of the recent natural disasters. Other warnings had been misinterpreted, while some were dismissed as a threat to the normal continuation of progress. Yet more were of no use because of the lack of experience in knowing what they signified.
As the Tyranids emerged into the doomed Almizan system, they moved under a shadow. The psychic chatter of the ships and the billions of creatures they carried communicating with each other was enough to cast a shroud even unto the immaterium. Slowly they moved, but inexorably. In the far, far distance, a light not yet visible as even a pinprick awaited them, and though it would take many months to reach the inner worlds, the hive fleet would not be deterred, nor stopped. Their hunger, their animalistic need to devour and consume, would drag them towards the light of the Almizian sun, and the worlds it warmed, as inevitable as death itself.
Before the Hive Fleet’s arrival, the astropathic choir on Almizan III had puzzled over their messages withering on the vine of their minds as fewer ships had arrived in system, and as their access to the warp became fickle. As the Tyranids entered the system, Imperial officials reacted with horror as several members of the choir died, screaming with their final breathes about shadows in the warp.
The Emperor’s Angels had heeded the first warnings and had sent all they could spare in ships and personnel, allying with the Imperial Navy to bring destruction to the xenos incursion, though as battle blazed in the darkness, the chilling realisation had come over them that their force of arms would not be enough. The Astartes had sent word ahead, but the messages had dissipated into nothing as they fought for their lives, fading into a silence as deep as the void. They knew the size of the task they faced, for they had looked upon the face of the enemy, even though in truth the Tyranids were ultimately unknowable. And so, they had gathered what information they could, cataloguing data with a cold eye even as their passion for battle burned bright.
Disengaging from a fight they could not win, Astartes and Navy starships had scattered with the formulation of a new plan, sending their findings into the night while preparing for another stand. They had learned much and at great cost, and they were determined to share what they knew with the wider Imperium, so that even if they fell, others would be better prepared for the next battle against the aliens.
Then they ran, making with all speed for the inner worlds, to bring what warning they could, and to prepare for the inevitable. The Astartes had even given the hive fleet a name, reaching deep into ancient Terra’s mythology to find a categorization, as was humanities way.
They named it Afanc.
Narjiam looked at the pictscreens lining the walls of the First Citizen’s office. All bar two were dark, their flat surfaces distortedly reflecting her own face back at her. Of those that were active, one showed a fuzzy picture of the palace gates, while the other showed the centre of the city, the picter transmitting the picture escaping harm only by virtue of it being placed so high up as to be unreachable. It showed deserted streets, buildings gutted by fire, and in the far corner, hazy bundles that could not be anything else but bodies.
She didn’t know why she was constantly drawn to the pict screens. The live ones never showed anything very different, and the others had been dark for months. Perhaps it was habit, something deeply engrained that even now made her look for something that was no longer there. She wondered if she would find herself doing that on another world, looking for familiar things that never would be again.
The office was empty but for her, the evening retaining the warmth of the day as the sun set and the shadows lengthened. The few remaining administrators were working on lower levels cataloguing assets, organising the final transportation manifests, and despite the redundancy of the action, burning records. She left them alone; it was wise to be distracted, especially now, at the end.
She closed her eyes briefly, and found one of her hands, callused and lined as it had never been before, straying to the scar at her neck. It ran down across her collarbone and across the upper part of her chest; it was roughly healed, the skin puckered where field surgery had stitched her back together in the wake of the initial riots. Her mind drifted.
Silence. Then pandemonium.
As it had been in the council chamber on that fateful afternoon, so it had been across Almizan III when the news had gotten out. First Citizen Foudeln had initially wanted to supress the news to allow a plan to be formulated, but the Astartes Captain had bluntly informed him that task was already complete and currently being put into action. When questioned about the planet’s defence, Captain Vex had himself replied with queries, asking about the current assets in place and whether the astropathic communications sent from the sub-sector capital on Hetekon had been received, and if so why had nothing been done prior to their arrival? It had subdued the bureaucrats present more effectively than a levelled laspistol.
Along with the others, Narjiam had bridled at the Astartes rudeness and arrogance, but in the months since she had to admit that without them, without their drive and their forcefulness, the evacuation effort might have stalled at conception.
The word had dominated all discourse since the Astartes Thunderhawk had first touched down. The news had not been well received, but Captain Vex had been adamant it was the only sane course of action considering the approaching threat. Narjiam shook her head at the memory of it. In truth, it had not been an offer, nor even a demand. It simply was, and the rage of the bureaucrats had exhausted itself quickly when the Astartes and their allies simply did as they pleased. Captain Vex was polite enough, though until the evacuation was well underway, he had been largely indifferent to anything other than his duty, at least until the riots started.
Of course, as far as information was concerned, the palace walls were as robust as a sponge, and within days news about the coming invasion had leaked out. The reaction had been entirely predictable. Now, the majority of the population was gone, some into the ships in orbit, while others, denying the impending apocalypse with the stubbornness humanity had always reserved for unpalatable news, had disappeared into the empty forests and savannah that covered most of the planet, believing that isolation would save them. Others had become militant, swearing oaths to stand by the Emperor’s Angels of Death and the Astra Militarium until the tide was turned against the foul xenos and victory achieved. The truth of it was there would be no battle, and not all the people could be saved, even if all of them had wanted to be. The release of information thereafter was tightly controlled, and none of it gave the people a full picture, the cynical administratum part of Narjiam knowing full well that the machinations of the ruling elite were less hampered if the populace were distracted and ill-informed. She often wondered if any of them really knew the full truth of the situation.
Her head felt suddenly heavy and the room about her too close, so she made her way through a set of doors onto a veranda atop the palace. The air smelt of smoke as it always did, though it was the pyre smoke of burning buildings rather than the smoke of industry that stretched across the quiet, twilit spires of the city.
Narjiam lost track of time watching the forest branches sway gently in the breeze. Animals called to each other from amongst the trees, some hunting, some hiding. When would those creatures make their last calls, she wondered? Six months from now, a year, two? Would the trees themselves die, and the flies, and the air itself? She knew the answer but still some part of her denied it. The Tyranids were coming, and Captain Vex had explained at length what that meant. Everything would be dust, and the wind wouldn’t even make a sound as it whistled across barren rock exposed to the void. It would be as if life had never existed on Almizan III. The thoughts were too bleak to dwell on, and as a distraction she lit a brazier against the falling darkness and lost herself in her thoughts again until she felt the presence of someone behind her.
“Not now,” she said. She stood at the stone balustrade with her head down. Her hands moved across the pitted surface in slow, near constant motion as if trying to commit the feel of it to memory.
“Apologies for disturbing your meditations, First Citizen.”
She turned quickly, immediately recognising his voice.
The Space Marine stood off to one side. The indigo blue of his armour was a deepening shadow against the falling night, the gold flashes indicating his rank standing out in sharp relief against it. He was far enough away to not appear threatening, though she knew that was a deception. They moved like unleashed lightening when they chose to; she had witnessed it first-hand. Unconsciously, her hand strayed to her neck.
“Captain Vex,” she said, stifling the instinctive fear “You can use my name, I think we know each other long enough now.”
He inclined his head. “You wished to know when the final transports were scheduled. The last one will depart shortly after dawn in two days’ time.”
“If you are agreeable, I will take that one,” she said, and smiled sadly. “It is both my duty and my wish.”
“Very well. I will ensure it is so.” He paused a moment. “Your predecessor would have already left,” he noted.
“That’s one of the reasons the mob made him my predecessor. To be honest with you, I’d appreciate the extra time, it’s a nice evening to think.”
“Loss,” she said, and turned back to the forest.
“It is a hard thing to bear,” Vex said quietly, “But a necessary evil.”
“So you keep telling me.”
She could hear the soft grind of his armour as he stepped closer, and the faint smell of oil mixed in with something less pleasant that she couldn’t place. Vex remained silent, though in her peripheral vision she saw the furrowing of his brow as he came to stand beside her. As if mirroring her pose he placed his gauntleted hands on the stone balustrade.
“You should know, Narjiam…If there were another way, we would take it.”
They turned to regard each other. She met his gaze and held it for as long as she was able to endure the presence behind his seemingly benign pale blue irises. Even still and at ease, the Astartes Captain was a suppressed ball of extreme violence just waiting for the correct moment to be released. Breaking eye contact when she chose to felt like a victory.
“I believe you would, but we can’t even evacuate the whole population,” she said. An unexpected bitterness forced its way to the surface.
“Not all want to leave,” he said, as if the notion were baffling. “Though it is true there is not the capacity to do so, even with the trade fleet at our service.”
“Hetekon couldn’t spare more ships for its colony?”
“We brought a war fleet, First Citizen, not a transport fleet.”
“Then why are you attempting an evacuation?”
Vex said nothing, and in the moments of silence something slotted into place in her mind, a piece she hadn’t realised she’d been searching for.
“There wasn’t supposed to be an evacuation, was there?” she said, surprising herself with her audacity. “I’ve seen the picts of those ships in orbit, Captain Vex. I’ve seen the holes in their sides and the marks along their hulls. I thought that was how Imperial Navy ships were, but I realise now that was just naivety. You already fought the tyranids, didn’t you? You fought them and you lost.”
There was a hollowness in his eyes that deepened with her words, a space where the memory of defeat lingered and uncertainty over battles yet to be fought turned over and over. It was difficult to think of the man beside her, a genehanced transhuman warrior with mental and physical prowess beyond anything she had ever encountered, as vulnerable in any way, yet he seemed somehow lost, as if his singularity of purpose had been denied him.
“It is true,” he said, speaking slowly at first, “I will share something with you, if you have the time?”
Narjiam smiled thinly. “Of course, Captain. I have few enough duties left, and nothing much to do except to wait for the end of the world.”
Vex smiled fleetingly at the gallows humour.
“We can’t defend this system with the forces we have,” he said. His gauntlets gripped the balustrade as he spoke, and Narjiam swore she saw the stone compress as his grip tightened. “As you surmised, we tracked the Hive Fleet, out in void beyond the borders of the Imperium. We engaged them and were repulsed at great cost, both in personnel and in ships we cannot easily replace. As we fell back we took a measure of the enemy, and I do not lie to you when I say that even if we had those lost forces with us now, it would not be enough to save this world.”
“Did you tell Foudeln this?” she asked, imagining the duel in the darkness, the silent flashes of light, the sudden decompression of decks laid open to the void.
“The previous First Citizen was not a man inclined to listen to reason.”
“No, he wasn’t,” she said. “But I see now. There’s no hope, for any of us.”
Vex sighed, turned and looked at her. His eyes, even in the fading light, were the ice blue of glaciers.
“No, First Citizen, I don’t think you do. The truth is this; the threats facing the Imperium have never been greater, not since the arch traitor launched his wickedness at Terra thousands of years ago. Our resources are stretched to breaking point. The Tyranids would require deployment of all our forces and even then, victory would not be guaranteed. It would also leave other areas unguarded. Vulnerable. We are forced to pick our battles, though the choices are difficult.”
Narjiam listened, feeling nauseous as he spoke. In the places where ordinary citizens were taught about the Emperor’s Angels of Death, they were presented as an unstoppable force of nature, an inevitability when it came to the destruction of humanities enemies. To hear one admit that they were…human was something of a shock. Yet there were unspoken things beneath the words, she felt. He was telling her part of the truth, but not nearly all of it.
“Then why evacuate us at all?”
“We exist to defend humanity,” he said simply. “We do everything we can, as far as is practical, in the pursuit of that goal.”
Narjiam shivered at his words, for they contained the cold edge of truth in them. The evening was no longer as pleasant as it had been. “Preservation of resources, then,” she said, the bitterness creeping back. “Almizan is a sacrifice.”
“Yes,” said Vex. He stood straight, and when he turned to her she couldn’t tell how much of the man was lost in the shadows around his eyes “Yes, it is exactly that.”
The end began with a single long range auspex signal finding a mark. The return was processed by the cogitators on board the Blade of Hetekon, and a countdown started towards confirmation of what that initial return had found. Another mark was registered, a low echoing ping across a single pictscreen on a near deserted bridge. A third was registered minutes later. As more came, a threshold was passed and the first of the ships dormant systems began to receive power, starting the process of bringing the vessel back to full battle readiness, while those servitors that had lain dormant began to awaken. The identification procedure itself would not allow notification to be sent to the ship’s crew just yet, as part of a protocol guarding against false positives, but as more returns were registered the cogitator’s count grew until a pre-set number was passed and warnings were flashed through the noosphere to senior members of the crew.
Hours later the doors to the bridge slide aside, and a low wave of light and sound passed over Captain Goronwis as he stepped forward. The bridge crew along with members of his own command staff were already present. The young space marine Sengredd inclined his head in greeting.
He saw cogitator displays light up, symbols and runes blinking from amber to green, red to blue in smooth, reassuring sequences. Beneath his feet he felt the familiar hum of active systems through the deck plates and the tense energy of the bridge staff building as they went about their duties. Servitors squawked affirmations to system capacity norms being reached, and though he could not see it, he sensed the noosphere around them all throbbing with data exchange.
“Engines powered up my Lord,” said the officer of the watch in greeting, “Weapons systems coming on-line.”
“Very swift, you have my thanks. As you were.”
The officer of the watch gave a crisp salute and gave the order to bring the vessel about.
Engines flared plasma into the darkness and void shields lit iridescent with the impact of asteroid detritus as the ships of the Shade Reivers fleet moved out of orbit. Goronwis was certain they had not yet been detected. Their course vectors had been meticulously plotted far in advance and had been continuously verified during the months of inactivity to give them every advantage possible.
Goronwis sat in the captain’s throne and gestured with barely disguised impatience for the waiting menials to attach the cables that would give him full command. The recent inactivity had gnawed at him, and in the silence of the last months, he had stalked the quiet, dimly lit corridors and passageways of the strike cruiser, wrestling with the rage inside. He had narrowed the feelings down to some simple truths. He was affronted, offended even, that the Tyranids had chosen their sector of space to inflict their desolation on, and beside himself with anger that the forces of the Imperium were unable to hurl the xenos invaders screaming back into the night. There was guilt too, a dirty, nagging thing at the back of his mind that reminded him of the consequences of their actions. Their strategy was sound, given the circumstances, and the cold, pragmatic Astartes part of him knew it to be correct. Yet the human part of him rebelled against it, fighting against his reason across the long days of their dormancy.
Now there was a chance for some form of vengeance. They would not get this opportunity again, for the Hive Mind would learn, and adapt, as it always did. He intended to make sure their strike was a crippling one, for this was the final part of the mission, and though Goronwis had no way of knowing if Vex had been successful with the planned evacuation, he had a little faith left.
“Any communication from Almizan III?”
He grunted and turned away.
Hours passed as the fleet made all speed towards the sources identified in the auspex returns, gathering early in attack formation. The bridge became tense as the watch officer received report after report indicating readiness, until at last, returns coalesced into confirmation.
“Dead ahead. Visualise and magnify.”
In front of the command throne, a hololith flickered to life. The velvet blackness of the void appeared, marked by the lights of distant stars. And there, tiny specks yet thousands upon thousands of kilometres away, void whales could be seen ploughing their leisurely course into the systems heart.
“I count no more than a few dozen. Where are the rest of them?” asked Sengredd.
Goronwis ignored him and spoke to the watch officer. “Are these the ones we seek?”
Silence greeted the question. It stretched out, growing to encompass the command group and becoming uncomfortable as cogitators processed information, checking and re-checking readings and statistics.
“Watch officer El-Jibral?” growled Goronwis.
“Affirmative,” came the hurried response. “Tyranid hive ship designation ‘Narvhal’ confirmed. Multiple returns. There are others with them, but the ones we want are here.”
Sengredd looked at Goronwis with a quizzical expression.
“My lord, how does…”
Goronwis raised his hand to prevent any further questions.
“During the invasion of hive fleet Leviathan, the Ultramarines noted that certain Tyranid ships lagged behind the main attacks. They theorised that these Narvhal ships were how the species managed to travel between systems, though they could not find the means for how they did it. Those are our targets.”
Sengredd nodded, and Goronwis could see his mind working out permutations and consequences.
“This system was a lure.”
“Yes,” said Goronwis, unable to keep the relish from his voice. “The Tyranids followed us here, and here we will trap them, by killing their means of escape.”
“They will breed more,” said Sengredd.
Goronwis regarded him with annoyance. “They will, eventually. But this, and the feast we leave them, will buy us time. Time we would not have otherwise.”
Down in the navigation bays, servitors began to chirrup and chatter. A human officer turned and addressed the command group.
“My Lord. The Tyranid creatures are changing course. They know we’re here.”
A second passed before another human officer punched a button, sending the information into the bridge noosphere. He cleared his throat and spoke.
“Firing solutions plotted, sir. We are within range.”
“Open a channel to the fleet.” As the navigation officer nodded confirmation, Goronwis addressed the other captains. “All ships, fire torpedoes on my mark. Full ahead after the initial volley, we finish this before they have a chance to react. Lance batteries to engage as soon as we are in range. Notify fighter squadrons to make ready. There may be other creatures out there.”
He paused and said the word he’d been dreaming of for months.
“Firing, aye,” came the reply, and all eyes turned to the hololith.
They watched the drama play out in silence. The Tyranid void creatures were moving, but they were slow to react to the Imperium’s dagger thrust. Torpedoes exploded on hide and shell designed to contain the excessive conditions of space, bursting them open in blinding flashes of light. Increased magnification showed xenos viscera freezing in the cold as the weapons punctured and tore at the defenceless creatures. Scything beams of light followed, cutting and eviscerating, alternating with exploding macrocannon shells. Fighter and bomber squadrons launched from the Imperial ships hunted for targets. Where there were none, they turned their wrath on the Narvhals and breeding ships straggling in their wake.
In the cold silence, creatures from an unimaginable distance away died.
There were no returns of fire. No bio-plasma leapt across the void, no spines or ether swimming broods were launched, for the Tyranid ships were as good as defenceless. Small swarms of lesser ships were targeted by the fighter squadrons while the larger vessels ignored them completely. The Imperial ships revealed in their superiority, exercising their frustration and vengeance without mercy.
Yet for Goronwis, even as he watched the hive ships die, the violence and destruction felt disappointingly hollow, for all the ruthless thoroughness the Imperial ships brought to their task. For him, the distance of void war where engagements were conducted in volumes thousands of kilometres across made for an emotional detachment that brought little catharsis.
He waited until the lances ceased their strikes and the macrocannon batteries felt quiet, endured the flurry of cheers from the bridge staff as the bomber squadrons reported no further enemies to target, and finally expressed his thanks to Officer of the Watch El-Jibral as the Imperium ships began their turns to run for the systems edge. Then he transferred command and departed the bridge, the Astartes that watched him go knowing where they would find him if they needed him later.
And in the Blade of Hetekon’s highest tower, Goronwis watched the void in silence, for if this was a sort of victory, it was one that felt like defeat.
The water shimmed with reflected sunlight as the tall man walked along the beach. The day had dawned brightly, and a cooling breeze coming in off the sea raised the hairs on his arms. He shivered slightly but consoled himself that he would be grateful for that breath of wind on the journey back.
He was alone on the sand, the swish of his feet and the muted rumble of surf his only companions. The world had been so very busy before the Astartes came, so obsessed with matching quotas and changing the face of the planet to match a distant ideal, that there had been precious little time for anything else. But now the manufactora were silent, abandoned like most of the planet. He shook his head at the thought, glancing to his right at the gentle sea swell methodically pulsing against the white sand.
The most recent settlers had been the first to the evacuation queues, even during the unrest that had followed the First Citizen’s announcements, virtually crawling over one another to be first on the transport ships. It had been pathetic. The descendants of the colony founders had snorted their derision at the news and the unseemly haste that followed it, and in the wake of argument, hyperbole and eventual violence, lines had been drawn that few had retreated from later.
He could even blame the Astartes now that they were gone. They had supported the First Citizen, organised the “evacuation”, as they had called it, and systematically stripped the planet of everything they deemed worth anything.
And during all that time, there had been no sign of a threat at all.
He would never have said so to their face, but he felt the Astartes were not always to be trusted. Their motivations were their own, and sometimes seemed to have little to do with the rest of humanity.
The new First Citizen had repeated the mantra of the old, encouraging people to toe the official line. Leave to Live had been the slogan. She had made a final speech in the week before she left, imploring the remaining people with what looked like real tears in her eyes to go. There was still space on the ships, she had said. Throne alive, it had been embarrassing to watch. But it was done now, and the wave of gang violence that followed the departure of the Astartes ships had killed off most of the troublemakers. Almizan III was a paradise again, and they could rebuild it better than it ever had been before.
The rumble of thunder, when it came, was a surprise. He squinted at the sky, shielding his eyes against the sun as he scanned the pale blue expanse for the source of the noise. It appeared to be a meteorite, glowing with heat as it travelled through the atmosphere. One of the last ships to leave must have jettisoned some cargo that had only now been pulled down by the planet’s gravity.
He walked on, preoccupied with his own thoughts, even though ahead of him, the distant thunder continued, rising and falling in tone. A shadow passed over him as he neared the end of the beach and he cast his eyes to heaven.
The sky was filled with meteorites now, each of them trailing fire burned through the atmosphere towards planetfall. He stopped and stared, his jaw hanging with wonder and a creeping sense of dread. He thought he felt the ground shift and wondered it that was the first of them landing. More cracks of thunder came, expanding across a sky rapidly darkening with hundreds of the falling objects. They didn’t stop while he watched, nor when he turned his back and began retracing his steps. The chill that ran through him as he quickened his steps was not due to the wind, not any longer.
About the Author
Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.