Ice and Starlight
An unofficial Warhammer 40,000 Short Story
Written by D L Summerbell
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Every breath Aramis took spread the ice a little further across the inside of his canopy. Starlight shimmered around the crystals as the crippled ship curved across the heavens. Yet still they grew.
Mechanically, Aramis repeated the ritual of the emergency checklist. He toggled switches he knew were dead. He read aloud the dwindling supplies of oxygen and fuel, although there was nobody alive to hear him. He broadcast the Mayday signal himself, even though it was no more likely to be received than the robotic repetitions of the automated system.
‘Samech Nine Zero Seven, calling all frequencies. Mayday. Repeat, Mayday. Location, Relictus System, Object Five, in orbit. Orbital period, nine hours. Survivors, one. Projected survival…’ he looked down at the gauges, ’71 hours. Limiting factor, O2 supply. Mayday. Repeat, Mayday.’
This finished, there was nothing else to do but watch the ice crystals grow.
A voice crackling over the vox-link jerked Aramis upright.
‘Tsadeh Four Zero Six, calling Samech Nine Zero Seven. Copy Mayday. Our location, Interstellar, Relictus to Deperditus system, transit 15% complete. Request retransmit your location, over.’
‘Samech Nine Zero Seven,’ Aramis transmitted, ‘Calling Tsadeh Four Zero Six. Location, Relictus System, Object Five, in orbit. Mayday, repeat, Mayday.’
Aramis projected a starmap onto the heads-up display, highlighting the Deperditus system. It lay close to the horizon formed by the bulk of Object Five. As his orbit continued, he watched it creep into the hazy outer layer of the gas giant.
The minutes slipped by.
Half the system had vanished before the vox crackled once more.
‘Tsadeh Four Zero Six…’ the voice faded into inaudibility, before returning. ‘…not received. Request retransmit…’ A burst of static erased the end of the message.
Aramis repeated his plea three times, without reply. Four hours later, as Deperditus re-emerged on the upward curve of his orbit, he tried again, focusing the power of the transmitter in the direction the other ship had been heading.
The ice thickened on the inside of the canopy, blurring the starry pinpricks into an indistinct glow.
Shivering, Aramis went through his ritual yet again.
‘…projected survival 57 hours. Limiting factor, O2 supply. Mayday. Repeat, Mayday.’
‘Samech Nine Zero Seven,’ said a voice, crystal clear in his headphones. ‘We note your distress. Coming to your assistance.’
Aramis’s heart leapt within him. So immediate a response, such a clear signal, could only have come from a ship close by.
‘Samech Nine Zero Seven, to unknown callsign. Request identity and location, over.’
‘We are interstellar. Incoming from the…’ the voice paused, as if the name were unfamiliar, ‘Desolatus system.’
Aramis frowned. The voice had sounded so near.
‘Samech Nine Zero Seven, to unknown callsign,’ Aramis repeated. ‘Request identity and ETA.’
The voice, in defiance of all vox etiquette, chuckled.
‘Don’t fret,’ it said. ‘We’ll be with you in sixty hours or so. Seventy at the most.’
Despair flooded back into Aramis’s veins.
‘I run out of air in fifty-seven hours,’ he replied, abandoning protocol himself. ‘Fifty-nine if I can find a functioning suit. I can’t last that long.’
The voice sounded unruffled. ‘Stand by.’
The pict-screen on Aramis’s dash flickered into life. It took him a moment to realise what it was showing him.
‘An extra-orbital trajectory?’ he said aloud, into the vox. ‘Towards Desolatus?’
‘Quite right,’ said the voice. ‘It will bring the rendezvous ahead by ten hours. I trust you have the fuel?’
‘Only just,’ Aramis replied. ‘If I leave orbit, that will be it. None left, even to manoeuvre.’
‘Enough is as good as a feast,’ replied the other.
‘You’re sure of the rendezvous?’ Aramis asked. ‘If we miss it, I’m heading towards a dead system.’
‘We know,’ said the voice. ‘But never fear, we’ll catch you.’
Aramis took a deep breath.
He accepted the suggested trajectory and fed it into the autopilot. The screen indicated that the ship would be approaching the slingshot point in just under twenty minutes.
Coaxing the ship back into life kept Aramis busy, gently warming the engines, bypassing crippled systems, suppressing power surges that threatened vital components. He tried to keep his breathing slow and steady, preserving his oxygen supply as best as he could. He considered scraping the ice off the canopy, but decided it didn’t warrant the exertion.
‘Burn commencing in ten, nine…’ announced the autopilot.
Aramis rested his hands on the control column, staring straight ahead. The shock of the first burn pressed him back in his seat. The second induced a vibration that made his teeth chatter.
Something was wrong.
Straining against the G-forces, Aramis looked down at his instruments. The thrust on B-engine was intermittent, causing the ship to drift off course. He reduced A-throttle and adjusted the controls, steering by his screens. The vibration, and the varying thrust, made it hard to keep Desolatus in his target zone, but Aramis was an experienced pilot. He’d drilled for this a thousand times.
At last, the engines coughed and expired, one after the other. The ship flew on, gliding silently into the void.
‘Samech Nine Zero Seven, to unknown callsign,’ Aramis transmitted. ‘In transit. Heading, from Relictus, Object Five to Desolatus, Object One. Error, plus-minus seven seconds of arc. Request acknowledge.’
The vox stayed silent. Instead, the pict-screen flickered.
The face that appeared was pale and thin, with an aquiline nose and prominent cheekbones. Long, dark hair was pulled back from a forehead marred by a constellation of silver piercings. The face was cold. Arrogant, with a hint of cruelty.
It was also, clearly, not human.
For some time, the human and the alien stared at one another, the one in horror, the other with a trace of amusement.
‘Well,’ said the Drukhari, ‘I am disappointed that we will not meet in person. It would have been… entertaining. But you have helped pass the time on an otherwise dull voyage.’
It waved a hand in a dismissive gesture.
‘Fly on, Mon-Keigh. Explore the stars.’
About the Author
DL Summerbell is a player of Age of Sigmar, and author of Erynost and Other Stories, an accompanying novel to the Realms At War narrative event. Cold Open Stories gave him his first foray into the 40K universe in over a decade, but he’s always had a soft-spot for the PBI, or whatever they call the Guard these days. He has written the short stories New Moon and Yesterday’s News, and collaborated on adapting the latter into a forthcoming audio drama.