Book: Rogue Star
'Helm, seven degrees pitch to starboard! Number three's misbehaving again. Deal with it.
Lucian Gerrit, rogue trader, turned his back on Raldi, his helmsman and resumed his vigil at the bridge viewing port. His vessel, the heavy cruiser Oceanid, felt cold to him. The after-effect, he knew, of so long a voyage through the empyrean to reach this far-flung system at the very border of the Emperor's domains.
A jarring shudder ran through the deck plate, felt in the bones more than heard.
'If you can't compensate for a grizzling plasma drive, Mister Raldi, I can always disconnect one of the waste ingestion servitors and see if it's capable of making a better show of it than you appear to be. Do I make myself clear?
If the helmsman answered, Lucian wasn't in the mood to hear. Though a ship to be proud of, the Oceanid was long past her prime. Even in a space-faring culture in which vessels remained in service for centuries, even millennia, she was old. Her homeport, Ariadne Halo, had fallen to alien attack in Lucian's great, great grandfather's time. All her sister ships were distant memories. She was the last of a long line. Much like Lucian himself, in fact.
Where once a deck crew of dozens had attended to their stations in the crew pit, now half of Lucian's crew were hard-wired servitors, each mumbling an impenetrable catechism of the Machine-God. Vacant-eyed and drooling, each monitored a single aspect of the vessel's running. Vessels such as the Oceanid relied on their like, for many tasks were beyond the abilities of a man to perform. Yet, over the years, the availability and quality of competent crewmen had diminished to such an extent that Lucian was forced to rely on servitors. Though essential in many roles, the hideous machine-corpse custodians were no substitute for a man when it came to obeying orders in a crisis. Each knew only its allotted purpose, and would remain tethered uncaring to its station even were it to burst into flames.
Raldi, one of the men of flesh and blood, rather than carrion and oil, onboard the Oceanid, called out. 'Sir, we're beginning our ran on the rendezvous point. Provided we don't pick up any ionisation we should be within hailing range.
'Well enough, helm. Keep her even.
Once more, Lucian took in the view beyond the armoured port. The nameless star, recorded merely as QX-445-2 on the star charts, cast its wan light, barely illuminating a thick corona of misty stellar dust. Somewhere within that befogged region lay Lucian's destination, the system's only inhabited world: Mundus Chasmata.
Before making planetfall on that forgotten backwater of a port, however, Lucian had first to gather about him his flotilla. The cruisers Rosetta and Fairlight were due to enter range at any moment, but any number of fates could have befallen them whilst traversing the unreal dimension known as the warp. The least of such fates was delay, the worst was too terrible to ponder.
'Surveyor return at three twenty by nine sir! called a junior rating.
Lucian strode to his command throne and sat, reclining in the worn leather seat from which generations of his predecessors had directed the fortunes of the dynasty.
'Punch it up'
A servitor, its eye sockets replaced by data ports from which bundles of cable snaked and writhed, bobbed its head once in response. Half its cranium was replaced by cybernetic implants, the right side of its brain, associated with creativity and emotion, having been cut away, deemed unnecessary by its creators. At an unheard command, the bridge lights dimmed and a revolving green globe of light, criss-crossed by motes of static, sprang into being before the command throne.
Grainy points of light resolved themselves into distinct features. At the hologram's centre sat the Oceanid, all around her banks of pale green and jade stellar dust clouds. Deep within one such bank the position of Mundus Chasmata was indicated by a crosshair, her moons dancing around her. To the Oceanid's stern, an indistinct smear indicated the distant return.
'All engines to idle. Fore thrusters to best speed. Thirty-second burn on my mark.
Lucian's words were relayed through the deck crew to the entire ship. Within seconds, the omnipresent rumble of the Oceanid's engines changed pitch, deepening to a subsonic drone as sweating engineering crews nursed them to idle.
A mournful siren pealed throughout the vessel, echoing down dark and dingy companionways. The mighty banks of retro thrusters mounted either side of the armoured prow coughed into life. The titanic force of the deceleration caused Lucian's head to pitch forward. Raldi barely won his fight to remain standing.
'Station nine! Why aren't the compensators on line?
The servitor at station nine, the position responsible for monitoring the Oceanid's gravitic generators, opened its mouth and squealed a response in garbled machine language. The engine pitch deepened and the bridge lights flickered before Lucian felt the gravity field fluctuate, compensating for the deceleration.
'Better' growled Lucian.
The retro thrusters ended their burn, and with the main plasma drives idling, the Oceanid was eerily quiet. Previously unheard, the groaning and creaking of the ship's metal skeleton was now plainly audible.
'Station keeping please, helm. ordered Lucian, and stood once more, hands clasped behind his back. Now the vessel was still, the hologram grew clearer. Where a single, garbled return had indicated the presence of another ship, or ships, that blob now resolved itself into five, then four, then two distinct points. Hard machine language yammered from the baroque grilles around the base of the projector, and in a moment, a stream of text flowed beside each of the two points. The noise ended at the same instant the text froze. The word 'Rosetta' flashed next to the lead return, 'Fairlight' next to the second.
Lucian released a breath that no one other than himself would have known he was holding. Though the last leg of their voyage had been upon a relatively safe course, warp travel between systems was rarely without incident. That both vessels had evidently arrived simultaneously was testament to the skills of their Navigators, for time within the warp bore little or no relation to that within the physical universe. Every mariner, from the most veteran of ships' masters to the lowliest rating, was well versed in the tales of ships setting out, to arrive at their destination mere weeks later yet having aged decades. Other tales told of vessels that had arrived many centuries late, having spent mere days within the warp, while others still told of vessels arriving before having even set out. The life of a space mariner was one filled with superstition and ritual: they clung with nigh religious fervour to anything that might belay such bad luck.
'Station three, open a channel to Rosetta.
The servitor at the communications station croaked a vaguely human-sounding response, and angry static flooded the bridge address system. Machine noise broke through the static, a random staccato that would establish a secure communications channel synchronised with the systems of the other vessel. A second series of harsh bleeps cut in, the two streams flooding the bridge with arrhythmic machine nonsense. The servitor at station three turned a brass dial, and the two code streams converged until they burbled and gargled in synchronisation.
…id. Repeat, this is Rosetta hailing Oceanid. Holding station at primary rendezvous point, awaiting your response. Repeat, this is-
'Glad you could make it, Korvane. Lucian addressed his son, the master of the Rosetta, 'I trust your journey was a pleasant one?
A moment's delay hinted at the still vast distance between the ships, before Korvane's voice broke through the static.
'Yes, Father. No major problems to report. The new loading crew gave us some trouble as we translated, but once they realised they weren't going home, they relented. Otherwise, a very smooth journey'
'Good. You know how much is hanging on this mission. Any more problems, you know what to do, out'
'Station three. Give me a channel to Fairlight.
The connection established, a new voice cut through the ever-present static and whine of the long-range communication channel. It was that of Brielle, Lucian's daughter, and captain of the Fairlight.
'Fairlight, receiving. Go ahead, Father.
'Anything to report, Brielle?
There was a pause as the transmission beamed across a million kilometres of space, and then the simple reply, 'No, Father. The voyage was pleasantly uneventful.
'Good' Addressing both ships, Lucian said, 'You both know how important the coming negotiations are, so I want this to go without a hitch. We begin our final approach as planned. Form up in echelon to starboard, fifty kilometres separation for the run, down to one on my mark as we close. We have to make this look good. Brielle, follow your brother in as we practised. Do you both understand?
His son replied immediately in the affirmative, but Lucian felt his daughter's terse reply took longer than the communications lag would account for.
The channel closed, Lucian left Raldi with orders to proceed on their course inbound to Mundus Chasmata. Leaving the bridge, he made for his cabin. He passed down ill-lit passageways that had once shone with light reflected from polished brass fittings. In his youth, smartly attired junior officers had hurried along these very companionways, eager to fulfill the captain's orders, but all that had changed.
For millennia, the Arcadius Dynasty, of which Lucian was the latest scion, had penetrated the darkness of the Eastern Rim. His ancestor, the great Lord Arcadius Maxim Gerrit, had earned the favour of none other than the High Lords of the Administratum. His leadership during the Easthead Nebula Crusade was rewarded with a charter to explore and exploit the black spaces on the star charts, to bring the light of the Emperor to the benighted worlds beyond the borders of the Imperium. It was well known that the charter was intended to remove the Lord Arcadius from the circles of power that orbited the High Lords of Terra, lest his successes afford him ambitions incompatible with those of the Administratum, but Maxim was ever a pragmatic man, and established a dynasty that would flourish for the next three thousand years.
The dynasty had hit hard times. Its traditional area of operation beyond the eastern spiral arm had rapidly become untenable. Lucian was in the business of trading, of exploitation, yet where once virgin worlds awaited his vessels, only barren, lifeless planets were to be found. Something was out there, feeding on regions that the Arcadius Dynasty depended upon for its very future.
Reaching his cabin, Lucian heaved open the heavy bulkhead door that would have been attended by a young rating, once. He entered and crossed to an ornately carved, wooden cabinet. Opening its exquisite hatch, he withdrew a small glass and a bottle of thick, golden liquid. He poured himself a shot and knocked it back in one motion. Lucian had little time for the affectations of high society, amongst which amasec was the drink of the so-called connoisseur. Rogue traders, being a unique breed, followed their own heading, and the Arcadius suffered pretension poorly. The coming negotiations would test Lucian's skills and, he knew, his patience, to the limit.
After pouring a second shot of asuave, Lucian crossed to his wardrobe. The coming talks would call not only for diplomatic and trading skills, but also for a display of status. At his approach, a hunch-backed and calliper-limbed servitor glided silently from the shadows, and a baroque-framed mirror as tall as Lucian rose from its hidden recess in the deck. Lucian shrugged off his outer jacket and lifted his chin. The servitor lifted a polished, deep crimson gorget edged with burnished gold, fitting it around Lucian's neck and fastening it across his back. Next, a heavy breastplate was attached, followed by the accompanying back armour. With the addition of similarly burnished leg, arm and shoulder guards, Lucian soon stood arrayed in his ancestral finery.
He regarded himself in the mirror. He was tall at over six feet, powerfully built and heavy set. His face showed age, but few ever guessed his years. As was ever the case with those who spent a lifetime traversing the space lanes, Lucian counted two ages. His objective age, that counted by the ever-constant universe was something approaching half a millennia. His subjective age, the years he actually noted the passing of, was one fifth that. Still, he appeared no older than half a century, for despite the downturn in his fortunes, he had access to surgical treatments about which the common subjects of the Imperium could only dream. Regular juvenat courses held back the years and maintained strength, ensuring that he would guide his dynasty through another century at least, so long as the Arcadius survived the next decade.
His familial armour donned, Lucian nodded as the servitor bowed and lifted before him a delicately carved, wooden case. Lucian would allow none other to handle the contents. Not even his children, until their inheritance granted them that right.
As he laid his hand upon the lid of the case, cunningly wrought gene locks confirmed his identity with a rapid pinprick. Had they detected the blood of anyone other than a son or daughter of his line, deadly poisons would, even now, be surging through his system, cutting synapses and paralysing nerves.
With the lifting of the lid, the stasis field within the case deactivated. He lifted the first of the contents: a medal in the form of a shining star, its surface inlaid with the rarest of precious metals. It was The Ward of Cadia, granted to his grandfather, in recognition of the aid he had leant halting an incursion through the Cadian Gate.
He affixed the gleaming medal to his breastplate and, reaching once more within the box, withdrew a green disc inlaid with golden filigree. The Order of Voss, awarded to his father by the tech-priests of that great forge world in thanks for his aiding their Titan Legions in defence against ork attack.
Next, was a medal of very different design and manufacture, presented to Lucian himself by the White Scars Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes, in recognition for his assistance in the purging of the xenos presence beneath the tunnel world of Arat. It was a hand-carved representation of a snarling, bestial face, a stylised lightning flash bisecting its features.
Half a dozen more gleaming tokens of mighty deeds followed, each afforded their place upon his armour with utmost honour and reverence until but one remained.
Lucian's hand slowed as he reached once more into the case. Even he was given pause by the significance of the last item. Whispering a prayer, he reached within and brought out the pride of his dynasty. Only the Charter of Trade and the banner presented to the dynasty by the Senatorum Imperialis could equal this medal in worth. Awarded to Maxim Gerrit by the High Lords of Terra themselves, for his display of epic leadership as well as personal courage at the height of the Eastlight Nebula Crusade, Lucian lifted the winged medal of the Order of Ollanius Pius. Bearing the golden face of an angelic youth, laurel leaves arrayed across his noble brow, the medal represented the very highest honour a mortal man could earn in the service of the Imperium. Intricate scrollwork beneath the beatific visage bore an inscription:
'Amid the weeping and the woe,
Accursed Daemon remain and rot,
I know thee filthy as thou art,
The words sent a shiver up Lucian's spine, for they spoke of things few men were allowed to know, but his position at the head of his dynasty granted him knowledge that the authorities had few means of barring from him. For most, daemons were the terrifying creatures of nightmares. Real, most certainly, but kept at bay by prayer and the eternal vigilance of the God-Emperor of Mankind. For the likes of Lucian Gerrit, they were the denizens of the empyrean, for vessels such as his must intrude into their realm when travelling between the stars.
The medals affixed to Lucian's crowded breastplate, the servitor appeared once more. It bore a mighty cloak of luxurious fur. The snarling head of a beast of terrible aspect was mounted upon his right shoulder, its huge fore-daws draped across his back and over his left shoulder.
Lastly, he opened an armoured hatch upon the wall. He brought out an antique leather belt. Attached to it was a pair of ornate holsters. The first held a heavy, blunt-nosed pistol, a plasma weapon created for his line by the famed master artificer Ernst Heckler, impossibly intricate devotional text carved upon its every surface.
Lucian lifted the weapon, activating it with the press of a stud and savouring the rapidly rising, near ultrasonic whine that indicated that the weapon's war spirit was content. The second weapon was of unknown manufacture, a pistol-sized device of pure crystal. Violet and blue lights danced within as he hefted it. He knew not who or what had constructed the bizarre weapon, but on many occasions had had cause to thank their skill. The weapon unleashed a blinding ray that interfered with its target's brain functions, reducing him to a gibbering imbecile in seconds, very useful in some of the places Lucian had visited.
He then slid onto his fingers a series of rings, each a cunningly wrought, miniature laser weapon. With luck, such weapons would not be required, but few authorities in the galaxy, short of an Inquisitor Lord or Space Marine Chapter Master, would presume to demand a rogue trader divest himself of his arms. Given the dynasty's standing, he would expect that even they would do so politely.
He regarded himself in the mirror one last time, before striding from the cabin. He would take to his command throne and guide the Oceanid, and with her, the Arcadius Dynasty, to a bright, new future.
The rogue trader flotilla slid through banks of pale green stellar dust, flashes of lightning illuminating them from deep within. Such regions were the stuff of space mariners' superstitions, for they awoke primal notions, the fear of the unknown, and of 'things' lurking in the mist. The vessels navigated by dead reckoning alone, for their augur banks were useless amidst the thick cloud. It was all too easy to become jittery, reflected Lucian, for the surveyor reported all manner of weird returns. Ghostlights they were often called, for they would appear solid and real one moment, only to fade to nothing the next.
Communications too, were troublesome in such a region. Where the cloud thinned, short range, line of sight transmission was possible, but psychic communication was by far more efficient, except that the vessel's telepath was near incapacitated at present: burnt-out, Lucian suspected. The guild had so far been unwilling to replace him, a sore point that would need addressing once the current crisis was resolved.
Lucian watched as the cloud thinned, the system's star penetrating the green murk. The dust parted, and the Oceanid glided clear, gases swirling at her passing.
The view from the bridge was suddenly one of clear space, Mundus Chasmata visible as a black disc eclipsing its star.
Lucian stood, savouring the moment as he prepared to hail Mundus Chasmata's outer defence monitor. He glanced at the surveyor, certain in the knowledge that his son and daughter would be ordering their vessels into formation astern of his own. Two returns indicated they were. Behind them, however, four more returns flashed an angry red. They were set upon a headlong dive towards the Rosetta as she emerged from the cloud, their course indicating but one possible motive: attack!
'General quarters! bellowed Lucian as he took to the command throne. Sirens wailed and the bridge lights flickered off, to be replaced an instant later by the red glow of the emergency lights employed during battle. Lucian wondered how the hell raiders had found his flotilla in deep space. Were they betrayed so soon? He would have to deal with them first, and worry about the details later.
'Helm, on my mark, all engines to ten per cent, new heading thirty to starboard. Comms, give me a channel to my fleet.
The address system chimed to indicate the channel was open. Korvane's voice burst forth, …ur of them one fifty to port, contact in nine. I could do with some help here'
'Do as I say, both of you. On my signal, Korvane, power up and come about to forty-five degrees to starboard. Brielle, maintain your current speed and come about to forty-five to your port. Do you both understand?
Both Korvane and Brielle indicated they understood their father's instructions. He glanced down at the surveyor screen, paused, and calmly ordered: 'Mark!
The compensators cut in an instant late, as the Oceanid decelerated. Raldi simultaneously veered the ship to starboard. The surveyor tracked the Rosetta as she increased her speed, crossing the Fairlight's bow with the four raiders in pursuit. Viewed from the bridge, the manoeuvre was a stately affair, but Lucian knew, a potentially deadly one.
The graceful manoeuvre brought the Oceanid to the attackers' eight o'clock, and the Fairlight to their four.
'Starboard battery aft! Open fire on lead target!
Below decks, the mighty weapons bank locked onto its target: the fast-moving raider closing in on the position the Rosetta had occupied minutes before. The master of the smaller vessel evidently saw his coming fate, but a moment too late. The battery erupted in blinding fire, launching huge, high-explosive projectiles across the gulf of space.
Lucian watched on the surveyor screen as the raider pitched to starboard, a last desperate attempt to avoid the Oceanid's wrath. It failed, as Lucian had seen it would. The salvo struck the smaller vessel amidships, robbing it of forward momentum with such violence that it split into two, its entire prow tumbling forwards whilst its drive section sheered off at forty-five degrees. Even at this distance, the spectacle was impressive, as the plasma core at the heart of the engine cluster went critical, creating a second sun for a moment.
Lucian winced as the explosion flooded his bridge with harsh white light, the viewing port dimming a moment later to compensate. When his vision had cleared, he looked out once more to see the Fairlight opening fire upon the second raider, but this vessel recovered far more quickly than its recently deceased comrade had, evading its former prey with ease.
A veteran of a hundred such skirmishes, Lucian read the raiders' manoeuvres with practiced ease. His redeployment had caught them at the moment they had anticipated easy victory, but their captains were not fools. Even now, they were rallying, recovering from the shock of their prey's counter-attack. They were coming about for a second attack run. Lucian performed a mental calculation: three raider frigates, probably up-gunned, certainly up-armoured, and therefore slower and less manoeuvrable than would ordinarily be the case, and his own vessels: a heavy cruiser and two light cruisers. Under normal circumstances, his small flotilla would have little to fear, but all three of the rogue trader vessels were running at reduced capacity, the sad result of the dynasty's deteriorating fortunes. Now of all times, he could not afford damage to his precious vessels.
His decision reached, Lucian addressed his offspring.
'Korvane, Brielle, as much as I'd savour the opportunity to smear these motherless bastards across space, we have more important matters to attend to. You both set course for the Mundus Chasmata primary at best speed. I'll lead them on to the outer platform. Do you understand?
Korvane was first to answer. 'Aye, Father, I agree. We are best served reaching Chasmata intact.
'Father, we can take them here. I'll hold back and draw them onto your guns. It should only take a single-
'You will not! shouted Lucian, surging to his feet at his daughter's defiance. 'You will set course for Mundus Chasmata Primary as ordered! Do I make myself clear?
His daughter did not reply, but Lucian had his answer as he saw the Fairlight move to come around as per his instructions. Grunting, he sat once more.
Lucian waited until he was satisfied that both Korvane and Brielle were following his orders, before addressing his bridge.
'On my signal, power down to ten per cent, and burn port retros at full for fifteen' Raldi turned his head and opened his mouth as if to speak, but decided against protesting upon meeting Lucian's glare.
The Oceanid shuddered violently as the portside retro thrusters ignited, forestalling the vessel's forward motion and slowly bringing her to starboard. The first of the raiders passed, overtaking Lucian's cruiser before its own captain had time to react. Lucian knew that it would have to enter a long, wide arc in order to circle back: it was out of the fight for some time at least.
The second raider did react to the Oceanid's ungainly manoeuvre, but its captain had evidently misread Lucian's intentions. Rather than compensating for the course change with a similar move, this raider veered to port, the master fearing perhaps that the heavy cruiser sought to entrap him as she had his erstwhile compatriot. The ill-judged reaction cost the raider vessel dear, for she too would be out of the fight while she came about to intersect the Oceanid's course.
The last raider altered her course, finding herself bearing down on the wallowing Oceanid. Its forward weapons batteries opened fire, catching the Oceanid a glancing blow across the dorsal shields.
'Station six! How are we holding? Station six was manned not by a servitor, but by a man, though the rating sported so many cybernetic implants that the external difference was minimal. Lucian reasoned that the shields were generally only needed in an emergency, and had learned through bitter experience that an Emperor-fearing man reacted to orders far better than a servitor under such circumstances, benefiting as he did from a sense of self-preservation that the servitor lacked.
'Nothing she can't handle sir, though the feedback caused some casualties in coil chamber beta.
Lucian wasted no time in mourning the press-ganged scum that toiled in the depths of his vessel. Most would have been executed long ago had not their sentences been commuted to his service.
'Well enough six. Helm, come about to three nine three and all ahead full! Go!
The Oceanid shook as the full power of her plasma reactor was fed to her drive systems. She soon outdistanced the first two raiders to pass her, and only the third remained, though closing, astern.
Lucian activated the holograph, focusing on an area of space only a few thousand kilometres ahead. He saw what he was looking for.
'Helm, we're coming up on Chasmata's outer defence platform. At five hundred, yaw thirty so she passes us to port at around fifty.
A shudder travelled up the length of the vessel, as the raider dogging her stern unleashed a second volley. Lucian looked up, meeting the eye of the man at station six.
'Holding, sir, for now.
'Good. Comms, signal the platform. Let them know who we are. Now would be a bad time for a misunderstanding'
As the Oceanid ploughed on, the defence platform came into view off the port bow. Though not much larger than the rogue trader vessel, the platform bristled with weaponry, from lance batteries to torpedo tubes. The comms servitor had evidently succeeded in transmitting the correct signal. Had it not, those batteries of fearsome destruction would have been opening fire on the Oceanid.
Instead, they opened fire on the raider. The captain of the raiding frigate was so intent upon his prey that he could not have seen his death approaching. It came quickly, in the form of a mighty broadside, macro cannon shells obliterating the smaller vessel in the blink of an eye.
Lucian glanced down at the surveyor to see the rapidly fading debris field spread across the screen. The last two raiders, visible as indistinct returns at the screen's edge, turned tail and bolted. 'Get me a drink', he ordered no one in particular.
Mundus Chasmata's primary orbital dock filled the bridge viewing port. The three vessels had formed up as they closed on the planet, presenting a stately procession worthy of the Arcadius Dynasty. Lucian had awaited the customary picket escort any rogue trader would expect from the port authorities of such a world, but had been mildly surprised and not a little put out when none had appeared.
As the ships closed on the vast, slab-sided orbital dock, its aged condition became apparent. Lucian had visited many such installations, often in a similar state of disrepair, but he thought this one appeared somehow more dilapidated than normal. The armoured skin of the multiple, interconnected domes was pockmarked by centuries of micrometeorite impacts, and entire sections had evidently fallen into disuse. One docking limb appeared entirely open to space, its hatches hanging as if creaking in a nonexistent wind.
Not only was the absence of an escort notable, but Lucian's practiced eye took in every detail of the dock and its environs. All six docking limbs were devoid of craft. No freighters, no system defence boats, no tankers, troop transports or ships of any type were tethered to the station's multiple docking points. No service craft or tugs went about the endless maintenance tasks any other station would demand. No shuttles transported goods and passengers back and forth between the dock and the surface.
This far out on the borders of the Imperium's space, Lucian would have expected some degree of neglect, but not so much, he reflected with growing unease, that the locals would not be sent into a frenzy of activity at a pirate attack so close to their capital.
As the Oceanid came alongside the station, Raldi expertly guiding the heavy cruiser to within a mere twenty metres of the allotted docking arm, mighty docking clamps reached out to grasp her. The metallic clang echoed through the vessel as cursing crew chiefs harangued press-ganged crews to make her fast. The Oceanid became a hive of activity as Lucian prepared to go ashore. The talks would have to wait, his flotilla had been attacked. A fine welcome to the Eastern Rim, he thought.
The airlock portal swung open, acrid gases venting from corroded grilles with an angry hiss. Lucian stepped through, and set foot upon the Mundus Chasmata orbital primary. The hall ran the length of the docking limb, airlocks identical to that he had just exited situated at regular points along its length. The occasional longshoreman went about his business, but where Lucian would expect to be confronted with heaving crowds of dockers, an eerie quiet was all he found.
The deck below his feet was rusted and uneven, and heavy chains dripping with toxic run-off swung, unused, from the high, vaulted ceiling. His footsteps echoed the length of the hall, and the lighting flickered erratically. The stink of sewage and pollution assaulted him. He had smelled worse, he reflected, but not outside of the grave-mires of Quillik V.
A high-pressure hiss and a tortured, metallic squeal sounded from the far end of the hall. As banks of gases cleared, Lucian caught sight of him. Although outwardly his father's son, Korvane carried himself entirely differently, his mannerisms those of his mother's people: studied and reserved, haughty and cold.
'Father. Korvane bowed stiffly at Lucian's approach. 'I greet you with glad heart.
Ignoring the formality of Korvane's greeting, Lucian embraced his son in a vigorous bear hug, causing the younger man to stumble as his feet were lifted from the deck. He had not set eyes upon either of his children in long months.
'Glad heart indeed. Are you well?
'I am well, Father. I spent the bulk of the last leg studying the archives. Chasmata's ruling class has a fascinating range of ceremonies. We would do well to remain on our guard around these people'
'Huh. Lucian grunted. 'You're new to this business son, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. I've engaged in talks with men and with abominations, and there's only two ways of dealing with either. You take control of proceedings, blustering your way through as if it's all second nature, or, you keep your eyes open and your mouth shut until the moment comes to take control. How do you think your grandfather got past the Cambro Huthans? How do think old Abad sidestepped the Argent Protocol, or the Hyburian Interdiction?
Korvane nodded, though he looked far from convinced.
'That's how business gets done out here son, and don't you forget it' Lucian turned as he heard a second airlock vent its noxious gases into the hall. A figure emerged out of the clouds.
Where Korvane outwardly resembled his father, but mirrored his mother in comportment, Lucian's daughter Brielle was the exact opposite. Although not tall, Brielle carried herself with a confidence bordering on aggression. Her features were brooding and dusky, and she wore her black and purple-dyed hair in the complex braids of her mother's people: the highborn clans of the feral world of Chogoris. Her features were her mother's, but Bridle's manners were akin to Lucian's, for she radiated the same air of professionalism that a rogue trader depended upon to prosper in their hostile world.
However much Lucian loved his daughter, a gulf existed between them. The elder of his offspring, Brielle had been raised to assume the leadership of the Arcadius Dynasty one day. Yet, with times so hard, Lucian had entered into his marriage of convenience with Korvane's mother. It was a business deal, one he had entered as he would any other transaction. Korvane's mother gained the status that marriage into a rogue trader dynasty afforded, and the Arcadius, through Korvane, would, upon her passing come into a substantial inheritance and thus secure their future.
Although the Arcadius would ultimately be saved from slow extinction, Brielle had been robbed of her claim to the leadership of the dynasty. The terms of the marriage demanded that the first male child of the union would inherit both his mother and father's titles, and so Brielle had been passed over in favour of her stepbrother. The two barely spoke, and when they did, it was inevitably in words of remonstration. When angered, Brielle had the temper of her mother's people as well as their looks, and combined with Lucian's directness, tension between the siblings bubbled constantly below the surface.
'Brielle, I'm so glad to see you. Lucian said. She responded by placing a cold kiss upon his cheek, but showed no sign of familial affection.
Realising that he would get little more from his daughter, Lucian determined to continue regardless. He had a dynasty to save, and no amount of childish sibling petulance would stand in his way.
But before the trio set off for the surface, Lucian intended to pay a visit to the harbour master. Someone would answer for the attack on his vessels, in the supposedly secure inner reaches of an Imperial system.
'What on Sacred Terra do you mean "outside your purview"?
Lucian, flanked by his offspring, dominated the cramped office of the harbour master of the Mundus Chasmata Orbital — the space station through which all traffic to and from the world's surface had to pass. He loomed over the adept's wide desk, sweeping aside rolled parchments and toppling a stack of cargo manifests. They had arrived unannounced, Lucian pushing his way contemptuously past the attendant who had attempted to inform him that the master would not be receiving callers for another three years at best. If he wanted to expedite the process, the functionary had spluttered, Lucian would need to complete an Application of Extraordinary Exception, in triplicate.
Lucian had insisted, quite forcibly, that the lackey contact his superiors on the surface, before confronting the harbour master himself.
'Our system monitor boat is currently, er, out of system. That you recklessly drew your attacker onto the defence platform's guns is not my responsibility. That platform has not been required to fire its weapons in three centuries, sir. The expended ordnance will be replenished at your expense.
'Wait a moment' Lucian was losing patience with the harbour master. 'That my ships were attacked in your system is not your fault, because your system defence boat was not present, defending its system? If I understand correctly, you expect recompense for the shells fired by your system defence platform? Shells fired whilst performing its sacred duty of defending its system?
'Sir, I suggest you familiarise yourself with the terms of the Pax Chasmatus, chapter seventy-nine, verse one hundred and thirty-
'Emperor's balls! I've heard eldar make more sense than you! Give me clearance to make planetfall before I do something you might regret.
'I'm afraid, sir, that I cannot do that. As I said, it is outside my purview. The dictates of the Pax Chasmatus state that you must await the next shuttle. You may not travel to the surface in your own vehicle'
Suspecting he would not care for the answer, Lucian asked, 'And when is the next shuttle scheduled to arrive?
'Three months from now. The waiting chamber is located on level Gamma Twelve, Sector Nine, past the containment chambers, on the left'
Lucian's right hand moved to the holster at his left hip, that holding the, non-lethal, neural disruptor. He thought better of the act, however. His hand moved instead to the, highly lethal, plasma pistol held in the holster at his right hip. Before his hand reached the holster, a metallic chime sounded from a brass grille set into the harbour master's desk.
Cautiously, the man reached across to open the channel. 'Adept Telsi? He cleared his throat with a nervous cough. 'Go ahead'
A tinny voice squawked from the grille. It was the harbour master's functionary, and he had received a reply from the message Lucian had insisted he deliver. The hint of a smile appeared at the edge of his mouth.
'I take it the shuttle's schedule is not quite as inflexible as it may at first have appeared? He leant over the desk once more, making an exaggerated show of tidying the paper strewn across it.
The harbour master bristled at the sight of the rogue trader interfering with his paperwork, but held on to his composure. Yes sir, bay Alpha Six, three hours. The waiting chamber is-
'Past the containment chambers, on the left' Lucian growled, before turning on the spot and sweeping out of the harbour master's office. Brielle winked at the man and turned to follow her father. Korvane snorted contemptuously and followed them both out.
The descent from orbit took only thirty minutes, and soon the shuttle was screaming through the night skies of Mundus Chasmata. Lucian looked out through the armoured porthole, seeing the distant horizon lit smoky violet in a predawn glow. The shuttle was shabby and ill-maintained. The three rogue traders had been forced to share its sparse passenger compartment with a handful of menials and petty administrators, second assistant-under-deputy clerks, he judged, no doubt returning to the surface following their long, tedious and mind-numbingly boring work rotations aboard the orbital.
As the shuttle crossed the world's terminator line, the landscape below became visible. Although a world of myriad terrain types, from high altitude, sub-zero polar oxide wastes to inland seas of stinking ammonia, the predominant feature of Mundus Chasmata was the deep scars gouged out of its crust in its distant pre-history. These formed kilometres-long, kilometres-deep gullies, although most were little more than a few dozen metres across.
'Wouldn't want to get marooned here. said Brielle, her statement echoing Lucian's thoughts unerringly. Even if you survived a crash, he knew, you'd never make it to civilisation. The densely packed chasms would claim anyone foolish enough to attempt crossing them.
Korvane had been poring over a data-slate, which he now handed to his father. Across its monochrome green and black screen scrolled reams of data. Every detail from average rainfall to import/export figures was covered. Lucian called up a summary.
The world of Mundus Chasmata was colonised, the data-slate reported, at an unrecorded date prior to the thirty-third millennium. That hardly surprised Lucian, for most such civilisations he had visited predated the Imperium of Man by many thousands of years, although few records preserved any more details than the name of a founding dynasty. The world's population was just over the one billion mark, a figure consistent with many similar worlds. Lucian had visited agri-worlds farmed by machines whose human populations were counted in the hundreds, and hive worlds where billions crowded into kilometres-high spires. The Imperium was nothing if not diverse.
The system's location at the borders of human space put it at risk of alien predation, and this far out it could count little on aid arriving in time to save it in the event of attack. Aside from the irregular visits of lone Imperial Navy vessels on long-ranged patrol, Mundus Chasmata could look only to itself for defence. One in ten adults were therefore required to serve in the world's Planetary Defence Force, an institution that had, on four recorded occasions in the last three centuries provided troops for the Imperial Guard.
More text streamed across the data-slate's screen. Mundus Chasmata vied with its neighbour Arris Epsilon, located at the opposite extreme of the Timbra subsector, for what little trade the region would support. The planets of this lonely area were, by necessity it appeared, largely self-sufficient. They had little contact with the Imperium, and little to offer it in terms of resources. That was what made the planet's ruler's offer too promising to pass up.
A hereditary noble class, purporting to have its roots in the world's founding, ruled Mundus Chasmata, the Luneberg family, headed by the present Imperial Commander, Culpepper Luneberg the Twenty-ninth, lording over their world as a private fiefdom. Indeed, so long as they paid the Imperium its tithes once in every generation, that was exactly what it was. Mundus Chasmata appeared to be the perfect place to do business of the type that the Imperium at large might not look upon too kindly.
As the shuttle banked over Chasmata Capitalis, the world's first city and its seat of government, dawn broke. The light was the colour of honeyed gold and high clouds of deep red scudded across the sky.
The city sat at the centre of a wide, flat plain, Lucian had seen similar sights, and hazarded an informed, if unsubstantiated guess that it was the very spot at which the world's first colonists had made planetfall. If so, its original construction might have proceeded along prescribed lines, Chasmata Capitalis subsequently sprawling in all directions, as many such cities were wont to do two or three generations after their founding. Lucian caught a glimpse of distant hydroponics domes at the city's outer edge, although the shuttle changed course before he could examine the curiosity further.
The shuttle's final approach brought it low over what appeared to form the city's merchant quarter. Rendered the colour of tarnished gold by the light of Chasmata's star, Lucian identified the buildings as representative of the Late Declivitous style, a typically ornate school of architecture seen across the quadrant and beyond. The streets were tightly packed together, ground vehicles visibly competing with the pedestrians who crowded their markets and bazaars. Atop the tallest buildings nested mighty defence laser batteries, although it took Lucian only a moment to decide that they were inert and neglected: a sorry state of affairs indeed, inviting to Lucian's mind pirate, or alien attack.
At the last, the shuttle screamed in over the city to circle its main landing field. Its thrasters kicked and bucked as they arrested the transport's momentum, the pilot easing it down to the armoured landing platform with only a slight jarring. Lucian stood from his grav-couch as the ramp at the end of the passenger bay lowered. It hit the landing pad's surface with a metallic crash, the world's air flooding into the cabin. Lucian stood at the top of the ramp, flanked by his offspring. A cloaked figure at the head of a column of heavily armoured soldiers waited at its base.
Lucian stepped out to the top of the ramp. He saw that the landing pad was one of several dozen, raised high above the city upon ancient stilts. Beyond these, he could see the ancient city, its buildings clustered together haphazardly, and in the middle distance the great bulk of the Imperial Commander's palace.
'My Lord Arcadius' spoke a figure at the base of the ramp, the mouth barely visible beneath the hood. 'In the name of my master, I bid you welcome to our world'
Having gained his bearings, Lucian strode down the ramp, the scant seconds it took him to reach its base used to the full. He took in the scene before him. The figure that welcomed him appeared to be some flunky, for he wore simple functionary's robes, adorned with little in the way of frivolous ornamentation, unlike the troopers arrayed in two long lines behind him. These were, no doubt, the household guard, for their sturdy carapace armour, probably imported at great expense, marked them above the common Planetary Defence Force conscripts. White armour, edged with gold, shone hazily in the thick morning light. Tall, white feathers were attached to the helm of each, and reflective visors covered any hint of facial expression. The troopers bore long-barrelled rifles, a glance at the stock revealed to Lucian a power pack of unfamiliar manufacture, although he judged the weapons to be some form of ceremonial hunting rifle. Very pretty, and very expensive, Lucian thought, but not a whole lot of use in a real fight.
With a thud, Lucian's heavy boot heel made contact with the platform's armoured surface. He stood before the functionary and addressed him in the voice he liked to use to impress the locals.
'Please convey to your master my thanks for his hospitality. I greet you in the name of the Arcadius.
The rogue traders had been led from the landing platform, through the merchants' quarter and to the outer reaches of the vastness of the governor's palace, accompanied all the while by ranks of marching household guard. The palace itself must have been one of the oldest structures in the city — indeed, on the world — for its every surface was layered with strata of dust. Heraldic banners made tattered and threadbare by the passing of millennia lined its long passages. Electro-lumen flickered and guttered in the high, vaulted ceilings, where vat-grown cyber cherubs capered in and out of the shadows. Parchments and prayer strips were affixed to every surface by great gobbets of sealing wax, endless votives imploring the God-Emperor for His mercy and blessings. As the group neared the centre of the palace, the character of the place changed. The atmosphere became thicker, somehow heavy, as if made sluggish by the weight of ages. Incense cloyed at the nostrils, but the scent failed to mask the fact that the exact same substance had been burned, day in and day out, for uncounted centuries. The high ceilings were waxy with its build-up. Statuettes and gargoyles crowded point-arched recesses, gold leaf skin peeling from their every surface. Cables snaked across walls and along floors, laid reverently, but with little in the way of art or understanding. Small scrips attached to terminus points indicated the identity of the technician, and the date he had attended to his labour. Many such cables had been laid many centuries in the past, and when severed had had more prayer seals applied, so that the most damaged formed riotous, fluttering garlands draped across the walls.
As the group came upon the regions of the inner palace, a flock of servo-skulls joined them. The actual skulls of the most favoured of the Imperium's servants, these were preserved after death and implanted with all manner of machine devices, in order for the previous owner to go on serving his master long after his passing. A rudimentary machine spirit guided each, causing it to hover at shoulder height upon tiny anti-grav generators. The lead servo-skull was fitted with a heavy bronze bell, which it visibly laboured to hold aloft whilst it veered from left to right, its ringing preceding the rogue traders as diey progressed down the dusty corridors. Another sported a large, mechanical eye that clicked and whirred as its lenses adjusted, hovering right at Lucian's shoulder and evidently recording or examining him for some unknowable purpose. Another had attached to it a set of miniature, crab-like pincers, with which it dived to grab tiny, perhaps imagined, impediments to the group's progress, whilst the last appeared to sniff at the rogue traders through its bony cavity of a nose.
Finally, the procession reached the atrium of the inner hall. The mighty brass doors that led into the governor's audience chamber dominated this area, their tops lost ten metres or more above in the incense-bound shadows of the vaulted ceilings. Scenes from legend were carved in bas-relief upon the doors' surfaces. The Emperor stood astride a globe, his sword arcing to hack at the neck of a writhing serpent. Lucian had viewed many such scenes on his journeys, but they never failed to move him: the sight of the most holy of men to have lived, sacrificing all, that mankind might survive in a universe set upon nothing less than his destruction. Lucian was a rogue trader, he well knew the meaning of this.
As the last of the household guard formed up in parade ground precision at either side of the trio, the functionary addressed the rogue traders.
'Are you ready my lords?
Lucian turned to each of his offspring, Korvane indicating his eagerness for the coming proceedings with a bow of his head, Brielle hers with a wry smile.
'Well enough' Lucian inclined his head to the degree required by protocol, indicating to the functionary that the rogue traders were ready to meet with the Imperial Commander of Mundus Chasmata.
The functionary activated a mechanical device hidden in the depths of his cavernous sleeves. An instant later, mighty pistons at either side of the portal strained until the forces required to haul open the vast doors were achieved. Clouds of choking dust billowed at the doors' passing, a signal to Lucian that they had not been opened in some considerable time. A sure message, Lucian noted, that the group passing through was to be received in honour.
The doors swung fully open, and Lucian and his children saw for the first time the audience chamber of Culpepper Luneberg the Twenty-ninth, Imperial Commander, upon the soil of his own world second in authority only to the High Lords of Terra themselves.
The group found itself stepping out onto a landing, an expansive space to the top of a vast flight of stairs. These swept down many hundreds of steps to a wide floor, and beyond that another raised area appeared to house Luneberg's, currently empty, throne. The entire area was enclosed in a chamber several times taller than it was wide, and vast pillars of stone supported a roof that was entirely lost to the eye in shadow and incense haze. Every surface was caked in pealing, tarnished gold leaf, dust of countless centuries built up in drifts and tumbling in powdery falls from recesses. Gossamer webs, presumably those of spiders, or some local equivalent, stretched from one leering gargoyle to the next, the light of hovering electro lumens twinkling where it reflected off the thin, silken strands.
Lucian strode to the top of the stairs, taking a moment to cast his glance around the vast space. The hovering lights swarmed the chamber, their flight describing random patterns across the space and creating bubbles of flickering yellow light within the gloom. The floor at the bottom of the steps appeared crowded with figures, although Lucian could make out scant details from his position.
So far, little of what Lucian had seen surprised him in any way. Being a rogue trader, he and his kind occupied a unique position within the upper echelons of the Imperium. Unlike the teeming billions of Imperial subjects crowding the million and more domains of the Emperor's rale, rogue traders had cause to escape the worlds of their birth and go forth to visit others. Most worlds in the Imperium were largely self-sufficient, or at most inter-dependent with others in the immediate region.
It was only the most privileged who would ever leave his world, unless he was conscripted into the Imperial Guard and sent to fight some far-away war, never to return home again. Rogue traders carried their Charter of Trade as a badge of office, with it gaining entrance to places others would be executed for visiting. Lucian had participated in the ritual currently playing out on scores of occasions. The places and the people differed, as did the grandeur of the surroundings, but whether mud hut, rad-shelter, chapel-city or xenos-nest, the pattern was invariably a familiar one.
Half way down the flight of stairs, Lucian was able to discern some details of the milling crowds at its base. The courtiers, for Lucian could now make out that these people were at the least minor nobility, wore elaborate costumes of the most rare of materials, but the fabrics were faded and tattered, as tarnished with age as the architecture all around. At his approach, periwigs turned, small clouds of powder or dust, Lucian was unsure which, puffing around the nobles' heads and causing them to cough demurely. The women wore their hair in elaborate steeples, but rogue strands lent them a bedraggled appearance quite at odds with the pomp and ceremony of the event.
Approaching the bottom of the stairs, Lucian could now examine in closer detail the nearer of the courtiers. Many wore exquisite jewellery, tiny gems that twinkled and cycled through all the colours of the spectrum. Lucian supposed they may be some locally manufactured curio, but had an inkling they were procured off-world, for Chasmata was not known for the manufacture of such fine jewellery, had it been so, he would have known. Many sported bracelets and necklaces fashioned from some unfamiliar resin or ceramic, again, unlikely to be of local pedigree. He examined the faces even closer. Both men and women appeared bored, as if the proceedings unfolding around them were in some manner tiresome. Was this some highborn affectation? Lucian had certainly encountered those who feigned haughty disinterest in the goings-on around them, but rarely in an entire crowd of people. He sought to make eye contact with those closest. A nearby man turned away from his gaze as soon as he met it. A woman fluttered spidery eyelashes before turning pointedly to engage her neighbour.
As Lucian and his offspring stepped on to the wide, polished floor, the functionary still following a polite distance behind, the crowd of milling courtiers slowly parted, creating, as if by coincidence, a clear route to the podium housing Luneberg's throne. Definitely affectation, Lucian decided, these people were evidently masters of highly refined, and completely manufactured disinterest. Though they showed no outward interest in the rogue traders, Lucian saw that their movements betrayed exquisite and, no doubt highly choreographed ritual.
Heads turning away at their passing, the trio approached the high throne, and stood before it, as a hush descended upon the chamber.
The robed functionary stepped forward, ascending a short flight of stairs at the side of the podium. He pulled back his hood, and turned to address the chamber at large.
'My lords! his voice rang out loudly, picked up, Lucian guessed, by the servo-skulls orbiting the podium, and amplified by speakers lost amongst the statuary. 'All will heed the coming of our liege, Imperial Commander Culpepper Luneberg the Twenty-Ninth!
At these words, every perfumed hairpiece in the chamber turned towards the podium. Previously vacant faces showed sudden, near rapturous attention. The shadows at one side of the raised area stirred, and Lucian received his first glimpse of the Imperial Commander of Mundus Chasmata: the man with whom he had come to do business, the man on whom the survival, for the next decade at least, of the Arcadius might depend.
A massive figure stepped from the shadows. Culpepper Luneberg the Twenty-Ninth was almost as wide as he was tall, and radiated a palpable aura of authority.
'Culpepper Luneberg, Lord of Mundus Chasmata and the three Dominions!
Lucian took the measure of the man who ruled this world. As large as he was, Lucian judged it was not all the fat of the idle rich.
'Culpepper Luneberg, Commander-in-Chief of the Legions Chasmata!
He wore a uniform of exquisite cut. Gold braids edged his heavy, long, black velvet coat, its high collars fluted behind his bald head.
'Culpepper Luneberg, twenty-ninth in the most noble line of Harrid!
He wore more medals than Lucian did, and the epaulettes upon his broad shoulders made plain that he held the highest possible military rank.
'Culpepper Luneberg, Son of Boniface the Just'
As Luneberg approached his throne, every step in time with the recital of his status, a cavalcade of followers emerged from the shadows behind him.
'Culpepper Luneberg, Deliverer of the Outer Nine!
A line of women, courtesans Lucian saw immediately, followed in the Imperial Commander's wake. Each wore little more than an elaborate, tall, teetering white hairpiece, their bodies accented by the same multi-spectral jewels sported in far more modest quantities by the courtiers.
'Culpepper Luneberg, Scourge of the outcast Janykho!
Luneberg reached his throne, and lowered himself into it with a grace that belied his bulk. His harem arranged itself languidly at his feet, each courtesan reclining with an expression of studied disinterest that made the courtiers' appear positively amateurish. So distant were their expressions that Lucian briefly entertained the notion that they might be drugged, or perhaps even lobotomised, it certainly would not be the first time he had encountered such.
Silence descended once more. Although mere seconds in duration, the interval seemed to last an eternity. Eyes open, mouth shut, Lucian reminded himself, and was rewarded for his patience as, for a second time, the functionary addressed the chamber.
'My lords! The crowd's attention switched to the functionary once more. Luneberg, who had thus far paid no visible attention to the proceedings, turned his head and nodded subtly to the functionary. 'I present to you, the Lord Arcadius, Lucian Gerrit!
Every head in the chamber turned towards Lucian, sudden fascination writ large across each face. It was as if the crowd had noticed them for the first time. Men bowed in salute, women pouted behind quivering fans. The transition was quite startling, and Lucian struggled to retain his composure lest the slightest hint of surprise cross his face and insult his host.
Luneberg turned from his functionary to look directly at Lucian. His courtesans, suddenly attentive, leaned forwards, dark, predatory eyes and parted lips betraying no-doubt feigned attraction.
Luneberg spread his arms wide. 'Let the talks begin!
'Archeotech? You're sure?
Luneberg had led the rogue traders straight to his private audience chamber, displaying a haste to dive into negotiations verging on what Lucian considered impolitic. Furthermore, Lucian noted straight away that the Imperial Commander appeared unwilling to trust even the slightest detail of the talks to a chancellor or attendant. So be it, Lucian had thought, we'll do things his way.
Lucian leaned forwards in his seat, his elbows resting on the ancient wood of the table. Across from him, a gaggle of powdered flunkies crowded around to attend their master as he held court. Luneberg waved off a fussing servant.
'Quite sure. My agents located the source whilst pursuing privateers in the employ of a troublesome neighbour. I have since entered into an arrangement with the… locals, and opened up a trade route.
Lucian's interest was piqued. So, Luneberg had come into a supply of ancient technological artefacts pre-dating the Imperium. Known as archeotech, Lucian knew, as only a man of his station could, that such items were the remnants of the first wave of human colonisation of the galaxy, leftovers from a golden age long lost to the men of the forty-first millennium, and valuable beyond measure or imagination, even his.
He glanced towards Korvane, and then Brielle, glad to see that both were keeping a straight face, before continuing.
'So you have a supply- Lucian said, 'but you need a broker, someone with the contacts to turn that supply into demand.
Luneberg lifted a wide, balloon-shaped glass and took a hefty swig of what Lucian saw was imported amasec of middling pedigree. 'Quite so, my dear Lucian. I offer you exclusive brokerage. Name your rate.
Now it was Lucian's turn to feign indifference. Behind his neutral facade his mind raced, calculating a thousand and more possibilities, a steady supply of archeotech that he and he alone could sell on to those who had an interest in such things. It was in total contravention of the laws of the Imperium of course, but Lucian was a rogue trader, and to all intents and purposes above such constraints. On many occasions that an Arcadius had conquered a new world, certain items of 'specialist' interest had found their way back to the Imperium. Many and varied were those who would pay extremely well for pre-Imperium or xenos artefacts, ranging from the arcane researchers of the Adeptus Mechanicus to the highborn dilettantes for their private collections. Such an enterprise might save the Arcadius from short-term bankruptcy, keeping them afloat until Korvane came into his inheritance.
'Thirty-three per cent, to be reviewed after the first shipment, I collect'
Luneberg placed his glass on the table before him, his movements calculated and deliberate. He made a show of studying the vessel for a moment before replying. 'Twenty-five, and you don't.
Lucian had known that the Imperial Commander would never accept his opening offer, but was curious as to how he would react to Lucian collecting the artefacts himself. Would he try to protect his source, did he trust Lucian enough to factor it into the deal?
'Thirty. I collect. Lucian heard Korvane cough at this. His son was no doubt trying, in his way, to warn him against pushing Luneberg too far. Korvane knew as well as Lucian how threatened the dynasty's fortunes were.
'I see you for a man who trusts only his own skill, Gerrit, and I can sympathise entirely. The burden of command of a world of the Imperium is perhaps not so different to your own position as head of your dynasty' If Luneberg was trying to get a reaction out of him he would fail, thought Lucian, although, despite himself, he felt his hackles rise.
Luneberg leant forward, locking eyes with Lucian. 'Twenty, and you may collect. That's my final offer.
Lucian held the Imperial Commander's gaze, acutely aware that his son was squirming with discomfort at the deal on the table. 'To be reviewed upon the first collection'
Luneberg raised his glass. 'To be reviewed upon the first collection'
'That's it, Father? Korvane almost stumbled as he ran to keep up with Lucian as he strode to the waiting shuttle. 'That's the negotiations over?
Lucian halted, turning to face his son in one fluid movement. 'Over? No son, that's just the beginning. Even now, we're deep in negotiations. What you just saw were only the opening moves. Luneberg's up to something. I know that, and he knows I know that. Depending on what we bring back from the first run, that's when we really start doing business'
'That's why you refused to be drawn on us collecting the goods? Korvane asked as Brielle caught up with him and her father.
'Correct. So long as he's open to reviewing the deal after the first run, I don't care what margin we make at this point. I need to ascertain exactly what we're dealing with before we make any commitments. Luneberg knows that too, so he's letting us do things on our terms for the time being'
Korvane considered this, while Brielle asked, 'Does he know what he really has, with this so-called archeotech?
Glad that at least one of his offspring was paying attention, Lucian said, 'I suspect not. Most likely that's for us to worry about. If we find he's on to something good, he'll know that by our negotiating stance.
Brielle nodded, her face thoughtful as a gentle wind stirred her long black braids. For an instant, Lucian was reminded of her mother. He dismissed the image as soon as it appeared in his mind.
As the breeze built, the three boarded their shuttle, to return to the orbital and their vessels. Lucian hesitated for a moment, however, before raising the ramp, compelled to cast a glance behind him at the brooding form of Culpepper Luneberg's vast palace as it dominated the jumbled skyline of Chasmata Capitalis. He was struck by the notion that all was not well on the Eastern Rim, and that events might soon get interesting. Not for the first time in his long life, Lucian savoured the thought that few led as remarkable a life as that of a rogue trader.
He slapped the ramp control, and stalked from the portal as the shuttle lifted off.
Lucian reclined in his command throne as he studied the star maps of the surrounding region of space. The flotilla had exited the warp, its Navigators maintaining formation with such skill that within half a day, all three vessels were inbound to the world upon which they were to obtain Luneberg's archeotech — Sigma Q-77.
The Q-77 system lay upon the very shores of an area of space referred to as the Damocles Gulf. Fifty thousand light years from Sacred Terra, the region had barely been surveyed, even ten thousand years into the Age of the Imperium. Many systems along the outer edge of the eastern spiral arm were isolated and inward-looking, wracked with self-interest and paranoia, as fearful of attracting the notice of the Administratum — the Imperium's impossibly vast bureaucracy — as they were of hostile alien attention.
Lucian considered such a mindset perfectly appropriate for the teeming, planet-bound masses. The common man had no business with space travel, Lucian held, and it was certainly true that a great many worlds within the Imperium kept their subjects in ignorance as to its nature. Some populations were so efficiently ruled that the common man had no inkling that the Imperium existed beyond his own, planet-bound horizons. Rogue traders however, had an Emperor-given right, indeed, a responsibility to pierce the outer dark, shining the light of civilisation into the vast, uncharted reaches of space, and, inevitably, to amass power and wealth beyond measure along the way.
The region into which Lucian and his flotilla travelled was one rarely visited by the agents of the Imperium. Few had any business this far out, except for outbound Explorator fleets and rogue traders such as he. Those that did pass beyond the Imperium's borders rarely returned, for horrors beyond imagining lurked about the ancient stars at the very galaxy's edge. The archives of the Arca-dius were full to overflowing wim accounts of contact with creatures the like of which the preachers of the Imperial Creed denounced as utter blasphemies. Yet Lucian's ancestors had always returned triumphant from such encounters, their cargo holds groaning with booty. Some had conquered through war, others through trade. To the Arcadius, each was but one side of the same coin. Lucian yearned for such days again, and held on to the precious notion that his fortunes would soon improve.
Yet, out here, such dreams rang hollow, thought Lucian, as he cast his gaze through the forward viewing port. There was something about the region that left a chill in the soul, a deep-seated impression that something was… somehow wrong. The stellar cluster that contained Luneberg's world, as well as the domains of several dozen other Imperial Commanders bordered the gulf on its coreward side. Then, to the galactic east, nothing, for light years — not even the most insignificant of nebulae. It was as if the galaxy itself shunned the depths of the gulf, only the light of the stars on its far side daring to cross it. Those stars were densely packed, but never surveyed, according to the archives of the Arcadius, although that did not mean an Explorator fleet had not passed through at some time in the past millennia. The records of the Imperium were simply too vast, too sprawling, too incomplete to record all such information.
'Entering upper orbit sir' called the helmsman, snapping Lucian out of his reflections.
As the Oceanid came about, entering her station-keeping orbit in as stately a manner as the most grand of Imperial Navy battleships, the world of Sigma Q-77 climbed into view. The archives spoke little of the Q-77 system, and Luneberg had provided most of the data that Lucian was expected to rely upon. That meant Lucian would not rely upon it — not yet at least. The records stated it was a barren, lifeless world, with an atmosphere only barely capable of supporting human life. What business life had needed Q-77 to support there, Lucian could not tell. From orbit, he could see that airborne particles choked the skies of Q-77, swept along in kilometres-high streams. The dust storms raging across the surface were so dense that not a scrap of land was visible, not even the landing zone, and that was apparently sited in the area least affected by the foul atmospheric conditions.
'Operations? Lucian called over to an officer stationed in the crew pit. The old man, Rantakha, had served three generations of the Arcadius, and looked, to Lucian's eyes, more like one of the servitors each year. He looked up from the cogitator bank into which he had been entering a long stream of data. 'Have my shuttle readied and coordinate a flight plan with the Rosetta and the Fairlight. I'll be there shortly.
Rantakha saluted smartly, and Lucian heard him efficiently issuing his orders to his operations crew as he strode off the deck.
Passing his cabin, Lucian walked down the central companionway of his vessel. Though not as vast as a Navy ship, the Oceanid had once been home to several thousand souls, but the soulless automatons that were servitors served increasingly more and more functions, and the numbers of honest, flesh and blood men in his service decreased in direct proportion. Human crew carried out many more, crew press-ganged upon a number of worlds, of which the Arcadius held the ancestral rite to take its cut of the varied flotsam and jetsam that washed up there. As Lucian approached his destination, he was given cause to curse the fate that had filled his beloved ship with men such as these.
Approaching the shuttle bay amidships, Lucian turned first to enter the battery — that part of the vessel set aside to store the many thousands of tonnes of highly destructive ordnance used by its mighty weapons. The battery was situated in the very heart of the Oceanid. It was surrounded by many metres of adamantium, the strongest, most resilient material known to man. Lucian's father had frequently regaled him with the story that should the Oceanid be destroyed, her battery would survive intact, to drift endlessly in space until devoured by a void beast, or ensnared by the inexorable pull of a black hole. Lucian had believed him at the time, and even now, standing in front of the battery's armoured portal, it was not such an easy tale to dismiss out of hand.
A gene-lock guarded the portal, ensuring that no one other than Lucian, the master of ordnance and his trusted under-officers could gain access to it. Lucian inserted his hand into a waiting recess, as far as his wrist, palm up. He felt the sharp prick of the needle that was siphoning off a tiny sample of his blood. A moment later, a chime sounded and the armoured portals rumbled open amidst a burst of steam and flashing red beacons.
Lucian entered the battery. Within, vast racks of ordnance receded several hundred metres down the very spine of the ship, darkness swallowing all but the closest. Clunking servitors, three times larger than those serving on the bridge, prowled the rows, only their heads and upper torso betrayed a human origin, for pistons and power couplings had replaced much of their bodies, enabling them to heft the mighty shells onto waiting gurneys. These paid Lucian no heed as he took a candle — part votive, part light source — from a waiting alcove, and lit it, the better to navigate down a row of plasma coil fuses. He entered an arched nook.
Within was housed Lucian's personal armoury. The Arcadius had amassed, over the generations, the weapons to equip a small army, and had in fact done so several times in their history. The weapons and equipment housed within the battery, however, were of an entirely different nature. They were rare in the extreme, and in many cases, devastating beyond compare with any weapons in the Imperium's arsenal. Many were the creations of the most celebrated of weaponsmiths, others were of unknown heritage, some perhaps even pre-dating the Imperium itself. Still more were of obvious alien manufacture, such as the disruptor Lucian wore at his belt, and these were the most jealously guarded of all.
At the end of the long racks of exotic weapons, suits of armour stood motionless. They were painted in the hereditary colours of the Arcadius: deep red edged with gold, yet each was very different in design. Some were old, their lovingly repainted shells pitted with scars won in countless glorious battles. Others were covered in spidery script, litanies of protection against the enemies of mankind. Several suits were lightweight, designed for situations when a degree of protection could be sacrificed in exchange for additional mobility. Others were heavy and cumbersome, rivalling the Terminator armour worn by the elite of the Adeptus Astartes, so heavy were their armoured plates.
Once more, a tale from childhood came unbidden to Lucian's mind. The story told of an ancestor who had fallen in battle, against the eldar if he recalled correctly, but this ancient Arcadius had not died, though his wounds were indeed grievous. According to the tale, the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus had borne him away, to attend to him in their machine temple, to minister to his body and, they had promised, make him one with the Omnissiah — the Machine-God. His followers had awaited his return for many days and nights, praying that the tech-priests might restore his body to at least a semblance of its former vitality. Finally, having almost given up hope, the retainers were astounded when a hulking machine, twice the height of a man, emerged from the temple, its metal skin painted deep red and gold. Understanding dawned upon them only slowly, but when the metal beast addressed them through loud hailers mounted upon its armour, they heard the barest remnants of the voice of their master. His broken body was forever encased within a dreadnought, an honour usually reserved exclusively for the mightiest of Space Marines. Lucian's ancestor had led his dynasty for many decades to come. He had forged his place in the history of the Imperium, leading many more conquests against the benighted worlds of the eastern rim.
In his darker moments, Lucian feared such days might never return to his line.
Sighing, Lucian selected a suit of armour. He anticipated no trouble on Sigma Q-77, yet as head of the Arcadius, he was expected, by centuries of tradition, to wear the hereditary symbol of his rank. A suit of power armour would suffice, one Lucian had worn many times, one whose war spirit knew him as well as he knew it. The individual parts of the armour were cumbersome, yet Lucian dressed himself, preferring the additional effort to the intrusion of a servitor or rating aiding him. As he pulled on the armoured gloves, flexing them to awaken the machine impulses, Lucian reflected on the suit's vintage. It had come into the dynasty during the time of Mathan Gerrit, known for his xenocidal crusade against the burgeoning Reek Exclaves, and still bore the scar from the encounter that killed its first owner. Lucian drew strength from the fact that he wore a suit in which an ancestor had met a violent death, knowing that, although Mathan sat at the right hand of the Emperor, some trace of his famously indomitable will remained, forever dwelling within his battle armour.
With his pistols at his belt, and his armour fully powered up, Lucian felt a familiar strength return to him. The armour was too heavy for a normal man to bear, relying instead on a complex array of fibre bundles to move its weight in response to its wearer's movements. Lucian found the effect emboldening, lending him strength and confidence as he strode out from the armoury, making his way along the central companionway towards the shuttle hangar.
The shuttle idled upon the armoured deck, the underlighting of the deck lights lending it a threatening aspect amidst the shadowed, cavernous bay. Fat cables snaked all around the shuttle as its systems were made ready for the coming flight, its reactor primed and its machine spirit fully awakened. A pair of heavy servitors and a power lifter plodded heavy-footed around the ship, loading external fuel tanks and cargo pods. The rear portion of the shuttle consisted of a modular component that could be swapped out, depending upon the nature of the shuttle's mission. This component was configured to transport Lucian himself and a small amount of cargo, and it awaited him in its lowered position, its open front accessible below the blunt prow and swept wings of the ship. He knew that both his children's shuttles would be configured in a like manner, and whilst he would have liked to have made the planetfall with one or both of them, they needed to maximise the amount of cargo they could carry back to the waiting vessels.
The pilot, Oria Kayle, stood waiting beneath the shuttle's wings. A tall man in his thirties, Kayle was the latest of a long line that had served the Arcadius faithfully for many centuries. Lucian's father had awarded the Orias the status of freeman for his part in saving the Oceanid from alien infiltration during the De-Norm Extermination. Oria's father had accepted the promotion in status, yet remained to serve the Arcadius, pledging his line willingly and proudly to voluntary service. Lucian was grateful he had, for the Kayles bred pilots without compare.
Kayle threw a smart salute as Lucian approached, the bundle of cables hanging loose from the left side of his forehead shaking as he did so.
'Is she ready, Oria? Lucian cast a professional eye over the shuttle, seeing for himself in an instant that she was.
'Yes my lord. All preparations are complete. Our flight plan is registered and we can launch as soon as you give the order'
'It'll be a rough drop. You're sure she's up to it? Lucian harboured no doubts regarding his pilot's skill or the preparations invested in the shuttle, but knew the risks of the landing they were about to undertake. The atmospheric conditions were appalling, and the data on the landing zone incomplete.
'My lord, if your order is to land upon the surface of Sigma Q-77, then this will happen. I pledge it upon my family's honour. You have my word.
Lucian nodded. He needed no more, for he knew the pilot's word was as good as his own. 'What are we hanging about here for then? He smiled. 'Let's go.
The storm-wracked skies of Sigma Q-77 filled the porthole at Lucian's side, the view shaking violently as the shuttle hurtled through the thin, upper atmosphere. Although compensated for by the shuttle's systems, the violence of the drop was notable. Lucian could feel the heat building up, his power armour's own mechanisms fighting to counter it.
Kayle's voice sounded in Lucian's ear, carried by the ships intercom yet crackling and distorted as if transmitted across light years of space. 'Passing through the ionosphere now, my lord. There appears to have been some recent solar activity, so I expect some plasma damage. Nothing we can't handle though. The Emperor protects.
'The Emperor protects. Lucian echoed. The shuttle bucked violently, throwing Lucian's head against the padded seatback. The shaking increased and the temperature rose noticeably. The upper atmosphere of Sigma Q-77 now completely filled the port, and Lucian could make out the patterns of the raging storm clouds, angry white, violet and grey. Mighty energy discharges arced across the skies, back lighting banks of clouds many hundreds of kilometres across.
The clouds loomed, and rose impossibly fast to swallow the shuttle. The viewing port was swamped, the clouds so dense that only the strobing lightning was visible. The shaking increased still further, made violent and jarring by the additional friction generated as the shuttle screamed through the high clouds.
Kayle's voice sounded once more. 'My lord, we're approaching a rough- He was cut off as the shuttle lurched upwards, only to plummet what felt to Lucian like several kilometres in the span of mere seconds. This was shaping up to be a rough drop, thought Lucian, perhaps as rough as the Kalpurnican Interface. He gritted his teem against a second lurch, and a further plunge that exceeded even the first.
Except this second drop in altitude brought the shuttle out below the cloud layer, and Lucian was afforded a view of the surface of Sigma Q-77. Under raging skies, a ground the colour of rust rushed up to meet them. Kayle adjusted the shuttle's vector, bringing them in on a slow, rounded dive that shed velocity startlingly fast. The shaking and vibrating abated, leaving the shuttle buffeted by high altitude winds, but otherwise unmolested.
Lucian loosened the harness that had kept him secure during the worst of the drop, and activated the intercom. 'My compliments, Oria, how are we looking?
Lucian could hear the relief as Kayle responded, the channel now clear of distortion. 'My thanks, my lord. That was… testing. No appreciable damage, but the vessel's war spirit is much displeased with its handling as we crossed into the troposphere. I fear I may be required to make contrition upon our return, my lord.
Lucian grinned wryly at Kayle's understatement. He knew the pilot would be ministering to the shuttle's machine spirit for many long hours upon their return, seeking its forgiveness for its mistreatment. 'Do what you must, Oria, but first get us back safely.
'Aye, sir, we approach the landing site now.
'Well enough, Mister Kayle. Bring us down'
The meteorospex readout informed Lucian that the atmosphere outside the shuttle was, as Luneberg's information had stated, breathable. It contained a high level of airborne hydrocarbons however, and Lucian took the precaution of inserting miniaturised filtration plugs into the back of his throat. These would allow him to breathe even if the atmosphere became dangerously toxic, although they would be of no use should oxygen levels drop below a breathable threshold.
Checking his auspex was operational and the coordinates for the meeting with Luneberg's contact locked in, Lucian activated the lock. The seal broke, and the ramp lowered, oxide dust blowing into the small compartment before the ramp was fully lowered.
The surface of Sigma Q-77 was every bit as inviting as it had appeared from orbit, and far above, deep purple and grey clouds trailed across the sky, livid violet lightning arcing between them. The ground was barren and cratered, deep oxide red, yet cast a ghostly hue by the lightning. A cold wind howled, its touch chilling Lucian's face and its shrieking filling his ears.
Although hostile, the terrain barely registered with Lucian, for he had visited scores of worlds in his career, many far, far stranger and more inhospitable than Sigma Q-77. Over the millennia, the Arcadius had developed a sixth sense when it came to new worlds, an intuitive skill passed down from father to son, demonstrated rather than taught, felt rather than reasoned.
Every world had a feel. Whether you landed first upon arid equatorial desert, tropical island chain or frozen tundra, Lucian knew that each world had its own character, quite apart and distinct from mere terrain or weather. Some Lucian had visited felt welcoming, fecund, and ripe for exploitation. Others were instantly hostile, as if aware that the coming of strangers would change its fate forever. Lucian had read accounts of worlds that his ancestors swore blind manifested an actual, malefic intelligence, rejecting their presence with every asset at its disposal, from weather to flora and fauna.
Lucian paused before stepping out onto the dusty ground. The feel of this world immediately struck him: it felt… it felt wrong.
Rounding an outcropping of rock worn into a twisted archway by aeons of erosion, Lucian saw that Korvane and Brielle had arrived at the rendezvous point ahead of him. He was glad, for the planet had about it a deathly air, and every moment he had spent trudging through the dust towards the meeting point had seen him grow steadily more ill at ease.
Korvane was standing, scanning the horizon through magnoculars, while his sister sat on a rock some distance from him, her discomfort obvious. Both wore armoured bodysuits in the colours of the Arcadius, although neither was as ornate as that he himself wore as head of the family.
Brielle looked up, hearing her father's footsteps crunching towards them. She stood as Korvane turned and saw Lucian too.
The three having exchanged greetings, Lucian asked his offspring, 'What do you make of this world?
Korvane answered first, consulting his data-slate as he spoke. 'I'm surprised that Lord Luneberg's agents encountered natives here, Father. The archives make no mention of a colony here, and I can't imagine it harbouring autochthonic forms unless-
Brielle interrupted her brother. 'That's not the point' She visibly shivered as she looked out across the windblown expanses. Lucian felt the same chill, and it wasn't caused by the temperature.
Lucian addressed his daughter. 'What is it then, Brielle?
'I can't tell, Father, but something isn't right. There's something in the wind: echoes of something old.
Lucian held his daughter's gaze until she looked away, her dark eyes cast down. A thought formed in his mind, and fled before he could grasp it, as Korvane interjected. Well, nothing's showing up on the auspex, so I think it's safe to move off'
Brielle looked askance at Lucian before turning and stalking off. Lucian clapped his son on the shoulder. 'Let's go son, and keep a weather eye out' Korvane raised his auspex, but Lucian pushed it down again. 'An eye' He pointed at his own. Trust your own senses, son' As Brielle clearly trusted hers, Lucian thought.
Lucian and his offspring trudged across a barren, lifeless landscape, the wind steadily increasing until the dust it carried became so dense that visibility was reduced to ten metres and less. Twisted rock structures loomed from the dust, silhouetted as angry lightning illuminated the surroundings, and reminding Lucian of rearing slasher beasts. His feeling of discomfort had steadily increased as they had marched towards the site at which they would meet Luneberg's contact. He wondered about his daughter's reaction to her surroundings. Where he perceived the nature of the world as a spiritual chill, Brielle clearly interpreted it in an entirely different manner, speaking of voices whispering at the edge of hearing. Korvane, on the other hand, apparently felt nothing. He was either commendably steady of nerve, or stunningly insensate — Lucian could not, as yet, tell which. Either way, the boy was fated to inherit the mantle of the Arcadius, and Lucian would ensure that he did.
Lightning strobed, and thunder crashed an instant later. Korvane turned and shouted over the rising storm. 'Half a kilometre to go, Father, the meeting point is-
Before Lucian's son could finish the sentence, a dark shape detached itself from a nearby rock formation, dropping the three metres or so in the blink of an eye. Lucian saw this, but had no time to shout a warning before Korvane was bowled to the ground amidst a blur of thrashing alien appendages. Lucian drew his plasma pistol and charged forwards, reaching Korvane as his son thrust out his legs with enough force to propel the beast from him, its many-legged form crashing into the rock spire from which it had attacked. Having hit the rock, the creature dropped to the ground and tensed, ready to leap once more.
Lucian had never seen its like, for it appeared unnatural in physiology. A lumpy and misshaped body, a metre in diameter, sat at the centre of at least a dozen long, multi-jointed legs, each ending in a cluster of razor-sharp talons. A clutch of eyes scanned the scene before it, each focusing on a different target. In an instant, the beast focused its attentions on Brielle, who had arrived at the scene a moment after her father. It leapt through the air, propelling itself with a force that would surely decapitate anyone standing before it.
Brielle sidestepped the beast, allowing it to pass scant inches from her face. She raised her right hand and dropped to a kneeling position in one fluid motion. The beast hit the ground at the base of another rock spire and made to scuttle up it. A jet of blinding fame spouted from a miniature weapon on Brielle's wrist, leaping through the air to strike the rock. The flame splashed across the spot that the beast occupied at the instant it launched itself clear, yet it howled with ultrasonic rage as the jet caught it a glancing blow across its torso. A screaming, flaming comet of flailing claws, the creature arced through the air once more. It landed beside Korvane, who rolled aside as Lucian was finally able to draw a bead on it with his plasma pistol.
'Korvane, roll left! Lucian yelled, seeing that the beast would be upon his son in an instant if he did not intervene.
Korvane's armour had taken the brunt of the beast's attack on him, but he was stunned nonetheless. Despite this, he obeyed his father's order without question, flinging himself bodily against the rock spire.
Lucian fired, a ball of blinding plasma erupting from his pistol, to strike the flaming, squealing beast. The plasma bolt struck the creature's torso, causing it to explode in an eruption of smoking gore and razor-sharp limbs. One such limb, tipped with diamond-hard chitin, was propelled through the air to score a deep scar across Lucian's shoulder armour, causing him to give brief, but heartfelt thanks to the suit's war spirit.
Lucian lowered his smoking weapon, its vents shedding excess heat in hazy waves. He looked to Korvane, only to see that his son's eyes had focused upon something behind his shoulder.
Slowly, Lucian turned. Behind him stood a tall figure, features entirely concealed amidst long, flowing robes. How long had it stood there, he thought — had it been waiting the whole time, to see whether or not they would win out against the beast's attack?
A whispery voice emanated from the depths of the figure's hood. 'You are, I take it, the servants of the esteemed Lord Culpepper?
Wind howling outside, Lucian stood at the centre of a large cavern of obviously artificial construction, beside him Korvane, his wounds hastily dressed, and Brielle. Before him stood Luneberg's contact, and behind the tall, spindly figure, a pile of crates stacked to the cavern's roof.
Having appeared at the site of the alien beast's attack, the tall figure had spoken only to confirm Lucian's identity, apparently caring little for the fact that, as Lucian had explained, the rogue traders were not servants, but partners of Luneberg. Lucian had discerned what he took for a chuckle at this information, and the contact had merely stalked off into the storm with a gesture indicating that Lucian and his offspring should follow.
As Lucian had followed the figure, his feeling of discomfort had increased. The storm had closed in, until visibility was reduced to scant metres, they had nearly lost the contact several times, but always found him waiting patiently just around the next turn. They had been led along twisting pathways of rock spires, down which the wind echoed and wailed, only serving to increase Lucian's unease.
A glance at Brielle told Lucian that his daughter felt likewise, for her brow was furrowed and her eyes steely. Korvane, by contrast, appeared well at ease. Lucian knew that he took the situation for a formal contact between trading parties, and would proceed along such lines until fate determined otherwise. At moments like this, Lucian thought, Korvane had the right idea.
In short order, they had arrived at the entrance to the cave in which they now stood. Entering, Lucian had been greeted by the sight of the crates piled high. The contact now crossed to the nearest and activated a control set in its side. The crate floated up half a metre, to hover at waist height. Lucian concealed his surprise, for anti-gravitic technology was rare within the Imperium, and generally confined to small applications such as those generators found within servo-skulls or to far larger uses in starship construction. Lucian had never seen it manifested in such a utilitarian manner as to raise a simple cargo crate.
The robed figure activated a second control stud, and the crate's top lifted open with a slight hiss of escaping, pressurised air. A wisp of vapour rose and dissipated, as the contact reached into the crate to withdraw a metallic cylinder, which he proffered to Lucian as he bowed. Lucian took the object, his gaze lingering on the tall figure for a moment before he examined it.
The object was heavy and solid, with no obvious function that Lucian could discern. One end appeared to house some form of terminus, though just what type of machine it would interface with was beyond even Lucian. Turning the object over in his hands, Lucian saw that the other end was adorned with some form of script. Lucian's heart missed a beat, yet he remained dispassionate, handing the object back to the contact.
'Luneberg will be pleased' Lucian addressed the figure. 'I am happy to take delivery of these items'
'Archeotech my arse!
The three rogue traders stood at the ramp of Bridle's shuttle, the crates ready to load. Having ascertained the true nature of the items they had taken possession of, Lucian had instructed his children to activate the anti-grav motors in each crate, and had taken leave of Luneberg's contact in as hasty a manner as he could without it appearing so. The three now stood ready to load the crates onto Brielle's shuttle, which was larger than Lucian's or Korvane's.
Brielle laid a hand on a nearby crate, and asked her father: 'What then?
'Whatever's in these crates is not of pre-Imperium manufacture. In fact, I can't believe Luneberg would think these could be anything other than xenos artefacts'
Korvane broke in. 'So he lied?
Brielle replied, 'Or he has no idea'
'More likely. Lucian said, 'he knows far more than he's letting on. He may not be aware of exactly who, or what, he's doing business with, but he knows it goes way beyond the pale of what the Administratum considers acceptable behaviour for an Imperial Commander. That's why he needs us. We're rogue traders. We can go places he cannot, meet contacts he cannot. Do deals he cannot'
'Deals with xenos. Brielle said.
Brielle waited until her shuttle had cleared Sigma Q-77's outer atmosphere, before freeing herself from the grav-couch harness. The small cabin was crowded with the alien cargo crates. She crossed to the nearest, perching herself on its edge and running a fingertip along the invisible seam around its top. She had guessed immediately that the so-called 'archeotech' was in fact xenos in origin, in fact, she had had her suspicions the moment Luneberg's contact had appeared. Although her father had not remarked upon it, for his own unknowable reasons, she had immediately taken the tall figure for something other than human. That wasn't to say, however, that it was entirely alien, for humanity was a truly diverse species, with stabilised mutant strains common, particularly far from the Imperium's centres of power.
Brielle had served at her father's side since childhood, and, far more so than her stepbrother, had been faced with aliens before. She had conversed with the eldar of the Steel Eye Reavers, stood before the haunting Chanters of Miras, and had even caught a glimpse, as few humans ever had and lived, of the near-extinct khrave. Korvane had achieved none of this, having studied the intrigues of high court at his mother's side whilst Brielle travelled the stars with her father. While Korvane's childhood had been a time of cloistered study and training, Brielle had learned the ways of her mother's people and her father's both, simultaneously drawing strength from the traditions of Chogoris and the Arcadius.
As she traced the crate's alien lines, her touch reached the control stud set into its side. She hopped off the crate's top before pressing the stud down. She knew she should not do so. Her father would disapprove. She did so anyway.
The previously invisible seam parted, and the lid rose with a gentle hiss. As the vapour cleared, she looked within. A polyhedral object lay inside, a thin sheen of frost glistening briefly before dispersing. A thrill coursed through her as she considered that merely to possess such an item was, for the vast majority of humans, to invite the wrath of the Imperium's highest authorities. Yet Brielle had learned from her father's example that such laws did not apply to such as her.
To the common subject of the Imperium of Man, the xenos was a ghastly, slavering beast gnawing at the borders of human space, waiting in ambush amongst the stars to entrap, enslave or devour those foolish enough to leave the security of their own world. In fact, most humans had no inkling as to the existence of alien races, beyond the few names that ranting preachers berated them with. They knew of orks, the barbarous green-skinned and utterly war-like beasts that made war on the Imperium in ever-increasing invasions, but they had no idea as to the orks' true nature. Brielle had visited the wastes of Gommoragh and seen first hand what they could do to a world. They may also have heard of the eldar, a race that was often held up as the ultimate warning against intemperance and self-serving profligacy. Such tales repelled most people, although others were strangely attracted to them. Such was the nature of humanity.
She reached into the case, a thrill of danger passing through her. This was dangerous, she knew, foolish in the extreme, for the case might contain anything from toxic chemicals to a lethal weapon. She felt the cold of its unseen stabilisation systems, but hesitated for only a heartbeat before laying her hand upon the cold metal of the object she found within. She lifted it clear, holding it up before her face. Its many surfaces were constructed of some form of dull, hard metal, and each facet housed a single, hemispherical bulge of a deep, green, jewel-like material. Its purpose was entirely hidden, and no control devices of any sort were apparent. Brielle turned the object around in her hand, holding it higher to catch the light of the cabin's illumination. The shallowest of seams were etched across its surfaces, tracing a delicate lattice, yet still she could discern no way in which the object might be activated or utilised. She brought the object close to her face and peered right into the glassy depths of one of the green bulges.
She gasped, almost dropping the object as a shiver ran through her. Just for an instant, as she looked within the jewel, she had the distinct and unpleasant sensation that something had peered right back out at her.
The intercom buzzed, a voice announcing, 'Mistress. We are beginning our approach on the Fairlight.
Delicately, Brielle replaced the xenos device in its crate, the bracing moulding itself around the object's bulk. She activated the control stud, and the lid slid back on silent runners, sealing itself against the outside world, its seam disappearing.
Brielle looked across at her grav-couch, but decided against crossing to it. She would travel in the cockpit. It may be less well appointed, she thought, but from there she could view her cruiser, the Fairlight as they approached. It was as well to savour the trappings of power every now and then.
There was a heavy bulkhead door at the fore of the cabin, which Brielle hauled open, passing down a short companionway to the cabin. Her pilot turned in greeting as she appeared behind him, his hard-wired cybernetics restricting the movement to his neck and upper torso.
'Mistress, we dock in four point seven minutes. Goanna the pilot said.
'Good. I think I'll watch. Brielle said as she climbed into the unoccupied co-pilot's position.
'Yes, mistress' he said, before turning back to focus his entire attention on his task. If the man felt any discomfort at his mistress's presence, he hid it well. Brielle had trouble reading old Goanna at the best of times, for, over the decades he had served the Arcadius, he had become increasingly at one with his vessel, and had been fitted with ever more cybernetic interfaces and ports, allowing him to commune more closely with its machine spirit. At times, she suspected that he was in the grip of some form of religious ecstasy, such as the saints of the scriptures were wont to enter when at one with the spirit of the Emperor. Several years back, he had requested he be allowed to take permanent station at the shuttle's controls, and Brielle had granted him his wish. Since then, he had led the existence of a servitor, yet he was no lobotomised, mind-scrubbed mono-tasker. He was a valued servant of her dynasty, and he honoured his mistress with his sacrifice in her service.
Brielle reclined in the grav-couch, strapping herself in as they began their approach on the Fairlight. At first, her vessel was not visible, for it was lost in the shadow of Sigma Q-77. Then, as Goanna adjusted the shuttle's course, a small constellation rose into view, the tightly arranged running lights of her ship, the only sign of the cruiser that was visible against the inky black of space.
A series of red lights flickered and strobed across Goanna's controls, but he spoke without sparing them a glance. 'Four minutes, mistress'
The shuttle's manoeuvring jets fired, the controlled blasts rumbling through the small cabin. Expertly, and with little in the way of physical manipulation, Goanna nursed the shuttle around onto a heading that would bring it into perfect interception with the Fanlight's shuttle bay. Brielle reflected with silent respect just how deeply her pilot now communed with his vessel, suspecting that the pairing was by now permanent.
The manoeuvring complete, Goanna gently fed power to the main drives. The shuttle moved forwards again, and the Fairlight loomed out of the gloom. Smaller than the Oceanid by a quarter of a length, the vessel was a classic of the Bakkan shipwrights' art, her prow long and elegant and her swept fins affording her the aspect of a sleek, predatory sea creature. Her hull was the colour of slate, making her harder yet to make out against the inky black of space, yet the fins, mounted vertically on either side of the prow sported the colours of the Arcadius — deep red, with golden chevrons, a device that even the most haughty of rogue traders knew, and had once at least, respected.
A line of dancing red lights indicated the landing bay, although Brielle knew Goanna had no need of their guidance. He brought the shuttle in on a graceful course, the heavy, armoured landing bay portal lifting only as the shuttle closed to the last fifty metres. Brielle glanced to her side, watching her pilot as he went about his work. She looked up only as the bright, cavernous bay swallowed the shuttle, the docking arms reaching out to secure her as the portal closed behind, and atmosphere was pumped back into the vast space.
Brielle made her way along low-lit companionways lined with ancient, polished wood panels. Much like the Oceanid, the Fairlight ran at a reduced crew level, the bulk of her ratings drawn from press-ganged scum given the choice between execution and service. Specialised servitors, who were greatly valued for their specific expertise, carried out much of the work, but Brielle shared her father's view that the family had become too reliant upon them. Only a fraction of the Fairlight's crew was made up of free men, and these formed the officer cadre aboard ship. They were the only members of her crew with whom Brielle had regular contact.
Having disembarked from her shuttle, Brielle had ordered the cargo of alien artefacts to be transferred to the most secure of the Fairlight's holds. She had stood watch as hulking heavy grade servitors had carried each crate away in piston-driven, mechanical arms. She had decided against informing the sweating crew that each crate had an anti-gravi drive fitted, evidently designed to allow its effortless handling. She knew the almost literally brainless servitors could be trusted, but knew better than to tempt the press-ganged crew with such potentially valuable knowledge.
She had only set off for her bridge once she was sure the cargo was safely stowed away, watching as the hold was sealed, and applying her personal cipher to the lock. Now, she brooded as she strode the nigh-deserted companionways, considering the state of the deal with Luneberg.
The Imperial Commander had explicitly stated to her father that the items to which he had gained access were archeotech. Such items were far from common, but they were within the area of expertise of the Arcadius, and should have proved simple enough to trade for a handsome profit. However, the artefacts had proved to be not pre-Imperium human in origin, but something else entirely. They were, Brielle was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, alien. In many ways, the Arcadius were the perfect choice of business partner for such a deal, yet Brielle was troubled that Luneberg had determined to conceal the true nature of the items from them. As she had stated to her father, Brielle was of the opinion that Luneberg was not the canny player he pretended to be. The more she pondered on it, the more she came to believe that Luneberg was dealing with powers beyond his ken, that he needed the Arcadius far more than he had let on, far more, perhaps, than they needed him.
Yet, her father had pinned a huge amount on the success of this venture. With Korvane not due to inherit his mother's fortune for potentially many years to come, her father had used every contact he had to scour the Eastern Rim for some opportunity, some deal that would see the Arcadius through the next decade or so. The result had been the deal with Luneberg, yet Brielle was becoming ever more uncomfortable with it.
Were she the next in line to the lordship of the Arcadius, as she had been raised to be, she would have been able to challenge her father on the issue, forcing him to hear her concerns. Since Korvane had entered the family however, she had lost her father's ear on such matters. She had been raised to lead a rogue trader dynasty, and now she was compelled to remain in the shadows, to watch as others set that dynasty on a course she considered at best ill advised.
In the beginning, she had attempted to raise the issue with Korvane, swallowing her pride and hoping to appeal to him as a sister. Yet he had rejected her advice, for he was raised in the ways of the high courts, and perceived only weakness in her humility. He had repeated, word for word, their father's view. From that point onward, she had resolved to follow her mother's teachings on such matters. If those around her were blind to their folly, and that folly was likely to doom them all, then she would keep her own counsel, working to resolve matters in her own way.
She reached the bridge, and entered her cipher into the reader at the door. It chimed, and she hauled on the heavy wheel, applying her scant weight to the door and pushing her way through. She entered her bridge, a large, richly appointed chamber lined with the same wood panelling that adorned all of the Fairlight's main companionways. Wide, curved deck-to-ceiling viewing ports dominated three sides, baroque brasswork framing each as if it were a work of art. The bridge crew's stations were arranged in aisles, all facing towards the forward viewing port.
Brielle's command throne sat atop a raised dais at the rear of the bridge, from which the captain had a fine view of her crew at work, and of the immediate area of space. She mounted the steps to the dais, and as she reached its top, a face descended from the shadows above it. A hard-wired servitor, little more than head, upper torso and arms, and anchored to the ceiling by writhing metallic tubing, it held in its emaciated arms a data-slate, which it proffered to Brielle.
She took the data-slate without acknowledgement, and the servitor rose once more, to disappear into the depths of gloom above the command throne. She sat, reclining in her throne, its shape reminding her that, despite the family politics, she was mistress of a rogue trader vessel. She had at her command several thousand souls and banks of mighty weapons, with which she could take her will to the stars.
She stretched, cat-like, and planted her feet upon a command console in a manner she knew her father would have found most unbecoming for a rogue trader. She grinned as she thought how her mother would have approved.
She lifted the data-slate, reading off its title. It contained a communique from the Fairlight's Navigator, Adept Sagis. Brielle had never met the Navigator face to face, for he occupied a sealed blister mounted just fore of the Fairlight's drive section, its armoured viewing ports affording the Navigator a panoramic view of space. It wasn't the space of the real universe that the Navigator gazed out upon, however, it was the realm of pure spiritual energy that was the warp, for the vessel would be lost, adrift upon the Sea of Souls were it to attempt warp travel without a Navigator.
As a child, Brielle had once asked her father about the Navigators, but had found him unwilling to discuss the matter in any detail, merely telling her that the Navigator families made warp travel possible, and that the Imperium would be no more than a disparate collection of isolated worlds without them. Only when she had come of age, and commanded her own vessel had she discovered at least a part of the truth of the matter. The Navigators were an impossibly ancient arm of humanity, one that had arisen on Old Terra at the time of the Emperor's rise to power. They were masters of an extraordinary gift, in that they could see into the warp, reading its currents, and thereby guide a vessel safely through it.
Such a gift came at a price, however, for it was rooted in the genes, and therefore subject to the vagaries of breeding. In order to keep their blood lines clean, and their abilities intact, the Navigator families were forced to control their breeding, selecting matches between Navigator clans that would result in 'pure' offspring. Even with such selective controls in place, the Navigators were shockingly prone to mutation, an affliction that, Bridle had gleaned, was wont to worsen with age. The most powerful of Navigators enjoyed a prodigious lifespan, but many grew increasingly mutated as their years advanced. Brielle had discovered that when this occurred, a Navigator who remained in service would retire to his chamber, hiding himself away from all but his peers, with whom he had scant contact, to serve in isolation.
Sagis's clan, the Locarno, had entered into partnership with the Arcadius before the dynasty had received its Charter of Trade, and the details of the affiliation were unknown to Brielle, although she suspected that her father knew the truth of it. She had guessed that old Sagis had become too mutated to leave his blister, although he had served with the skill and dedication for which his clan were renowned, despite this.
Absentmindedly, for the affair with Luneberg's xenos artefacts gnawed at her mind, Brielle read the communique. Transient conditions in the warp had been favourable for most of the journey to Mundus Chasmata, but had worsened the closer to the Damocles Gulf they had travelled. Sagis described the region as permeated with a tangible stain, an after-image of great spiritual turmoil and upheaval. The gulf itself was an area Sagis counselled vehemently against attempting to cross, for warp conditions were such that any vessel attempting to do so might be pulled violently off-course, or lost entirely to the raging tides of the empyrean.
Something in Sagis's words reminded Brielle of the voices she had half-heard, whispering just below the wind upon the surface of Sigma Q-77. It was as if he was describing a small part of the same phenomenon she had experienced, although in entirely different and subjective terms. The notion hit her that something had occurred in the region, something of stellar scale, something entirely alien and wrong. The fact that Luneberg had sent the rogue traders to the very edge of the afflicted region, to recover alien artefacts, filled Brielle with suspicion. She felt the spirit of her mother's people fill her — if Luneberg's actions brought woe to her family, Luneberg would pay. Brielle would see to that.
A harsh chime cut through Brielle's reverie, and she held the data-slate out to one side, the servitor descending once more to take it from her. 'Go ahead'
A moment later, her father's voice boomed from the speaker grilles mounted above the command throne. 'Korvane, Brielle, we have what we came for. We'll rendezvous at the prearranged point in Luneberg's system. My Navigator informs me it's a twenty-day voyage, subjective, although he tells me that he and Sagis both have concerns about the tides in the warp, so I want formation kept as tight as possible. The chances are we'll arrive together, but I don't want to take any chances on any unwelcome guests waiting for us at the other end. They knew exactly where to expect us last time. I don't want us to be caught off guard again. Is that understood?
Korvane answered before Brielle. He always did. 'Understood, Father'
'Brielle' Brielle's father addressed her. 'Is the cargo safe?
'It is safe, Father. It's stowed in number three stasis. Nothing can happen to it in there'
'Good. Now, I wish you both a dull and uneventful journey. The Emperor protects'
'The Emperor protects' Brielle heard Korvane repeat.
'The Emperor protects'
Brielle watched from her command throne as the distant form of the Oceanid broke formation, moving to a safe distance from which she would commence her dive into the warp. Such a manoeuvre was inherently dangerous, and in populated systems was subject to a plethora of ordinances, each designed to minimise the impact of any mishap on nearby vessels, or even worlds. Brielle had heard all manner of grisly tales of catastrophic warp drive malfunction, and had even witnessed the aftermath of one, at the world of Radina V. There, a bulk carrier had mistimed its translation, sheering off the gravity pull of Radina V's third moon. The carrier was caught in a slingshot as it dived in to the warp, pulled in too many dimensions by forces impossible to comprehend. The vessel had broken up, and been smeared across space in a debris field that engulfed the moon and part of Radina itself with fallout. It wasn't the sort of fallout that could be scrubbed by decontamination teams. It was spiritual fallout, the residue of the three thousand souls lost in the disaster, and it afflicted the minds of every man, woman and child upon the moon's surface, and several hundred thousand more upon Radina V. They were driven insane within hours, their souls touched by the warp as it leaked through the three thousand tiny warp portals created at the instant of the carrier's destruction.
The rogue traders had delivered an Ordo Hereticus strike force to Radina V, and Brielle had watched from orbit as the Emperor's mercy had been delivered to hundreds of thousands of afflicted subjects. An entire continent had been burned clean of the unclean stain of the warp, those driven beyond the limit of sanity by its touch delivered by cleansing flame.
Radina V was found to be the fault of the carrier's master, who had ordered the vessel to enter the warp too close to the world's gravity well. Although the official investigation had levelled no criticism upon the vessel's Navigator, Bridle's father had voiced the opinion that the fault lay chiefly with him, because it was his responsibility to override any order that would compromise the safety of the ship. However, the Navigator families were one of the Imperium's most powerful institutions and no blame would ever be levelled upon them.
Brielle had few concerns that such an incident might occur with the Navigators of the Locarno clan guiding the fleet. As the Oceanid accelerated away, Brielle knew that her father would be making his vessel ready for translation to the warp, while the Oceanid's Navigator entered a deep trance, in which he would guide the vessel through the unpredictable Sea of Souls. The Oceanid now far beyond visible range, Brielle watched as Korvane's vessel manoeuvred onto a similar heading, a course designed to ensure all three vessels remained in as coherent a formation within the warp as was possible.
Brielle reached to her left and pulled back a heavy lever, half a dozen pict-slates descending from the ceiling to surround her. Static buzzed from the screens, before each resolved into a different rendition of the immediate area of space. Across one screen scrolled entirely abstract columns of numerical data, while another represented the Fanlight's environs in a riot of machine-sight gradations. Brielle had acquired the knack of reading all simultaneously, for her bridge lacked the rare, three-dimensional holograph of the Oceanid. She noted how the Oceanid's number three drive bled wispy clouds of superheated plasma through its emergency venting, a symptom of the neglect of the fleet's vessels brought about by the dynasty's misfortunes.
Moving at incredible velocity, the Oceanid began her dive. The screens erupted in activity, the machine devices attempting to describe that which should not even be possible. Brielle saw that the Oceanid's Geller Field was raised, creating a delicate bubble of real space around her, within which she would find shelter from the raging energies of the warp. Just before the Oceanid passed beyond the furthest extent of the Fairlight's augurs, Brielle caught the dazzling explosion of metaphysical energies as the ship dived into the warp. Each warp drive and each Navigator interacted with the warp in a unique manner, meaning that no two dives were identical. The sight, rendered across half a dozen pict-slates in as many different forms, was something quite beautiful, and quite terrible to behold. The Oceanid's passing forcibly ripped a gash in the intangible fabric of the universe, bleeding the raw stuff of the warp, for an instant. Yet, even as questing tentacles of something unreal seeped forth, the scar was healed, the laws of the universe reasserting themselves once more.
A moment later, a familiar wave of sickness passed over Brielle and was gone: the spiritual wake of the Oceanid's warp jump.
Seeing that Korvane's vessel was moving into position for its own dive, Brielle checked that her ship was prepared for its jump, and then addressed her bridge crew.
'We make warp in three minutes. All hands to station'
At her words, the bridge became a hive of activity. Although her crew was well versed in the manoeuvre, making a warp jump was never taken lightly, at least not by any crew that wanted to make it safely back to port. Chanting filled the bridge, and a line of lay priests emerged from the chapel to the rear, blessed incense billowing around them as they anointed the Fairlight's systems with holy unguents. These would ward off the evil intentions of the denizens of the warp and ensure the vessel's safe passage.
Next, a deck officer passed quickly from one station to the next, ensuring that each rating and servitor was secured to his seat. This was not for their own safety, but for that of the vessel, for it had been known for the weak to be driven to insanity at the moment of entry into the warp, and to ran amok upon a ship's bridge, killing all within reach. Brielle knew that it had happened to a member of her father's bridge crew long before she was born, the man killing three of his fellows with his teeth alone, before her father had put a data-spike through his head. Such enflamed passions at the moment of the jump were, according to space-lore, the result of the call of the warp-bound daemon, and to heed its lies was to invite the loss of every soul on the ship. Thus, every precaution possible was taken against it.
A message from Navigator Sagis scrolled across a data-slate. He confirmed that he was ready to enter his warp trance, and wished Brielle the Emperor's blessings. The words of a prayer began scrolling across the screen, 'We pray for those lost in the warp… and Brielle knew that it would loop over, repeatedly, until Sagis was awakened, and the Fairlight was once again safe in the real universe.
She reclined in her command throne as she felt the deep growl of the Fairlight's warp drive steadily build. A build up of psychic power, felt deep in the soul, accompanyed the subsonic noise. Every spacefarer felt it differently, but to Brielle it was a keen longing for home, or to be anywhere other than where they were about to go-
As the last of the crew assumed their stations, the deck officer strapping himself into his own chair last, the Fairlight began her dive. As her forward velocity increased exponentially, the air pressure on the bridge rose and a violent shaking set in. Brielle saw from a nearby pict that the Rosetta had completed her dive, and quickly scanned the surrounding area one last time.
The order to dive perched on her lips, Brielle stalled. Despite the screen's jarring vibrations, she could make out a huge return less than forty thousand kilometres off the Fairlight's port bow. She punched a comm channel, connecting her straight through to her Navigator. 'Sagis… you see it?
She forced down a rising sense of panic, praying that her Navigator had not yet fully entered his trance, but realising that they were inexorably committed to the warp jump. The Navigator's reply scrolled across a data-slate.
++I see it ma'am. I shall attempt to compensate for its mass and proximity. The Emperor protect us all++
Brielle's mind raced. The other ship had emerged from nowhere, and she could read that its gravitic signature was well in excess of its class. Her breath caught in her throat as she realised with a start that it was clearly alien in origin. It did not appear to be intent upon any hostile action, but its mere appearance at such a crucial point in the Fairlight's jump had put Brielle's ship in incredible danger. She saw that she had but one option. She must trust to her Navigator's skill, for to pull out of the dive might tear her ship apart.
Gripping the arms of her command throne, Brielle issued her order. 'Jump!
Korvane stood upon the shuttle pad at Chasmata Capitalis, his father's back facing him. The golden orb of Chasmata's star was just beginning its slow descent, sinking below the distant, jagged horizon, silhouetting the master of Arcadius against the dusky sky.
'We cannot wait for her, father. If we keep Luneberg hanging on he might take exception and cancel the deal.
'Without her, there is no deal. Most of the artefacts are aboard the Fairlight.
Where the hell was she? Lucian looked up into the rapidly darkening skies of Mundus Chasmata, as if he would see his daughter's shuttle descending through the dark clouds. He knew that could not be of course, for there appeared to be only a single shuttle operating the surface to orbit route, and the Chasmatans forbade travellers descending in their own vessels.
'She must have mistimed her jump. She'll ruin the whole thing if she's late'
'Hmm' Lucian turned to face his son. 'We have two choices: beg that scat-hound Luneberg to wait until Brielle arrives with her cargo, or bluff our way through. If we let him know she's been delayed, he'll sense weakness and the whole deal will go ahead on his, not our, terms. We can certainly delay for a short time — even Luneberg knows ships don't travel through the empyrean in perfect formation. If we proceed as if everything's fine, we'll earn Brielle time to catch up'
'Do you think she'll arrive at all, Father?
Lucian bristled at his son's words. He had faith that his daughter was safe, but he had been concerned enough to seek the counsel of the Oceanid's Navigator.
'I've consulted Adept Baru. He informs me that conditions became rough immediately following our translation, but he felt confident that Sagis and the vessel he navigated had come to no harm'
Ваru had actually said more than that, but Lucian was far from keen to repeat his words. The Navigator had stated that, had the Fairlight come to harm within the warp, he would have known immediately. The beasts that dwell within the Sea of Souls would have howled with such desire at the prospect of devouring a Navigator that every one of his kind in the sector would have felt their brother's soul-death.
'So we continue with the talks as if nothing was awry. Understood?
'I trust your mission was successful my dear Lucian? The… goods were transported without incident?
Culpepper Luneberg sprawled upon his throne, a courtesan leaning languidly at each shoulder. Lucian stood before him, his son at his side. The vast throne room was empty, silent and eerie, swallowing up the small group in its deep gloom. Luneberg had summoned the rogue traders to his court the instant that they had landed, typical, Lucian thought, of the man's manners.
'It was most successful, my lord' Lucian would remain polite on the exterior, but inside he found himself feeling more irritated by Luneberg each time they met. The man presumed himself to be Lucian's superior, and addressed him as such. Did he not know that the Arcadius held a mandate as weighty as that of any Imperial Commander? By their Charter of Trade, granted by the authority of the High Lords of Terra, the Arcadius had the right to demand any service they required from the likes of Luneberg when going about their business. It was only at times such as these, when not directly pursuing that business, that Lucian was compelled to be polite to those he considered the petty nobility of a backwater world that had not once, in all the recorded annals of the Imperium's long, wartorn history, contributed anything of any worth to the race of men.
'I'm so glad to hear it. You must join my court in a celebratory feast, this evening'
'We'd be delighted' he demurred, whilst thinking: she'll never be here in time, we're skewed.
A courtesan put cherry-red lips to Luneberg's ear, whispering softly to him. Luneberg went to shoo her away, but looked at Lucian as he listened to her muffled words. She regarded Lucian smugly as Luneberg addressed him.
'All three of you will be joining us of course?
Utterly skewed. 'Of course, my lord, my family and myself will be honoured'
'Good. My factor will take care of our business' Luneberg's ever-present functionary bowed to Lucian.
He hadn't noted the man's presence before it was mentioned.
'I have arranged' the man now said, 'to have our cargo lighters convey the goods directly from your ships. They are docking with the Rosetta, even now, and we only require your authority to complete the transfer.
'Understood' Lucian replied to the man, noting that, only now, when it suited them, were the Chasmatans capable of displaying a degree of efficiency.
Lucian bowed as Luneberg stood, the courtesans arranging themselves demurely around the Imperial Commander as he did so. With the slightest of reciprocal nods, the Imperial Commander left, leaving Lucian distractedly wondering what the hell had become of his daughter, and the cargo she carried.
Brielle stood in the centre of her cargo hold, opened crates scattered around her feet.
The chamber's stasis field had failed during the jump, and once the Fairlight was back in the real universe, in the Chasmata system and safely inbound to Chasmata itself, Brielle had come to inspect the damage. Several of the crates had fallen open, and what she had found within the first few had driven her to open them all.
Weapons, the crates contained weapons. The Arcadius had been reduced to gunrunners. Seeing that each item was unique, Brielle had immediately realised that the shipment represented a collection of samples. It was nothing more than that.
Brielle simmered as she hefted a long rifle. It was something approaching two metres in length, but was almost too easy to lift. Its business end housed a metallic sphere that rotated in three dimensions, allowing, Brielle guessed, for its smooth handling. She braced the weapon at her shoulder, marvelling at the way its bulk rotated around the gyroscopic sphere, and closed one eye. As she drew a bead on a non-existent target, a small box rose from the body of the weapon. She started, pulling her head sharply away, but saw that the box housed some form of sighting device. She placed her eye to it, cautiously peering through. On the tiny screen within, blocky alien text flowed around a central crosshair, picking out all manner of objects within the hold.
Brielle could not read the text, but she knew such a weapon far surpassed the vast majority of those of human manufacture. Granted, those such as the mighty Adeptus Astartes had access to equivalent technologies, but what might Luneberg want with them? She could draw only one conclusion. Luneberg meant to make war — but on whom?
As far as Brielle was concerned, Luneberg had dishonoured the Arcadius gravely. He had made them petty smugglers, and her father had failed to see it coming. She felt her rage boil to the surface as she remembered how Korvane had simpered, certain in his view that what he saw as a respectable joint venture with the Imperial Commander would bring both parties profit and honour. She expected more of her father, but would he listen to her if she warned him? Should she try now? Most likely, he would accuse her of meddling in matters outside of her concern. Better to bide her time, she decided, before contacting her father.
She kicked an open crate, hard. This whole deal was rapidly spiralling out of control, and she seemed to be the only one with any idea just how badly.
Lucian, in his stateroom, stood before a mirror that magnified his image threefold, studying his reflection. His reflection glared straight back at him, his discomfort and annoyance writ large on his face. He wore the finest familial regalia, armour, medals, cloak and all, intent as he was upon distracting Luneberg from Brielle's absence. Whilst his son had been called away to deal with the business of authorising the cargo transfer from the Rosetta, Lucian had contacted the Oceanid, speaking to the vessel's Navigator once more. Adept Baru had restated his earlier opinion that the Fairlight had not been lost upon the tides of the warp, and had appeared confident that Brielle had not been greatly delayed. Lucian was tense nonetheless, for a Navigator was, in his experience generally pleased enough with a window of several weeks, so long as no harm came to his vessel. Ваru was undoubtedly a cut above the average Navigator, if such a thing was possible, yet Lucian still felt his grasp on events outside of his navigation blister was vague at best.
Not for the first time during this venture, Lucian regarded the medals crowded across his chest. Each meant so much, yet might be rendered meaningless should the dynasty fail. So much relied upon the deal with Luneberg, and so much had already been invested in simply voyaging to the Eastern Rim, that Lucian could see precious little of a future for the Arcadius should the deal fail.
He was reminded of the tale his father had told him of old Abad Gerrit, the great Arcadius who had pacified the Scallarn Cluster. According to his father, Abad had risked much to raise an army, entirely at his own expense, with which to take back the dozen worlds of the cluster from the yoke of ork enslavement. He had purchased scores of troop transports to carry his newly risen armies, and hired on innumerable auxiliary vessels and crews to service his conquest fleet.
The pacification attempts of just the first world of the cluster had faced fierce resistance, and had taken three decades to complete. By then, Lucian's father had told him, old Abad was all but stripped of resources, his fleet down to half a dozen vessels and his armies a mere fraction of their former strength. However, Abad had a trick up his sleeve. He had used all his contacts and influence to reinstate the former ruler of that single liberated world, presenting to him a free, if somewhat wartorn domain. The newly installed leader had bankrolled the remainder of the re-conquest, the rulership of each liberated world going to those of his choosing, while Abad was rewarded greatly for his services.
Lucian's father had insisted that there was a lesson in Abad's tale. Lucian had always thought the only real lesson to be gleaned was that Abad was an old, mercenary bastard with the scruples of an eldar. Perhaps, he now pondered, Abad had been onto something.
A rap at the apartment door interrupted Lucian's chain of thought.
The huge, gilded portal swung inwards, a white-robed servant bowing deeply as he entered.
'My lord, my master requests the company of the Arcadius this night'
No point stalling, Lucian thought. With a final glance at his reflection, he strode from the chamber, and Korvane joined him as he returned from his business with the cargo transfer. The servant closed the great doors at his passing.
Brielle planted her hands on her hips and took a deep breath. For the second time, she found herself standing in the small office of the harbour master of the Chasmata Primary Orbital, although on this occasion she, and not her father, would be the one to deal with him. She was really going to give the fool a piece of her mind.
'Please ma'am, you must understand. I cannot authorise a shuttle to the surface without a counter-signed declaration amounting to a level epsilon exception. You do not hold such a declaration.
'Listen to me you space-damned rimfluke. If you can't organise a shuttle, I'm simply going to take my own. Do you understand me?
The pale-faced harbour master bristled still further, gathering up a pile of nearby papers, presumably some ingrained nervous reaction to being balled out by the angry daughter of a powerful (as far as he was concerned at least) rogue trader lord.
'I'm afraid, that is simply out of the question. Three hundred and nine ordinances expressly forbid it. Should you attempt an unauthorised interface the Chasmata System Levy is required to shoot you down before you even break orbit.
'Really, and how will they do that?
'How will they-?
'How will your system defence force stop me, when it has no vessels?
'My lady, that is entirely academic. The point is that they are empowered and required to do so. That in itself should be sufficient reason'
Culpepper Luneberg's banquet hall was like no venue Lucian had ever visited, although he did not allow his impressions to show upon his face. As with the majority of the palace he had thus far seen, the hall was vast in extent. Yet, conversely, it felt claustrophobic, for Lucian and his son moved through small havens of light cast by hovering lumens, beyond which impenetrable darkness swallowed all. He caught glimpses of an impossibly high, vaulted ceiling, bats or cyber-cherubs — it was too gloomy to tell which — capering amongst rope-thick cobwebs. The chamber was incongruously narrow, barely wide enough in fact to accommodate the table that ran from one shadowed end to the other.
The table also grabbed Lucian's attention. Amongst elaborate candelabras from which trails of molten wax overflowed, was laid a veritable riot of gastronomic excess. Every manner of plate, dish, pot, tray, container and multi-tiered service held every manner of foodstuff, from cauldrons of bubbling, weirdly coloured liquids to the elaborately dressed, roasted carcasses of alien beasts the like of which not even Lucian had seen before. The aroma of all this assaulted Lucian's nose, causing his body a moment of doubt as it decided whether to order his stomach to wretch or his mouth to water.
An impossibly elaborate array of cudery, drinking vessels and plates, each manufactured from the most exquisite of materials and decorated by the most skilled of artisans, made up each place setting, leaving barely a square inch of the vast table's surface uncluttered. Tall-backed chairs finished the place settings, a servant hovering behind each one, ready to wait upon the diner's merest whim.
One such attendant, a hunched and wizened old man, stepped forward, bowing deeply to Lucian. Lucian waited whilst the man struggled to heave the heavy chair from its place at the table. Lucian saw that Korvane was now entering the dining hall, being offered a seat several places down from him. The servant finished manoeuvring the seat into position, and Lucian nodded his gratitude to him, before taking his place at the table.
He also noted that a seat several places down from Korvane remained empty. He assumed this was intended for Brielle, and hoped that it was sufficiently far removed from wherever Luneberg would be seated so as not to announce her absence too loudly.
More guests filed into the narrow hall, passing down either side of the table. Lucian could barely make out those at its furthest extent, for the far end was shrouded in shadow, but those seats flanking his own were soon occupied. The other guests were evidently the great and the good of Mundus Chasmata's ruling class, each diner's rank communicated not by insignia, but by the sheer amount of portable wealth on display.
To Lucian's left sat a man of indeterminate age, both his eyes replaced by gaudy, jewelled prosthetics, each pulsing as they cycled through the spectrum. He wore a white periwig and a long coat of the finest gold thread, and, to Lucian's mind, sat at the centre of an intense cloud of cloying perfume. Lucian nodded politely to the man, taking the opportunity to study the lenses that replaced his eyes. They were of the same type so strategically sported by Luneberg's harem, although the courtesans wore them upon fine golden chains that did little to hide their non-existent modesty. These were far larger, but obviously of the same type. Lucian was now sure they were of xenos manufacture, but tucked the suspicion to the back of his mind, until such time as it would prove useful to act upon it.
An elderly woman with the tallest hair Lucian had ever seen took the seat to his right. He nodded to her too, causing her to lift a pair of intricate lenses mounted upon a delicate, bone handle to her eyes. She peered back at him, the lenses whirring and her eyes magnified disturbingly. The woman let out a high pitched, nasal sound before turning away from him. Lucian saw then what was coming: introductions.
Every culture had its own manner of introducing strangers into its midst, and Lucian had found that, the more refined the culture in question the more involved, and often ridiculous the details of those introductions. The spectacle in the throne room had told Lucian an enormous amount about Luneberg and his court, and he had noted that he appeared not to exist until he was introduced to the court members. There, he had been introduced to the court as a whole by Luneberg's functionary, telling Lucian that in this particular culture it was customary for the lower ranked members to do the introducing, to the higher ranked. Lucian had seen, and partaken of several hundred variations on such a custom, and knew that the best way to avoid insulting one's host was to remain attentive, yet silent, until addressed.
Soon, every seat was taken, except of course for Brielle's, and the one immediately opposite Lucian. This was clearly Luneberg's, for it was twice the width of the others, and the delicacies piled before it yet more exquisite. Luneberg's functionary appeared from the shadows, and stood beside his master's empty seat.
Every head at the table turned to the functionary, a reverent silence descending. In a moment, only the hissing of candles was audible.
'My lords, ladies and gentlemen, please stand for the Lord and Master of Mundus Chasmata. Lord Culpepper Luneberg the Twenty-Ninth!
Lucian stood only a fraction of a second after the other diners, following their lead in giving polite applause as Luneberg entered the dining hall. The Imperial Commander was flanked not by his harem but by a gaggle of scraping servants, each intent upon attending to a single aspect of their master's wellbeing. Lucian saw that these were Luneberg's body servants, each with a task no doubt ranging from cutting up their master's food and drink, to tasting it.
Luneberg reached his seat, his servants fussing around him. One lifted a massive goblet, sampling a tiny portion of the deep red liquid within. The man made to take a second taste, just to be sure, Lucian thought, before Luneberg grabbed it from him.
Luneberg raised the goblet, golden candlelight glinting from its finely engraved surfaces. The servant stationed behind Lucian's seat appeared, proffering a goblet of the same type that Luneberg raised, although somewhat smaller.
'My dear and loyal subjects, I welcome you to my table. Let us feast!
A resounding chorus of affirmation filled the dining hall, echoing from the high ceiling. Luneberg drained his goblet in one motion. An instant later, the guests did likewise, waiting for Luneberg to lower his bulk into his seat before sitting themselves.
'Now then' said Luneberg, looking across at Lucian. Lucian met his gaze, noting how it flitted for an instant to Brielle's empty seat. 'Our esteemed Arcadius finds himself at a disadvantage, and I myself remiss as a host. Naal? Luneberg's functionary, seated next to his master, nodded, and stood.
Lucian had noted how this Naal appeared to fulfil the role of advisor or chancellor to the Imperial Commander, and was curious as to how much power he really held. Lucian had met with men who held title over worlds, over entire systems, who nonetheless devolved power to their advisors, to their military chiefs, to their favourite mistresses or, in one memorable case, to a favoured pet ptera-squirrel. He knew that Luneberg was no fool, but determined to gain the measure of his inner circle.
Naal bowed deeply, first to his master, and then to the diners as a whole. His hood was back, revealing him to be a man perhaps in his thirties, with High Gothic script tattooed across his left cheek and the elaborate coat of arms of Luneberg's dynasty, the Harrid, upon his forehead.
Naal turned to his left, clearing his throat before addressing the man seated there, 'My lord, I introduce to you the Lord Arcadius, Lucian Gerrit, rogue trader. The grandee, a stolid man formally attired in what was, very obviously, a military uniform denoting the highest rank, nodded impassively to Lucian. 'My Lord Gerrit, High Colonel Hugost revelyan-Constance the Third, General Officer Commanding the Legions Chasmatus'
By the man's uniform, Lucian deduced that the general staff of the Mundus Chasmata Planetary Defence Force thought very highly of themselves. Lucian had dined with Lords Militant who wore finery that was far more restrained. He was the type of man, Lucian thought, who would use every political trick in the book to avoid service in the Imperium's armies, preferring instead to remain on his own world, lording it up over his small military kingdom.
Naal turned his attention to a man three seats down from Lucian, repeating his earlier introduction of the rogue trader. 'My Lord Voltemoth, Supreme High Comptroller to the House of Luneberg' The man was wizened and ascetic, one eye, his nose and an ear replaced by cybernetic implants that no doubt facilitated his role within Luneberg's bureaucracy.
Voltemoth regarded Lucian down his mighty, hawk like nose, his bushy grey eyebrows creasing as he appeared to Lucian to consider whether or not acknowledging the rogue trader was an efficient use of his time. He evidently decided some acknowledgement was in fact required, crossing his hands across his chest in the sign of the aquila.
A third introduction followed, this time to the fellow sitting on Lucian's left. The Lord Procreator General, Theodulf Raffenswine' Lucian stifled a cough. Had Naal really just introduced the man as what he thought he had? He remained impassive, bowing politely as Raffenswine nodded back, his jewel-like cybernetic eyes twinkling.
Lucian's estimation of the court of Luneberg was being refined with each introduction. The Imperial Commander appeared to have surrounded himself with the effete and the ineffectual: highborn autocrats, all, to Lucian's practiced eye, lords and masters of their small world, yet ultimately, entirely subservient to the will of their overlord. It appeared to Lucian that either Luneberg, or perhaps some ancestor who had instigated such a system, had concocted a very good way of controlling his world's ruling class.
Another introduction interrupted Lucian's chain of thought. 'My Lady, Madam Clarimonde Vulviniam-Clancy' Lucian was unsure whether that was the woman's rank or her name, but bowed politely to her nonetheless. She nodded back, her tall hairpiece threatening to topple as she did so.
A round of introductions to diners of apparently lesser rank followed, Naal passing over each with increasing brevity, until, finally, Lucian was introduced to every guest he could at least see, for the far ends of the table were still obscured in gloom. Lucian had noted throughout the introductions that at no point had even the lowest-ranked diner been introduced to him, it was always the other way around. He pondered whether this was an intentional, conscious snub on Luneberg's part, or a more generalised condescension towards outsiders manifested in the court's customs.
Luneberg snapped his fingers, and Naal bent at the waist to attend his words. From his position, Lucian could not hear the exchange, but it resulted in Naal standing straight once more, and clapping his hands together once.
A tangible sense of anticipation swept the hall. The shadows behind Naal stirred, and a procession of servants appeared, each holding a silver dish covered by a tall dome. The train snaked around the table, until a servant stood at the right side of each diner. At some unspoken command, each servant bent forward and lifted the heavy dome, holding forth the silver plate for the diners' inspection.
The guests let out a collective gasp, part thrill, part horror. Lucian studied their faces. Each diner bore an expression that sat somewhere between rapture and pain, while Luneberg regarded Lucian intently, seeking, Lucian deduced, any sign of uncertainty that might be turned to the Imperial Commander's advantage.
Luneberg spread his arms wide and addressed the table. 'My loyal friends, we have the honour of the presence of a great guest, and it is my intention to honour him and his kin in return by serving the very finest of delicacies! My agents, at prodigious expense to myself, and extreme personal danger to themselves, have procured from the distant world of Catachan' — a murmur of appreciation — 'the most exquisite dish in the quadrant: The Catachan face eater!
The servant at Lucian's side proffered him the plate. Lucian looked down. Upon it was a colourless, shapeless slab of twitching muscle.
The servant waited for a response. When none was immediately forthcoming, he addressed Lucian. 'Is the creature to my lord's satisfaction?
Lucian nodded to the servant, who covered the dish once more, and withdrew. He swallowed hard, these people were utterly, irredeemably, mad.
Brielle seethed as Goanna brought the shuttle down upon the landing pad at Chasmata Capitalis. She had foregone the Chasmatans' planetary shuttle, boarding her own and ordering her pilot to breach the non-existent blockade. The journey to the capital had taken less than an hour, but she had fallen into a deep brooding during the flight, during which she had come to the conclusion that her father and her stepbrother must be stopped from dragging the dynasty into oblivion. She knew they would not listen to her warnings, so she had determined to impress her will in any way she was able.
She unbuckled her safety harness, and was out of her seat before the shuttle had finished touching down. She struck the ramp release, striking it a second time when it failed to engage. The shuttle safely down and the lockouts disengaged, her third strike caused the ramp to lower, and she stormed down it, into the cold evening air of Mundus Chasmata. 'My lady, I must ask that you halt immediately! A squad of Luneberg's household guard stood blocking Brielle's path from the pad, their white armour ghostly in the dim light of the dusk. She stopped, and stood before them, looking them over mockingly.
'Which of you clones is in charge?
A white and gold-armoured trooper, wearing armour as white and gold as the others, stepped forward.
'I am, of course. Ma'am, you do not have clearance to land'
'Oh dear, silly me, I seem to have done so anyway. What do you propose to do about it?
'You must obtain the proper retroactive clearance.
'Fine, I'll do that. I was on my way to an audience with the Imperial Commander anyway. He is empowered to grant me a retroactive landing permit I suppose?
The trooper's mouth opened and closed for a moment, before he came to an obvious decision. 'Yes ma'am, I suggest you do so.
Brielle was already pushing through the squad, her course now clear in her mind.
In what felt like entirely too short a time, the dish had returned. Lucian had spent the intervening period engaged in meaningless small talk with those on either side of him. The man introduced as the 'Procreator General' was, despite Lucian's initial misgivings, a likeable enough fellow, despite the fact that conversation with him was somewhat awkward because eye contact was not made with human eyes but with his multi-spectral, artificial ones. Lucian had been mildly curious as to Raffenswine's position within the ruling elite, but had thought twice about broaching the subject, knowing that many cultures found such topics vulgar. Lucian suspected this might be literally true in the Procreator General's case.
The elderly woman to Lucian's right turned out to be one of the most unpleasant individuals Lucian had ever had the misfortune of meeting, and he had in his time spoken with some highly unpleasant beings. Though she feigned an air of disinterest in her surroundings, she reminded Lucian of a haemonculus of the xenos eldar that he had once had cause to meet. She shared the eldar's apparent distain for other beings, clearly being of the opinion that all such lower creatures were a simple waste of flesh. Lucian was quite pleased when the Catachan face eater was placed before him.
Luneberg tapped his goblet twice with a silver spoon, the diners immediately hanging on his coming words. 'My friends, our finest chefs have prepared for us a dish of supreme delicacy. You have all seen with your own eyes that the creatures were in good condition, if necessarily sedated when presented to you. They have now received the tender mercies of our kitchens, and await your pleasure. Enjoy!
The servant lifted the dome covering the dish, placing the face eater on the table in front of Lucian. He looked around at the other diners, seeing that every one was nodding in appreciation, yet none seemed willing to eat first.
'My dear Lucian' Luneberg called from across the table, 'I trust such a dish is nothing exotic to one such as you' Every diner in the hall looked up at him, pleased, he judged, by the distraction.
Lucian saw immediately that Luneberg sought to test him. Fine, he thought, better men than him had tried. 'I have eaten many such dishes, my dear Culpepper' Lucian said, using Luneberg's forename deliberately, weighing up the risk in terms of breaching etiquette, 'though never so exquisitely prepared as this variant'
An appreciative murmur emanated from several nearby diners. Lucian had the distinct impression that they were enjoying the spectacle.
'Well' Luneberg leaned back in his seat, 'you will have to demonstrate the correct manner in which such a dish is consumed. We are but a frontier world, and the ways of high court are slow to reach us.
Now Lucian knew Luneberg was upping his game. What did the Imperial Commander have to gain from doing so? Did he seek some pretext under which to take offence at Lucian's deportment? Wars had certainly been fought over such trivial matters as which direction the svort was passed after dinner, so such a motive was certainly not out of the question.
'Certainly' Lucian looked down at the dish before him. The fleshy, translucent meat of the Catachan face eater lay on a bed of delicate green shoots. Lucian knew a little about the creature's habits, and knew, full well, how it had come by its name. When first offered for the diners' inspection the creatures were very much alive, though as Luneberg had stated, sedated enough to stop them from launching themselves at the guests. The creature spasmed, indicating to Lucian that he was expected to eat it alive. Fine, he thought, he'd eaten far more repulsive, though less dangerous creatures before, and would do so again were it to aid the survival of his dynasty.
That thought in mind, Lucian reached for an eating implement, judging expertly which of the score of utensils at his placing was set aside for the task at hand. He chose what he took for the filleting knife, guessing that he would need to make an incision that would incapacitate, as opposed to awaken, the deadly creature.
He raised the knife as a, literally, deadly silence gripped the hall. The face eater twitched once more. In one fluid motion, Lucian sank the knife into the part of its flesh that had moved, slicing away a thin morsel of still-convulsing muscle and popping it into his mouth. He chewed, as a polite round of compliments rippled through the diners.
'Well, I must say, that's one way of going about it. I prefer to wallop the blighters with a mallet myself!
The diners let out a nervous titter, picking up the miniature hammers set amongst the cutlery, and tapping the food upon their dishes nervously. Lucian chuckled inwardly as he saw that, in many cases this just served to make the food angry. Lucian noted, however, that Raffenswine, seated next to him, was eating the dish as Lucian had, and within minutes half the diners in the hall were doing the same.
'You've made quite an impression upon my court, my dear Lucian', said Luneberg. 'I hope the meat is to your taste?
Lucian nodded. 'Yes my lord. The dish is quite exquisite' he lied. In fact, it was quite tasteless. He saw immediately that Luneberg had served such a dangerous dish not for its taste, but for its entertainment value. Clearly, some form of ennui had descended upon the court, driving it to ever more contrived distractions, from its hyper-cultured mores to its culinary eccentricities.
The entree consumed, Naal had ordered the main course to be served. Lucian had scant chance to discover what manner of dish this might be, however, before a commotion at the far end of the hall caught his attention.
He looked around the table, catching Korvane's eye. His son appeared pained, yet none of the diners appeared to have noticed. Looking closer, Lucian saw that the other guests appeared to be concentrating especially hard upon their neighbours, heads nodding eagerly in determined agreement with the most insignificant of statements.
As the commotion grew louder, the diners turned their heads away from the direction from which it emanated, assiduously ignoring its source. Lucian heard a raised voice, and knew, an instant before she appeared, that it belonged to his daughter.
Relief flooded through him, for his daughter was safe. As she stepped from the shadows, exasperated servants trailing behind her, he made to stand to greet her. Before he could however, Korvane coughed, drawing his attention to his son. With the slightest of motions, Korvane shook his head, and indicated Luneberg, who was staring, red-faced, into his goblet. The Imperial Commander's servants were in some distress, for they appeared not to know where to look, so obvious was their master's displeasure.
Brielle walked straight past him, and then past Korvane, and sat, before the attendant servant had the chance to pull out her seat for her. She swung her legs up onto the table, and crossed them, resting them on its edge. The movement caused priceless crystal goblets to tumble and smash upon the stone floor, and the crimson liquid within spilled across the table's surface. She reached across the table and lifted a crystal decanter, pouring herself a glass of its contents.
Lucian stared straight at his daughter, unable to fathom her behaviour. The room was now utterly silent, every head turned discreetly away from Brielle, yet, every eye glued to her.
She lifted the glass to her lips.
Luneberg surged to his feet. His servants scattered in all directions and priceless goblets toppled, spilling their contents across the table.
Lucian stood, guessing what was coming next.
'Lucian, this is a travesty! Take her away this instant!
Lucian did not say a word. He merely walked over to his daughter and proffered her his arm. She took it demurely, and together, they walked, heads held high, from Luneberg's dining hall.
'What by Vandire's hole is wrong with you, girl?
Brielle remained silent. She would weather the storm of her father's wrath. Only once she had afforded him the opportunity to fully vent his spleen would she be able to act. He had remained silent all the way from Luneberg's dining hall back to the stateroom, but Brielle had sensed his boiling, inner rage from the moment they had left the chamber. He had not said a word, even to Korvane, who had caught up with them having made his apologies to Luneberg, until the door of the suite had closed behind them.
'You know how much is hanging on this mission, and yet you stroll into Luneberg's court with absolutely no concern for etiquette. Have I taught you nothing?
Brielle bristled at that, for she held dear the memories of the lessons learned at her father's side, before Korvane had arrived. She remained impassive regardless, determined that any damage done would not be caused by her, despite the fact that her father was quite correct. Her actions had been contrary to all she knew of courtly etiquette, and deliberately so.
'If I didn't know better, I might have thought you'd done it-
'Father? Korvane broke in, calm in the face of his father's wrath. Easy enough for him, thought Brielle, for it was not directed at him. In fact, Brielle thought, he probably sought to turn it to his own advantage.
'What? Her father held Brielle's gaze for a couple of seconds before turning to face her stepbrother.
'Father, I think we need to plan what to do next. I've been studying the Chasmatans' traditions, and there's precedent to suggest they might have grounds to cancel any contract we might have entered into.
Lucian took a deep breath, before addressing both his children. 'Korvane, Brielle, you both need to understand something about the nature of our deal with Luneberg. As I explained after the initial talks, this is not the type of contract recognised by high law and enforceable in the courts. This is not simple trade. This isn't even a transaction, and Luneberg is neither our partner nor our customer. He wanted something from us, and as much as he needed us at the beginning, we're as good as competitors in the long run'
Brielle fought hard to hold her tongue, for as much as she agreed with her father's assessment, she felt even more strongly that he should never have entered into the venture in the first place.
'Luneberg needed us in order to gauge whether or not he was on to something good. The fact that we signed up, and have returned here, tells him he is. Lucian said.
'But still' Korvane spoke up, 'he needs us to move the goods on. Without us, he's surely just sitting on worthless merchandise'
Brielle thought back to the cargo still sitting in her hold. She knew it was far from worthless. She had seen it for what it was — a mere sample of goods to be provided in the future. She would keep this information to herself though, and only reveal at a time most suited to her own ends. Her deliberate behaviour at the dining hall would pay dividends in the long run, but had left her stock low in the short term.
'I need to speak to Luneberg' said Lucian. 'Try to patch things up and find out what he really wants from us. I know I can turn this to our profit, but I need both of you' he looked straight at Brielle, 'both of you behind me. We are, in case you have forgotten, Arcadius'
Brielle nodded, a vision of contrition, and her father visibly calmed. 'Korvane and I will get back to Luneberg. You', he squeezed her hand, 'stay out of trouble'
Only once her father and stepbrother had left the suite did Brielle allow herself a wry grin. She had succeeded in complicating the deal to the point where it might collapse entirely, but was unsure exactly where to go from there. When she had discovered the nature of the items in her hold, she had intended merely to steer her father away from the deal, souring it to the extent that it would collapse largely of its own accord. She thought of this as entirely unselfish, but had come to realise that her father, and certainly her stepbrother, would hardly see it that way.
If she was to be damned, she thought, she would be damned for good reason. If she succeeded in ruining the deal with Luneberg, she would need to make some kind of power play against her stepbrother, for he would never forgive her, even if her father did. That made Korvane a long-term enemy, and now, Brielle realised, was the best time to deal with him.
Brielle crossed to the tall, glass doors that formed one wall of the stateroom, hauling them open upon corroded runners. She stepped out onto the high gallery, and looked out on a panoramic view of Luneberg's capital city. The sun was almost set, the last of its rays turning the sky a deep bronze, and casting the air in a thick, golden haze. The city sprawled for many kilometres in every direction, distant, craggy mountains just visible on the horizon. Below her, the palace grounds were arrayed. She noted how these appeared overgrown and untended, not like the lovingly maintained ornamental gardens she would have expected to grace Luneberg's estates. Beyond the grounds, the merchants' quarter spread as far as the distant warehouses at the city's edge, its street markets alive with activity even at this late hour.
Brielle felt a sudden urge to be free of the shackles of responsibility, if only for a short time. Luneberg's court was a claustrophobic and stale environment, and little advantage was to be had skulking in the dusty guest suites. She looked out at the city, and then back towards the door of the apartment. She came to her decision.
While her father and stepbrother wasted time with Luneberg and his pet fops, Brielle would go out into his domain. She knew not what she might find, but she reasoned it had to be better than what she had here.
The household guards made no attempt to challenge Brielle as she strode through the main gates. They resolutely ignored her in fact, staring straight ahead, out into the city streets beyond. She reasoned that their task was to challenge those attempting to enter the palace. Her thus far limited experience with the Chasmatans' bureaucracy suggested that their vigilance did not extend to those attempting to leave. An interesting observation, and one that might prove worth remembering, she thought.
The city streets outside the palace were narrow and old, the buildings overlooking them of pre-Imperial vintage, blocky and pre-fabricated to some long-lost pattern. Brielle stood outside the gates, looking first left, and then right down the empty thoroughfare. She knew the mercantile quarter lay to the east, and so turned left, headed for the junction at the end of the street.
Reaching the junction, she noticed how the further from the palace she travelled, the more people were out on the streets. She saw no signs of law enforcement, which on most of the Imperium's more populous worlds was conspicuous, and proactive in keeping the subjects in line. Here, the enforcers were conspicuous by their absence. Was the populace so well behaved as to make enforcement unnecessary? She doubted that, for she knew that rebellion and heresy lay just below the surface on every world of the Imperium. Not a single world, least of all sacred Terra itself, was untouched by war, and most such conflicts were internal in nature, even when triggered by external factors.
Though rogue traders populated a rarefied world beyond the norms, if such a thing could even be said to exist, of human society, they only existed in reference to that society. While they conquered the stars and commanded vast private fleets and armies, they did so ultimately for the benefit of mankind as a whole. They could only bring the rule of law to the stars if they knew that rale would be upheld once established. To Brielle and her kind, the law was something that applied to others, but it was vital nonetheless. The thought that worlds such as Mundus Chasmata might fail in their God-Emperor-given duty to uphold the Pax Imperialis was, to Brielle, unsettling in the extreme. She checked the miniature weapons worn as jewellery on her fingers, just to be certain that she could enforce her own authority, should she need to.
Following no particular course, she rounded a corner. Yet more people were about their business as the day drew to a close. She walked casually, so as not to draw attention to herself. No doubt, many would mark her as a stranger, yet Brielle had learned from her father that it often paid to keep a low profile in such surroundings.
She studied the men and women travelling up and down the streets. There was something about them, something also evident in Luneberg's court, which made her cautious. She knew her father had noted it too, though she doubted the less worldly Korvane had. There was a tiredness about the people, and the place in which they lived, as if they had simply lost interest in their own lives. Why should this be, Brielle asked herself? Many of the Imperium's subjects lived their lives in hardship and toil, or in constant threat from marauding enemies. These people suffered no such circumstances, their world was prosperous and in no immediate danger of invasion. Perhaps that was the problem, Brielle thought. Perhaps the people of Mundus Chasmata had grown lazy and complacent without the crucible of war and poverty to unite them against an ultimately hostile universe.
Brielle saw that she was approaching the merchants' quarter, the streets ahead lined with covered market stalls and thronged with strolling people.
A gruff voice interrupted her thoughts. She looked down, to see a man slumped against a doorway, looking up at her. He had addressed her, though she had not caught his slurred words.
The man repeated himself, and she realised he was not merely slurring his words, but speaking a heavily accented, local dialect, as opposed to the High Gothic spoken by rogue traders and by Luneberg's aristocratic court.
'You realise that upon any civilised world of the Imperium you would be shot on the spot for begging thus? she said, more a statement than a question. She made to walk away, leaving the man lying in his own filth, before noting that, although heavily soiled, the clothes he wore were of a very fine cut and material. Looking closer, she saw that this was no derelict beggar, but a gentleman of some means.
The man spat what Brielle could only take for a stream of particularly insulting local invective. She could decipher only one word in ten, and that related to an improbable biological function she was not prepared to undertake.
She shook her head, deciding to waste no more of her time on the man. She carried on towards the busy market place, leaving the local in a pool of his own making.
The street upon which the market was being held evidently marked the border of the merchant quarter, for Brielle could see crowds of shoppers filling the streets beyond. She came to the first stall, looking between the shoulders of the customers before it. Nothing of particular interest, merely locally made eating vessels. She moved on to the next, pushing into the ever more dense crowd.
The next stall stocked all manner of spices, a variety of pungent aromas greeting her as she approached. Wide-brimmed pots and smaller, stoppered bottles contained all manner of brightly coloured powdered substances, small parchment scrips detailing the source of the contents. Brielle read the hand-written label on a small, glass container holding a bright, blue substance. Extract of leg-fish proboscis, it read. Brielle let out a small snort of amusement.
'Would madam care to sample some snout powder? The stallholder appeared at Bridle's side, clutching her arm obsequiously.
She stiffened, mildly insulted by his approach to selling, and snatched her arm away from his grasp. 'No. She would not' She stalked off, hearing the seller chuckling to himself behind her back.
Crossing the street, Brielle noticed that the sun had entirely gone down, lights coming on all around the market. Like those in Luneberg's throne room, these were free-floating, supported by some manner of artificial, anti-gravity generator. She studied one, her interest piqued, for such technology was comparatively rare on most worlds of the Imperium, and she had certainly never seen it utilised for mere street lighting. A couple dressed in merchants' finery walked beneath the floating light, and Brielle watched as it followed after them at a short distance, before they entered the pool of light cast by another. At that point the second floating light took over, the first gently floating until it came upon another pedestrian in apparent need of illumination.
She looked around at the faces of the people in the street. None of them appeared to acknowledge the presence of the floating lumens. She studied the upper storeys of the overhanging buildings, noting, as she thought she would, that older street furniture adorned their faces, static, conventional street lights rusting away unnoticed and unlit.
Feigning an air of nonchalant disinterest quite at odds with what was going through her mind, Brielle approached another stall. This one offered a staggering variety of small, decorated vials, each containing a minis-cule quantity of oily liquid. The stallholder, a robed woman whose face was almost entirely shrouded, addressed her in heavily accented, but understandable Low Gothic. 'Looking for something special my dear?
Brielle looked down her nose at the woman, but curiosity temporarily got the better of her. 'Yes. Yes, I might be.
'I thought so. The woman gave Brielle a quick appraisal, and then reached in amongst the mass of containers, picking out a small, unassuming bottle. This' the woman gently lifted the stopper from the tiny bottle, 'is what you want, I think'
The stallholder lifted the bottle to Bridle's nose. She hesitated for an instant, and then gently inhaled. A scent like none she had ever experienced struck her. Blood rushed to her head, and the sound of her heart pounding filled her ears. Her eyes watered and her knees trembled, before the sensation quickly passed and the world came back into focus before her.
Brielle could only nod.
'You should see what it does when you drink it'
Wandering deeper into the city streets, Brielle came upon a wide, open plaza. Here the crowds thinned, until she stood alone, gazing at crumbling statuary. She looked up at the night sky, noticing, as any spacefarer would, that the stars appeared absent on what was an otherwise clear, cloudless night. Puzzled, she looked around, realising with mild surprise that the patch of sky she had, by chance, looked up into was not sky at all, but a vast, black silhouette against the night.
The silhouette described an impossibly tall tower, a cluster of spires at its summit piercing the night sky. This must be the city's cathedral, Brielle realised, finding herself drawn towards it.
As she crossed the empty square, she became increasingly aware of her isolation. Not a single soul was to be seen anywhere near the cathedral. The feeling grew more intense as she crossed the square, and she could not help casting a glance over her shoulder as she neared the vast structure. The crowds appeared a very great distance away. She turned back towards the cathedral, craning her neck to look up at its bulk.
It was dark. No lights shone from what should have been, literally, a shining beacon of faith. Such buildings were to be found on every major world of the Imperium, many hosting one in every city. Her discomfort deepened as she reflected on how such a centre of spiritual authority should have been heaving with activity. Officers of the Imperial Creed, worshippers, penitents, petitioners, pilgrims, the cathedral should have been crowded with people, but it was silent.
Brielle approached the vast steps, at the top of which stood mighty doors of cast bronze. She began to climb, her unease growing with each step she took. She reached the top and studied the doors. The weakest of flickering candlelight shone through the gap at the base, and for the briefest of moments, something approaching hope pulled at her.
A small hatch was set into the vast doors, and she tested its handle. It swung inward, its hinges groaning so loudly that she winced as she heard the noise echo back from the depths of the cathedral. She stepped through, to be greeted with inky blackness.
After a few moments, her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and Brielle could discern her immediate surroundings. Wan candlelight flickered and guttered by the door, but beyond it, she could scarcely see. Yet she felt the vast, cold emptiness of the cathedral, sensing the huge space that seemed to swallow her up, body and soul.
She took a step forwards, coughing as dust billowed up from the floor, disturbed by her tread. How long had the cathedral stood abandoned, and why? Such a question was beyond her experience, for although she had faced all manner of alien monstrosities, she had never had to deal with such heresy upon a loyal world of the Imperium. How could a civilised world exist beyond the constraints of faith?
She started forwards into the darkness, her eyes adjusting further as she moved away from the circle of light cast by the flickering candles. She began to discern other, tiny pinpricks of light against the all-encompassing veil of darkness.
She closed in on one such candle, finding it guttering and hissing, almost entirely spent. As the small flame flickered and died, a chill swept through her body. An involuntary gasp escaping her lips, she turned, and saw a terribly misshapen face looming towards her from the darkness.
Brielle dived to her left, a bulky form moving through the space she had just vacated. She froze, ready to defend herself against attack, but none came. Instead, a second flame ignited, lighting the form and revealing it to belong to a decrepit mono-task servitor. She saw that the flame emanated from a nozzle that replaced the servitor's right hand.
She watched as the servitor replaced the dying candle from a stock carried in a large sack strung around its shoulder, lighting the replacement by way of its own flame. Its task complete, Brielle expected the mono-task to shuffle off, but before it did, it lingered a moment. She watched in silence, she could have sworn it mumbled a quiet prayer as it gazed into the newly lit flame. Then it did shuffle off, its sack of replacement candles dragging at its feet.
Brielle waited until she could hear the servitor no longer, determined to continue. Cautiously, for despite the trail of renewed candles left in the servitor's wake, the cathedral was still dim and the dust thick. She followed a cloistered walkway, statues of ancient saints ensconced along its walls, until she reached the entrance to what she knew would be the cathedral's inner sanctum. She stood before the entrance, and hauled upon the brass doors. They gave only slowly, the grating of metal on stone painfully loud in the vast emptiness.
The doors open enough to allow her passage, Brielle stepped through. She was greeted by a vast, hexagonal space, many times taller than it was wide. Massive columns supported an intricately worked glass ceiling.
Through the glass, shafts of silvered moonlight beamed straight down, illuminating the altar at the centre of the chamber.
Brielle stepped forwards, her head tilted up. She stepped into the light. Looking down at the altar, she turned her head sharply as the moonlight glinted from a metal statuette set upon it. She waited for the retinal burn to fade, before cautiously looking upon the altar once more. The statue represented a martyr she did not recognise, although the stylised tears running down its face were a common enough motif. She looked around, seeing that the cathedral must have fallen into disuse many years ago. The tears of unnamed saints had not kept the flock faithful, she mused, a bitterness rising unbidden within her. As incredible as it was to her, she saw that the Imperial Creed had simply faded away, as forgotten to the people of Mundus Chasmata, as was their world to the Imperium. Such a thing ran contrary to everything she had been brought up to believe. Yet she stood in the very centre of an abandoned and forgotten cathedral, the people given over to their own selfish follies and affectations.
Verses from the Creed ran through Bridle's mind, clashing and contradicting where once they had soothed. Unfamiliar teachings stabbed at her, until she realised that she was hearing not her own, inner voice, but distant words echoing through the night outside the camedral.
Holding her breath so that she could hear well enough to determine the voice's direction, Brielle stepped out of the shaft of moonlight cascading from above. She ghosted down dusty, cobweb-strewn corridors, the voice growing louder all the while. After several minutes, she came upon a small portal, and stepped through it. She was in the plaza once more, on the opposite side of the cathedral to where she had entered, and she could clearly hear the voice, across the square from her. A crowd clustered on the plaza's edge, the voice clearly audible. Now that she was in the open, Brielle could hear that the voice was an angry one, that of a preacher haranguing a crowd. She looked behind her at the vast, empty cathedral, curious as to why such an expression of faith would be manifested outside of the institution of the Creed.
She started towards the crowd, the words of the speaker becoming clearer.
'And there shall be a great apocalypse! A great war whose might and clamour shall dwarf all the wars that have come before'
The familiar verse drifted towards her, and she instinctively raised her hands to her chest to make the sign of the aquila, but something made her hesitate. Some deeply hidden doubt rose to the surface, a feeling of tension that only increased as she neared the crowd.
'We bring upon ourselves the doom of all that was and all that is!
Reaching the nearest of the crowd, Brielle stood upon the tips of her toes in order to see over the shoulders of those before her. She caught a glimpse of the preacher, and was surprised to see that he appeared not to be a robed priest, but a trader or a merchant.
'We the masses huddle in our hovels, unaware of the war fought on our account'
Brielle did not recognise this segment, although there were so many thousands of variations of the books of the Creed that that alone did not concern her.
'How long shall the masses toil in silence? How long must we labour in ignorance?
A chorus of agreement swept the crowd. Yet their reaction was not one of anger or of fervour, but of curiosity. Brielle studied the faces of those nearest her. Each man and woman appeared to listen intently, as if a spectator at a theatrical performance. Small quips and witticisms abounded, ripples of applause sounding at what the crowd perceived as particularly well-constructed verses.
She raised herself up once more, intent upon a closer look at the speaker.
'What is our fate, if not to adapt, to evolve?
After each verse, the speaker leant forward, studying the crowd as if reading their reaction. He caught Brielle's eye, and delivered his next line straight to her.
'Are we not uncounted individuals, striving for a common purpose? Why must they deny us our fate? Who are they to control and direct from afar, when we know ourselves as they never can?
The man's words struck a chord deep within Brielle's heart, yet she knew he trod a path at odds with the teachings of the Imperial Creed, and he did so openly, in the shadow of an abandoned cathedral.
'The old ways hold no meaning for us! He was pointing straight at Brielle. 'Only we can avert doomsday, and only then by uniting for the good of all!
The old ways have no meaning. Brielle was shocked to hear such words spoken on a world of the Imperium, yet she found they spoke to her more than a thousand sermons of the type she had grown up with. The people here listened, and considered the speaker's words, they did not make hollow and meaningless responses learned by rote but never truly understood. She was beginning to understand the apparent ennui evinced in the behaviour of Luneberg's court. Perhaps they were not simply bored, casting around for distraction as she had assumed. Perhaps they were simply free of the constraints that bound so many worlds of the Imperium.
Yet, what remained once obedience and faith were stripped away? How deep did the teachings of this man, and his like, cut? Brielle could sympathise with a wish to be rid of the shackles of rule, after all, she was a rogue trader and existed outside of such laws, but still she held on to a core of faith in the Emperor. The boundaries of that faith were being redefined as she listened, but she also knew that nothing the speaker could ever say would make her reject the God-Emperor of Mankind. Nothing would change her belief in Him.
'Change is the only constant! the man bellowed, bowing to his audience before departing with a flourish. The crowd cheered, mightily impressed at such a witty turn of phrase.
'The wise adapt. Brielle whispered, standing in silence as the crowd broke up around her.
Brielle had found herself wandering aimlessly along the city's streets, the crowds thinning as the night drew on. She headed in the vague direction of Luneberg's palace, yet she cared little to return to the company of her father and her stepbrother. Her wanderings brought her back through the centre of the merchants' quarter, were she slowed, idly looking for some distraction that would delay her return to the palace.
This part of the city remained busy. Commerce, it appeared, never slept. Merchants in their gaudy dress paraded the streets, ostentatious in their displays of personal wealth. The sounds of drunken merriment emanated from the establishments that crowded the streets, signs above each announcing their specialised venality.
Brielle was in no mood for shallow vices. She wandered on, until she heard the rumble of shouting and yelling from an entrance ahead. Reaching it, a sign above the door declared that it was an auction house, and by the sound emanating from within, she had no doubt that a sale was in progress, even at such a late hour.
She entered, a pair of burly guards letting her pass without question, and followed the sound of the shouting up a wide set of stairs, a threadbare, though once elaborate carpet running its length. At the top of the stairs, an archway of crumbling stone led to a gallery, through which Brielle could see crowds of people up on their feet, waving their hands in some agitation.
She stepped through the archway, and pushed past the rear ranks of the crowd.
'Sold to the representative of the Drefus Cartel! A wave of disappointed jeering swept the crowd, and several men, wealthy merchants by their dress, threw papers to the floor, cursing colourfully. Brielle looked to the front of the hall, and saw that she stood upon one gallery of many, arranged around a central pit. The auctioneer sat on a podium, opposite, and appeared to have a large speaker grille for a mouth and a periwig that trailed almost to the floor.
The auctioneer waved chubby hands, his distorted, artificial voice shouting, 'Order please gentlemen, order! through his speaker-mouth.
A modicum of calm filled the hall, the merchants chattering excitedly nonetheless. 'Our next sale is an exquisite example of out-rim xenocana.
An attendant stepped out onto the floor of the pit, and a hush descended over the crowd as he held aloft a white staff capped with an elaborate array of multi-faceted jewels and fluted panels. The attendant circled the pit, the staff held high for the closest of the bidders to examine.
'This fine item comes to us from many light years away, and many brave men perished to capture it. It was once the staff of office of the Terror of the Trident Nebula, who wielded it against the orks of the Chrazhgkek tribe. The crowd cooed in awe at this, although Brielle had to struggle to stifle a laugh. As much as she was amused at the blatantly fraudulent description, she was even more surprised to witness such an artefact, whether or not it was genuine, on view and for sale on a world of the Imperium. She sighed, beginning to enjoy the freedoms she was witnessing around her.
'What am I bid for this fine, rare item?
A comically overweight merchant, half of his bulk spilling over the gallery's railing, threw his hand in the air. The bidding was on. Brielle watched in wry fascination, her incredulity growing as the bidding increased. She noted that the bidders tendered trade bonds, promissory notes she guessed, that tied them to a common, local market. Such tender would be meaningless outside of Mundus Chasmata, and appeared a deliberate policy to ensure that the trade did not attract the attention of outside authorities.
As the bidding reached its finale, so the bidders became more unruly. Brielle realised that up to this point, she had not seen the Chasmatans exhibit much in the way of emotion beyond studied disinterest. She wondered whether the acquisition of xenos artefacts, even ones that were likely to be fakes, was merely a new distraction that temporarily sated their apparent languor. The auction reached its conclusion, and the auctioneer hammered his gavel, the crowd erupting once more into bedlam.
Except that one person stood quite still, and Brielle felt his gaze upon her before turning to see him looking in her direction from the next gallery. A moment later, the robed figure nodded, and ducked into the crowd. Brielle froze, her father's advice coming to mind: when in doubt, eyes open, mouth closed.
A minute or two later, and just as the crowd was beginning to quieten, the robed man appeared at Bridle's side, as she had suspected he would. She turned to face him as he pulled down his hood, to reveal a shaved head, and a square-jawed face, flowing Gothic script tattooed across the cheeks and a heraldic device upon the forehead.
'Naal? Brielle asked.
The man bowed, a smile creasing his sombre face. 'Indeed my lady. It is an honour to be remembered'
'Not at all' Brielle demurred, wincing as the auctioneer bellowed the details of the next item to be sold, the crowd exploding into raucous chaos once more.
Naal indicated the archway with a sweeping arm. 'Shall we?
She nodded, and walked by his side out of the gallery. 'If you don't mind my asking, madam, do you wish to be escorted back to the palace, or might I be permitted to show you the real sights of Chasmata Capitalis?
'The real sights? Brielle liked the sound of that. 'Why not?
Swirling, discordant rhythms filled the hall, driving howling cadences into Brielle's skull as she reclined upon a low couch of exquisite brocade. The highborn elite of Mundus Chasmata passed the night away on similar seats, all around. Gossamer drapes suspended from low, carved archways afforded the courtiers a ghostly aspect, their features obscured behind the rich, diaphanous fabric.
Naal had led Brielle through the back alleys and side streets of the capital's old town, in amongst the ancestral piles of the landed ruling class. They had made small talk along the way, Naal revealing himself to be something other than the subservient functionary he had appeared at court. Brielle had found herself intrigued, yet was wily enough not to let her guard down. She would see what this hidden side of Chasmatan society had to offer, and whether she might find profit there.
The establishment to which Naal had led her was low and sprawling, gloomy yet intimate. At first, it appeared to be some private, aristocratic bordello, although Brielle soon saw that it was something more than that. Small groups of nobles and wealthy merchants huddled in alcoves, some focused upon intent discussion, others observing the other patrons. This was a place, Brielle quickly realised, to see and be seen in. Only an idle-rich, highborn ruling class such as this could sustain such a place, for it evidently relied upon the sort of mutually assured discretion that only an entrenched, nigh incestuous ruling class could maintain.
Heads had turned as Brielle and Naal had entered, ducking low through the arched doorway and holding aside silken drapes as they passed. Cushions were scattered across the stone floor, and low candles provided scant illumination by which to navigate the scene. Naal had led Brielle to an arched alcove, and bade her sit amongst a group of what were evidently high-ranking courtiers. Then he had pardoned himself, departing to find drinks, and leaving her to observe the scene.
Occupying the alcove alongside her, the courtiers wore clothes of the most exquisite cut, although Brielle saw that here, as in Luneberg's court, the fabric was aged and worn, as if the wearer had lost the means, or the will, to maintain or replace it. On the other hand, perhaps the men and women had simply lost interest in their appearance, merely sporting the trappings of wealth and status, whilst evincing little concern for its substance. The courtiers, both men and women, wore powdered wigs and prodigious amounts of make-up, and whispered conspiratorially, the men smirking whilst the women giggled behind fluttering fans. Brielle caught them casting furtive glances her way, more low laughter emanating each time, she sighed, finding such behaviour foolish.
'My apologies for leaving you, Brielle' Naal had returned, and placed a crystal decanter on the low table in the centre of the alcove before lowering himself onto the plush seat beside her. He produced a pair of balloon glasses, and poured a small amount of the syrupy liquid from the decanter into each, before handing one to Brielle.
She raised the glass, inhaling the rich aroma. Although no connoisseur of fine spirits, she knew enough of such things to tell from the thick, woody scent that this was a liquor of the finest quality. She sipped, the complex, powerful flavours washing over her.
Naal was speaking, but Brielle's attention was distracted, as the area at the centre of the room filled with sudden activity. A group of servants, previously unseen, was clearing the floor of cushions and tying back drapes, creating a small, open area, into which a tall figure attired in a scarlet robe stepped. The figure bowed to the onlookers, who, like Brielle, craned their necks to see what would happen next.
'My friends' the man announced, 'we have for your edification this night, a guest of the utmost singularity. I present to you, the virtuoso!
A chorus of gasps and fluttering fans filled the room, and the already low lighting dimmed even more, leaving just the central space bathed in a soft glow. The robed figure retired to the shadows, and an indistinct form glided on from the opposite side. Brielle had expected some exotic dance or song, and shifted her body around on the couch to gain a better view of what promised to be something else entirely.
It most certainly was something else. A sphere of glass, less than a metre in diameter, floated into the light in the open area. Brielle lifted herself on her arms, exhilaration flooding her. Something moved within the sphere, something dark: something… alive.
'It is perfectly safe, my lady. Have no fear. said Naal.
'I don't' said Brielle, turning her head sharply towards him, uncaring of the irritation in her tone. 'I'm curious. Where is it from?
'Please excuse me, I meant no offence. We know not from where the creature hails, exactly, but it is one of several of its type to have come into contact with our merchants working the eastern domains. It has, as you will see, a very special talent'
Brielle turned back, all her attention focused on the sphere. It bobbed a metre or two above the floor for a moment, and then began to spin slowly. A deep, bass note droned at the edge of hearing, vibrating through the spectators' bodies, and something quite amazing took place.
Every loose item in the room levitated a metre into the air. Brielle sat bolt upright, her knees drawn up under her chin. She looked back at Naal, who was chuckling to himself quietly. He leaned forward, plucked Brielle's balloon glass from the air, and handed it back to her. She hesitated, and took the glass from him.
The air of the room was now crowded with levitating objects, ranging from other drinking vessels, to loosened hairpins, coins, ornate fans and all manner of personal effects. The courtiers clapped demurely, some retrieving objects as Naal had, while others seemed quite delighted to see their possessions floating away, and this they did, the items gently gravitating to the centre of the room, where they began a slow orbit around the glass sphere, which Brielle could barely make out once it had pulled in all the objects.
The bass hum deepened still further, the low tables rat-ding as vibrations passed through them. A woman opposite giggled, but Brielle caught the nervous glances that she cast around her, and clearly heard the edge of delirium in her laugh. Brielle could see that most of the idle aristocrats had enjoyed this spectacle before, but those that hadn't were clearly uncomfortable and unsure as to what might happen next.
As well they might be, thought Brielle, who knew full well that the xenos was not to be made sport of. One with such powers as those on display might conceivably cause enormous loss of life if it happened to turn on its… captors? Masters? Partners? What was the relationship between the man who had announced the show, and the alien itself?
The bass drone dropped a tone further, hovering at the very limit of human hearing. There it stayed for several minutes, building slowly in tone, an air of tension, or expectation growing with it.
A sudden electric pulse burst outwards from the sphere, causing the woman opposite Brielle to gasp in shock. The myriad objects orbiting the sphere increased their speed, and the bass tone took on a rhythm, modulated, Brielle discerned, by the speed and bulk of those objects.
The smaller items swung out, orbiting the sphere at a greater distance. As their course changed, a high-pitched counter-rhythm grew, the movements of glinting hairpins generating sharp, darting notes at the upper edge of hearing.
The larger items orbiting the sphere then closed in to it, their course slow and graceful. The bass note altered its pulsing to match the movements of slowly tumbling balloon glasses, their syrupy contents sloshing, yet never quite escaping.
The remaining items each took up a complex orbit, some remaining constant in speed and course whilst others moved into figure of eight formations, some orbiting each other while others moved in relation to the sphere. As each object moved into its unique position in the dance, a corresponding rhythm manifested itself.
Several hundred objects of varying sizes spun in perfect, dazzling formation around the room, the spectators utterly entranced. Brielle glanced sidelong at the woman sitting opposite, not surprised to see that she had ceased her coy display of shock, and was now staring with open-mouthed rapture at the sight before her.
Brielle quite lost track of time as the display continued, the complex, interwoven movements and their corresponding rhythms building to an explosive crescendo. At the last, the rhythms synchronised, locked in perfect union for a fleeting, moment in time. The objects froze, hanging motionless in the air. The music ceased, the softest of echoes fading to the edge of perception, and then evaporating into nothing. The objects gently sank to the floor, the force holding them releasing its grasp.
Brielle turned to Naal, surprised to note that a tear ran down her cheek. As her senses returned, she wiped her eyes and shook her head to clear it. She watched the glass sphere bob for a moment, catching fleeting movement within, and then it retired once more to the shadows.
Those around the room were slowly awakening too, looking around as if roused from a deep sleep. Murmurs of appreciation swept the room, and in a brief moment drinks were being called for and raucous laughter rising.
Naal took Brielle's glass from her, and she allowed him to refill it before accepting it back. She sipped, looking around the room. Diaphanous voiles muffled the sounds of merriment and cast bodies in silhouette, but it was clear to Brielle that the festivities had now taken on a keener edge. The woman opposite, who had evinced such shock at the appearance of the virtuoso, had apparently cast off her elaborate outfit and was straddling her neighbour's lap.
Brielle took another sip of her liqueur. The remainder of the night passed in a haze.
Lucian paced the floor before Luneberg's empty throne, while Korvane stood restlessly nearby. The hour was late and the vast hall was abandoned. Lucian's footsteps echoed in the darkness, the only other sound the fluttering of artificial wings high above. Cyber-cherubs, Lucian hated the damn things. Vat-grown pets for shallow-minded men.
'This might be our last chance, Korvane, so you leave the talking to me. You will wait while I engage the Imperial Commander. Do you understand? Lucian addressed his son, the only other human in the hall.
'I understand, Father. His son hid his disappointment well, thought Lucian. 'What do you have planned?
Lucian resumed his pacing, addressing his words as much to the looming shadows as to Korvane. 'Planned? You can't make plans when you're dealing with this sort' Lucian was rapidly going off this entire deal, but was determined to salvage some semblance of profit, even if it did mean bringing himself down to what he saw as Luneberg's level.
'I'm going to find out once and for all what he wants from us. Make him reveal his cards, one way or another.
'Father, if you push him, he'll take offence. The Chasmatans' rules of etiquette are quite specific on the subject.
'Take offence? Lucian threw his head back and laughed a single, barking report. The sound echoed into the shadowy eaves, setting off a commotion amongst the creatures roosting there. 'He might well take offence. If that's the only way then that's how we play this'
'Father, please. Please keep your voice down' Korvane made an obvious show of looking around the darkness, before lowering his voice. 'There'll be monitoring devices planted all over the palace'
Lucian regarded his son. He had a lot to learn. 'Of course there are. It's all part of the game' Lucian said, looking up towards the dark ceiling once more. He sidestepped smartly as a well-aimed dollop of cherub dung dropped, landing with a wet splatter on the flagstone floor. He chuckled, aware of the note of appreciation in his own voice. 'All part of the game'
'Father? he looked up at the tone in Korvane's voice. Korvane nodded towards the shadows, and a figure emerged, crossing to the pool of light in front of the dirone, to stand before Lucian and Korvane.
Lucian recognised the man who addressed him as the High Colonel, Trevelyan-Constance, who had been introduced to him at the meal as the head of the Legions Chasmata. The man was a model of military deportment, tall and stiff, his shoulders wide with gaudy epaulettes.
'I understand you go before my Lord Luneberg presently' The colonel stood a few centimetres taller than Lucian did, and aldiough he appeared far older, he looked down his hawk-like nose, as if sizing him up.
'That is correct my dear high colonel. said Lucian, studying the man for any reaction or offence he might display at the familiarity. By the warp, thought Lucian, in some twisted way I'm starting to enjoy these people's games. 'I trust all is well with the Imperial Commander?
The colonel made no response other than a slight rising of the right eyebrow. 'Oh yes, quite well, quite well indeed. He will be able to receive you presently. In the meantime, as my lord's chief advisor in matters of war, I wish to consult with you, regarding the wider military situation in the region'
This took Lucian aback. He had judged Trevelyan-Constance to be a lackey, albeit one with a particularly impressive uniform, so what was he after? Was he acting above his station? A flutter of wings in the shadows above reminded Lucian that their conversation was unlikely to be private, and if anyone understood that, it would be the head of the Mundus Chasmata military.
The colonel shot a furtive glance overhead, and lowered his voice. 'You must understand, Gerrit, the last time we received an official delegation of any standing from the Adeptus Terra was over three decades ago, and that was the first in half a century. Don't misunderstand me, Mundus Chasmata is as loyal a world as any, but we are a great distance from the major trade routes. You yourself know this better than I do. I merely ask: what of the wars against the xenos?
'Well' Lucian's mind raced as he sought to filter the half-trudis he was sure he was hearing, from the lies he guessed interlaced them. There is, as you know, no peace amongst the stars. Ultima Segmentum faces many threats, not the least of which is the Kurtoum Uprising. You will have heard of the great victory won at Orman VII? Lucian asked this by way of a test. By no standards was Orman VII a great victory.
The high colonel failed. 'Yes, yes indeed, and what of the ork menace?
Lucian considered for a moment before answering. What if the high colonel knew he was being tested? Was he that bright? He would find out. 'The Arch-arsonist grows more cunning with each passing cycle, although I doubt he will threaten your borders for some time to come.
'My intelligence would tend to agree, Gerrit, but it is good to hear it confirmed.
Confirmed my arse, thought Lucian. The empire of the self-tided ork warlord, the Arch-arsonist of Charadon, was located on the western extreme of Ultima Segmentum, over thirty thousand light years away. Many other ork domains offered far greater, though less impressively named, threats.
'And what of… the high colonel hesitated for a moment, 'the Imperial Navy?
Now things are getting interesting, Lucian thought to himself. He's definitely up to something, but what is he really asking?
'The Navy is, as ever, fighting a war on many fronts, against myriad foes. Yet, by the grace of the Emperor, it yet prevails.
The high colonel bowed, making the sign of aquila as he did so. 'I am gratified to hear that is the case, sir. We hear too little of such things this far out. What, may I ask, is the state of the Navy's operation in the Timbra sub, and the whole Ring?
Lucian knew that the Ring was the local name for a group of stars at the heart of the Borealis Cluster, the appendage of the great Eastern Spiral arm in which Mundus Chasmata was located. The high colonel, Luneberg's chief military advisor, was asking him for information regarding Naval operations in the area surrounding his own world. These people really were isolated.
'Well. Lucian decided to tell Trevelyan-Constance the truth in this matter, for he could scarcely believe the question was anything other than a test, delivered in the same manner that he himself had attempted to test the high colonel, only a moment earlier. 'The last Navy vessel we encountered was the battleship Lord Cathek, three days out of Al Adhara, and she was heading for the Kleist colony. The route we took to Mundus Chasmata was not one along which regular Naval patrols are made, unless the Navy has a reason to do so'
This last was Lucian's own little test, a subtle way of goading some reaction from the high colonel.
He got none, or Trevelyan-Constance hid it well if he did react. 'Quite, quite, and Al Adhara is how many light years distant would you say?
The high colonel was truly isolated if he genuinely had no knowledge of Al Adhara, the largest Naval way point for three sectors. Once again, the thought that Trevelyan-Constance might be testing him crossed Lucian's mind. He resolved to himself that, no matter how tempted, he would not fall foul of mistaking this man for the ignoramus he gave every impression of being.
'Given a good run at the eastern tail, seven. If not, the next best route adds up to nigh on ten, if you're prepared to risk the Straits of Kephus'
The high colonel appeared to think upon this information, mulling it over as if it was confirmation of a long-held suspicion rather than solid fact. Then he visibly shook himself out of the reverie he had entered, and stood straight, tugging at the waist of his uniform jacket in an exaggerated display of trimness.
'Well, Gerrit, I thank you for your time, a most fruitful discussion. You must forgive me for detaining you, for I am quite sure my Lord Culpepper must be waiting. Please, follow me.
The high colonel bowed and indicated Lucian should precede him up the steps to the podium. Korvane bowed to the high colonel, and nodded to his father, remaining where he was as Lucian had instructed. Trevelyan-Constance led Lucian through the side door through which he had appeared, and into the corridors of the private quarters beyond. If the throne room and the passages leading to it appeared neglected and dust-strewn, these were somehow worse.
A palpable atmosphere of abandonment pervaded the lonely ways. It was not that they were in any worse condition, but that the impression of decay was more apparent the more sumptuous that which decayed had once been. Statuettes of once stunning beauty graced gloomy alcoves along the passage, their peeling or cracked surfaces even more obvious because of the quality of their original craftsmanship.
In minutes, they reached what was obviously the antechamber to Luneberg's private quarters. A white-clad household guard stood on either side of the metal doorway, the white feathers mounted upon their helmets bent against the archway above. A glance told Lucian that similarly attired guards had stood watch here for countless centuries, for above each trooper, a small area of the low, stone ceiling was worn smooth where the feathers touched. The high colonel nodded to the guard standing on the right, and he silently sub-vocalised into the communicator mounted at his throat.
A moment passed, and the guard nodded back to Trevelyan-Constance. The high colonel placed a hand on the iron portal, and leaned his weight against it until it slowly swung upon massive hinges.
Passing through the arched doorway, Lucian was greeted with a sight that suggested all the decayed finery he had thus far witnessed was but a tiny portion of the whole, sad truth. Luneberg's private chambers were dark and gloomy, quite in line with the remainder of his palace, yet the effect here was multiplied one hundredfold. Every surface of every wall was crammed with priceless artefacts, from far and wide in time and distance. A sword that Lucian estimated to be of second era Ultramar in origin, possibly even dating to the time of the great primarch Guilliman himself, was mounted on one wall, its once gleaming blade encrusted with centuries, even millennia of dust and grime.
Beside the blade stood a tall xenos beast, stuffed, badly, Lucian noted, and preserved for all time as testament to the skill of the hunter that had brought it down. Lucian had no inkling from where the beast might have come, but was sure it was not from Mundus Chasmata, and neither was the hunter from Luneberg's world.
Lucian stepped forward, looking around for a sign of his host. He saw none, so resumed his perusal of the bizarre display. If Luneberg intended to keep him waiting, he would happily participate in his little game.
A mighty banner stood nearby, tattered and scorched by chemical burns, and leant against a wall where it appeared to have rested for many centuries. A stylised flameburst surrounded a circular field, the numeral 11 5 still visible. Lucian did not recognise the unit. How could he, for it was but one body amongst millions that had served the Emperor. Served and died for, by the state of the banner, for its bearer must surely have suffered similar wounds to his charge.
A painting, barely visible amongst the shadows, hung beside the banner. Lucian stepped closer, and saw that a layer of fine, grey dust obscured the surface of the work. He gently blew on it, revealing the portrait of a brightly armoured man, his noble chin held high and laurel leaves gracing his haughty brow. Another arrogant backwater lord, thought Lucian, feeling nothing but disdain for the watered down bloodline that ruled this poindess world.
'My dear Lucian! Luneberg emerged from the shadows at the other end of the room. 'I see you've found great uncle Nappiermor. Impressive looking man, don't you think?
Lucian suppressed a grimace at being caught unawares, looking sideways at the high colonel, who made a great show of ignoring the Imperial Commander.
'Quite so, my lord. Was he close?
'Close? My no, the family hated him. Heard he preferred the company of filthy mutants to honest men. Ones with extra… bits… if you know what I mean.
Lucian remained stoically impassive, before allowing the slightest of grins to touch the corner of his mouth. Luneburg's powdered face split in a mighty smile in return, which soon transformed into side-splitting laughter. Evidently, Luneberg was a great fan of wit, his own, at least.
Mopping his sweating brow with a dainty kerchief, Luneberg finally, and with some effort, reined in his hilarity. 'I do hope the high colonel hasn't bored you too much?
Lucian smiled politely, not allowing himself to be baited. When he failed to reply, Luneberg huffed, pocketing his kerchief with a flourish. Lucian was struck once more, as he had been upon first meeting the Imperial Commander, by the apparent contradiction between foppish buffoon and physical presence. Luneberg might present such an air, but there was much more to him, lurking just below the surface. Lucian was reminded, as he had been on each occasion they had met, that he must always be upon his guard around Luneberg.
'Anyway. Luneberg continued, 'will you join me for a stroll in the royal gardens?
'Certainly' Lucian replied, 'I would be happy to do so.
Luneberg turned, but halted, as he appeared to remember that Trevelyan-Constance was still present. 'Your counsel will not be required, colonel' Lucian could hardly fail to catch the icy tone of the command, and wondered if it was for show or if indeed the Imperial Commander really felt such evident disdain for his chief military attache.
Whether or not the high colonel himself was concerned was impossible for Lucian to tell, for he simply clicked his heels smartly, bowed and turned on the spot, departing smartly and leaving Lucian and Luneberg alone.
Lucian was the first to speak. 'You mentioned your gardens? Luneberg had apparently been considering something else entirely, for Lucian's words evidently broke his chain of thought.
'What? Yes, the gardens. Please, do follow me my dear Lucian.
Lucian watched Luneberg's back for a moment as the Imperial Commander walked off towards a portal at the far end of the trophy-strewn chamber. He shook his head, the realisation that Luneberg was not entirely stable beginning to settle there. Pushing the notion aside, he followed after.
'Do tell me. Luneberg asked Lucian as they stepped out into the royal gardens, 'about the Arcadius dynasty'
Lucian looked around him while gathering his thoughts. The royal gardens were not as he would have expected. Instead of the meticulously maintained flora appropriate to the setting, the gardens were overgrown and untended. Twisting, alien weeds pushed their way through cracks in marble paving, and creepers sporting wickedly sharp thorns writhed across the path, around fine statuary, choking the remaining life from ornamental trees. The sun had long since set, but small lumens bobbed along the path a few steps ahead of Luneberg, ensuring that his way was always lit. The overall impression was one of neglect and decay, far from the impression a man such as Luneberg would ordinarily seek to give a visitor.
'Where to start. Lucian said, buying himself time. 'We are but one dynasty amongst many granted a Charter of Trade to exploit and to expand the frontiers of the Emperor's domains. We have done so for many centuries, not without success'
'Oh come now' replied Luneberg, not turning his head as he walked slowly along the dark, overgrown path. 'Such false modesty is unbecoming. Tell me of the world in which you live'
As had Trevelyan-Constance before him, Luneberg appeared now to be seeking information regarding the wider Imperium, of the vast galaxy beyond the borders of his own small fiefdom.
'The world in which I live? said Lucian, following Luneberg's lead in not taking his attention from the path ahead. 'My world is one of contrasts. A rogue trader moves in many circles, from the very highest, to the very lowest' At present, he felt himself moving in one of the latter, but refrained from imbuing his words with such a notion, so as not to cause Luneberg undue insult.
Luneberg nodded, clearly of the opinion that his own company qualified as one of those highest circles. 'Do go on Lucian. Have you, for example, much in the way of contact with the Imperial Court?
Lucian saw little harm in replying honestly, for Luneberg was clearly a man obsessed with status. 'I have, though infrequently, for my calling takes me far from Terra. Nonetheless, I like to maintain contact with the Senatorum, and visit in person whenever possible'
Luneberg appeared to consider this, nodding to himself slowly. He halted, his hand raised to his chin as he looked out, into the dark, overgrown expanse of the royal gardens. 'Tell me of Terra, would you Lucian?
Lucian now detected the slightest hint of mania in Luneberg's words. He determined to tread even more cautiously than he had intended, for there was evidently something more to Luneberg's line of questioning than was apparent.
He stopped beside Luneberg, looking out into the same darkness, yet not seeing what held the Imperial Commander's attention. 'To set foot upon sacred Terra is to tread the very same ground as was once walked by the Emperor' Lucian made the sign of the aquila. A sidelong glance told him that Luneberg did not. He continued. 'The very air of Terra is holy, laced with the scent of incense burned many centuries, millennia, before. Each time I have returned, I have been restored, for my calling takes me far from the light of the Emperor'
Lucian turned to regard Luneberg, and saw that he had dipped his head. The Imperial Commander spoke, his words ever so slightly slurred. 'That light at times seems like barely a guttering candle to us, so distant are we from its source'
Lucian felt his hackles rise. 'Sir, you must not speak thus'
'Do you judge me heretic, Lucian? Still Luneberg's head was lowered, his words muted.
'I do not'
Lucian took a deep breath before answering, tasting decay upon the stale air. 'I have travelled further into the darkness than you can imagine, Luneberg. You believe your world estranged from Holy Terra? I have walked upon worlds in the sway of such beasts as would curdle your blood, and I have never felt that the Emperor did not walk beside me'
Luneberg's head rose, and he turned to face Lucian. 'Tell me of them.
'Them? Lucian was confused for a moment as to the Imperial Commander's meaning, caught off balance by the manic gleam in the other man's eyes.
'Yes, of them! What beasts? What worlds? Tell me of them!
'I may not speak of them sir. It is forbidden.
'By the Administratum? You fear the Priesthood of Terra?
'By the Inquisition, my lord. I fear the Ordo Xenos.
By Luneberg's reaction to their mention, Lucian was gratified to see that the Imperial Commander had knowledge of one of the Imperium's institutions at least. Luneberg visibly trembled at Lucian's words, displaying a healthy fear for the agents of the Imperium's highest powers, those whose task it was to hunt down the vile alien, and those who would consort with them, and issue due punishment.
Now Luneberg turned towards Lucian. 'But you are a rogue trader. You have no cause to fear the Ordo Xenos, surely?
'I am a rogue trader, as you say, and you are indeed correct in that the power vested in me by the High Lords of Terra grants me certain… advantages. That does not put me outside of the power of the Inquisition however. One in my position must tread a fine line. Fortunately, we often do so beyond the sight of those who might object.
'I see. I believe we are much alike men, you and I. Luneberg was now staring into the darkness once more, his voice subdued as before.
'How so? asked Lucian, looking into the darkness too, and once again failing to see anything mere.
'I am an Imperial Commander, and my power too is passed down from the High Lords. Where your charter compels you to discover and exploit many new worlds, inine compels me to hold onto just one, by whatever means I deem necessary.
Lucian considered the other man's words, aware that they contained undertones not clear to him. He considered his next words cautiously, before asking, 'Is your rule here disputed?
With a sudden motion, Luneberg ploughed forwards before turning to Lucian, a shadow amongst the darkness. 'Disputed? he shouted, a very definite edge of mania edging his words. 'Certainly it is disputed'
Lucian had not expected to hear this, but pressed on, asking, 'Who disputes your right to rule here?
'How little you know of our corner of the Imperium my dear Lucian. Luneberg called back, a wry giggle entering his voice.
Lucian was tiring of Luneberg's nonsense, but was acutely aware of just how much hung upon the deal between them. He needed this madman, and he just hoped Luneberg needed him an equal amount. He resolved to push on, intent upon getting to the truth of the matter.
Lucian repeated his question. 'Who disputes your right to rule here?
Luneberg turned and resumed his stroll along the overgrown pathway. Lucian strode to catch up, and looked sideways at him as they walked. 'In truth, no man disputes my rule. Not as such'
'Not as such?
'I find myself, my world, in a war, a long and bitter, war'
Lucian stopped, risking offence by gripping Luneberg's arm. 'I see no sign of a war here. Tell me straight!
Luneberg giggled once more, and explained. 'Not that sort of war, my dear Lucian, not that sort. The war in which I find myself engaged is one you yourself should understand!
At last, Lucian began to feel he was getting somewhere, although he knew that Luneberg's cooperation was tenuous. 'Enlighten me, if you would.
Luneberg let out a deep, exaggerated sigh, as if about to launch into a prolonged explanation for the benefit of an ignorant child. 'Trade war, Lucian, trade war'
Another piece in the puzzle slotted into place, and Lucian looked around with fresh eyes. The decay that ran so deep through Mundus Chasmata suddenly began to make sense, as did Luneberg's apparent willingness to enter into a potentially dangerous deal with a rogue trader with whom he had had no previous contact. Still, Lucian knew there was more, some underlying stain upon the people of Luneberg's world.
Lucian pressed on. 'A trade war with whom?
'Lucian, you may know much of the breadth of the Imperium, but I suspect your knowledge lacks something in the way of depth.
Lucian did not take offence at the statement, for he knew it to be true, at least in part. A rogue trader might travel from one end of the galaxy to the other, visiting hundreds of worlds along the way, but he knew a world had far more to it than a space port, a trade mission, or a governor's mansion.
Luneberg continued. 'My line has ruled this world, this system, and indeed three other nearby, uninhabited, systems, for longer than the archives record. There are documents in our library that reference the granting of that rule, and it is known that the Administratum has formally ratified our authority at least three times in the last seven centuries. In fact, they do so less formally each time they accept our tithe, each time a regiment is raised for the Guard'
Lucian nodded, feeling that he knew where this was heading, but saying nothing that might distract the other man from his explanation.
'I may rule in the name of Terra, Lucian, but there are other rules by which we must live. Our neighbours have long sought to enforce their own laws, seeking to dominate what little trade exists in this region and extend their own power. The Administratum can do little or nothing to stop this. Were another world to launch an actual assault upon Mundus Chasmata, it is likely Terra would not hear of it for decades or even centuries. The Navy has other foes to battle, so long as it was quick and clean, and tithes were uninterrupted, no one would care, or comment. Or even notice'
'So' ventured Lucian, 'others would take advantage of your great distance from the centres of Imperial power, extending their own influence by means of low level lawlessness and fiscal malpractice?
Luneberg chuckled once more, that edge of mania still very much evident. 'Others? Yes, you might say that, but mostly that bastard, Droon' Luneberg's voice altered in tone as he voiced the name of, Lucian guessed, the individual he held responsible for his world's misfortunes.
'Droon! Luneberg shouted, as the pair reached an ornamental gallery that afforded a moonlit view of a great expanse of decayed, formal gardens. The Imperial Commander leant his weight against the stone railing, small chunks of loose masonry tumbling away to the weed-choked lawn below. 'Droon. He rules Arris Epsilon. It's a stinking hole just about… Luneberg looked up into the night sky, and pointed towards one end of a deep purple band that spanned the entire vista, …there, at the end of the Borealis Ring'
Lucian followed Luneberg's gesture, just able to make out the star towards which the other man pointed. 'Arris Epsilon. I know it from the local star charts, but have not had cause to visit it'
'Visit Arris Epsilon? Luneberg laughed, 'Believe me Lucian, you would not wish to do so'
'I told you didn't I? It's a stinking hole. Its people are boastful and arrogant, and entirely self-serving. No dignity'
Suspecting he knew the answer, Lucian asked, 'You have visited then?
Luneberg let out another laugh, this one more akin to a bark than any sound a man, particularly an Imperial Commander, should make. 'Have I visited Arris Epsilon? My dear Lucian, you really are downright ignorant about some things aren't you? Indeed, thought Lucian, knowing the answer. 'I most certainly have not. I am proud to say that I have never had the misfortune of visiting Arris Epsilon, or any other world beyond my own domains. Of that fact I am immensely proud'
Lucian sighed inwardly. The notion that a man might not have had cause to leave his own world was fine with him, but that an Imperial Commander might follow the same tenet was somewhat outside his experience.
Luneberg went on. 'I am entirely proud to state too that not one of my line has ever, since records began, had cause to leave Mundus Chasmata. It is my firmly held belief that since my unnamed predecessor stepped off the colony vessel that carried him from Terra however many millennia passed, no descendent of his has had cause to leave' Luneberg turned towards Lucian, his chest puffed out with pride, but mania clearly gleaming in his eyes. 'What do you think of that?
Utterly mad, was what Lucian thought, but he kept his opinion to himself. This man and his people are as scared of the greater Imperium as they are of the myriad external forces that would assail them. As scared, he realised, of men as of aliens. He looked into Luneberg's eyes, and saw that fear embedded deep within. Fear, Lucian knew, made men unpredictable, even dangerous.
Certainly, it made them the worst type of business partner.
'I think, I think you have given me much upon which to ponder, Luneberg'
'But you will join me? Will you aid me against that bastard Droon? Your ships, you have the means'
Not if the High Lords ordered me to, in person, thought Lucian, backing away from the other man.
'Not that it matters' Luneberg pressed on. 'I have the means now, thanks to you! I've got other friends you know, friends who'll help me, even if you won't. Such pretty toys… you could be my contact, my voice. You could speak for me Lucian! You could bring to me all they offer!
As Luneberg disintegrated into a fit of manic giggling and muttering, Lucian made his excuses and left. The Imperial Commander appeared not to notice Lucian's departure, for he was addressing a rant to the floating lumen bobbing above his head.
Lucian listened for a moment, his gorge rising at Luneberg's half-garbled words, before leaving the dark garden. Luneberg's mad laughter echoed behind. He would rejoin Korvane and head back to their suite.
Lucian had some serious thinking to do.
Consciousness came to Brielle only slowly, and she was far from sure it was welcome. She opened her eyes nonetheless, blinking several times until her vision came into focus. She lay upon some unfeasibly comfortable fabric, and above her, floated a number of the small, globelike lumens that she vaguely recalled seeing the previous evening. They were evidently set to give off only a low illumination, the light they emitted soft and warm. She studied them for a moment, watching as they bobbed silently in the air.
She was content to lie still, for the moment, waiting for the moment of clarity that she knew was coming, when she would recall exactly where she was and have to do something about it.
She moved her head a fraction to the left, seeking to gain a better view of her surroundings. The lumen closest to her brightened and homed in towards her, causing her a moment of mild shock, before the notion that the device was no threat appeared in her mind. Where that thought had emanated she was unsure, although she felt confident that it was connected to the, as yet, unremembered events of the previous evening.
She sat up, gently, for her head was still far from clear. She recognised the chamber in which she had spent the night, the memory of the bizarre alien… entertainer (?) coming back to her. She paused to recall the incredible display she had witnessed, shaking her head in bewilderment.
She turned to scan her surroundings more fully, blinking at the shaft of harsh sunlight flooding in through the grilles of an arched window behind her. All around the low chamber were scattered plump cushions and crumpled furs. The recumbent forms of dozing nobles were arrayed amongst them, although she could not see Naal anywhere. Somehow, that fact neither surprised nor disturbed her. Empty bottles, glasses and vials were abandoned close by each body, and she looked closer at those nearest, seeing how the elaborately applied makeup and powder, on both men and women, now appeared so soiled, and even ugly. One man, who had the previous evening, appeared to Brielle a handsome and charming individual, looked by the wan morning light an ineffectual, painted fop, his make-up smeared half across his face and half across the rump of the woman upon whose body he slept.
The woman, Brielle noticed, was draped in fine chains, hundreds of small jewels dangling from them. Each jewel was lit from within by a slowly pulsing light, lending the woman's skin a multihued aspect that appeared quite sickly and unnatural in the light of day. Brielle had a sudden flash of recall, a vision of those same chains spinning, the light merging into blurred streaks as their owner danced.
She was unsure whether the vision was a memory or a dream. She leant over, reaching out an arm, cautiously, towards the woman, and taking one of the tiny jewels between her forefinger and thumb. She pulled gently until the chain gave way, slipping from the woman's thigh. As Brielle lifted the jewel to examine it, it took on a deep, green hue, reminding her of something she had seen before.
Something she had seen in the hold of her vessel returning from Q-77. The alien device she had examined had glowed with the exact same green, inner light. This woman was wearing items of jewellery obviously of alien manufacture, yet somehow this realisation neither surprised nor outraged Brielle. This entire world, she realised, was enamoured of the exotic, enamoured, quite literally, of the alien.
The woman groaned softly in her sleep, rolling languidly onto her side. The man sleeping next to her grumbled in response, forced to reposition his head lest it roll from its resting place. Brielle froze, for some unknown reason not wishing to awaken any of the sleeping nobles. By the number of empty glass vials beside them, she doubted they would wake for some time. The couple's dozing having resumed, Brielle let out a breath, and looked around for the clothes that she had, evidently, discarded at some unremembered point during the previous evening.
Stepping over the dozing forms of the guards, Brielle left the establishment. She could only imagine it was some private bordello, reserved for the use of the idle and decadent rich. She stood in the wan morning light, blinking against the glare, unsure of her location in relation to Luneberg's palace. Fractured details of the previous evening came to her, unbidden. She recalled having met Luneberg's functionary, Naal, at a trading house in the merchants' quarter. Thinking of Naal, she recalled snatches of conversation, made blurred and incoherent by the evening's excesses. No matter, it would come to her in time, when her head had eventually cleared.
Standing in the centre of the narrow, empty street, Brielle turned slowly around, her head pitched upwards towards the morning sky. She realised she had no clue in which direction the palace lay, and so continued slowly revolving until instinct, or folly, told her which direction to walk in. East, she decided, and set off.
The street down which she walked was by all appearances rarely travelled, at this time of the day at least, for although it contained the detritus of any city the size of Chasmata Capitalis, it was deserted of Luneberg's subjects. Reaching a junction, Brielle looked around, growing increasingly aware of the fact that few, if in fact any, people were out and about. The thought struck her that perhaps all of the citizens of this world were as pampered and idle as the nobles with whom she had passed the night. Could it really be that an entire society could function thus? What of the workers and the indentured serfs? What of the ever-present and largely invisible underclasses upon which most worlds relied? Did they lie abed too, dozing in a drug-induced haze upon the soft bellies of their lovers?
She considered this notion, blinking against the sunlight as a floating lumen hovered slowly by, its light no longer required as the day began. She studied it quizzically, wondering who performed the myriad duties she, in her own life, had always taken for granted as being carried out by others. She considered the hundreds of crew serving upon the Fairlight, the thousands serving under her father in the flotilla as a whole. Many were the scions of families indentured to the Arcadius generations previously, others were press-ganged at those ports where the dynasty was granted the right to recruit. Still more were even less willing, convicted of petty crimes, death sentences commuted to service aboard Navy or merchant vessels. Others were servitors, lobotomised creatures, part man, mostly machine, and despite being consecrated by the officers of the Creed, and highly valued, unthinking things of cold flesh. What if, she wondered, as she avoided a pile of stinking rubbish on the ground, what if all those hundreds and thousands of men, women and machines were offered the choice of whether or not they would serve? Would they continue to serve, for the good of all, or would their own selfish desires win out, as they appeared to here upon Mundus Chasmata?
The thought occurred to her that the people of this world, or the ruling classes at least, were weak and foolish, yet there was undeniably an underlying hint of coherent dogma in their apparently mindless hedonism. Snatches of conversation from the previous night came to her once more, a vision of Naal's face as he expounded upon the nature of life upon Mundus Chasmata. She shook her head, mildly frustrated with herself for having such trouble recalling the details of what was dearly an evening of some importance.
Wandering down an avenue lined with closed up drinking dens and establishments of no doubt ill repute, Brielle at last caught sight of Luneberg's palace, tall, gilded spires silhouetted against the sunrise. She realised with a stab of apprehension that she must soon face up to her actions, and make her play once and for all, but what was it she needed to achieve? She forced herself to focus on the situation at hand, to address the task that she must now undertake.
If she really was to take a hand in the future of the dynasty, she must do so now, she pondered. The deal with Luneberg was against the interests of the Arcadius, of that much she was sure, and she was growing increasingly confident in her belief that it was she, and not Korvane, who should be preparing to take over the dynasty, and who should have their father's ear until doing so. Hadn't Naal told her as much? He had, she realised, another small part of the previous evening coming back to her in a flash. She had spoken at some length with Luneberg's functionary, and he had shared, even fostered, her opinion that Korvane was weak.
If she wished to usurp her stepbrother's position, she would need to take a hand in the immediate, short-term fortunes of the Arcadius. She would need to undermine him to such an extent that he would never be able to recover his influence. Perhaps she should go further, she thought. In fact, hadn't Naal said that she should?
She halted, suddenly shocked by her own train of thought. Had she really discussed such things with a stranger? She realised she had, and much more besides. She recalled Naal promising to lend her aid. All she need do, she remembered him saying, was to give him the word, when she judged that the time was right.
Her mind set upon a confrontation with Korvane, Bridle turned her thoughts to her father's ongoing talks with the Imperial Commander, Luneberg. Part of her was still furious that Luneberg had attempted to turn the Arcadius into lowly gunrunners. Yet, she was no longer so disposed towards undermining the deal entirely. Her perspective had shifted, and she now considered herself in a far more favourable position. She had made powerful friends, Naal being a far more influential man than she had supposed, at first. With his aid, she might redefine the terms of the deal entirely, if she could convince her father that Naal and his associates offered a greater opportunity than did the Imperial Commander.
Associates? She started walking once more, but slower, her footsteps less sure. Her frustration grew more intense as she tried to remember the details of her conversation with Naal. He had made it clear, she was sure, that he had some power over Luneberg, and could influence him to change the terms of the deal, so long as it had not yet been finalised. She realised that this implied she must act soon, sooner than she might like, sooner perhaps than she was ready for.
She quickened her pace as she reached a resolution. It was clear to her that she must stymie the talks, ensuring that her father and Luneberg did not reach a final conclusion that would lead to the Arcadius submitting entirely to his service, and destroying themselves in the process. Korvane, she knew, would attempt to block her in this, and so she must time her intervention carefully, since it would inevitably lead to a confrontation with him. She knew that she must manage all this without falling so completely out of favour with her father that he would never again place his trust in her, or consider her a worthy inheritor of his mande.
She briefly wished for the oblivion of the previous night, or even the relative simplicity of ship-to-ship combat.
Brielle swept into the apartment, to find Korvane waiting for her, a typically supercilious expression on his face. 'Where is he? she demanded, slamming the door behind her and striding into the chamber. She was not in the mood for formalities.
'I'd ask where you have been, but I can see it's not a subject for polite conversation' Korvane rejoined.
Little fool, thought Brielle, her hackles rising. 'This isn't the Court of Nankirk, Korvane, and you have no right to judge me. 'Where is Father?
Korvane visibly bristled at Brielle's mention of his mother's court. 'It certainly is not. he said, making a show of surveying his surroundings, 'and neither is it the annual tribal gathering' He made a further show of looking her up and down, exaggerated disgust on his smirking face. 'Although you certainly appear to have attended it'
Hatred flared in Brielle. She had always known that Korvane considered himself vastly superior to her in more ways than the order of inheritance. He had cast a slur upon the culture from which her mother came, that of the feral world of Chogoris. The world formed a large part of her own identity, despite not having been afforded much time amongst her mother's people.
Brielle stepped towards her brother, barely resisting the urge to forcibly remove the smug expression he wore across his stupid face. 'I'll ask you once more and then I won't be quite so polite' she snarled. 'Where is Father?
Korvane stood his ground, but indicated, with a nod, the door to the private conference room. 'He's in closed session with Luneberg. You'll have to wait until they have concluded business'
Damn them, she thought, they're in there now, closing the deal. She would have to take drastic action and worry about the fallout later.
'Get out of my way' Brielle said as she pushed past her brother. She caught him off balance and he stumbled to one side before catching himself and spinning round. He grabbed her at the elbow.
'I'm not going to let you mess this up, Brielle, so don't even think it. Don't get involved in matters that are beyond you'
Brielle snapped. Without thinking, she lashed out, feeling her fist strike her stepbrother's face and something brittle break beneath the impact. Korvane cried out and stumbled backwards, affording her a clear path to the door. She forged on, flinging the door wide without pause for thought.
Beyond, a wooden, oval table dominated the wide conference room, the back wall made entirely of glass, with a mighty eagle, symbol of the Imperium, mounted upon its outer face. Luneberg sat at the far side of the table, courtesans arranged demurely around him. Seated at either side were a dozen or so hooded scribes, feathered quills scratching across dry parchment in unison.
Her father sat, alone, on the other side of the table, his back towards her.
Luneberg had been speaking, but stopped as she entered, his mouth flapping in outrage. The quills halted too, and the scribes looked up, their faces barely visible beneath the deep hoods they wore. The courtesans whispered furtively, covering mouths with bejewelled hands.
'Father' she said, suddenly unsure what to do.
Her father's head turned, and he looked straight at her, confusion in his eyes. 'Brielle, what are you doing here?
'I need to speak to you, Father, we need to-
The door behind Brielle flew open even further, slamming against the wall with a crash. Korvane burst through it, blood pouring from his ruined nose. 'Father, don't listen to her, she's gone mad! She's trying to rain everything!
Bridle's father opened his mouth to speak, but Luneberg pre-empted him, bellowing in rage, 'What, by all that is holy, is the meaning of this? He turned on Lucian, pointing a finger at him, 'This upstart girl has interrupted us twice, Gerrit, twice she has perpetrated such breaches of protocol as would ordinarily earn a flogging. Well, I tell you this, you may have sought to wriggle out of our deal' Bridle's mouth fell open at this, 'but I am inclined to throw you all in my dungeons!
'Wriggle out of the deal'?
Brielle looked to her father, who was addressing Luneberg.
'My lord' said Lucian, 'please forgive my daughter. I will speak with her presently, but please, may we conclude matters?
'"Conclude matters"? If by that you mean will I allow you to run out on me without a shred of compensation, then absolutely not. You will find the terms of our original contract quite specific in this regard'
'"Specific"? Lucian surged to his feet. 'We had no such deal Luneberg. We can leave whenever we please!
'How little you know of life, you who consider yourself so well-travelled. I require neither contract nor treaty Lucian, for I am master of this world and may do as I choose. I deem you beholden to me and you may not back out of our arrangement. Not without substantial penalty.
'You're mad' said Brielle, interrupting Luneberg's tirade. Every head in the chamber turned towards her, a stunned silence descending.
Luneberg stood, straightening out his uniform as he did so. 'Lucian, you will punish your daughter, or I will. If you refuse to, I will have every one of you arrested. Do you understand?
Lucian stood facing the other man across the wide table. He leant forward. 'I will not punish my daughter, Luneberg, for she speaks the truth'
The collective intake of breath from around the chamber would have sounded comical were it not for the tension of the situation. Brielle watched as her father's knuckles turned white, a sure sign, she knew, of his anger.
'Then you are condemned by your own words. Naal, have them arrested'
Brielle had not seen Naal standing behind his master, but was grateful for his presence, as he stepped forwards. Their eyes met, and she recalled the promise he had made the previous night. She had only to indicate she needed, and wanted his help, and it would be hers. She nodded, the slightest movement, so that only he would see. He did likewise.
Though he appeared not to be armed with any form of projectile weapon, as would have been the case whenever paying court to such as Luneberg, Lucian now proved he was most certainly not unarmed. In that brief moment, Lucian raised his arm, the concealed digital weapon he always carried upon his right hand ring finger pointed straight across the table, at the Imperial Commander. 'You will allow us to withdraw to our vessel and to leave in peace'
'You will never leave here, Gerrit' Luneberg replied. Brielle could only assume that the man had never before had the business end of a digital weapon pointed at him. She chuckled inwardly as she saw that the weapon her father pointed was one that would not kill, but would instead have a far more interesting effect upon the target's nervous system. Luneberg, Brielle realised, had entirely failed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
'I had a feeling that would be your answer' said Lucian. 'These talks are at an end'
He fired the tiny weapon, a blinding white stream of light arcing across the space between the two men and striking Luneberg square between the eyes. The Imperial Commander stood transfixed as actinic lightning played around his head, before losing control of his bowels, explosively, and collapsing to the floor. There he lay, wailing and puking like a newborn, while his harem recoiled in horror.
Pandemonium descended. Before she could react, Brielle felt her hand caught by her father's as he ran past her, pulling her after him as he rapidly left the room. Korvane, blood streaming from his nose, caught them up in the corridor outside, and the three were soon racing down the claustrophobic passageways, unable to speak, because they were desperate to get a head start over their pursuers.
Her father in the lead and her stepbrother behind, Brielle raced down the dark corridors of Luneberg's palace. Clouds of dust billowed at their passing and candles guttered, making the way hard to discern. There were no lumens in sight.
'To the left, Father! Brielle heard Korvane shout from behind, looking ahead in time to see her father veer off down a side corridor. 'I remember this area from our first visit. This is an access corridor used by servants'
Lucian was leaning against the wall, catching his breath. Brielle did likewise, for although the flight had not been long, it had been sudden and she was in no fit state for such exertions. 'Well done my son' said Lucian, clapping a hand on Korvane's shoulder. He took another deep breath and looked across at Brielle, holding the contact for a few seconds. Whatever that was about will have to wait' he said, turning away before Brielle could answer. She felt the situation slipping rapidly from her control, and could see no immediate way of regaining it.
Which way, Korvane? Lucian asked, pushing himself from the wall once more.
'I think we continue on this corridor until it meets the main spine again. Then we need to work out how to get past the guards, to Bridle's shuttle'
Assuming I'll let you on my shuttle, you pompous idiot, Brielle thought, staring daggers into her stepbrother's back as they moved off, her father leading the way.
An angry shout sounded from behind, the deafeningly loud report of a large-calibre handgun following a moment later. The household guard had finally got its act together, and was closing with each passing minute.
'Right! Right! shouted Korvane as the three closed on another junction. They had been fleeing for what Brielle judged was no more than fifteen minutes, yet it felt like hours.
'How far to the gate? she heard her father shout, flinching as another shot was fired somewhere behind them. So far, they had been fortunate, for the guards had not taken proper aim before shooting. She prayed that remained the case.
'I think it's the next passage on the left' Korvane called.
'No! Brielle interjected before she could stop herself. 'No, it's the next right'
The three slowed, Lucian ducking back while Korvane peered around the next corner. 'Which is it?
'The left' Korvane repeated, at the same moment Brielle said, 'The right' her tone now assured. 'I remember from last night. I passed this way on my way out into the city'
Korvane sneered, but her father only nodded. 'You're sure?
She was. 'I'm sure'
Brielle signalled silence, edging around a corner. 'It's here. Only two guards. We can take them'
'We cannot "take them" said Korvane, 'we've committed grave enough crimes already without adding murder to the list'
We may have no choice, my son' Lucian said, moving next to Brielle for a view of the corridor down which she was looking. As if to punctuate his words, more shouts sounded from behind. The household guards were closing. Brielle realised they would need to make a decision here and now.
'We do it now, Father, or we fight both groups'
Lucian patted Bridle's shoulder before turning to Korvane. 'Bridle is right, Korvane. Are you ready?
Korvane sighed, over dramatically, Brielle thought, and drew his power sword. He checked the charge, disengaged the safety, and said, 'As ready as can be'
'Good' said Lucian. 'We don't have time for subtleties, so let's keep this simple. We need to get as close as possible and take them down before they know we're on them, understood?
Brielle sighed with impatience and frustration. She stepped around the bend and simply ran towards the guards. As she did so, she saw the expression of shock on her father's face, but she kept going nonetheless. She knew they had no time to sneak up on the guards at the portal, but she knew something else too, a fact of which her father and her stepbrother were entirely ignorant.
She ran on down the corridor, her vision filled by the back of the nearest guard. As she had noted the previous evening upon taking her leave of the palace, its guards stood watch against strangers attempting to gain entry. They expressed no interest whatsoever in events within the palace.
That was their undoing. As Brielle closed on the first guard, she made a fist, raising her arm and bringing it down in a wide swing across the back of the guard's head. The rings on her fingers made for brutal weapons, and she bit back the feeling of revulsion that welled within her as she felt the man's skull crack beneath her attack. In some detached part of her mind, she consoled herself that the guard would live, given half-decent medical attention.
Brielle's attack had taken only a second, but the other guard was already reacting. He turned as the momentum of her charge propelled her past him, shock and surprise writ large upon his face. Brielle came to a halt and spun to face the man, the realisation that she may have taken on more than she could handle dawning as he advanced upon her.
Brielle threw herself to the floor.
A high-pitched whine filled the corridor, followed an instant later by the screaming report of an energy weapon discharging at close quarters — another of her father's hidden, digital weapons, she guessed. The roiling bolt raced the length of the corridor, its light blinding in the enclosed space, before slamming into the guard's left shoulder.
The man's shoulder disintegrated, leaving nothing to attach his left arm to his body. The catastrophic wound was cauterised before the blackened arm flopped to the floor, to be followed a moment later by the rest of the guard.
Brielle looked into his fading eyes as life left them, the part of her that had rejoiced that the other man was not fatally hurt now strangely silent.
'Damn! she shouted. 'I had him. You didn't need to kill him!
Lucian reached Brielle, offering her a hand to stand up. The hand, she noted, that bore a lethal array of hidden weaponry. 'Believe me, Brielle, if I could have avoided it I would have. When it comes down to it, you mean substantially more to me than he did'
'But… she said as her father helped her to her feet. 'Of course, I'm sorry.
'You should be, but we can save that for later. Now let's get to the shuttle before we lose our lead'
At last, thought Brielle, as the three charged up the tread boards to the shuttle pad. They had, after what seemed like hours, but no doubt was less than one, reached the spaceport. Having dealt with the guards, the remainder of their flight had been swift, and no one, thankfully, had challenged them.
As they gained the top of the ramp, she saw her shuttle standing proud where she had left it, silhouetted against the honey-golden sky of Mundus Chasmata. She had harboured a nagging doubt throughout the chase to the landing pad that Luneberg might have had it tampered with.
'Is everything in order? Lucian called to Brielle from the steps behind. He was covering the rear, one ring-festooned hand raised as Korvane came in beside her.
'It is' she called back, hardly able to believe it herself. They would make it after all.
'Don't be so sure' said Korvane, pointing across the pad to a figure standing at its far edge, its features invisible against the glow of the sky. Brielle followed his gesture, raising her hand to her eyes to shade them from the glare.
'A friend of yours? asked Lucian, arriving at his daughter's side.
She looked closer, realising that her father was correct. 'Yes, yes I think so.
'In that case move it, girl! said Lucian, and started towards Brielle's shuttle, Korvane following close behind. She hesitated a moment longer, her gaze lingering on the hooded face of the figure. It was Naal, she had no doubt, fulfilling her request for aid.
She ran after her father and stepbrother.
'Full charge, all drives! Prepare to make way with all haste'
Sirens wailed and the lights changed to flashing, deep red, as Korvane leant forward in his command throne, the bridge of the Rosetta a riot of activity below him. 'I want all weapons batteries operational within fifteen minutes'
The bridge filled with shouts of 'Aye sir', junior officers, deck crew and dozens of servitors going about the business of getting the Rosetta under way and clear of the space station — the Chasmata Orbital. Korvane, his father and his stepsister had raced from the surface aboard Brielle's shuttle, each rendezvousing with their own vessel. No one had pursued them, a fact that Korvane put down to the laxity of Mundus Chasmata's security forces. Furthermore, they had gambled that the staff of the orbital would be lax in their security and would not to attempt to intercept them. To Korvane's huge relief, such had been the case.
The cargo lighters dispatched, what seemed days before, to offload the goods collected at Q-77, had still to complete their task, but had fled for the orbital as Korvane had ordered the Rosetta to general quarters. He gave them no more thought, because getting clear of the orbital was likely to require all of his attention.
'Disengage, all points. Korvane ordered.
A deck officer stationed nearby looked up from his console, concern written across his face. 'Sir, the umbilicals aren't made fast, we'll lose-
'I said, Mister Taviss, "disengage all points". Do so now or I will order you left behind'
The man nodded, before speaking into a fluted horn at his station. He gave the order. The rogue traders had no time to waste in the protracted process of breaking dock, his father had made it clear to Korvane that they should disengage with all haste, regardless of the consequences. A shudder rumbled through the vessel, her bow thrusters awakening. Any moment, they would clear their throats, and the Rosetta would move slowly sideways, clearing the orbital's docking arm.
'Thruster burn in thirty seconds, sir' called the helmsman, and a brass-rimmed clock face mounted above the forward viewing port began to count down the seconds.
Korvane watched the clock's hand as it moved, knowing that even now men on the lower decks would be racing for the safety of the inner chambers. Not all would make it, some would suffocate as the outer chambers depressurised, and a few would be sucked out into space through the unsecured outer portals, as the umbilicals were tipped away from their mountings.
He gave them no more thought. The clock hand reached 30.
The port bow thrusters coughed into life, their power staggering as they laboured to move the vast bulk of the cruiser. For what seemed an age the Rosetta wallowed, unmoving despite the vast energies unleashed. Then, inexorably, the scene outside the viewing port shifted, the docking arm receding as the Rosetta slid gracefully to starboard. Once moving, her speed increased, and a moment later a terrible grinding sound travelled along her decks, the unsecured umbilicals, and by the sound of it, several mounting plates, being ripped free.
A moment later and the helmsman called, 'We're free sir, full speed ahead?
'Full speed ahead, Mister Ellik. Form us up on the Oceanid.
'Sir' the Rosetta's Master of Ordnance called, 'augurs are detecting a power surge from the orbital! I believe it iS-
Before the officer could finish his report, a blinding flash filled the forward viewing port. Korvane held his breath, but the impact he expected did not materialise.
'Report! bellowed Korvane, suddenly filled with anger at the thought of someone daring to fire upon his vessel.
The Master of Ordnance bent over his console, his hands working a multitude of dials and levers, his screens filled with scrolling gibberish. 'The cogitators can't identify sir. It was extremely high powered, but left no etheric wake'
Deciding not to risk a second volley, Korvane ordered, 'Shields to full capacity. Helm, get us moving right now, at full speed. I want to put some distance between us and that orbital'
Once more, the bridge filled with shouts of "aye sir", as the crew hurried about its tasks. Korvane scanned the viewing screens crowded around his command throne, seeking any clue as to the type of weapon the orbital had employed, if indeed it was a weapon at all.
'Sir, a second power surge!
This time Korvane glanced across at his screens as the surge spiked, reams of machine code language screaming indecipherable warnings.
A second flash, but this time accompanied by the unmistakable sensation of the Rosetta's shields absorbing an impact. The bridge lights flickered and dimmed as every last kilojoule of available power was diverted to the screaming shield generators. A patch of space, a section of the field projected in front of the vessel, glowed white-hot at the point where the weapon had struck.
Fear stabbed cold in Korvane's chest. What by the Emperor, had the orbital just fired at them? Whatever type of weapon it was, it had, a quick scan of the cogitator screens told him, stripped the Rosetta's shield arrays to less than half of their capacity.
'Helm. Korvane shouted. 'Use every unit of power not required for the shields to get us out of range of that weapon, now!
'Aye sir' called back the helmsman, sweating at his wheel and labouring on a mighty lever, feeding as much power to the main drives as he dared.
A servitor at the shield control station turned its head towards him, spitting a ream of parchment roll from its rictus mouth. A nearby rating passed the paper to Korvane. A cursory scan confirmed what he had feared. 'The shield arrays were severely damaged, he doubted they could take a second impact.
'Sir? the Master of Ordnance called. 'The cogitators observed the second discharge in full. They have formulated an analysis. The weapon fired some form of hyper-velocity projectile. It was solid, not energy based. Our shields absorbed its force, but are not configured to convert such high-velocity particle impacts.
Korvane's mind raced. He knew nothing of such weapons, for the majority of human vessels used either high explosive projectiles or energy-based laser weapons. He knew the other space faring races fielded a wide range of exotic weapon types, but with the exception of those of the eldar such weapons were rarely of undue threat.
He looked once more to the banks of nearby screens, seeking some clue as to the actions of the Oceanid and the Fairlight. He quickly saw that his father's vessel had disengaged and was manoeuvring away from the orbital. Beyond, his stepsister's vessel had yet to separate fully from the docking arm.
The monotone voice of the servitor at the comms station intoned, 'Incoming ship-to-ship transmission. Source: Oceanid
Korvane stood. 'Patch it through.
Angry static filled the air, interspersed with random clicks and pops.
'Korvane, Brielle? His father's voice cut through the static.
'Here, Father. he replied, hearing his stepsister do likewise after a short delay.
'Listen carefully both of you. I'm transmitting jump coordinates. A glance at his screens told Korvane they were being received. We scatter here, and make the jump as soon as we're clear. Understood?
Korvane scanned the coordinates scrolling across his screens. They indicated the destination as the nearest inhabited system, Arris Epsilon. They gave an outbound jump point only two astronomical units out.
'Father, are you're sure it's safe? he asked.
A small delay was followed by his father's reply, 'No, but my augurs are showing that we're not just up against the orbital. Check near space tracking'
Korvane called up the long-range augur returns. 'What the…?
He stared for a moment as a group of signal returns appeared at the extent of his augur range.
'I don't know who they are Korvane, but I'm not prepared to sit here and find out the hard way. We jump as soon as we're dear.
'Understood' replied Korvane.
'Good luck, the pair of you. he heard his father say, before a howl of feedback screamed from the speaker grilles, and then silence.
The Master of Ordnance spoke up, 'Sir, another surge.
'All hands' Korvane called, preparing himself for the catastrophic damage he knew was about to be done to his vessel, 'brace for impact'
He looked to the bank of screens, seeing that it was not the Rosetta that had been the target of this attack, but the Oceanid. Having manoeuvred his vessel away from the docking arm, his father had not ordered her away, but had come around to engage the station in a deadly broadside.
Cataclysmic energies played across the Oceanid's dying shields, secondary fires raging across her port as atmosphere bled into space. Korvane stood from his command throne and crossed to another viewing port, from which he could make out the epic confrontation unfolding only a few hundred metres distant.
He watched in awe as fire blossomed across the Oceanid's side, the discharge of her port weapons batteries unleashing a fearsome broadside at extreme short range. The orbital station was wreathed in fire as the devastating attack struck home, and several docking arms sheared off as explosions gutted the central core.
Yet the station was far from dead, despite the terrible damage done by the Oceanid's broadside. Korvane winced as another, blinding flash indicated that the station's deadly projectile weapon was still operational. Though the projectile itself was invisible, he saw its passing etched upon the smoke and fire billowing into space from both the Oceanid and the station. It struck his father's ship a glancing blow to a dorsal augur array, the structure shearing off and spinning into space.
Stunned by the ferocity of the battle raging before him, it took Korvane a moment to realise that he was hearing his father's voice addressing him over the communications system.
'…peat, get moving the pair of you, now! Good luck'
Korvane opened an intercom channel to Adept Mykelo, his Navigator. 'Awaiting your order adept. You have the vessel'
A pause, before the adept replied. 'This is against my better judgement sir, but given the circumstances I shall undertake the manoeuvre. Pray for us all'
Korvane closed the channel and leant back in his command throne, watching as the bridge crew made the final preparations for the emergency warp jump. This was the second time the vessel and her crew had undergone a warp jump recently, and it appeared as if Mykelo would reject Korvane's order. It was entirely within his rights as a Navigator to do so, Korvane knew, for any and all matters relating to a vessel's passage through the warp were entirely the province of its Navigator, by ancient decree. Mykelo had considered the situation, realising that they had little choice if they were to avoid a confrontation with the unknown vessels, which were bearing down on them with obviously hostile intent.
A mournful peal sounded from the ship's address system, the signal that a warp jump was imminent. Korvane knew somehow that this would be a bad one, although he had no idea in what way. He had heard the tales.
The signal ended and all of the lights on the bridge died. Korvane could hear his own pulse thundering in his ears, and he gripped the arms of the command throne all the tighter.
A distant sound became audible, an atonal drone, building in volume to the scream of a billion, billion souls adrift upon an ocean of pain and chaos. Korvane's own voice added to the terrible din, as did that of every man and woman onboard the Rosetta. They were joined together in a terrible communion, sharing the damnation of the denizens of the abyss.
Then there was silence.
Korvane opened his eyes, and then vomited. The bridge lights flickered back to life, one by one. He heard coughing and moaning from the bridge crew. Having painfully voided the contents of his stomach, Korvane looked around his bridge, breathing heavily as he fought to make some sense of what had just occurred.
Something had gone terribly wrong, that much was clear. His crew was scattered around the bridge, or slumped over consoles, groaning or silent, unconscious, insensible, or worse. Only the servitors appeared to have escaped unharmed. The Master of Ordnance sat up and looked towards Korvane with madness in his eyes. Korvane saw with a start that the man's hair was now entirely white, while it had been merely grey-shot before the jump. Litter shock threatened to overwhelm him, and he strove to maintain control of his faculties in the face of what had happened.
'We pray for those lost in the warp. Korvane mumbled, the words of the spacefarers' prayer coming unbidden to his lips. The prayer gave him some comfort, and he felt himself calming. He glanced at the banks of screens surrounding his command throne. All were dead.
Realising that he would need to take visible control of the situation, Korvane stood, shakily at first. A junior officer appeared nearby, offering aid, which he waved away.
'Bridge crew, listen to me. I need a full situation report and I need it now. He straightened as he spoke, feeling confidence return as he played the role for which he was born and raised — that of leader. Then I need to know where the hell we are'
'Aye sir' came the mumbled replies from the crew. Men straightened themselves out, smoothing creased uniforms as they returned to their stations. Within minutes, the bridge bore some resemblance to its normal state — men, and mostly servitors, going about their business. Yet still the screens were dead.
He turned to the junior officer hovering nearby. 'Find out if Adept Mykelo is in need of help' The man nodded and hurried away.
Korvane crossed to the forward viewing port. Looking out, he was confronted with unfamiliar constellations, but at least, he thought, it was space out there, and not somewhere else. He shook the thought off and studied the view, a nearby star glowed white through the halo of a comet's debris, yet he had no clue if it was Arris Epsilon, or an entirely different system.
The rating appeared at his side once more. 'Report' he ordered.
'Sir, we're being hailed'
Leaving the question of the Navigator's state to one side, Korvane asked, 'The Oceanid He doubted, even as he asked, that either of the other two rogue trader vessels would be nearby.
'I cannot tell, sir'
'Why can't you tell, lieutenant?
'Sir, the comms systems appear to have sustained some damage. We have crews working on getting them fully operational. We have short-ranged hailing, but little else'
'Fine' Korvane felt at a major disadvantage with his ship's systems running under capacity, but he would have to make the best of the situation. 'Open a channel, and contact Mykelo'
'Aye sir. the officer said, before ordering the servitor at the comms station to patch through the transmission.
'…vessel. Repeat. Activate identification transponders immediately or be fired upon. You have entered sovereign space and we will fire if you do not identify yourself. Repeat-
Korvane cleared his throat, before announcing, 'This is the rogue trader vessel Rosetta, of the Arcadius. I am Korvane Gerrit of the Arcadius, son of Lucian, heritor of the Arcadius. To whom do I speak?
The channel burbled and whistled for a second or two, before the reply came back, 'Rosetta, this is Epsilon system defence boat Gamma Secondus. You will lock onto our signal and follow us in. Then you will be ferried to the surface, is that understood?
Korvane sighed. He was intensely relieved that they had reached their intended destination of Arris Epsilon. With many of the ship's augur systems still incapacitated he had no clue as to whether his father and stepsister had yet arrived. That, to his mind, put him in a position of authority.
Perhaps, at Arris Epsilon, he could repair some of the damage his stepsister had done at Mundus Chasmata.
'Do as they instruct. he ordered the helmsman, before retiring to his quarters to prepare to board the other vessel.
'Arris Epsilon, my lord.
Korvane looked through the shuttle's cockpit port as the small ship swept through the upper atmosphere of Arris Epsilon: vast, bioluminescent clouds glowed acid yellow and jade green, casting the landscape far below in an actinic, murky half-light.
He nodded to the captain of the security cutter, his mind engaged by conflicting distractions: the need to plan for the coming meeting with this world's leaders, and the need to gather as much information on this world as possible.
The view, which was really quite stunning, was another distraction.
Spotting the smudge of what he assumed was a distant conurbation, Korvane turned to the captain, 'How far to your capital?
The man bowed his head as he communed with the shuttle's machine spirit, his soul intermingling with that of the machine via the consecrated mind impulse cables threaded from the back of his head to the ports behind him.
The captain raised his head, 'Thirty-seven point five. Korvane raised his eyebrows, holding the man's eye. 'Local. he finished, Korvane nodding.
Korvane setded back in his seat, deciding to use the time wisely. He had gathered, from what little conversation had taken place between the security cutter's crew and himself, that an Imperial Commander named Zachary Droon ruled Arris Epsilon. His ancestral seat lay in a range of mountains that bisected the world's main landmass, his capital named Arralow City.
Beyond that, Korvane had scarcely gleaned anything, for the Epsilon security personnel were tight lipped, even for the natives of such a backwater world. It wasn't that they had a problem communicating, for their Low Gothic was uncommonly coherent. They simply didn't communicate very much.
Korvane sighed, inwardly, for to do so out loud would be, to him, an unforgivable rudeness. He looked once more out of the cockpit's port, his eyes tracing the patterns in the vast cloud formations. Many hundreds of kilometres tall, they formed pillars that connected the various strata of Arris Epsilon's atmosphere. The incredibly complex convection currents within each supported entire worlds of microscopic life, or so the captain had informed him. Apparently, it was the only subject on which he was capable of holding forth.
Korvane's mind wandered, casting back to the warp jump from Mundus Chasmata. Before leaving his vessel to board the security cutter, Korvane had ensured that he knew about his Navigator's condition. The adept had been able to speak to him only briefly, but had communicated to him the enormity of what had transpired during the jump. Korvane knew that the adept was talking down to him, speaking in layman's terms, but he had been chilled to the bone by the Navigator's report. The Rosetta, Mykelo had croaked through parched lips, had been struck a glancing blow by… something… in the warp. He knew not what, but likened the event to a small boat cast adrift upon a raging ocean, only to be caught by the passing of a mighty leviathan. The… leviathan… might have been entirely ignorant as the tiny vessel was dashed by its fins, caught in its wake, swept across the ocean, and cast up on unknown shores.
It was only thanks to the skill of Adept Mykelo that, so Korvane gathered, the Rosetta had escaped the thing's embrace, the Navigator dumping the vessel back into real space. By some bizarre chance, perhaps because they were, literally, caught up on the leviathan's back, they had emerged on the outskirts of the system for which they had been making.
Mykelo had cautioned Korvane against welcoming such an event, however, warning him that the cost might have been higher than any could imagine. Mykelo had shivered as he had explained just how fortunate they had been not to have been swept up entirely, to be carried across space and time to the very ends of the universe.
He shook his head, attempting to clear the memory of those terrible seconds within the warp. At least, it had appeared mere seconds, but it might have been minutes, hours or weeks. He might have been locked in his soul scream for decades, his mortal mind only able to comprehend the smallest portion of damnation.
Korvane shook his head again, focusing on the view outside the shuttle in an effort to shed the cold that had descended upon his soul. The vast cloudbanks were receding, and an impossibly tall mountain chain that stretched from one horizon to the other dominated the view. He saw that the line marked the world's current terminator line, the darkness of rapidly descending night all that was visible beyond.
The shuttle swept on, banking to gain height over the rising mountains below. The copper green rocks soon rose to meet them, and Korvane saw that the shuttle was following the meandering course of a valley many dozens of kilometres deep, the bottom of which was wreathed in pulsating silver mist.
Following the course of the valley, Korvane saw that it came to a head amid the mountains above. The shuttle rose, following the valley to its termination in the mountain's crags. More of the silver, inwardly glowing mist wreathed this tallest of mountains, but Korvane soon made out the unmistakable pattern described by racing landing lights.
The shuttle throttled back, bleeding velocity as the pilot brought it expertly in through the coiling mist. It settled upon its landing gear, the captain throwing a bank of switches and disengaging its engines.
Korvane realised as they touched down upon the surface of Arris Epsilon that the future of the Arcadius Dynasty might rest entirely in his hands.
Arralow City, seat of power of Imperial Commander Zachary Droon, was an ancient stone structure, perched precariously atop the highest peak of the mountain range. The chain stretched from the eastern to the western horizons, forming a mighty, jagged and unbroken spine. The valley along which the cutter had approached ran to the south, receding from view as it descended to the mist-wreathed flats below. An immense plain stretched to the north, the bioluminescent cloud formations dancing across its endless surface.
Korvane saw all this as he stood on the windswept landing pad, awaiting the approach of a ceremonial guard. He felt a mild, but pleasant surprise that such had been ordered, for he had given no advance warning of his visit and was not known to the Imperial Commander. It was a good sign, he judged, going by his experience of dealing in matters of courtly etiquette.
He stood in polite silence, flanked by the captain and first mate of the cutter. The shock of the exit from the warp was clearing, and he was struck by the unusual scent upon the air, a vaguely noxious combination of chemical sharpness and decay. He realised that it must be some by-product of the exotic eco-system at play within the clouds, and guessed that the natives were entirely unaware of it. He stifled a cough, and determined not to mention it.
The ceremonial procession approached, Korvane able to make out the details of the guards' uniforms and weapons. They offered a jarring contrast to Luneberg's household guard, who had worn uniforms of stark white with tall feathers at their brows. These wore rough spun, un-dyed cloth, and carried simple, sturdy lasguns in place of the overly ornate and entirely impractical long rifles that Luneberg's men had carried.
The procession reached the edge of the landing pad, and an officer, barely distinguishable to Korvane from the other guards, stepped forwards and bowed.
'I welcome you, Lord Gerrit of the Arcadius, to the world of Arris Epsilon. My master, the Imperial Commander Lord Droon bids you attend him'
Korvane was struck by the clarity of the man's Low Gothic, just as he had been by that of the cutter's captain.
It was most unusual, in his experience, to find a dialect this far out on the Eastern Rim that was so understandable. So clear was it, in fact that Korvane guessed it was a derivation of High Gothic rather than one of the hybrid dialects used on most worlds. All this passed through his mind in the span of time it took the officer to speak, Korvane's expert instincts gleaning potentially valuable information from every aspect of his situation.
'I gladly do so. he replied, bowing ever so slightly at the waist and reading the other man's reaction all the while. Seeing the other bow yet lower told him that his conventions were correct when it came to acknowledging comparative social ranking.
The officer turned, his squad doing likewise in perfect unison. Korvane stepped forwards, and the guards marched off as he passed them. He found himself walking along a tall, thin access-way crossing a vast gulf to a rocky spire several hundred metres away. He glanced over the rail-less edge, glad that the ground was not visible, the mist bubbling away far below.
Looking ahead, Korvane saw the bulk of what he took to be Imperial Commander Zachary Droon's palace, perched upon the highest peak of mountain towards which the walkway led. It consisted of a multitude of peaked turrets, verandas and galleries, each connected, he guessed, by a honeycomb of tunnels cut into the rock of the mountain.
The walkway terminated in a tall, thin portal in the rock, flanked on either side by long, fluttering pennants. The doors opened on well-oiled hinges, swinging inwards to reveal a brightly lit passage leading into the mountain.
The procession passed through the portal, following the passage cut through the raw stone for a hundred metres or so, to a second set of tall, thin doors. The guards now changed formation, forming a perfect line behind Korvane. At some unheard signal, the doors swung open and a bright light burst forth, briefly dazzling Korvane.
He was so determined to avoid causing offence that he stepped forwards, regardless that his vision had yet to clear. As his sight adjusted to the brightness, Korvane saw that he stood in the centre of a wide, tall space cut into the side of the mountain. The world's sun entirely filled the view beyond the cave's mouth, its centre the brightest white, its halo a serene jade. Silhouetted against the sun, Korvane could just make out a tall form, which stepped towards him.
The silhouette resolved in Korvane's vision, forming into a tall, thin-faced man, his hair receding, wearing a long robe of plain linen. This was Zachary Droon, judged Korvane, an ascetic, by his appearance, although Korvane recalled the numerous times his father had warned him against acting on first impressions.
'Welcome to my court, Lord Gerrit. Droon made an expansive motion with his long, thin arms. Korvane followed the gesture, noting the courtiers arrayed upon either side, dressed in the same, simple garb as their master. "We so seldom receive guests, and when we do, we are never found wanting as hosts. 'You arrived unannounced, Lord Gerrit?
Korvane caught the inference immediately — Droon was sizing him up, while simultaneously hedging his bets lest Korvane prove to be a potential ally, or a potential threat. The Imperial Commander appeared to have accepted that Korvane was, as he had identified himself, a rogue trader, for which Korvane was grateful. He guessed that Droon was prepared to believe him, for now, but would require a more solid indication at some point in the not too distant future.
'Yes my Lord Droon, for which I beg your forgiveness. A little contrition was hardly inappropriate at this juncture, Korvane thought. Evidently, Droon thought the same thing, for he nodded sagely at Korvane's reply. A mishap whilst traversing the empyrean brought us to your domains in this manner, although we were bound for Arris Epsilon in any case.
Droon's eyebrows rose. 'Really? We expected no such visit. Please, do go on'
Korvane felt hot prickles rise at his neck, for Droon appeared more inclined to press his guest for an explanation than would ordinarily be politic. He went on, 'No, my lord, and again, I must ask your forbearance. My vessel and two others were fleeing an attack at a nearby system. In our haste to escape, we determined that this was the safest destination'
Upon hearing this, the Imperial Commander turned his head to one side, considering, Korvane guessed, the likelihood of Korvane's story.
'Your attackers were… raiders? Pirates?
'No, my lord, unfortunately not, we were engaged in a trade negotiation upon Mundus Chasmata-
'Luneberg? Droon interjected, his previously blank expression suddenly one of anger.
'Indeed, my lord'
'What cause did he have to attack your vessels? What was the nature of your negotiations? Droon's manner had shifted, from one of detached civility to something bordering on hostility.
Korvane thought quickly, judging that Droon's reaction was caused by some underlying enmity towards the Imperial Commander of Mundus Chasmata. The talks were to ascertain the profitability of opening up a permanent trade route between Chasmata and a number of coreward mercantile concerns' a minor lie, but Korvane was ill disposed towards revealing the true nature of the deal. 'The confrontation was caused when Luneberg attempted to forcibly impose unfavourable terms'
'Luneberg attacked you because you refused to accede to his authority?
Korvane hesitated before answering, aware that his reply might shape events to come in ways that he could not yet predict. 'Yes, my lord' he said, 'I believe the Lord Luneberg is not entirely-
'Sane? Interjected Droon. 'You're saying that Culpepper Luneberg is dangerously unstable and unfit to rule his world?
Korvane had said no such thing, although he certainly held that opinion. Before he could answer, however, Droon cut in.
'Well, you'd be absolutely correct. Luneberg is a sinful waste of skin, and you can consider yourself fortunate to have escaped his clutches. He's been attempting to make deals with the likes of you for many years. I've had my suspicions for some time, but I believe you have confirmed them. The man has cracked. He's on the verge of taking his world, and this entire sector, to the brink of rebellion.
Oh God-Emperor preserve us all, Korvane thought, another mad Imperial Commander.
Korvane forced himself to return his attention to the Imperial Commander.
'Lord Gerrit, I need your help.
Once more, Korvane's mind raced. Had he really escaped the clutches of one madman, only to flee right into those of another? He would not allow it. The Arcadius stood on the brink, and he would ensure their survival.
'You need my help?
'Indeed. You are, as you say, a rogue trader of some means. I am but a humble Imperial Commander, my own means limited. I have been aware for many years that Luneberg's madness has driven this entire region into the grip of recidivism, and I believe he is on the verge of entirely forsaking his oaths to Terra'
'You believe Luneberg is a rebel?
'Indeed I do, Lord Gerrit, indeed I do. His policies, and those of many generations of his line prior to him, have plunged this sector into isolation from Terra. He believes himself above the Pax Imperialis. We must bring him into line, or there will be a terrible price to pay. For us all'
Korvane's instincts sensed an opening. 'I see, and how may I be of assistance in averting such a disaster?
Droon bowed, turning as he did so and indicating with another expansive sweep of his long arms an archway, beyond which a side chamber was visible. 'Please, let us retire to discuss the details'
'You realise. said Zachary Droon, 'that your name will be spoken in awe by generations to come'
Korvane stood beside Droon, atop a craggy promontory, watching as the legions of the Epsilon Planetary Defence Force marched by in perfect formation. They filed onto two waiting transports, which would take them to orbit. From there they would be packed onto the Rosetta, and, Korvane hoped, and had promised, onto the Oceanid and the Fairlight, as soon as they arrived.
You flatter me, my Lord Droon' Korvane replied, not taking his eyes from the spectacle below. 'I wish only to serve'
Droon chuckled at this, but did Korvane the kindness of not commenting further. The two had come to a deal. A far better deal, Korvane believed, than his father had attempted to enter into with that madman Luneberg. He was sure that he had secured the immediate future of the Arcadius, by pledging the three vessels to aid Droon in his righteous war against the recidivist Luneberg. To start with, all they need do was transport Droon's Planetary Defence Force troops to Mundus Chasmata, where they would launch a devastating and entirely unforeseen assault on Luneberg's centres of power. The world would fall in short order, of that Korvane was positive, and the Arcadius would reap the rewards of their loyal service to the forces of law and order.
Korvane smiled to himself as he watched the troops parading by. His day had finally arrived. His father would cede control to him, and force his bitch of a stepsister to tow the line or leave.
Oh yes, he thought, his time was coming.
The Oceanid's warp drive howled a plaintive wail, disturbingly human in tone, as the vessel crashed through the non-existent barrier between the real world and the empyrean. Lucian opened his eyes, mouthing a prayer to the almighty God-Emperor, a prayer of thanks that his vessel was delivered once more to the physical universe.
The warp drive continued its screaming, the terrible, soul-wrenching sound audible even on the Oceanid's bridge, hundreds of metres fore of the drive section. Lucian knew it indicated that something had come very close to going incredibly wrong whilst they were within the warp, but knew better than to dwell on what disaster might have been close to befalling his vessel. Instead, he resolved to seek his Navigator's counsel on the matter as soon as the adept had been given time to recover from the voyage.
Lucian looked to the head of his bridge, seeing nothing of note or out of the ordinary through the wide viewing port that dominated it, 'Helm, situation report if you will'
Helmsman Raldi consulted the constellation of blinking lights, glass dials and scrolling readouts clustered around his station before replying.
'We're within point five A.U.s of the marker, sir'
'Yes sir, several. I couldn't say for sure, but I think that jump might have taken its toll'
'My thoughts too, Mister Raldi. Station ten? A rating at one of the deck stations stood to attention. 'Do we have a reference?
Though he was unsure as to its nature, Lucian's experience told him that all was not well with the warp jump. He was relieved in the extreme that the Oceanid was in more or less the correct position, she was where she should be. Next, he needed to ascertain that his vessel was when she should be. The warp was capable of playing some extreme and cruel tricks with relative time, particularly when conditions within it were rough.
The rating bent over his station, feverishly working the dials and levers, before turning back to Lucian. 'Astrographicus indicates we have arrived ahead of schedule sir. Transient conditions within the warp, I would surmise'
'Early? Doubt gripped Lucian's heart. 'How early?
'Only point zero five sir, we're-
'Good. interrupted Lucian. It was a fact that the warp did odd things to time and space and his ilk had to live with that. The consequences of some particularly extreme distortions however were scarcely worth considering.
'Station three. Scan for the Fairlight and Rosetta
The servitor hard-wired to the instruments at station three gave forth its electronic contralto, a disturbing mixture of human and machine generated sound. This continued for several minutes, Lucian feeling more unsettled as time dragged on.
'Holo' he ordered, the holograph display resolving before him. At first grainy and blurred, the image became more detailed as the augurs gathered more and more information on the area of space immediately surrounding the Oceanid. Lucian cursed as one third of the image remained empty — the result of losing a scanner tower in the confrontation with the Chasmata orbital.
'Station three, no luck?
The servitor at the communications station ceased its machine gibberish, shaking its head in a motion that Lucian might have taken for sadness in a fully human crewman.
'Well enough' If the Oceanid's jump had been affected by adverse conditions within the warp, it stood to reason that the other vessels might have been too. However, given the circumstances of the jump, Lucian was determined to be sure.
'Mister Raldi? The helmsman turned. 'I'm going to speak with Master Karisan. You have the bridge'
'Aye sir' Lucian heard the helmsman reply as he stalked from the bridge. If conventional, machine-guided communications could offer no clue, perhaps the ship's astropath might have more luck, he thought.
The astropath's chamber was situated amidships, on the lowest deck. Lucian's journey took him through an area of his vessel that had taken damage during the skirmish with the Chasmata orbital, and he was forced to double back on himself several times to avoid areas made inaccessible. Work gangs and H-grade servitors packed the gloomy companionways, their junior officers working them around the clock to get the damage repaired, or at least contained.
As Lucian walked, he cast his mind back over the confrontation, and subsequent emergency jump into warp space. He could feel a pattern emerging, fragments of an overall picture that was not yet ready to reveal itself to him. Luneberg had concealed the true nature of the deal he had sought to negotiate, that much was obvious. Lucian suspected that the Imperial Commander had sought to tie him down on some point of contract, but that, for some reason or other he had changed his mind. Brielle had certainly had some part to play in that, for she had apparently sabotaged the talks quite deliberately. He would find out why, when he found out where she was.
He recalled the flight from Luneberg's palace. The man had truly cracked when Brielle had burst in on their final negotiations, and the rogue traders had only barely escaped with their lives. When the orbital had opened fire on them with a weapon that Lucian knew was of alien origin, things had begun to make more sense to him. The weapon, what Lucian took to be some manner of ultra-high velocity mass driver, took its toll on the Oceanid, although she had suffered far worse in her time. The question that begged to be answered, was just where Luneberg had acquired the weapon. He had all but admitted that, at the very least, his world was estranged from the mainstream of the Imperium. Lucian suspected that the Imperial Commander had wavered on the threshold of heresy for some time, and the fact that he had obtained, and used, xenos weaponry suggested that he had decided to take that final step.
As he waited for a plodding cargo-servitor to pass, Lucian wondered who Luneberg's allies might be, and on what part he had expected Lucian to fulfill in the venture. Lucian cast his mind over the archives he could recall of this region, but he could not think of a single xenos race that might have entered into such an arrangement. Indeed, he knew of no xenos this side of the Damocles Gulf that had anything like the level of technology exhibited by the orbital's weaponry: a previously untracked eldar crafrworld, perhaps? He would be surprised in the extreme if a man such as Luneberg had extracted anything out of the enigmatic and unfathomable race, for they were notoriously self-interested and only dealt with others if they were likely to benefit most from the arrangement. Perhaps, thought Lucian, there were other races out there, in the dense and barely charted regions beyond the gulf.
Looking up from his thoughts, Lucian realised that he had reached his destination: the chamber of Master Karisan. He extended his hand to knock on the frame, but withdrew it as the door was pulled open from within, and he was greeted by a musty, incense-laden scent.
'My master, please enter' said a voice from within the dimly lit chamber.
Lucian stepped through, into the domain of the flotilla's astropath. The man was ancient, having served a long series of vessels for many decades. He was long past his prime, in Lucian's opinion, and he rarely called upon his services unless it was vital. He had resolved to seek a replacement when he was able, but the guild had thus far been unwilling to retire Master Karisan. Lucian suspected that they wanted the ancient telepath out of way, and it would take a substantial disbursement to change their minds. It was just one more unwelcome reminder of the failing power of the dynasty.
The chamber was wide and low, taking the form of a blister upon the Oceanid's underbelly. One entire wall was a mighty viewing port, beyond which the vessel's underside and the blackness of starry space were visible. The room was cramped, but not for want of available space. Instead, every surface was crammed with what Lucian took for junk. Long-burned candles, crumpled parchment, dry, dead things and other unidentifiable rubbish littered the place. Master Karisan appeared entirely at home in this environment, for his own appearance was equally dishevelled. A halo of wispy unkempt grey hair framed his craggy face, from which his empty eye sockets stared blankly, his eyes having been burned away by the rite of Soul Binding. He wore a soiled robe of what was, once, lustrous dark green velvet. The telepath bowed as Lucian entered.
'You have need of my services, my master?
'I do, Master Karisan' although I wish I didn't, thought Lucian.
'Quite so. said Karisan. 'Please, be seated.
It took Lucian a moment to determine exactly where Karisan expected him to sit, before the telepath indicated a soiled cushion in the centre of the rubbish-strewn floor. He sat, disturbing something living as he did so, which scuttled off into a dark corner.
'Rats' said Karisan. 'They are ever attracted to the lower decks'
Lucian suppressed the thought that the vermin were also attracted to chambers full of stinking rubbish.
'Master Karisan, I need you to attempt to reach the Rosetta or the Fairlight. I fear they may be-
'Adrift? Karisan cut in.
Irritation flared in Lucian at the man's interruption.
'Or delayed, displaced. You know what might occur within the warp, Master Karisan'
The other man let out a high-pitched giggle, 'Oh yes my lord, well do I know what awaits within the Sea of Souls. Well do I know' The telepath reached up and clutched a dried fetish from where it dangled on a leather thong. He sniffed it, and rubbed it along his cheek with a delicacy that Lucian found quite disturbing to witness.
'I am asking you, Master Karisan, to do what you can to contact them. Are you able to do so?
'Able? Yes my master, I am able' The telepath cast about him to clear a space on the floor, and then drew his legs up under him into a crossed-legged pose. 'Willing, you might say yes? The object of our search might yet be beyond our reach, traversing, as you say, the empyrean. Never mind, for even there, they will be known to us'
Lucian had witnessed several rites of astropathic communication in his time. No two had ever been the same, but he knew better than to interrupt the man, and so settled back to await the result.
Master Karisan began to mutter under his breath, the words just about audible, but entirely unintelligible to Lucian. The man's breathing deepened, and he appeared to enter the opening phase of some form of trance. The muttering became more guttural, and Karisan's head rolled back. At the same moment, the temperature in the chamber dropped sharply, a creeping sensation passing over Lucian's scalp. The shadows in the gloomy chamber drew in, and Lucian felt the unmistakable notion that something hostile lurked within them, looking out, straight at him.
'They cannot hurt you, master' muttered Karisan, Lucian forcing himself to keep his eyes on the other man, and not to fall to the instinct to look behind himself.
The temperature fell still further, a thin skein of ice creeping across the viewing port, obscuring the view of space beyond. Karisan groaned, opening his mouth a number of times, as if attempting, but unable to speak.
Then he burst out, 'They are there! The telepath's head rolled back to its normal position, and he looked straight at Lucian through empty eye sockets. 'They are not where you feared my master, or at least, your son is not'
The warp is calm now, but it was wracked as we crossed it. The Rosetta is certainly not within the empyrean, of that I am certain, although I cannot speak so surely of the Fairlight. I sense that the Rosetta is nearer, in real space, in the here and now. I shall seek her out.
Karisan sank into his trance once more, much quicker this time. He muttered what sounded to Lucian like nothing more than nonsense. The temperature dropped still further, and Lucian caught the fleeting scent of something sharp and acidic.
'Voices! Karisan called, a childlike, wondrous expression appearing on his wizened old face. 'Many voices… my brothers. The ether is alive with them!
'Alive with what, Master Karisan? Explain!
Karisan leant forward and took Lucian's elbows in his gnarled old hands, shaking him. 'Alive with the Song of the Ever-Choir, my master. It's quite beautiful. I have not heard it sung so eloquently in many years, and never at all this far out on the Rim'
Lucian fought to keep control of his rising temper. Karisan was rapidly becoming a liability, that much was clear. He had been for some time in fact. Lucian took a deep breath nonetheless, determined that he would not lose control, not yet at least, not until he was in a position to negotiate with the guild for a replacement astropath.
'Karisan' now Lucian leaned forwards, trying as hard as he could to engage the man in meaningful conversation. 'Karisan, listen to me. I need to know what, by Saint Catherine's holy arse, you are going on-
'Astropathic messages my master! The ether is alive with them. They are so-
'From whom, Karisan? asked Lucian, a dreadful idea already forming in his mind. 'From whom?
'From everyone, my master! Now Karisan began to laugh, a genuinely gleeful sound, not the manic laughter of a madman that he had voiced earlier. 'I shall add my call to theirs'
'From everyone? Lucian was prepared to strike the astropath, despite the severe censure from the guild that such an act would earn him when it was discovered. "What are they saying Karisan? Tell me this and I shall leave you to add your voice to your fellows'
Karisan leaned in towards Lucian, normality, even sanity, apparently returning once more. 'The voices belong to my brother and sister astropaths, my master, and the song they sing is of such beauty because they all sing the same message. Every astropath for ten, twenty, thirty light years sings the same message'
Lucian nodded his encouragement, determined not to interrupt the man now that he was finally making some sense.
'They sing words of freedom!
Lucian sat back, rocked to his core by the news. They sang of freedom — a relative notion in the Imperium of Man, he knew, and invariably one much closer to heresy, recidivism or revolt. Every world within anything up to thirty light years, that might be dozens, scores even of civilised systems, each with a population of many millions. How? Who could have instigated such a thing? More to the point, he realised, who could have coordinated it? The logistics of the treachery were truly staggering, the possibilities stretching out before Lucian as he struggled to imagine them.
His reverie was broken by a new sound, that of Karisan chanting. It was not the insane muttering that he had voiced as he had entered his trance, but something entirely different. The temperature in the room began to rise once more, the frost filming the viewing port melting in the space of scant seconds, to run in rivulets and to collect at the base. Lucian stood, and picked his way across the junk strewn chamber. He left without pausing to look behind, certain that the astropath would now be useless for some time to come. He had in fact been useless for some time past, but Lucian had had no choice other than to tolerate him and his strange ways.
Ducking through the portal to the corridor beyond, Lucian was surprised to find a junior deck officer standing to attention, and awaiting his emergence with obvious discomfort. Lucian knew immediately that something was wrong.
'What? What is it? Lucian glanced at the man's epaulettes, 'second lieutenant?
'Sir… sir, your presence is needed on the bridge immediately. The young man was quite obviously in some distress and had run from the bridge to Karisan's chamber, his voice competing with the need to draw breath.
'What is it man? Calm down and tell me.
'The… the augurs, sir, they've detected…
'Detected what, lieutenant?
'Detected a… a fleet, sir. A massive fleet, inbound on our position'
Lucian stood on the deck of his bridge, the holograph rotating before him. The static-laced, green-lit representation of surrounding space was incomplete, flickering in and out of focus, but despite this, he could clearly make out the augur returns of a number of capital-scale vessels as they closed on Arris Epsilon.
Times three, magnify. The holo blurred out of focus for a moment, before resolving into a tighter view of the incoming fleet. Lucian studied the vessels, reams of text scrolling next to each, as the Oceanid's cogitator banks struggled to analyse what scant data the augurs could provide.
At least seven vessels, all of unknown pattern. All, Lucian judged, of unknown origin. They were alien, he was certain of that, but where had they come from? He knew of no alien civilisation within one hundred light years capable of putting to space at all, let alone in such obviously space-worthy vessels. He was a rogue trader, and it was his business to know such things, hence he had ordered his vessel onto silent running, augurs restricted to passive mode only, lest the xenos detect their questing spirits.
The operations officer at station four turned, replying, 'All steady sir. She's displacing less than ten per cent. Not a bad turn for an old girl'
Lucian allowed himself a slight grin at the operations chiefs obvious affection for the Oceanid. He shared his appraisal that the old vessel was maintaining herself well. She had not been required to run on such a low level of operation for years, decades even, Lucian realised, and her continued existence may now rely on her being able to do so.
Turning back to the holograph, Lucian watched as the xenos fleet moved into a high orbit over Arris Epsilon, the augur returns breaking up against the background of the planet. He didn't know for sure whether his son was on the world, or whether Korvane's vessel orbited it, perhaps wallowing in the darkness of the far side, but he offered up a silent prayer to the Emperor that he would be afforded some warning of their coming, that he would have time to go to ground before he was discovered.
Realising there was nothing he could do from his current position, Lucian came to the decision that it would be better for all if the Oceanid retired to the Arris system's outer reaches, where he would run less risk of detection, and from where he could await the arrival of his daughter. Only then might they be able to plan their next move.
He turned to sit on his command throne, and a harsh electronic siren wail screamed through the bridge address system, before it cut out jarringly. Lucian turned, instantly, knowing that something was afoot.
The servitor at the communications station squealed machine nonsense as its implanted appendages worked the dials and levers across its console. Indicators lit, telling Lucian that the servitor had isolated and intercepted a wide band broadcast from nearby. A moment later a voice rang out across the bridge, the signal perfectly clear, the words flawless High Gothic.
'We come as allies to the Domains of Arris, and invoke the friendship of comrades in arms. This world, as per previous concords, is declared a protectorate. Your warriors are granted the honour of service to the Fire Caste. Your messengers and pilots will soar under the wings of the Air Caste. Your scientists will gain learning and purpose under the supervision of the Earth Caste. Your leaders and merchants will learn words of wisdom and mutual profit under the tutelage of the Water Caste, and all will endeavour towards the ultimate Greater Good, under the guidance of the Blessed Ones: under the protection of the tau empire.
Lucian stood, stunned. Not at the fact that an alien race was seeking to gain influence over a human world, that much he had seen before. No, it was the scale of what he was witnessing. This was mass betrayal.
Karisan had reported that dozens of systems for light years around were declaring their independence from the Imperium of Man. Here, he knew that he saw the instigators of that treachery. Alien fleets, no doubt closing in on dozens of worlds, declaring that the planets were under their control, and, presumably, being welcomed with open arms by the treacherous leaders of those worlds.
He spat on the cold, metal deck. Someone would pay for this, he promised.
'You see the Mark III's of Five Corps? Imperial Commander Droon asked Korvane, turning from the railing to look back at his guest, lowering the magnoculars as he did so. 'Nine entire brigades, a thousand battle tanks: the pride of the Arris Defence Force!
Korvane looked through his own magnoculars, following the expansive gesture that Droon made towards the valley floor below. He was stunned by the enormity of the procession unfolding below, although he was humble enough to realise that it was not for his benefit, it was long in the planning, that much was clear, and Korvane waited patiently for its ultimate purpose to be revealed.
Many thousands of troops having paraded by, a column of mighty armoured vehicles cruised past, ten vehicles wide and a hundred deep, command tanks with their characteristic antennae leading each. The vehicles were a spotless, factory-applied 'Codex' grey, each bearing not a vehicle, platoon or company designation, but a multi-digit serial number. Korvane was not a man of a military background, but he knew these vehicles must have been produced with some haste. A thought occurred to him.
'My lord' he addressed Droon, who was back at the gallery railing enjoying the spectacle unfolding below. 'My lord, my fleet's vessels will be hard pressed to berth the infantry and their equipment. I am unsure how we will accommodate the armoured units'
'Oh, don't worry about that, Korvane. The fact that your ships will be capable of transporting the troops and light units is service enough. The tank companies will follow the initial drop. With them we shall overran any of Luneberg's dogs that dare stand against us. I'll grind the bastards beneath our tracks, show them the folly of starting a war with Arris Epsilon'
Korvane listened as he watched the last of the tank companies grind past, followed by an entire recon regiment of gangling light walkers, each of which swivelled and dipped its cockpit in salute to Lord Droon as they passed. Droon had, on several occasions, hinted at some ongoing and bitter enmity between the worlds of Mundus Chasmata and Arris Epsilon, although Korvane knew better than to press him for details. High court etiquette demanded that such matters were only divulged at the discretion of the host, and it appeared to him that the mores by which Droon lived were similar enough to those he himself observed for that to be the case here.
As the walkers stalked past, their pilots saluting smartly from open cabs, the throaty growl of yet more armoured vehicles filled the air once more, although this sound was noticeably quieter than that of the battle tanks.
'Ah! See here, Gerrit' Droon nodded his head towards a column of armoured transports snaking its way across the valley floor, 'the First Hussars, in their new vehicles no less'
Korvane looked as instructed, and saw the vehicles. 'Chimeras? he asked, easily recognising the ubiquitous personnel carrier, utilised by security forces, Planetary Defence units and the Imperial Guard the galaxy over. In fact, several dozen languished in the Rosetta's hold, adorned in the deep red and burnished gold livery of the Arcadius, but unused for several decades.
'Chimeras, yes, most certainly, but of a pattern I doubt you will have encountered before' Korvane could not help but note the pride evident in Droon's voice, and considered it politic, even expected, to press him further.
'How so my lord? My knowledge of military vehicles is somewhat lacking'
Droon chuckled, welcoming the opening to expound on the merits of his forces. 'This pattern is drawn from a rarely used template, one that only we of Arris Epsilon may utilise. I am told that their power cores are entirely unique, in that they are motivated not by fossil fuel, but by some manner of cold atomic reaction'
Korvane looked straight at the Imperial Commander, whose eyes were fixed firmly on the vehicles below. As a rogue trader, he knew that such a thing was indeed rare, and much sought after across the Imperium. Technology, he knew, was a dark art more akin to archaeology, and it was unusual for a new device to be uncovered and utilised. If Droon's people had access to some unexploited technological resource, then the possibilities for trade and exploitation were potentially staggering.
Droon was addressing Korvane once more, pointing towards the lead vehicle. It appeared to be some command variant, for in place of an enclosed passenger compartment and forward turret, the entire rear of the vehicle was open. A group of men stood within that section, their uniforms marking them out as high-ranking officers, although even these were plain in comparison to those worn by the lowest ranked troopers in Culpepper Luneberg's household guard. However, it was not the officers' uniforms that Droon was indicating, but a banner one of them held.
'The standard of the First Hussars. Droon announced, his tone indicating that the banner carried particular significance.
Korvane turned a dial on the side of his magnoculars, increasing the magnification, which allowed him to make out the banner. It was a simple standard, far simpler in fact than many that Korvane had seen. Having walked the approach to the Eternity Gate on Sacred Terra, the long avenue lined with countless thousands of banners bearing witness to ten thousand years of total war, Korvane could not help but feel distinctly unimpressed by the decidedly plain standard of the First Hussars.
'You see the honours listed upon the standard? Droon asked, Korvane squinting to make out the details on the fluttering banner. 'Each is a victory over our pernicious enemies, but the last honour has yet to be won.
Korvane saw that at the bottom of the banner's face a scroll devoid of text awaited the embroidery that the others shared. Each listed the title and date of some noteworthy battle in the history of the First Hussars, probably, Korvane realised, in the history of Arris Epsilon itself.
'That honour will be won now, Korvane, do you see?
'Indeed, my lord' Korvane answered, reading the list of battles. Each one, he realised, had been fought against the forces of Mundus Chasmata, and each had been given a grandiose tide such as the 'Siege of the Three Dominions' or the 'Relief of the Outer Nine'. Korvane cast his mind back to the introduction given to his family and himself when they first went before Imperial Commander Culpepper Luneberg. The titles given to the ruler of Mundus Chasmata matched those mentioned on the Standard of the First, although each was presented in a decidedly different light.
'You see, Korvane, that the attack we launch is far from some petty border clash' Korvane said nothing, conscious that Droon was on the verge of communicating something of great import. 'Epsilon and Mundus Chasmata have been locked in ongoing disputes for centuries, millennia perhaps — it is hard to say exactly when things started to get… unpleasant'
'Your records are incomplete on the subject? Korvane asked, knowing that many historical archives were missing great swathes of information, so long and fractured was the history of the Imperium.
'Incomplete? Oh no, Korvane, not incomplete' Droon watched the passing personnel carriers wistfully, the standard of the First receding into the distance. 'Our histories are very specific on the matter of the grievances between our two worlds, each has been recorded in great detail. It is more a case of tracking the escalation, for each time Epsilon's forces have laid a debt of honour to rest, mose of Mundus Chasmata have retaliated once more, and so the debt is renewed'
'I understand' said Korvane, beginning to appreciate the nature of the conflict between the two worlds and their ruling dynasties. He let Droon continue his explanation.
'You see, Korvane, this region has long been settled by mankind, but has never attained the status of those sectors closer to me centres of power. The Timbra Subsector, and the entire Borealis Ring lie at the furthest extent of Ultima Segmentum. We look to the Segment Fortress at Kar Duniash for aid in times of strife, yet we would do as well to petition Terra herself for help, for bodi are so distant that we would be long in our graves before any arrived. Thus, we may look only to ourselves, or to third parties, such as you, when times are hard'
The growling of the engines of armoured vehicles filled the valley floor once more. Korvane knew that the regiment of self-propelled artillery crawling by were called basilisks.
Droon was forced to raise his voice over the roar. 'And that, Korvane, is the reason for all this! The Imperial Commander spread his arms wide, the gesture encompassing the vast parade and the entire valley floor. 'You see. Droon shouted, 'Luneberg's forebears owe my own a debt of honour, and the interest has grown quite considerably'
'What debt my lord? Korvane asked, his own voice raised.
'The debt of ages, Korvane. You see, many, many generations past, my own ancestors and those of Luneberg entered into a partnership. They formed the core of a trade consortium that they intended would in time grow to encompass all the worlds of the subsector, and eventually, they hoped, bring prosperity to the entire Eastern Rim'
'A noble ambition' Korvane replied, seeing the sense in the region's worlds uniting in a common purpose.
'The intentions of my own ancestors were indeed noble, but this was sadly not so in the case of Luneberg's. It appears that, several years after the cartel was established, they decided to renegotiate its terms. You see, Mundus Chasmata and Arris Epsilon had established a profitable partnership, and were on the verge of bringing other worlds in the subsector into talks. However, Luneberg's forebears wished to dominate the emerging bloc, and displayed no qualms in reneging on the terms of the cartel's creation. They wished to cut us out, Korvane, and to establish themselves as the preeminent power in the Timbra subsector. You yourself have seen this propensity to dishonour, have you not Korvane?
Korvane thought back to the talks between his father and the Imperial Governor of Mundus Chasmata, realising that indeed, Luneberg appeared to believe he had some Emperor-granted right to change the terms of the agreement upon a whim. 'Indeed, my lord, I have seen it, and it helps to explain some of what Luneberg was attempting to gain from dealing with the Arcadius'
'Yes, he was almost certainly attempting to revive the ambitions of his forebears, to establish himself as a new power. However, I have good reason to believe he planned to do so not to build unification of trade interests, but for entirely selfish reasons. I believe Luneberg sees himself as superior to his neighbours, and wishes to establish direct power over the entire region. The man is a traitor and a bastard, the latest in a long, long line of traitorous bastards'
Korvane nodded, raising his magnoculars once more, and looking down towards the valley floor. He saw that the last of the Arris Epsilon Planetary Defence Force was filing by, ranks upon ranks of troopers, each bearing aloft a pennant sporting the crest of the House of Droon — an eagle's wing upon a golden circle, against a black field. Droon had good cause to launch a pre-emptive strike against his neighbour, for Luneberg was clearly mad, and more than likely to drag the entire region into madness with him.
'And so, Korvane, I have taken steps to curtail his ambitions, here, and now' Droon looked to the sky as he spoke. 'You see, we do not have our own fleet, such is the hardship imposed upon us by Luneberg's self-interest, but I have initiated a plan in which yours will play a leading role'
Korvane followed the Imperial Commander's gaze, craning his neck to look up into the sky.
Droon continued, 'Your coming here was unexpected, but fits my plan well' He turned as he stared up into the sky. 'Your fleet will transport my troops, while theirs… Droon pointed into the sky, 'will utterly destroy Luneberg's puny system defence force'
Korvane followed Droon's gesture, blinking against the glare and initially unable to see just what it was he was pointing at.
'After they have bombed his cities from orbit, my armies will land. Thanks to you Korvane, this will not be a mere raid. It will be a full-scale invasion.
Korvane's vision adjusted to the glare as he squinted into the bright sky. A dark spot appeared, swooping out of the sun's coronal halo. It separated into a number of smaller forms, moving at speed and in perfect formation. They grew in size as they approached, and within less than a minute, Korvane could see that they were vessels.
'My lord? he said, looking to Droon for some explanation of this new development. The Imperial Commander merely chuckled, not taking his eyes off the incoming ships.
Korvane gathered his thoughts, forcing himself to adopt an outward calm that he did not entirely feel within. As he watched, he saw that there were five vessels inbound on their own position, each somewhat larger than the shuttles the Arcadius made use of for interface operations.
The ships were wide and flat, with the distinct appearance of some bizarre sea creature. A wide, curved delta wing bristled with weapons turrets, a double hammerhead shape forming the prow. Korvane saw instantly that these vessels were of undoubted xenos origin, for no human ship he had ever seen moved so smoothly through the air, or, he realised with a shock, so quietly, for the vessels made barely a sound as they swept in.
'They are quite beautiful, in their way, are they not, Korvane? Droon asked, still not taking his gaze away from the sight of the alien vessels' approach.
Korvane had seen alien ships before, been onboard them in fact, and spoken with their masters, but nonetheless, he could not identify the origins of these vessels. 'Indeed, my lord. Might I ask-
'Who they are? Droon now turned to face Korvane. 'They are my new allies, or more accurately, they are mercenaries, willing to fight for our cause against the likes of Luneberg'
They were better equipped than any mercenary company Korvane had ever encountered, but at least that put them in Droon's employ, he thought, which might serve to keep them under control. 'And their origin? he asked.
'The galactic east, so I am told, beyond the Ring. Droon said, his tone dismissive.
'Across the Gulf? Korvane asked, unsure from Droon's answer whether the Imperial Commander was being evasive, or was merely ignorant of the issue.
'I could not say with any certainty, Korvane, and I would scarcely expect them to divulge the location of their world. I do not care from where they come, merely that their service will enable me, us, once and for all, to curtail Luneberg's treacherous ambitions. Do you condemn me, Korvane?
'Of course not, my lord' Korvane answered. Droon evidently felt some unease with the fact that he was forced to employ hireling xenos to prosecute his war, but Korvane was the scion of a rogue trader dynasty, and above such concerns. 'I merely ask out of curiosity, for I like to know with whom I deal'
'Commendable, I'm sure' replied Droon. 'Few men would understand the plight we on the Eastern Rim must face. Few would understand the means we must go to in order to defend ourselves from those who covet what little we have. Ah! Look, they land'
The five alien vessels had completed their approach run, and now lingered in almost complete silence over the valley floor. Korvane saw that they hovered over the only area of ground not occupied by the precisely arrayed defence force units. As he watched, the air beneath each shimmered, the tell-tale indication, Korvane knew, of powerful gravity drives in action. They would have to be powerful, he thought, to hold aloft the bulk of these craft.
In a single, perfectly synchronous manoeuvre, the five vessels descended the last one hundred metres, landing gear deploying from the belly of each at the last possible moment, and settled on the ground with barely a sound.
A silence settled upon the scene, Korvane sensing Droon's anticipation, and the defence troopers' unease at their proximity to the alien vessels. Turret-mounted weapons atop each of the craft swivelled, sweeping the area around the vessels, but thankfully not lingering on any one target. As seconds stretched into minutes and no other activity was evident, Korvane envisaged the slaughter that would ensue if violence were to erupt between the five vessels and the ranks of troopers, tanks and artillery arrayed on the valley floor. The damage wreaked upon each would be terrible, he saw, although he could not say with any confidence which side would come off the worst.
Finally, a large section of the underbelly of each ship detached, descending slowly on what appeared to be pneumatic arms. The wide, rectangular platforms of all five vessels simultaneously touched the ground. From the gallery, Korvane could barely see whether any passengers rode on the platforms, but a moment later, he saw a number of disc-shaped objects glide out from under each vessel, spreading out and forming a perimeter around each.
The discs were around a metre in diameter, and coloured a pale, off-green, insignia in the form of red stripes adorning their panels. Some form of antenna protruded from the discs' upper face, and a single lens was mounted in an underslung, armoured housing.
The discs hovered several metres above the ground, another indication, Korvane saw, that this race, whoever they were, had attained a level of mastery of the anti-gravitic arts surpassing those of mankind. Although the discs bore no obvious weaponry, their proximity to the troops was causing obvious tension, and Korvane noted how the NCOs issued growling threats to their men to remain steady and to show no sign of disorder or dissension.
The discs having taken station around each vessel, Korvane saw, through the sights of his magnoculars, that the elevator platforms did indeed carry passengers. A procession set out from the nearest vessel. The first figure to come into view as it emerged from beneath the vessels was more or less man sized, thin, and sporting long, flowing robes of a fine, silvery material.
'Ah! He has come, as they said he would' exclaimed Droon, some relief evident upon his face. Korvane remained silent, he would no doubt discover what concerns Droon had had in due course.
As the tall figure stepped forwards, more emerged behind it. These were of an entirely different build, and it took Korvane a moment to ascertain that in all likelihood they were some form of motivated armour or light vehicles, for they were tall and square, with what could only be weaponry mounted upon each arm. Behind these, more figures emerged. They were more like the first, although shorter and broader of shoulder, each hel-meted and bearing a long, slender rifle. Warriors, no doubt, thought Korvane, an honour guard for the first figure.
Korvane looked towards the other alien vessels and saw more warriors, tall, armoured forms as well as those on foot, marching out from beneath each vehicle. Once arrayed, he could see that each vessel had disgorged something in the region of fifty warriors. Except the process was evidently not yet complete, for now a huge ramp lowered from the rear of each vessel, and before it had even touched the ground, a number of armoured vehicles disembarked, each borne aloft upon shimmering anti-grav fields, and each sporting what appeared to be quite fearsome weapons mounted on smoothly rotating turrets.
At the last, the hovering vehicles moved into formation with the ranks of alien infantry. Each of the five formations appeared to Korvane as large as a company of the Arris Epsilon Planetary Defence Force, though granted far greater firepower thanks to their armoured gunships. The tall alien, his silver robes flowing elegantly in the gentle breeze, stood at the head of the formation. Behind them were the low, wide vessels in which they had arrived, and to either side and behind were arrayed the endless ranks of Droon's own forces. From the gallery upon which he stood, the sight was nothing short of spectacular, thought Korvane. Standing beside him, Droon appeared almost drunk with the vision of power below him, evidently relishing the opportunity afforded to him finally to end the ancestral war with Mundus Chasmata.
Droon turned to Korvane. 'Come, Korvane, and meet the tau'
Korvane stood in the centre of the apartment given over to his use, donning his formal attire, for he was expected at the Imperial Commander's court in mere minutes. There he would be introduced to the aliens that Droon referred to as mercenaries.
Could they really be mercenaries? Korvane had come into contact with all manner of hired guns and sell-swords in his career, and they had ranged from highly professional outfits to near-brigands, but they had never, in his experience at least, taken a form such as these aliens.
It was not the fact that the mercenaries were aliens that bothered him, for he had spoken the truth when he had told Droon that it did not concern him. It was more that this particular race appeared possessed of a high level of technology, and combined with the fact that Droon appeared ignorant of their origin, Korvane was far from sure that they would be as cooperative or as trustworthy as Droon had stated.
Although nervous, he resolved to hold off judging them, but to remain cautious and on his guard nonetheless. These aliens were, he judged, well organised and possessed of highly advanced technology. They might prove a threat to more than the Timbra Subsector, he thought. They might prove a threat to the Imperium.
As he buttoned the gold brocade across the armoured breast of his formal jacket, Korvane's thoughts turned to what course of action his father might take in such circumstances. No doubt, he would brazen his way through, Korvane thought, keeping his cards characteristically close to his chest throughout, before somehow coming out on top. Having been brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of high court, Korvane found such an approach deeply irksome, despite the fact that it was more often than not successful.
Successful in the short term, Korvane thought, but not in the longer term, the future of the Arcadius Dynasty, now, more than ever, looked grim. Granted, his father commanded a flotilla of cruisers and owned other, sizable interests on a string of worlds between the Eastern Rim and Terra, but for how long? If the dynasty could not be maintained those interests would be sold off one by one, until, at the end, just the three of them remained, commanding a flotilla of crewless vessels, their holds empty and their reactors cold.
This expedition had been intended to secure the dynasty's future, until the point, no doubt still many years off, when Korvane would come into the inheritance guaranteed as part of the terms of marriage between his mother and his father. But his mother, Emperor bless her shrivelled soul, had, thanks to countless rejuve courses, lived two centuries already, and appeared likely to live for another two at least. Korvane had already reached the conclusion that only he could ultimately save the Arcadius, and here and now, he knew that to be truer than ever.
As he fastened his belt, hefting the sanctified falchion gifted him by his great uncle, the Hierarch of Terrabellum Nine, Korvane determined that whatever came of this encounter with the aliens, he would ensure that, by his actions the fortunes of the Arcadius would be revived, for all time.
A knock sounded at the apartment door, and Korvane knew it was time to pay court. This, he thought, smiling to himself, was what he was born and raised to do.
The door to Droon's audience chamber swung open, and Korvane stepped through into the cavernous space carved into the mountainside. The chamber thronged with courtiers and the setting sun, visible through the open cave mouth, cast the scene in a deep, jade light.
'Ah! Korvane, step forward and meet our new associates!
The head of every courtier in the chamber turned towards Korvane. Droon addressed him from his throne at the cave mouth, and beside him stood the tall alien who had led the procession from the xenos vessels. The alien took a step forwards, and paused before Korvane.
The figure was slightly taller than an average man, his spindly arms and legs engulfed in the flowing robes of shimmering, silver fabric. His face was visible beneath a wide, flat hat, and that face was without a nose and dominated by black, almond shaped eyes. The skin was a pale, bluish grey, and the mouth wide, flat and expressionless. Korvane noted a vertical slit in the centre of the forehead, only barely discernible beneath the wide hat — an olfactory organ perhaps, or something more exotic, thought Korvane.
The figure stood before Korvane and made a slight bow. Korvane's courtly upbringing told him instantly that here was a being skilled in the political arts. This was no commander of mercenaries, thought Korvane, but some manner of ambassador or diplomat. This might be an alien, but some things varied little between races.
'I present' Droon announced, 'Korvane Gerrit of the Arcadius, trader and master of the Arcadius fleet.
Korvane remained silent, aware of his part in the unfolding ceremony. Droon had introduced Korvane to the alien, in all likelihood indicating that the Imperial Commander at least considered the alien of higher rank than Korvane. He would let that slide, for now at least.
Then, his voice booming with evident pride, Droon introduced the alien, 'Por'o'Sar, envoy of the tau.
Korvane dipped his head in greeting, waiting to see whether the alien would address him directly, or whether Droon would speak on his behalf.
'Master Gerrit. the alien said in flawless, smooth High Gothic, surprising Korvane with the clarity of his speech. 'I am honoured to meet you. Lord Droon tells me you are a trader of some means. I hope we can make our relationship profitable to all'
With practiced ease, Korvane covered his surprise that the alien spoke the High Gothic tongue so perfectly, replying, 'That is so, and I share your hope'
'Good! Droon clapped his hands once and stood from his throne, descending the steps to stand beside Korvane and the alien. 'I believe then, we can all go into this venture boldly, with common purpose.
'Indeed' replied the alien. 'The forces of the tau stand beside you, ready to aid you in casting off the shackles of oppression. You agree to the price for our aid?
Korvane felt a sudden dread at the alien's tone, and looked to Droon as the Imperial Commander gave his answer. 'I agree to your price, Por'o'Sar.
Korvane felt the urge to interrupt, to demand to know what Droon had agreed to pay in return for the services of these aliens. His courtly training asserted itself however, and he maintained his outward calm, despite the rising doubts he felt within.
'Good. the alien said. 'Then I, Por'o'Sar, Envoy of the Council of the Highest, Nexus of the Third Sun, Voice of Kari'La, pledge to you, Droon, of Arris Epsilon, called Epsil'ye'Kal, the friendship and alliance of the tau, in this time of adversity' The alien produced from his voluminous robes a pendant, a round icon of a substance unfamiliar to Korvane. Droon lowered his head as the envoy lifted the pendant over it.
'And by your words and your deeds, do you pledge your world and your people, for now and for all time, to the service of the tau empire?
The court filled with a deafening silence. Korvane fought to remain outwardly unmoved, despite the fact that grand treason was unfolding before him, the likes of which he had never before witnessed. He realised that he too was right at the heart of it, his immediate future, as well as that of the Arcadius, entirely reliant on what occurred here, today.
'I do so pledge' replied Droon, the alien lowering the pendant over his head. The former Imperial Commander raised his head once more and looked around him, the expression in his eyes suggesting that he was viewing his court and his subjects with entirely new eyes.
He looked directly at Korvane. 'Today, history is written. No longer will Arris Epsilon — Epsil'ye'Kal' the alien nodded slowly, 'live as some long-forgotten orphan, at the mercy of a hostile universe and an uncaring Imperium. No. This day, we take our place alongside our friends the tau, with whose aid we shall settle our debt of honour with Mundus Chasmata, for all time'
Mercenaries indeed, thought Korvane, the price for whose service was the casting off of ten thousand-year old vows. Droon had bought the service of the tau at a terrible, unthinkable price: secession from the Imperium of Man. The Imperium would hear of this, Korvane knew, no matter that it might take years for retribution to come. Come it would, of that he was sure, for the wages of such treachery could only ever be death.
However, that might not occur for some time, Korvane realised, so what of the here and the now? His agreement with Droon still stood, despite the fact that Droon himself had changed loyalties. Can I really aid this man and his xenos allies… masters… in his attack on Mundus Chasmata? he wondered. Can I afford not to?
The brief ceremony complete, Droon and the alien envoy now turned towards him as one, the Imperial Commander addressing him. 'Korvane, you will join us, and pledge the service of the Arcadius to the' he looked to the alien, and then back at Korvane, 'to the greater good?
Damn them, thought Korvane. They don't just want my help in the attack on Chasmata. They want me to revoke my loyalty to the Imperium.
'All stop! Lucian ordered, his bridge a hive of activity as servitors responded to orders and human bridge crew relayed them to the other decks.
'All stop, aye. called back Helmsman Raldi, 'holding station at one, one ten.
'Well enough, helm. responded Lucian, leaning forwards in his command throne. 'I want total surprise, or so help me I'll void every last one of you out of the sub-space crap-per. Clear?
Those of the deck crew capable of comprehending Lucian's threat nodded, Lucian heartened to see the terror writ across their faces. Good, he thought. I mean it, too.
Lucian studied the holograph, a green glow against the red of general quarters. The Oceanid had shadowed the alien vessels as they closed on Arris Epsilon, Lucian ordering the distance kept to a maximum lest their prey detect their presence. He now watched as they disgorged a number of landers to the surface. He had been faced with a stark choice, although there was only a single possible course of action. While Brielle was evidently yet to arrive in system, Korvane was down mere now, he knew, stuck in the middle of an alien invasion. Well, he wasn't prepared to let these alien swine take an Imperial world from under his nose, not while one of his own was down there at least.
'One hundred kilometres. called the helmsman.
Lucian leaned forwards still more, intent upon the formation of the alien vessels. He looked for any sign that they might have detected the Oceanid's presence, any sign at all that he might have revealed his hand too soon.
Still, the alien vessels wallowed in orbit, more interested, Lucian guessed, in what was going on down below than what was coming at them from behind. He'd never fall for such a trick, Lucian thought, not since that privateer attack at Krysla VII, at least.
'Comms, is everything set? Lucian addressed the servitor at station three, receiving a garbled burst of machine noise, accompanied by a stiff nod. 'Good, stand by.
'Seventy-five. called the helmsman, a note of tension creeping into his voice.
'Hold steady' Lucian replied, referring as much to the vessel's course as the helmsman's nerves.
The range counter on the holograph counted down, and there was still no response from the alien fleet.
'Good. Lucian stood, adjusting the holster at his belt. 'Full power to secondary arrays.
The red lighting dimmed for a moment as the secondary communications array bled off the power it needed to go from cold to fully ready in mere seconds. Lucian kept his eyes on the holograph, knowing that the aliens would pick up the power surge at any moment.
'Station three, open a- the green holographic icons representing the alien vessels suddenly shifted, breaking formation as Lucian had known they would.
'Twenty-five. called the helmsman.
'Station three, open it now!
The bridge filled with howling static as the servitor at the communications station opened a broadcast on all channels on which the secondary array was capable of transmitting. This had better work, thought Lucian.
'Alien fleet. he said, knowing that his words would be flooding the ether across every conceivable frequency. 'Alien fleet, this is the Oceanid, flagship of the Arcadius Grand Fleet. Please respond immediately'
The bridge address system howled with feedback as the communications servitor adjusted the gain, sweeping the channels for any sign of a response. Lucian had hoped to get as close as possible to Arris Epsilon before announcing his presence, looking to gain any advantage possible over the aliens. He strained to filter out the random noise flooding the bridge, looking for any sign of an intelligible response. Of course, even if the aliens could, and did respond, there was no guarantee they would be able to communicate with one another. No matter, he thought for that was why he had been so careful to gain the upper hand. If they could not or would not talk, he would settle things the old-fashioned way.
A high-pitched wail burst forth, modulated by an arrhythmic pulse. The communications servitor opened its mouth and gave out a squeal, turning its head and looking straight at Lucian, almost accusingly, as it did so. The pulse continued for ten seconds or so, before the channel went completely silent, and a clear voice cut through.
'Oceanid. the voice said in perfectly enunciated High Gothic. 'This is the Water Caste starship Vior'la'-Gal'Leath'Shas'el. Please state your intentions'
Lucian stepped from his command throne, towards the forward viewing port. The distance between the Oceanid and the alien vessels was too great to afford visual recognition, but Lucian looked towards the area of space where he knew the aliens' position lay as he replied.
'Alien vessel, my intentions depend entirely upon your own. Please stand down and allow me to approach.
As he awaited an answer, Lucian looked sidelong at Raldi. The helmsman mouthed 'twenty-five' back at him.
At their current speed, Lucian would expect the alien vessels to be visible in the next few minutes. Then, and only then, he would be able to gauge the relative odds.
'Oceanid, it is not in our nature to seek meaningless confrontation. You may approach, but be warned, our vessels are heavily armed, and will fire if threatened.
Lucian chuckled to himself before replying, 'Understood. Stand by'
Indicating to the communications station with a finger drawn across his throat that the channel should be closed, Lucian turned back to the holograph. As the range shortened, the seven vessels took on more detail, the Oceanid's cogitation banks providing details of size, mass and approximate power levels. The minutes passed, Lucian absorbing the data presented in the readouts. He looked to make an estimate of the alien vessels' capabilities relative to the Oceanid's, but the cogitators simply could not discern enough data, never having encountered this race, or their vessels, before.
'Coming up on ten kilometres, sir' called Helmsman Raldi, Lucian looking to the viewing port once more.
The yellow-green globe of Arris Epsilon dominated the view, but Lucian could just make out the glittering constellation of lights that he knew to be the alien fleet. The seven vessels had dispersed their formation, entering a pattern from which they could afford one another mutual support were things to get ugly. It was no surprise to Lucian when he saw that the vessel that had answered his transmission, the 'Vior'la something-or-other', had taken position at the centre of the formation.
I would have done the same thing in their place, thought Lucian, his suspicions that he was not facing idiots confirmed.
Drawing closer to the alien fleet, the Oceanid passed the first of the alien vessels. He studied it as it slid silently by to starboard, its long, blocky form filling the smaller portholes as it passed. It was large, Lucian saw, of greater length than his own vessel, that much was immediately evident. It took the form of a long, central spine with a large drive section at the rear. Part way along the spine were mounted large, square structures, looking to Lucian like some form of modular cargo space, and at the fore a large prow featured what appeared to be a command tower bristling with antennae. Of most interest to Lucian were the long, rectangular barrelled weapons protruding from mountings just below the curved prow. These he had seen before.
Although few, Lucian judged these weapons capable of inflicting severe damage upon his vessel. In his judgement, the Oceanid could certainly take on several of these alien ships at once, and provided she got a good broadside on them could, in all likelihood, put them out of the fight. What Lucian took for cargo bays appeared to have been fitted at the expense of heavier or more numerous weapons batteries, and he guessed that other, up-gunned configurations existed.
Although larger than a manmade cruiser, Lucian judged these vessels of equivalent capability. Well, he thought, he'd taken on plenty of cruiser-sized enemies, and left blazing hulks dead in space behind him. If it came to it now, he'd do so again.
'Ordnance' Lucian called to the servitor at station two. 'I want all batteries made ready, but keep the ports closed until I give the order' The servitor gave a mechanical buzz in acknowledgement, its multiple, implanted appendages moving across the fire control console as it relayed Lucian's orders to the waiting weapons crews.
Another of the alien vessels was now by on the port side and Lucian noted that this one was configured in the same manner as the first. Emperor willing, he thought, all seven vessels would be of a similar, or even identical class.
'Closing on target. called the helmsman, Lucian seeing that the vessel with which he had communicated now loomed in the centre of the viewing port. He grinned, admitting to himself that he lived for moments such as these, despite the seriousness of the situation.
'Well enough, helm. Bring her alongside and reduce to station keeping. The alien flagship, for that was what Lucian took it to be, was prow on to the Oceanid, its fore-mounted weapons batteries facing towards Lucian's vessel, but evidently not, yet, tracking her. The Oceanid's drives growled as the helmsman reduced the ship's velocity, a rattling vibration running through the deck as the alien vessel loomed to starboard.
'Number three again? said Lucian in response to the juddering, grating sound. The helmsman nodded, though he did not turn to make eye contact with his master. 'Keep an eye on her Mister Raldi. If she misbehaves now we'll all be walking home'
'Aye sir' replied the helmsman, his right hand pulling back on a lever, coaxing power from the misbehaving drive, while the other kept the helm steady.
'Any second… there we are Mister Raldi, station keeping if you will'
The Oceanid slowed to a near dead stop as she came alongside the alien vessel, the starboard portholes entirely filled with its slab-sided bulk. Lucian clasped his hands behind his back as he cleared his throat and then nodded to the communications servitor.
'Alien vessel, this is Oceanid. Please acknowledge this signal'
'Oceanid, Vior'la'Gal'Leaih'Shas'el acknowledges. 'Please state your business'
'My business' Lucian smirked ever so slightly as he spoke, 'is to receive your immediate and unconditional surrender, in the name of the Arcadius Grand Fleet and the Emperor of Man' He turned and nodded to the servitor at the ordnance station, who activated the controls that would raise the weapons ports on the Oceanid's flanks. He shoved to the back of his mind any doubts that the aliens would not fall for his bluff, counting on them not being able to take the risk that, as he had implied, his was the lead vessel of an incoming, and yet to be detected, fleet.
'Oceanid, please confirm your last transmission. the reply came from the alien vessel. 'Did you state that you expected to receive our surrender?
Lucian's smirk now turned into a dirty grin. He really did enjoy his work too much sometimes, he thought. 'That is correct' he replied. 'I expect you to heave to, power down and prepare for boarding' Lucian glanced across at the holograph, seeing that the outermost of the alien vessels were coming around, as he had expected they would.
'Do you surrender? he asked.
A momentary delay, and then the terse reply, 'No, Oceanid, we do not surrender'
'I had a feeling. replied Lucian, crossing to his command throne and sitting, 'that you would say that'
The Oceanid's starboard weapons banks opened fire as one, their mighty roar filling the ship, their report vibrating through the decks.
'Hard to starboard, Mister Raldi, cross the T' ordered Lucian without even looking to see what, if any damage the broadside had inflicted upon the alien vessel.
'Aye sir' called back the helmsman, hauling on the wheel as he brought the Oceanid around.
'Damage? called Lucian.
'Significant, sir' the officer at the operations station called back in reply. Lucian glanced at the banks of screens all around his command throne, seeing that, indeed, the sucker punch of a broadside had inflicted fearsome damage upon the alien. The other vessel was listing to its port, thick, oily smoke billowing from its mid-section, flickering plasma fire lighting the clouds from within.
'Ordnance, prepare a second volley.
Lucian watched as the view from the forward viewing port showed the alien ship's drives to starboard. Wait, he steadied himself, sensing a kill if he timed the volley exactly right.
'Lined up sir! Raldi called, struggling with the mighty wheel of the helm.
'Thank you, Mister Raldi. replied Lucian, waiting one, two, three seconds more before ordering. 'Starboard batteries, fire!
The Oceanid was once more filled with the mighty roar of the cannons' discharge. This time, Lucian watched the other ship as the broadside slammed into its rear section. A handful of the projectiles exploded prematurely as they were swallowed in the superheated wake of the vessel's vast engines, but the majority struck the superstructure, smashing through the metres-thick armoured engine casings and exploding deep within.
For a moment, the two vessels continued to glide past one another, the Oceanid having crossed the T and carried on past. Then, as Lucian watched, the alien ship's drive section was rent asunder as a mighty split appeared along its length, blinding white, atomic fire lancing out of the crack. A second later the entire drive section came away from the spine connecting it to the bulk of the vessel, jettisoned, Lucian judged, by the ship's captain in a last ditch effort to save his crew.
The effort was wasted, though, for the damage to the drive section was such that it entered a critical chain reaction before it could entirely separate, disappearing as it was swallowed in a rapidly expanding ball of the purest, most blinding white light. Lucian turned his head away as the viewing port dimmed to compensate for the blast, bracing himself against the blast's wave front that buffeted his vessel less than a second later. He was shocked, for a moment, at me violence of the alien vessel's death.
He glanced at the holograph, which was still recovering from the interference created by the vessel's demise. The outer ships were completing their manoeuvre, and he quickly chose his next victim, reading off its coordinates to the helmsman.
'What next, sir? called Raldi. 'They're closing on us!
'Now. Lucian called back, 'we make for the Rosetta and pray that Korvane has the good sense to take advantage of the little distraction we've just created, and gets back to his ship'
'And then, sir?
'Then it's just a small matter of fighting our way clear'
'Of all six alien ships, sir?
'Stop asking awkward questions and do your job, Mister Raldi. All power, on previous heading, if you please'
Lucian leant back in his command throne, inwardly still quite shocked at the manner of the death of the alien ship. Despite the power of its primary weapons batteries, its class was evidently incapable of withstanding a couple of good broadsides. He knew, however, that the scales would soon be evened, as the other alien ships were inbound and scarcely likely to allow him to get as close to them as he had to their flagship.
'Four minutes, sir' said the helmsman, Lucian seeing from the holograph that the alien vessel onto which he had locked was coming around, attempting to bring its forward weapons batteries to bear on his ship.
'This is going to sting' Lucian said, addressing no one in particular. 'Shields to full, helm, bring us in on our port. Port weapons, stand by'
The Oceanid lined up its prey, the gulf between the two vessels closing rapidly. At ten kilometres, the alien ship opened fire, its forward weapons flashing as they threw hyper-velocity projectiles across the void.
The first volley went wide, thanks to the fact that the Oceanid was prow on to the other ship, but mere seconds later it unleashed a second, this one far more accurate, and deadly.
Lucian felt the Oceanid stagger beneath him as the enemy weapons hit home, blasting great chunks out of her armoured prow. The bridge was plunged into almost total darkness, lit only by the strobe of a third volley fired by the closing ship.
This volley struck the port superstructure a glancing blow, an entire fin tearing itself free of the hull and spinning crazily into space. A series of secondary explosions sounded through the deck, and Lucian judged that these were the forward conversion plants. We can survive without them, he told himself, if we can survive this.
'Helm! Full retros, ten second burn. Cut mains to fifty per cent. Lucian ordered, as the distance between the two vessels passed the one kilometre mark. He knew he would get only one salvo in against this enemy, and even that might be bought at too high a price. He would not sit idly by and abandon his son to an alien invasion of Arris Epsilon, however, he would do all he could to afford Korvane the opportunity to escape.
The Oceanid shuddered once more, the retro fhrusters struggling to arrest her forward momentum. As the bridge lights sputtered back to life, Lucian saw from the read-outs that the alien vessel's second volley had damaged one of the thrusters, and felt his ship veering to port under the uneven thrust.
'Compensate, plus fifty to the starboard primary, plus twenty to the secondary. he ordered the helm, feeling the Oceanid coming back on course.
No sooner was his ship brought back under control than the two vessels were right on top of each other, and as the alien cruiser passed to starboard, Lucian roared, 'Open fire! All port batteries!
The range was not so great, and the angle, nowhere near as good as the broadside on the first alien nonetheless, the volley was a good one. The mighty cannon spat death across the void, macro-shells crossing the gulf between the two vessels in seconds. The alien vessel had been preparing a fourth shot when the Oceanid's broadside hit, its forward batteries caught in the process of turning to track and acquire their target.
Half of the broadside merely glanced, or missed the target entirely, but the other half struck home. The alien vessel's shields were smashed asunder, barely registering on Lucian's read-outs. The macro-shells impacted at an apparently weak point between two of the modules slung under the ship's spine, dislodging a protruding section of superstructure, which crashed into the forward of the modules. As Lucian watched, the module exploded violently, secondary explosions blossoming forwards to engulf the lower portion of the vessel's prow. At the last, the three remaining modules ejected, spinning off into space as the crippled vessel disengaged, evidently seeking to put as much space between itself and the Oceanid as possible, in as short a time as it could.
Lucian laughed out loud for the joy of it all, scarcely able to believe that he had seen off a second alien vessel in one day.
'Who was it once said you never feel more alive than when someone's just shot at you and missed? he asked no one in particular, revelling in the familiar feeling of victory. He looked to the holograph for the next target.
'Sir' called the helmsman. 'Shall I adjust?
'What? Lucian asked, looking to the holograph in search of whatever Raldi was talking about. 'I see nothing. What is it?
'Forty-five high to port, sir, inbound.
Lucian saw that the area of space to which Raldi referred was invisible to the augurs and black on the holograph, and would remain so until the augur arrays were repaired, following the damage done to them in the flight from Mundus Chasmata. He surged to his feet and crossed to the viewing port, immediately seeing what his helmsman was talking about.
'Damn. he said.
A fleet of capital ships, all Imperial in design, was closing in on the Oceanid's position. Lucian immediately saw from their heading that they were far from friendly. In fact, he knew immediately who they belonged to.
'Gerrit! The communications array burst into angry, hissing life. 'Gerrit, this is Imperial Commander Culpepper Luneberg. I order you to kill your engines and surrender now. Do so and I shall show you mercy.
'Keep your mercy. growled Lucian, turning to the servitor at station three. 'Comms, open a channel to Korvane, wherever he is, right now.
He sat once more, his mind racing with the possibilities. He had faced tough odds when it was just the alien vessels he had to fight through, to link up with the Rosetta, but now he faced Luneberg's fleet too, things looked decidedly grim. Yet still, he would not abandon his son.
'Helm, best speed for the Rosetta, by the fastest route, if you will. Lucian ordered.
'Through the-? Helmsman Raldi started to reply. 'Centre of Luneberg's fleet, yes, if that is the fastest route. Lucian interjected. 'Shields to full, main drives to full, all secondary systems to stand by.
Once again, servitors worked their consoles while the few men in the deck crew hurried to ensure that Lucian's orders were enacted. In times such as these, it was evident that the servitors were more efficient in the prosecution of their tasks, yet he still mourned for an age when the Oceanid was crewed by men and women of courage and soul.
Lucian watched the read-outs and dials as they reported the Oceanid's main drives building to full power. The shields too were drawing as much power as their mighty generatoria could provide, the myriad of non-critical systems across the vessel powering down for the duration. Lucian hoped they would have the opportunity to power up again.
He studied the nature and deployment of Luneberg's vessels. Although still some distance away, he judged that they were not large ships, most about the size of an escort. Two, however, were of greater mass, Lucian estimating them equivalent to light cruiser scale. Ordinarily, the Oceanid, being equivalent to a heavy cruiser would have little trouble seeing them off, but in her current condition, and with the aliens in the fight too, he was not quite so confident. Nevertheless, he had set himself on this course of action, and he would see it through.
Studying the positions of Luneberg's ships, Lucian saw that they must be under the Imperial Commander's personal command, for they were deployed in such a way as to follow behind the lead cruiser, providing a dense escort, yet ill-prepared to provide one another with any effective fire support. He grinned, seeing in Luneberg's deployment a means of gaining some, much needed, advantage.
'Helm, set your intersect at plus nine, seventeen to port.
Helmsman Raldi hesitated as he calculated the course, and then replied, 'Right through the middle of them, sir?
Lucian saw the hint of a grin touch Raldi's lips as he turned to confirm the order, replying, 'Aye helm, right through the middle. We'll scatter them to the solar winds'
Lucian leant back in his command throne, gripping the arms as he felt the Oceanid's drives reach the peak of their potential output. A glance at the data-screens around the throne and suspended from the ceiling above him told Lucian that his ship would pass through Luneberg's fleet at exactly the point he intended. Furthermore, the manoeuvre would carry them through to link up with the Rosetta, all going well.
Lucian counted down the distance between the Oceanid and Luneberg's fleet, his gaze fixed on the point in space less than half a kilometre to port of the vessel that he judged to be Luneberg's flagship. Trim point two five to port, Mister Raldi' he ordered, reducing the distance at which the two ships would pass to an absurd two hundred and fifty metres. Closer even than old Jeliko strafing the traitor grand cruiser at the Battle of Van Goethe's Rapidity, he guessed, although his ancestor did end his career by ramming an ork ship, so maybe he wouldn't beat his record quite yet.
After a minute, he noted how the vessels of Luneberg's fleet reacted to his bearing straight at them. At first, the smaller escorts began to move away, but then returned to their previous headings. If only we could listen in on Luneberg's command channel, Lucian thought. No doubt, the Imperial Commander was turning the ether blue with his orders to his escorts to protect his flagship from the Oceanid's mad course.
The range reduced still further, and in no time at all the Oceanid was bearing in on Luneberg's fleet. The enemy vessels fully within visual range, Lucian saw that the smaller vessels were, as he had estimated, escorts. They were of a class he had only rarely seen, being more common amongst system and subsector reserve fleets of the southern reaches. They were old by any accounting, and ill-suited to even the smallest of fleet actions. They were better suited to convoy duties, where they would art as a reasonable deterrent to opportunistic raiders, who would be unlikely to risk even a single salvo from their prow torpedoes.
Speaking of torpedoes, Lucian knew that only the Rosetta carried such a weapon, the arsenals of the other two rogue trader vessels having years ago exhausted the last of their stocks and their replacement unlikely in the current situation. A single torpedo might cost as much as a light cruiser, and so Lucian had placed his son under the strictest instructions only to fire their last one under his direct orders. It had become something of an irony that the most valuable heirloom his son possessed was a weapon he dared not use.
Another minute passed, and Lucian saw that the escorts were turning from the Oceanid's path once again, their captains evidently developing some sense of self-preservation, or perhaps serious but temporary communications problems. As he had hoped it would, the Chasmatan fleet scattered, almost in slow motion, before him, each escort choosing its own heading. Lucian leant forwards in his command throne as he studied the enemy movements, judging each captain's skill from the manner in which he handled his ship. Two of the escorts came perilously dose to one another as they veered desperately to starboard, causing Lucian to bark out a harsh laugh as he judged the enemy captains' skill only slightly higher than those of a drunken ork.
At the last, the Oceanid closed in on the lead cruiser, gliding past it so close that the discharge of its manoeuvring thrusters sprayed across her bow as the other vessel sought to steer out of her path. The sight of Luneberg's flagship filled the portside viewers. She was so close that Lucian could read the vessel's name painted in fifty foot tall letters along her prow. The Borealis Defensor, Lucian read, judging the title typical of the ego of its master.
As the Oceanid completed her manoeuvre, Luneberg's fleet was scattered, its constituent vessels spread over an area of space up to twenty kilometres across, and each on an entirely different heading. It would take even a skilled admiral some time to consolidate his force, thought Lucian, and he was damn sure that Luneberg was anything other than that.
He watched on the flickering holograph as the Chasmatan fleet attempted, in vain, to knot itself into something resembling order. If only he had been travelling at a speed at which he could have unleashed a broadside. As much as he would have savoured the opportunity to damage Luneberg's flagship, that had not been the objective of his manoeuvre. Instead, he had hoped only to buy time for his son.
The enemy fleet did not redeploy in the manner he had expected it to. He had been certain it would be forced to spend some considerable time bringing its vessels around and regaining its previous formation, before powering after him towards the Rosetta, but that was not what they appeared to be doing.
Lucian watched intently as the escorts closed in once more on the two cruisers. Although ragged and ungraceful, the fleet soon regained some semblance of order, continuing on its previous course.
Lucian reached forwards and turned a dial on the plinth of the holograph, the static-filled, grainy projection above it blurring, before regaining focus, having zoomed out several dozen kilometres.
Lucian saw immediately the course on which the Chasmatan fleet was engaged. Luneberg was taking his ships against the alien vessels, which had formed up on one another and were likewise homing in on the other ships.
He could scarcely believe his luck. His enemies were going to pummel each other to the warp while he made good his escape!
The two fleets closed on one another with stately elegance, and Lucian felt tempted to pour himself a drink as Luneberg's force manoeuvred for what the Imperial Commander obviously intended to be a fearsome exchange of fire. Would the aliens really allow themselves to be drawn into such a position for a third time? Amazingly, it appeared to Lucian that the xenos vessels were indeed heading for another pasting, although he noted that this time they clustered together for mutual defence. He ran the coming action through his mind, estimating that the two cruisers of Luneberg's fleet would have the better of a broadside, if they could pull one off, although they would pay a high price as the aliens converged their fire in retaliation.
That, however, would have to wait, Lucian realised, as the servitor at the communications station had evidently been successful in opening a channel to Korvane.
'… ahead Oceanid', Korvane's voice sounded amidst a riot of static laden interference. 'This is Korvane'
'Korvane? replied Lucian, filled with a sudden relief at the sound of his son's voice. 'Korvane, what's your situation?
'Father. Korvane's voice came back, made distorted and tinny by interference on the channel. 'I am inbound to the Rosetta, e.t.a. ten minutes.
'Good to hear Korvane. replied Lucian, realising that his delaying attack against the aliens had indeed bought his son the time to make a dash for the Rosetta aboard his shuttle. 'I take it you evaded the invasion forces?
'Invasion forces? Korvane's reply came back. 'Father, I don't think you-
'That'll have to wait, Korvane. cut in Lucian. 'For now we need to concentrate on not getting involved, in finding Brielle and getting clear of this-
'No, Father. cut in Korvane, Lucian realising instantly that something must be severely amiss for his son to speak in such a manner. 'We are involved'
Despite the howling feedback and static flooding the communications channel, Lucian picked up on his son's tone instantly, and he didn't like it one bit. 'Explain. he said.
There was a moment's delay as only angry static answered Lucian, and then Korvane's voice came back. 'We are involved. The Rosetta arrived unexpectedly early at Arris Epsilon, Father, and in your absence I made contact with Imperial Commander Zachary Droon.
'And, I told him of Luneberg's treacherous actions at the talks, and Droon told me of the ongoing conflict between the two worlds.
'It's just a bush war, Korvane, nothing we need get involved with.
'Yes, Father, but he asked me for help, and he offered to pay quite a considerable-
'You've signed us over to some border princeling? Lucian felt his gorge rise, and fought to keep his temper in check despite the fact that he was quite sure he knew what his son's answer would be.
'I have pledged Droon our aid in ending the war against Luneberg.
Lucian stood, anger flaring within him. 'You may not have noticed, Korvane, but it appears that Luneberg has the same idea. Why the hell couldn't Korvane have kept out of it? he thought, trying, despite himself, not to condemn his son for his actions.
'Aye, Father, so I see, but I have negotiated a highly favourable deal, one that will recoup the losses incurred thus far. With the aid of the tau we will-
'The aliens, I take it? Lucian interrupted his son.
'Yes, the aliens. I had no choice, but the deal may recoup our losses.
Lucian knew Korvane referred to the collapsed deal with Luneberg, as if that was the fault of anyone other than the mad Imperial Commander. He sighed, knowing that his son was, if nothing else, an expert in such matters, and would have the deal sewn up so tight that he would have little choice other than to honour it. Well, he thought, looking to the holograph where he saw the two fleets about to clash, looks like we're sticking around for the fight.
'Right then. announced Lucian, decided upon his course. 'Listen, Korvane, am the Arcadius, not you, not Brielle, and not some squabbling petty noble. I say how our fortunes are made or lost. I say how we live or how we die. Do I make myself clear?
Lucian listened for Korvane's response, which came after a short delay. 'Father, I understand, but I had no-
'You will do as I say or I will denounce your claim! Lucian bellowed, determined now more than ever to rein in his son's good intentions. Good intentions never got anyone anywhere, not in the galaxy in which he lived.
'Now listen. Lucian said, feeling a measure of calm returning now that he had put Korvane in his place. 'This is how we're going to get the hell out of this mess you've negotiated us all into.
The Fairlight burst out of the Immaterium, Brielle immediately scanning the surrounding space for signs of her father or her stepbrother. She found them straight away, as she had expected to do, but she was somewhat shocked to see two entire fleets of vessels, apparently closing in on one another, as well.
'What the hell has he got us into now? she asked herself, deciding immediately that something must have gone terribly wrong. She activated the data-slates surrounding her command throne, a dozen and more screens lowering from the shadows above. The screens sputtered to life, the Fairlight's cogitator banks pumping reams upon reams of data across them. With practiced ease, she separated out the superfluous information, homing in on that which she needed.
The Oceanid and the Rosetta, her father's vessel closing fast on her stepbrother's, which appeared at anchor. One hundred and ten kilometres from their position, two fleets. One human, Luneberg's, she knew, and one not. She smiled.
Reaching up to adjust the data-slates' settings, Brielle homed in on the other two rogue trader vessels, picking up a signal from-
'Brielle? The communication grilles set in the back of her command throne burst into life, causing her to jump in shock. She spat a spacer's curse, before answering sweetly.
'Father, this is Brielle, what's happening? Are you alright?
'Yes, Brielle, now listen, as I won't repeat myself. He wasted no time in pleasantries, she thought, typical of him to get straight to the point. 'Rosetta and Fairlight are to converge on my position and follow my orders to the letter. You will not deviate from the course I give you, and you will not fire upon any targets until I order you to do so. Do I make myself completely clear?
For a moment, Brielle was speechless. What the hell was his problem? 'Father. she replied. 'I am perfectly-
'Do I make myself completely clear? her father repeated, his tone angry and brooking no argument.
'Completely. she said, slamming her fist down on the console and closing the channel. How the hell could he speak to her like that? Who the hell did he think she was? Had Korvane poisoned him against her to such an extent that this was how it would be from here on out?
Well, she thought, her stepbrother had had his day. She'd already seen to that.
Lucian stood in the centre of his bridge, studying the flickering image projected into the air by the holograph. The green globe was incomplete, almost half of the space invisible to him thanks to a damaged near-space augur array. Three groups of icons dominated the remainder, the one representing the Oceanid sitting dead centre, the movements of the others relayed relative to her position.
Some one hundred kilometres to the Oceanid's fore, two of the groups of icons danced, reams of data scrolling next to each. The larger of the groups represented the alien vessels, and there were five of these. Lucian noted, with a professional's appreciation, the formation that the alien ships had assumed, their weapons' fields of fire overlapping in such a manner as to make approach from any angle other than directly to stern all but suicidal.
In contrast to the aliens' deployment, the other group displayed only disarray. Lucian sneered as he regarded its arrangement, one cruiser and a dozen or so smaller escorts clustered around the vessel that he knew to be Imperial Commander Culpepper Luneberg's flagship. It was typical of the man's flawed character that he should deny his captains the benefit of a mutually supportive fire plan, instead concentrating solely on his own protection. He sought to destroy his enemy, the forces of the Imperial Commander Zachary Droon, but was evidently determined to minimise any risk to his own, personal safety. Well, thought Lucian, space battles were no respecters of safety, personal or otherwise.
The alien fleet and that of Imperial Commander Luneberg were currently engaged in the opening moves of what Lucian was quite sure would prove to be the last battle for one of them. Luneberg's forces had sought to engage their foe, but had been evaded now on several passes. The aliens would fight, of that Lucian was certain, but they had been hurt by his own broadsides, and would do so only on their own terms. The ballet continued: the humans unable to close on their target, and the aliens thus far unwilling to be closed upon.
The last group of icons visible in the holograph's globe of light represented his own, small flotilla. The Oceanid was a capable heavy cruiser, despite the damage she had suffered in recent engagements. Ten kilometres to the Oceanid's port side lay the Rosetta, the cruiser captained by Lucian's son, Korvane, who, only minutes before, had returned by shuttle from the surface of the world below. Inbound on their position, a mere fifteen kilometres distant, was the third and last of Lucian's fleet, the cruiser, Fairlight, captained by his daughter, Brielle.
Lucian folded his arms as he considered his position, prowling around the holograph, seeking to examine the situation, literally, from every possible angle. He had been pitched into this battle by the actions of his son, who had negotiated an alliance with Imperial Commander Zachary Droon. The only problem was, he had destroyed one of the aliens' vessels and crippled another before his son had informed him that these aliens were, by dint of the agreement brokered by his son, allies. The life of a rogue trader was never a simple one.
'Fairlight. Lucian said, the servitor at the Oceanid's communications station patching him through to the bridge of his daughter's ship.
'Go ahead, Father' came the response. Lucian noted instantly that his daughter sounded even more uptight than normal. He had no time to worry about her state of mind however.
'Rosetta. The servitor opened the channel to the bridge of Korvane's ship.
Lucian reached down to the console at the base of the holograph and depressed a control stud. 'I am transmitting the approach plan to you both. You will note your positions within that plan. Do you receive and understand?
He waited, affording his son and his daughter the time to relay the headings to their respective helmsmen. A minute later, his son was the first to respond.
'Understood, Father' Lucian was pleased to note that his son offered no further response. Perhaps he was suitably chastised following their earlier confrontation on the subject of Korvane's negotiating the alliance with Droon in his father's absence.
He waited a minute more, before asking, 'Brielle? Are you clear as to your role?
'I am clear, Father' came the response, after a delay that Lucian knew was calculated to communicate Bridle's displeasure.
Just like her mother, he thought, allowing himself a wry grin at his daughter's wilful behaviour.
'Well enough' he said. 'You both have your orders. Good hunting, and good luck.
'Good hunting. Korvane echoed, followed a moment later by his stepsister. Lucian took his seat at the command throne, taking a deep breath before issuing his order, 'Helm, time to get under way'
'Aye, sir' responded Helmsman Raldi, saluting his captain before turning and leaning his weight to the mighty wheel.
Lucian looked to the holograph, seeing that his son's vessel was manoeuvring into her allotted position. A couple of minutes later and the Rosetta was in position. He watched the Fairlight, his studied eye seeing instantly, and without recourse to his instruments that his daughter's ship was out of station by at least a kilometre.
He sighed. 'Brielle' he said, the communications servitor patching him through the ship-to-ship array instantaneously. 'Go ahead' the clipped reply came back. 'Brielle, you're out of position. Close up on the Rosetta, now'
A delay was followed by, "Yes, Father, I will. I'm simply picking up some flare. I can ride it out, but I don't want to risk the compensators, not now'
Lucian sighed for a second time. He had never been able to tell for sure whether his daughter was simply being evasive or whether she was outright lying. Another characteristic she had inherited from her mother and her people. It certainly wasn't passed down from his own side of the family.
'Well enough, Brielle. Just make sure you've shaken it by two point five. Understood?
'Understood, Father' the reply came back. He smiled to himself. Brielle never could do things the simple way.
'Ship to fleet' Lucian called to the communications servitor. It nodded an instant later to indicate that he was speaking to both ships. 'Korvane, Brielle. We begin our approach run now' He nodded to the helmsman, who hauled on the huge, floor-mounted lever, feeding power to the main drives. The deck vibrated as engines roared into life, although thankfully they showed no sign of trouble from the misbehaving drive unit.
'We find ourselves on the same side as these aliens, the tau as Korvane calls them. Now' Lucian continued speaking so as to forestall his son's inevitable interjection, 'this could prove troublesome, given that not a couple of hours ago I personally sent several thousand of them to the depths of the seven hells. Despite that, I did so for entirely plausible reasons, but I feel that the remaining vessels may not share our newfound friendship. Therefore, if we are to honour the obligations entered into on our behalf, we are forced to take a somewhat unusual approach. This then, is my plan. We must draw the tau onto the guns of Luneberg's fleet'
He sat back, knowing what was coming next. It came.
'Father! Korvane's voice came back, Lucian's son's anger obvious, even over the static-filled and distorted ship-to-ship channel. 'Father, I negotiated our agreement in good faith, and even though you disapprove, we are honour bound to abide by it. The tau might be aliens, but they are Droon's allies, and we cannot be responsible for their demise'
Lucian grinned. By the Emperor, he really had spawned a couple of humourless whelps.
'Korvane, I am not asking you to do so. Just follow your orders and shut the hell up' he said, slamming his palm down and cutting the channel. He chuckled, imagining his son's spluttering indignation at his words. He would have some explaining to do, later.
Meanwhile, however, the two cruisers of Luneberg's fleet had reached the optimum point at which to open fire, and did so at exactly the moment the Admiralty Staff textbooks told their captains they should. Lucian watched, his breath caught in his throat, as the moment of truth finally arrived.
Lucian slammed both palms down on the arms of his command throne, his laughter filling the bridge. 'I knew it!
Brielle smiled demurely to herself as she realised the trick her father had just pulled. He had, she saw, gambled that Luneberg's vessels were outfitted with weapons provided to them by the tau, as the orbital station at Mundus Chasmata had been. Furthermore, he had surmised, again correctly, that the tau weapons would not fire upon their own, leaving Luneberg's vessels suddenly helpless at the crucial point in their confrontation.
He was a wily old bastard, she had to give him that, but he hadn't foreseen this. She tapped a code into the communications readout beside her command throne.
'This' she said aloud, hitting the key labelled Transmit', 'is for the greater good'
Lucian watched from the starboard viewing port as explosions blossomed across the lengths of Luneberg's two cruisers. He had seen that the Borialis Defensor was equipped with xenos-supplied weapons when he had passed her earlier, and realised instantly that these were the same, high velocity projectile weapons that had been unleashed against him by the Chasmatan orbital. He had gambled upon their not firing on their own, but something else entirely was occurring here.
A dozen points of rapidly expanding orange studded the length of both enemy vessels, the exact locations, he knew, of the alien weaponry. Luneberg had sought to play them all — the rogue traders and the tau both — for suckers, but appeared to have been played himself.
The Borealis Defensor listed to port, her captain, Lucian guessed, attempting desperately to manoeuvre his vessel out of the alien ships' kill zone. The other cruiser responded by opening up her engines, the enormous power building inexorably to propel her forwards and away from danger.
Neither vessel had even the slightest chance of escape, however, for they were firmly trapped within the aliens' most deadly fire arc. The multiple, prow-mounted turrets on each of the five vessels turned as one, tracking the nameless cruiser as she attempted in vain to pull away. The muzzle of each spat blue fire, the hyper-velocity projectiles propelled across space in the blink of an eye.
The cruiser was struck to starboard, amidships, a line of explosions blossoming across its spine. Even larger explosions appeared on the vessel's port flank, the projectiles having passed entirely through its vast bulk.
Lucian stood speechless, too stunned even to order his helmsman to steer away from the almost tragically uneven battle. Violet plasma geysered from the cruiser's exit wounds, lending it the appearance of some gargantuan sea creature bleeding its guts into the churning ocean. A series of secondary explosions spread within the dying vessel, and its ravaged midsection bowed as fires danced along its length, fed white-hot by the ship's rapidly escaping air.
The fate of the first cruiser sealed, the tau vessels turned their attention to the Borealis Defensor.
'Hard to port, full power to mains! Lucian snapped out of his trance as the blazing wreck of the first cruiser drifted from his view. With the aliens intent on Luneberg's flagship, he saw only one way of ending this in anything like a favourable position.
'Comms! he shouted, the interference-laden ship-to-ship channel bursting to life. 'Fairlight, Rosetta, this is Oceanid!
'Go ahead, Father, I read you' came back Brielle's reply.
'Korvane? Lucian said, looking across to the communications servitor. 'Korvane, do you read me?
The only answer was the angry howl of the open communications channel.
The Rosetta shook violently beneath Korvane's feet, the scream of twisting steel audible from somewhere far below decks.
'What the hell was that? Damage report, now! bellowed Korvane, filled with a sudden dread. The sound had come from a part of his ship from which no such sound should ever come, even in the event of major battle damage. His gaze raced across the banks of data-screens clustered around the bridge, each choked with reams of rapidly scrolling figures.
Before he could even begin to decipher the data however, a second explosion sounded from the guts of his vessel, the bridge lights cutting out, leaving only the illumination that came from the static-filled screens.
'Where's that report? he called, standing, and grabbing the nearest bridge officer, a junior rating, by the collar. 'You, go find out what's happening to my ship!
Another explosion sounded, this time even deeper in the Rosetta's innards. Korvane knew immediately that it was the drive section and his fears were confirmed a moment later as the ship began to list severely to port.
'Damage control parties! Korvane ordered. 'Get the secondaries on line, now!
'Yes, sir' replied a hooded junior tech-adept, hauling open an access hatch in the deck plate, and clambering in to the cable-choked crawlspace.
Korvane experienced a moment of utter helplessness, the worst feeling a captain could ever have. Then, by the grace of the Emperor, the banks of screens flickered, went dead, and then awoke entirely, the machine spirit deep within the Rosetta's cogitation banks reawakening them.
He strode to the main bank, leaning over the command lectern and gripping its edge hard as he felt the artificial gravity fluctuate. For an instant, he stumbled as the gravitic generators fought to maintain their normal output, their force doubling before returning to something resembling their normal level. He fought to concentrate on the endless figures scrolling across the main screen, suddenly gaining an inkling into what had happened.
Isolating the data committed by the Rosetta's main bank augur array, Korvane reviewed the minute immediately preceding the explosion. Luneberg's vessels had closed in on the tau fleet, but their weapons had failed to fire upon their targets, that much was clear. More data scrolled across the screen, until, there! A signal had burst across local space and Luneberg's turrets had detonated.
So too had something deep within his own vessel.
'Sir! A shout came from a rating in the bridge pit. 'Sir, damage control parties report fires on decks seven through nineteen, fore, spreading fast!
'Damn it' he cursed. 'Get me-
Another explosion rocked the Rosetta, the deck plate buckling beneath Korvane's feet. The force threw him bodily against the main console bank, slamming the breath from his lungs and leaving him winded. He collapsed to the floor, rolling over and gasping to draw breath.
As he did so however, his lungs burst in agony as they drew in hot fumes, the stink of burning cables assaulting his senses. Coughing violently, he looked to the open access hatch in the middle of the bridge, from which a fountain of flames was erupting. He staggered to his feet, crossed the deck and hauled shut the metal blast hatch. His hands were burned as they closed on the superheated metal, but he gritted his teeth and slammed the hatch down, the flames spilling around its base for an instant, before they died.
'Damage control! he bellowed, slamming his fist upon the nearest intercom plate, praying it still functioned. 'Damage control to the bridge! He looked around the nightmarish scene. Thick, black smoke choked the space, sparks spitting from consoles and servitors both, while banks of static-filled data-screens provided the only, flickering, source of illumination.
For an instant, the smoke cleared and Korvane caught sight of the scene through the main viewing port. The Rosetta was listing drastically, and was drifting well out of station. She was moving, he saw with stark horror, right across the bows of the tau vessels. They were supposed to be on the same side, but he was filled with the sudden realisation that the alliance might well have been revoked in the light of his father's actions against the aliens. Would they respect the pact he had made with Droon?
His answer came an instant later, as the turrets of the nearest of the tau vessels rotated towards the stricken Rosetta. He saw with a rush of elation that, somehow, his vessel's shields remained raised, and were in fact holding strong at near full capacity. The tau vessel evidently saw this too, for it held fire, not wasting its shots.
Korvane watched in mute fascination as armoured blast doors opened along the tau vessel's flanks. Silhouetted against the pure, blue light that shone forth from within were rows upon rows of armoured figures.
As the distance between the two vessels closed to less than five hundred metres, the figures leapt into sudden movement, blue jets at their backs and ankles bursting into life and propelling them into space.
Korvane stood transfixed, barely noticing the damage control servitor stomping passed him, great jets of fire retardant gas spraying from the extinguisher units that replaced its arms. As the figures closed, he could see that they were some form of heavily armed and armoured suit, evidently built for extra-vehicular activity. What he could see were essentially torsos occupying the suits' central masses, small, head-like blocks perched atop them. The arms were great clamps, intended, he saw immediately, to attach themselves to any available structure, and hang on while the two great weapons mounted under each clamp burned through any but the most resistant hull. Upon the suits' backs were mounted complex manoeuvring jets, smaller clusters of which were also visible at the ankles and shoulders. He had never before seen their like, and two great waves were heading straight for his bridge.
Tracking their inevitable course snapped Korvane out of his shock. Praying that the communications arrays still functioned, he staggered back to the main command lectern, coughing as the powdery spray filling his bridge seared his already damaged lungs. He punched the console, awakening its machine spirit, and scanned the readouts for an open channel. He found one.
'Brielle! he called, knowing that the ship-to-ship channel was open and that his stepsister's vessel was nearby. 'Listen, Brielle, I need you to-
'Brielle? he turned the dial, boosting the signal, and was greeted by an explosion of angry static. 'Brielle, if you can hear this transmission, this is Rosetta, Brielle. This is Korvane. I'm crippled, and I have multiple fast moving class nines inbound on my bridge. If you can hear me, Brielle, I need you to close to point defence range… Brielle?
'Damn it! he cursed, certain that the channel was open and that his stepsister should have been able to hear his transmission, and to reply to it. He looked once more to the viewer, seeing that the tau suits were half way across the gulf between the two vessels.
Just one chance, he thought, activating the intercom plate. 'Torpedo deck, this is your captain. Do you receive? The intercom hissed and howled for a moment, before a voice replied, 'My lord? Yes sir, this is Second Under-Technician Kaerk, sir, the crew chiefs dead sir, but I-
'Chief Kaerk. Korvane replied, promoting the man on the spot for his simple act of answering his master's voice. 'Listen to me carefully Kaerk. What is the status of the torpedo?
'Sir? the voice replied, the noise of a crash sounding before it returned. 'It's in tube one sir, as it always is. Should I-
'Good! replied Korvane, offering a brief but heartfelt prayer of thanks to the God-Emperor of Mankind. 'Do you have fire control?
'Last thing the chief did sir, before he… was awaken the torpedo's spirit… said it looked like it might finally get its day!
Thank the Emperor for the non-commissioned ranks, Korvane thought. 'Listen Kaerk, I want you to launch the torpedo, on a ten second fuse. That's all, do you understand?
'Launch the torpedo sir? Launch «The» torpedo?
'But it's the only one we've-
'Launch it now or Emperor help me I'll- the intercom sputtered, an explosion sounding in the distant torpedo deck and cutting the connection dead.
That's it then, thought Korvane. The torpedo had been his last chance, a last chance that the Rosetta had been hauling around the galaxy for over a decade, and now, he sighed, he would never fire it. He watched as the first of the tau suits closed on the wide viewing port, briefly debating with himself whether to lower the armoured blast shield. Little point, he decided, they'd be through it in seconds, it would only delay the inevitable.
Better to die with his ship, he decided, straightening his jacket and standing proud at the command lectern, as all good captains should.
The first of the tau suits closed on the armoured glass of the viewing port, its mighty clamps attaching themselves to protrusions on the vessel's outer hull. The under-slung weapons fired into life, blinding white light arcing from the short, rectangular barrel of each.
It began to cut, when Korvane felt the Rosetta lurch violently to starboard, causing him to stumble and grab hold of the lectern to maintain his balance. The movement was not that of the vessel suffering another explosion, but something else entirely, something he had not experienced since he had stood upon the deck of his father's vessel and watched in childlike wonder as the Oceanid unleashed upon a xenos vessel a fearsome torpedo attack!
The last torpedo in the Arcadius fleet ploughed through the dense formation of tau attackers, sending them scattering in every direction. Korvane barked the laughter of the insane, the laughter of those who know they have won, even as they welcome death. He locked his gaze with the single lens of the tau suit as it cut through the armoured glass, great gobbets of superheated, liquid material splashing across the metal deck of the bridge.
'Five. he counted, watching the huge form of the torpedo as it dived into space.
'Four. He saw manoeuvring jets flaring into life across the flank of the tau ship, less than half a kilometre distant.
'Three' The suits turned, to race for their mother ship. He knew they would never make it.
'Two. The pressure on the bridge dropped suddenly as the attacker breached the glass.
'One. Emperor bless you, Crew Chief Kaerk. The torpedo detonated, scouring the space between the Rosetta and the tau vessel, burning the surface of Korvane's vessel, instantly vaporising every last one of the tau battlesuits, raking the Rosetta with the cleansing fires of oblivion.
'Try again, damn it! Lucian paced the length of his bridge, desperate for any response from his son's vessel. His earlier elation at having outwitted Luneberg turning to helplessness as he saw the Rosetta flounder, wracked by internal explosions.
'Helm! Lucian called. 'Bring us alongside the Rosetta. Operations, all available hands prepare to receive survivors'
The Oceania* ploughed on, the helmsman bringing her about to approach the Rosetta from astern. The manoeuvre would bring Lucian's ship into close proximity with the alien fleet, but he had no choice.
Meanwhile, he looked on as the alien vessels turned their attention from the first of the two Chasmatan cruisers to the Borealis Defensor. Luneberg's flagship was attempting to escape, but the aliens were evidently not about to let that happen. Four of the five tau vessels began a slow turn to starboard, their intention obviously to bring their prow-mounted weapons to bear against the Borealis Defensor's rear section. The fifth alien vessel, Lucian saw, veered off to port, closing on the Rosetta.
'Best speed, Mister Raldi, the Rosetta needs us. he said, willing, if it were required, to put his own vessel between the tau ship and his son's. 'Port weapons, prepare for firing.
As the Oceanid closed on the Rosetta, Lucian watched as the four alien ships caught up with Luneberg's flagship.
Prow turrets spitting blue flame, the invisible, hyper-velocity projectiles lanced across space and slammed through the vessel's shields. A second salvo tore a ragged line of punctures across her armoured drive section, breaching a secondary plasma conduit at a dozen points, superheated gases venting into space.
The tau vessels closed in for the kill, their turrets locked on their target's wound. Lucian held his breath, scarcely able to believe the destruction wrought this day.
However, the coup de grace was never delivered.
A searing, white light erupted to the fore of the Rosetta, Lucian throwing his arm across his face before the viewer even reacted by dimming automatically. Caudously, he lowered his arm, and saw the remnants of a detonation of stunning magnitude, roiling energies spreading out in a searing bow wave.
The Rosetta was scoured by the explosion, the mighty vessel propelled away by the blast wave and spinning slowly clear. The tau vessel too was caught in the explosion, its entire starboard side erupting in secondary explosions as it was pushed by gargantuan energies across space. Lucian watched as the tau vessel spun clean through its four sister ships, each veering desperately to avoid it. At the last, the tau vessel collided with the Borealis Defensor, the two ships grinding inexorable together, twisting and melding together to form a terrible amalgamation of human and tau starship. Incredibly, neither vessel exploded outright, although plasma fires danced crazily across the surface of both, welding them together for all time, making a blackened tomb for thousands of men and aliens even as they perished within.
Lucian wasted no time mourning the xenos tau or the treacherous dogs of Luneberg's crew. He was more concerned for his son. The Rosetta was drifting, her drives clearly dead, and a hundred fires had erupted across the side of her hull that had borne the brunt of the explosion.
Worse, she was drifting across the bows of the remaining tau vessels. Lucian weighed the odds, immediately deciding upon his course of action.
'Helm, cross the Rosetta's stern at ninety' he ordered.
'Aye, sir' Helmsman Raldi replied, a savage grin on his face, and Lucian saw that his helmsman had understood the order fully.
The Oceanid powered on, Lucian seeing that the remaining tau vessels were coming around for a salvo against the Rosetta's aft section. Within minutes, his vessel was drawing across the Rosetta's stern, crossing the T with the other ship's drive section.
'All stop! Lucian bellowed. 'Starboard batteries, prepare to fire on my order'
Lucian crossed his hands behind his back, counting off the range to the tau vessels. He knew they would open fire any second.
'Sir! the helmsman shouted, collision-warning sirens screaming into deafening life across the Oceanid's bridge. The ship pitched beneath Lucian's feet, throwing him to one side as he fought to keep his balance.
'Report! he shouted.
'It's the Fairlight, sir' Raldi replied through gritted teeth as he wrestled with the Oceanid's helm. 'She's crossing our starboard bow'
Lucian turned to see that the sight of the Fairlight coming alongside, entirely filled the starboard viewing port. He turned, looking to the holograph, to see that the alien fleet was veering off.
Thanks to Brielle's untimely and inexplicable manoeuvre, the aliens had escaped the wrath of the Oceanid's broadside. Lucian fumed. His daughter might have thought she was aiding him, but she had cost him the potential opportunity to catch the entire alien fleet in one, devastating volley.
She would have some explaining to do, once he had seen that his son was safe.
'All stop. Brielle ordered, the Fairlight coming to a stately halt two hundred metres to the Oceanid's starboard. She stretched, catlike, in her command throne, and turned to the hooded figure standing beside her.
'One good turn deserves another, eh Naal? she said, crossing her legs across the arm of the throne.
'Indeed, my lady' the man replied. 'My masters will have much for which to repay you'
'Shall we, then' Lucian said, standing centre stage before Droon's throne, flanked by his son and his daughter 'discuss payment?
'Payment? replied Imperial Commander Zachary Droon, his courtiers and advisors fussing around him. 'I think you will find that the terms of the contractual arrangement between your son and me-
'I think. interrupted Lucian, a finger held out before him to silence the Imperial Commander, 'that you will find that I have decided to, alter, the terms of that arrangement.
Droon's advisors erupted into outraged splutters of indignation, the reason not entirely lost upon Lucian. He chuckled inwardly, savouring the irony that, once again, a partner had altered terms on them.
'Now. continued Lucian, 'this is how we are going to set-de this. He waited for any sign of dissension from Droon, continuing only when he saw the Imperial commander sit down upon his fhrone, resignation on his ascetic features.
'My son' he placed a hand upon Korvane's shoulder, his son standing to his right, 'pledged the service of the Arcadius in the defeat of the traitorous forces of Mundus Chasmata. That pledge has been delivered upon, has it not?
Droon nodded in reply, Lucian continuing before he could go any further. 'For that service alone I judge that you are in my, not inconsiderable, debt. However, there is the matter of the harm done to the person of my son. he turned to Korvane, whose face and body bore the dreadful wounds done as, Lucian had since discovered, the family torpedo had detonated. Korvane's wounds would heal, of that Lucian was certain, but they would leave behind severe scarring, even disfigurement. 'Not to mention. he continued, 'the large scale damage inflicted upon the Rosetta and the Oceanid during the course of the action.
'That was hardly… Droon spoke up, about to object to the fact that the damage to the Rosetta had been self-inflicted, and that done to the Oceanid had been caused in no small part by the weapons of the Mundus Chasmata Primary Orbital.
'Your fault? Lucian growled. 'It was "hardly your fault" that you conspired with xenos to reject the just rule of the Adeptus Terra? It was "hardly your fault" that you did so entirely to setde an ancient grudge with a neighbour with whom you should have been cooperating in harmony?
'What, then, are your terms? Droon replied.
'Glad you asked. Lucian grinned, handing a data-slate to a nearby page, who carried it across to Droon.
Droon read the slate, his eyes widening as he took in the enormity of the figures listed there. The Imperial Commander swallowed, hard, before handing the slate back to the page. 'And if I cannot settle on these terms?
'Well, my dear commander, there are a number of reasons why I really think that you will. For one, my astropath has been monitoring the declarations of independence issued by every world in this region. You have been fooled, Droon: the tau were not fighting for your cause — they were fighting to stir the likes of you to rebellion. I can guarantee you that every other Imperial Commander on every other world in the Timbra Subsector and beyond has been approached, in one way or another, by these aliens' agents. Evidently, most have fallen to the temptations offered to them. In Luneberg's case it was exotic goods — his world was crawling with them — and weapons with which to equip his vessels. In your case it was mercenary service'
'My astropath has picked up a new voice' Lucian continued. 'The Imperium, Droon, has already heard of the situation out here' He paused, allowing that to sink in, gratified that Droon's entire court had fallen to absolute silence. 'On my word, he can inform the very highest of authorities of the part you had to play in all this. You know what will happen then, Droon?
When Droon did not reply, Lucian went on. 'If you are lucky, a Guard army of occupation will arrive and you will be executed quickly. If you are unlucky, it might be the Astartes. They don't do occupation Droon, they go straight to the head and cut it off. It might even be the Inquisition. If it's them, you will not be executed quickly. They will execute very slowly, and very painfully'
'Very well, Lucian Gerrit' replied Imperial Commander Zachary Droon. 'I will have my factors draw the necessary bonds'
Lucian suppressed a grin, clapping his son's shoulder, and catching the wry glance cast his way by his daughter. Following her manoeuvre: the manoeuvre that had allowed the tau fleet to escape, he had threatened to ship her off to take control of a grox-lard processing plant on Chogoris in which he owned a controlling interest. I still might, he thought.
The Arcadius had emerged triumphant, and the price he had exacted upon Droon for his not turning the Imperial Commander over to the first Imperial Navy warship he encountered would go a very long way to restoring their fortunes. Yes, Lucian thought, the Arcadius are back.
The Rosetta, restored to a semblance of running order, to the Oceanid's port and the Fairlight to her starboard, Lucian stood upon the bridge of his vessel. He had been about to issue the order to make warp, when his astropath, Master Karisan, had rushed onto the bridge, breathless, and interrupted him.
'Speak, Karisan. Lucian ordered distractedly, 'but make it fast and get back to your quarters. We make warp any moment'
The astropath stood before Lucian, blocking the forward viewing port. The old man fidgeted and wrung his hands, a motion that instantly irritated Lucian.
'Report, man' Lucian barked.
Well, it's this… Karisan cleared his throat before continuing. 'Not only has every world for twenty light years announced its secession from the Imperium of Man' Karisan said, evidently catching his wind, and barely able to contain himself. 'Almost every such world has announced its joining of a new… he paused.
'Go on' The astropath now had Lucian's complete, undivided attention.
The forces of these aliens are even now flooding the entire region — everywhere to the galactic east of the Damocles Gulf. The secessionists are announcing, to all who will hear them, their joining of this alien empire: this tau empire'
'But' Karisan continued before Lucian could interrupt, 'but, I have been monitoring the distant voices of the Imperium'
'What of them? Lucian asked, sensing that life in the Timbra subsector was about to get very interesting indeed.
'A crusade! The astropath's voice cracked as he yelped with something resembling religious ecstasy. Lucian had never before seen the old man so animated.
'A crusade is being preached even now my master. Cardinal Gurney preaches war against the tau. He denounces their lies and already, others have pledged aid or service to him'
'Who? Lucian's mind raced as he considered the possibilities unfolding before him. 'Who pledges aid to this Gurney against the tau?
'Why' replied Karisan, 'the fleet, of course, and Brimlock musters even now. Five regiments and more'
'Five regiments of Guard have no hope of-
'Not just them' Karisan interrupted. Lucian let him continue. 'Inquisitor Grand of the Ordo Xenos! The Astartes! The Iron Hands! The Emperor's Scythes. Even' and here the astropath leaned towards Lucian, 'the White Scars'
Lucian leaned back in his command throne, feeling an exhilaration that he had not experienced for many years wash over him. Thoughts of the tales of old Abad and the others came to him, tales of his ancestors penetrating the outer dark at the head of vast, all-conquering fleets, Navy, Guard and Marines rallied to their Emperor-given banner.
Here, now, he, Lucian Gerrit of the Arcadius found himself uniquely placed to make such a thing a reality once more. This preacher, this Cardinal Gurney might prove troublesome, but Lucian could scarcely believe his luck that a contingent of the White Scars Chapter was present. The White Scars, those savage sons of Chogoris, who called the very same world home, as had Bridle's mother, and he was not without contacts there still.
'Master? Helmsman Raldi turned towards Lucian, his hand still gripped upon the Oceanid's tiller. 'Are we to make way?
'What? Lucian's attention was brought back to the here and the now. He looked to his helmsman, before addressing the whole bridge. 'Belay my previous order. We are not to return to the west'
'Your orders then, my lord? Raldi asked. Lucian saw the glint in his eye.
'East' He glanced at a star map, taking in those systems that Karisan had indicated were now in the sway of the alien tau. He picked one.
As the bridge crew went about the business of enacting their new orders, Lucian smiled to himself. Perhaps the Arcadius would stay around for a while. It looked to him as if the Damocles Gulf was about to become a very interesting, and very profitable, place for a man such as he.