A shadow's width from the realm of the real, the immaterium churned with barely-contained power, clouds of energy, the souls of the universe, writhing and battering against one another in a mindless dance. Pushed aside by shields the clouds parted for a moment, long enough to allow the corvette Centaur to pass, before resuming their timeless maelstrom.
Sister Superior Anastasia looked up as a signal rune beeped softly. Although the ship was running on automatic she was taking a shift on the control deck, partly to relieve the tedium for her small crew, partly because she was comforted by the heartbeat sounds of the ship's systems. The background noise of the control deck was so familiar to her that she only ever heard the differences, such as now when an anomaly presented itself.
Anastasia touched the rune lightly, causing its message to be displayed on the viewscreen by her side. She read for a moment, then activated the intraship comm unit, calling Sister Zoey to the control deck. The science specialist appeared a moment later, her hair in moderate disarray but otherwise normal.
"What do you make of this?" asked Anastasia. Zoey frowned at the viewscreen attached to the command chair, then transferred the data to her analysis station.
"A transmission, Sister Superior," she said after a moment, "a very weak signal. Distortions from the warp are clouding the carrier, but I think it's local." She ran her hands across the control runes on her station, and a moment later a hollow hiss echoed around the deck.
"Trying to isolate the signal," she continued, as the hissing died down, "it's a voice broadcast, not a navigation beacon."
"No ships in the area," said Anastasia, glancing at her screen's mirror of the helm displays.
"Got it," said Zoey, "twenty-two megacycles on a tetrion carrier wave. Old technology. Running the signal through now." The hiss died away completely, replaced by a thin, faint voice, barely more than a whisper.
"Help us," it said, despair in every syllable, "save us... save..." The voice seemed to drift away until the control deck was silent.
"What happened," asked Anastasia, "did they stop transmitting?"
"Negative, Sister Superior," answered Zoey, "the carrier is still active. They're just... not saying anything."
"Crew to stations," ordered Anastasia over the intraship, before she turned her attention back to Zoey. "Any reading on the source?"
"Not yet. We have a vector, but nothing more yet. So long as the carrier stays active we can follow it back to its source." Portia and Sonia appeared on the deck and took their stations, Portia looking to Anastasia from the helm for her orders.
"Take your heading from Sister Zoey's station," the Sister Superior ordered, "best speed." The Centaur pivoted and bore into the side of a massive cloud of soul energy, delving deeper into the immaterium.
"Forward probes still show clear."
"We must be almost on top of it," insisted Zoey, adjusting her instruments, "the carrier's condensed almost out of the tetrion band." Despite the apparent proximity of the signal's source the warp ahead seemed clear and empty. Anastasia had ordered the Centaur's advance slowed, just in case.
"There's triangulation from the lateral receivers," continued Zoey, "if it's anywhere it's here." She glanced up at the faceless warp ahead of them. "Perhaps it's being relayed," she suggested, "the signal might have fallen into a whirlpool somewhere and emerged here. If it was strong enough it might seem..."
"Collision alert," yelled Sonia, interrupting Zoey's theorising.
"Braking thrusters full," answered Portia, and the corvette lurched as it slowed abruptly. Zoey's station lit up with new information.
"Readings coming in," she said, as the pull of deceleration eased, "mass, energy signatures," she looked up, and saw a dark wall loom out of the clouds of energy, barely metres in front of the corvette's prow. With a final burst from the thrusters, the Centaur came to a halt.
"Turn to zero mark nine zero," ordered Anastasia, relaxing her grip on her command chair, "let's see it." The ship slowly pivoted, turning so as to put the wall of metal below it. Anastasia and her crew found themselves looking out over a massive landscape of twisted steel and rock. Mountains and valleys were formed of the hulls of ancient starships, crushed together and torn apart by the millennia of stresses they had endured, entombed in rock, blanketed by ice. In comparison to the giant hulk the Centaur seemed no larger than a shuttle.
"Report," said Anastasia after a moment, "why couldn't we see this thing on sensors?"
"Readings are unclear on local warp space," said Zoey, consulting her screens, "I think it's sitting in a depression in the warp fabric, a... a sinkhole, I suppose. Until we were right in it our sensors were skimming over the top. Warp currents here are almost zero."
"The transmission was coming from that thing?"
"It still is," said Zoey, "at least the carrier is. There hasn't been any further noise, voice or otherwise."
"Could it have been a recorded message?" asked Anastasia, her eyes travelling over the starship graveyard as she spoke.
"I don't believe so," answered Zoey, "there's been no break in transmission, an automatic recorder would have shut off when the voice stopped. I think we were hearing it real time."
"Someone's alive down there," whispered Portia.
"Full scan for lifesigns," said Anastasia, "thermal, biochemical, anything. All species," she added, "we know what normally lives on those things."
"Detecting no lifesigns," said Zoey after a moment's work, "there are pockets of habitable environments, but no sign of anything living in them. No biomass at all," she finished.
"So what did we hear? Can you isolate the area that the signal is coming from?"
"It's one of the sealed zones, about a hundred metres beneath the surface. It looks like it used to be a cruiser, Dominator or Overlord class. Some of the structure extends to the surface, we could go in through the breached sections." Anastasia nodded, still looking out at the hulk. It made her uneasy, but if there was a chance there were people alive down there... they had to find out.
"Alright," she said, "Sister Portia, find somewhere to set down, as close as possible to Sister Zoey's coordinates. We're going in."
Corridors that had lain dark for centuries were briefly illuminated as the four Sisters moved through the wrecked ship. The warship had torn through the surface of the hulk, burrowing in until it came to rest near-vertical to what little gravity the mass was producing. Its life support systems were long dead, and the Sisters had been using their armour's magnetic clamps and oxygen packs since they left the Centaur. Most of the internal areas of the ship had been twisted by its impact, but near the centre of its hull Zoey's auspex had located an area relatively intact, shielded from most of the destruction by the mass of the ship's armoured power relays. They followed a corridor down into the ship, until they came to a wall of steel that had cut through the passage like a knife.
"Another ship," said Zoey, her eyes on the auspex's screen, "most likely embedded in the cruiser before impact with the hulk. There's minimal atmosphere on the other side."
"Any way to get in without compromising the seal?" Anastasia ran her hand over the ship's hull, feeling it smooth through the pressure nodes in her gauntlet.
"Some sort of chamber ten metres to our right," answered Zoey, "it could be an airlock. I don't see a connecting corridor on our side, I think we'll have to cut through."
"Sister Portia, use the meltagun, tightest possible beam. Be careful." With only the possibility of an atmosphere, and an unstable one at that, the squad's usual flamer had been left behind. Portia adjusted the confinement beam on her meltagun, then fired the weapon on its lowest power setting. Zoey kept watch on the structure of the corridor as the heat beam cut through the wall, noting that the damage seemed to be having no serious consequences to the wreck's stability. After a moment Portia had cut away three edges of a rectangle of metal large enough to move through once she had bent it inwards. The red-hot cuts quickly cooled, and Anastasia stepped through. The hull of the other ship continued through to her left, disappearing through the corridor's opposite wall.
"There's a junction five metres right," said Zoey, "we should be able to get through to the airlock from there." Anastasia led the way to the junction, turning into a short passage that ran parallel to the other ship's hull. When she judged she had gone far enough along the passage she found a doorway, half-open, leading back towards the hull. She forced it open a little further and ducked into the room beyond. It had been a maintenance station of some sort, the walls lined with racks for tools and replacement parts. Most of the parts lay against the other hull, obviously thrown there during one of the collisions that had brought the cruiser here. The room's technician was hanging to the side, speared through by a part of the cruiser's spaceframe that had been driven cleanly through the deck and into the ceiling. The loss of atmosphere had preserved the body, but his skin looked dry, brittle. Anastasia passed by the corpse and cleared some of the parts from the intruding hull, finding what seemed to be an airlock beneath, at a slight angle to the deck.
"Is this safe to open?" she asked. Zoey, who had stifled a gasp when she had seen the floating body of the crewman, ran her auspex over the airlock's surface.
"The inner door scans as secure, no decay in the material. It should be alright." Anastasia nodded and took hold of the handle set into the airlock door.
"Brace," she warned, as she felt the door's locks give way. "Inside pressure," she said when the door refused to move, "hold me." Portia grasped Anastasia's armour around the waist, and the Sister Superior planted her boots on the deck and pushed against the door, driving her armour's power enhancers to their limit. There was a tiny motion from the door, then a rush of air from inside and the door swung open. Anastasia overbalanced, but Portia's hold kept her from falling.
The inside of the airlock was unremarkable, merely a chamber with a door at each end. Zoey checked the control panel beside the inner door, and confirmed that there was still enough power in the system to use it. Sonia, the last into the airlock, pulled the outer door shut behind her and locked it. At the press of a button on the door controls air hissed into the chamber. Once the pressure had risen far enough the inner door opened automatically, revealing a dusty corridor, dimly lit by a yellow light set into its roof. Anastasia stepped out of the airlock, and felt her stomach lurch as the ship's gravity take hold. She deactivated her magnetics and looked around as the other Sisters joined her. The four deactivated their life supports once Zoey had confirmed that the environment was safe, their helmets sliding neatly back into the collars of their armour.
"Still no lifesigns," reported Zoey, "ship's reactor is that way, it's powering the lights and environmentals. There's a faint power source the other way, I think it's near the bridge."
"Check the reactor," said Anastasia to Zoey, motioning for Portia to join her, "make sure it'll hold out, look for any signs of life. Sister Sonia, with me. We'll check the bridge." Sonia nodded and followed the Sister Superior along the corridor, towards the front of the ship, as Portia and Zoey vanished into the dim light behind them.
After passing through several sections, relatively free of structural damage, Sonia heard a hiss from behind her. She turned to look for the source, but saw nothing. She heard Anastasia come to a halt.
"What is it?" she asked. Sonia noticed a thin wire hanging from a damaged control bundle - her passage had caused it to scrape over the metal casing of the tube below it, nothing more. She turned back to Anastasia, and found herself looking into eyes as black as the pits of hell, two cold openings into darkness such as might have existed before the stars formed. Her breath caught in her throat, and she almost stumbled backwards. Anastasia spun around, thinking Sonia had seen something behind her. When she turned back she looked normal.
"What?" she asked. "Did you see something?" Sonia looked at her for a moment, then blinked and looked back at the loose wire hanging beside her, which had scraped to a halt.
"No," she said, "nothing. A trick of the light." She shrugged and followed Anastasia forward, towards the front of the ship.
Portia stopped abruptly, noticing a spot of colour among the remains of a broken power conduit. Zoey, her attention fixed on the auspex, nearly bumped into her.
"Look at this," Portia said, "the conduit's been repaired, just enough to run minimal power through to the forward sections. It looks like the original damage was caused by the crash, rather than internal explosions from weapons fire, you might be right. I think someone survived when this thing impacted." She waited for a reply, but received none. Turning, she looked down the empty corridor.
"Sister?" she called. She turned both ways, but was answered only by the faint echo of her own voice. "Zoey, where are you?" To both sides of her the corridor stretched on, empty until it vanished beyond her vision. "Zoey!" she called again.
"What?" Portia nearly jumped as a hand fell on her armoured shoulder. She turned to see Zoey standing behind her, auspex in hand, a puzzled look on her face.
"Lost you for a moment," answered Portia, her voice slightly weak.
"We're in the reactor chamber, Sister Superior," said Zoey, her voice faint through the comm unit in Anastasia's armour, "we've found evidence of repairs subsequent to the crash, but some of the power relays are breaking down. Request permission to effect repairs to environmental systems?"
"If you think it's safe," answered Anastasia, "we're on the bridge now. No sign of life, but some of the IC databanks are intact, we might be able to retrieve the logs. Do what you can, then come up here."
"Affirmative," came the reply, a second before the comm channel went silent. Anastasia went back to her efforts to access the uncooperative databanks.
"Connect hives three and five," she called to Sonia, who had crawled into the service duct behind the bridge's main display console, "I think that's the recorder section. Run power through them, then try to clear up some of the third series databanks." A moment later the single undamaged screen flickered into life, displaying an archaic interface. Anastasia selected the review function and began to read the log entries.
Lying on her back in the cramped service duct, Sonia began to carefully rewire the databank accesses, bringing power into more of the damaged memory. A lot of the ancient computer had been burned out by an electrical fire, but enough remained that some information might still be retrieved from it. Patiently, Sonia began work on the first of the undamaged data modules in the upper of the three-series databanks.
She had completed her work on twenty modules when she felt a bead of sweat trickle down her cheek. She remembered feeling cold in the ship's corridors, but guessed that the confined space was preventing the heat from escaping. The IC core was right below her, too, she could hear the dim whirring as heat sinks came back to life with each module repaired. No doubt the duct would get hotter after a while. Sonia wondered whether she should switch back to her armour's life support, then decided to leave it for a while. The helmet's vision, while excellent for battle, was not suited to minute repair work.
She felt something touch her leg, and looked down to see a stray wire lying across her boot. She reached down to brush it aside, but her hand stopped half-way, caught on a thin conduit hanging from the duct roof. She tried to pull free, but another wire snaked down, wrapping around her wrist. She reached for the pistol on her belt, but her free hand was caught and pulled away from the holster. She tried to kick free, but more tendrils were wrapping around her limbs, making it harder to move. She saw them breaking through the seals of her suit's joints, and running behind her neck, over her shoulders inside the armour. She opened her mouth to scream, but choked instead as a mass of metal blocked her throat. Something wrapped across her eyes, and she saw no more.
Zoey glanced across the handful of intact screens that showed the status of the ship's reactor. Someone had already made repairs after the initial impact, but it was obvious that they had lacked both materials and experience. The reactor core itself, somewhere below the deck, was still running smoothly, albeit on minimum output, but the bypass circuitry was suffering from fatigue, and the junctions were beginning to show the stresses of overuse. Only five remained, of the forty that had been built into the reactor's distribution system, and they had not been designed to carry the load of the entire environmental system. For the last two hours Zoey had been doing what she could in the way of rewiring the brittle circuitry, taking some of the weight off of the more fragile junctions so that the environmentals would keep operating.
It was while she was rerouting one of the hundreds of tiny charge capillaries that she heard movement behind her. At first she thought that Portia had returned from the deck above, where she had gone in search of a parallel cable, but when she turned towards the door leading to the access ladders the figure occupying the doorway was a young child. Zoey guessed she was no more than ten, probably less. Her skin was stained slightly grey, except on her face and hands where the dirt had been cleaned. She wore a grimy one-piece coverall, with a faded rectangle where a name tag had once been. She was looking up at Zoey with an expression of patient interest, her eyes only slightly wide.
"Who are you?" asked Zoey, when she had found her voice. The child shrugged, as if to indicate that she didn't think the question important.
"You needn't be afraid, we're here to help," offered Zoey. "Are there more people here?"
"Yes," said the child in a thin voice.
"Can you take me to them? It's very important." The child tilted her head to the side, as if listening to something.
"They're waiting," she whispered, "you'll see them soon." The child's voice echoed around the reactor room, melting into a soft background noise that sounded almost like a heartbeat. Zoey spun around as the sound grew louder behind her.
She lifted her head from the console, and nearly fell from her chair. She glanced from side to side, but found the room empty. The doorway leading to the ladders was dark, and as she stilled and listened she could hear nothing but the low hum of the reactor core below her. Her arms had been folded on the console, cradling her head, and she found herself blinking away the haze of sleepy eyes. She looked briefly at the screen displaying the readouts for the environmentals, visible despite the crack that ran across the glass. Air pressure was still lower than normal, within safe parameters, but perhaps enough to make her drowsy. She glanced back at the power relays, resolving to speed up the repairs to bring the atmosphere processors up to capacity so far as was possible.
The Sister's eyes blinked open, and she stared up into a ceiling light for a moment, trying to place herself. Then her memory returned and she jerked upright, arms flailing, trying to free herself. But there was nothing holding her limbs, only a pair of hands on her shoulders. She turned to see Sister Superior Anastasia, looking concerned, holding her to prevent her from falling off the reclined bridge chair she had been lying on.
"What," Sonia began, then her head turned to look down at the access port several metres away, which led to the duct she had been working in. "In there," she began again, trying to call her thoughts to order.
"It's alright," said Anastasia, "you just took a minor shock. No serious damage, nothing to worry about." Sonia stared blankly for a moment. "One of the modules overloaded and discharged through the plasma grid," the Sister Superior explained, "it knocked you out, and your suit auto-sealed and triggered my alarm. You've been unconscious for about an hour."
"I remember wires," Sonia said weakly, "something attacked me. Wasn't there anything there?"
"Nothing, you're fine." Sonia thought for a moment, feeling the memories slipping away, becoming distant and vague, just like a dream. She looked down at her armour, and found the joint seals intact, never broken.
"The ship's log is back online, and the recorder," continued Anastasia. "There are entries going forward almost twenty years after this ship was lost."
"After? The crew survived?"
"It seems so. A lot of the data is degraded past retrieval, but there's enough to piece together. This was a passenger ship, transporting work crews and their families to the Valtayne cluster, probably to one of the belts in the Delti system, the exact flight plan is missing. Something went wrong during the trip, and the jump drive was damaged. They drifted for something like six months until the ship fell into this 'sinkhole' place and crashed into the hulk. About half of the passengers survived, along with some of the crew, enough to patch up life support."
"But twenty years," asked Sonia, "how could they last that long?"
"I'm not sure," answered Anastasia, "but there are a few references to expeditions for supplies. I think they tunnelled into the other ships here, and found enough to live on. The recorder entries are more and more infrequent the longer after the crash it gets, it's more difficult to work out what was happening."
"Do you think there may still be people here?"
"I don't know," said Anastasia, glancing around the bridge, "someone sent that signal. I'm almost sure it was this ship's transmitter, the waveforms match exactly. But the date codes on the ship's log are almost three hundred years old. In the warp that could have been three years or three thousand. Portia and Zoey are scouting the perimeter of the ship for access to other wrecks, we'll see if there are any signs of life."
Two decks below, Sister Portia edged around a corner with caution. She had not become a Celestian by assuming the best of an unknown situation. Nevertheless she was increasingly of the opinion that the ship had not been inhabited for more than a lifespan. Everywhere she looked she saw layers of dust, and no sign of recent movement. Ancient systems had been repaired, and then simply left to fall back into inactivity as decay set in. Machines that had broken down had no longer been stripped for parts and materials, useful equipment lay connected to burned-out power sources. She had seen, once or twice, the aftermath of ships set adrift on the warp, or even in realspace. When there were survivors, every failed system was cannibalised to keep others working, no effort was spared to keep the ship running for as long as possible. Here, once, this had happened, but at some point it seemed as if all activity had stopped, and the ship was left to itself. Portia would have supposed that the survivors finally died, were it not for the fact that, among the dozens of rooms she had checked, cabins, stores, common rooms and equipment bays, she had found no sign of their bodies.
While she moved her shadow was cast by the dim emergency lights that lit the corridors. As she moved on the light streamed back in her place, but the shadows did not entirely vanish. Instead they swirled after her, vague half-patterns on the walls and floor, merging with each other, becoming darker the further she went into the ship. As she paused, outside an airlock, they drew themselves up behind her, flowing up the wall and onto the ceiling. Thin tendrils of darkness reached out towards her.
"Sister Superior," she said into her comm unit. The shadows dissolved in an instant, like a mist broken by sunlight.
"Here," said the answering voice. Portia was peering through the airlock's grimy viewport.
"I'm at the main airlock two decks down, search grid A-twelve. I think I've found that other ship you were talking about." She heard Anastasia's reply, continuing to stare through the airlock viewport at the tunnel that had been bored through the solid rock beyond, lit by light panels bolted to its roof, stretching away beyond vision into the heart of the hulk.
"Four hundred metres," called Zoey, eyes on her auspex which was silently mapping the tunnel as the Sisters ventured further into the hulk. Several shafts had branched off the tunnel, some fallen in or purposefully sealed off, but Anastasia's curiosity led her to continue ahead. Light was coming from ahead, edging around the bends in the tunnel like a mist, quite obviously different to the dim, cold glow of those light panels that still functioned in the ceiling of the tunnel.
Portia, leading, turned the corner with her bolter ready. The auspex was having some trouble scanning ahead, and despite a continuing lack of any sort of lifesigns Anastasia knew space hulks well enough to remain cautious. For a moment Portia's eyes darted about, searching for any targets, then her mind caught up and her trained battle stance, learned so well it was an instinct, vanished. Her bolter lowered, and she merely stared ahead, eyes raised slightly. Anastasia checked for a moment, but seeing no sign of danger she quickly joined Portia where the tunnel made a sharp turn. She too looked ahead, then up.
"Holy Terra," she whispered. She took a step forward, as if to make sure she was not staring into some illusion. Ahead of her, above her, stretched a great city. Brilliant light shone from above, artificial but given the colour and warmth of sunlight, down onto towers and domes linked by thin bridges. Lower down the light reflected from the buildings, shining among forests that rose between them, here and there glittering from the surface of a lake. Anastasia, a step ahead of Portia and the other Sisters who had joined them, stood on a platform fifty metres from the ground, joined to one of the city's walkways by a long, curving ramp that followed the slight curve of the wall. From this, and the look of the false sky above, Anastasia knew the place was contained in a dome, but she could not see the other side, even in gaps between the nearest of the towers.
"This must be an old city-ship," said Zoey, quickly adjusting her auspex, "there are fragments of records about them from before the Crusade."
"No wonder they stopped bothering with the repairs back on the transport ship," said Sonia, walking to the edge of the platform and leaning over the rail, looking down onto the edge of a thriving garden dotted with taller trees, "why bother, when everything they could have wanted was right here?"
"Still no lifesigns," said Zoey. Anastasia had been about to ask, and was pleased that the young Sister had remembered her duties in the face of the unexpected spectacle. "Power readings, low-level biosigns from the plant life, all normal for comparable artificial environments," she went on, "everything seems to be as it should be."
"But no people," said Anastasia. She had been visually scanning the towers and domes, searching for any sign of movement, and had found nothing.
"Perhaps they all died," suggested Portia, "in warp time, it could have been thousands of years."
"Perhaps," agreed Anastasia, "but someone sent that distress call. If there is something alive here I want to see what it is. And if they're all dead, I want to see the graves, so to speak. Let's go." Quickly resuming their patrol formation the Sisters moved down the ramp and into the city.
The scattered trees, which seemed to be placed for their aesthetic value rather than oxygen reclamation, gave way to a wide avenue, paved in light grey tiles that had the appearance of marble, although Anastasia had seen such a material before and knew it to be synthetic. The avenue led between the first low buildings and domes, towards one of the higher towers. Just before reaching the base of the tower it split in two, travelling to either side of a shallow pool surrounding a fountain which, in defiance of age, still slowly circulated the water. Nowhere was there any sign of human life, nor any sign that there had been any.
"Sister Zoey," said Anastasia as the squad reached the other side of the fountain pool, where the tower's base opened in a low, wide archway, "if this place is truly a city-ship there will be a terminal to the core memory in each building. Find it and download all the information you can." Zoey nodded and unhooked her auspex from her belt, following Sonia into the archway. Portia glanced up at the tower then followed, and Anastasia was about to do likewise when she felt as if she had heard something behind her. Turning, she realised it was an absence of sound she had noticed - the fountain had run dry. She looked at it for a moment, wondering if its timing was mere coincidence, then stared as the outlets of the fountain filled again, this time unmistakably with blood, thick and so dark as to be almost black. The first droplet fell to the water below, quickly dispersing in a thin red slick reaching out across the sparkling surface.
Anastasia blinked, and it was gone. Her ears again heard the trickling sound of the water, issuing from the fountain clear and untainted. Anastasia closed her eyes for a moment then looked again, but again there was nothing. She retrieved her auspex and began to scan the water as Portia returned to see what had delayed her.
"Problem, Sister Superior?" she asked. Anastasia frowned as the auspex gave every indication that the fountain pool was without anomalies.
"I don't know," she said after hesitating, "I may have imagined it, but I could have sworn there was blood in the water for a moment." Portia frowned and looked into the clear water, but she knew better than to doubt Anastasia's word. "Perhaps nothing," the Sister Superior continued, "but be on the look-out anyway."
Zoey had already located a data terminal and begun the long task of raiding the city-ship's remaining memory archives.
"A lot of it's missing," she explained, "navigation, flight records, all gone. I think there may have been more of these domes in the original ship, but this was the only one to survive whatever happened. The others were either destroyed outright or lost too much of their support machinery to sustain themselves."
"Did people from the other ship live here?" asked Anastasia. Zoey looked uncertain for a moment.
"I think so," she said eventually, "but I don't know what happened to them. The maintenance records show a lot of systems being brought to full activity at the same time. Lighting, internal heating, oxy-generation, all the systems which can be switched to low-power while people aren't living here. I think that's when the survivors found this place and started living here. But then it all shut down again."
"But this place is operating at full capacity now, isn't it?" asked Anastasia. "There's full daylight outside, all the buildings are heated, the atmosphere's perfect for humans as well as the plants."
"I know," said Zoey hesitantly, "but according to the power traces all the support systems have been on full capacity for no more than a few days. Before that it was saving power, just like it had until the survivors from the other ship found it."
"Unusual," thought Anastasia out loud, "I don't like this. Let's assume that the dome's reactivation coincided with the distress call we received. What does that mean?"
"Perhaps some sort of suspension system," offered Sonia, "if the people here used cryofreeze or something like it, and our approach triggered the reactivation and woke them up, and they tried to contact us. But then they'd be here waiting."
"And they'd have had no way of knowing we were nearby," said Portia, "we haven't found any sort of sensor systems that could detect a ship outside the hulk."
"There are things that can see through the warp," said Anastasia, "the things that live here."
"We'd have been attacked already," said Portia, "all signs are that the hull of this thing is keeping them out."
"Perhaps we have been attacked," speculated Anastasia, "psychically. I thought I saw blood in the water outside for a moment. And Sonia, you said you were attacked while you were repairing the memory databanks."
"I thought the machine came alive," she said with a shudder, "but it wasn't real. Was it?"
"I thought I saw one of the crash survivors while I was repairing life support," said Zoey. "I thought I'd fallen asleep and dreamed it."
"What if all this is something trying to get into our minds?" asked Portia.
"And we've been going deeper into the hulk all the while," said Anastasia. "No more. There aren't any people here, and we're leaving. Portia, take point, full auspex scans the whole way. Zoey, I want you to look for any energy that could be psychic, no matter how remote the chance. Stop the download of the city-ship's memory, we'll take whatever it's already got. Let's move."
Sister Portia was on her feet in an instant, suddenly seeming more alive now that the mysteries had been put aside. Zoey uncoupled her auspex from the data terminal and began adjusting it to scan for psychic energy as best it could, following Anastasia with Sonia covering from behind. As soon as Portia reached the archway leading out of the tower the dome's light dimmed and vanished.
"We'll call that confirmation of the theory," said Anastasia, as the four Sisters activated the forward-facing spotlights built into their armour. Portia reached the edge of the pool of water and stopped, motioning for Anastasia to come forward. Beyond the Celestian, bathed in the light from her armour, was a small child, seemingly standing on the surface of the water.
"Zoey," hissed Anastasia. The young Sister directed her auspex at the child.
"Reading nothing there," she whispered in return, "but that's the one I dreamed of before."
"What are you?" said Anastasia, raising her voice again. The child smiled faintly, looking at each Sister in turn before her eyes settled on Anastasia. She opened her mouth, her voice a whisper that barely carried across the distance between them.
"We are this place," she said, "we discovered it and made it our own. And in time it took us in, and we became one."
"What do you want from us?" asked Anastasia.
"We are lonely," whispered the child. She raised a hand, and darkness flooded out of it, enveloping the Sisters before they could react. Anastasia found her surroundings melting away, and finally there was nothing. She tried to raise her pistol, but found her hand empty. Her bolter, sword, even her armour was gone. And before her was the hulk, a massive continent of steel and ice. As she looked its surface twisted and bulged, forming a gigantic face, itself composed of hundreds, thousands of tiny faces, all writhing silently, screaming without being heard. The hulk rose up like an ancient ogre, metal and ice forming the outlines of huge shoulders and arms, and reached out an enormous claw towards the defenceless Sister Superior. She closed her eyes.
"A spiritu dominatus," she whispered soundlessly, "Domine, libra nos, from the lightning and the tempest, our Emperor deliver us." She felt the massive fingers close around her, pressing against her. "From plague, deceit, temptation and war, our Emperor deliver us." It began to crush her, but at the same time the sensation was changing, the rough, cold texture of the giant's hand melting away. "From the scourge of the Kraken, our Emperor deliver us." The hand closed tighter, but the pressure seemed to fade away. Anastasia found that, instead of the crushing claw, she was feeling the comforting, familiar touch of her armour's inner surface, with its thousands of tiny feedback sensors. "From the blasphemy of the Fallen, our Emperor deliver us." Once again she felt the reassuring weight of her pistol in her grip. She opened her eyes.
"From the begetting of daemons," she said aloud, advancing through the shallow water towards the child, who fell back with every step, "our Emperor deliver us!" She raised the pistol and fired. The child vanished, her image being whipped into nothing like mist as the bolt shell passed through and blew the centre out of the pool's fountain behind her. Anastasia turned to see her Sisters recovering, raising their weapons again.
"Fight them," she said simply, leading the squad away from the tower, "they'll attack in your mind, so fight them there. Remember the Emperor, and be protected by your faith." A roar echoed through the darkness, and all four of the Sisters suddenly heard the sounds of movement around them, growing nearer. "And for everything else," finished Anastasia, "lock and load."
No sooner had she said this than a shape lunged at her, slashing wildly with clawed arms. Training took over, and Anastasia sent a bolt shell into the creature's head without a thought. Her spotlight revealed the headless carcase of a genestealer for a moment, then it vanished like a cloud of smoke, dispersing into nothing. Anastasia drew her sword and readied another clip for her pistol in one hand, while firing again at a second shape loping towards her, zigzagging in and out of the beam of her spotlight. Bolter fire sounded on both sides of her as the Sisters came under attack from all manner of creatures, genestealers, Orks, pirates, Tyranids, daemons, and all things drawn from their nightmares.
Anastasia pushed forward, slashing with her sword at the creatures ahead of her, driving them back as her Sisters fired round after round into the things that clawed at them from the shadows on either side of them. Reaching the edge of the ramp leading out of the dome, the Sister Superior sheathed her sword and pulled her bolter from its place beneath her backpack. Bracing the rifle against her elbow she fired both rifle and pistol, cutting a path through the shapeless things that poured down the ramp towards her. Sonia was on one side of her, slamming a new clip into her bolter and firing back to cover as Zoey and Portia started up the ramp, the Celestian clearing the way with her meltagun while Zoey fired down into the creatures scrambling towards their rearguard. Anastasia slapped a hand onto Sonia's shoulder plate, sending her up the ramp, then followed, bolter firing as she reloaded her pistol one-handed.
By the time she reached the beginning of the tunnel, where its light spread onto the edge of the ramp, her bolter was empty. As she raised her pistol Portia stepped up beside her and lowered her meltagun, cutting away the ramp a few metres behind them, causing a section to collapse down into the dark forest below.
"If they're looking like stealers," she yelled over the noise of Sonia and Zoey clearing the tunnel ahead of them, "they can't fly!" Anastasia saw that the creatures behind them had indeed been slowed, some overbalancing and tumbling into the darkness, others trying to leap the gap. A thing shaped like an Eldar pirate landed a gauntlet on the edge of the ramp, its hand warping to keep its grip, and Portia stepped forward and slammed the barrel of her meltagun into its fingers, sending it backwards into the dark, its shape twisting as it tried to stretch itself out to reach her.
Anastasia and Portia backed into the tunnel as Zoey and Sonia pushed forward. The Sister Superior replaced Sonia in the front, confident that she and Portia would be able to hold the things behind them at bay while they moved away from the city-ship. In the tight confines of the rock tunnel the numbers of the beasts didn't come into play, and they were cut down more easily by the Sisters' bolters. It was as they were starting to progress forward at a faster pace that Anastasia felt a pressure in her mind again.
"They're trying again," she called, "have faith! For the Emperor!" She began reciting the battle-prayer over and over in her mind. To her side Zoey, whose eyes had gone wide for a moment at something her mind had seen, grimaced and continued pouring bolter shells into the shapes ahead of them. Anastasia noticed her lips silently moving, and recognised the shapes made by the same prayer running through her own mind. She glanced back for a moment, seeing Portia and Sonia still keeping up their rearguard.
"Sister Superior," called Zoey, and Anastasia turned back to see a giant shape blocking their path. It seemed composed of everything she had ever felt fear at the sight of, from the shapes of a hundred monsters to the insane glare in the eyes of a fanatic or a cultist. She motioned for Zoey to stay back, and drew her sword.
"No good," she said, "we won't fall to your tricks any more." She felt the pressure in her mind, and saw the creature trying to reach out to her, but its mental claws rebounded off the prayer reciting itself endlessly. Then it warped, twisting into a new shape. Anastasia gasped in recognition as it became almost human, its face a macabre caricature of evil, but one she remembered. When she had seen the face before it was a slaver, a criminal lord she had not seen since her childhood. It tried again to frighten her, probing through her mind for old nightmares, but again it couldn't break through the prayer, and this time she had a weapon to answer it as anger welled up and flooded back down the mental link it had opened.
"Bad move," she growled, raising her sword. As it flashed down towards the creature its eyes for a moment showed fear, then it was gone, its severed head dissolving before it hit the ground.
"Come on," she said to the other Sisters, realising that the sound of bolter fire had stopped, "it must be getting weaker the further away we get. Remember your prayers." She strode forward, scanning the tunnel for further signs of movement but finding nothing. Portia and Sonia kept watch behind them, but apart from the occasional, weak pressure in their thoughts nothing further reached for them.
Sonia was last through the airlock back into the crashed transport ship, sealing it behind her. Anastasia silently reached out a hand to Portia, taking the meltagun and turning it to its lowest beam setting. She quickly welded the airlock shut, then paused and raised the barrel to point just below the grimy porthole looking through the doorway. She carefully burned a triple-pointed star into the metal, each point ending in a tiny crescent, the Imperial universal symbol for Quarantine.
"Let's get out of here," she said, handing the meltagun back to Portia. She had the Celestian burn the same symbol into the airlock leading into the ship from the vacuum-opened hull of the cruiser, then paused for a moment, regarding the desiccated corpse of the technician, floating motionless in his corner of the room. She retrieved a tiny vial from a pouch on her belt, opening it to let a few drops of water out, and watched as they floated in perfect spheres, splashing on the centuries-dead man like tiny raindrops on a desert.
"Emperor watch you," she said, touching her forehead and shoulders in the age-old gesture invoking the Imperial eagle. The other Sisters echoed the gesture then, one by one, filed out of the chamber, heading back to their ship.
Far beneath them, on the airlock sealing the tunnel through the rock, a shadow passed across the metal. When it had gone the surface was clean, with no trace of the symbol burned into it. Beyond it, the lights in the tunnel died one by one, and the hulk was again lifeless, waiting.