Scribes and functionaries pressed themselves against the walls to make way as a wild-eyes woman hurled herself along the corridors of Imperial Fleet Station Hand of Thor, yelling into a vox every step of the way.
"Open the service airlock connecting to bay three, charge the jump drive, and make sure no-one gets on board through the main lock!" She collided with a minor adept of the Machine God, rebounded off a wall, and picked up speed as the vox crackled back at her.
"Destination for jump?"
"Anywhere! Pick a planet and program the engines, just do it now!" She skidded around a corner into a cavernous cargo bay, dodged around a pair of slow-moving old servitors, and spied her destination up ahead. The airlock to the ship outside waited, invitingly open and free of guards. She was barely five metres from it when something caught her eye among the stacks of crates.
"Ready?" inquired the vox.
"Gimme a minute," she panted, reading the label on a small equipment case at the bottom of a teetering stack of crates that reached the bay's ceiling, then waved an arm at the servitors, which had begun to trundle towards her in case they were needed.
"Get this out for me, would you?" she asked sweetly. One of the servitors tramped forwards, regarded the stack of crates with almost-visible cogitation, then calmly gripped the case's handle and pulled on it.
"Ta," said the woman, snatching the case from the servitor as the crates tumbled noisily backwards, toppling further stacks as they fell. "Okay go!" she called into the vox as she sprinted through the airlock. The lock rumbled shut behind her, and beyond its steelglass panels the ship pushed away from the station and accelerated away into the void.
Demure appeared in the doorway to the ward room and leaned against the frame, exhausted. Jade and Site glanced up at her, then resumed playing cards on the mission ops table.
"What's the hurry?" Jade asked casually, picking up a card and rearranging her hand.
"He was there," said Demure, in a tone of voice that suggested a Hive Tyrant had been hiding under her bunk. "Right there. On the station. I was just walking along, minding my own business, and I turn a corner, and boom! Him. Large as life. Right in front of me."
"Diennes?" asked Site, discarding.
"Three-skull General Almighty Diennes, the one and only," confirmed Demure with a shudder.
"Your CO," commented Jade.
"I wasn't ready," Demure complained. "No-one told me he was there. I just walked right into him, and all I could do was stare. Couldn't move a muscle, completely froze. Me, for Emperor's sake. He actually had time to open his mouth before I legged it."
"Frell. If I'd stayed any longer he might have given me an order."
"You should be more careful," advised Site nonchalantly. "I didn't spend fifteen hours in a space suit sabotaging the communications grid, just for you to go letting him issue orders to us in person."
"Do you think he recognised you?" asked Jade, scowling at her cards.
"Maybe," said Demure. "Hard to tell. He looked a bit surprised."
"Might have wondered why you were out of uniform,' offered Site. Demure glanced down at her leather bodice and skirt, with colonel's rank insignia sewn onto the left breast.
"What's wrong with this? Hey, got you something!" She brandished the equipment case triumphantly.
"Is that a mark five?" Jade suddenly lost all interest in her cards.
"Emperor's Eyes, mark six," said Demure. Jade dropped her hand and bolted from the table, snatching the case and opening it.
"Oh holy Terra," she whispered, "telescopic molecular target lock, inbuilt bio-profiling, real-time inorganic cogitation. where did you get this?"
"Oh, it was just lying around," said Demure, "didn't look like anyone wanted it." Jade sat cross-legged on the main starmap display table, adoring the rifle scope like a newborn baby. Behind her, Site surreptitiously swapped a few cards between his hand and the deck.
Demure popped her head through the ladder access hatch to the ship's bridge just as it exited warp space. The captain turned a much-put-upon expression towards her.
"Again I must remind you that it is not standard procedure for Guard personnel to leave the barracks decks," he said wearily. Demure pulled herself out of the ladder shaft and kicked the hatch shut.
"And again, Jules, I must remind you that I don't care," she said, staring at the green marble just visible through the bridge's panoramic forward viewports. "Where are we?"
"Captain Bennett supplied co-ordinates prior to departure from the Hand of Thor," answered the captain, whose name was Julius and who visibly disliked the nickname 'Jules'. "And on that subject, it is also standard procedure for departure co-ordinates and warp vectors to be supplies six solar hours in advance, and cleared through Segmentum sub-command. The Navy's lexicon of command does not include the phrase 'fire up the drives and go that way', so I would be obliged if you would have a word to Captain Bennett."
"Yeah, sure," said Demure, opening her vox. "Jade? Where the frell are we?"
"Don't know," said Jade over the vox, "I just picked something at random from the mission task list."
"Are we going to have to fight anything here?"
"Don't know. Probably."
"I take it," said Julius, resigned to his fate, "that General Diennes did not issue any orders concerning the redeployment of your force, or the return of my ship to standard duties?"
"The moment I receive the orders," Demure said, smiling, "we'll return to a fleet station and let you be on your way. But for now, your transport services are still required."
"I see," grumbled Julius, "and the status of the repairs to the long-range antenna? Just in case the General might wish to send us any such orders?"
"Site is looking into it," advised Demure. Julius seemed to slump a little more into his command chair.
"What the frell have you dropped us in?"
"Well," explained Jade, "there was this low priority patrol job sitting in the fleet database, and no-one could spare a ship to take a look, and when you said 'pick a planet' I figured we might as well make ourselves useful." She trailed off at Demure's withering look. The colonel stomped around the deployment bay for a moment, then returned to the briefing console.
"Right. Where are we, and who here wants us dead?"
"Probably no-one. According to the database it's most likely just a downed transmitter or something. Just a one-squad job, go in, check everyone's okay. The planet is called," she consulted the console, "Lurnax. Classified as an agri-world. Population, three technicians, and... wow." She leaned over so Demure could see the screen.
"Eighty trillion grox?" she exclaimed. "On one planet?"
"Lurnax, Lurnax," said Site, closing his biological eye in an effort to remember something. "Isn't that corporate-owned?"
"Damn, you're right!" said Jade. "Hey Guilliman, look out the window and tell us what you see!" An ogryn sergeant sitting on a munitions crate looked up, then peered out of a porthole.
"Planet," he answered.
"Metal fing in space," Guilliman answered slowly, "big letter shaped fing."
"Big letter?" asked Demure.
"Oh," said Jade, "of course. Lurnax. It's where McImperium get their grox meat from."
"Really?" said Demure in astonishment. "That's actually grox meat?"
"Well, it is called a Big Grox burger."
"Yeah, but I figured they used rat or something."
"Nah," interjected Site, "rat's too hard to catch. Grox just stand there and wait to be made into burger meat."
"So the Imperium has lost contact with its only source of low-quality hamburger meat?"
"Yes," confirmed Jade.
"And we're going to launch an orbit-to-surface deployment to find out why?"
"Do you ever feel like someone's not taking this seriously?"
"All the time," shrugged Jade, "but if we can shoot something I'll be okay."
The brightly-graffiti'd dropship touched down with a bone-shaking thump, waited just long enough to disgorge its Chimera, and lifted off again. The vehicle rolled forward a few metres, then ground to a halt and dropped its rear hatch. Demure stepped onto the soil of a brave new world, followed by Jade, Site, Guilliman, Commissar Steele, and half a dozen troopers. Demure set off towards the nearest ridge to get a better view.
"Everyone remember where we parked," shouted Jade as the squad ambled along in her wake. Demure was surveying a distant compound in the next valley when Jade caught up to her.
"Take a look at that, will you?" she asked. Jade shouldered her lasguns, with its shiny new scope, and peered through.
"Hab module," she said, "probably where the techs are. The comms antenna is buckled, I think it's a false alarm... no, wait. What the frell is that?"
"Some sort of meteor landed near the perimeter," she said, increasing the zoom of the scope. "Looks a bit messy... aw frell! Frelling damned frell!"
"What?" asked Demure, priming her shotgun as the squad readied its weapons.
"Mycetic spore!" said Jade, "There must be bugs here!" The squad levelled its weapons at the nearby treeline, silent except for Guilliman, who was patiently cross-referencing his gun's ammo counter with a small book Jade had given him. He found the page for '95' and began counting the little bullets drawn on the page.
"Just one spore?" asked Site. "How many bugs could there be?"
"Doesn't matter," answered Demure, "once they get eating they'll breed like sump rabbits. They must have gone through the grox herds like a lascannon through halflings. There could be millions of them by now!"
"Billions," offered Jade.
"Forty-seven trillion," corrected Commissar Steele, "accounting for Tyranid digestion patterns and efficiency of spawning from new genetic material."
"Yep," said Demure, "lots." Off to their left, a bush rustled. As one the squad turned and aimed at it.
"Hold," murmured Demure, "no-one fires until I give the word. Wait until it's in the open." Behind her Guilliman abandoned his ammo check and primed his enormous gun.
The bushes rustled once more, then slowly parted to reveal an alien creature. It waddled out a metre towards the squad and looked at them quizzically. It had six stubby legs, a row of tiny armour plates running along the back of its extremely fat body, and a tiny little head that turned from side to side, as if it were trying to figure out what to do with them.
"Moo?" it said.
Demure gazed levelly at Tyranid herd as it ambled along past her squad, paying not the least bit of attention to them. Behind her, Commissar Steele was applying her knowledge of Tyranid xeno-biology to the task at hand.
"...known to adopt the genetic characteristics of the host species," she was saying, "so in such an environment, with almost no variance in biology over such a massive influx of genetic code, the Hive would assimilate the majority of the physical and behavioural traits of the dominant species."
Guilliman peered intently at a Tyranid-grox that had come to a standstill beside him. He poked it once, waited for a reaction, then put his hand carefully on its body and pushed. The creature toppled very slowly onto its side, where it remained, occasionally waggling its legs futilely.
"Tash," Demure called, interrupting the Commissar's dissertation on environmental adaptation, "do you think they're safe to eat?"