The Council Chamber of the High Lords was darkened. The thin beams of moonlight from the high stained-glass windows did little to shift the shadows that blanketed the room. A robed figure stood in the centre of the room, waiting. Another figure was briefly outlined in the light from an opening door, then he stepped through and the door closed behind him. The two walked towards each other and nodded in acknowledgment of each other's presence.
"This is most irregular," said Talvarus.
"This is necessary," said his opposite number from the Adeptus Astra Telepathica. Covarrus was known to many in the ranks of the Adeptus Terra as a schemer, a dealer in information and favours, and he had risen to his current position purely because he was a very good one. It was said that he knew the minds of his opponents inside out, without having to resort to telepathy. Talvarus had a feeling that he would regret agreeing to meet the Lord Astra here.
"Why contact me like this," he began, "and not through the Council?"
"What I say in the Council is known to all there. That would not be acceptable, in this case. What I have to say is for you alone. I am concerned about the Furies crusade project." Talvarus kept his face carefully expressionless. Inside, he was wondering how much Covarrus knew. It wasn't a question of whether he knew, just of how much.
"I have received reports that the retraining of the marines is not proceeding along the lines detailed in the submission made by Lord Augustus," Covarrus said quietly. "My psykers are not with the chapter at the moment, and they will not return until it is on active duty again. The Council may require additional information before that occurs."
"You suspect heresy?"
"I have my doubts as to the loyalty of the chapter's new commander. Lord Augustus seems eager to convince himself that the man is unquestioningly faithful. His record is certainly impressive, but such things can be misleading. We are relying on Lord Augustus's word, and I do not believe that this is wise. Contact this office," Covarrus said, holding out a dataclip to Talvarus, "and give them these orders."
Talvarus hesitated, then took the clip.
"Who are they?" he asked.
"An Inquisitor. Naturally the Astra Telepathica can have no contact with the Inquisition, but their services seem to be necessary at this point. I believe you should have no trouble in enlisting the aid of this particular Inquisitor. I have reviewed his record, and found it perfect for this task."
"Are you sure that..." Talvarus began. Covarrus interrupted him.
"This Inquisitor," he said, in a voice that seemed suddenly to carry a touch of menace, "will investigate Lord Augustus's chapter master, and return with a full and detailed report. Another Inquisitor might feel inclined to investigate the exact nature of the chapter master's dealings with others in the Adeptus Terra." At that point Talvarus was certain that the psyker knew of his involvement. He nodded and turned to leave. Behind him, he heard Covarrus turn to watch his back.
Octavian was halfway through programming an engineering diagnostic cycle when the commander passed through C&C.
"I'll be on Thunderchild," she said, her face and voice again concealed by the mask. "I need to have a close look at the power relays for the new drive systems before we can start installation on the cruisers. Which teleporter is active?"
"Chamber three, Brother-commander," replied Octavian. The commander left, headed for the teleport chambers. Octavian turned back to his console, shifted a few pieces of structural programming, and then unplugged the data module and handed it to Callee, whose head and shoulders had emerged from the depths of the C&C chamber's logic engine at the sound of the commander's voice.
"One more module," she said, handing it to him and disappearing into the computing core again. "You were saying?"
"Hm? Oh, yes, the artillery. I don't care what the Imperial Guard's generals say, it just doesn't work sometimes."
"They seem to think that you can do anything with enough tanks. I've met a few."
"You can't. A tank can blow up buildings and roll over trenches and kill people, which is fine if that's all you want to do. What if you want to get something intact? A demolisher shell can't tell the difference between an enemy soldier and a prisoner. A marine can, and until they invent a bomb that can tell the difference and only blow up the enemy, you cannot replace soldiers with machines."
"You could use robots."
"I know it's not exactly loyal to say so, but the robotic control units that come out of Mars are not even close to the quality they should be. The things get their targets mixed up, their weapons jam and they don't realise it, they get confused by things that just haven't occurred to the adepts testing them. Do you know I once saw an entire squadron of Prometheus assault robots shut down completely because of the sun? They were tested on Mars, and they'd never operated under anything but an industrial dustcloud. Something in their logic circuits couldn't handle the way the light was coming from a single point, or something." Octavian shrugged to himself as he moved pieces of code around on the screen connected to the malfunctioning data module.
"The problem," he continued, "is that the bureaucrats who organise armies like the Imperial Guard don't understand the point of warfare. They think that if you want to win a war you just kill all of the enemy. Don't try to tell me that's right. If that was true, we'd have to wipe out every last Ork, Eldar and Tyranid before we could stop. Granted the bugs aren't exactly friendly, and the Orks are a problem, but the Eldar aren't necessarily warlike. We've just been having on-and-off skirmishes with them for so long that the Adeptus has piled up so many reasons to attack them that they don't think not to. The Eldar aren't the only ones, there are thousands of other races like them. They order Exterminatus on whole civilisations because of it. One day they'll order me to do it." Octavian lapsed into an uneasy silence. Callee appeared by his side.
"What would you do?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "I've always been loyal to the Emperor. He was a great man, and he wanted a great future for the human race. I'm just not sure if this is it. I wonder if we went wrong somewhere, without his guidance, and now we're just getting further and further away from what he wanted. If the order came, in his name... I pray every day it doesn't."
"Alisha, chief engineer," said the young woman, holding out her hand. The commander clasped her hand, looking around the small teleport bay of the ship.
"Callee told me the basics," she continued, leading the commander through several corridors before they emerged into the vast engineering deck complex. "I'll just call you 'commander', okay? Now, you need to see the power relays. We've been installing faster units through the fusion drive, so we'll start with them."
Three hours later, in a conduit junction somewhere between the engineering decks and the fusion reactor, Alisha replaced the housing on the last power relay control node and sat back contentedly. The space was not quite large enough to stand in, being packed with cables and control clusters. To the commander's eye, the interior workings of the ship looked decidedly non-standard, but they had a certain elegance, as far as the term could be applied to the several miles of power transfer grids that wound their way through the ship.
"Do you mind if I ask you something?" said Alisha.
"Why the mask? The armour I can understand, but I'm curious about the mask." The commander had re-engaged the full-body armour before leaving her power suit to go crawling through the service ducts.
"It's a long story. You've dealt with the Imperium?"
"Yes, a few times. When we can't avoid it."
"They don't like unfamiliarity. Anyone unlike themselves is considered untrustworthy at best. I had to work very hard to get the authorisation to command here. If the Adeptus Terra knew more about me, they would complicate what I'm trying to do. As long as they don't know who I am, they have to take me on the strength of my actions. It puts me on level ground with them." She paused, then continued in a lighter tone, "I'm not saying I'm a daemon, or an Ork in disguise, or something." Alisha laughed.
"You'd be the most intelligent Ork I've ever met. Not that I've met many, just enough to know that they're not good company. I know what you mean, about the Adeptus. Whenever we have to deal with them, I get the run-around for one reason or another. Not Imperial merchants, not listed with the guild, not using Imperial equipment, not a man. If I was just non-human, I'd have the full set. It's not really what I'm used to. I grew up on the Selene colony, it was always a case of do it yourself or it doesn't get done. Unofficially, of course. There was an Imperial outpost there, but they didn't pay much attention to us colonists. Just so long as we didn't take up daemon worship, they were happy. All us young girls were supposed to be educated by the Ecclesiarchy. There were only a few of us that were suitable for them, though, and the rest just got the basic religion and then dumped back home. They told us all about the Emperor, and how he was this wonderful god and everything, and how he watched us all, all the time. I asked my father if he had some sort of surveillance system set up," she said with a smile. The commander laughed. "Hey, I was seven. My father had been an officer on the colony ship. He knew how the Imperium worked, and I sort of picked it up from him. I figured out early on not to ask the Sisters any questions when they said something that sounded unlikely, so we got on well, from their point of view. I didn't show any promise, though, so they never moved me off-world. Just as well, I suppose."
"How did you become an engineer?"
"Pure chance. Our food processor broke down when I was eleven and I had a fiddle around inside it while we were waiting for someone from the outpost to come and pray at it. Loose wire or something, but it got me interested. Father got me a few bits a pieces to play with, unofficially. I don't remember what was supposed to happen if a female touched a machine, but it probably wasn't good. The outpost would've gone nuts if they'd found out, but they didn't care what we did. They were probably glad not to be getting so many calls for their adepts to come and fix broken processors and sterilisers and things. My father guessed I had a natural talent for the machines. He did a few deals, and got hold of some documents from the Mechanicus, through the outpost. Simple blueprints, mainly, basic thruster drives and relay grids, that sort of thing, but it was a step up. I taught myself to read Gothic Tech."
"It's not as hard as people think. It's not really a language, and it doesn't work if you think of it like that. It's half words, and half engineering specifications. Anyway, it got me ready to have a go at the real thing. That was Callee's transport corvette. She knew someone who'd served with my father on the colony ship, and he got me on board to take a look at a real ion drive. This was when I was about fifteen. You couldn't have gotten me off that ship with a laser cutter. I'd started fiddling with it almost before we took off. After a year, it was the fastest ship in the sector."
"What happened to it?"
"It's down in the docking bay. Just between you and me," Alisha leaned closer, "we've broken the light barrier in that corvette."
"Yep. Has she told you about your new drive systems, for the cruiser fleet?"
"That's them. I got the idea from an Eldar field coil on one of the craftworlds we visited. You just invert the field, boost the structural grid, and introduce some field harmonics which it took me about ten months to work out, and you've got effective zero mass. No relativity, no light barrier. You wanna see it?"
"I can't wait," said the commander. She followed Alisha, who had already ducked into one of the service conduits leading away from the junction.
Callee walked into the communications chamber set to one side of C&C to find the back of the Council of Lords. She stepped sideways, looking around the hologram floating in the middle of the room, and saw Octavian addressing the High Lords.
"We are on schedule," he was saying. "The chapter will be operational on time."
"And what of your new commander," said one of the robed figures. Callee couldn't tell which had spoken from her position behind the image.
"The commander has my full trust. He is as capable as any I have served with."
"I see," said one of the Lords. Callee saw the one in Administratum robes move, and assumed that he was talking. "You have no reason to doubt his loyalty? We have received reports of unorthodox activity within the chapter."
"This chapter is loyal to the Emperor. We are modifying our adherence to the Codex Astartes only in order to present a more effective fighting force when the times comes for us to engage the enemy. That is all."
"Very well. Remember your oaths of loyalty, and serve the Emperor," said one of the Lords, a split second before the hologram disappeared. Octavian shut down the projector array.
"Our lords and masters are unhappy about something?" asked Callee. Octavian nodded.
"They know that your ship is here. I told them we were using several trader ships to bring new equipment. They won't bother trying to unravel the sector traffic reports to find out whether you were one of them. I'm not convinced that was all, though. I think they're getting information from somewhere else. I'd thought that the Council was unanimous in its support for our crusade, but I may have been mistaken. It's all politics at that level. I shouldn't say this, but I don't trust them."
"What's this," said Callee lightly, "one of the mighty marines doubting his lords? What happened to the religious devotion I keep hearing about?"
"Some chapters, yes. Terra thinks we're all just warriors, to be sent to do their bidding without question. It's true, we are bound to follow the Emperor, that's in our blood, but we're not robots. I've never met a marine in this chapter who fights because he is told to. We fight because it is for the good of our people. There are some who follow orders blindly, either because of the Codex or because it's just their way. A lot of chapters never leave their homeworld unless they're ordered to go and fight somewhere, and then they go, they fight, and they come back. They don't care why they go, they don't even care who they fight. It worries me."
"You sound like your commander's been giving you a crash course in galactic politics."
"No, we've always been like this. It's probably something in the gene-code. We're not primary successors, you know, there are several incarnations between us and the Ultramarines. I've heard the Mechanicus biopriesthood say that every marine is genetically identical. It doesn't happen," he finished pulling himself to his feet and looking across the projector array at Callee.
"How many diagnostic cycles do we still need to do today?"
"About fifty, but they can wait. You," she added, taking his hand and leading him out of the communications chamber, "could do with a break. I know I can do with never seeing an analysis coordinator module again. There must be more to this planet than the C&C complex. Why don't you show me?"
Julius watched through an infra-red visor as a bulky shape silently approached its target from behind. An arm raised, preparing a long, thin blade to strike. The assassin whirled around, her phase blade cutting through the training drone's chest. Its arm dropped, but hit nothing as she rolled out of the way, slashing back at it as the drone's blade struck the ground. Its mechanical hand dropped amid a shower of sparks that briefly lit up the training zone. A final cut severed the power cords along the drone's neck. Julius raised the visor as overhead lights came on, illuminating the zone. Tech-adepts began to move through the simulated terrain, noting the damage to the dozen or so drones that had been disabled in total darkness. Julius approached the assassin as she deactivated her phase sword and moved to retrieve her other equipment from the storage chamber it had been left in before the exercise.
"What can I do for you this time?" she said, without turning around.
"I have need of your services."
"What's this? I thought you disapproved of my methods."
"I do. But the particular assignment I have for you requires strict adherence to the orders you will be given. Your lack of initiative..."
"Lack of bloodlust," she interrupted.
"Call it what you will," Julius continued with barely a pause, "is an asset in this situation."
"I assume you have enlisted the service of my temple? The orders have been recognised?"
"Then why bother telling me? I will prepare when I receive the orders. You will receive a report when I have completed my mission. Good day, Inquisitor." The assassin disappeared through a doorway. Julius wondered briefly if she could be charged with heresy, or sedition. Unfortunately, he knew full well that her status as an assassin, indeed one of the finest of her temple, protected her from the possible consequences of her behaviour. He left the training zone, followed by the echoing chant of one of the tech-adepts who had found a drone too badly damaged to be repaired.
The first sign that they were under attack was an explosion from one of the garden domes. Air rushed out of the gaping hole in the transparent shield, taking several of the dome's caretakers with it before containment fields snapped into place. After that, the battle had begun.
Guardians rushed to their defence stations as the bridge tower of Ulthwé reported in excess of twenty incoming cruiser-type starships. A hundred turrets, each carrying banks of shuriken cannon and plasma pulsars, swivelled to meet the threat. The lead ships appeared out of the sensor blind-spot caused by the nearby star, and the gunners saw, through their long-range target enhancers, the marking of chaos on their hulls. There was a moment when both sides watched, waiting for the other to make a move, then the chaos warships entered range of the defence turrets and space lit with the fire of hundreds of weapons. Showers of missiles leapt from the sleek torpedo rams, leading the chaos fleet, to be met by the dense hail of fire from the shuriken batteries, the molecule-thin discs cutting through the warheads, sending them spinning off course or detonating them harmlessly in space. Several missiles made it through, and the craftworld's energy shields flickered over its surface, aligning themselves to absorb the blast of the impacting warheads. The pulsars sent brilliant bolts of light tearing into the bows of the chaos ships, melting armour in seconds, but the charge did not falter. When it seemed that the warships would collide with the massive city-ship, they banked sharply around, skimming across the surface of the craftworld, energy lances tearing at its shields.
For a few frantic moments the battle swung back and forth, then a squadron of Eldar cruisers appeared behind the chaos fleet and attacked. Caught between the incoming warships and the unrelenting fire from the craftworld, the chaos ships scattered, trying desperately to escape the deadly crossfire.
One of the chaos warships, a light cruiser, looked like it was going to break free, but an Eldar cruiser leapt forward, blocking its path and unloading the full charge of its prow pulsars. Behind it, the chaos fleet's command cruiser was veering off course, its internal atmosphere burning off from a dozen hull breaches.
"I don't see what this has to do with us," said the Grand Admiral of the Imperial Navy. Some of the other High Lords murmured their agreement.
"This city-ship," said Covarrus calmly, as the holographic battle played itself out, "is three weeks from entering the core systems of its sector. I need not remind you that we have an obligation to resist all contact with aliens? I believe that this battle could be used to our advantage."
"You're not suggesting that we attack them," snorted the Grand Admiral. "This is not some little pirate fleet, it's a craftworld! I don't care how soon after a chaos attack we move, we don't have the resources to drive them off."
"We don't have to do anything, Grand Admiral," replied Covarrus, "except allow events to take their course. You are thinking of ways to defeat the situation as it stands, when we should be looking to alter the situation." He pressed a button, freezing the image of the battle. There was a brief blur, as scan lines ran across the image, then the chaos warships were replaced by similar-shaped merchant cruisers and freighters. The battle resumed, the Eldar cruisers tearing apart the merchant vessels.
"You see, our problem is that, no matter what we do here, people out in the systems insist on attempting to deal with these aliens. The lure of their technology. But, after seeing an Eldar fleet attacking, without provocation, a peaceful merchant fleet," Covarrus waved a hand at the hologram, where two Eldar cruisers were firing pulsars into a freighter that had been, a moment ago, a chaos heavy cruiser, "I very much doubt whether a merchant captain will risk his life and his ship on the chance that he will be able to acquire some interesting technological toys." Covarrus sat back in his seat and ignored the dark glare thrown at him by the Admiral.
"Will it work?" asked Crassus, the Inquisitorial Envoy.
"Tell me, Lord Inquisitor," said Covarrus, "what is the truth? You know we regularly accuse these Eldar of demon worship, whenever it suits us to stir up some fear and resentment. Is that true? They're as hostile to chaos as we are, and we both know it. But a governor, out on some colony world, thinks that this is the truth. And the governor's officers believe what he tells them, and they tell their subordinates, and so on. By the time information reaches the common menials and scribes, does it even matter how accurate it was to begin with. It is the truth. At a stroke, we alter the galaxy. And," he added, casting a glance at the Admiral, "we don't even have to send any ships."
The commander stood on a high walkway, looking out over the last space. Below was one of the chapter's massive command cruisers, its running lights dark, its engine section in pieces. Small tugboats pulled massive pieces of machinery around in the weightless spacedock, carefully manoeuvring around each other in a complex dance. The arrival of the dock's elevator distracted the commander from watching one of the sleek hyperlight nacelles slowly being spun into position by the side of the cruiser.
"Brother-commander. This just came in over the stellar broadcast system," he said, holding up a data module. Its small screen showed the Eldar cruisers and merchant ships, along with various status icons in one corner and a commentary in Imperial basic. The commander watched the screen for a moment, then touched a control on the console mounted on the railing in front of her. Callee appeared on the screen.
"I saw it," she said, without waiting for an explanation.
"Ulthwé‚ attacking merchants? I can't recall this ever happening before."
"I've been running an analysis on the video sections," said the captain, turning away from the screen for a second. "The heavy ore freighter that gets attacked at about two minutes twenty is the Light of Mercury, a Beta-pattern neutronic carrier. It was destroyed thirty years ago by an Ork warband. So far three more of the merchant ships have been tracked down, all confirmed destroyed."
"Meaning they can't have been attacked now."
"No. Someone has used their images to replace something else."
"I've got to get back to the surface."
"Why?" asked Captain Valerta, master of the ninth company. The commander turned away from the holographic array and faced the assembled company leaders.
"The Eldar are an alien race that the Adeptus Terra wants no dealings with. Evidence of an attack on human shipping will stop the merchant captains from trying to make contact while their craftworld is within the core systems."
"But the freighters can't have been there. What were they attacking?" The commander crossed in front of the conference table to a data terminal and retrieved a dataclip, plugging it into the hologram projector.
"These are long-range scans made by a trader corvette of the battle." The screen lit up again, showing another view of the Eldar cruisers, their outlines slightly blurred by the distance. As they swung around, their targets came into focus, and the marking of chaos were clearly visible.
"Renegade warships," said Tigrus flatly.
"Watch," said the commander. She pressed a button, and the images blurred backwards. They stopped just as the craftworld's garden dome reassembled itself at high speed. The images again moved forward at their normal pace, and the captains watched as the dome shattered and the warships swooped in towards the Eldar.
"The chaos warships attacked the Eldar, destroyed this dome and several towers on the craftworld, and were eventually driven back by a cruiser group returning from a patrol. The original images of the battle were probably recorded by the Navy cruiser Lunar Sword, which was assigned to patrol the sector. The images of the merchant ships were then used to replace the renegade cruisers, and the battle was rebroadcast to prevent humans from contacting the craftworld."
"Who did this?" growled Captain Norton, the imposing master of the fourth company. The commander paused for a second.
"The broadcast was made from Terra. The only people with the power to authorise such a broadcast without waiting weeks for security clearance are the High Lords."
"The High Lords," mused Tigrus. "The Eldar have destroyed nearly two-dozen renegade warships, sacrificed their own lives to end those of the traitors. This deserves respect. To turn it against them," he shook his head slowly, "cannot be the will of the Emperor."
"But what can we do? This is the Adeptus Terra," said Valerta.
"We all know what the Emperor wanted the Imperium to be," said the commander after a pause. "And we know this is not it. The Emperor has not spoken in almost ten thousand years. He has no voice that we can hear, and follow, yet the Adeptus sends orders in his name. You must decide, for yourselves, whether to follow the Adeptus, or to follow your belief in the Emperor. It is belief, only. There will be no voice from Terra to say you were right or wrong, no guide but what you believe. But you must decide, now, what you believe in."
A week later Callee stood on the teleport dais, waiting for her ship's teleporter to lock onto the fortress's beacon. Around her stood several engineers, returning to their ship after helping with the refit of the cruisers. Not by her side was Alisha, who stood instead with the group watching them from the side of the control console. Callee flashed her a smile.
"Sure you won't get lonely?" she asked lightly. Alisha grinned and shook her head.
"Nah, I've made a few friends down here," she answered, glancing at the commander briefly. "I'll manage. It's not every day you get to work on Imperial systems, either."
"Don't tell the Mechanicus, they'll have a fit."
"I wouldn't worry about them," said the commander, "we're keeping well clear of the forgeworlds until all this is over." The technician operating the console nodded, indicating the link was ready.
"Well then, time I was on my way. Thank you for your hospitality," she said, with a touch of drama. "Be seeing you," she added to Octavian, blowing him a kiss. He was standing to formal attention, but couldn't help a smile from passing briefly across his face. The teleporter powered up, and the party disappeared in the glowing lights of the teleport beams.
Light-years away, Julius watched as a tiny image of Thunderchild pulled out of orbit and accelerated away from the planet. He nodded thoughtfully, then turned his attention to the device in his hands. It was surprisingly light, for its size. He held it in one hand, swinging its single closed iris around, judging his aim with it. He pressed a button and the iris opened, revealing a tiny dark star inside the short barrel. Brief flashes of purple light arced from the pinpoint of black to the inner surface of the tube, and the star itself turned and pulsed in its containment fields. He smiled with satisfaction, and snapped the iris closed.
"Install it in the prototype," he said to the adept who stood by his side, "but I will keep this one. I have a use for it."
It was winter on the iceworld of Fenris. The harsh winds were colder than usual, the driving blizzards tore at the forests with more than their usual rage. Ragnar Blackmane stood outlined by the light spilling through the single window, looking out from his tower over the brute force of the elements. The massive walls of the Fang, his chapter's ancestral fortress-monastery, held the snowdrifts at bay, but the wind whipped across the defence walls, curling between the towers and gun emplacements, sending a chill through the very stone the imposing bastion was made from.
A sound distracted Blackmane, and he turned from the window to the communication unit beside it. After a moment, a face appeared on its dim screen.
"We have received word of an Eldar craftworld moving into the gamma sectors," said the face. The room behind it was light, in contrast to Blackmane's sombre surroundings. "This is unacceptable to us. Merchant shipping can be diverted, but there are several installations on its projected course whose operations cannot be suspended. Furthermore, if the aliens turn hostile, several prominent worlds could be affected. We are transmitting details of your orders with this message, but the essence of your mission is to destroy a significant portion of the craftworld's defensive fleet. We have monitored a large section of the fleet conducting patrols, you should have no trouble isolating it from the craftworld itself."
"The craftworld is not to be attacked?" asked Blackmane, disapprovingly. The official shook his head.
"No, it is too risky."
"It is not too risky for us."
"I mean in light of the attention it would generate. We are engaged in delicate dealings with several local governors regarding the expansion of the gamma sectors into a key production zone. The Imperium cannot be seen to condone attacks on civilians at this time. An encounter between military forces can be explained away. Weaken their fleet, and let the pirates finish them. Without their cruisers, the craftworld will be open to raider attacks."
"How many cruisers?"
"We need you to destroy thirty of their defensive cruisers. You'll be fighting ship-to-ship against the heavy cruisers, so you'll need troops."
"My company is already engaged in operations around Cadia. We only have three squads in reserve."
"Yes, the Ork wars, I know. How many troops do you have, and how many ships can they take?"
"Twenty seven men. Three heavy cruisers in one engagement."
"They are Space Wolves. We are not like you, we are better."
"Very well. We need at least eight of the heavy cruisers disabled or destroyed, preferably without resorting to bombardment. Stand by to receive instructions for rendezvous with a detachment from the Furies. They've been refitting their fleet and ground forces for the past year, we think they're ready for operations."
"The Furies... the Tyranid crusade force?"
"Yes, the war room thinks they should get a test-run against the Eldar before we commit to a campaign along the alien frontier. They'll be notified to have forces ready to assist you by the time your ships are in position. You will have command of the operation, of course."
"Of course," replied Blackmane. The link shut down and he watched as detailed orders emerged from the data output of the unit. The last set to be loaded into the unit's data storage module was the surveillance data on the position and course of the main elements of the defence fleet from the craftworld Zaran. Blackmane took the module and headed for the Fang's shuttle dock.
The captains of the Furies had assembled by the time their commander arrived in the briefing chamber. The warriors took their seats as the holographic display flashed into life. It showed an official from the war room, Terra's coordination facility for the thousands of wars that the Imperium was involved in.
"As of now," he began without waiting, "your chapter is on active duty. Your first assignment, before you are deployed along the alien frontier, is to send a detachment of three transport vessels to accompany the fleet of Ragnar Blackmane's company of Space Wolves in the gamma sectors. Your transports will contain ten squads outfitted for boarding and ship-to-ship combat. You will proceed, under Blackmane's command, to attack the defensive cruiser groups attached to the Eldar craftworld Zaran. When you have destroyed a significant percentage of Zaran's defensive fleet, operations against them will cease, and you will recall your ships are prepare for your campaign on the frontier. That will be all."
The projector shut itself off. Octavian looked towards the commander, who was still staring thoughtfully at the space left by the hologram.
"I've fought alongside Blackmane," he said, "and he won't stop at the cruisers. Once he has enough forces under his command, he'll go after the craftworld itself. Terra knows it, or they'd never have ordered us to send ten whole squads. That's too many for," he glanced at the data readout set into the conference table, "eight ships, even if Blackmane didn't bring any troops of his own."
"Why would they order us not attack, and then give Blackmane the resources to go ahead with it?" asked Valerta.
"They want the craftworld destroyed. They know Blackmane will do it, but they don't want to be held responsible. He's probably got his orders by now, so they'll have told him to attack the cruisers only. That gives them deniability. If there are objections to the destruction of the craftworld, the Adeptus can claim they had no prior knowledge of it."
"This has been happening for the past six months," said Tigrus. "Ever since the Ulthwé broadcast, the Adeptus has been more and more insistent that contact with the Eldar be avoided. They need to keep the governors hostile to the Eldar, but they're afraid that the Eldar will become hostile to them."
"But now we're involved," said the commander quietly.
"We can't be," said Tigrus simply.
"Agreed," said Norton. "This chapter has never been involved in the slaughter of civilians. I won't stain my brothers' hands with innocent blood now."
"We cannot avoid serving under Blackmane's command," said the commander, "unless we disobey a direct order from the war room. A chapter can be as distant as it wants, but this is straight from Terra. If we do this now, there's no going back."
"We do it," said Tigrus. The other captains nodded their agreement. All eyes were on Octavian.
"Agreed," he said finally. "For the Emperor." He turned to the commander.
"Very well," she answered, "make preparations to mobilise the chapter." With this, the captains stood and departed the briefing chamber, headed for their companies. Octavian stayed a moment, and the commander looked up at him.
"Are we ready?" he asked simply. The commander stood and crossed the room to one of the large windows looking out over the fortress.
"We must make ourselves ready," she answered. "How many ships will Blackmane have?"
"He'll bring in everything he can spare. I'd say he'll leave two battlebarges to support his company against the Orks near Cadia, and everything else will be used to attack the Eldar. Twenty ships, maybe ten of them cruisers. He could pull destroyers from one of the other companies, but I think he'll want to do it alone. He won't be happy that he's had to use our troops to begin with."
"Go to C&C, oversee the evacuation. Make sure everything goes as planned. I'll meet you on the ship." Octavian nodded and left. The commander stood at the window for a moment, then crossed back to the conference table and pressed a button. After a pause, the holographic projector lit up again, this time showing the interior of the bridge of Thunderchild. It seemed empty for a second, then Callee entered the frame of the image.
"You've heard of the attack on Zaran?" the commander asked. Callee nodded.
"Blackmane's been moving his ships into position for two days now. We had to divert around one of the destroyer groups. He's going after the craftworld, for sure."
"We've been ordered to provide support for the attacks on the cruisers. Ten squads."
"Damn. No way out?"
"No way out," answered the commander. "We have to mobilise, now. The first strike is in three days."
"We'll be there. Take care."
"You too," said the commander as the image disappeared.
The commander stood on the darkened observation deck of the heavy cruiser Artemis, staring out into space. In the distance, more ships were moving around, the tiny shapes of transport shuttles flitting between them and down to the planet below. Alisha entered from a doorway to one side of the deck and joined the commander in the centre.
"So, it's time. We're going into battle. Not with the Eldar?"
"Not with the Eldar. It seems we can't avoid this any longer."
"And you're wondering if you're doing the right thing," she continued. The commander turned to look at her.
"Hey," said Alisha, resting a hand on the shoulder of the power armour, "it's me. That mask doesn't hide you. Just your face." She leaned over as the commander looked again out into space.
"I'm wondering if I've done the right thing. It's too late to stop it now. I suppose history will judge who was right. And who was being a fool."
"Who cares about history?" replied Alisha. "You're not doing this so that the historians will remember your name. Do what your heart tells you. It'll keep you on the right track." She rested her head on the commander's shoulder as they continued to stare out into the void. After a moment the commander spoke again, in a soft voice.
"I can see the ground below,
"I don't feel so afraid, it's clearing," finished Alisha. The commander's head turned to look at her, the green eyes of the mask seeming to ask a question. "You're not the only one who knows the ancient classics," Alisha answered. "You leave behind everything that you know, your whole life, because you don't see any other choice. That doesn't mean the future won't hold some promise."
"Not my whole life," said the commander, still looking at Alisha. She turned and looked down at the planet spinning peacefully below them. "But I'll miss this place. We won't be able to come back here."
"Then we'll go forward," said Alisha simply. "It's better that way."
The commander entered the bridge with a definite sense of purpose. Octavian stood aside as she sat in the centre chair, swivelling around to face the communications stations.
"Are we ready?" she said. The officers at the comms consoles nodded. "Good," said the commander, "begin the evacuation. Command and support units launch immediately and rendezvous here. Lieutenant Commander," she said to Octavian, who was standing by her side, "take command of the Xenophon. Bring the HQ sections on board there. Send orders to the companies to launch as soon as their transports are cleared. First company to the Pallas Athena," she continued, as the orders were relayed down to the planet, "second company to the Agamemnon; third company to the Castalia; fourth company to the Eudora; fifth company to the Sarpedon; sixth company to the Amazon; seventh company to the Bellerophon; eighth company to the Ixion; ninth company to the Clotho; tenth company to the Medea. Begin launches. Helm, bring us around to take on transports from the surface, minimum time to rendezvous. Clear Lieutenant Commander Octavian's shuttle to depart the hangar and signal the Xenophon to be ready for him. Navigation, plot courses for the fleet to the Space Wolves task force, warp engines only. Have the support vessels stand by in neutral territory, and place the fleet on yellow alert, silent running for all non-combat vessels. Engine room," she said into the communicator mounted on the arm of the bridge's command chair, "prepare to engage sublight drive systems and power up the warp drive for gateway generation."
The massive viewscreen, as wide as the bridge itself, was already filling with course data and flight paths for the dozens of transports that were lifting off the surface and heading for their assigned ships. The commander sat back in the command chair and watched them for a moment, then turned to her tactical officer and issued one final order.
Luther looked up as the display screen of Zaran's bridge flashed into life. Instead of the usual starfield, he saw several dark shapes moving silently forwards. He looked at one of the officers operating the bridge's tactical systems.
"Human battlebarges," the officer reported, "twelve cruiser class, a further eight destroyer class. No contact." Luther nodded and turned to the seer standing at the back of the bridge.
"It is as you saw earlier," the seer answered Luther's unspoken question, "they mean to attack us. Their minds are unclear at this distance, but there is a hatred there."
"I thought as much," said Luther. He turned to his communications officer. "Send standard signals of peaceful intent. Automatic translation to the human basic language." The officer nodded and ran his hands across the complex array of crystal controls in front of him. After a moment he looked back up at Luther.
"They're receiving the signal," he said, "but they're not sending any reply. They remain on course to intercept our primary cruiser group in one hour." Luther turned back to the display screen, his expression hardening.
"And so it begins," he murmured to himself.
Onboard the heavy cruiser Artemis, the commander of the Furies watched as her ships neared the point where they would drop from warp space and rendezvous with Blackmane's fleet. Outside the warp pulsed with energy, brilliant reds and yellows flowing in contrast to the dark lances of energy from the warp currents around them. The light from the viewscreen spilled into the bridge, which lit itself in calm shades of blue, at battle readiness.
"Signal Blackmane's ship," the commander said. The communications officer nodded as the channel opened.
"Captain Blackmane, this is the Furies commander," she said towards the image of the warp. After a second it disappeared, replaced by the bridge of the Asgard, Blackmane's personal battlebarge. The Captain stood in the centre of the bridge, his officers attending to their stations around him. He nodded to the commander, as if to a subordinate.
"Yes commander? I didn't expect you to accompany your forces."
"Call off the attack captain. The Eldar aren't enemies of the Imperium. We don't have to fight them."
"May I remind you, commander," said Blackmane, sneering as he said the title, "that I am in command of this operation. It makes no difference that you've led your forces in person, your ships and their crews are under my orders. You will carry out those orders. Clear?"
"Listen to me," the commander said, her voice low through the synthesiser, "no-one has died yet. There is still time to prevent all of this. Stand down your ships, and no-one has to die here today."
"No, you listen to me. I don't care for you marines who think that just because some scribe on Terra handed you a title you're the Emperor's gift to the galaxy. If you want the name marine, you will earn it. My brothers earn the right to call themselves marines every day they struggle to live on Fenris. They do not turn around and start questioning orders just because they get it into their heads that aliens are better than us! The Eldar are a threat, and we will destroy them, that is final! Now, if you still have a problem with your orders, I will personally see you charged with sedition, treason, mutiny and heresy, and you will be handed over to the Inquisition. Now, carry out my orders!"
The commander stayed silent for a moment, then answered in a quiet voice.
"Alright. We'll do this your way." Ragnar made a motion to one of his officers, and the link vanished, replaced again by the swirling warp on the viewscreen. The commander turned to her tactical officer.
"Relay orders to the fleet. Attack pattern delta."
"Pattern delta, aye. Time to intercept, fifty-three minutes."
"How soon after the Space Wolves encounter the Eldar?"
"Less than a minute. Tactical databanks estimate no significant damage to either side in that time."
"Any other ships in the area?"
"Not yet. Scan range in realspace is limited by interference from the warp."
"Red alert. Raise shields as soon as we're clear of the warp gate, give the captains clearance to fire as soon as they have a lock on their targets."
Blackmane watched as his lead destroyers opened fire on the Eldar battle group. Three Eldar cruisers had turned to meet the attack, and it was on these ships that the destroyers concentrated their fire. The prow lances lashed out at the Eldar, impacting on their forward shields. Missiles streaked towards the cruisers, most being cut down before they reached their targets, some striking the armoured surfaces of the Eldar ships. The destroyers broke away, passing to the sides of the cruisers and aiming themselves at the Eldar second line. Ragnar felt the acceleration as the main cruiser group, led by his ship, began its attack run on the Eldar cruisers.
He watched the tactical display impatiently, cursing the range finder for moving too slowly as it counted down the distance between his ship and firing range on the lead Eldar cruiser. He was vaguely aware of his tactical officer announcing the arrival of the Furies battle group to the rear of his fleet, but he only turned when he heard the note of uncertainty in the marine's voice.
"What's wrong," he growled, "they're all there, aren't they? They haven't tried to pull out?"
"No sir," said the tactical officer, still looking at his console, "but there five heavy cruisers emerging from the warp. More warp gates forming," he added.
"On viewer," barked Ragnar, turning again to his screen. He felt the jolt as his ship's weapons fired at the Eldar, but his attention was now on the screen which showed the ships appearing behind his fleet. Five heavy cruisers, larger than even his command cruiser, were already advancing. As he watched, more holes into the warp opened, and another cruiser group appeared, this time accompanied by destroyers, torpedo rams and strike cruisers. He turned back to the tactical officer.
"Signal the lead ship," he said, "find out what in the Emperor's name..."
"Sir," interrupted the tactical officer, "they're targeting us. Their weapons have locked on to..."
His next words were drowned out by a massive roar as the lead cruiser, Artemis, fired a full spread of torpedoes directly into Asgard's unshielded engine core. Blackmane was hurled to the deck as the ship rolled, the screech of sirens echoing around the bridge. Over the muffled yells of the officers reporting damage to the engines, Blackmane bellowed to the tactical officer.
"Return fire! Bring us about one eight zero and fire all weapons!"
"Main power is down," the officer yelled back, "weapons are going off-line. Three cruisers have been disabled! The fleet is breaking up!"
"Break the Eldar line! All power to secondary thrusters, get the aliens between us and them!"
The officer nodded and Blackmane staggered as the ship lurched into motion again. The viewscreen, now flickering with static, showed the Eldar ships drawing nearer as the staggering marine fleet surged forwards, driving a wedge through the Eldar line. The bridge rocked as one of the Eldar cruisers fired a stream of pulsar shots past Asgard, clipping its edge. Blackmane was about to turn away from the screen when a flash of light erupted from space dead ahead of them, momentarily blinding him. He blinked rapidly, clearing his eyes, and then saw a streamlined, graceful shape where a moment ago there had been nothing. The new ship spun quickly to meet their charge, faster than any Imperial ship could have moved.
"Where did that come from?" yelled Blackmane.
"Unknown," answered the tactical officer, "there was nothing in warp space, nothing close enough in realspace. Orders, sir?"
"Lances are inactive, missiles are on manual targeting only..."
"Fire the damn missiles!"
He watched as a cloud of missiles streaked towards the new ship. Slim beams of energy scythed through the salvo, detonating the warheads. After a second, the missiles were gone. Ragnar thought he saw a glow at the front of the ship, below the streamlined prow, then he was thrown off his feet as beams of light momentarily connected the two ships. He heard a crash somewhere below him, and looked back at the screen to see the ship fire again, this time severing the engine section from one of the cruisers on his left flank. More weapons fired, bright bolts slamming into the hulls of his ships, leaving jagged holes. He heard another explosion from behind him, and the bridge light dimmed for a moment and then cut out. For a moment there was darkness, then the emergency lighting activated, bathing the bridge in red.
"Sir, we've lost all weapons, and the reactor has gone," the tactical officer was yelling. "Fleet control reports nine cruisers have taken critical damage! The destroyer group has fallen back, we're cut off! Sir, we have to retreat!"
Blackmane's head snapped up, his eyes boring into the tactical officers skull, then he turned and looked at the viewscreen. One of his cruisers was veering off course, its engines torn to shreds. Another was firing its thrusters, trying to bring its side armour to bear against the new attacker, its weapons arrays in ruins. As he watched, the screen flickered, and sparks erupted from one of the bridge control stations. He let his head drop.
"Signal the retreat," he said. The tactical officer nodded.
From the bridge of the heavy cruiser Artemis, the commander watched as the remnants of the Space Wolves fleet took their disabled companions in tow with flickering tractor beams. A handful of warp gates formed, and the ships limped through, leaving the battle to the Eldar and the Furies. Thunderchild swung around to join the Furies heavy cruisers, and the commander signalled to her tactical officer to stand down from alert. The bridge lights faded from blue up to their normal simulation of natural lighting. After a moment, the viewscreen changed to an image of Thunderchild's bridge.
"That was quite a show you put on," said the commander as Callee appeared at one side of the bridge. The captain nodded with a smile.
"Best we could manage. They won't come near us again, at least not without a full cruiser group. That's quite a fleet you've got there."
"Only the best for the Emperor's finest. Did you contact Zaran?"
"They're standing by. I'll put them through."
The commander nodded and waited. A moment later the image changed to the spacious control bridge of the craftworld. Luther was in his seat at the centre of the bridge, waiting for the contact. Behind him was Solari, and at the back of the bridge were a group of seers and advisers. The commander waited for the Eldar Farseer to begin.
"You must be this commander I've heard of," he said. "You are certainly not what I have reluctantly come to expect from the Terran marines. My people and I owe you our thanks. You have saved many lives today."
"We hope to save many more," said the commander. "I would like to meet with you, face to face. We have much to discuss."
"This would seem to be the case. Very well. We are in your debt, so in return I extend our trust to you. Approach our home at your leisure. I will meet with you at your convenience."
"I am honoured," concluded the commander. "Until we meet." The channel closed, the viewscreen returning to its image of the Eldar and Fury ships regrouping. The commander stood from her seat, nodded at the tactical officer who then moved to take command of the ship, and left the bridge in deep thought.
The door chime in the commander's quarters sounded. The commander looked up at the closed door, then across the room at the stasis tube that currently housed her armour.
"Who is it?"
"It's me," said Callee's voice from outside.
"Are you alone?"
"Yes," the voice answered. The commander walked over to the door and pressed a button by its side, deactivating the lock. Callee entered, touching the button to close the door as she passed. She slumped into one of the chairs looking across the room, to where a portal looked out past one of the engine nacelles into space. The commander sat on the edge of a table.
"Wondering how to break the news to your chapter that you're not a seven-foot-tall he-man?" The commander chuckled and leaned back on her elbows.
"They know I'm not that tall. I'm not really worried about them. They're more open-minded than I'd expected. Quite a contrast to a chapter like the Wolves. Or the Dark Angels."
"Don't remind me. You'd think they'd appreciate someone willing to run munitions through an Ork fleet to them."
"Well, the Angels are set in their ways, I suppose. No, it's not the chapter. There are... other difficulties. That I hadn't anticipated."
"You're worried what Alisha will think of you?"
"Well, we've worked together a lot over the past year..."
"Stephanie, you're too naturally honest to fool me. It's one of your better qualities," Callee added with a smile.
"Alisha and I have become very close," said Stephanie slowly.
"She loves you," said Callee bluntly. Stephanie looked up.
"She told you that?"
"Not in as many words, but I can tell. I've known her longer than you."
"Yes. I suspected... I suppose I hoped she did."
"I... I love her. But she's never seen me like this," Stephanie waved a hand vaguely, encompassing the lack of a mask or her armour, "and I don't know if it would... if she'd feel the same way if she knew the truth. If I'd been honest with her from the beginning... but I haven't been. And now maybe, it's too late." Stephanie gazed out into space. Callee leaned forward in her chair.
"Too late," she said. "I don't believe in too late. Time only slips away when you let it. You couldn't have taken off the mask on Semnai, not with the Adeptus watching. You can now."
"But what will she think?"
"Find out," Callee said softly. She stood from her chair and laid a hand on her sister's shoulder. Stephanie smiled and covered the hand with her own. Callee nodded and left.
Callee walked onto the darkened observation deck to find Octavian already there. The marine turned to the sound of her entrance, then smiled as she stepped into the light cast through the massive viewports. She quickly crossed the deck to stand by him.
"Good to see you again," she said with a smile. Octavian nodded.
"You also. You fought well tody. Worthy of respect."
"I thought," said Callee with a smile, "that you mighty marines didn't think much of us starship jockeys? Flying around, never getting down to business face-to-face with the enemy?" Octavian looked at her sharply, then saw the glint of amusement in her eyes.
"We mighty marines," he said with a grin, "know courage when we see it. How have you been?"
"Can't complain. We've been here and there, doing odd jobs. Keeping contacts, that sort of thing. You seem to have managed quite a change for your chapter."
High above, in one of the ventilation shafts set into the ceiling of the observation deck, Liela lay motionless, her hands and eyes the only things moving, and those in absolute silence. Her eyes remained fixed on Callee, her hands methodically assembling compact pieces into a weapon.
"This is not what I'd expected a year ago," admitted Octavian, "but I don't regret it. For the first time since I was a child, I feel as if my destiny is my own."
"You were a child? Never."
"A long time ago. A long time," he repeated, staring out into space. "Tell me something," he said after a brief silence, "why is the commander so... why is he the way he is? I've never known anyone like him outside the marines, and few so brave even among them."
"Your commander is an extraordinary person," said Callee slowly, "someone driven to help others. Driven by a desire to let people be as good as they can be. A belief, maybe a faith, that the human race is capable of being so much more than it is now, not just in terms of power, but in maturity, in wisdom."
Liela slowly lowered her head, looking through the target scope of the now-complete needle rifle. Callee springs into focus, the thin target marker appearing as a tiny dot on her neck.
"Why the mask?"
"We're all born into our lives, the way things are. If you're born to a noble house, you become a ruler. If you're born in the bottom of a hive, you don't have a chance. The Imperium can be very quick to judge people. The mask doesn't hide anything but the face. Not words, or actions, or beliefs. Some people might not be willing to believe in the words, or the actions, if they saw the face. And then all this would have been lost. You know Imperial history, probably better than I do. How many times has something good, something noble, been lost, because someone judged it by its face? Not the truth behind the face." Octavian nodded.
The dot on Callee's neck disappeared. Liela watched in silence as Callee took Octavian's hand, and the two left the observation deck. She then deactivated the targeting scope, and disappeared into the shadows.
In the Inquisition offices of the Imperial Palace, a lowly scribe entered the chambers of the Inquisitorial Envoy, eyes cast reverentially downwards, in order to retrieve the day's communications logs. The scribe was halfway across the room before he noticed the unusual shadow in front of the ornate desk in its centre. He glanced sideways at it, screamed, and fled.
Five minutes later, an Inquisitor Lord sealed the doors of the Envoy's chambers and turned to the Biologis Magos who was examining the body of Envoy Crassus. The Magos held a complex device, more a collection of sensors for the bulky analysis unit resting by his side. He looked up at the Inquisitor.
"My Lord, I've never seen anything like this," he said in a low voice. The Inquisitor frowned.
"There is no injury to his body. No indication that he died of natural causes, nothing to indicate violence. If he wasn't dead, he'd be in perfect health."
"He most obviously isn't in perfect health. What killed him?"
"His neural patterns are gone, Lord. Completely."
"This is unusual?"
"After death, the brain begins to lose neural cohesion. Neural patterns break down over time, which in a living patient would cause brain damage. It takes several minutes for the patterns to degrade past the point of retrieval, and several weeks for complete neural breakdown."
"The Envoy's neural patterns have been wiped clean. His brain is, in effect, empty. It's as if something deleted every single thought in his mind. I know of nothing that could do such a thing."
"A psyker?" asked the Inquisitor. The Magos shook his head.
"I've studied psychic damage to human tissue. The energy patterns leave a distinctive signature in the tissue, like a faint echo of the warp power that the psyker used to create the energy effect. There is no such effect here, Lord. I am certain the Envoy was murdered, but by what means I am unable to say." The Inquisitor looked at the body of the late Envoy for a moment, then turned from it.
"Inform the High Lords," he said as he left. "The Inquisition will take the body and make arrangements to send a new Envoy to the Council."
The commander paced restlessly along the length of the short corridor from which the door to her quarters led, her silver body armour catching the lights as she passed them. She was facing the wrong way when Alisha appeared at one end, and didn't notice her until she turned and saw her waiting.
"Come in?" she asked. Alisha nodded, and the commander opened the door and followed her inside. She stood in the middle of the room, apparently uncertain of how to proceed.
"I wanted to talk to you," she began hesitantly, "to tell you... to tell you how I... you know, I thought I knew what I was going to say, but it's all just coming out in a mess."
"Say whatever you want to say," said Alisha softly. Stephanie nodded.
"I feel very close to you, after this last year. You've been a wonderful friend to me, and you've always been honest with me. But I haven't been able to do likewise. I value what we have, very much, but I have to be honest with you. You have to know who I am, underneath all this," she indicated her armour with a hand. "Will you... will you promise to hear me out?"
"Of course," Alisha answered. Stephanie nodded, and dropped her hand to the wrist of the armour, pressing a tiny button concealed in the gauntlet. The gauntlets instantly folded back on themselves, revealing her hands. The armour plates shifted, overlapping each other, retracting like a modular shell. After a few seconds, Stephanie removed a slim silver belt from around the waist of her grey jumpsuit.
"This is me," she said simply. She found she didn't have the courage to look up, at Alisha. She feared what she would see in the woman's eyes.
"And what did you want to tell me?" Alisha's voice sounded odd, but Stephanie couldn't read it as she usually could.
"So many things. I wanted to say that I'm sorry, for deceiving you. That it's hurt me every day, and now it's hurt you too. I never wanted that. I... I love you," she finished in a small voice. Alisha took a step forwards, closing the distance between them.
"Tell me something," Alisha said, her voice quiet, "what's your name?"
"Stephanie," she answered. She felt Alisha's hand on her chin, gently lifting her eyes. Alisha leaned in close to her, looking her in the eyes.
"Stephanie," she breathed, "that's a pretty name." She slowly closed the remaining fraction between their lips and kissed. Stephanie's eyes closed as she felt the soft lips against her own. After a long moment, Alisha leaned back slightly. Stephanie let out a sigh and opened her eyes again.
"I didn't know," she said softly, "I wasn't sure..." She felt Alisha's hand against the back of her head, and the two kissed again. Stephanie's lips opened, her hands found themselves wrapped around Alisha's waist, their bodies pressed together. After a very long moment, Alisha pulled back.
"Are you sure now?" she asked in a soft voice. Stephanie nodded silently, her eyes unable to leave Alisha's.
"Now," said Alisha, "tell me everything you wanted to."
"There's a lot to tell," said Stephanie. Alisha nodded.
"I'm not going anywhere."
"You won't like some of it," she said in a small voice.
"I know what I like," Alisha answered, "and I know who I love. Tell me. I'll still be here."