The Captains of the Furies stood to attention as their commander entered. They stood on the spacious upper deck of the bridge. Below them, a handful of officers kept Artemis running. Octavian nodded to the commander, who stood to address the group, once again wearing the artificer power armour and the silver mask.
"I've summoned you all here," she began, "to thank you. I know you have all followed my lead of your own free wills, but you have nevertheless placed a great deal of trust in me. It's time for me to do the same. I have worn this mask for a year now, because without it the Adeptus would never have allowed me to command. This was the only reason I kept myself hidden from you, and it's no longer necessary." She touched the control to retract the mask, and when it had once again folded into a silver band around her neck she looked around the faces of her captains.
"I expect this must be quite a shock to you," she said, speaking to them for the first time in her own voice, "and I am very well aware of the Imperial attitude to women. I hope that I have proven to you over the last year that I am capable of leading you, and fulfilling my duty as your commander. But you accepted me without knowing the complete truth, and now the choice must be yours." The captains exchanged glances for a moment. Then Tigrus stepped forward from the group, the footfalls of his Terminator armour heavy on the deck. Stephanie looked up at him.
"My choice was made a year ago," he said, "and I have never had reason to doubt it. You are our commander. Where you lead, we will follow." The other captains moved to stand around him, signalling their agreement.
"It seems the choice is made, commander," said Octavian. Stephanie looked at him, then at the captains.
"Very well," she said at last. "Return to your command ships. Lieutenant Commander," she added to Octavian, "be ready to teleport to the craftworld in one hour. We have a lot of business to get through." She returned the salutes of the captains and watched them leave the bridge. Octavian descended to the command deck below and spoke to the officer in charge. Stephanie turned to leave and saw Alisha standing in the doorway at the far end of the upper deck. She quickly crossed the deck to her.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were nervous just then," she said lightly. Stephanie smiled.
"I was. It's not that I don't trust them, but they've been raised by the Imperium since they were born. It must take a lot to overcome that." Alisha raised an eyebrow at her.
"You don't think they followed you in open rebellion just for something to do? They know the truth about the Imperium. And about you, in every way that matters to them. You never hid that from them."
"Yes. Yes, you're right. It'll be a relief," she added, removing the silver band from her neck, "not to have to wear this any more." Alisha took it from her hands.
"You know, I'd like to get a look at this thing under a sub-molecular microscope. Later, though. Now, did I hear you say you had an hour free?" she finished with a smile.
"Well," said Stephanie with a grin, "if you consider running a starship 'free'. There's probably a hundred things to do down on the bridge."
"Let your officers handle them. Delegate responsibility."
On Terra, the High Lords sat in Council, watching a holographic recording of the battle between the Space Wolves and the Furies. As the recording neared its end, one of the doorways into the council chamber opened, and a hooded figure entered. By his robes, the others recognised him as the new Inquisitorial Envoy. The Lords stood as the new arrival took his place among them. A ceremonial guard stood by the Inquisitor's side, and raised an ancient parchment, reading from it.
"By the will of the Emperor and the people of the Imperium, you are hereby charged to uphold the ideals upon which our mighty empire was founded. Your debt to the Emperor is great, and your soul is forfeit if you fail to uphold the great trust He has placed in you. If you take your place at this, His highest Council, you signify your willingness to lay down your life in the cause of the great duty you undertake. Do you accept this great honour, and the responsibilities with which the Emperor has seen fit to challenge you?"
The figure sat in the seat that had been prepared for him. He raised his hands and lifted the long hood of his robe.
"I live to serve," said Inquisitor Julius. The guard disappeared into the shadows as the other Lords resumed their seats, the formalities concluded. Lord Covarrus spoke.
"We are sure," he said, addressing Julius, "that you are aware of the recent turn of events regarding the Furies chapter."
"Little escapes the attention of the Inquisition," Julius replied. Covarrus nodded and turned to Augustus.
"The Council will also remember that it was Lord Augustus who proposed the restructuring of the chapter that led to this, and who provided the traitor who has led one of the Emperor's finest chapters in rebellion against us."
"Lord Covarrus," began Augustus, but he was quickly cut off as Covarrus raised his voice.
"Spare us, Lord Augustus. The Council has discussed this matter already, in closed session."
"I was not aware of this! You have no right," Augustus began again, his voice raised, but Covarrus again interrupted him.
"In light of the obvious need for firm action, the Council has activated the executive orders indefinitely. You are to be removed from the Council, Lord Augustus," he continued, as Augustus noticed the guards who had appeared by his side, "and will be confined under house arrest in the Mechanicus offices of the Imperial Palace until a formal inquiry has been held."
"You can't do this!" exploded Augustus, his artificial eyes narrowing to laser-thin red points. The High Lords, with the exception of Covarrus, refused to meet his stare. "The executive orders cannot be held open! The Emperor himself specifically stated..."
"That is enough!" bellowed Covarrus. The guards took hold of Augustus's arms and pulled him to his feet. "You are no longer a part of this Council," the telepath lord continued, "and as such you have no right to speak in this chamber. Remove him," he finished, addressing the guards, who pulled Augustus away from the circle of Lords. Covarrus relaxed visibly.
"Now," he said, his voice level, "we have a problem. This Furies chapter is powerful, and it seems likely that they have help from the aliens. The Astra Telepathica is obviously not in a position to take action against them. We have no military forces, and our ships are geared for transport, not warfare."
"If I may interject," said the Ecclesiarch from the depths of his elaborate ceremonial robes, "the key element to this situation seems to be loyalty. These Furies have forsaken the Emperor's faith, but it may not appear so to other marines, whose own practices are, to say the least, unorthodox. However, the loyalty of the Adepta Sororitas cannot be doubted."
"Can they handle it?" wondered the Grand Admiral. "They are loyal, of course, and highly-trained, but this is not some chaos cult. These are marines, a whole chapter, all the support equipment, the ships. These are the elite."
"Then, Grand Admiral," said the Ecclesiarch, in what the Admiral considered to be an overly patronising tone of voice, "we will use our elite."
The great council hall of Zaran resounded with the noise of a thousand people talking at once. Representatives of every major craftworld in the quadrant had arrived, along with emissaries from numerous Exodite worlds, and others as well, strange beings from other races, their voices combining into a constant low thunder that echoed around the high vaulted ceiling of the hall. Finally, the lights dimmed for a moment, the signal that proceedings were about to commence. As Luther stood in the centre of the hall, he noted the presence, via hologrammatic projection, of the Farseer Eldrad, of Ulthwé, and Hrythar of Saim-Hann. He nodded respectfully in their direction, an acknowledgment of their status among the Eldar, and began.
"Honoured guests," he said, his voice being picked up by the resonance array by his feet and echoing around the hall, "this audience is in recognition of our newest ally. The thanks of the people of this craftworld extend to the marines of the Furies chapter, and their leader. By now," he continued, speaking directly to the representatives, "you have received and debated the proposals Commander Warfield has presented to us. I invite the Commander to make her final presentation. After that, those of you who represent the parties involved in these proposals will signal your acceptance, or rejection, of them. Commander Stephanie Warfield," he finished, and stepped aside as Stephanie took his place. She looked out at the hundreds of faces, Eldar, other aliens, even some humans.
"I am pleased to see so many of you here," she began. "For many years, I have travelled to and from your worlds, seen your cultures, your civilisations. By the standards of my home, much of what I have seen is alien, bizarre. I have found, however, that we have much in common as well. It is when we look not at our differences, but at our similarities, that we find our greatest strength. We are all so different, and yet so alike. I hope that we can put aside our differences, learn from each other, and prosper together.
"My people once reached out into the galaxy, pushing back the boundaries of what they knew every day. They found much that was worth the cost of their search, but they also found an enemy. It is the same enemy that all of us here face. By whatever name we call it, daemons, creatures of the warp, chaos, it is the same enemy of us all, because it is from us that this enemy emerges. We all have our darkness within, and we have all found that in the darkest places of the galaxy our own fears and nightmares have grown strong.
"My people now dwell in darkness themselves. I wish it were not so, but it is a fact that cannot be ignored. The actions which have brought me here have also divided me, and the warriors under my command, from our homes forever. We are now like so many of you, whose homes have been destroyed, who now struggle to survive the ravages of the galaxy's darkest terrors. I hope that we can all find a new home together. I hope that we can build a new home, a community, fashioned of the ideals, the dreams, that everyone, of every race, has felt at some time in their lives.
"None of us are exactly alike, and I do not propose that we try to be alike. Many thousands of years ago, before my most distant ancestors even knew of other worlds, they made tools of simple metals they found on the surface of their world. These metals had different properties, but they found that if they combined them these different properties made them stronger, not weaker. We are faced with a great enemy, and we need strength. We do not need power, or weapons, or ships. We need wisdom, and maturity, and hope. These are qualities we are all capable of, but together we can be greater in these than could ever be possible for each of us alone.
"I dream of a time when every being in the galaxy will have the opportunity to fulfil their greatest potential. This time must be far in the future, but I believe that if we all come together, now, we can achieve this." She stepped aside as Luther again made his way to the centre of the hall.
"The council will now make its choice," he said simply, then stood back from the resonance array. He glanced at the marine leader, who now stood at the edge of the circle of light, speaking in a whisper with Alisha. A few metres from them, just out of the light, Solari stood motionless, the silent bodyguard as always. She nodded to Luther, and he returned her a grim smile, then looked out across the sea of beings now engaged in their own private debates with their masters.
Julius stalked through the narrow corridors of the Officio Assassinorum. He didn't like the place, nor did he like its inhabitants: they were outside his authority, and the Inquisitor never trusted anything he didn't control. He arrived in the meeting chamber, seeing a representative of the Callidus temple waiting for him.
"What do you want," he growled. The assassin glared at him, then produced a data module. Julius took it and read it. He then raised his eyes to meet the assassin's stare.
"Is this a joke?"
"That message was received from operative Liela three hours ago. You were informed as soon as the Council of Lords ended. Instructions have been left regarding the method by which your answer may be relayed to our operative."
"I see. Very well, relay this message to your operative. It is not for her to question my reasons for assigning her to kill the commander and Captain Warfield. She is a weapon, nothing more. It is not for her to ask why one person may live and another must die. That decision is made for her. She will carry out her mission. That is final," he finished, glaring at the assassin. "Do you think you can convey that to her?" he asked with a sneer. The assassin nodded, without expression, and disappeared. Julius turned and followed one of the dimly-lit corridors until he came to a doorway blocked by a heavy blast shield. He turned to a security scanner installed in the frame.
"Inquisitor Julius, code Romulus, two three seven. Open." The blast shield hissed open, with a slight rush of air as the seal was broken. Julius stepped inside, and watched the shield close behind him. A man wearing the robes of an assassin master approached him.
"Is it ready?" Julius said. The man nodded. "Show me," the Inquisitor ordered. The man led the way through to a darkened room, where a single light shone down on a figure clothed in black. A bulky device covered half of its head, and wires ran across the material covering its body.
"Very well. Leave now. Have the telepath meet me here." The assassin master silently departed, leaving Julius alone with the strange figure. He stepped closer to it, slowly circled around it, inspecting the mechanical additions to the human frame. A noise from behind him caused him to turn. A man in the robes of the Astra Telepathica had entered.
"Good," Julius said, "very good. You have completed your task fully?"
"Yes," said the telepath, his voice hushed.
"It is ready to operate?"
"I have done everything I can. It will work." Julius nodded, and returned his gaze to the motionless figure.
"It is perfect, is it not? The finest recruit of the Officio, revived after his untimely death in an," Julius smiled slightly, "accident, and now this. Able to use every weapon known to Imperial science. Fully versed in infiltration, able to simply disappear from sight. And, thanks to you," Julius added, turning again to the telepath, "he is completely soulless. No mercy, no doubt, no compassion," he turned back to the figure, "not even thought, as we would understand it. The perfect evolution of the assassin's art."
"My Lord, I have to return to the surface," the telepath said, as Julius silently contemplated the assassin.
"Yes, of course," said Julius, his attention still diverted, "we cannot give Lord Covarrus any reason to investigate this. Even your abilities would not protect you, should he grow suspicious. The control module?" he asked, extending a hand to the telepath. The man produced a small cylinder from his robe, handing it to Julius.
"By all means, return to the surface." The telepath nodded, and left. Julius looked at the control sitting neatly in the palm of his hand. He then looked up into the sealed mechanical iris of the assassin, and raised the control to his mouth.
"Culexus," he said. The assassin suddenly was alive, its muscles tense, alert. It fixed Julius with a blank stare from its human eye. "I have a task for you," the Inquisitor said. The assassin waited for its orders.
The telepath hurried along the hallway leading from the docking platform to his office within the Astra Telepathica wing of the Palace. He passed scribed and menials, but paid them no attention as they went about their business. He turned into a side passageway and found his way blocked.
"Out of my way," he said, almost by reflex. He stopped when the figure before him remained motionless. It waited for a moment, then stepped out of the shadows. The telepath stared in shock.
"You!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
The iris opened, and a savage red light streamed out. It struck the telepath in the chest, and he opened his mouth to scream. All that emerged was a strangled howl. The man staggered, the beam fixed to him, then the light was gone and he dropped to the ground. A stack of data clips fell from a pocket in his robes, clattering against the stone floor. There was a sound from the main hallway, voices, and then the sound of running feet, getting closer. A pair of adepts rounded the corner and saw the body of the telepath. One of them called for help, while the other rushed to the body. The assassin watched for a moment, then walked calmly past the body, its attendant, and the other man, who now stood watching helplessly. He stepped around a group of menials who had heard the adept's call, and walked down the long hallway, seemingly invisible to the increasing number of people who were appearing and rushing to the passageway he had left.
Julius picked up the tiny crystal from its housing in the imposing machine deep beneath the Inquisition wing of the Palace. He held it up to the dim light coming from the single window that illuminated the room, and noted the tiny, intricate patterns of colour and shade that were flowing through the crystalline structure. He dropped the crystal into the palm of his hand.
"A shame," he said, apparently addressing the crystal, "but Covarrus already knew. He would have found out everything from you, and I could not allow that. Not now. They've already found your body, you know. It's quite dead, of course. I'm afraid it's time for your mind to die, too." Julius closed his hand around the crystal, and there was a soft crackling noise as it broke. He opened his hand, where the crystal now lay in several pieces, cracks running through its polished surfaces. The lights inside had gone.
Stephanie watched the viewscreen from the command chair of Artemis. Beyond the heavy cruiser's forward sensor arrays, the fleet was taking shape. The long, dark shapes of the other Furies cruisers stood out among the sea of smaller vessels, freighters, transports, corvettes, even some cruisers and frigates. To one side, Zaran loomed through the fleet, its massive spires reaching out into space, themselves larger than many of the ships that flitted around the giant cityship. Stephanie turned to Octavian, who stood at one side of the bridge. At her look, he approached until he stood by the side of her chair.
"Quite a view, isn't it?" she said. He nodded.
"It is indeed. I must say, I am surprised at their willingness to align with us. The Imperium keeps a tight rein on its merchant fleets."
"Maybe that's why. Merchant captains don't like being told what to do. Can you imagine Callee taking orders from some official in the Administratum?"
"I'm not sure I can imagine her taking orders from anyone."
"People need room to move. Room to make their own choices." She gazed thoughtfully at the fleet of merchants, refugees and aliens for a moment, then turned to look back at the tactical station behind her.
"Have all ships signalled ready?"
"Zaran's engines are online?"
"Reading full power to all nacelles."
"Open a channel. Wide band." The officer nodded, and Stephanie stood and addressed the fleet in front of her.
"This is the Artemis. All Alliance ships, prepare for hyperlight sequence. Drive ships, engage tractor beams now." The heavy cruisers, Zaran, and some of the larger allied ships locked onto the smaller vessels with flickering beams, holding them steady. "All ships, maintain zero thrust with sublight engines. Transfer navigational control to drive ships." She turned, and noted the tactical officer confirming that this had been done. She looked back at the fleet. "Engage hyperlight drive on my mark. Three... two... one... engage."
From the outside, the massive fleet seemed to be consumed by a burst of light, vanishing without a trace. From her bridge, Stephanie watched as the hyperlight drive nacelles of the heavy cruisers lit up bright green, casting an eerie glow over the smaller ships. The stars to either side of her seemed to stretch, then disappear backwards. Those ahead suddenly glowed brighter than a supernova, and in an instant it seemed they were rushing towards a massive swirling ball of light. She turned to the engineering station at one side of the bridge, where all seemed to be proceeding normally. She looked around, noting that the massive craftworld had held its position with the rest of the fleet, its many nacelles glowing brightly.
"The fleet has reached optimum hyperlight velocity," said the tactical officer calmly. Octavian had turned to face the viewscreen, his eyes scanning the hundreds of ships. Stephanie nodded, and turned to the navigation officer across the other side of the bridge.
"Bring the fleet down to sublight once we're within one thousand kilometres of the Triacus Nebula." The officer nodded. Stephanie turned back to the viewscreen. After a moment, the bright lights in front of the fleet dimmed back to their usual glow, and the stars around the fleet emerged from darkness. The tractor beams disengaged, and the ships' sublight drives lit up as the nacelles on the larger ships dimmed to their normal dull glow.
"Open a channel to our crew on Zaran," Stephanie ordered. The image changed to one of the cavernous engineering decks on the craftworld. In the distant ceiling, the massive wraithbone core was visible, glowing slightly, pulses of energy rushing through it below its surface. Massive energy feeds branched off the core, leading away at all angles, through the walls and deck. Alisha turned from where she had been watching power levels throughout the massive ship, and smiled.
"One hundred percent success," she reported. "Not even so much as a whimper from the power relays. The wraithbone core never even looked like spiking."
"Congratulations," said Stephanie with a grin. "Now perhaps you could explain why it took a year to upgrade our cruisers, and only a month to get a whole craftworld up past lightspeed?"
"Well, you know how it is," said Alisha with a lopsided grin, "practice makes perfect. No more messing around with warpspace, huh? It's just as well, this thing," she said, tapping the console displaying the craftworld's schematics, "would never have had the structural integrity to make it through a warp gate."
"We've left the Imperial fleet about thirty light-years behind us," Stephanie continued, "and it'll take them a while to trace us without a warp signature. I suppose we can take a break. Did you monitor the nacelles on the ranger ships?"
"Yes, they're just fine."
"Good, the Admiral has decided that they'll get under way as soon as we're within the nebula. Your engineering teams can start on the minor repairs to the new fleet ships. As for you, having just managed the impossible task of moving an entire fleet thirty light-years in less than a minute, you're on leave, as of now," Stephanie finished with a grin.
"I'll take the first shuttle back," the engineer answered. The screen blinked back to its view of the fleet, which was now entering the nebula. The leading ships were making their way through clouds of gas, leaving swirling tides in their wake. To one side, a group of dark green ships, which Stephanie recognised as the stealthships used by Eldar rangers, detached from the fleet. She watched the fleet for a moment, then left the bridge.
"This is the Imperial battlebarge Asgard to merchant freighter Exodus. Power down your engines and prepare to be boarded."
The small cargo hauler veered to one side, narrowly missing a tractor beam that snaked out towards it from the Space Wolves cruiser. The giant warship bore down on its prey, its weapon turrets tracking its every move. The tractor beam flashed out again, this time catching the freighter and hauling it off-course, bringing it in full view of the massive ship's primary weapons array. On the bridge of Asgard, Ragnar Blackmane sneered at the ease with which the little ship had been captured.
"We are a free trader," insisted the freighter's captain, "you have no right..."
"You are a traitor!" barked Blackmane, tiring of the merchant's resistance. "You are supplying equipment to the Alliance, in direct violation of Imperial orders. You have no rights."
"Our cargo is to be delivered to the midrange colonies. You have no evidence that we," he began, but Blackmane cut him off again.
"Evidence? You worthless civilian. I am a Space Wolf, champion of Fenris, the chosen of the Emperor! I don't need evidence." He turned from the main screen, where the helpless freighter drifted in the grip of the tractor beam, and motioned his tactical officer to prepare to fire.
"We are an unarmed civilian freighter, on legitimate business! We have the right to carry out our business without interference, under the trader's guild treaty! You cannot..."
"Fire," said Blackman calmly. He turned back to the screen to see the freighter smashed by the combined power of the battlebarge's forward lances.
"I can," he said to the drifting wreckage. "I will."
Julius turned as an official entered his chambers. He was moments from attending the Council, and the presence of this distraction annoyed him more than usual.
"What?" he barked. The official took a step back.
"Lord," he began hesitantly, "the Officio Assassinorum Callidus temple requests that you contact them at your earliest convenience." Having delivered his message, the official backed quickly out of the Inquisitor's chambers. Julius watched the doors close, then stabbed at a button on his desk. The same assassin he had met earlier appeared on a screen to his side.
"What is it?" Julius asked, not bothering to keep the contempt from his voice.
"We have encountered an unusual situation regarding the operative pursuing the mission you assigned us."
"Get to the point."
"We have lost contact with operative Liela."
"What do you mean, lost contact? She's an infiltrator."
"You do not understand. All assassins are fitted with a subneural transmitter, operating through lower bandwidth warp frequencies."
"Wait," said Julius, his eyes suddenly narrow. "Are you telling me that you've lost her signal? That's impossible. Even a dead assassin projects a signal."
"Yes, we know. The signal is supposed to be untraceable and uninterruptible. Operative Liela's transmitter shut off several hours ago. We have been unable to lock onto the signal frequency since."
"She's cut herself off," said the Inquisitor. The assassin looked uncomfortable for a moment, then answered.
"That is a possibility we are investigating."
"Find her. Kill her."
"We will of course take all steps necessary to neutralise a rogue operative," the assassin was hurrying his words, "but in this case there may be difficulties. Liela was one of our best infiltrators, and she alone had the ability to self-regulate her polymorphine supply. She can change her appearance at will. Without the transmitter, there is no way to find her." Julius stared at the screen for a moment, then turned away.
"I'll have the matter investigated," he said, reaching for the controls set into the table. "Expect to hear from the Inquisition regarding security in the Callidus temple." Before the assassin could respond, Julius cut the link. He looked around the room for a moment, then retrieved the cylindrical control from his robes and spoke into it.
"Culexus," he said, "show yourself."
The air in the middle of the room seemed to shimmer, as if looked at through a heat-haze. Where there had been empty space - where the messenger had walked moments before - the killing machine now stood, its attention on Julius. He squinted at it with his good eye.
"You monitored that communication?" The figure nodded. "Find the assassin Liela. Kill her. She will most likely be on one of the Alliance ships. Locate the commander of the Furies also, and extract her neural patterns. Someone who can blackmail the High Lords has a lot of secrets. I want them. It is imperative that her mind be preserved intact. Do you understand?" The figure nodded again. "Go," said Julius. The assassin faded from view. Julius returned the control to its pocket and brushed down his robes, ready to face the Council.
The ship had burned its engines to near-breaking point, and the occasional flash was visible from its thruster assembly as a relay burned out. Stephanie watched as a support frigate took the struggling freighter in a tractor beam, and heard the reports of the engineering team that teleported over. A moment later, the captain of the frigate contacted Artemis.
"They're from Dentris," he said without preamble, "Blackmane's there. His ships have been hounding every merchant trader in the sector."
"He fired on them?" she asked. She had known Blackmane would not give up the chase, not after his humiliating defeat in the initial attack on the Eldar fleet, but she hadn't suspected he would target civilians.
"Not them. They monitored communications between Blackmane's ship and another merchant, a cargo hauler called Exodus. See what you make of this." Stephanie listened in silence as the exchange between the captain of the Exodus and Blackmane was played over the communication link. She inhaled sharply as she heard the order to fire, and the dull thump of lance blasts hitting the merchant's ship, cut off by a blast of static as the transmission died.
"Thank you," she said to the frigate's captain, "we'll deal with this. Continue repairs on the freighter." The captain nodded and disappeared from the screen. Stephanie turned to the communications bay, set into the back of Artemis's bridge.
"Get the Xenophon, I need to speak with the Lieutenant Commander."
A moment later, she had explained the situation to Octavian. He leaned on one armrest of his ship's command chair and frowned.
"I've only ever fought alongside Blackmane in surface battles," he said, "and I wouldn't have thought he'd do something like this. He's never tried to avoid a fight when he could just charge in."
"But now he can't just charge in," countered Stephanie thoughtfully, "because he can't catch us. If he sent a fleet to intercept us, we'd be gone by the time it arrived. So he can't fight..."
"He wants to hurt his enemy," said Octavian flatly. "He wants to hurt us, and this is how he will do it. If he attacks enough civilian ships, he knows we'll come after him. He'll have his fight." Stephanie nodded thoughtfully, and tapped a button on her chair. She scanned the relayed tactical data from the ship's databanks.
"He can't have repaired his entire fleet this fast," she said, "that means he's stretched across the whole sector, to intercept any merchant ship he suspects is heading towards our fleet. But he won't stretch too far, because he'll need time to regroup his ships once we go after him. So, he must be using the destroyers to fill in the gaps between his battlebarges. We can use that," she said, looking back up at the viewscreen.
"The destroyers don't have ramscoops, so they can't generate their own fuel. They're running a blockade, and they'll need to resupply in order to keep moving between systems, to keep the line intact. If we can knock out their fuel base, that leaves just the battlebarges themselves." Stephanie frowned in thought, and Octavian leaned forward.
"That's still a dozen cruisers. Can we take them in a frontal assault?"
"It'd be too dangerous. We can't start throwing ships away just to damage him. But without the destroyers, the battlebarges alone won't be able to hold the blockade. Blackmane will want to take the first opportunity he can get to cripple our fleet, before his blockade dissolves completely. So if he sees us, he'll attack immediately."
"That is consistent with his actions to this point."
"So we force him to attack us on our terms," Stephanie finished, leaning back contentedly.
"On our terms?"
"Tell me, what would be the effect of engaging a warp drive inside the Dentris storm?"
"You can't. Every captain in the sector avoids it. Any contact between realspace and the warp, and the plasma detonates. The only way anyone can get through it is to drop to realspace and push through with sublight engines. Even then, manoeuvrability is limited, sensor efficiency drops off the bottom end of the scale... Commander, you have an unusually inventive mind."
"Thanks to considerable experience. We'll get his fleet inside the storm, and then engage with the heavy cruisers only. With the hyperlight fields engaged, they'll have near-zero mass, and their engines will be able to compensate for the storm. Is Thunderchild in communications range?"
"According to the flight plan, it'll be another two days before she's back this side of the Imperial jammers."
"Alright. Have one of the heavy cruisers deal with the fuel supply for the destroyers, and form the rest into a battle group."
"Aye Commander. The third company on board Castalia are at full strength. With your approval, they'll take the fuel station."
"Very well." Octavian disappeared from the screen. Stephanie had barely returned to her contemplation of the tactical databanks when the screen lit up again, this time showing Luther in the webway portal chamber of Zaran.
"Farseer?" said the commander.
"We've received a signal from one of the Phoenix Lords. I think you should be here when the portal opens. If you're able to come aboard, I've had one of our teleporters readied to interface."
"I'll be right there," she said. Luther disappeared from the screen, and Stephanie turned to her first officer. "You have the bridge. Send word to the teleport chamber to prepare to interface with the craftworld, then follow the Lieutenant Commander's fleet plan."
"Aye Commander," said the officer, taking the command chair.
Solari stepped aside as Stephanie neared the entrance to the webway chamber. Luther was still inside, watching the displays with interest. The commander glanced at them, and noted the distance that the portal was again bridging.
"It's already gone further than before," Luther said, his eyes not leaving the display. Stephanie guessed that the gateway was stretching beyond their own galactic spiral arm, possibly straight through the centre of the galaxy to somewhere on the other side. Her attention turned to the portal itself as is shuddered and spun into life. Luther stepped forward of the commander; as master of the vessel, it was his duty to greet the visitors. The portal's shield hissed open, revealing the blinding light of the interstellar gateway. A single figure stepped out, and the light was gone. Jain Zar approached the group waiting for her.
"Farseer," she said, before Luther could begin the formal welcome, "good to see you again. I am glad that recent events have proven me right in trusting your instincts. Solari," she said in acknowledgment of the Exarch standing slightly behind the admiral, "and you," she added, turning to Stephanie, "must be the Commander of the Furies. I haven't seen you in a hundred years," she finished.
"The Ghorushda campaign," said Stephanie, "I remember. You fought alongside the Harlequins."
"The Commander has quite a varied history," the Phoenix said, turning again to Luther. "She has played many parts. But always the same character," she said, with a dip of her head that might have indicated a smile underneath the helmet.
"I'm truly sorry I can't stay longer," she continued, "but my presence is required elsewhere. In the last month I have contacted all of the major aspect sects in this quadrant. All have agreed to support your Alliance. Arrangements will be made with the aspect shrines on this craftworld to contact your new allies. I also have a message from the Harlequins. They say, they will be ready when you need them. It seems that they have not forgotten Ghorushda either," she said, turning again to Stephanie. Then, with a final nod to Solari, she turned and stepped through the portal, which again flashed into life for the second it took her to vanish. Luther turned away as the iris shield closed again.
"I heard of the battles on Ghorushda," he said to Stephanie as they left the portal chamber, "and of the events after the victory. It was supposed to have been the only time an outsider performed with the Harlequins in the Dance. Many believe that this Dance never occurred."
"It did," said Stephanie simply.
"I wonder," said Luther, watching her closely, "what part did you play?"
"One of many," she said with a slight smile, "but always the same character."
A gateway formed, and a long, dark shape emerged. Smaller than a Navy cruiser, leaner and thinner than the bulky battlebarges, it slid into orbit of the Furies homeworld without a sound, its lights dim in the planet's shadow.
On the bridge of the Inquisition frigate Romulus, the captain looked up from his sensor displays.
"Lord," he said to the robed figure standing at the back of the bridge, "we have completed preliminary scans of the planet. It is deserted."
"I suspected so," said Julius, departing the shadows to stand beside the captain, "proceed with the operation."
"My Lord?" said the captain, surprised.
"You have a question?"
"Lord, why virus-bomb a planet that has already been evacuated? Would it not be more efficient to target the fortress itself with fusion charges, to leave the rest of the surface useable?"
"It would be more efficient, indeed," said the Inquisitor, "but few people respect efficiency. People respect power. It must be known that to defy the Adeptus is to invite Exterminatus. Proceed with the operation." The captain nodded, and turned again to his controls. Julius retreated to the shadows at the back of the bridge, watching as the sparse bridge crew carried out their captain's orders. The view on the display screen shifted sideways, away from the ship's course and down towards the surface. He saw the first of the virus missiles scream away from the frigate, disappearing into the atmosphere with a burst of flame. A moment later, the stain of Exterminatus began to spread across Semnai.
"Second squad, provide covering fire. First squad, move in. Cleanse and secure."
The calm of the morning was broken by the roar of boltguns. The automated turrets in the bunkers fired, but already their targets had ducked back down. Another warrior rose, boltgun firing, and the turrets turned again, but again its target disappeared just before a hail of cannon shells thudded into the ground. Again and again the pattern was repeated, the sequence of covering fire different every time, never giving the guns a chance to predict where their next target would be. The suppression team jumped from crater to crater. A final leap brought them below the fire arc of the bunker guns, and they stopped crouching and ran full-speed to the rear of the bunker. A hand raised, and half a dozen boltguns fired across the front of the bunker in return. The sentry guns broke out into a frenzy of action, again failing to find their targets. As soon as the roar of their firing began, a krak charge blasted the bunker's rear door from its hinges, and a heavy flamer filled the bunker with an inferno to rival hell itself. The guns were silenced.
The covering squad moved up into the shadow of the bunker, flame still leaping from its firing slits. They began to move towards their next target, again distracting the guns while the suppression team moved forward. This time there was a crossfire as the team came into range of a support trench. For a moment, it seemed as if the team would be pinned down. A hand waved, and one of the warriors providing covering fire nodded in return. A shower of grenades filled the air, blasting gaping holes in the trench line. A heavy bolter followed, turning the carefully-built trench into a pit of mud and shattered steel plates. The heavy flamer again fired, and the advance towards the second bunker continued.
Five more targets were neutralised. An adept approached the leader of the warriors, who turned to meet him.
"Report on the exercise. Objectives and personnel."
"All targets have been secured, Sister Superior, the area is cleansed. Casualties zero."
"Excellent. Prepare the next simulation."
Octavian watched as the sleek ranger ship drew alongside his cruiser. He turned to his communications officer a moment before contact with the Eldar was made. The lieutenant commander nodded, and turned to see the viewscreen reveal the bridge of the stealthship. The Eldar captain performed a salute, which Octavian copied as best he could.
"We have disturbing news," the Eldar began without preamble. "Several hundred human warriors from the armies maintained by the Imperial Ecclesiarchy are being readied to use against the Alliance."
"The Sisters of Battle?" Octavian asked. The Eldar nodded.
"The force is from a group of the warriors known as the Order of the Black Rose. They are trained and equipped to deal with more powerful opponents than the religious orders usually face. Our intelligence reports suggest that it would be foolish to take them lightly. We will transmit our full report, but decryption will be necessary on some of the material we intercepted regarding the Order. We do not have the necessary resources to break the Imperial codes."
"I'll see that they're passed on to the commander. Your expedition was without incident?"
"Yes," replied the captain. Octavian nodded.
"Good. I need two of your ships to monitor the fleet of Ragnar Blackmane."
"This ship and another of our group will begin monitoring the fleet immediately."
"Thank you. Xenophon out." The Eldar disappeared, and his ship pulled smoothly away from the heavy cruiser, turning back towards the merchant systems and activating its hyperlight drive. Octavian stood from his command chair and turned to the communications console, using his priority code to contact the flagship Artemis.
Captain Seldonas ducked instinctively as a barrage of missiles flew above his head. Looking up, he saw the frag barrage land in a tight formation of blasts centred on the head of the approaching column of troops. He looked to both sides, where marines stood ready, boltguns prepared to cut down anyone who got within range. He turned again to the technician behind him.
"How long," he said, for what seemed like the tenth time.
"Five minutes more. The charges must be set precisely, or the fuel pipeline will rupture." Seldonas grimaced and turned back to the scene of the impending battle. The small contingent of Space Wolves left to guard the fleet fuelling station had been slow to respond to the fragmented warnings coming from the pumping complex, but now that they knew the Furies were on the surface, they had wasted no time in mobilising. A series of flashes marked the beginning of the barrage from the Wolves, and the Furies devastators returned fire. The makeshift fortifications around the complex held, barely, against the lascannon blasts and missiles, but the Wolves were on open ground, poorly placed to engage in a shooting match. As expected, they were crossing the ground between the two forces as fast as they could. Seldonas signalled to his lieutenant, who was on the right flank of the defenses, to prepare to launch a counter-attack with the assault squads.
"Four minutes," the technician said. "The main line has been isolated, and the explosions will carry back to the fuel storage facility. We just have to lock off the lines leading to the settled areas, so that there isn't a blast feedback through them..."
"Yes, I know," replied Seldonas. He hated fighting when civilians were involved. The best place for non-combatants, he reasoned, was behind his force. That way the only thing he had to do to protect them was win.
The Wolves were closer now, and he could clearly make out the fast-moving bike squadron, its heavily-armoured attack bike flanked by single-seat riders on each side. They veered off to the right flank, as the tiny figures of the assault squads jumped across to the left. In the middle, the two Predators continued their advance, saving their weapons until they could be brought to bear at full power. A hail of shells from the attack bike's heavy bolter told him that the battle was about to begin in earnest. Seldonas activated his wide-band commlink.
"Rifle teams, take aim. Scatter the screening troops. Heavy weapons pick your targets. Lascannons on those tanks, frag missiles into the assault squad. Rifle teams, steady," for a moment he waited, holding his breath, "fire!"
The rattle of boltguns drowned out the noise of the approaching vehicles. The Wolves bikes veered sideways, weaving to try to avoid the incoming shells.
Boltgun fire at the assault squad had caused the front-runners to pause for a moment, and now frag missiles exploded among the densely-packed troops, scattering them. Three beams of light stabbed out at the Predators. One glanced off the hull of the tank-killer, another severed the turret autocannon from the anti-personnel tank. The third shot flashed straight through the Annihilator's bulldozer blade, and the tank erupted in a shower of flame, it's armour plates spinning outwards, its ammunition and fuel supplies quickly detonating. The Destructor Predator veered away from the wrecked machine, one heavy bolter rattling out a reply, punching a series of holes in the side of the building atop which the Furies devastators stood.
"Ready assault troops, rifle teams prepare to give covering fire." Seldonas's voice was calm, amid the bolter fire whistling above him. Suddenly, a vapour trail stretched from a patch of low greenery to one side of the Wolves advance to the remaining Predator. The krak missile at its tip bored through the tank's side armour, silencing the twin heavy bolters that had begun to pummel the pumping complex. Seldonas jacked his helmet's vision enhancer to full power, and saw flashes of boltgun fire from the short trees, the shells causing the Wolves bikes to wheel in confusion as they found themselves in a crossfire. A second missile flew out of the trees, this one exploding in a massive blast among the bikes, shattering their formation and sending two of the machines hurtling through the air. As their support dissolved, the Wolves' assault troops slowed in their unsteady progress towards the fortifications.
"Sir," said the technician from behind the Captain, "we've locked off the pipelines."
"Good," said Seldonas, turning away from the diminishing battle and patching his helmet's communicator into the surface-to-orbit link. "Castalia, we're ready for teleport. Do you have our scouts' positions?"
"Yes sir," answered the voice in his ear, "we read them five hundred metres to your east. All teleport beacons are green."
"Begin the countdown," said Seldonas to the technician, then to the officer onboard the orbiting starship: "teleport when ready."
Around him, columns of light were forming. The Captain felt himself weightless for a second, then he disappeared from the surface, leaving the scene of the battle to the Space Wolf troops who had disappeared behind whatever makeshift cover they could find. As they cautiously began to leave their positions and approach, a rumble echoed through the complex before them. A series of flashes marked where the underground pipeline was demolishing itself. After a moment, a resounding boom echoed across the horizon, signalling the demise of the refuelling station. In orbit, the heavy cruiser Castalia turned from the blue-green world and disappeared in a flash of light.
One of Castalia's many teleport chambers reassembled itself around Seldonas. He stepped down from the platform and approached the technician operating the machine. Behind him, a pair of devastators released their weapons' locking clamps and disengaged the ammunition feeds.
"Which chamber received the scout squad?" he asked the technician.
"Chamber five, sir." Seldonas nodded and left the chamber, crossing the cargo teleport bay to another of the smaller personnel chambers. The scout squad was loading its weapons onto a rack for routine maintenance. The squad's sergeant had been facing the entry to the teleport chamber, and Seldonas spoke to him immediately.
"Good work sergeant."
"Thank you sir. We saw the Wolves coming in from five kliks away, and figured you could do with a bit of crossfire to take the heat off." The veteran marine was preparing his bolt pistol for maintenance as if it was second nature, his eyes never leaving those of the Captain.
"Commendable initiative. Which of your squad had the heavy weapon?"
"Novice Chase, sir. New recruit, from one of the rebel merchant vessels. Good aim, if I may say so sir." The sergeant pointed to a scout who, after a moment to stow a boltgun, had returned to the squad's missile launcher and was removing the firing assembly. Seldonas approached the Novice.
"Novice, you aim like a marine already." Chase turned to face the captain, saluting as she did so while one hand snapped the launcher's access hatch closed. She was tall for a normal human, her ash blond hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"Thank you sir. I've used similar weapons before."
"Really? Who were you fighting?" The Captain made a note to find her file in the records that the tenth company had transmitted to the Castalia's databanks when their troops were attached to the force.
"Genestealers, sir. Purestrains." Seldonas nodded.
"Indeed. Well fought, Novice."
Jain Zar looked up. A figure stood before her, its dark armour a sharp contrast to the swirls of colour that surrounded them. There was a hiss as the blade of the Banshee's staff lit up with power, and a swift series of clicks as the edges of the Silent Death locked into their circular pattern. The dark figure held out his hands, empty.
"I didn't come to you to fight," it said. Its voice had the same suggestion of multiple voices, but there was a strange sound to it, as if the individual voices were almost, but not quite, speaking the same words.
"Then leave." Jain Zar made no effort to lower her weapons.
"I have been watching you."
"You know what she is. What she could be. She is the key to our survival."
"You've said that before. About those murderers you nurture."
"Is your way any better? You know what must be done. Why not accept it?"
"Because it is wrong."
"The paths of fate conspire against you."
"Then I will fight fate. I've done it before. Now leave. Unless you want to cease until some poor soul finds you. It'll be a long time before anyone does. I'll make sure of it."
The dark figure tilted its head sideways, as if in amusement, then turned. It looked over its shoulder for a moment.
"I offered you a chance, long ago..." Jain Zar raised the Silent Death, allowing the blades to flex outwards for a moment.
"Leave, unless you want to feel my answer again."