The bridge of the heavy cruiser Artemis was bathed in blue light as the ship hummed with power. On the viewscreen, the strange lightshow created by the ship's speed was in effect. Smaller screens displayed images of several other heavy cruisers spread out around their flagship, holding an arrowhead formation.
"We will be in range of the storm in one minute," reported an officer from one of the navigation stations to the rear of the bridge. The commander turned to the group who were operating the ship's tactical systems.
"Status of Blackmane's fleet?" she asked.
"We have Asgard and eight cruiser-class battlebarges on long-range sensors. They're on an intercept course in warp space. We read their jump drives as active."
"Good. Maintain this speed, don't let us outrun him. Drop to sublight to enter the storm, keep manoeuvring to a minimum until Blackmane's ships are in there with us."
The Dentris storm blocked the sunlight from the local star completely. Its deep red gases swirled in tight, concentrated patterns, and arcs of energy played along the lengths of the currents within the storm. The Furies cruisers appeared in a flash of light, their fusion drives lighting up as they plowed into the gas cloud. Their passage created new vortices in the storm, and energy crackled angrily around the ships, dancing over their shields. Bare moments after the heavy cruiser group had disappeared, nine warp portals formed on the perimeter of the storm, and the Space Wolves cruisers emerged and followed their prey into the cloud.
Inside, the Furies heavy cruisers had spread out, waiting to intercept their pursuers. On Artemis, Stephanie shook her head as the viewscreen dissolved into static, only barely outlining the gaseous formations that her ship was slowly negotiating. The formidable computing power of the flagship was being devoted almost solely to interpreting the distorted sensor readings, to find the Space Wolves. The commander tapped a communication control on her chair.
"Engineering, how are our fields holding up?"
"The hyperlight fields are active," replied Alisha, her voice slightly distorted by static on the comm channel, "we're reading a drop in shield efficiency though. Plasma from the storm is interfering with the shield alignment. Eighty percent of normal shielding, I can give you eighty-five if you need it, but that's at the risk of blowing out a generator if we take a big hit."
"Standby on that, boost the shields if we need them. Bridge out." The commander looked back at the viewscreen, which had cleared for a brief moment before dissolving back to static.
"Visual sighting," reported one of the tactical officers, "one of the battlebarges off our port side."
"Redirect sensor arrays," said Stephanie immediately, "prepare to fire the main guns. No torpedoes unless we get a positive lock." The viewscreen flickered to a hazy image of the gases to the ship's left. There seemed to be nothing there.
"What was the range on that sighting?" the commander asked.
"Too brief to tell. Close, probably somewhere in the gas column at two-nine-zero."
Without warning, the bright gases erupted, and the dark shape of a battlebarge emerged. It seemed to be unaware of the heavy cruiser's presence, as it was engaged in a slow circle, turning slightly away from the Furies ship.
"Main guns fire," ordered the commander. Twin bolts of energy streaked towards the Wolves ship, one impacting on their communications tower, the other clipping their engine.
"Evasive manoeuvres, pattern delta." The heavy cruiser spun away from the reeling battlebarge, changing its heading several times as it moved away. A beam of light missed the ship by several hundred metres, but then the two ships were again lost to each other.
"We're reading possible weapons fire, two thousand metres away at one-zero-six," the tactical officer reported, "and sensors are picking up what could be an Imperial distress beacon beyond it."
"Do we have any communications with the cruiser group?" asked the commander.
"Fragmentary reports only. The Xenophon reports one battlebarge disabled, but they were cut off before they could say which one. Ixion reports exchange of fire, but no clear readings on the status of their target."
"Damn," said Stephanie to herself. She looked up sharply as a flash illuminated the bridge. A bright light had appeared on the viewscreen, as if a star had suddenly emerged in the gas cloud.
"One of the Wolves ships has tried to activate its jump drive," said one of the officers at the sensor stations quickly, "shockwave approaching from the blast!"
"All hands brace for impact!" As soon as this was said, the ship lurched as a wave of energy slammed into it. The lights dimmed, flickered out, and were replaced by red emergency lighting.
"Shields have failed," yelled an officer over the noise of sirens, "there's been a teleport to deck nine!"
"Engineering," said the commander. She looked around, and saw that the chief tactical officer had stayed on his feet through the blast.
"You have the conn," she said quickly, "get the shields back up and stop any further teleports!" With that, she turned and ran from the bridge.
Engineering had taken the worst of the blast. The huge accelerator was venting coolant, wreathing the chamber in clouds of ghostly gases. The energy feeds to the ship's fusion torus were glowing brightly, the pulses of energy running through them faster than was probably safe. Stephanie emerged from the forward entryway to hear the noise of gunfire from behind the accelerator. As she ran to the left of the wide pillar she unclipped a short rod from her backpack. Her power armour's automatic lighting activated, cutting through the mist of coolant as soon as she rounded the accelerator.
Half a dozen grey-armoured marines were firing wildly around them, at the machines as well as at the handful of Furies who were being pinned down by the aft entryway by the storm bolter fire of two Terminators. In the centre of the Wolves, Blackmane himself stood, a boltgun raised towards his distant enemies. Stephanie took one look and charged.
Two marines turned at the noise of her approach, raising bolt pistols. The explosive bolts flew underneath the Furies commander as she leapt over the Wolves. The rod in her hands extended to the length of a staff, its ends crackling with power, and she used it to prolong her leap, slamming the staff into the backs of the marines she was flying above. The explosive discharge of the power field threw them to the ground, and propelled her closer to Blackmane. He turned at the sound of the blasts, and grinned when he saw his opponent. He dropped his bolter and drew his ancient chainsword. Stephanie ducked its first swing, rolling underneath the blade and swinging her staff by one end, clipping the leg of a Terminator and sending it to the ground. She rolled to her feet and swung at Blackmane's legs, but he blocked the strike with his blade.
The two exchanged blows for a moment, neither giving ground, then Blackmane let out a howl of rage and charged, his chainsword swinging wildly. Stephanie backflipped away from her opponent, then planted one end of the staff on the ground and launched herself into a flying kick, landing squarely on Blackmane's chestplate. His chainsword blocked the next blow as he struggled to his feet, then he blurred and disappeared in a column of light. Stephanie looked around, and saw the remaining Space Wolves teleporting away. Immediately, the defending marines let the ship's engineering crew back into the chamber. The commander looked around, not seeing Alisha among them, and her eye fell on a body lying motionless behind one of the accelerator controls. She dropped the staff, which retracted before it hit the ground, and ran to her side.
She could feel a pulse, very weak, transmitted through the sensors in her armour's gauntlets, but the engineer remained unconscious. She heard, dimly behind her, someone calling for a medical team to report to the engineering deck. Touching a control on the inside of her armour's neck, she pulled herself free of the power armour and crouched by Alisha's side, cradling her head.
"Alisha, please," she whispered softly into the woman's ear, "don't leave me. Don't leave me, not now. Please, stay with me." She kissed Alisha softly, a tear falling from her eye to the expressionless face below. Unseen, the tiny drop of liquid seemed to soak into the woman's skin.
"Forever," Stephanie whispered softly, "please."
"Forever." The word came on a breath, barely audible. Stephanie's eyes locked with Alisha's, which opened slowly. The engineer's hand found the commander's, and grasped it tightly.
"I told you," she said, her voice ragged, "I'm not going anywhere."
"Report." Stephanie re-entered the bridge to find several of the damaged systems back online. Alisha remained in the doorway for a moment, then headed to the back of the bridge where the engineering stations were coordinating the repairs. The chief tactical officer turned from his station.
"We have confirmed four battlebarges seriously damaged, three more without warp capability. Scans suggest debris only at the location of the ship that used its jump drive. We had Blackmane's ship on sensors for a moment when his troops teleported back from engineering, but we've lost it again." The commander took her place in the centre of the bridge and activated her controls.
"Why did they try to jump to the warp? Suggestions."
"No other ships have attempted to use jump drives. Possibly it was a lapse in judgement on the part of the ship's master. However..." The officer was silent for a moment, as if wondering whether he was suggesting the impossible. Stephanie turned to face him, silently asking him to continue.
"Blackmane's ship was in exactly the right place when the shockwave hit us. Our hull shielded him from the blast, and he teleported as soon as our shields dropped."
"You think he ordered them to activate the drive? To cause the blast, so he could attack us?"
"I know, it's a desperate move. But it does seem possible that that was his intent."
"He did it deliberately." Alisha turned from the engineering stations, leaning on the console to steady herself. Stephanie left her chair to support Alisha as she explained.
"He wanted to take the ship in an assault," she said. "Our sensors recorded five separate teleport arrays active on Asgard. Four of them failed to focus properly through the storm's interference."
"What happened to them?"
"Maybe they managed to reverse the beam in time to pull them out of it, before the teleport signal degraded. There's no way to tell what happened. I think maybe twenty more marines were supposed to be attacking us. Probably the bridge, and in auxiliary control. Considering the damage they did to engineering, they could have crippled us."
"Commander," said the tactical officer, "the Pallas Athena reports they have destroyed the jump drive on another battlebarge."
"Alright," said the commander, returning to her chair, "send the recall signal. Bring us out of the storm, full sublight speed. Navigation, take us out the far side of the storm, make sure no ship without a hyperlight field can follow us." She turned to Alisha, who flashed her a smile. "Let's go home."
"You will accompany the force from its launch," the recording droned on, "and ensure that the efficiency of the Order has not been overstated. Additional to these orders, the Envoy requests that a special report be prepared on the Order's ship-to-ship combat systems."
Inquisitor Tyrus nodded absent-mindedly, making another note in his datapad. The recorded message from Terra continued on, slightly muffled by the hum of the transport's engines.
"On arriving at Cordelia, you will contact Canoness Alexandra and present your orders to her. She will be required to comply with your requests, but the Ecclesiarch has refused permission for the Inquisition to assume command of the military operations."
Tyrus frowned to himself, then looked up at the screen.
"System, replay message from three-eighteen." The image flickered off, then returned.
"...arriving at Cordelia, you will contact Canoness Alexandra and..."
"Stop! Access personnel file for Canoness Alexandra." The battle sister's file replaced the image of the Inquisitor delivering the report. Tyrus looked at it for a moment, then hit a control on his desk.
"Bridge, increase speed to maximum!"
"Engines at full capacity," replied a bored voice from the transport ship's communication system. The hum of the engines increased. Tyrus took a last look at the Canoness's file, then gathered his equipment and left the small communications chamber.
Luther considered his options. Currently, his mind was in contact with those of the thirty or so Eldar under his direct command on the battlefield. Despite the pattern filters of the psionic network through which he directed the battle, he still had to concentrate to avoid being overwhelmed by the divergent thoughts. He noted that the Fire Dragons' wave serpent transport had taken another hit to its port quarter, and sent a signal to its pilot to adjust his shield phase calibration. At the same time, he gave the order for his guardians to advance through the forest towards the Imperial Guard position, while using a portion of his will to steady the aim of the Ranger squad supporting them. He considered a handful of possible scenarios for the outcome of this attack, and found two or three to his liking. Meanwhile, he parried the clumsy blow aimed at him by one of the Ogryn squad that had assaulted his bodyguard a moment earlier.
"Close the trap," he thought to the Banshee squad moving stealthily behind the guardsmen. He felt Solari's agreement, and ducked another blow from the Ogryn, calmly pulling his witchblade through a long strike that ended in the giant crumpling to the ground. He saw the guardians reach the edge of the forest and fire their catapults, slicing through anything above the trench line of the Guard position. The volley continued for a moment, then the guardians ducked down behind cover. As expected, the guardsmen appeared at the forward edge of their trench, pouring laser fire into the forest, hoping to hit the guardians when they next left cover.
A high-pitched cry echoed over the battlefield. It was joined by more, the voices paralysing the guardsmen as the Banshees leapt among them. The heavy weapon squad that would have supported the guardsmen against this charge were silenced with a roar as the wave serpent swung around, meltaguns blazing from its firing portals even as several of the Fire Dragons disembarked and aimed from the ground. Luther took a moment to guide one of the aspect warriors, turning his weapon slightly so that its blast caught the edge of an ammunition crate, scattering the remaining gunners. His attention was drawn back to local events as a warlock by his side finished the last of the Ogryns. Returning his witchblade to its sheath, he noted the Fire Dragons taking up defensive positions against any possible reinforcements, and sent the wave serpent to pick up the Banshees. With the guardsmen out of the way, the warhost would be off the planet before the fastest of the Imperial ships arrived to bolster the garrison currently constructing their defenses in the city several miles to the north. Luther's attention turned to the east, where the smaller of the world's two suns was setting. He called up another wave serpent from the warhost's reserve detachment, and prepared to find out if his fears would be realised.
Tyrus's transport dropped out of warpspace without slowing and began its approach to Cordelia. In the small ship's teleport bay, Tyrus was hastily attaching power links to his armour, while speaking to a communications recorder.
"In addition," he said, clipping his armour's interface compensator onto its input terminal, "note the increased level of sophistication in planetary drop tactics used by the Order in the attached combat reviews, and the cross-referenced files relating to the Order's command staff, which I have studied in the time it has taken my ship to reach this world. I believe," he finished, checking his pistol for ammunition, "that this matter requires immediate investigation, and a quarantine on the Order effective as of now. I am proceeding to the surface, I trust this message will reach Terra in time for further resources to be diverted here in case more drastic measures are required." He tapped a control on the recorder, and looked around towards the ship's tech-adept, who was standing ready to operate the teleporter.
"Transmit that to Terra as soon as the warp interference has cleared, understand?" The adept nodded. Tyrus stepped up onto the teleport platform. "Remember," he added, "stay ready for my signal, and keep the planet between yourself and the Order's spacedock. Engage silent running as soon as the teleport is complete..."
"Yes, lord," said the adept, "I understand your instructions." Tyrus would probably have rebuked the adept's impatience on another occasion, but he was already juggling too many thoughts, and didn't have time for irrelevant details.
"Teleport," he ordered.
"Are we ready?"
Veteran Sister Superior Anastasia nodded, her eyes never leaving the outpost's system monitor. Canoness Alexandra relaxed slightly. She knew her troops were the best she could have - the best she could make them. All the training in the galaxy, though, wouldn't be enough preparation for what they were planning.
"What about the Inquisitor?"
"Time to arrival is estimated at twenty-eight hours. We've been out of contact with Terra for three days now, but the flight plan of his transport was transmitted prior to the warp disturbance."
"Send final orders. Have the cruisers ready to leave spacedock in twenty-four hours. I want this planet cleared in twenty hours, maximum." Anastasia nodded again, and the Canoness turned and left the control chamber. She heard the Sister Superior's voice echoing through the outpost's address system, giving orders for squads to prepare their equipment for transit, for pilots to be ready to operate their dropships. She headed for her own shuttle in the outpost's only sealed docking bay. As she entered, she heard a voice from the past.
"I know what you're doing." Alexandra turned to see the Inquisitor standing between her and the airlock of her orbital shuttle. Both pairs of eyes darted to the Canoness's bolt pistol, resting in its storage rack several metres away, then locked with each other again. The Inquisitor held up a small device in his hand: a commlink.
"Give me the slightest reason," Tyrus said, "and I will teleport to my cruiser and order the Exterminatus on this planet. I will not let your treason continue."
"The Inquisition has a tenuous alliance with the Ecclesiarchy," said the Canoness slowly, "what is it that you've found that would make you risk it?"
"I know who you are. Who you were."
"Really? Who was I, then?"
"I was there when we hunted down your father. He knew the regulations for telepaths, but he chose to disobey. I watched as he was judged, and executed. I saw you, a mere child. The Order didn't think you remembered, but you did, didn't you? You knew what had happened."
"Yes. The Inquisition murdered my father. It's been a long time since I last saw your idea of mercy, Tyrus."
"And now you want revenge. You've twisted the minds of your order, turned them against the Emperor's light, just to fulfil your need for blood. I won't let you." The Canoness's eyes narrowed.
"Inqusitor," she said softly.
"Pain." The robed figure stiffened, and Alexandra walked up to him and removed the commlink from his motionless fingers. She looked into his eyes, which had become wide with agony.
"Not revenge," she said, "justice. That's why I'll let you live." She turned away from him, then her arm flashed back, connecting solidly with the Inqusitor's jaw and sending him to the ground, unconscious.
"But that's for my father," she said to herself. She then retrieved her pistol, and picked up the fallen commlink, taking a moment to retune it.
"This is Canoness Alexandra. All squads are to report to their transport craft immediately. Begin the evacuation." Of all the thousands of inquisitors, she thought to herself as she boarded her shuttle, why did they have to send the one who would suspect her, and dig deeper into the files? She offered up a hasty prayer to the Emperor that the day would hold no further unpleasant surprises - that, in spite of the best efforts of the Adeptus Terra, His work would be done as it was meant to be.
Artemis led her heavy cruiser group back into the Alliance fleet, once again taking position alongside Thunderchild. Callee left her bridge to the care of its crew and teleported herself to the Furies flagship.
"Welcome back," she said, entering the bridge unannounced. Stephanie looked up from one of the systems monitors, and smiled when she saw her sister. The two embraced, then Callee leaned over to an engineering station and tapped a part of its screen showing the repairs to the ship's antimatter accelerator.
"What have you been doing to this fine ship of yours?"
"Nothing a few days won't fix. How are things in the core systems?" The two wandered away from the busy bridge crew, ending up in front of the viewscreen.
"You're certainly stirred them up. I spoke to several traders, they say word of the Alliance is getting around, despite the Imperial communications blackout. I've heard from some good sources that Terra is reluctant to call in more chapters to deal with us, for fear they'll refuse to fight. The Guild of Navigators isn't happy, though. They don't like the idea of interstellar travel without their people guiding the ships. Most of the commercial navigators don't seem to care, but they'll probably keep to themselves as long as the Guild holds the line. There's a lot of... are you alright?" Stephanie had looked away for a moment, glancing at an empty corner of the bridge. She peered at it, then blinked as if trying to clear her eyes.
"Do you see something there? Like a shadow, or a mist?" Callee turned and looked, but saw nothing. She half-turned back, but caught sight of a shape in the corner of her eye. She stared at it, but again there was nothing.
"Scan the bridge for cloaking devices, light refractors, anything like that," the commander ordered. One of her officers complied as Callee took a step to one side, tilting her head. She turned back to her sister.
"You think someone's planted a bomb on you?" she asked. Stephanie was about to answer when the air seemed to shimmer. As quickly as it had appeared, the distortion was gone, and in its place stood a black-clad figure. Callee turned as the device covering its head swivelled to face Stephanie, whose hand had dropped to her side, grasping her bolt pistol. The iris opened, and a beam of red light spilled out, stretching across the bridge.
"No!" Callee leapt towards the assassin, but the light caught her in mid-flight, throwing her back and pinning her against the viewscreen. It enveloped her head, silencing the scream that almost escaped her open mouth. Stephanie raised her pistol and fired at the creature, but it darted sideways with lightning speed, keeping its head level and the beam of light fixed on Callee. Stephanie aimed again, but one of the bridge crew, a technician, stepped forward. The red light vanished as an explosion threw the creature backwards. Callee fell to the ground and lay motionless, as the assassin rolled to its feet, the iris cut in half as if it were paper, tiny arcs of purple lightning escaping and playing over its head. Without warning, it leapt at the technician who stood between it and its targets. The man made no effort to move.
The assassin crashed into him, but then stiffened. It's head dropped, then its body went limp as the faintly glowing blade of a phase sword emerged from its back. The technician's hand liquefied for a moment, then regained its shape, slim, covered in an oily black synskin, the phase generator gauntlet clipped neatly above the wrist. The change flowed along the arm, over the body, up across the face and down the legs. Liela pushed the creature off her sword and took a step back from its crumpled body. The last of the power in its weapon flickered and died.
The Callidus turned to the viewscreen, where Stephanie held the limp body of her sister, her eyes fixed on the assassin. Slowly, she unclipped the phase generator and dropped it to the floor, followed a moment later by the belt holding the set of poisoned needles. She then reached up to her chest, her hand closing over the winged skull-and-dagger emblem of the Officio Assassinorum. Her fingers released the catch, and she let the badge drop to the ground.
Inside a chamber deep under the Imperial Palace, Julius looked into the crystal in his hand. Its edges were perfectly formed, its surfaces flawless. A dim glow illuminated the chamber from a light-well, and the light shone through the crystal, splitting into a haze of colours as it caught the edges. Whichever way Julius turned it, though, there was no light inside. He looked back at the machine that had housed the crystal, noting again the tiny display, on which the word 'inactive' blinked silently on and off. He stood still for a moment, then carefully replaced the crystal in its housing. He then touched a control, one set apart from those that accompanied the machine's display, and turned towards the chamber's heavy blast door.
Leaving the chamber, Julius continued along the poorly-lit corridor, hearing the clang of the portal closing behind him. He turned a corner some distance from the portal and paused. A muffled roar emanated from the portal, immediately joined by the sound of alarms. Julius nodded thoughtfully and continued on his way, pausing to allow a group of servitors to hurry towards the scene of the emergency.
Luther stepped through the door from Artemis's medical bay, a grim expression on his face. Behind him, the door closed automatically. He approached the commander, who stood watching the scene inside through the large transparent section set into the medbay's wall, Alisha's head on her shoulder.
"I wish I could bring better news," he said sadly. Stephanie nodded silently. "She is alive, that much your apothecaries can confirm. I do not know what keeps her alive. Her mind is a vacuum. The device you spoke of has drained her soul from her body. Something remains, but I could not find out what. Where her mind was, there is such a void that it makes contact difficult. I have never encountered such a phenomenon among humans. I fear that she may have fallen victim to the evil of my people."
"The Eldar? How?"
"During your expedition to disable the fleet of the Space Wolves lord, I received a signal from a party of rangers. They indicated that an ancient tomb of my people's ancestors had been opened. Legend recalls that this tomb contained the body of one of the darkest of those who rose to power before the Fall. He was said to have created a weapon that was capable of severing the link between body and soul. Elements of his work later lead to our discovery of the technology we use to manufacture spirit stones. The rangers did not know who had opened the tomb, or when, or whether anything had been recovered from it. We found an Imperial army, guarding a grave which had been emptied of its dark treasures years ago. I hoped that the technology would prove to be beyond the grasp of the Imperium's machine priests, but the device that did this is too similar to the legends to be dismissed as coincidence. There may be more of these creatures."
"If she had been human, it would have killed her," said Stephanie. Luther nodded.
"I suspected as much. She is an engineered being."
"Both of us. Farseer, I must tell you the truth. Please understand that it must never leave this room. The wounds that our creator caused are too fresh in the minds of the human race for us to escape their influence."
"I will remain silent." Stephanie looked back at her sister through the glass, then began.
"You know of the Heresy war. How the Warmaster Horus led half the marine legions against the Emperor, for the glory of chaos. Before he fought his last battle above Terra, he had us created. We were to be the beginning of a new race, superhumans. He would have had us rule the galaxy, bending even the gods of chaos to our will. He was insane, he truly believed that he had the power to control chaos. He had one hundred thousand embryos created from his own genetic code, then he had his sorcerers change them, to try to give them the power which he believed he possessed. Two survived, the rest were destroyed before they lived. Us. We awoke to find ourselves on a dead world. Our birthright was the billions of deaths that Horus caused."
"Yet you fight against chaos," said Luther, as the commander paused. "Your weapon is the only enemy that chaos fears, unity. I understand why this must remain a secret. You must understand that it does not have to be a burden on your soul." Luther stared in at the medbay for a moment. "I will do everything I can. Our warlocks are studying the ancient records of the device that did this. Perhaps they will find a way to reverse the damage that has been done. I must return to my craftworld."
"Thank you, Farseer," said Stephanie. The Eldar nodded and left.
"He's right," said Alisha, "you don't have to torture yourself. You made yourself what you are. It wasn't decided in a laboratory."
"But I'm not human," said the commander wearily, "I'm not what they all think I am." Alisha slipped an arm around her shoulders.
"Of all the souls I've met, yours is the most human," she whispered. Stephanie smiled a faint smile, then both eyes were drawn back to the figure lying motionless beyond the glass. At a glance, she seemed to be merely sleeping. Her breathing was steady, her body without visible injury. A faint shadow fell across her, cast by the towering figure of Octavian, standing motionless by her side.
"This Council is a farce," Julius said flatly, his voice raised almost to shouting. "We have clear evidence of treason within the Adepta Sororitas, and yet we do nothing! At a time when he should be doing his duty here, the Ecclesiarch has not even returned to Terra."
"Surely, Lord Inquisitor, you cannot expect us all to suspend our own pursuits just because the Inquisition suspects one of the millions of operatives in our branches. The Inquisition suspects everyone. Where is your proof?" Julius turned on his counterpart from the Adeptus Arbites and glared.
"I would have expected you, Grand Marshal, to show some degree of concern at this latest violation of Imperial law. The Inquisition has enough material to proceed with a quarantine and investigation, yet you refuse to grant us the power to fulfil our obligation to protect the Imperium."
"Lord Inquisitor, if I may interject," said Covarrus, "your evidence is circumstantial. What we have been presented with are the suspicions of one of your operatives, based on a possible connection to events some twenty years ago. Surely you would not have us quarantine one of the Orders based on this? Let us at least wait until your operative sends confirmation."
"As you well know," said Julius with a sneer, "Cordelia has been cut off from our communications grid. I have already instructed a second inquisitor to detour to the planet, but this will take time during which the renegades may escape. Need I remind you of the effect of such an eventuality? Or of the resources we are already devoting solely to the suppression of a single chapter of such traitors? You seem content to blame coincidence, while the very heart of the Imperium is blackened by heresy!"
"That is enough!" barked Covarrus. "Lord Julius, the Council is aware of your concerns, and appropriate action will be taken once the situation is fully understood." The telepath raised a hand to halt Julius's impending objection. "We will not be frightened into making rash judgements on the strength of circumstantial evidence. If you are concerned about the effect of these traitors, may I remind you that authority for investigation and prosecution of the renegade chapter rests with the Inquisition, and we have yet to see any positive results."
"Operations against the renegades are proceeding as planned," interrupted Julius.
"Good," finished Covarrus. "See to it that they continue to do so. I would draw your attention, however, to the possibility that your operations need to be more fully monitored. My advisers have informed me that the Inquisition had had unofficial contact with the Officio Assassinorum in relation to their investigation. The Callidus temple has refused to report on the current status of the operative which you personally assigned to the assassination of the renegade leaders, and investigation by my office has uncovered evidence of illegal contact between the Inquisition and several members of the Officio's research staff. I suggest you make every effort to enlighten us as to the nature of this contact, Lord Julius. I need not remind you of the penalties for unauthorised use of the resources of the Officio."
"I will investigate the matter personally, Lord Astra," answered Julius, slightly subdued, "my report will be presented to the Council in full. As for the renegades, be assured that the Inquisition is not neglecting their pursuit."
The two heavy cruisers thundered through the interstellar void side by side. On Artemis, Commander Warfield watched as tactical information was updated on the viewscreen. The image of the Castalia was turning from its attackers, but the three Imperial cruisers gave it no room to move, keeping up their assault on the heavy cruiser's shields.
"Prepare to drop to sublight speed as soon as we're in range. Fusion drives to full power." Stephanie turned to the communications station by her side. "Relay our helm controls to the Sarpedon, keep us in formation. Concentrate firepower on the lead cruiser, take out its sublight drive. If we can take them down to two ships, Castalia will have enough room to activate the hyperlight drive."
A burst of light heralded the appearance of the two ships behind the largest of the Imperial Navy cruisers. It turned from the beleaguered Castalia, and brought its lances to bear on Artemis instead. Both heavy cruisers returned fire, blasting one of the Navy ship's weapons arrays to scrap and tearing a long gash along the side of its engine housing.
Stephanie watched as another of the Imperial ships turned away from Castalia. To her surprise, the damaged ship replied with a volley of torpedoes, tearing great holes through the cruiser's unprotected engines. Suddenly caught between two enemies, the Navy battle group began to pull back to a defensive formation.
Without warning, a blast rocked the Furies flagship. Emergency lighting revealed that the ship's main reactor had failed, but none of the Navy vessels had fired.
"What the hell hit us?" yelled Stephanie over the sirens.
"Internal explosion," answered Alisha's voice from the engineering deck, "centred on the medical bay. Shields are failing."
A damage control team secured their pressure suits and opened the blast door that had sealed off the ship's medbay. Seeing fires, they set to work dousing the flames. The ship's master apothecary pushed past the squad of marines who had arrived in anticipation of a teleport attack, to find Octavian slumped against a wall in the observation chamber, his armour twisted by whatever force had decimated the room from which he had been thrown. The apothecary checked the lieutenant commander's lifesigns, then turned to the marines in the doorway.
"Where's the patient?" he yelled over the noise of the fire suppressors, "find her!"
"Bridge," came the voice from the communication system, "this is medbay, there's been some sort of energy discharge. The Lieutenant Commander is alive, but Captain Warfield is missing, we can't find a trace of her."
"Bridge, engineering," came Alisha's voice, "power has failed to the docking bay containment fields, someone's launching the shuttle."
"Commander," said the chief tactical officer, pointing to the screen. Stephanie looked back to the viewscreen to see Artemis's hyperlight shuttle veer erratically away from the ship, passing perilously close to Sarpedon before spinning away into space.
"Have Sarpedon hold off the Navy ships, get a tractor beam on that shuttle!"
A beam flickered out to the shuttle, catching it and halting its progress away from Artemis. The shuttle's engine nacelles began to glow.
"Engineering, the drive on that shuttle's active, can you shut it down?"
"Controls are not responding, the signal's being jammed... the warp drive is activating!"
A warp gate was forming in front of the shuttle, but instead of spreading to a calm circle, it opened as if space was being torn by a giant claw. Tendrils of warp energy snaked out towards the shuttle, as the tractor beam holding it flickered and began to dissipate.
"Keep the tractor beam powered," ordered the commander, leaving her chair to operate the beam's control console, "adjust beam alignment to compensate for the interference..."
"The energy flux from the warp is too great, we're losing it!"
The beam disappeared, and the shuttle rocketed forward, its engines leaving trails of green lightning in its wake. It crashed into the edge of the jagged hole into the warp, severing one of its nacelles in the process. For a second the shuttle rebounded across the mouth of the warp gate, trailing fire from its damaged side, then the gate itself exploded. A shockwave blasted outwards, rocking all the ships in the area, flaring against their shields. When it had passed, the gate had closed, and the shuttle was gone.
As the fleet moved further from the galactic core, so the stars became dimmer, more distant, separated by more and more of the endless interstellar blackness. Stephanie looked out of the observation deck at the distant cloud of lights, the centre of the galaxy.
"I miss her too." She turned to see Alisha, half-hidden in the shadow cast over the deck by one of the outer hull supports. The gap between them closed.
"She deserved so much more," said the commander quietly. "She never asked for anything, but she gave so much. It shouldn't have ended like this."
"I know. I owe her everything that I am. But she wouldn't want you to hurt yourself like this. You take so much responsibility on yourself, so much weight on your shoulders. You can't save everyone."
"But I have to try."
"Yes. That's part of who you are. But if you try, you will fall short sometimes. You can't let that stop you. Don't let it blind you to everything you've done. You deserve better than that." Alisha looked up into Stephanie's eyes to find them full with tears. She gently drew the woman into her arms.
"You're not alone," she whispered, "you never will be."
For a long time, there was only darkness, not merely the absence of light, but the denial of its ever having existed. Then there was a flash, a burst of speed, and time began again.
The shuttle screamed downwards, tearing through the jagged portal, its single engine trailing drive plasma. Tentacles of warp energy snaked after it, but it broke free, spinning out of control, tumbling lower. Its shields flared and collapsed as it clipped the side of a building, then it spun over and crashed through the side of another. A moment later, a jagged mass of wreckage erupted from the structure, fire blazing in its wake. The wreckage crashed off the side of a huge tower, then carved a great chunk out of the ground, finally coming to rest in a cloud of debris. Pieces of stone and metal fell from above for a moment, then finally it was over.
The thing that had been Callee Warfield opened her eyes. She lay on her side, a jagged piece of the shuttle's hull pinning her to the ground. Its edge cut into her arm, but she seemed unconcerned. She gazed out at the strange world she found herself in. Around her was a massive metropolis, towers gleaming in the twilight, impossibly-high bridges reaching from building to building, all glistening as if the black metal from which the city seemed to be fashioned was coated in blood. She looked up, but instead of a sky there was only more of the impossible city. Its dimensions seemed to twist around, as if gravity had warped under the strain of the massive edifices. Her eyes closed, and her mind opened.
She soared through the city, seeing its immense structures, the unnatural distortions of space that had created it. Whichever way her mind moved, it found only more thousands of miles of the same. She gave up trying to escape, and let her mind sink into the city. In an instant, she found the screams of pain, the laughter of the tormentors, the cruel pleasure, the silent suffering of the broken souls. A million billion tortured lives flowed into her mind, and she drowned.
Sensation awoke her. Her eyes opened again, and this time they looked into another pair. These eyes were cruel, born of years of violence and pain, and of never having known or cared that life could be different. The owner of the eyes was looking slightly below her face. She looked down, along his arm. His hand was clutched around the handle of a serrated blade, which he had plunged into her throat. She studied this for a moment with detached interest, then threw the piece of wreckage away from her as if it were made of feathers. A blow to the head sent her attacker crashing the ground. She stood unsteadily, the handle of the knife still protruding from her throat, its tip emerging from the back of her neck. She grasped its handle carefully and pulled it out. As she approached the fallen figure, her wound closed, leaving her skin smooth, unmarked. She crouched down over the dazed figure, the blade held tightly in both hands, its tip barely touching his chest. Supporting herself on her knees and elbows, she lay her body on top of his, taking care not to move the knife at all. He raised his head and looked at her. She looked deep into his eyes, and very slowly let her body press down.
"Lord Julius," said the inquisitor respectfully. Julius approached the old man's desk, which looked out over the miles of architecture that was the surface of Terra.
"The Council is anxious that steps be taken against the Furies," said Julius. "They do not feel that the Inquisition is handling the matter well."
"The Council will have its way. You are one of them now, you know how they think. I have information that could be of assistance in this matter. My informants tell me that the Furies are planning to destroy the Exterminatus weapons laboratory on Coriana. If the facility were to be destroyed, shipments of viral warheads would be set back by years. Every order of Exterminatus in the Segmentum Solar would have to be postponed."
"They place the lives of heretics above those of the Imperium's warriors."
"So it seems. But consider this. The Inquisition's efforts to deal with the Furies by military force have failed because of this drive they possess. Our ships cannot catch them, and so our superior numbers cannot be brought to bear. If they were to be attacked while a large part of their force was on the surface of Coriana, do you suppose they would use their drive to flee? I believe they would stay and fight. One chapter, against all the forces under the authority of the Inquisition. A costly battle, I am sure, but one in which we shall prevail. Your opinion?" The old inquisitor looked thoughtfully at Julius.
"What you say is true. Their greatest asset is speed, and if we could take that away from them, force them into a war on our terms, the odds are in our favour. As always, your counsel is appreciated."
"I taught you well," said the old man, turning his chair to look away from the window where Julius stood. "You would have reached the same conclusion, given the same information. There is another matter though. The assassin?"
"Yes. I have reached a decision on that matter, though. Regrettable as it is, I believe the only way the Council will be content to let the matter rest is if the inquisitor responsible were to be removed."
"Such actions are sometimes necessary for the greater good. You have chosen the one who will be removed?"
"Yes." The sharp crack of Julius's bolt pistol echoed through the office, as the Inquisitor Lord turned and left the remains of his mentor in the shattered chair.