Sister Superior Anastasia stared out into space, and a thousand distant points of light stared back. The control deck, located on the leading edge of the corvette Centaur, provided a panoramic view of the small ship's surroundings, but the star system the small ship currently found herself in was devoid of interesting features: an unremarkable star, a handful of barren planets, one of which was habitable but unsettled, a string of asteroids containing various metals, none of which were valuable enough for the Imperium to bother establishing a mining colony. Anastasia felt a presence behind her, and turned in her seat to see Sister Portia entering the control deck from its single doorway. The young Celestian held out a dataclip.
"Update from Alliance Command," she reported. Anastasia nodded and dropped the clip into the reader in the arm of her seat, glancing over the files as they scrolled past on her screen.
"Another two days," the Sister Superior read after a moment, "the Furies have been delayed fighting a renegade force near the Cadian Gate. We'll be keeping watch on this sector until the Sarpedon is available." Portia nodded and walked to the front of the control deck, taking her usual place at the helm.
"Quiet enough so far," she said, running an eye over the helm controls. Anastasia finished reading the report and transferred it to long-term storage, removing the empty data clip from the reader.
"True," she answered, "but no guarantees it'll stay that way. One corvette isn't much of a force to patrol a whole sector if something major turns up. We'll be stretched thin until the Castalia's completed and launched, but, as you say, if things continue as quiet as they have been..." She left the sentence hanging, glancing over the various screens around her. Portia was about to reply when her attention was drawn back to her own console by a siren.
"Incoming contact," she said, quickly transferring the ship to her control. The corvette banked to port as the beginnings of a warp gate crackled into life nearby.
"Crew to stations," Anastasia called, briefly activating the intra-ship channel before turning her attention to the growing gate. The familiar sight of an energy web, holding open a gateway into the writhing red sea of warp space, was giving her an uneasy feeling. "Any shipping due to arrive in this system?" she asked as Sister Zoey appeared and activated her analysis station.
"Nothing, Sister Superior," she answered, "and no merchant transponder from the gate."
"Adeptus or alien," concluded Sister Sonia, taking her place at weapons control. Anastasia watched as the gate grew to its full size and stabilised. The strands of energy cris-crossing the opening drew back to its edges, allowing a dark, massive shape to pass by, then the gate snapped shut.
"Identify that ship," said Anastasia automatically, even as Zoey began to run comparisons between the sensors and the corvette's database of known ships. It was clearly an Imperial vessel, but quite unlike the Navy warships that were the most common symbol of Terra to be seen in deep space. Instead of the gleaming metal and cathedral-like superstructure, the ship was a looming mass of unpolished steel, dark grey in colour and simple in design. There was none of the intricate architecture of most Imperial ships, instead a hull built of metres-thick armour, formed into a great hulk ahead of the powerful engines driving it forward. It almost seemed like a freighter, but the single massive cargo bay had no transfer airlocks or docking latches. The bridge module, riding high above the ship, looked out over nearly a mile of darkened metal as the hull stretched away ahead of it.
"Silent running," reported Portia. Sister Zoey turned from her station.
"Identified," she said. Anastasia turned from studying the massive ship. "Imperial transport cruiser Charon. Last known position zone zero-three-five, destination Terra. Cargo, seven hundred condemned criminals awaiting broadcast trial and execution on charges of heresy and sedition. It's a prison ship."
"Bound for Terra?" Anastasia turned back to the great ship, now powering away from the site of its exit from the warp. "She's forty thousand light years off course. Parallel vector. Any sign of damage?"
"Some hull scarring, consistent with the ship's age," reported Zoey, as the corvette steered behind the transport hulk, "no sign of recent damage or combat. Power levels are normal, reaction thrusters are firing under manual control."
"Nothing. They're running quiet, no beacon, no transponder signal. Should we make contact? Imperial clearance codes are ready."
"No," answered the Sister Superior, gazing at the massive ship, "maintain silent running. Imperial prison ships don't get this far off course without something going wrong, I want to know what's happened over there. Can we board without their sensors noticing?"
"The hull has a sensor web," answered Zoey, skimming through technical files on the ship, "we'll have to approach very close, between the main drives. Their power output will hide us, but we'll have to dock and cut through the hull into the engineering section. Teleporters would trigger alarms all over the bridge."
"I can form the shields into a concave wedge," suggested Sonia, "it'll bring us through the wash from their engines with minimum turbulence."
"Do it," ordered Anastasia. The small ship dipped down beneath the Imperial transport, its nose pointing through the gap between the two main drives, each one a hundred-metre-wide circle of boiling plasma. Slowly, carefully negotiating the waves of energy from the drives, the Centaur moved forward. Sonia was kept busy making constant adjustments to the shields as they neared the huge drives, their red glow filling the control deck. The silence of space was broken by a dull rumbling, as the energy wash thudded against the corvette's shields, creating resonances in the hull.
Without warning, the engine outlet on their port side lunged towards them. Portia's hands flew over her controls, keeping the corvette in position as the transport cruiser changed course. For a perilous moment a wall of metal, the side of the drive core, loomed ahead, then the giant ship ended its manoeuvre and the corvette faced open space again, riding safely between the drives. Portia cautiously added a little speed, bringing the corvette out of the narrow space between the engines and nestling underneath the engineering section built around the ship's main reactor. She swung the ship sideways to fit it behind a forward sensor array, and with a barely-audible clang the dorsal airlock touched the transport cruiser's hull.
A red glow appeared on the metal deck of a grimy, poorly-lit corridor in the Charon's engineering section. It travelled in a circle, then the disc of metal thus cut fell silently out of sight. A small probe rose out of the hole, its single red eye sweeping the corridor, finding nothing. It dropped back down, to be replaced by a deep blue helmet with crystal red eyes. Two gauntlets appeared on the edges of the hole, and the armoured figure pulled herself up to the level of the deck, crouching as one hand went for a bolt pistol. The other retrieved an auspex, the screen of which cast a faint green glow on the helmet's featureless face as it displayed its readings. Anastasia let her helmet retract into the high collar of her armour, and motioned to her Sisters to follow.
For several decks all seemed well, the silent presence of inactive repair servitors the only companions to the four Sisters as they made their way up through the heart of the ship's drive. When they reached the primary reactor deck, the lowest point on the ship manned by normal crew, it became clear that the situation was not as sedate as it appeared.
"Emperor," breathed Sonia as she reached for the medical auspex clipped to the inside surface of her backpack. She swept the deck with the scanner, passing its sensor eye over the bodies that lay scattered over the duty stations, but none had survived.
"Sister Superior," called Portia quietly, bending over one of the bodies. Anastasia looked down into a scarred, tattooed face, one eye missing, the mouth replaced by a crude bionic breather. The man was clearly not one of the crew.
"Sister Zoey," said Anastasia, "make a link to the ship's cargo manifest. I want a complete list of prisoners. Make sure you leave no traces in the system." Zoey took the auspex Anastasia held out and began to hook it to one of the data stations, after carefully shifting the corpse that had been lying across the cable links.
"Prisoner revolt," said Sonia, returning to Anastasia's side after checking the next section of the deck. She glanced down at the body at the Sister Superior's feet, a guard. His chest had been opened by a bolt shell. "This one too," she said, pointing at the man's wrist. Anastasia looked too, and saw that the wrist had been cut open to the bone. "I saw two more guards, with the same injury," explained Sonia.
"It's a precaution against escaped prisoners," explained Anastasia, "each guard has a micro-transmitter implanted in his wrist, matched to his weapon. The weapon won't fire unless the transmitter is within a few inches of the receiver."
"They took the transmitters from the bodies," murmured Sonia, "they knew what they were doing."
"Not surprising," said Zoey, detaching her auspex from the data station, "I've retrieved the names and records of the prisoners. They were all prominent criminals, all experienced with Imperial law." She glanced at the dead prisoner Portia had found, and pressed a few buttons on the auspex, matching the face to a file. "This one was Auran Thranx. He'd been captured five times in the past twenty years, escaped every time."
"Not this time," said Anastasia. "What was his crime?"
"He led a gang revolt on the hiveworld Infinity. His gangers stormed the precinct fortress of the Adeptus Arbites and killed the entire force. They then planted a fusion bomb in the hive spaceport and blew up the troop ships that landed to put down the rebellion. All the major hives on the planet fell within two months, and Thranx ruled the planet for five more months until the Imperial Guard arrived. Eighteen million civilian workers died during his rule." Zoey looked up from the screen of her auspex. "His trial and execution was to have been broadcast in eighteen systems."
"And his kind are in control of the ship?" asked Sonia.
"Someone's in charge," said Portia, "these transport cruisers don't steer themselves."
"And no-one's cleared up this mess," finished Anastasia, gesturing at the carnage around them. "Good reason to suspect the prisoners have taken command. We need to see what's happening on the bridge."
"Auxiliary control is five decks from here," said Zoey, switching the auspex to a structural view of the ship, "it has systems slaved to the bridge controls."
"If the convicts know how to run a ship, they'll have people in auxcon," warned Portia.
"Element of surprise," said Anastasia, "if they got to the bridge, they'll think there aren't any hostile forces left on the ship. Sister Zoey, I want the blast doors to auxcon shut the moment we're inside. If there are any security protocols to break, start working now. Sister Sonia, motion scanner, take point. Five metres ahead. Let's move."
Six people were guarding the entry corridor to auxiliary control. Each had a boltgun or pistol, and to the side of each weapon was taped a tiny transmitter covered in dried blood. One of the six was describing some long-forgotten exploit to the others, who were gathered in a semi-circle around the speaker.
"And then," he was saying, in a rough, frontier world accent, "he gets all like, 'the Emperor knows yer sins'," for this the man's voice rose to a slightly higher pitch, in a nasal imitation of what he seemed to consider an educated voice, "so I go, 'yeah, well you can ask him about me when ye see him' and then, right, I get the chain from his eagle necklace thing..."
The man paused briefly to laugh at his own wit, and so never completed his story. The explosion of a bolt shell on the back of the man standing opposite him buried him underneath the body of his audience, so he was unable to see Sisters Portia and Sonia calmly picking off their targets from the far end of the corridor. He struggled from underneath the corpse pinning him to the ground, and reached for the pistol he had dropped in shock a moment ago. As his hand closed around its grip two bolt shells, one each from Zoey and Anastasia, removed his head.
As Portia and Sonia removed the weapons from the bodies of the dead, Zoey hooked her auspex to the blast doors at the end of the corridor. After a moment they opened to reveal a brightly-lit chamber, all its surfaces gleaming white. Zoey transferred the auspex to the inner control panel and closed the blast doors once her companions had entered. Portia looked over the display that was mirroring its twin on the bridge a dozen levels above.
"The pilot servitors have had their command blocks released, Sister Superior," she reported, "someone's manually steering them. They've laid in a course for the habitable planet in this system. Atmospheric entry in two minutes."
"Fabrication systems are being brought online," said Zoey after a moment, "I'd guess they're going to convert raw materials for fuel once they land." Her auspex, still linked to the blast doors, beeped quietly. "Someone's trying to open the door," she said. From outside came a muffled noise, then a thump as a shell hit the heavy door.
"Can they get through?" asked Portia. Anastasia shook her head.
"Nothing they could have taken from the guards is powerful enough. But now they know we're here," a low tone indicated the activation of an address system, "I'm expecting a call," Anastasia finished, looking up as a crackle of static emerged from a speaker.
"Auxcon," said a deep voice, "what the hell's going on down there?"
"Identify yourself," said Anastasia. There was a moment of silence from the other end.
"The name's Syriss," said the voice eventually, "and, correct me if I'm wrong, I don't recall there ever being female guards on a prison ship. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?"
"Anastasia, Sister Superior of the Amazon Order. You have one minute to turn command of this ship over to auxiliary control and evacuate the bridge." There was a laugh from the speaker.
"Excuse me," said the voice, "I'm somewhat deficient in the humour stakes. Was that a joke?"
"No," answered Anastasia, "that was a last chance. We can do this your way if you like, but I'd honestly prefer to just put you back in your cell in one piece."
"Well that's very gracious of you milady, but I'm afraid I must decline. And unfortunately, given the nature of my crew, I am unable to make a similar offer to you. When it comes to their baser instincts, my hands are tied. Metaphorically," he added with a chuckle. The speaker went dead.
"What will he do?" asked Sonia. Anastasia shrugged.
"Probably keep us in here until we land, then cut into auxcon from above or below. The decks aren't so heavily armoured as the blast doors. Do we know who this Syriss is?" she added, to Zoey.
"Found him," answered the Sister, consulting the auspex again, "Hieronimous Syriss, known as the Executioner. A pirate lord from the core systems. Raided several dozen worlds, destroyed over fifty Imperial ships in hit-and-run encounters. He... Emperor's name," she said under her breath, reading forward in the file.
"What is it?" asked Sonia.
"Six years ago he stole Exterminatus warheads from an Imperial cruiser, and tried to hold the governor of Pacifica Prime to ransom. He demanded the governor turn over the entire planetary defence fleet, plus unarmed transports containing one hundred thousand able-bodied workers as slaves. When the governor refused he released the Exterminatus virus. Destruction was total, the casualties were estimated at seven billion."
"Makes sense he'd end up in charge here," said Anastasia grimly. "I didn't realise it was the same man. I remember hearing about Pacifica. There were rumours he only used one of the warheads, and hid the other five before he was caught. They were never found."
"We're entering the atmosphere," said Portia, glancing at the mirror of the helm station, "landing in three minutes."
"Over my dead body," said Anastasia, "what was the docking vector for the Centaur?"
"Zero-nine-zero to Charon's prow," answered Portia.
"Straight across the line of flight," said Anastasia to herself. She turned to her Sisters. "Zoey, link to the control deck on Centaur. Sonia, once that's done I want you to put all available power onto the magnetic clamps. I want that ship stuck on like a limpet."
"Yes Sister Superior," said Sonia.
"Then what?" asked Portia.
"Then," answered Anastasia, "I want you to wait until we're committed to the landing path, and bring the engines on Centaur to full forward thrust. Ion drive, reaction thrusters, everything you've got. And then," she finished, "we fight our way back to our ship, before this one crashes into the planet."
The Charon's engines roared as sound returned in the upper levels of the planet's atmosphere. Syriss watched from the bridge as the remnants of the ship's fiery descent vanished from the heat shields, revealing a barren world below. Inhospitable grey mountains rose from the sea, which was an uninviting shade of blue-grey. Beyond the mountains was a great flat rock plain, a perfect landing surface for the giant cruiser.
"You," he said, pointing to one of the prisoners who was barking instructions to the servitors controlling the ship, "you know comms systems, correct?" The man nodded. "Find someone else to take over here, then get down to the antenna relays. I want this ship's long-range transmitter active in one hour. There are some people I need to contact. Do it," he finished. The man nodded again and left the servitors to their tasks, disappearing from the bridge by way of the deep pit in its centre that connected it to all major systems. He had just begun to get into a rhythm climbing down the ladder when the ship lurched to starboard. His hand slipped from the ladder as he was pulled away from the wall, then he was slammed back as the ship's gravity net compensated for the unexpected force. His head struck the ladder hard, and his flailing hand missed its hold as his other loosened its grip. Missing one last grab at the wall, he fell away and down into the pit.
Pushed off course by the thrust from Centaur's engines, the Charon began an axial roll, its nose veering slowly sideways, away from its direction of travel. The ship's reaction thrusters fired to stabilise its descent, but found themselves overpowered, succeeding only in slowing the roll slightly. As the ship spun slowly sideways, its structural fields began to feel the strain of the improper descent, causing the entire mile-long hull to creak ominously as it felt the force of the air hammering against its side.
At the very moment the Centaur's engines had fired, the blast door to auxcon had hissed open to allow a shower of bolt shells to pass. The convicts, caught off balance and off guard, ducked behind what little cover was offered by the corridor's structural support. Anastasia threw an ammo belt, taken from one of the room's previous guards, out into the corridor. It detonated as it landed, half of the shells exploding, the other half igniting to rush in all directions, ricocheting around the corridor until their inbuilt triggers activated and set off the explosive charges. Caught between the steady fire from the auxcon chamber and the random destruction wrought by the improvised scatter bomb, the convicts fell quickly.
Portia and Zoey spun around the end of the corridor, back-to-back. One prisoner, hurrying towards the noise of the firing but not looking where he was going, was blasted from his feet. Anastasia quickly followed, Sonia taking up the rear, one hand holding a bolt pistol, a hand flamer in the other.
By the time the small group had reached the lower decks of the engineering section the entire ship was shaking from the pressures against it. The roar of the engines drowned out all other sound, and Anastasia and her Sisters had had to engage their helmets just to hear each other speak. Several metres from the charred hole leading to their corvette, the Sisters were thrown from their feet as a wave of energy rocketed down the corridor. Anastasia looked up, seeing the wave pass through section after section of corridor behind them, and then realised that she was lying on the wall. She felt the surface beneath her shifting slowly, as if the corridor was rolling beneath her.
"Internal gravity's gone," she called, still having to fight the din of the cruiser's engines, "switch to magnetics." The Sisters engaged the magnetic locks on their armour and carefully regained their footing, as the roof of the corridor slowly became the floor. As Portia stood below the hole now leading up to the corvette, a rumble echoed from the recesses of the forward hull, followed by a series of distant explosions.
"Go!" shouted Anastasia, pushing Sonia towards the hole and following her. Portia released her magnetics and swung herself up through the upturned floor, catching hold of the rails inside the Centaur's dorsal airlock. She reached down to Zoey's hand and pulled her up too, then a blast caused the entire corridor to lurch sideways. Sonia jumped for the airlock and caught Zoey's hand just as a line of daylight shone through from outside, and the clamps holding the airlock to the cruiser's hull began to weaken.
Anastasia gripped the rim of the hole and pulled herself upwards, emerging into the daylight. Between the hulls of the cruiser and her corvette she could see the magnetic clamps, fighting the growing forces pulling the ships apart. Beyond, past hundreds of metres of tortured hull, the blue-grey ocean loomed ever closer. The Sister Superior felt a hand around her arm, and looked up to see Portia reaching down to her. She gripped the Sister's armoured wrist just as a terrible crash echoed from inside the cruiser, the sound of metal tearing under massive stress. The hull of the Charon dropped sharply down, almost pulling Anastasia with it, and she found herself hanging by one arm in open space. With one last effort she managed to reach the airlock rim with her other hand, and Portia helped her inside. The Centaur lifted its nose and sped away from the doomed ship below.
Below, the Charon began to break up. The tearing which had begun in the massive engines spread across the hull, opening the cavernous transport bays. The prow of the ship twisted under the force of the air it was ploughing through, metre-thick metal bending like melted plastic. The air wave of the wreck's passage tore up a wall of water from the sea, its beginning edging ever closer to the torn prow as the ship dropped. With an horrendous crash the ship finally touched the surface, and a mile of metal suddenly found itself trying to move through water. The prow slowed first, and was annihilated as the sections behind it crashed forward, reducing the ship to a tangled mass of metal. The hulk threw up a bow wave a hundred metres high, the water crashing back into the path cleared as it passed, rushing into the darkened engines as the wreck slowed. Finally the hull fell far enough for the surface of the ocean to rush over its top, and the ship began its slow journey to the seabed, its final resting place marked by a short-lived whirlpool as it sucked tonnes of water down with it.
As the waves died to ripples, the ocean returned to normal. For some time it remained that way, concealing all trace of the sunken cruiser, then a beam of light stabbed down from the heavens, flashing a column of water into steam as it struck the surface. For the briefest moment, at the bottom of the vaporised column, the hull of the Charon was visible once more, a mile beneath the waves. Then the reactor detonated, throwing up a massive dome of water as its shockwave reduced the wreck to dust. As the ocean calmed its waves again, the Centaur pulled out of orbit. Anastasia watched the world grow small until it was just another point of light in the darkness, then set about making her report to Alliance Command.