In the year 40,943 the Furies rebelled against unjust Imperial Law and dedicated their chapter to the protection of humanity from all its enemies, whether they be from the Eye of Terror or the Imperial Palace.
This is the year 40,940, three years before the rebellion...
"The Imperium extends its thanks to Sanctioned Trader 205097, master of the corvette Huntress, for the provision of weapons and supplies to the besieged garrison of Thadran Secundus. Confirmation has been received from Terra for your exemption from heresy quarantine procedures. You have one hour to break orbit and set a course to leave the Thadran system. May the Emperor watch you."
The comm line from the Strike Cruiser Holy Scythe fell silent. From the observation deck of the Huntress the cruiser was a distant star, glittering in high orbit above the devastated world below. Its cathedral hull shimmered in reflected starlight, casting a faint light over the single figure who stood on the Huntress, watching it turn slowly. Tiny flashes lit the hull of the cruiser, streaking away from it and down to the planet. After a moment the surface of the world, once a dusty red, began to stain as the warheads exploded in the low atmosphere. The watcher turned to see the world die, and could not hold back her tears.
In orbit of another world, far away, a glimmer in space stretched to form a portal, from which flew a bulky freighter. Its hull, scarred by decades of space travel, bore the name Scorpion. The master of the Scorpion, Gage Tradell, knew immediately that he had made a mistake. He had ordered his ship back to realspace to avoid a warp storm, but as a dozen looming hulks turned from their orbit and moved towards him, he concluded that the storm would have been a safer option.
The Ork ships closed in, blazing away as soon as their gunners considered the lone Imperial freighter to be in range. Most of the shots missed wildly, but sheer volume of firepower overcame the lack of ability, and the Scorpion's shields buckled. As the lead ship fired its engines again, drawing ahead of its smaller companions, it activated a massive energy weapon built into its forward hull, tearing through the freighter's shields and smashing the bridge to dust. The explosion threw the Scorpion down towards the planet, its engines still burning.
Uznar looked up from his self-appointed task of inspecting the weapons being built for his Boss, peering through the oppressive heat. A bright light shone from the horizon, where the Boss had made his camp. As sound caught up with light the noise of the freighter's impact rolled over Uznar, and he raised a hand to shield his eyes. Where the Boss's camp had been there was only fire. Uznar turned from the crash and looked out over the miles of plains spread out before him, where millions of Orks were looking towards the fire.
A snivelling grot picked itself up from the ground, abandoning the table under which it had briefly flung itself. It retrieved Uznar's skull-adorned banner and contrived to look as if it had not dropped the banner at all, stealthily approaching its master as he stared down at the rambling greenskin tent city. Uznar turned, hearing the noise of the grot tripping over the end of its tattered robe.
"You see that?" he said, his voice rumbling from the back of his throat. The grot nodded hastily, although it had in fact been looking in the wrong direction when the freighter crashed, and had been oblivious to it until the sound of the impact arrived.
"Boss Burna gone?" it stuttered nervously. Not even the Burner could have survived that.
"Burner's gone," repeated Uznar. "That's how Gork says he don't like Burner. I reckon Gork wants to see us spill some red blood. Gork don't want a Boss that don't spill red blood for him."
"Who's boss now?" asked the grot, slow on the uptake. Uznar looked at the stunted creature, and tightened his grip on the choppa in his huge hand.
"Me," he said simply.
"You gunna spill red blood?" asked the grot, trying to hide behind the banner from the look in its master's eyes.
"Yeah," said Uznar, "I'm gunna spill red blood."
Callee Warfield watched via a video monitor as her ship, the Sappho, disengaged from the airlock module of the Imperial frigate Titan's Sabre. The image of the receding frigate was replaced by that of its captain, seated on the warship's spartan bridge.
"Disengage complete," he said tersely, "you are clear to proceed."
"You're welcome, Captain Wehls," answered Callee, turning her attention away from the screen before the captain had finished talking. "You'd think," she continued after Wehls had cut the comm line, "they'd be grateful for the help. What are we, two weeks from the nearest Imperial supply base?"
"Three," answered the grim-faced navigator whose organic-looking console occupied one wall of the Sappho's bridge.
"A long time to wait for a simple coolant valve. Ah well. Set course for the Scion system, jump to warp as soon as you're ready."
Captain Wehls watched as the transport, tiny compared to the Titan's Sabre, jumped out of realspace. Around him the sounds of his ship, recently restored to full power, occupied the bridge.
"You're welcome Captain Wehls," he repeated, his voice sharp. His executive officer, Vela, appeared at his side.
"Their presence here was convenient, sir," the XO commented, "we'd have been waiting for a replacement for some time." Wehls dismissed the notion with a wave.
"We're an Imperial warship, we have nothing to be grateful for. They did their duty, and they should be glad of our presence in return. Just as well she sent her security officer instead of coming on board in person. At least he was a man I could talk with." The emphasis on the officer's gender was not lost on Vela, who privately thought that his captain was a pompous fool. He may have performed well in the pirate wars - he had the medals to prove it - but his capacity for dealing with anyone but enemies seemed limited to barking orders and muttering criticisms.
"We are ready to proceed to Monarch Prime," he said, jolting Wehls out of his internal monologue on the problems with civilian captains.
"Fine, fine," he snapped, "best speed. I'll be in my cabin," he added, standing from his chair, "notify me when we reach the system perimeter. Have your report ready by then." The XO nodded and sat down as Wehls departed the bridge. He looked around the bridge out of habit. The other officers were keeping to their stations, and the servitors were, for once, doing their jobs without fault.
"Tactical," he called, "bring up a briefing on the Monarch system. Any hostile forces in the area?"
"No sir," the tactical officer answered, after pressing a rune on his console to access the required data, "no pirates, no Eldar. Greenskin colony in the Triton system, five light years away, but sector security says it's stable and immobile." Vela nodded and sat back in the frigate's command chair.
"Give me a hard copy of that report," he said, "plus status of tactical systems."
"Long range sensors need maintenance, sir," offered the tactical officer.
"Very well," answered the XO, "have the priest shut them down and get the servitors working." He glanced up at the motionless starscape before him. "We shouldn't need them for a while."
The Sappho fired braking thrusters to take up an orbit around a large asteroid, one of thousands in the Scion system's sprawling debris fields. Some cosmic catastrophe hundreds of millennia ago had shattered the inner planets, leaving the star with a wide halo of rock. The one below Sappho seemed unremarkable, until a section of its surface shimmered and vanished, revealing a dark silver shape built into the rock.
Callee watched the telemetry readings from her bridge as the camouflage field powered down, then looked up at the base itself. It was now nearing two millennia since it had been built, but automatic systems had kept it in good shape, better than many Imperial facilities half its age. Jutting through the surface of the asteroid, the top of the cavernous storage bay shone in the starlight, its flat roof catching the light for a moment and illuminating its visitor in the reflection as the rock slowly turned in its endless orbit. Callee noticed a shape already nestled beside the base's docking arm, and recognised the corvette Huntress. She smiled and nodded to the navigator, who began to steer the transport down to join the corvette.
In orbit of Monarch Prime was a single satellite, unimaginatively named 'the moon' by the people whose sky it inhabited. When the system had been settled, more than ten thousand years ago, one of the first occupations the settlers had put themselves to was stripping the moon of all its valuable minerals. The old mining station was still there, but it had not been powered up in seven millennia, since the moon had given up its last resources and become nothing but a large rock. In the darkened control room of the mining station, starlight filtered through the grimy windows, casting a cold silver glow onto the abandoned workstations. One by one the windows fell dark, plunging the room into darkness.
A shadow was moving across the surface of the satellite, steadily obliterating the barren landscape under an artificial night. The crater than had served as a launch site, its base fused to black glass by the power of the engines that had blasted into it, disappeared in an instant. The shadows quickly fell down the sides of the ancient strip-mine pits, miles deep, and then began the climb up the other side. The long-disused solar arrays fell to darkness, followed by the living quarters and the refinery complex. The leading edge of the shadow vanished over the moon's horizon, taking the last trace of natural light with it. Beyond the darkened horizon, Monarch Prime spun lazily, unaware of danger.
Callee found her sister on top of an inactive repair drone in the base's hangar, eyes closed, breathing slow.
"What're you supposed to be, the Emperor awaiting resurrection?" Stephanie, who had heard the hangar door open, looked up.
"Good to see you too. Where've you been?"
"We were delayed a bit, shipping serum into Gakhor."
"Anything serious?" Stephanie dropped to the hangar deck, stretching her legs.
"MACS outbreak," answered Callee, "but they've got it under control. Had to help an Imperial frigate on the way here, they blew out a coolant line in their reactor. Did you find the Plaguemaster?"
"Yes," said Stephanie, her face falling slightly, "yes, he was with the warband on Thadran. One less chaos lord to worry about." Her eyes distant, she looked out of the hangar, past the steelglass screen that separated it from open space.
"But," prompted Callee. She knew her sister's moods, and could see something was troubling her.
"We fought for weeks," she answered, "all along the city perimeter. Wave after wave of renegades, and only a handful of soldiers manning the walls against them. Even with all the weapons I could get, it wasn't enough to arm everyone. Some of them fought with clubs, axes, bare hands sometimes. Against giant, armoured chaos marines. They fought them, and threw them back again and again. Most of the city was in ruins, what was still standing caught fire from the incendiary shells they launched at us. But they never gave up. They had this statue of the Emperor, a great armoured angel, and they rallied around it when the perimeter fell. Just normal people, people who'd never been in a war before then. Half of them hadn't even seen a lasgun up close until the siege began, and yet they stood there, with their last powerpacks in their guns, when the walls came down and the terminators charged them. And none of them ran, not even when they saw what they were up against. They'd lost everything but that statue of the Emperor, and they fought for it, every last one."
"Then," continued Stephanie, "the Minotaurs arrived, and the warband fell apart. The siege ended, they started rebuilding their city. And then the marines left, and bombed the planet out of existence."
"I'm sorry," said Callee softly, aware that the words weren't enough, but nothing else would be either, "there wasn't anything you could have done." Stephanie nodded vaguely, tightening her grip on the hand that was offered to her.
"But what's the point," she said, more to herself. "I mean, we try so hard to hold everything together, to undo the damage that the Warmaster did, but what can I do against that? What difference would it have made, if I'd just killed the Plaguemaster and left Thadran? They all would have died, just the same."
"They would have died without hope," suggested Callee.
"But they died anyway. They fought on, in front of their Emperor, and he repaid them by killing them all. And I couldn't stop it. What's the point, if I can't stop this from happening? It'll just keep on happening, world after world. They fought chaos with everything they had, and it got them nothing."
In orbit of Monarch Prime, an antiquated surveillance satellite turned its radio dish slowly around, searching the stars. Generations of use had taken their toll on the machine, and the signs of micro-meteorite impact were written across its bare metal casing. It was one of seven such devices watching the space surrounding the planet, and only three of these were working. For now, defying age and lack of repairs, the dish turned.
And stopped. Inside the satellite's casing an ancient switch triggered a sleeper system. Power flowed from the small atomic battery into a logic cell. Instructions from the centuries-old data quickly rewrote the radio signal, changing it from a simple on/off detector into an identification system. The new radio wave flew from the dish towards the object it had found, and after a brief light-speed trip returned. The logic cell received the return signal and subjected it to analysis, comparing it to recorded baselines for meteors, friendly vessels and other satellites. Then, for the first time in well over a hundred years, the tiny transmitter on the bottom of the satellite, directed towards the planet, activated and began to send a signal.
A moment later a blast shattered the tiny machine, sending its fragments into the atmosphere to burn.
"She takes it all so personally," said Callee. Her navigator nodded, watching from the base's observation dome as Stephanie guided a massive repair droid to the starboard ion drive of the Huntress. The machine reached its position and latched on with magnetic clamps, immediately beginning the complex task of safely removing the drive core for maintenance.
"It's like those old Terran legends," Callee continued, "of a god who carries the world on his shoulders. Gods are strong, but the world is enough to tire him. But he has to keep it up there, otherwise it's the end of everything. She's like that. She knows she can't be everywhere and protect everyone, but it still hurts her when she has to choose who to save. It's not something people should have to deal with, the weight of making that choice. Having to let people die, because there are more people somewhere else, and you can't help both of them. Can't be in two places at once."
"It's just numbers, surely?" asked the navigator. Callee shrugged.
"That's one way of looking at it. I don't think she can do that, though. No matter how the numbers add up, she always thinks in terms of people, one at a time. Every life is worth protecting. One life alone just as much as one among a hundred, because who knows what that life might become? You still end up with numbers, but it doesn't make it any easier."
"You seem to manage," offered the navigator.
"I do my best," said Callee with a half-smile, "but she's something different. There's something very deep about her, something I've never quite understood. She really believes in life. It hurts her, but then again it gives her such strength."
"Sounds like she needs a holiday," said the navigator.
"Nice thought," answered Callee, "but it's not possible. There's just so much to do. Always so much to do," she repeated to herself.
"What is it now? If this is the governor again, tell him I'm busy." The prefect of Jegamar Province on Monarch Prime spun his chair around to face the nervous adept who had entered his office. The governor's demands for more agricultural production were reaching the point where the normally placid public servant was ready to bite his head off.
"No sir," said the adept, "it's the satellites."
"The what?" The prefect tried to remember something in the last few days involving satellites. As far as he was aware his office had nothing much to do with them.
"The satellite system sir, Red Ultimate? We're getting a signal from the automatic system. Should I summon a tech-priest, sir?"
"Red Ultimate, what the blazes is... the security grid?" Fragments of memory surfaced in the prefect's mind. He hadn't heard of the system since his training as a government officer, but the name always had seemed catchy. "Oh no, don't tell me another one's gone down. I don't want to have to tell the governor we haven't met his quota on top of asking for a repair crew to go into orbit, you know what he's like with space launches."
"Um, no sir," said the adept, "the building relay received a signal from one of the remaining satellites. It's a code four-two-nine, sir." The number meant nothing to the adept, and the prefect struggled to remember its meaning. Let's see, he though in the privacy of his head, four means inbound, two is unidentified, what's nine? Third digit, power readings, of course. One no power, two light power, three medium power, four warship comparable... nine.
"Get the priest here now," said the prefect, the day's heat disappearing as a chill ran down his spine, "and fire up the backup sensors on the planetary comms satellites." The adept nodded, and began to press runes on the office's data terminal.
"The priest is on his way, sir," he answered after a moment, "I'm sending the activation codes now for the backup system." An old but well-cared-for holographic screen hummed into life at the end of the prefect's desk, and after a moment darkened to show a starfield. Tiny green numbers indicated the direction being shown, in total the image showed one entire hemisphere of space around the planet.
"Well," said the prefect testily, "where is it?"
"Signal coming in now, sir," mumbled the adept, trying not to get any of the runes wrong. A single red dot appeared on the starfield, indicating the position of an incoming ship.
"Somewhere over Drelma Province," said the prefect to himself, "better notify the prefect. Who is it, still old Voss? Get a comm line..." He stopped in mid-sentence as another red dot appeared on the starfield, above and to the left of the first. Then, far off to the right, a third. A fourth, a fifth. The prefect leaned back in his chair, mouth open, as the red markers began to outnumber the stars.
"Jump drive at full power, sir," reported the tactical officer of the Titan's Sabre, "realspace in five seconds."
"Notify the captain," answered Vela, without looking up from the report he was busy writing. He heard the familiar whine of the jump drive in action, then felt the sensation that the XO had come to associate with warp portals, a slight feeling of claustrophobia, as though reality shrunk for a split second, pressing inwards on the skin. It passed as the ship dropped out of the warp, as always. Vela's fellow officers, those he had described the feeling to, stared at him blankly, and gave no indication they knew what he was talking about. Except the navigator - the one time he had been present when Vela spoke of the feeling, he had nodded slightly, then shrugged and gone about his business. The ship's apothecary assured Vela that the symptom was psychosomatic, nothing more than a trick of the mind.
What was very real indeed was the thud that echoed through the hull as soon as the ship had left its portal. Vela looked automatically to the junior officer manning the damage control station, wondering if the replacement coolant valve had failed. The officer, who should have been attending to his station, was instead staring ahead at the main viewscreen, eyes wide. A few months ago Vela would have immediately launched into a reprimand, but he had been with the ship at least long enough to develop something of an instinct for how its crew worked. He too turned, looking through the main viewscreen into the open maw of an Ork battlecruiser that was accelerating towards them.
The Ork ship fired again, its gunners improving their aim from their initial salvo. The frigate's shields flared, weakened for a moment, then steadied as the barrage of crude explosive warheads drew to a close. In the brief moment the Orks took to reload their cannons the frigate spun on its axis and leapt straight up, leaving the battlecruiser facing a scout cruiser that had been approaching from the rear. The battlecruiser paid it no attention, forcing the scout to break off as its massive counterpart spun slowly on the spot, engines fighting the momentum it had already built up. Still drifting sideways slightly, the battlecruiser unleashed another round of warheads at the retreating frigate and sent another blast of power through its own engines, ready for the chase.
The transport Sappho had backed into the base's hangar bay, so that the engines could be examined in the comfort of a pressurised environment. Currently the four main ion drivers were in various states of disassembly, surrounded by maintenance droids and analysis equipment. In the middle of the technological mess, doing something complicated to the driver field accelerators, was a young woman, looking slightly out of place among the machines, but seeming completely at ease. In one hand she held a remote control unit for one of the droids, her other hand was empty, and moving in an unconscious mirror of the droid's movements.
Stephanie was watching from the hangar's control deck, her eyes following the engineer. She didn't hear the door open behind her - or rather, she heard it but didn't think to react until Callee appeared beside her. Stephanie remembered hearing her sister say something.
"What was that?"
"I said, we're about ready to set out for the Arc sectors." Callee glanced down at the tiny figure moving through the engine components on the hangar floor.
"Your engine's in pieces," pointed out Stephanie.
"Half an hour," predicted Callee, "it'll be back together. Probably faster too."
"Who is she?" asked Stephanie. As she watched, the woman looked over her shoulder at one of the inactive droids, and waved the control at it for a moment. The machine began to reassemble one of the ion drivers with surprising speed.
"She's the daughter of an engineer I used to know, from the Selene colony. She's the best I've seen, knows how machines work just by looking at them. I should get on board, the engines will be ready before I'm on the bridge at this rate. Take care of yourself, alright? We'll be out there for a while, it may be a couple of years before we come back to the core systems. Don't lose hope. Everything's possible."
"Everything's possible," repeated Stephanie, "Interesting way of putting it. I haven't heard you use that one before."
"It's one of hers," answered Callee, indicating with a tilt of her head the engineer down on the hangar floor. "I'll see you soon." The sisters hugged, then reluctantly parted. Callee left the hangar control deck, as two more droids lifted one of the dual-driver engine modules into place. Stephanie continued to watch as the young engineer guided the droids through the reassembly of the remaining drivers.
"Silent running," said the tactical officer. Vela noticed that the 'sir' was missing, but this was not the time for formalities. The crew, those that still lived, were focused far more on staying alive than protocol. Vela saw their point, of course.
Titan's Sabre drifted through space, almost half an orbit away from Monarch Prime. With all systems shut down, barring minimum life-support, they were invisible to the crude sensors on the Ork warships. Two of the bridge officers had been killed in the frantic chase, before the frigate had managed to put enough distance between herself and the pursuing battlecruiser to shut down and vanish. Those officers that remained, along with every other crewman who could be spared from other duties, were studying the raw data from the passive sensors. Without the aid of the power-hungry Inorganic Cogitator, the data was a jumbled mess, normally clear readings being distorted by gravitic waves, micro-debris, solar radiation, warp flux and a dozen other trivial problems that the IC would have screened out. Luckily the greenskin ships had no concept of sensor dampening, and their excessive, unshielded reactors were visible even through the jumble of background interference.
"The lead ship has broken off its search sir," said one of the officers watching the sensors, "heading towards the planet. Still somewhere in the region of two dozen small ships out there though."
"If the leader is on his way to the planet, perhaps they're still offering some resistance. Any readings from the planet?" Vela asked the bridge in general, not knowing which of the unfamiliar faces was looking at the relevant data.
"Sorry sir," said a junior officer, whose collar showed him to be normally assigned to engineering, "not at this range. The distance, plus all this interference..."
"Understood," said Vela. He found himself wishing Wehls were in charge, a situation he would have thought impossible a day earlier. The captain had been killed on his way to the bridge, when a corridor collapsed after a glancing blow from an Ork energy beam. He may have lacked style, Vela thought, but he knew what he was doing in a war. And that's where we are now.
"Helm," he said, reaching a decision, "lay in a course for Monarch Prime. Use reaction thrusters only, gradual acceleration."
"Aye sir," answered the helm officer.
"Have engineering ready to feed minimum power to the ion drive," Vela continued as the frigate slowly steered towards the distant planet, "if we show no vessels within close range we might risk a five second burn and then shut down again once we're moving properly."
"Sir," began the tactical officer, "there is a chance the Orks will see us, even on long range."
"If they do," answered Vela, "we'll make a run for it. I don't intend to spend the rest of my life drifting around this system with the reactor shut down." He thought for a moment, then continued. "Have someone fit a torpedo with a transmitter, and download ship's log and current status into it. Set it to transmit on a secure Imperial frequency, and install sensor shielding in the torpedo hull. We have to get word out somehow, and we can't risk sending out anything ourselves. They might miss something as small as a torpedo for long enough for the signal to get out."
"Aye sir," said the tactical officer, turning to his new task as the ship began its slow, silent journey.
Some time after Callee's transport had left the base, the Huntress pulled away from the docking arm and powered up her main drives. Stephanie watched as the base disappeared beneath its camouflage field, checked sensor readings out of habit, and then traced a pattern on her control panel.
"New course," said the ship's flat synthesised voice.
"Prepare a flight plan for the Core-1 sector," said Stephanie. Lights blinked for a moment on her panel.
"Flight plan complete," answered the machine, "travel time to sector Core-1 calculated. State destination within sector." Stephanie hesitated for a moment, lost in thought.
"Terra," she said eventually.
"Warp geometry complete. First jump coordinates ready for transit to waypoint one, Monarch system."
"Activate," said Stephanie, settling back into her seat to prepare for the task ahead. The Huntress' automatic systems powered up the jump drive, and the ship vanished from normal space on the first stage of its journey to the homeworld of the human race.
"Steady men! First rank take aim! Fire!"
A hail of shots crashed from the barricade, bolter shells, lasblasts, autoweapon bullets. Several of the charging Orks fell, but the mob still bore down on the barricade, firing wildly and screaming threats and taunts.
"Second rank take aim! Fire!"
Another volley of shots hit the Orks, and this time the charge faltered as almost a dozen fell. Warboars slowed as their riders fell from their backs, and in the midst of the mob a bike slewed sideways and dug its front wheel into the ground, flipping over and reducing its driver to a broken pulp.
The defenders began to fire at any targets that presented themselves, and the Orks fell back among the hail of projectiles whizzing around them. A handful of shells slammed into the barricade, but they were nothing but parting shots. The last of the greenskins disappeared into the morning mist, leaving the battlefield empty save for a single boar pawing at the corpse of its rider.
Sister Amelie watched the empty battlefield for a moment, unlocking the clip from her boltgun. Six shells left, and barely a dozen more clips between the five bolters among the defenders. Without the explosive power of the bolters, the lasguns alone would not stop the greenskins before they reached the wall. And once they were inside the camp it would be over. The Emperor's finest trained for years to stand a chance against the brutal Ork warriors in hand to hand combat. It did not take much effort to imagine the fate of the tired, hungry people slumped against the wall, or the others in the battered shelter around which the barricades had been hastily built, those too young to use a rifle, the injured from the past days, the dying. But, to be honest, it was not the bolter shells that stopped the Orks from taking the tiny camp. One good charge would overrun the barricade in an instant, they just didn't seem to think it was important enough to bother. So they launched occasional half-hearted attacks, and the defenders grew ever more weary, the supply of ammunition ran lower, and the small stockpile of food and water vanished day by day.
Amelie had always considered her faith sufficient for whatever the galaxy threw at her, but six days of constant, savage warfare had strained her. Now, silently, she prayed to the Emperor, that he would send help. Without a miracle, everyone around her might as well be dead already.
"Incoming transmission, broad band, secure frequency." Stephanie looked up from the thousand-year-old security file she had been reading. One of the smaller screens was showing the Imperial eagle, outlined in red: emergency.
"Decode and play message," she ordered. The machine blinked a few lights, then a crackle of static emerged from the speaker in place of the usual expressionless voice. The noise was replaced by a human voice, although the encoder strings slowly scrolling up the screen showed it to be a recording.
"This is the master of the Imperial frigate Titan's Sabre. We are under attack in the Monarch system. Scans show at least a hundred Ork vessels within an orbit of Monarch Prime, and we have reason to believe the planet is under siege. Our warp drive is inactive, we are proceeding to orbit of Monarch Prime at best possible speed. We request immediate assistance from any Imperial military forces. This is the master of the Imperial frigate..." Stephanie deactivated the recording as it began to repeat, and looked up at the navigation chart being displayed on the main screen, in place of the swirling currents of the warp.
"Increase speed to maximum," she ordered, "and prepare to execute a rapid realspace jump and raise shields. Weapons and damage control to full readiness." The background hum of the ship increased in volume as it picked up speed, leaving a wake in the clouds of warp energy.
Uznar grinned as another troop ship landed. A human pilot would have called it a crash - certainly the ship would never fly again - but it was intact and its cargo of heavily-armed boyz spilled out, hurrying to join the gigantic melee that was steadily sweeping over the shield wall around Monarch Capital. Already sections of the city were open to the horde, and even a few tanks now rumbled back through the streets, their Imperial heraldry covered by hastily-painted glyphs, their guns belching explosive fire at anything that looked inviting. Sooner or later, Uznar thought, he would have to rein in the boyz. They couldn't afford to waste time here. Kill them all, then move on to the next world. The plan had a pleasing simplicity, and Uznar found himself quite cheerful by Ork standards. The only cloud on his personal horizon was the loss of his banner, which had vanished along with the grot carrying it when the humans mounted a brief counter-attack. More than likely both banner and grot had been reduced to ashes but, Uznar thought, he had plenty of new skulls now, so the loss didn't bother him much.
He glanced away from the city, looking out towards the tiny column of smoke rising from beyond the hills to the north. No doubt some of his boyz had found a settlement of some sort. Uznar wondered if he should send anyone to see what was happening, but dismissed the idea. The humans weren't good enough to pose a problem, and it made no difference if they held onto some miserable stockade for one day longer.
The Titan's Sabre flew silently towards Monarch Prime, as fast as Vela dared push the engines while still not alerting the greenskins to their presence. He was dismayed to hear of the mass of vessels in orbit, something he had only ever seen in simulations before. The Orks, according to Imperial tactical doctrine, often welded their fleets together into a single hulk, breaking up into a fleet again when their target was in sight. The remains of such a hulk were typical of greenskins, each ship a misshapen lump of armoured steel, bristling with weaponry. Vela was oddly glad that he could not see them, but the sheer density of ships was worrying.
"Emperor's light," he said under his breath, "they'll see us on visual at this rate." He raised his voice, turning to the tactical officer.
"Any sign of resistance from the planet?" he asked. "Defence satellites? Troops on the surface?"
"Negative," said the officer, "no satellites, sir. Surface readings are unclear, but there are numerous greenskin ships dropping out of orbit. Probably troop carriers."
"Perhaps someone's still down there," Vela mused. "Alright," he continued, addressing the helm officer, "bring us into a stable orbit. Thrusters only. Engineering, I want minimum power only, and all dampers online, we can't risk being seen..."
"Sir," called one of the sensor operators, "we have an energy signature closing from our port quarter."
"Run silent," ordered Vela, "keep calm. The odds are good they haven't spotted us on sensors."
"More incoming ships, sir," called one of the junior officers, his voice trembling slightly, "I think they've seen us." On the tail of his words the ship was shaken, the deck pitching beneath the feet of the bridge crew like an old sea-going vessel.
"They've fired on us," called the tactical officer, "full spread!"
"Power up," called Vela, "shields to maximum, bring the main weapons batteries online and target the nearest hostile." The bridge hummed as power once again flowed through its systems, and the main viewscreen flickered back into life. On the screen, less than a hundred miles away, a flight of heavy gunships was bearing down on the damaged frigate, forward guns blazing.
"Jump drive at full power," reported the ship's voice, "ready to initiate rapid jump. Shield projectors on standby, all relays active." Stephanie took hold of the manual flight and weapon controls, bracing herself.
"Initiate jump," she said. On the screen, the warp ahead twisted out of shape, and a hole into space opened. In an instant the corvette was through, her shields flickering into place as the warp energy was left behind. Monarch Prime lay ahead, peaceful enough at this distance. A flash caught Stephanie's eye, and she flipped a visual control. Part of the screen dissolved into digital information for a second, then reformed to show a frigate, surrounded by Ork vessels, fire trailing from its lower decks as it skimmed along the top of the atmosphere. The pursuing Orks weaved around it, their shields flaring as they turned into the atmosphere to get below it, only to turn back and fire again into the damaged underside of the frigate.
The Huntress dipped down towards the firefight, taking the time to place the first shot perfectly while the greenskins' attention was elsewhere. A lance tore through the engine block of one of the gunships, sending it tumbling down to a fiery death as its uncontrolled descent built up enough heat to vaporise it. The other ships broke off their pursuit for a moment, one pair nearly colliding with each other. A second blast from the corvette's lance struck another gunship, knocking it off-course as it fired its forward weapons. The frigate fired on the struggling vessel, but with most of its weapon batteries damaged or destroyed it only succeeded in tearing holes in the hull.
"Incoming vessels," said the ship's voice calmly, "bearing one eight five mark one five."
"Split visual," answered Stephanie, pulling the corvette through a sharp turn to avoid plunging into the atmosphere as she levelled out of the dive. A second image appeared on the main screen, below that of the limping frigate. Nearly a dozen bulky Ork ships were following the Huntress' dive, but whatever guns they had remained silent.
"Identify incoming," ordered Stephanie, as a pair of gunships fired towards her, forcing her briefly away from the frigate.
"Vessels conform to basic design of Ork Brute-class ramships," answered the ship. Stephanie's eyes widened, and she quickly turned her ship to face the new threat, the remaining gunships forgotten. Seeing the lance recharged she fired it again, missing the lead ramship's armoured prow by a fraction to blast away its engines instead. Knowing the lance would need time to fire again, she turned the pulse cannons on the ramships, firing among them, trying to break their formation before the reached the frigate. Several pulled away, unwilling to risk being disabled before they reached their target, and a salvo of fire from the frigate blew an engine off another, sending it spinning out of control. Two ships remained undamaged and on course, still accelerating towards the frigate. Stephanie fired the lance at one, hitting the massive prow but doing enough damage to kill any chance of it striking the frigate.
The second ship flew straight down, taking fire from the frigate but never slowing. Stephanie brought the Huntress around in a tight turn as the ramship passed by, aiming the lance at its exposed engines. She fired, but in that instant one of the gunships swerved in front of her, intercepting the shot. Its hull, weakened by fire it had taken earlier from the frigate, caved in, releasing the internal atmosphere to burn in a brief fireball. The last of the air burned just as the ramship collided with the frigate, striking it directly behind the prow. The warship swung around from the impact, dropping down into the atmosphere, its prow tearing away as fragments of the ramship continued on their path, tearing through internal decks before crashing out of the other side of their target and falling towards the planet.
The Huntress followed the frigate down, but it was obvious there was no way to save the ship now. Layers of armour peeled away as the ship disintegrated in the heat, and the engines began to buckle, their massive drivers crumpling under the pressure. Stephanie saw a handful of lifepods streak away from the hull, then the reactor tore open and the frigate vanished in a brilliant blast, a short-lived star above the world below. The Huntress, shields straining, flew through the blast cloud in pursuit of the lifepods.
As soon as she broke through the cloud layer, Stephanie could see the extent of the devastation on the surface. Great plumes of smoke rose from all over the landscape, and as she flew lower the blackened ruins of cities became visible in the last light of day. She focused on the lifepods, which were spreading out as they fell, dropping towards one of the largest cities, where fires still burned. Suddenly one of them exploded into debris, then another. Small shapes flashed past, Ork air fighters, swinging their turret guns in wild arcs through the lifepods. They disappeared to one side, beginning to bank for another pass, but already the pods were slamming into the ground. One exploded on impact, but the others simply disappeared from Stephanie's viewpoint high above, landing somewhere outside the city.
A crash echoed through the hull of the corvette, and warning lights flickered on. The Ork fighters had launched missiles at the Huntress, and Stephanie could feel without looking at the damage control screen that one of the engines was badly hit. She pulled the ship out of its dive, feeling the engines responding sluggishly, and looked around for a clear space in which to land. Ahead, glimpsed for an instant, an explosion lit the ground, not falling debris or a missile, but land-based artillery fire. If there was fighting, that probably meant humans were still alive. Stephanie pulled the Huntress around, heading for the scene of the battle.
Sister Amelie watched as a shadow appeared in the sky, forgetting for a moment the chaos around her. The greenskins had seen the explosion high above, a ship in orbit exploding, and had evidently taken it as some sort of sign to attack. Now, as they charged towards the barricade, a strange ship plunged down out of the evening sky, leaving a trail of fire from its side. The ship turned as it approached the camp, levelling out for landing. As it lowered itself unsteadily a pair of cannons swung around underneath its nose, blasting a jagged hole in the advancing Ork tide. The ship touched the ground, switching from the cannons to a dorsal turret that let loose a swarm of micro-missiles into the Orks, shredding their warriors in an instant. A cheer echoed up from the barricade, but Amelie knew that they would not be escaping in the damaged ship. One of the landing struts was badly twisted by whatever damage it had taken, and it leaned sideways for a moment until, with a groan of protest, it came to rest.
The Orks, confused by this turn of events, fell back fearing more firing from the newcomer. Amelie cautiously approached it, looking for any sign of the ship's origin. She knew, albeit from training only, the common identification colour codes used by Imperial ships, and this one had none of them. While she was wondering a hatch slid open on its side, and the barrels of a pair of bolters emerged, followed by a young woman wearing light armour and a targeting visor.
"Sorry," she said, lowering the bolters, "I didn't have a chance to see what I was landing in there." She pressed the two weapons side-by-side, and there was a click as they locked together.
"Who are you?" asked the battle sister warily.
"Stephanie Warfield," answered the stranger, removing the visor, "I'm an explorer. And you are?"
"Sister Janis Amelie, Order of the Silver Blade." The explorer looked around.
"You in charge here?" she asked.
"What's your status?" Amelie led the way to the single building that had survived the siege.
"We've been here for seven days now," she said, "since the greenskins made planetfall. We lost contact with the Capital in the first hour, and we barely had time to get everyone inside before they got here. Supplies are running low, and we have barely twenty fighters on the walls. We had quite a number of wounded, but they started using artillery on us a few hours ago, and only broke off because of night. One of the shells hit the shelter where the wounded and the children were..." She stopped for a moment, eyes distant, then recovered.
"We haven't had contact with any other survivors since this began," she continued, "but we saw the smoke from the Capital burning. Do you know if there's anyone else out there?"
"On the planet, I don't know," Stephanie answered. "The ship you saw destroyed in orbit sent out a distress call a few hours ago, and I relayed it before I arrived, on a wide band. I know there's a patrol fleet about two weeks away, but they may not be able to divert here immediately. I hear there was a marine vessel somewhere in the sector too, but I never saw it. We may be on our own for a while."
The Orks attacked again during the night, but were driven back by the increased firepower provided by the weapons from the Huntress. The missile turret, half-empty, was saved for a future emergency, but one of the ventral cannons had been salvaged and mounted on a tripod, and the defenders' supply of bolter shells and powerpacks had been replenished. Stephanie had found a man who had been a service technician at the Capital's spaceport among the handful of wounded who had survived the artillery bombardment. One arm was in a sling, and his eyes had been damaged when an Ork energy weapon nearly blasted his head off. He could only see a few feet, but he still knew his way around ship systems.
"We can't repair this," he said glumly, peering at the power conduits leading into the engine driver. Stephanie looked up from where she was sitting a few feet away, replacing burned-out plasma switches with spares.
"There's power cycling through the driver," he went on, "but it's coming back with a damaged waveform. The driver's been knocked out of shape, you can't fix those, you have to get a new one."
"It'll fix," said Stephanie, opening a panel to reveal part of the driver buried deep within the engine, "it just needs time." The technician peered closer at the gleaming crystal beneath the wires and power injectors.
"That's a driver?" he asked, sceptical. "Where's the tritanium core?"
"There isn't one," she answered, "it's solid carbon crystal. So long as we keep power running through it the driver will grow over the damaged areas. I think it'll take two, maybe three days."
"We may not have much longer," said Sister Amelie, who had entered from the forward deck in time to catch the tail of the conversation, "there are more greenskins outside. Vehicles too, I don't think we can hold them off for more than a few days at this rate. That's assuming no more arrive. We have to leave as soon as possible."
"There's something I have to do first," said Stephanie, closing the driver panel. "I've had most of the sensors on passive sweeps since I landed, tracking the ships in orbit. We won't make it out of the atmosphere right now, they're maintaining a blockade formation."
"The greenskins?" asked the technician. "I wouldn't have thought they'd bother."
"Normally you'd be right. I think their leader is one of the smart ones. He wants to move on to another world, so he's not landing any more ships than he has to. If it wasn't for him, most of the leaders on the ships would probably come down and join in the fighting. It's the reason Orks don't tend to conquer more than one system at a time, they get distracted too easily once the fighting starts, and never worry about how hard it'll be to get all their troops back into space. The boss is the problem."
"You're not thinking of some sort of attack," said Amelie in surprise, "we're only just holding the barricades!"
"I know," said Stephanie, "I'll go alone."
"Do you know what you're saying?" asked Amelie incredulously. "There must be millions of them out there, you'll never get to the leader."
"About fifteen million, judging by the size of the fleet," answered Stephanie, "and I know how to deal with Orks. Don't worry, I've done this sort of thing before. Besides, I only have to kill one of them."
Vela opened his eyes, but slowly so as not to disturb the headache already working its way around his skull. There was darkness above, but he could make out the difference between the remains of his lifepod and, beyond its broken hull, the night sky. To one side there was a flickering light, probably a fire the pod had caused on its way down. The XO stayed still for a moment, then cautiously pushed himself up on his elbows. Everything hurt, but there didn't seem to be any broken bones so far. He instinctively reached to one side, for the laspistol that was stored beside the impact capsule in all lifepods. His hand closed around the handle of the weapon, but it refused to move. Peering in the shadowy dark, he saw that a part of the lifepod's hull had speared upwards, digging through the barrel of the pistol on its way. It must have missed his arm by inches.
Shaking his head, Vela looked out over the edge of the broken hull, and found himself staring directly at a bestial green face, grinning savagely in the torchlight.