Stephanie jumped up from the firing position where Sister Amelie stood, crouching on top of the makeshift barricade that stood between the camp and the Orks beyond. To her eyes the battlefield was dark, but starlight provided enough light to navigate by. Amelie and the other defenders couldn't see a thing, and had to rely on crude motion sensors to tell them when to fire up the power-hungry searchlights.
"Three more hours of night," whispered Amelie. Stephanie nodded.
"The ship's sensors are monitoring the Ork ships in orbit," she said, looking over her shoulder at the Sister behind her, "if they start landing by the time the engines come back online, take off and head for the nearest Imperial system. The ship will handle navigation."
"But if you're not back by then," began Amelie.
"If I'm not back by then take off anyway," concluded Stephanie, her voice inviting no argument. "I know how to survive out there." With that she slipped forward off the barricade and disappeared into the night. Amelie peered after her, but couldn't see a trace of her.
Stephanie kept low as she left the fortified camp behind her. The Orks were visible in the distance, clustered around their fires. She could hear their voices raised, shouting and chanting through the night. The Orks hadn't bothered to post sentries, and this allowed her to move much closer to the fires than she would otherwise have dared. Orkoids didn't have much in the way of night vision, as a rule, and those staring into the light of the fires would be unable to see a thing beyond.
Moving silently around the edge of the Ork camp, evading occasional mobs of wandering grots, she found what she was looking for. Some distance from one of the larger campfires was a crude building around which were clustered various bikes and trikes. From inside the building came the sounds of complicated demolition, indicating that the mob's Mek was at work. A handful of grots, carrying whatever tools they had been trained with, milled around the cluster of vehicles, combining forces to drag the occasional one into the workshop at the bidding of the Mek. Stephanie crouched down beside one of the bikes, on the far side of the collection of vehicles. The grots, with typical laziness, were taking the ones closest to the workshop entrance first.
A moment's work with a servo-spanner and a few salvaged parts from a second bike repaired the damage that had put the vehicle temporarily out of commission. Stephanie then ducked back into the shadows on the edge of the Ork camp and moved back towards the large fire where the speed freaks were celebrating the day's exploits. As she had expected, a good number of them had rendered themselves unconscious on their fungus beer, and had been thrown away from the fire to make way for those still upright. Stephanie found one sufficiently far from the light, lying on his side. She crouched down behind him and drew a thin knife from its sheath on her leg, positioning it carefully just beneath the bottom of its helmet. One quick thrust through the back of the Ork's neck cut the brain stem with barely a sound. Trying to ignore the smell, she pulled its jacket and helmet off, and then carefully rolled the body onto its back so the wound would not be visible. She vanished back into the night.
There was a yell from inside the workshop as she started the bike, followed by a stream of pleas from a grot that were cut short by the thump of a spanner on its head. By the time the irate Mek appeared in the doorway of his workshop, dragging the unconscious grot by one leg, the bike had vanished into the night.
"Wot've I told yez," bellowed the Mek at the grots cowering behind a trike, "ya don't touch the engine bits!"
"Weren't us boss," wailed one of the grots, "we was all here, it weren't us!" The Mek took a step forward and belted the grot over the head with its unconscious companion.
"Ah shaddup," it said, turning back to its workshop, "yez ain't good fer yer weight in squig dung. Quit yer whinin' and get a trak in 'ere."
Stephanie pushed the bike to top speed as the sun crested the horizon to her right. After a day's riding, during which time she avoided only a few scattered bands of Orks, the hills were giving way to open plains, once covered in crops but now home to nothing but ashes, and an Ork army spread out across its conquered land. She wore the Ork's jacket and helmet, and had covered her face with a breather mask from her backpack, which she wore underneath the jacket. Overall, at a distance and at high speed, she was passable enough not to draw a challenge. She steered clear of concentrations of Orks, following the open plains as far as they went. Ahead was more smoke, from the fires and engines of the core of the army. Already, shining in the damn light, she could see some distant shapes that resembled medium-sized Gargants. On the bright side, the wind in her face was masking the smell of the Ork clothes.
Letting her reflexes ride the bike by themselves, Stephanie allowed her mind to wander to the task ahead. Although she had indeed accomplished similar self-assigned missions in the past, it had never been without some amount of planning. At the very least, she would have liked to know who the warboss was, and where he could be found. All she had to rely on now were generalisations: he would be the biggest, toughest Ork, and he would be in the middle of the largest concentration of warriors. This was not encouraging.
Glancing over her shoulder to see she was alone, she slowed a little as a large, flat building appeared ahead of her. Its construction was familiar to her, from dozens she had seen before: a prison. Orks tended to treat their captives as animals, albeit sometimes useful animals, and so kept them in facilities that most resembled farm buildings. As she neared she could make out the glyphs that had been scrawled across a piece of metal bolted to the stripped remains of a tree. Accounting for a slight variation in the style, to be expected in such a decentralised society as the Orks were, the sign read 'live human storage.' No doubt the Ork who had wielded the paint brush had gotten a laugh from his mob. The building turned out to be the tip of a chain of ad-hoc sheds and warehouses, almost a city in itself. From further along came the sounds of Orks rising to the days tasks, with an accompaniment of shouting, clanging and the high-pitched screeching of the grots.
Stephanie let the bike slow to a stop and rested it against the stump of a tree, waving away the cloud of exhaust fumes that caught up to her as she did so. Seeing no sign of Orks on this side of the prison building she left the jacket and helmet with the bike. Close up they wouldn't have fooled a gretchin, and they would only impede her if it came to a fight. As an afterthought she uncoupled a handful of wires from the bike's starter motor, confident that it would take a Mek to get the vehicle moving again if it were to be found.
She kept low, moving through the remains of a field of some sort of corn, the blackened stalks rising nearly to waist height and providing some cover. As she approached the prison she saw its doors were open, and no sign of prisoners inside. Aside from a couple of low Ork voices echoing through a barred window there were no signs of life at all. Following a hunch she crept to one side of the main building and looked along its side, into the courtyard beyond it. As she had thought, whatever prisoners the Orks had taken alive were now nothing but bones and ashes, piled carelessly in the courtyard. She shook her head, and was about to investigate the next building along when she heard a new voice from inside the prison, a low moan that was unmistakably human.
She reached into her backpack and found her holsters, strapping one to each leg. Drawing one of the bolt pistols she edged her way along the side of the building, towards an open doorway. She flattened herself against the wall at its edge, listening for the Ork voices again. From the sound she guessed they were right inside, a few metres beyond the door. There didn't seem to be any internal walls, at least not between the Orks and the doorway. Stephanie took a deep breath, glanced about to make sure she was not going to be seen, then drew her second pistol and spun into the doorway, closing her eyes for a split second to avoid the effects of the change of light. She pulled the trigger of the left pistol as soon as her eyes opened, hitting one of the two Orks in the room in the back of the skull. The other had been standing side-on to the door, and had managed a half-turn by the time the second pistol fired, impacting on its chest just below the neck. The Ork blinked slowly, and glanced down at the bleeding hole where its vital organs had been. It had time to look up reproachfully at Stephanie before it toppled backwards.
A human was lying on the ground, legs tied to a post driven deep into the soil and the rock beneath. He wore the remains of a uniform, but the jacket was badly torn across its back, and the legs of the trousers were tattered beneath the knees. To one side of him lay a stick which the first Ork had dropped, and Stephanie recognised the malicious furball tied to it as what the Orks called an Agganiza Squig. Its razor-sharp spined were coated in a sticky, acidic gel, which caused quite a lot of pain to anyone cut by the spines. Fortunately they weren't lethal on their own, although a popular Ork myth, generally told over several fungus beers, was that Agganiza Squig handlers sometimes fell into the vats in which the creatures were bred, with grisly results. Orks tended to consider this sort of thing vastly amusing, on the basis that the Ork in question wasn't them.
The human on which this particular specimen had been used didn't seem to have suffered any other serious injury. Stephanie checked his vital signs, and found him alive but unconscious. Listening for a moment, and hearing nothing from outside, she found a water bottle in her pack and tipped a little onto her hand, wetting the man's forehead and lips. After a moment his eyes flitted open.
"Emperor?" he croaked.
"Not quite," Stephanie answered. The man blinked for a moment, then tried his eyes again.
"I'm not dead," he concluded, after drinking a little water to ease his dry throat, "who are you? What are you doing here, I thought everyone was dead?" Once his feet were released he stood up, shaking slightly but otherwise fine. Having regained his balance he aimed a heartfelt kick at the squig, sending it cartwheeling across the room until the end of its stick buried itself in the ground.
"Are we escaping?" he asked, as Stephanie took his arm and led him to the doorway, steering him carefully away from the pile of bones and ash before he saw it.
"Not quite," she answered, "but you'll be safest if you follow me and stay quiet." She led the way to the next building along, a crude warehouse containing various war machines, ranging from battlewagons to captured Imperial vehicles. She looked along the length of the roof, then produced a rope and hook from her pack and swung it up over the edge. After testing the rope, and finding it good enough to hold, she turned to the man behind her.
"Think you can climb this?" she asked. The man looked sceptical.
"What's up there?" he asked.
"I can climb it," he answered hastily, gripping the rope in both hands. Without much style he hauled himself up. Stephanie followed, coiling the rope and replacing it in her pack as she looked out over the flat roof, beyond which were dozens of similar buildings. As was usual with newly-built Ork settlements, no-one had thought to add a second story to any of the buildings yet.
"Aren't we a little exposed up here?" asked the man, shading his eyes from the sunlight reflecting off the bare metal roof.
"We won't be for long," Stephanie answered, pointing to where, beyond a few buildings, there was a large open space. Trails of smoke were drifting up into the air, and a dull hum was rising, like a very poorly maintained engine. "Unless I'm mistaken that's an airfield," she continued, "for the Ork fighters. Now that there's nothing in the air or in space they won't be flying, so we can wait out the day there." She set off across the roof, stepping over the jagged gap between one building and the next where the crudely-laid metal plates overhung the walls by several feet.
"Then what?" asked the man, following her across the roof. "How do we get out of here?"
"Quiet a moment," said Stephanie, holding up a hand as she neared the edge of the next roof. She peered cautiously over the edge to see a pair of Orks leaning against the wall of the opposite building, taking advantage of the shade. Snatches of conversation drifted up, but not quite loud enough to make out the words.
"What?" whispered the man, creeping up behind her.
"No problem," she answered. She flicked her wrist, and a slim bracelet extended forward over two fingers forming the barrels of digital weapons. "Ork biochemistry," she muttered to herself, tapping tiny buttons on the bracelet, "probably the Inferno-C algal DNA, in this sector." She raised her hand towards the two Orks, who remained blissfully unaware of her existence, and parted her fingers slightly, aiming one weapon at each. There was a quiet hiss of air, and the Orks slumped back against their wall and fell to the ground.
The airfield was, as predicted, deserted. One building to one side of the field appeared to house the Mek responsible for the ramshackle fighta-bomma craft scattered around the single runway, and sounds of hammering, welding and occasionally cursing emerged. A pair of the aircraft were parked outside the Mek's building, but the others seemed undamaged. Stephanie picked one that was sufficiently far from the building to be in no danger of immediate maintenance, and swung herself up through the hatch in the bottom of its fuselage, emerging into the cockpit. The seats, built for the larger frames of Orks, allowed both her and her newfound companion who clambered into the vehicle after her to hunch down in the seats below the level of the fuselage, invisible from outside.
"What if they hear us?" asked the man nervously.
"I'll hear them first," Stephanie answered.
"But if the mechanic decides to work on this plane?" The Mek's voice was barely audible, but the odd yell of frustration or pain still drifted across the airfield.
"He won't," Stephanie answered, glancing at the aircraft's controls, "he's working on some sort of fuel system. He's just told one of his attendants to tell his boss that the planes won't be seen to today."
"How do you know that?"
"I can hear him. Something to eat?" she added, offering the man a ration bar from her pack.
"What do you plan to do," he asked a moment later, working his way through the bland field ration, "wait until dark then make a run for it?"
"I'm not trying to escape," she answered, "I'm trying to get to the warboss."
"What for?" Stephanie tapped the barrel of a bolt pistol she was quietly stripping of its casing. "Kill the warboss," the man asked, frowning, "the top leader?"
"That's the one."
"What about me?" he asked. Stephanie looked up.
"You'll come with me part of the way," she said.
"And get myself killed?" he answered sharply.
"Do you think you'd survive on your own out there? A whole planet overrun by Orks? What are you, Navy?"
"Vela, lieutenant, INS Titan's Sabre."
"The frigate that was rammed down?"
"Yes, how do you," Vela began, then paused. "That other ship," he continued, "you're part of the crew?"
"I'm all of the crew," Stephanie answered.
"You handle that thing on your own? How on Terra... doesn't matter. Listen, there's no way you'll get near the warboss, you'd need an army!" He paused for a moment, thinking, then continued. "You don't have an army here, do you?"
"No. Just me."
"Then you're dead."
"Okay Navy man, your turn to listen. There are upwards of thirty people depending on me to get them off this world before the Orks grind them into the dirt. That means that I have to kill the warboss, or else nothing gets past his fleet in orbit. You follow so far?" Vela nodded. "I can probably do it on my own," continued Stephanie, "so if you're not going to help I'll just leave you here. I don't have time to waste taking you back to my ship, and believe me you will not survive out there on your own. But if you do what I say there's a good chance you'll be on that ship when it lifts off. Understand?" Vela looked for a moment as though he was going to object, but then thought better of it.
"Yes," he muttered.
"Good. You're Navy command trained, that means you have at least thirty hours in an atmospheric fighter, correct?"
"Twenty-five," answered Vela.
"Good enough. That means you're going to fly this thing." Stephanie patted the control console of the Ork fighter with one hand, while her other searched among the equipment in her pack.
"Won't work," said Vela flatly, "everyone knows you can't loot greenskin tech. Their vehicles, weapons, all only work for them."
"Yes, I know." Stephanie found the device she was looking for, a flat metal box smaller than the palm of her hand. "It's an unconscious manipulation of psychokinetic forces," she added, putting the box on the fighter's inner hull, where a magnetic clamp held it in place, "but it only works when they have the basics of a vehicle to work with."
"If an Ork believes that a vehicle will go, their minds project a weak field that alters the physical laws relating to the vehicle. It can strengthen gears so they don't break under strain, make engines work with substandard fuel, all sort of minor things. Without that most Ork vehicles have a lifespan of about a minute before something breaks. But the vehicle is basically intact, it just needs a little work."
"What are you going to do, repair a fighter jet in broad daylight?"
"Yes. See this?" She pointed to the box clamped to the cockpit wall, which had apparently done nothing. Vela nodded. "It contains miniature repair droids. They're programmed to analyse and repair any vehicle they're released into. There are about ten thousand of them working on my ship, but I brought a few hundred along just in case."
"I can't see anything," said Vela, "are you sure? I've never heard of anything like that."
"The Navy doesn't use them. I made special arrangements to get the plans for them." Stole them from Mars, but we needn't mention that, she thought to herself. She glanced at the data tablet in her hand. "In about ten hours this thing will be safe to fly."
"And then what? I fly you to the warboss and you kill him?"
"That's the plan. I'll drop down and do what I have to, you fly this thing north. There's a compound there where a few survivors are holding out against the Orks, that's where my ship is. I'll give you a vector once this thing's navigation system comes online. Ditch the jet and get out with the rest of them. You'll agree it's better odds than trying to get to safety on foot."
"Wait," said Vela, "you're going to kill the boss, then get out on your own? You'll never make it."
"Getting out's easy," Stephanie answered, "all I have to do is keep moving. It's getting in that's the trouble, I have to find one Ork among probably a hundred high-ranking leaders, plus their bodyguards. Once the boss is dead I can run any direction I like, and believe me I can survive here until the Imperium shows up. You'll need this," she added, handing a device to Vela. He looked at it, but didn't recognise the design. It had a single blank button on it. "Put it on your belt," she instructed. Vela did so, and found that it adhered to the material. "It's a grav chute," she continued, "for when you have to bail out of the jet. Once you push the button you've got fifteen seconds of drop time, then gravity takes over again."
"I know how it works," said Vela, examining the device, "we used them in fighter training. I've never seen one this small though."
"I've had a lot of time to perfect it," she answered. "Now get some sleep. You can't fly if you're exhausted."
The day passed without surprises, save a small explosion from the Mek's workshop. Stephanie woke at the noise of a gretchin attendant squealing that the pressure in something was too great, followed by the blast a second later. Vela, exhausted from his captivity, slept through the noise.
As night fell Stephanie cautiously ran tests on the flight systems, so far as she could without alerting the Orks to their presence. The repairers had done a good job, having completed mechanical repairs by the afternoon and moved on to purifying the sludge in the jet's fuel tanks. Stephanie spent an hour beneath the main controls, rewiring the crude mechanisms to provide a decent replica of the type of controls the Navy used in its fighters. She reluctantly woke Vela once the last of the day's light had disappeared, and sat him in the pilot's seat to get used to the controls.
"I'll navigate," she said, adjusting a thermal imager to isolate Ork patterns of body heat, "once we're over the warboss's camp you fly low and I'll jump. Then north."
"I know," interrupted Vela, "I remember."
"Listen," she continued, "I've hooked a beacon into your compass, it'll light up when you're heading towards my ship. Keep on that heading and bail out directly overhead. The beacon will transmit a message to my ship so they'll know not to fire at you. Once you're inside the compound do whatever the Sister tells you."
Stephanie nodded, then turned her attention back to the thermal imager. Trace elements in the atmosphere were interfering with the scanner, but not seriously.
"What's that for?" asked Vela.
"You know much about Orks?"
"I know their ships."
"They adapt to their needs very quickly," said Stephanie, "almost a one-step version of evolution. If an Ork needs to fight a lot he'll get bigger, put on more muscle mass, even start thinking and reacting faster. Ork bosses have to fight their way to the top, so they get really big, and their metabolism speeds up to convert energy quickly. They tend to eat a lot while they're not fighting. Compared to your average Ork, a boss actually has more body heat. Get enough bosses together, like in the retinue of a warboss, and they make a thermal spike that a very good sensor can find."
"You're going to find the warboss by his body heat? Among a whole army?"
"Isn't technology wonderful. You just worry about flying the jet."
"Why are you doing this?" Vela asked, after a long silence.
"I do what I have to."
"But you don't have to. I mean, if what you say is true, you could survive here until more ships arrive. There must be a battle group on the way by now, maybe even the marines. You could hide out until they get here. Don't get me wrong, I don't want those other people to die, but if it was down to that, or me charging in there and facing an Ork three times my size... why take the risk?"
Stephanie thought for a moment. She remembered in an instant worlds long dead, battles fought in ages past for prizes now lost in the mists of time. Billions of people crying out for help, and a time not long ago when it had seemed too much. Battered defenders, refusing to give up, standing around the statue of an Emperor who never saw them, never set foot on their world. How senseless it had all seemed. Unbidden, the image of Callee's engineer swept the memories from her mind, the young woman smiling to herself, 'everything's possible.'
"Do you believe in anyone?" Stephanie asked.
"Like the Emperor, you mean?"
"Maybe. In a way, I suppose. I think when you believe that strongly, you owe it to them not to ever give up. Even if they'll never know what you've done, never see the battles you fight, you should always honour them in everything you do. Always try to be the person that, for their sake, you should be. No matter how difficult it seems. Because if you stop trying, you could never look them in the face."
"Whatever," said Vela after a moment, interrupting Stephanie's reverie, "I don't know though. I've never seen the Emperor. I don't think anyone has, have they?"
Another memory, the golden light spilling into the world as if from another realm. Six shapes outlined in the light, walking slowly forward through the portal that led from the world of the real to the place where a living god slept. Wishing she could go with them. But no, too much relied on this. Whatever they saw would have to remain theirs alone if they were to do what was needed.
"No, not for a long time," she said. After a long silence, she turned back to the thermal imager. "Better get yourself ready, we'll be moving soon." She made a few final adjustments to the imager, then leaned over the back of Vela's seat to point at a small cylinder clamped beside the crude dials showing altitude and airspeed.
"If you run into serious trouble getting back to the compound use this. It's only good for one shot, so don't waste it."
"What is it?" Vela hadn't seen anything similar during his tech training, although he would have to admit that Navy command officers weren't really supposed to know how their ships worked.
"EMP," answered Stephanie, "it'll knock out anything electrical within about a mile. I had to hook the main pulse into the engines for power, so I'm not really sure of the range. There's a simultaneous null magnetic pulse to protect this jet, but anything else will drop out of the sky. The null pulse will burn out the emitter, so only use it once. Green to arm the pulse, red to fire," she finished, pointing out the control buttons on one side of the cylinder.
"You carry this sort of thing around all the time?" Vela asked. Stephanie shrugged.
"Seemed best to be ready for anything. You won't have much else in the way of weapons. There are four Ork rockets under each wing, but you'll be lucky to hit anything smaller than the ground. There's a cannon as well, but it hasn't been maintained. Best not to try dogfighting anyway. As soon as I'm away hit the afterburners and get out of here as fast as possible."
"Ah," said Vela, "that I can do. Anything else?"
"Yes," said Stephanie, reaching for the level that would ignite the engines, "hold on tight. The ride won't be quite as smooth as a Thunderbolt trainer."
The engines awoke with a roar, belching a fireball across the jet parked behind before igniting properly. Vela wrenched the plane around onto the runway as it lurched forward, noting that the steering was obviously intended for a pilot with Ork strength. He pulled on the lever for more engine power, and the flames emerging from the back of the jet curled into two thin cones of blue fire, adding more thrust as the jet picked up speed. The resident Mek looked out of his workshop just in time to lose a hair squig as the wing of the jet scythed past him. He threw himself backwards as the wash from the engines hammered against the building's walls, curling into a ball as pieces of dismantled turbines fell off the shelves and rained onto him. By the time he had picked himself up the jet had taken off, and was disappearing into the night sky.
"Huh," he murmured to himself, absently rubbing the patch of scalp the hair squig had been attached to, "dat's a good one. Wonder wot sorta juice dey's put in it." He looked at the spark of fire in the dark sky, then frowned as a thought crossed his mildly concussed mind. "Hang on," he said slowly, "who da zog's flyin' dat thing?"
"Who the hell's flying this thing?" yelled Vela rhetorically over the roar of the engines. He pulled hard on the control stick, using brute force to steer the reluctant jet. Stephanie, her eyes locked on the thermal imager, called out directions, but it was all Vela could to do point the plane in the right direction without stalling or diving.
The Ork settlements, flashing by below at unnerving speed, were growing more crowded by the second. The imager's readings were confused, a jumble of heat from vehicles, fires and thousands of Orks, but there did seem to be a vague pattern.
"Twenty degrees left," shouted Stephanie, bracing herself against the side of the hull as the jet swerved sideways for a moment before righting itself. She quickly recalibrated the imager, screening out all heat traces too hot to be living, narrowing the focus of the device until it was showing only the Orks. A slight rise in average body temperature was showing up ahead. She looked up, over the edge of the cockpit, to see a black shape standing out against the night sky.
"That's it!" she yelled. "Do you see it?"
"What on Terra is that thing?" shouted Vela, holding the control stick with both hands to stop it from steering itself.
"That's where the bosses are," answered Stephanie, looking back at the imager, "it looks like all of them! They must be building a new ship to get back into space! Give me a low pass, then come around again over the centre!" Vela did his best, wrestling the uncooperative jet down so that it skimmed over the Ork city, leaving a trail of partially deafened Orks in its wake. Stephanie watched the imager's tiny screen as they passed over the massive scaffolding. Average body heat was almost thirty percent above the levels in the rest of the settlement. Vela saw the last of the construction scaffold disappear backwards, and let the plane veer off to one side, bracing himself to pull it into a turn.
"He's down there," shouted Stephanie, "he must be! Fly low, right over the middle!" Vela whispered a quick prayer, on the off chance that the Emperor was listening for once, and pulled on the control stick with all his strength. The jet, complaining all the way, whirled around in a sharp turn that pinned Vela to his seat, but he managed to level out as the nose swung around to the construction site. He heard a clang as the cockpit's lower hatch opened.
"Good luck," yelled Stephanie, "see you later!" Vela fought to keep the jet steady for a moment, He Hthen looked over his shoulder to find the cockpit empty. With the warboss's half-built ship already vanishing behind him, he pointed the jet north and hit the afterburners.
Stephanie held her arms at her sides and dropped silently towards the ground, the rush of the wind drowning out the receding roar of the jet's engines. At the last moment she tapped a button on her belt, and swung her body around to land softly on the roof of a small shed as the grav chute took her weight. She drew her pistols from her pack, then slid off the roof to the ground, glancing around. A few distant Ork voices were complaining about the noise, but the immediate area seemed deserted. To the left was what seemed to be a fuel storage yard, probably no use. To the right were more sheds, but beyond those was one wing of the scaffolding, with the beginnings of a spacecraft hull taking shape underneath. She set off towards it, stopping every few metres to listen.
As she neared the scaffolding she heard movement to one side. She flattened herself against a wall, hiding in the shadows, until a bulky Ork guard appeared, tossing its shoota in the air and catching it again in a bored manner. The Ork had only time to register a sound behind it before its knees buckled underneath it, and it fell face-first to the ground. The shoota fell with a clatter as the Ork lost feeling in its hands. It felt a weight on its back and tried to get up, but its limbs wouldn't move.
"Don't bother," said Stephanie, "your motor nerves are cut. Where's the warboss?" The Ork coughed as it accidentally inhaled a lungful of dust from the ground beneath its face.
"Wot da zog are yez?" it croaked. Stephanie adjusted her grip on the dagger buried in the Ork's neck and twisted it to one side. The Ork jerked in pain, emitting a rattling sound as it tried to yell.
"Wrong answer," said Stephanie calmly, "I doubt you've ever felt this sort of pain. An Ork could get his arm blown off and it wouldn't register on most of his nerve endings. This must come as quite a shock." She twisted the knife again. "Where's the warboss? Tell me and it stops."
"In 'is ship," croaked the Ork, "Mork damn yez!" Stephanie flicked the dagger downwards an inch, and the Ork let out a slight sigh and closed its eyes.
"Maybe," she said, leaving the dead guard, "but that's between me and Mork. Sorry about that." She hurried back along the path the guard had been following, eventually coming to a gap in the scaffolding where, deep inside, the sounds of construction could be heard. The ground was grooved from the wheels and tracks of light vehicles. Stephanie knelt down for a second, running a hand over the imprints in the dirt. They were deeper heading into the half-built ship than coming out again, as expected. She sprinted across the opening after checking for any inquisitive Orks, then holstered her pistols and pulled herself up onto the scaffolding. Beneath a few metres of uneven scaffold the hull of the ship was visible. Stephanie started to climb, following the line of the hull.
Uznar grinned to himself as he surveyed his new bridge. He was particularly pleased with the Imperial emblem, the winged skull which he himself had taken from the fortress inside the human city. The skull in its centre now bore a massive Ork jaw cut from solid steel. Uznar thumped across the bridge and sat in his chair, beneath the centre of the wings. He wondered if he should bother contacting the next world he found, so that they could see him like this before he killed them all. The effect would no doubt be impressive. He swivelled his massive chair around as his Mek boss entered the bridge.
"Boss, we gotta problem," said the hunchbacked Mek, "da reactor housing fing's leaking again. I keeps telling 'em not to spray it wif da usual sealer, on accounts of da plasma stuff..." Uznar held up a giant hand, cutting off the Mek in the middle of his complaining.
"See to it," said the warboss, "kill some of the team bosses if you has to. There's plenty more of them can do the work." An instinct told Uznar to turn around. He had learned to trust his instinct lately. Most of the other bosses had challenged him when he took over, and he had grown larger and faster after each kill. He had developed a knack for knowing when someone was looking at him, because it usually meant they were aiming something at him. His retinue were the ones who learned to look down in his presence.
He turned, looking towards the front of the bridge, and that was what stopped the bolt shell from hitting his head. It exploded on his shoulder instead, carving a chunk of flesh out the size of a normal Ork's fist. Uznar frowned, then launched himself out of his chair as a volley of bolt shells blew it apart.
"Show yerself!" he bellowed, rolling to his feet and rearing up to his full height, kustom shoota in hand. The Mek had fled the bridge at the first sign of trouble, but Uznar had a sneaking suspicion that he might have been trying to distract him so that another Ork could get behind him and... The suspicion died as he saw a human drop from a hole cut out of one of the bridge viewports.
"What are you, one of them human assassins?" he sneered. "You been making yourself look like one of us?" He let off a blast from his shoota, but Stephanie flipped out of the way, rolling behind a mass of cables sprouting from the side of a control station.
"Sorry," she called back, "never got the hang of it!" That was true, she reflected ruefully. Cellular destabilisation had lost out against continuous regeneration, to the confusion of the tutors of the Callidus temple. They had been even more surprised to find their most promising recruit missing a day later.
"Don't matter," answered Uznar, blasting a hole in the control station, "I'll hammer you whatever you looks like!" He saw Stephanie move, and raised his shoota, but she was too fast for him to follow with the bulky weapon. He dropped it, ignoring another bolt shell that slammed into his armour, and drew two choppas from behind his back. Stephanie slowed, seeing the warboss preparing for close combat, and holstered her pistols. From her side she drew a thin rod, which she held in both hands as the Ork charged. The weapon extended, power crackling across its ends, and she whirled it in a circle, deflecting the first sledgehammer blows the warboss aimed at her. One of the choppas cracked along its blade, but the Ork merely adjusted his grip, wielding the damaged axe like a club.
The other blurred with speed as it cut at waist height. Stephanie bent inwards, the blade missing by less than an inch, then flipped backwards with her staff extended. Only the Ork's combat-honed reflexes saved it as the end of the power weapon flashed in front of its face, as he jerked his head back before he had even realised the attack was coming. Stephanie landed on top of a control station, taking care on the uneven Ork-made surface not to lose her balance. Uznar drew back an arm and threw his damaged choppa at her legs, intending to cripple her. Without enough room to properly jump, she let herself fall forward, slipping past the whirling axe as it spun beneath her, rolling as she landed to stand again before the Ork. The weapon he had thrown crashed through the metal behind her, showering both combatants with sparks.
Stephanie glanced past the looming Ork, seeing movement on the edge of the chamber. The bridge was filling with Orks, none so large as the warboss but each tall enough to tower over a normal Ork. Uznar looked over his shoulder, following Stephanie's glance, and smiled.
"They want to see," he said, swiping his remaining choppa almost lazily at Stephanie, who deflected the strike with her staff, "they seen a lot of Ork blood on this choppa." He swung again, and Stephanie dodged back out of the way. "Lot of human blood too," continued the warboss, advancing slowly, "but they were weak. Strong human like you didn't live on this world. They want to see me kill strong human. They'll see me kill you. That's what Gork wants." He struck again, shattering his command chair as Stephanie dodged behind it.
"Gork will have to wait," she answered, raising a hand as Uznar wrenched his choppa free of the wreckage. The slim barrel of a digital weapon slid into place, and a thin beam of red flashed over the Ork's face. The warboss frowned, then took a step back, staggering slightly.
"What've you done," he growled, "I don't see you! That ain't fair! What are you?" Stephanie glanced at the assembled Nobs, who had begun muttering to each other in confusion, then stepped forward and raised the end of her staff.
"This isn't a game," she said. Uznar raised his choppa and swung it blindly, missing easily. Stephanie thrust the staff forwards, the power field liquefying the flesh it struck so there was only the slightest resistance as the weapon punched through the Ork's head. She pulled back, letting the body crash backwards to the ground, then looked at the Nobs gathered on the other side of the bridge floor.
"Come on," she said simply, raising the staff. The Nobs charged as one, readying a variety of axes, clubs and blades. Stephanie decapitated the first before he could swing his mechanical claw, fired a toxin dart into the neck of another as it raised a massive hammer to strike. The rest thudded into the bodies of the dead, tumbling over one another as Stephanie leapt above them, reaching for the cables that ran across the ceiling of the bridge. She caught one and swung forward, kicking at an Ork who was in the process of pulling his choppa from underneath another who had fallen on it, and landed behind the pack of Nobs. Those at the back turned to see her run for one of the doors leading away from the bridge. She paused by the doorway, and swung her staff by one end. The other hit the centre of the winged skull, shattering the skull as the power field discharged into the stone. Then she vanished as a hail of shoota shells exploded around the doorway.
She ran through the twisting corridors of the Ork ship, trying to reconcile her immediate surroundings with the vague shape she had formed of the ship from the outside. In her hand the staff half-retracted, becoming a sword, while her other hand went for one of her pistols. Drawn by the noise of the fight, other Orks were lumbering through the corridors towards the bridge. The first never had a chance to see what hit him as Stephanie rounded a corner and fired in one instant, then she had to duck into a side corridor to avoid a group of Orks ahead. A crash echoed down from behind her, signalling the pursuit of the remaining Nobs as they fired their shootas at anything moving. Stephanie fired a single shot at the first Ork to appear in the main corridor, then swept the point of her sword across the deck, cutting through the metal like paper. She dropped through the hole as more Orks appeared, letting her weapon extend again as she landed in a half-built deck still entombed in scaffolding. The only witness to her arrival was a gretchin dragging a spanner almost as big as itself, and it quickly abandoned the tool and dived for cover. Stephanie ran on, ignoring the sounds of pursuit behind her.
Gulruk kicked aside the corpse of one of the unfortunate Nobs and reached for the head of the late warboss Uznar. Placing his steel boot on the Ork's neck he heaved until the flesh tore, and Uznar's head came away from his body. With a sense of definite purpose Gulruk rammed the head down over one of the spikes welded onto his shoulder armour, until the point burst from between Uznar's burned eyes. Gulruk turned to the Orks behind him, a collection of Meks and a handful of Nobs who had lost interest in chasing the human.
"Any problems?" he growled. None of the Orks met his gaze. "Right," he continued, "get da bosses of da fleet, tell 'em to set down wherever. We's gonna make dis our world." Some of the Meks disappeared, attending to the orders of the new warboss. Through the damaged bridge viewport the sound of gunfire echoed up from the ground below.
"An get da human back 'ere!" Gulruk bellowed as the Nobs dispersed. "Anyone finks dey can kill Orks, dey ain't met me."
Sister Amelie looked up for a moment before reloading her bolter and firing again. The technician had appeared in the hatchway of the corvette, waving excitedly to her.
"We know!" she yelled back. For whatever reason - with greenskins, who knew? - the besiegers had decided to make another charge in the middle of the night. Amelie fired into a mob of boar-riders, then let the last of her current clip fly at a buggy that was bounding across the cratered terrain. A tire burst, and the Sister smiled grimly as the buggy flipped, spun in the air, then crashed into the ground nose-first.
"Not them," yelled the technician above the noise of bolters and lasguns firing as he scurried across the short distance from the corvette to the barricade, "the ships! The inorganic cogitator says that the greenskin ships are entering the atmosphere. The blockade is breaking up!"
"How long until we can take off?" asked Amelie, hastily reloading her weapon again. The technician ducked as a shoota shell exploded against the barricade.
"I don't know, maybe an hour, maybe less," he answered in a brief pause in the firing, "I can't tell. Soon."
"Pray to the Emperor it's soon enough," replied the Sister.
Gogmek trudged wearily through the passages of the ship. He had heard of recent events, but hadn't paid them much notice. As far as he was concerned, the function of a warboss was to shout a lot at other Orks and leave him and his attendants free to build whatever they wanted. Uznar had been, mostly, agreeable. He hadn't set foot in the workshop Gogmek had established, and had only once been seen in the reactor room of the ship, even though it was being built for his personal use. In fact, reflected Gogmek, Uznar had never seemed to notice that his summons were always answered by one of the lesser Meks instead of, as he had demanded, Gogmek himself. Possibly he didn't know what Gogmek looked like, or what he did. This was, Gogmek considered, a good arrangement.
Hopefully the new boss would behave similarly. So long as he didn't try to get involved in the 'techy bits' Gogmek wouldn't much care. He emerged into his reactor room, humming tunelessly to himself. He reached down to pick up a plasma drill from a gretchin tool-bearer, and looked around. The reactor could do with work, he decided. Drilling the coolant holes was pleasantly mindless work that took his thoughts off the complexities of life. Gogmek, ideally, wanted to live in a world where everything outside his workshop did not exist.
He pushed a wandering squig out of the way and slid beneath the reactor's coolant vanes, charging the drill without looking. He was about to begin work when he noticed a small box clamped to the inside of the reactor housing, one he did not remember installing. He glanced between his feet, but the other Meks, which from Gogmek's current position consisted of sets of lower legs, were all working elsewhere in the reactor room. He grunted and pulled himself up behind the coolant vanes, peering at the thing on the reactor.
"Hey," he grumbled, "which wun of yooz is been messing wif me reacter?" The other Meks shrugged and made some low volume noises indicating that it had not been them. Gogmek tapped the box, then pulled it off the reactor. It resisted a little, then slid away. Held on by a magnet-bit, Gogmek guessed.
"S'okay," he said, "it come off. No problem." He turned the box over in his hands, and noticed a set of changing, glowing red lines on its back. He frowned, unable to recognise the symbols. They looked like the 'goffic' glyphs the humans wrote. Normally he would have understood them easily enough, but these didn't seem... no, he realised with a smile, he was holding the box upside-down. He turned it over in his hands and tried again.
"Huh," he said to himself. A low-ranked Mek wandering past looked up.
"Wassat boss?" he said. Gogmek shrugged.
"Counting box," he answered, wondering at the daft things humans made for themselves.
"Wassit counting?" asked the Mek.
"Dunno," said Gogmek, "it reckons dere's only eleven of 'em left... nah, ten. Nine..."
A group of Orks who should have been watching the looted vehicles not far from Uznar's ship were in fact ignoring the distant gunfire, watching a pair of squigs fighting in the bottom of an upturned water tank, and so didn't notice a thing until Stephanie switched on the engine of a flame-scarred Imperial jetbike. The Orks scattered as the inelegant machine rushed past them, one of them having the presence of mind to pull out his shoota and fire at the vehicle. Stephanie pulled the bike sideways, easily avoiding the shots, then concentrated on not hitting any buildings. To her dismay the bike seemed unable to rise above standard ground height.
The half-built hull of the warboss's ship blasted outwards, the metal carried on a sea of fire that expanded in a perfect half-sphere. A shockwave tore through the Ork city ahead of the wall of fire, blasting the rooves and walls from buildings that were vaporised a second later. The rows of battlewagons and wartrukks exploded as their fuel tanks ruptured, but they were swallowed without a ripple by the nova fireball growing out over the city. For a brief instant night became day, as the light of a sun burned on the ground.
Stephanie pushed the engines of the jetbike as far as she dared, ignoring the harsh light and the half-blinded Orks as she raced through the narrow streets between the buildings. She felt the leading edge of the shockwave push forward some of the heat from the bike's exhaust, but then it began to fall away, the light dimmed and the night returned. For a second there was only an eerie silence, the whooshing of the bike's engines alone in the aftermath of the blast. Then, from every direction, came the sounds of Orks yelling, shooting, panicking.
The jetbike shuddered and dipped suddenly, forcing Stephanie to pull the steering column hard upwards to avoid the ground. She looked behind her to see one of the engines burning a fierce yellow instead of its usual blue, trails of smoke vanishing into the darkness. Turning back, she barely had time to steer as a shape loomed out of the night ahead of her, an Ork dreadnought expecting battle. A massive armoured claw whirred past her head, as the machine's rusted speakers bellowed a challenge to whatever had woken it. The thing's weapons fired indiscriminately, blasting apart shacks on both sides of it as it turned to follow the fleeing shape. A laser beam flashed past the jetbike, burning a hole through a large building several hundred metres ahead, then there was a roar of rushing air and a light shone down onto Stephanie.
"Come on!" yelled a voice. Stephanie looked up to see a hand, a human hand, stretched out to her. Feeling the jetbike falter she let go of the steering column and leapt up, grasping the hand as the bike vanished beneath her. Then she was pulled upwards, and saw the boarding ramp of the Huntress beneath her. The ship climbed away from the Ork city as she scrambled to safety and sealed the hatch. Sister Amelie let go of her hand.
"He said you'd be here," she answered a moment before Stephanie could ask. She paused for a moment, then nodded and sprinted forward towards the command chamber, with Amelie following.
"I told you to take off and leave," Stephanie said as they passed through the containment airlock from the cargo hold.
"He insisted," she answered.
"And I told you," continued Stephanie as she entered the command chamber to find Vela at the pilot station, "to do what she told you."
"I had a change of heart," he answered dryly, "would you mind taking over? This is a little different to what I'm used to." Stephanie ignored the pilot station and sat in her usual seat, her hands ready as the control panels slid into place beneath them.
"Evasive alpha," she said, hearing the tone of the engines change as the ship took control from the pilot. Vela stared at his console for a moment, then back at Stephanie, who was making the odd course change as the ship picked up speed and altitude.
"It flies itself?" he asked sceptically.
"More or less," she answered. A warning light flashed on the tactical screen, and the main viewscreen shifted and enhanced to show a group of fighta-bommas rising through the clouds. "Not this time," said Stephanie to them, arming her ship's weapons, "now I'm ready for you."
Three of the lead jets disappeared as the Huntress fired a low-power lance shot, scything through the squadron. A hail of missiles descended on the survivors, blasting them to pieces as they veered around, trying to avoid the incoming fire. The Huntress turned away from the planet and the main engines roared to full power, breaking the pull of gravity and sending the ship rocketing towards space. In the distance, barely visible, trails of light showed where Ork ships were lumbering down from orbit, their overpowered shields leaving massive wakes of fire as they dropped through the atmosphere. The last wisps of cloud vanished downwards, and the Huntress was once again in space.
"What you said to me," said Vela later, when Stephanie again asked why he had ordered the ship back to the Ork city, "about believing in someone. I don't suppose I do, but maybe one day I will. I wouldn't want to tell them that I left someone alone on a planet full of Orks. I wouldn't want them to trust someone who would do that."
"The Emperor trusts us all," offered Amelie. "He sacrificed Himself to save us, and trusted that we would know the path to follow without his presence to guide us."
"True," mused Stephanie. "perhaps he was right. Do you know why he sacrificed himself?" she asked, out of idle curiosity.
"He faced the evil within us," said Amelie, "an evil that turned the hearts of His children from the light, and towards the darkness. He stood before them and let their evil strike Him alone, so that we would be spared. And even now He stands there, barring the way to darkness, watching as we walk towards the light without Him."
"Each to their own," said Vela. Amelie, too tired to argue the point, merely shrugged. "Won't he ever follow us?" the Lieutenant asked.
"We cannot know," said Amelie, "the books of revelation and prophecy do not tell us that." She was silent for a moment. "But I think so," she continued. "One day, perhaps, we will be able to stand on our own against the evil. Then He will be relieved of His burden, and will join us."
"And until then we honour him in word and deed," finished Stephanie, "and await his return."
"Yes," said Amelie, surprised, "you know the book of prophecy. I admit I had thought one such as yourself would not have much time for the Emperor's teachings."
"We all have our little surprises," she answered.
"Sister Janis Amelie," said the Sister Superior, placing a hand on the forehead of the kneeling figure before her, "your bravery and devotion are proven in the Emperor's sight. In His name, I offer you His gratitude." Amelie stood, and the Sister Superior carefully added a seal of rank to the line of purity and devotion seals on the shoulder of her armour. "Although you have served this Order of the Silver Blade well, the Emperor through His servants has offered a different path for you to follow. A new Order is to be formed, and you have been chosen to join it. You have, and will, make us proud. Go now, Sister Superior of the Order of the Black Rose."