She felt time slow. Where there had been nothing the Culexus now stood, emerging into reality even as its iris eye turned towards her. Its steel petals flowed open, revealing a dark star burning within, tiny arcs of purple lightning tearing at the restraining fields that held it in place. One by one the fields shut off. Her hand was already moving towards the bolt pistol, but too slow, the light was already streaming out of the iris, filling the world with heat and darkness.
"No!" A cry of defiance, and the light was suddenly gone as a shape blocked its path. Time returned to normal, and Stephanie watched, helpless, as her sister was thrown back against the main viewscreen, the deadly energy enveloping her.
A hand on her face, gently brushing away the tears. The memory faded, and she returned to the present.
"I miss her terribly," she whispered. Alisha nodded slowly.
"I know. I miss her too."
single figure watched the two, then brushed her hand across the mirrored crystal on which the image had appeared. She looked tall, young, but there was a hint of insubstantiality, as if this appearance was no more real than a morning mist. The watcher turned, and in the crystals around her a thousand reflections turned also, almost but not quite matching her movements.
The watcher made her way through a crystal maze until she arrived in a chamber of mirrors, each a different colour. She stood in the centre, looking ahead into one of her reflections. One by one the other reflections turned to her. She reached up, closed her hand, and when she opened it again a rain of tiny lights fell out, drifting down to orbit around her like planets around a star. She reached down into the cloud of colour, scattering the tiny lights like soap bubbles. Slowly they stabilised, settling into a glittering spiral. She drew one of the lights out, letting it float in front of her face. She leaned in and gently breathed a kiss onto the floating light, sending it tumbling slowly away from her. Suddenly it turned, rushing back, as if from a great distance so that when it again floated before her it was the size of her palm, a gleaming crystal sphere on which was carved a beautifully intricate pattern, a snake that curled around in a complex series of loops, eventually curling in on itself, swallowing its own tail.
"Bitter-sweet and untameable beast," said the watcher, in a voice that held all the harmonies of the galaxy, "let her see. Let her know." The snake stirred, releasing its tail and writhing in its crystal prison. Its body twisted into a new shape, and it once again took hold of its tail in its jaws. The watcher ran a finger down the back of its neck, gently petting the creature as it once again became a shape in crystal. The sphere raced into the distance without moving, until it was again nothing but a point of light, then it fell softly back into the cloud swirling around the watcher.
"Contact lost with Jhanna, notifying Solar fleet gamma."
"Lastrati reports disturbance at outer marker, possible inbound hostile."
"Confirmation of position Ultima fleet alpha, twenty eight cruisers lost since last contact. Taking position at Epsilon Octarius."
Stephanie looked around with a start. She had been on Artemis, on its way to rendezvous with the Avenger, but now she was surrounded by activity, people shouting orders and reports, confusion everywhere. A robed figure nearly collided with her, and she stepped back instinctively as it passed. She looked up, above the crowd, and saw open sky through massive cathedral windows.
"Where in Hades," she thought out loud. All around her people were hurrying from place to place, robed scribes, tech adepts, Navy and Guard officers. She caught a glimpse of a massive pedestal, to which three tall men in robes were connected by wired implanted in the backs of their skulls. She recognised them, they were an Interface, a method of controlling such a complex system as the one they surrounded, a massive holographic map of the galaxy which spun between them. Suddenly she knew where she was. She had seen the room before, although only in blueprints and video-link communications. This was the Imperial Force Coordination Centre, known throughout the Imperial Guard, the Navy and the marine chapters as the War Room. Reports from every one of the thousand wars the Imperium fought every day were collected and combined here, feeding into one massive strategic database which was second only to the Emperor's Tarot in the influence it had on Imperial policy.
'I'm on Terra,' she thought. But how? Everyone seemed to be ignoring her, that in itself was strange. Practically every security measure the Mechanicus could devise protected the War Room, and yet she hadn't been challenged, and the guards posted around the massive chamber were motionless. She knew for a fact that the room was scanned every five seconds. She navigated her way through the crowds of adepts until she arrived at the galactic map, around which officers clustered, directing orders and queries at the three silent Interfaces. None of them seemed to notice her. She looked down, wondering if she was somehow disguised, but her clothes were the usual marine off-duty uniform. She cautiously reached out and waved a hand in front of the face of an old Navy admiral. The man seemed oblivious to her, continuing to stare at the hologram in front of him. Stephanie turned to it, looking for the first time at the markers and areas it showed.
"What in the Emperor's name," she whispered. The entire eastern arc of the galaxy was a sea of red, cutting so deeply into Imperial space that the Ultima Segmentum had very nearly vanished. She looked to the eastern border, where Macragge and the Ultramarine protectorate systems were, but they too were gone, their position marked only by tiny black dots that showed dead worlds. Baal, Attila, Valhalla - all gone.
From the north came a different tide of darkness, arms of holographic grey reaching out from the Eye of Terror deep into the heart of the galaxy. A hundred battle groups headed the tide, having left destruction in their wake. Cadia, Stygies, Armageddon, Avellorn, and now the leading elements of the chaos fleets were less than five hundred light years from Terra itself. Stephanie took a step back, in shock. Before her, second by second, the Imperium was being destroyed.
She listened for a moment to the voices around her, picking up fragments of reports and orders. The first fleet of the Segmentum Solar had been defeated near El'Phanor and was regrouping ahead of the advance of the Plaguebringer battle group. The worlds guarding the Maelstrom had fallen to hivefleet Orca. Tallarn reported intermittent failure of the Astronomicon ahead of possible Tyranid incursions. Vanaheim's system fleet was regrouping in orbit of the inner worlds, abandoning the outer planets to the black crusade fleets. Contact had been lost with Necromunda twelve hours after Eldar pirate cruisers were sighted entering the system.
Stephanie backed away, shaking her head. This was impossible, there was no hivefleet near the Ultima Segmentum border. The Cadian Gate was relatively peaceful, she had been there less than a month ago. According to the galactic map the chaos advance had been in motion for ten months, the hivefleets longer. What had happened?
Something caught her eye, and she looked up sharply. For a second she could have sworn that one of the Interfaces had looked at her, but in the instant it took her to turn to it its eyes had again resumed their blank stare, seeing nothing outside the data flowing through its own mind. She looked around again - still the people around her were oblivious to her presence. She made her way through the crowd of scribes and adepts and walked straight through the security station on the main archway leading away from the War Room. The guards paid her no attention, the pair of Imperial Fists marines stationed there, inspecting each passing figure, looked straight through her.
She hurried away from the War Room, unseen by all. Except one of the Imperial Fists, whose eyes for a moment followed her, then returned to their task as if nothing had happened.
"Activate the fleet now, before it is too late!"
The guards and more than a dozen marines stared blankly ahead as Stephanie walked past them and into the Senatorum. On each side of the doorway leading into the Council of Lords hung a massive shield, polished to a mirror finish, each one bearing a gleaming silver eagle. Stephanie still had no explanation for her current condition, but was not entirely surprised to see no reflection in the polished metal. She hurried past the guards and through the darkened outer chamber, arriving at the massive circular table where the High Lords of Terra sat, masters of the empire of man. The speaker had been an Inquisitor, hooded and robed, but as she drew near the Lord of the Mechanicus interrupted.
"I tell you it is not necessary!" he hissed, his voice given an edge by the breather that covered the lower half of his face. "The Mechanicus fleet has not been activated in nearly three thousand years, and..."
"And in all that time," continued the Inquisitor Lord, "have we ever faced such a threat? The Solar fleets are in disarray, none of the arc fleets are able to help us, we will be under attack within weeks! Why won't you believe it?"
"The Emperor will not forsake us," said the Ecclesiarch, his voice deep, ancient, "His divine guidance will ensure that the renegades are broken before they threaten our most Holy Terra."
"Really?" snapped the Inquisitor, rounding on the Ecclesiarch. "Has the Emperor's divine guidance stopped the loss of battle after battle? Did He stir to save the Ultima Segmentum when the hivefleets vaporised Macragge? Do you truly believe we can survive this war without the Mars fleet defending us?"
"You exaggerate, Lord Vail," said the Lord of the Astra Telepathica. Stephanie stared at the hooded Inquisitor, examining the fabric of the mask closely - yes, she could barely see the outline of the tiny voice coder Vail had used to use to disguise her voice.
The Lord Astra continued, "I will not deny the circumstances are serious, but we have the Terran fleet on high alert, and the Jovian perimeter is on standby. Whatever the forces that the renegades might throw against us, we are prepared to handle them. I must say, I have my doubts that they have the will to come anywhere near the Sol system. They cannot possibly hope to gain from such a foolhardy strike."
"You said the same," retorted Vail hotly, "about Avellorn."
"Maybe," countered the Lord Astra, "but I see no call to go to the trouble of activating the Mars fleet. Or, I might add, of bringing in these rebels. I must inform you that my forces cannot be expected to fight alongside these traitors, no matter what guarantees you give us. I have heard rumours that your own office is in disagreement with you on this."
"You fool!" shouted Vail. "They are human, they follow the Emperor, and they have the only fleet still able to navigate now that the Astronomicon has become unreliable. You would tell me that we do not need them?"
"You would tell me it is acceptable to fight one renegade by allying ourselves with another. Lord Augustus was expelled from the Council for his involvement with the Furies treason, would you follow him?" Stephanie stared at the data screens set into the table, searching for the name of her chapter. She found it on one of Vail's screens, the remains of the Furies chapter - six ships, she read with a chill - had joined the Terran fleet in anticipation of a renegade attack in the Sol system. Her eyes found a data transfer from the spaceport attached to the Imperial Palace - alongside the ships belonging to the High Lords and the heads of the various militaries based on Terra and Mars, the transport Sappho was there.
Stephanie turned to leave the Senatorum, ignoring the shouting that had broken out behind her. As she passed through the doorway leading out of the chamber a scribe, who had been hurrying in the opposite direction, tilted his head slightly to watch her pass. A hand caught the man by the neck and slammed him into one of the silver shields hanging in the doorway.
"You can see me," said Stephanie carefully, "how? What are you?" The scribe's eyes glittered, a perfect blue.
"I brought you here," he said.
"How? What is this place?"
"This is your death," answered the scribe, a small smile playing across his lips.
"Explain," demanded Stephanie, "no riddles."
"As you wish. This is what would have been, had you died in that instant you play over and over in your mind."
"This is some sort of illusion?"
"No illusion," said the scribe, "this is real. Here, it is you who are the illusion." The scribe reached up and removed Stephanie's hand from his robe, gently lowering it. She tried to resist, but might as well have fought the pull of a neutron star. The scribe nodded, then the blue faded from his eyes and he continued on his way through the doorway, leaving Stephanie staring after him.
Ground transports were making the short trip to the spaceport in an almost continuous cycle. Stephanie stepped off one, looking for the familiar hull of her sister's transport. She found it in one of the outer docks, almost a mile from the transport terminal, surrounded by Imperial Fists, but otherwise lifeless. Glancing at the marines as she passed them, she stepped through the open airlock and into the ship, quickly making her way through the corridors until she arrived in the data suite. She tapped a control experimentally, and was relieved to find the machine responded to her touch.
"Search," she said as she typed the commands, "Furies personnel files, Stephanie Warfield." The file appeared on a screen by her hand, all familiar until the fateful return from the Dentris Storm. The record ended there, with time of death and medical reports attached. Stephanie glanced over the reports - as the scribe had claimed, she had died from exposure to the Culexus iris. 'No illusion,' she remembered the scribe's words, 'this is real.' She was dead here.
"Search," she commanded the computer, "personnel attached to Furies." She hesitated for a moment. "Alisha Selene." The screen lit up again, showing a new file. All as she remembered until her death, then things had begun to change. "Captain," she read, "heavy cruiser Artemis." She scrolled the file downwards, searching for the last entry, where was she now?
"Alliance heavy cruiser Artemis," she read, finding the latest entry, "engaged in combat against renegade fleet Overlord, and destroyed, all hands lost," her voice faltered. She closed her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them again the words were still in front of her, unchanged. She stood, unsteady, gazing down at the silent screen, trying to push away the cold shadows that were gripping her mind.
She returned to the Imperial Palace to find its massive defence turrets slowly turning skyward. The marines were now visible on the walls, preparing for battle. She ignored all of them, searching for the one person who could see her. Everywhere she looked she was met only with blank, unseeing eyes. She tore through the corridors of the Palace, pushing people out of her way as she went - they looked confused for a moment, then the interruption seemed to slip from their minds and they went about their hurried business.
She shoved a marine out of her way and entered the War Room, glancing at the galactic map to find it gone. Instead the massive hologram showed only a single system, Sol, with a single defence line clustered around Terra. The Interfaces stared blankly ahead as they updated the map, as ship after ship moved into position. For an instant, among the thousands of Imperial warships, she saw the name Thunderchild. She watched it for a moment, as it moved towards the front line. Ahead of the defenders the map was blank, the psionic-based sensors revealing nothing of the enemy. Then, through the swirling colours of the hologram, she caught a glimpse of a face turned her way, a single figure standing on one of the balconies, looking into the War Room.
The hologram forgotten, Stephanie rounded the projector pedestal and kicked open the glass doors leading onto the balcony. One of the chamber's attendants, a minor tech adepts, watched her with an amused grin. A siren echoed through the towers of the Palace.
"You can change this," said Stephanie. The adept smiled, and tilted his head as if at a private joke. "You can put things back to how they were."
"This is what you wanted," said the adept, his eyes sparkling blue, "to sacrifice yourself so that others may live. You could not forgive yourself for living when others died."
"How many," said Stephanie, advancing on the adept, "how many people are dead now because of what you have done?"
"Not I," replied the adept, "this is your doing. Look on the world you created," he added, spreading his arms wide, then up to the sky. Stephanie looked up, and saw flickers in the sky, warp gates forming in orbit. There was a distant crash as a defence laser silo fired, then an echoing shot from the next weapon, and suddenly the Palace was surrounded by walls of sound.
"Will you face that which terrifies you most?" asked the adept, suddenly standing behind her. "Will you face what you must do? Will you make the greater sacrifice?" A bolt of fire streaked down from the sky, tearing through the side of a tower less than a mile away. A second bolt crashed through the roof of one of the massive cathedrals surrounding the Palace's shield wall.
"Will you allow yourself to live?" Stephanie looked up, to see a bolt hurtling down towards her, causing a ripple in the air as it passed through the Palace's energy shield unhindered. She turned to the adept, looked into the glittering blue eyes, then the world vanished in a sea of flame.
She opened her eyes to see her own image, reflected in a mirror. Behind her the eyes watched, but the form of the adept was gone. The watched took her by the arm and led her to the centre of the chamber, where lights swirled in an endless spiral. Her reflections watched as she stood among the colours.
"What is this?" Stephanie asked. The watcher took a step back.
"Everything," she answered, "all that was and will be. All that could have been, and might yet be. Golder than gold and sweeter-voiced than a lyre." The watcher raised a hand, letting a single light drift upwards. It grew into a crystal sphere, and at a touch from the watcher's hand the snake reared up and turned, its silver eyes locking onto Stephanie.
"Bring back all that the bright dawn scattered," said the watcher, stroking the snake beneath its jaw. It turned from Stephanie and began to twist into a different shape.
"I don't understand," Stephanie said, her voice lost among the cloud of lights.
"You will," said the watcher, "in time, Evening Star, in time." The snake took hold of its tail, and the world of crystal vanished.
"She saved you because she loved you," said Alisha. Stephanie opened her eyes, turned to the woman beside her. She was on Artemis, as if no time had passed, as if none of it had been real.
'It was real,' said a voice drifting through her mind. She closed her eyes again and took Alisha in her arms, thanking the universe for the life she had. There would be time for explanations later.
The watcher turned, her face betraying a slight smile of satisfaction. She reached out a hand, and the universe of light flowed into her palm, forming a single glowing ball of pure white. She touched it to her face for a moment, then raised it above her head as the mirror walls faded away. She waited until she stood in mid-air, with no more left of the mirror realm, and then let the light sphere fall into the endless ocean of light that flowed beneath her. It vanished among billions of similar spheres, and the watcher smiled as she felt the pattern complete again.